First, some history about Bactria, an ancient Greek kingdom of central Asia. Its capital was Bactra, now Balkh in northern Afghanistan. The region had been conquered by the Persians and was once an eastern province of the Persian Empire.
Nowadays, Afghanistan is often spoken about in more sombre tones. But it was once very prosperous, an area that was a crossroads for transmitting Siberian and Indian metals and goods to the Persians. When Alexander the Great invaded the Persian Empire, Darius III, after being defeated, fled to Bactria where he was murdered. The Bactrians resisted Alexander’s troops but were finally subdued. The Bactrians adopted Greek culture.
What is so famous about Afghanistan from that time is what is known as the Bactrian Hoard, more than 20,000 gold ornaments unearthed in 1978 from a nomad burial site at Tillya Tepe, meaning “Golden Hill”. These fascinating treasures show Greek, Roman, Persian, Indian, Chinese, and Siberian influences, reflecting the nomads’ extensive contact with other civilizations.
Victor Rabinovitch, former president and CEO of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, said before the opening of an exhibition of treasures from the Bactrian Hoard in 2003, that for centuries “Afghanistan was a thriving junction on the Silk Road, the great trade route that once linked empires from China all the way to the Mediterranean. Today, commerce has given way to conflict, yet Afghanistan’s rich and resilient heritage will endure.”
The cuisine of today’s Afghanistan is one of the most important ways Afghans keep their ancient civilization alive. It is an integral part of their life in Canada.
The following recipe is from a feast prepared in my home recently by Arzo Rasuli, an economics student at Carleton University who immigrated to Canada from Afghanistan in 1994 to flee the civil war.
Kabuli Pulao, Afghanistan’s national dish
625 mL (2 1/2 cups) Basmati rice
125 mL (1/2 cup) cooking oil, divided
1 large onion, diced
1 kg (2 1/2 lbs) chicken, cut into large pieces (lamb or beef is also used)
250 mL (1 cup) of broth, preferably chicken
Spice blend 5 mL (about 1 tsp) ground black peppercorns, cloves, cardamom and cinnamon, if desired
7 mL (1/2 tbsp) powdered cumin
5 mL (1 tsp) salt
500 mL (2 cups) water
2 carrots, thinly sliced
250 mL (1 cup) raisins
125 mL (1/2 cup) blanched almonds
125 mL (1/2 cup) shelled, blanched pistachios
Soak the rice in a large bowl for an hour or so, covered. Set aside. Take a heavy iron skillet and heat half the oil. Saute onions until golden, add chicken and cook until light brown, turning once so both sides are coloured. Add salt and spices, cook until the oil rises to the top. Add water and bring to a boil, then cover and simmer until chicken is tender. Add more water if necessary.
Saute carrots in a smaller pan in a little oil until soft. Take out and set aside. Add more oil and sauté raisins until they plump out. Remove from pan, then add nuts, cooking gently until lightly browned.
Remove meat with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add rice and salt to the liquid in the pan and cook until it comes to a boil. Lower heat at once, cover and cook until rice is dry, around 15 to 20 minutes.Just before serving transfer the rice to an oven-safe serving platter, put chicken pieces in the centre and surround with carrots. Sprinkle with the raisins and nuts and put in a 150º C (300º F) oven for around five minutes.
Serve hot with salad on the side and a vegetable dish such as fried eggplant or zucchini.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Susan Hallett is an award-winning writer and editor who has written for The Beaver, The Globe & Mail, Wine Tidings and Doctor’s Review among many others. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org