Travel, Culture and Food: Afghanistan
What is the first thing you do when you land in a new city? Most likely, find something to eat.
Food is an essential part of travel because it teaches us about a new place. It provides a look into a local culture and its traditions, be it lunch at a street cart or dinner in someone’s home, through a meal we learn.
Food brings people together. No matter where we are from, gathering around a meal is something that we all do. We eat and we talk. At home, that’s the recipe for a good dinner party. Abroad it’s a vehicle for bridging a cultural gap.
Last fall I traveled as part of a nonprofit project with Mountain2Mountain to Afghanistan. Before traveling to this part of the world, I had my hang-ups and perceptions. Ask me three words that I would associate with Afghanistan and I would have said, “terrorism,” “war,” and “destruction.”
Ask me for what I think of when I hear mention of Afghanistan today and my brain paints a different picture. The words change from time to time, but food is always one of the things that immediately comes to mind. I am reminded of long meals of kabuli rice and kebab. The never-ending cup of tea that is a given at any meeting. Oily fingers from eating the fried street food bolani, a dish somewhere between a calzone and a turnover.
I remember a meal in the small village of Istalif, north of Kabul. We were seated cross-legged on a toshak in the local restaurant where we had been invited to eat. No menu, just the specialty of the house: chaaynaki. A meat-based stew that’s served in a teapot. Huge pieces of naan, the Afghan flatbread, were brought to the table. Our translator indicated that we should rip the flatbread into small pieces and place it in the turquoise ceramic bowls in front of us. Filled with flatbread pieces, the chaaynaki was poured on top, and you ate the entire oily jumble with your hands. It was messy. It was also one of the best meals I have ever had.