When I sold 21 tickets for my Afghan charity dinner, my husband and I cleared out our back living room and put fold-up chairs (some borrowed) around the walls in a circle. It was a ‘plates on laps’ event after all. What actually happened was that it was a warm June evening and everyone spontaneously piled out into the garden, taking their chairs with them. So that’s where we had dinner, all sitting around chatting, drinks set down on the patio. People wandered off to the kitchen and got themselves seconds. When it got dark we came back indoors and listened to oral tales from Afghanistan – The Shy Prince, Sweeter than Salt, The Porcelain Goat.
My friend Zandra emailed me the next day to say that the rice was a revelation – to her amazement she had no stomach ache afterwards. Turns out she came to my dinner and ate the rice but never mentioned she normally has trouble digesting it: surface starch is the culprit (amylose? amylopectin?). I had used the SOF method for cooking the rice: the rice is soaked, drained, then parboiled in a large amount of salted water. The water is drained off and the damp rice is cooked in its own steam. Prepared this way, each grain of rice is tender and separate. Et voilà! Not a bit of stomach-ache-inducing stickiness left. Nice to discover that this traditional method has added health benefits.
I have also taken inspiration from Afghan Caravan, by Safia Shah. In the chapter, ‘What Shall We Cook Tonight?’ from a previously unpublished manuscript by Idries Shah, I didn’t feel quite ready to tackle his “Great Recipe of the Khalifa Ashpaz, Master Chef, of the Hindu Kush,” served up to Shah’s great-grandfather “and, at times, up to 4,000 guests,” a glorious-sounding dish that includes lamb, pigeon and chicken. I did manage a couple of his suggested side dishes – yoghurt with diced cucumber and salad.
For 4-6 people
450g Basmati rice, soaked for at least 4 hours or preferably overnight
3-4 tbsp olive oil or vegetable oil
1 large onion, grated or very finely chopped
700-800g lamb, chopped into 6cm pieces
2-3 large carrots, peeled and cut into batons about 6cm long
1 tbsp sugar
½ tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp ground coriander
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cloves
75g slivered almonds
75g slivered pistachios
1-2 tbsp sultanas, green ones if you can find them
Begin this recipe 4 hours ahead, or overnight if time permits.
Cook the meat: Heat the oil in a large pan over medium-high heat and fry the onion for 6–8 minutes, or until golden. Remove the onions to a medium size bowl. Optional: If you have a soup blender you can purée the onions so they blend in evenly to the rice.
Dust the lamb lightly with powdered ginger and salt and add to the same pan with a little more oil. Cook for 8–10 minutes, or until lamb is well browned on all sides. Cover with water and bring to the boil, reduce heat and simmer for 35-40 minutes or until the lamb is tender, skimming surface occasionally. Remove the meat from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Finish the stock: Add the onions to the lamb stock. Add the cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, cloves and bay leaf. Bring to the boil, reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Skim off any foam that builds up. Remove the bay leaf. You will need about 200-300ml.
Note: Old habits die hard. It took me a while to work out that this stock is intended to flavour the rice, not cook it. The damp rice cooks in its own steam. Also you will notice that all the main spices are in the broth. The meat and carrots are only lightly seasoned. Lamb, carrots and rice are prepared separately and assembled when served.
Caramelise the carrots: Place the sugar in a hot, dry saucepan over medium heat. Cook, shaking pan, for 5–6 minutes or until sugar is lightly caramelised and glossy. Season with salt and a pinch of cardamom. Barely cover with water, cook until softened, then remove from heat and set aside. Add any leftover liquid to the lamb stock.
Cook the rice: Drain the soaked rice. Boil in a large saucepan of salted water for 2-5 minutes, or until almost cooked. Drain and return the damp rice to the pan. Drizzle over the spiced broth until the rice surface is evenly coated. Use your judgement here. The rice needs to be well seasoned but not waterlogged. There’s a useful video of how to do this on YouTube.
Using the end of a large spoon, make holes all over rice to allow the steam to escape evenly. Top with reserved carrots and lamb. Cover and seal pan with a tea towel, then a lid. Place over high heat and cook for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and cook for another 10 minutes, or until rice is tender. Alternatively, place pan in an oven preheated to 150ºC and cook for 10 minutes.
The rice goes from ‘dana-dar’ to ‘dam-pukht’. Paraphrased from Afghan Caravan: “Dana-dar is when rice crumbles slightly, splitting into hard and soft particles, ‘danas’. Until then, top up with spiced broth as needed. Replace on/in medium heat until the dam-pukht phase when the palao has no excess moisture, with each rice-grain separate.”
Remove from the heat and leave, covered, for 10 minutes. You can safely leave the rice in the oven for longer if you’re not ready to serve it, top up with a bit of broth or water if it starts to look dry. A tip from Idries Shah’s recipe: “Surplus broth can be used as a gravy; each person takes as much as desired.”
Final assembly: Remove the carrots and lamb from the pan, add the orange zest and mix the rice well. Cover the base of a platter with a little rice, spoon over the lamb and then cover with the remaining rice. The lamb should be hidden so it can be ‘discovered’ by the guests. Top with the carrots and sultanas, then scatter with almonds and pistachios. Sprinkle with a dusting of cardamom and serve.
From Afghan Caravan:
“To complete an Afghan meal, any or all of these may be included (as a side dish):
Plain yoghurt (never fruit-flavoured) with diced cucumber;
Spiced meat balls (koftas);
Ashak (like large ravioli filled with leek);
Salan (hot sauce);
Salad, chopped, with vinegar dressing;
Immense quantities of fresh fruit in season;
Chai-i-Sabz (green tea)”
Helen Saberi’s Noshe Djan has recipes for Ashak and Kichri qurut (ketcheree quroot)