Over the years while I’ve been teaching vegetarian 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. A little research turned up some delightful recipes I adapted to the vegetarian palate. The class was well attended with enthusiastic students feasting on Afghanistan’s charismatic cuisine featuring two delicious nut dishes I’m happy to share.
Afghanistan, I discovered, was along the silk route and adopted many of the spices from China and India as camel caravans crossed the Afghan desert. Spices like cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, pepper fenugreek, turmeric, cumin, and coriander added exotic flavor to their cuisine, while their native almonds, walnuts, and pistachios contributed pleasing texture and heartiness.
Of special interest to me was that almonds, walnuts, and pistachios were native to Afghanistan and became a traditional ingredient in savory dishes as well as desserts. In both recipes below, Afghani Stuffed Peppers and Carrot Halwah, chopped pistachios and almonds are sprinkled on top as garnishes, adding appealing texture, and healthful dining.
Afghan Nut Customs
Serving tea and white sugared almonds is a familiar custom during Afghan festivals. Eid-e-Qorban is celebrated at the end of the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, when families and friends come visiting each other to drink a cup of tea together and share some nuts, sweets, and sugared almonds called noql.
Long before Islam arrived, Afghans began celebrating the New Year on the vernal equinox, March 21. A variety of nutty desserts awaited the visiting celebrants. One treat, a unique nut and fruit compote called Miwa Naurozee is an favorite sweet prepared by soaking dried fruits and nuts for two days. The nuts are blanched and combined with the soaked fruits, along with their soaking juices, then served in bowls or cups. Other nut treats, like the nut brittle Halwa-e-Swanak, made with walnuts and pistachios, and Sheer Payra, a walnut and pistachio confection, may be offered to guests during the New Year celebration. These holiday traditions are still practiced today.
Many versions of halwa, a pudding-like sweet that includes either walnuts, almonds, or pistachios or any combination of them, is customarily offered as thanksgiving, called Nazer, to recognize a number of meaningful occasions like returning from a journey, visiting a holy shrine, or recovering from an illness. People offering Nazer give their neighbors, passersby, and the poor with a dish of halwa or other sweet.
Almonds have a very special role in the typical Afghan wedding, which takes place in two stages. The religious ceremony is first and is not attended by the bride. During the celebration portion the bride and groom are brought together and seated on a raised platform. After serving the newlyweds a fruit drink called sharbat and a wedding sweet called molida, sugared almonds and other confections are showered over them as a symbol of fruitfulness and prosperity.
This exotic recipe originated as a ground lamb-stuffed chicken dish, but with lots of tweaking, the result is an extreme makeover. This tasty adaptation is now a wholesome vegan entrée with good looks, irresistible aromas, and hearty dining. I served the meal with a big tossed salad and a delicious grain called farro. However, more typical of Afghan cuisine would have been some Basmati rice garnished with chopped pistachios and minced parsley.
AFGHANI STUFFED PEPPERS
Yield: 6 servings
1 green bell pepper, cut in half lengthwise and cored
1 red bell pepper, cut in half lengthwise and cored
1 yellow bell pepper, cut in half lengthwise and cored
1 small onion, diced
1 small carrot, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1/4 cup pistachios
1 pound extra firm tofu, crumbled
Zest of 1 small orange
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon dried dill weed
Freshly ground black pepper
Tomato Sauce Topping
3 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1/2 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup unsweetened soy yogurt
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees, place the prepared peppers into a 7 x 9-inch baking dish, and set aside.
2. TO PREPARE THE FILLING, combine the onion, carrot, garlic, water, and extra virgin olive oil in a large, deep skillet and sauté about 10 to 12 minutes, or until the onions and carrots become lightly browned and are beginning to caramelize. Add more water to the pan as needed to prevent burning the onions.
3. Add the raisins, almonds, and pistachios and cook 1 minute. Add the tofu, orange zest, lemon juice, salt, cardamom, dill weed, and pepper and mix well. Adjust the seasonings, if needed and stuff the mixture into the prepared peppers, packing the mixture firmly. Set aside and prepare the sauce.
4. TO PREPARE THE TOMATO SAUCE TOPPING, place the tomatoes and onions into the food processor and process until they are coarsely pureed.
5. Transfer the tomatoes to a 2-quart saucepan and add the cumin, coriander, and chili powder. Cook over medium high heat for 4 to 6 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened slightly, and season with salt and pepper.
6. Add the yogurt to the tomato sauce and stir well. Spoon a generous quantity of the sauce over the stuffed peppers. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil, shiny side down, and bake for 1 hour.
While milk and ghee (clarified butter) are traditional ingredients in Afghan cooking, they have been replaced with alternative choices in this vegan version of a classic dessert served in Afghanistan and throughout many parts of the Middle East, including India. Still, the result is a tasty, brightly colored carrot pudding dotted with nuts and raisins and a hint of exotic spice. Serve the pudding warmed, room temperature, or chilled.
Yield: 4 to 5 servings
4 tablespoons dairy-free margarine (like Earth Balance)
3 tablespoons raw pistachios, coarsely ground
2 rounded tablespoons golden raisins
4 cups coarsely grated carrots (about 1 pound)
1 1/2 cups almond, soy, or rice milk
1/2 cup organic sugar
1 teaspoon rosewater
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 tablespoon slivered almonds
1. Place 2 tablespoons of the margarine into a deep 10 to 12-inch skillet and add 2 tablespoons of the pistachios and all of the raisins. Cook over high heat for about 1 minute, stirring constantly, to brown the pistachios lightly and plump the raisins. Remove to a small bowl and set aside.
2. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of margarine in the skillet. Add the carrots and cook for about 5 minutes, or until they just begin to brown.
3. Add the almond milk and sugar and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer gently for about 1 hour, stirring frequently, until all the liquid has been absorbed. The carrots will have cooked to a nearly pudding-like consistency.
4. Add the cooked pistachios and raisins, the rosewater, lemon juice, and cardamom and mix well. Spoon into 4 or 5 small dessert bowls or teacups and garnish with the remaining 1 tablespoon coarsely ground pistachios and a few slivered almonds.