A Dash of Flavor and Culture from Afghanistan
A Dash of Flavor and Culture from Afghanistan
The news from Afghanistan these days is troubling, as often as not. Another suicide bomber. More U.S. troops killed. A new offensive by the Taliban. So perhaps it's understandable why Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States recently jumped at the chance to throw a feast at its embassy in Washington, D.C., to celebrate some good news: A dazzling exhibit of ancient Afghan treasures has kicked off a nationwide tour at the National Gallery of Art.
Ambassador Said Jawad and his wife, Shamim, said they wanted the feast to remind Americans that, despite Afghanistan's monumental problems, strands of its glorious culture endure.
"Afghanistan is the crossroads of civilization from East to West," Shamim Jawad told me as we stood under a white tent amid mountains of pumpkin stews, fragile dumplings, chicken kebabs, spicy spinach and oblong flat breads called nan. Ancient traders crisscrossed the country from Persia and China, India and Pakistan, bringing their own styles of cooking with them. "That's why [Afghanistan's cuisine] is a mix of all these different cultures and ethnic groups," she said. "And I personally think our food is, like, the best."
After the party, she invited me to the embassy's kitchen, where her chef, Nasim Ahmadi, taught me how to make a traditional eggplant dish — which I now pass on to you, with his compliments.
It's simple to make and truly delicious. It's great for lunch with a glass of chilled white wine, or as an appetizer at dinner.
When the Afghan ambassador's wife, Shamim Jawad, and I sat down to eat this eggplant dish called borrani banjan, at the embassy's long banquet table, I was surprised — the recipe is so simple and takes so little time, that I didn't expect the flavors and textures to dance like they do. Feel free to tone down the garlic and chili pepper. Or use them with reckless abandon. As the Afghans would say, Ischtia khoob, or bon appetit.
Serves 8 for appetizers, 4 as a vegetarian main course.
3 to 4 onions
* Use 2 of them, thinly sliced, to make the fried onions, or substitute 1/2 cup of canned, fried onions instead.
* Slice 1 to 2 of the onions into 3/4-inch rings and save for later in the recipe.
Enough corn oil to deep fry the onion rings, if you're against using canned
1 to 2 large eggplants (You'll want 8 round slices, each 2 inches thick.)
2 to 3 tablespoons corn or canola oil, plus enough to cover a large, heavy pan up to 1 inch (this is all in addition to the oil you'll use if you fry the onions yourself)
7 to 8 large garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
5 fresh peeled tomatoes (dunk in boiling water for 30 seconds, peel, then cool in ice water)
* 3 whole, to be pureed
* 2 sliced into 3/4-inch disks
1/2 cup hot water
1 to 2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons coriander powder
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1 to 2 mildly hot chili peppers, sliced in 3/4-inch thick rings
2 cups yogurt (whole milk or low fat)
1 teaspoon dried mint
1 cup parsley
1 cup cilantro
If you're inspired to make your own fried onions, which are a staple in Afghan households, slice 2 onions thin and fry them until golden brown. Drain, cool and coarsely chop. That's it. Put aside.
Heat corn oil, 1 inch deep, in a broad, heavy pan until it's about 350-375 degrees. Fry eggplant slices without crowding until they're golden on one side, then flip and do the same on the other side. The eggplant should be soft on the surface, but still firm in the middle. Drain the slices on paper towels.
While they're draining, make the tomato sauce. Saute half of the minced garlic in 2 to 3 tablespoons of oil over low heat. When they're soft, stir in the tomato paste and continue simmering until the garlic is golden.
Meanwhile, puree 3 of the peeled tomatoes in a blender or processor, stir into the garlic and tomato paste, and simmer for 5 more minutes.
Toss the fried onions and hot water into a blender or processor, and when it's mush, add to the tomato sauce.
Now, add the salt, black pepper, turmeric, coriander, chili powder and cumin seeds. Chef Nasim Ahmadi makes the sauce spicy, which plays wonderfully off the cool, creamy yogurt, but use less chili powder if you're shy. Simmer on low another 5 minutes to blend the flavors.
Meanwhile, make the yogurt sauce: Stir the other half of the garlic into the yogurt and add the mint. Set aside.
You're almost finished. Nestle the eggplant in a single layer in the tomato sauce. Next, give each eggplant slice a nifty hat: Place a 3/4-inch slice of tomato, banded by a single onion ring — sort of like a band around a fedora — on top of each eggplant slice. Top each hat with a 3/4-inch ring of chili pepper.
Cover the pan and continue cooking on low heat for about 15 minutes. It's ready when the tomato, onion and pepper slices are hot but still firm, and the eggplant has softened but still resists a bit when you poke it. Don't cook until the eggplant is mushy, or it will be, well, mushy.
Spread enough yogurt sauce on each plate to make a broad, shallow pond. Gently place each slice of eggplant, wearing its hat and happily dripping with tomato sauce, on top of the yogurt. Drizzle more yogurt sauce on top. Scatter parsley and cilantro all around.