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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Afghanistan

WARNING: Afghanistan is currently unstable, please read this travel warning before going!

Historic Diet

Despite the mountainous landscape, Afghanistan is also home to numerous valleys and lowlands that are the grateful recipient of rains, rivers, and fertile soils, which make much of the country quite ideal when it comes to food. For much of time these foods and the animals that they attracted have made up the historic diet of the earliest settlers.

Fruits and vegetables are available throughout the country; however the styles in each region vary. Some of the more historic foods found in the region include onions, garlic, pomegranate, apricot, berries, pistachios, walnuts, coriander, and saffron among others. The fertile landscape also encourages animals and again these animals have been an important part of the people's historic diet. Sheep, chicken, and horses are all present in the region and these animals have provided both meat as well as dairy products to the people. Due to being a landlocked country, there is very little fish found in Afghanistan, although many lakes and rivers provided fish for the nearby people.

Culinary Influences

There were few major culinary influences in Afghanistan for much of the region's history since the local foods and animals present created a diverse historic diet, from which the people had little interest in changing. Additionally, most of the region's historic diet and local foods still form the base of the local diet and over time the greatest changes have been primarily in the introduction of new spices and vegetables.

As Islam arrived to Afghanistan in the 600s a couple dietary restrictions were placed on the new adherents: pork cannot be consumed and alcohol is forbidden. Although these two restrictions didn't vastly alter the local diet at the time, they have since given the cuisine a specific direction due to these restrictions.

Through the 600s and later the greatest influences came with traders from all directions, but primarily from India, the Mediterranean, and to a lesser degree China. These traders arrived to modern day Afghanistan as well as to the surrounding regions; most notably the north along the historic Silk Road and to the west where the historic power of Persia dominated. The Silk Road had power centers in the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand (both in modern day Uzbekistan) and the influence from this trade changed the cuisine of the entire region. The base foods remained quite firm as few major or noticeable alterations were made to the diet, however the addition of new spices forever altered the local flavors in a very subtle way.

Although the external traders from faraway lands influenced the cuisine, it was the neighboring Persians that more strongly influenced the Afghan diet. The people adopted many dishes and took many ingredients and foods from Persia that were integrated into the local diet.

As the Silk Road slowly fell due to opening water routes between Europe and the Far East, the Ottoman Turks rose to power in the region and influenced Afghanistan's diet. The Turks brought yogurt, stuffed grape leaves (dolma), kebabs, and coffee while the Arabs, also in the west, brought a greater prevalence of figs and dates, around which new dishes were centered.

In the past century the foods have changed slightly in Afghanistan, but only slightly. Although much of the world has adopted fast foods and pre-packaged meals, Afghanistan has not experienced many of these changes in great numbers. Isolated both geographically and politically for much of the past century the country has few fast food restaurants and almost no pre-packaged foods. For the little that does exist, it is almost entirely limited to the capital of Kabul.

Staple Foods

Khameerbob: a cooked dough that's sort of a combination between dumplings and pasta
Naan: thin oval-shaped bread served with most meals; sometimes topped with seeds
Rice: served as a base in many dishes and is prepared in numerous ways

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Ashak: dumplings filled with leeks topped with garlic and yogurt
Kebab: generally seasoned lamb meat served in naan with rice
Mantu: dumplings with onions and beef topped with a tomato sauce and yogurt
Palao/Pilaf: dozens of varieties exist, but the national dish is qabili palao, which is a rice-based meat, carrot, pistachio, and raisin dish
Qorma: onion-based stews, usually with meat; again numerous styles exist

Dining Etiquette

When eating in Afghanistan, remember that you are in a Muslim country and with that comes a couple etiquette rules you must know and follow. First, dress on the conservatively side (see our Afghanistan Culture Page for more details). Second, in conservative homes and even most restaurants, it is not acceptable to eat with a person of the opposite sex unless it is your child, sibling, or spouse. To many conservative Muslims this is important so observe the local restaurant's situation and follow their lead. This may mean that if you are with someone of the opposite sex who is not in your family (a co-worker for example), you shouldn't eat together.

If you get by those first rules, try to arrive on time for a meal and if eating in a local's home remove your shoes at the door if others have done so. Greet the elders first, but men should not touch the hand of a woman (as this is considered inappropriate to many Afghans), although you should greet and acknowledge everyone. Let your host seat you and when sitting be sure to keep your feet flat on the floor or pointed behind you as pointing the soles of your feet at another can be offensive; you may be asked to sit on the floor around the dastarkhan. Once sitting, someone should come around with a wash basin so you can wash your hands prior to eating.

Once the food begins to arrive the more special foods will likely be placed near you as their guest, something you may not notice if you don't know the local foods. Be sure to try these foods as these are the dishes your host is most proud of and placing them near you is to ensure you have easy access to them. Your host will likely insist you eat certain dishes as well, but try to take a small amount of food at first as you will later be offered more food and you should accept. Also, many times all dishes are brought out at the same time, but avoid taking desserts or fruits with your entree as these foods are reserved for after the main meal.

Eat as the locals eat; in some settings this means eating directly with your right hand (and your right hand only), but in other settings you may be offered dining utensils (cutlery), in which case eat in the continental style (knife or spoon in the right hand, fork in the left). If a knife is not present, most locals will hold the spoon in their right hand and eat primarily from the spoon. No matter which utensil you hold in which hand, be sure to only bring food to your mouth with the utensil in your right hand. As you finish your food, and your second helping of food, leave a bit on your plate to show there was more than enough then place your fork and knife together in the 5:00 position. You may be offered tea prior to dessert and tea again prior to fruits, which usually ends a large meal. After everyone gets up from the table, you should again follow the lead of others and wash your hands once more, which again may come from a water basin passed around the table or you may be asked to use a faucet.

Dining in a restaurant with local Afghans is somewhat unusual as the locals rarely eat out and in most areas there are no restaurants so dining is always at home. More likely, if meeting a local out, you'll do so for tea at a teahouse. Either way, there will most likely be no service charge on your bill so be sure to add about 5% for a tip to the server.

Celebrations & Events

Afghanistan has a huge number of celebrations that are tied to foods, both religious and secular events. Two of the most important are religious though. Eid al Fitr is a celebration that occurs immediately after Ramadan, a religious holiday that requires fasting for 30 days. Eid al Fitr is celebrated with numerous filling and more expensive dishes eaten, often containing meat, to celebrate the end of the long fast. However what makes this celebration even more loved is the heavy use of sweets in the celebration.

The second major religious food celebration in Afghanistan is Eid e Qurban, which is only celebrated after a pilgrim returns from haj, the mandatory journey for every able Muslim to go to Mecca. During this celebration an animal is usually sacrificed, usually a sheep or goat. Additionally, desserts, nuts, and tea are essential items.

Another event with religious undertones is called nazer, which is an event to celebrate a religious event or thanks for the safety of a loved one; it is usually celebrated after a pilgrimage or a holy day. A lamb or calf is usually sacrificed and the meat, along with naan is distributed to the poor and people passing by.

Births, wedding, and other events are also celebrated with food. Births are celebrated over 40 days with differing foods offered on particular days in celebration. Lamb kebabs are a common dish in these celebrations. Marriage engagements are brought to fruition with pilau, other main dishes, and numerous sweets. This is followed with more sweets as well as rice at the wedding itself to symbolize prosperity and fruitfulness.

The final important celebration tied to foods is the New Year festival, called Nauroz, which is celebrated on the spring equinox. This celebration is meant to celebrate the end of the winter and the beginning of new life so fresh produce is commonly eaten as are other foods. Fruits, rice dishes, and wheat dishes are included in the celebration; this event is often celebrated outdoors as the country seems to get out to picnic on this day each year.

Drinks

In Afghanistan the drink everyone seems drawn to is tea as the people drink it throughout the day every day. Dugh, rose-flavored yogurt with salt, is a more traditional drink, but less popular than tea. If you are seeking something you're more used to, there are plenty of options as soft drinks, juices, and coffee are available in most cities and even in some less traveled areas.

As a primarily Muslim country, Afghanistan has no alcohol available and it is illegal to consume in the country.

The tap water in Afghanistan should not be consumed. Be sure to also avoid anything with ice as it may have been made from the tap water. Salads and fruits could have also been washed in the tap water so be careful with those foods as well.

This page was last updated: September, 2012