Camels and Caravans

From Afghanistan to the Vegan Table

Over the years while I've been teaching vegan cooking classes, I've developed recipes for a number of different international cuisines. Recently, I was asked if I could teach an Afghan cooking class at the Valencia County Library in Valencia, California. Naturally, I said I could, though I had never actually encountered a single Afghan dish. A little research turned up some delightful recipes I adapted to the vegan palate.

Afghan cuisine, with its exotic spices and compelling aromas, is little known in this country, and Afghanistan is definitely not known for its vegetarian focus. What makes the cuisine uniquely compelling is the liberal use of herbs and spices that give dishes their exceptional quality reminiscent of Middle Eastern cuisine, yet different because of Indian influences. Afghan cooks favor herbs like garlic, dill, mint, and cilantro, while spices like cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, and saffron create rich diversity.

The few restaurants in Afghanistan only exist in large cities like Kabul and Kandahar. In the tribal provinces, all foods are homemade under what we might consider challenging conditions. Because few people have ovens, most of the meals are prepared over hot coals or wood, similar to meals that were cooked on our Southern plantations during the 17th to 19th centuries.

A bowl and a jug of water are part of the traditional hand-washing ritual before each meal, since foods are shared communally and eaten mostly with the right hand, though some items require both hands. Foods are served on a sandali, a low table, with everyone seated on a toshak, a cotton mattress that rests on a hand-woven rug. During the cold winter, Afghans stay warm by placing a manqkal, or charcoal brazier, under the table. The charcoal is burned beforehand and covered with warm ashes. In summer, when temperatures might reach 110 to 120 degrees, food is often served outdoors.

Traditional dishes are mostly centered on lamb, goat, and chicken, with a few veggies like eggplant, spinach, tomatoes, green bell peppers, chilies, and onions, though beans are substituted for meat among poor Afghans. Rice is a staple, though the short- and long-grain white rice Afghans prefer is less nutritious than the brown rice I've substituted. Milk-based yogurt is an essential ingredient in many Afghan dishes, but I have turned the dishes vegan with plain and unsweetened soy yogurt.

I've taken many liberties in an effort to turn meaty recipes into vegan delights. Because of its mountainous and desert terrain, Afghanistan has limited regions for growing vegetables that could be used in cooking. Almonds and pistachios are native to the country and are used as garnishes in savory dishes. Many desserts are also garnished with the nuts, though some include the nuts in the cooking process.

Finally, although Afghan recipes list copious amounts of vegetable oil in their savory dishes, I've made an effort to reduce the fat by cutting the oil measurements and leaving just enough to provide pleasing mouthfeel and great flavor. The adaptations I've made to the recipes leave the laborious cooking to the Afghan natives, while we prepare their delicious cuisine in our modern kitchens.

AFGHANI LENTIL SOUP

(Serves 6-8)

Hearty and satisfying, this lentil soup is a great start to an Afghan meal and also serves as a warming main dish soup when served with a tossed salad and hot whole-grain bread.

  • 3 large carrots, coarsely shredded
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 7 ½ cups water, divided
  • 1 Tablespoon dried marjoram
  • 2 teaspoons canola oil
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh mint leaves
  • One 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, no salt added
  • ¾ cup dried green or brown lentils
  • ¼ cup low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds, crushed with a mortar and pestle
  • 1 teaspoon dried dill weed

GARNISH

  • 1 cup plain, unsweetened soy yogurt or vegan sour cream
  • 2 scallions, chopped

Combine the carrots, onions, ½ cup water, marjoram, oil, and mint in a 10- to 12-quart stockpot. Cook and stir over high heat for approximately 5-8 minutes or until the carrots and onions are softened and beginning to brown. Add more water as needed to prevent burning the vegetables.

Add the remaining water, tomatoes, lentils, soy sauce, coriander seeds, and dill weed and cover the stockpot. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the lentils are softened.

To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream and a sprinkling of chopped scallions.

Total calories per serving: 186 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 32 grams Protein: 10 grams
Sodium: 406 milligrams Fiber: 12 grams

QABILI BREAD WITH SPINACH

(Serves 6)

In Afghanistan, this dish may be considered a snack eaten between meals, but it certainly makes a captivating starter that sets the mood for the flavorful meal ahead.

At first appearance, one might exclaim, "It's a pizza!" However, the only resemblance is its appearance. Prepare the components separately, but assemble and warm the appetizer shortly before serving so that you can prevent the pita bread from becoming soggy.

FAVA BEAN SPREAD

  • One 15-ounce can fava beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon zahtar*
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Place the fava beans into a medium-sized bowl and mash them into a thick, coarse purée with a fork or potato masher. Add the vinegar, oils, garlic, zahtar, salt, and pepper, and mix well. Set aside.

SPINACH LAYER

  • One 12-ounce package pre-washed spinach
  • 1 ½-2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1-2 Tablespoons water

Place the spinach in a large, deep skillet, add the balsamic vinegar and water, and cook over medium-high heat for approximately 4 or 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the spinach is completely wilted. In batches, spoon the spinach into a fine mesh strainer and press out any excess water. Use a kitchen scissors to cut the spinach into smaller pieces and set aside until ready to prepare the appetizer.

  • 3 whole wheat pita breads

GARNISH

  • 1 large tomato, diced
  • 2-3 Tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

Shortly before serving, assemble the appetizer as follows:

Arrange the pita breads on a large baking sheet. Spoon a generous layer of the fava bean spread over the tops, covering almost to the edges.

Top the bean layer with a layer of the spinach. Sprinkle the diced tomatoes over the spinach and finish with a sprinkle of sesame seeds over the top.

Place the baking sheet under a broiler, approximately 3 inches from the heat, for 3-5 minutes. Remove and slice the breads into quarters. Transfer to an attractive serving dish and enjoy.

*Note: Zahtar is a blended seasoning mixture available in Middle Eastern groceries and some supermarkets. Though the ingredients vary slightly with different brands, the zahtar may include thyme, black pepper, anise, sumac, ground dried lime, sunflower seeds, salt, chickpeas, sesame seeds, and cumin.

Total calories per serving: 204 Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 32 grams Protein: 9 grams
Sodium: 734 milligrams Fiber: 7 grams

BHANJAN BURANI (EGGPLANT WITH YOGURT SAUCE)

(Serves 6)

A delicious side dish, this traditional eggplant casserole or stew can be served hot or cold. It is in many ways akin to the American sandwich because so many Afghan households consider it a favorite food.

This recipe's long history can be traced back to a ninth-century Iraqi princess named Buran. Because eggplant was one of her favorite foods and was served at her wedding to the Caliph of Baghdad, the dish was named after her. The casserole has had many evolutions as it journeyed throughout the Middle East, Afghanistan, Spain, Morocco, and even into the Balkans.

Burani can also be a casserole without eggplant, using zucchini, spinach, or other vegetables. Those who adore eggplant will relish the exotic seasonings heightened with a smidgeon of cayenne. The traditional recipe uses layers of sliced eggplant and tomatoes, but I took liberties and quartered the slices for easier serving.

Bhanjan Burani is ideal for day-ahead preparation and can quickly be reheated in a 350-degree oven for 15-20 minutes.

  • Canola oil
  • 2 large eggplants, peeled and sliced approximately 3/8-inch thick
  • 2 large tomatoes, sliced and quartered
  • 1 large green bell pepper, sliced into thin rings and quartered

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil a 9" x 13" glass baking dish. Lightly brush both sides of the eggplant slices with oil and cut them into quarters.

Place a layer of the eggplant on the bottom of the baking dish. Top with a layer of tomatoes, followed with a layer of bell pepper slices. Repeat the layers until all of the eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers are in the baking dish.

TOMATO SAUCE

  • 1 ¼ cups water
  • One 6-ounce can tomato paste
  • 2-3 Tablespoons canola oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 ½ teaspoons whole coriander seeds, crushed with a mortar and pestle
  • 1 ¼ teaspoons salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • ¼ plus 1/8 teaspoon cayenne

Combine the ingredients in a medium-sized bowl and spoon it over the vegetables. Cover the baking pan with aluminum foil, shiny side down, and bake for 1 hour or until the eggplant is tender.

CHAKAH (YOGURT SAUCE)

  • ½ cup plain, unsweetened soy yogurt
  • 1 small clove garlic, crushed
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried mint leaves

While the eggplant is baking, combine the yogurt, garlic, and salt and set aside. When done, remove the baking dish from the oven and spread the chakah over the top. Garnish with the crushed mint leaves and serve.

*Note: Traditionally, Afghan cooks cut the eggplant into ½-inch thick slices, salt both sides, and place them into a colander over a dish to catch any liquid. After 30 minutes or longer, they rinse off the salt and pat the slices dry with paper towels. The eggplant slices are then sautéed in oil before layering in the baking dish. However, this method uses enormous quantities of oil, making the recipe a high-calorie, high-fat dish. My adaptation eliminates two steps and shortens the preparation time considerably.

Total calories per serving: 151 Fat: 8 grams
Carbohydrates: 20 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 621 milligrams Fiber: 8 grams

KOFTA NAKHOD (VEGAN MEATBALLS AND CHICKPEAS)

(Makes approximately 30-40 vegan meatballs)

Old-fashioned comfort food, hearty meatballs are a hallowed symbol of down-to-earth home cooking and have provided wholesome dining in many countries throughout the world. In Afghanistan, meatballs are known as kebabs. Because the country was part of the silk route where exotic spices were sold and traded throughout the Middle East, spices like cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, and cloves became infused into the cuisine and added pleasing flavors and fragrant aromas to these vegan meatballs. Chickpea flour, another ingredient familiar to Middle Eastern cuisine, also contributes wholesome nutrition along with its pleasing nutty flavor.

Kofta Nakhod are especially tasty bathed in Subzee Borani, a richly flavored spinach and yogurt sauce. Also, if you prepare this dish a day ahead, you'll notice the Subzee Borani has become quite thick. Thin the sauce with 1 to 3 Tablespoons of water, if needed.

  • Several cups water
  • 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
  • 1 pound Lightlife Gimme Lean Sausage Flavor™
  • ¾ cup chickpea flour
  • ¼ cup matzo meal
  • 2 Tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 Tablespoon dried mint leaves
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1 ¼ teaspoons salt
  • ½ teaspoon char masala*
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 recipe Subzee Borani

Fill a large, deep skillet with approximately 3-4 inches of water.

Place the onion into a food processor and process until finely grated. You many have to stop the machine and redistribute the ingredients. Transfer the grated onions to a large bowl.

Add the remaining ingredients, except the Subzee Borani, to the bowl and use your hands to combine all the ingredients thoroughly by squeezing the mixture through your fingers.

Bring the water in the skillet to a boil over high heat. Roll the kofta mixture into 1-inch balls between the palms of your hands and drop them into the boiling water in two or three batches. Boil for 4-5 minutes and use a slotted spoon to transfer them onto a clean plate.

When all the kofta are cooked, spoon them into the Subzee Borani and warm them gently.

*Note: Char masala is a mixture of spices similar to the Indian garam masala. Make up a small batch with 3 Tablespoons ground cinnamon, 2 Tablespoons ground cumin, 1 Tablespoon ground cardamom, and ½ teaspoon ground cloves. Then, use small amounts to boost the seasoning in soups and vegetable stews.

Total calories per meatball: 11 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 4 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 199 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

SUBZEE BORANI (SPINACH AND YOGURT SAUCE)

(Serves 6-8)

Yogurt is a homemade everyday staple in Afghan cuisine and is frequently employed as a garnish or a sauce for many dishes. The kofta, or meatballs, above become an immensely satisfying main dish paired with this deliciously tangy yogurt-based sauce enhanced with spinach and scallions. Be patient when cooking the scallions. This process might take up to 15 minutes to reach the ideal caramelized state that imparts rich flavor and body to the sauce.

  • 4 cups gently packed pre-washed bagged spinach
  • 2 Tablespoons water
  • 3 bunches scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 Tablespoon canola oil
  • 3 cups plain, unsweetened soy yogurt
  • 1 ¼ teaspoons salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon dried dill weed
  • ½-1 jalapeno, seeds and ribs discarded and finely minced
  • 1 recipe Kofta Nakhod

Place the spinach into a large deep skillet, add the water, and cook and stir over high heat for approximately 2-4 minutes or until the spinach is wilted, adding a Tablespoon or two of water, if needed. Spoon the spinach into a fine mesh strainer and thoroughly press out all of the excess water. Use kitchen scissors to coarsely chop the spinach, transfer to a bowl, and set aside.

In the same skillet, combine the scallions, garlic, and canola oil and cook over medium heat for 12-15 minutes or until the scallions are thoroughly softened and just beginning to brown. Add small amounts of water as needed to prevent the scallions from burning.

Add the cooked spinach, yogurt, salt, and pepper and mix well. Adjust the seasonings if needed and add the cooked Kofta Nakhod. Warm gently and serve.

Total calories per serving: 108 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 12 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 533 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

EASY PILAU (RICE PILAF)

(Serves 8-10)

Considered a national Afghan main dish, Qabili Pilau is a stew usually made with chicken or lamb, along with onions, carrots, and raisins. My adaptation turns the recipe into a simple vegan side dish with a quartet of attractive garnishes that make an appealing presentation. Afghan cooks soak their white rice for 30 minutes to several hours before cooking to remove the starch and create grains that separate easily. I chose not to soak the rice and to make the Pilau with more nutritious brown basmati rice.

  • 3 ½ cups water
  • 1 ½ cups basmati brown rice
  • 1 ½ teaspoons salt

GARNISHES

  • ½-1 carrot, peeled and finely grated or minced
  • ½ cup black raisins, plumped in warm water
  • 1/3 cup toasted sliced or slivered almonds
  • ¼ cup pistachios

Combine the water, rice, and salt in a 3- or 4-quart saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and steam for 35-40 minutes or until the rice is tender and all the liquid has been absorbed.

Spoon the rice onto a large platter, heaping it high in the center. Sprinkle the garnishes over the rice and serve hot.

*Note: Afghan women usually cook the carrots and raisins along with the rice and add a teaspoon of ground cumin. I found the blending of textures more appealing when using fresh uncooked carrots and raisins as garnishes.

Total calories per serving: 201 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 36 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 442 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

THE SHEIK'S ROYAL FIRNI (AFGHANI PUDDING)

(Serves 6-8)

A simple Afghani cornstarch pudding becomes a tantalizing dessert with a few embellishments using ingredients indigenous to the country of origin. The traditional dessert, called firni, includes cornstarch, milk, sugar, a hint of cardamom, and a sprinkle of nuts. But by increasing the cardamom and adding raisins and traditional Middle Eastern flavorings, the homey pudding morphs into an elegant presentation perfect for make-ahead planning or one that's easy to prepare a few hours before serving.

  • 6 Tablespoons cornstarch
  • 3 ½ cups vanilla soymilk, divided
  • 1 ¼ cups organic sugar
  • 1 ¼ teaspoons ground cardamom
  • 1/3 cup golden raisins
  • 2 teaspoons orange blossom water
  • 1 teaspoon rosewater
  • 2-3 Tablespoons coarsely chopped pistachios
  • 2-3 Tablespoons coarsely chopped almonds*
  • 3-4 pitted dates

Place the cornstarch into a small bowl and add ½ cup of the soymilk. Stir well to form a thin paste and set aside.

Pour the remaining soymilk into a 3-quart saucepan and heat the mixture over medium heat until hot. Add the sugar and cardamom and stir with a wire whip. Heat until almost boiling, but watch carefully to prevent burning or a messy boil-over. Adjust the heat as needed.

Add the cornstarch paste, stirring constantly, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer gently for approximately 5 minutes. The mixture will thicken slightly and firm into a pudding-like consistency when refrigerated.

Turn off the heat and stir in the raisins, orange blossom water, and rosewater. Spoon the pudding into small dessert dishes, teacups, or long-stemmed wine glasses and garnish the tops with the pistachios and almonds. Cut the dates into crosswise slices and top each serving with a date slice. Chill for several hours or overnight.

*Note: To chop the almonds, place whole almonds into a heavy-duty zipper-lock bag and use a hammer to pound them into smaller pieces. The result will be both finely and coarsely chopped almonds.

Total calories per serving: 339 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 71 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 58 milligrams Fiber: 1 grams