It really takes something for a cookbook to catch my attention these days. There are so many wonderful cooks with heartfelt works, from piles of intimidatingly perfect chef monographs to books for every technique. My shelves became too packed with familiar names and my kitchen too small to absorb all their recipes. I now content myself with perusing the food section of my local bookstore in New York for a couple of hours each new cookbook season. Yet Parwana immediately caught my eye. First, there is the impossible-to-ignore color palette that grabs you, then the shock that it is about Afghan food (something I had never read about, let alone tasted), and then, lastly, that it found its way to the US from suburban Adelaide, Australia, of all places. It is there that the author, Durkhanai Ayubi, and her family opened a restaurant in 2009, after leaving Afghanistan during the Cold War in 1985. I needed to know more, and so here within is my chat with Ayubi.
To me this is not just a “cookbook,” but also a quite didactic history of Afghanistan. Yes, it ultimately intersects with your family history but actually the recipes feel more like punctuation points in the wider story of the Afghan people. That structure really surprised me, to be honest: I thought the words would be a personal reflection of an immigrant family and recipes from their neighborhood restaurant. But it is so much more than that. Can you explain why you took that approach?
For me, it was super important to write an account of Afghanistan that took it beyond the superficialities that kind of dominate its narrative in our world today. I grew up knowing it intrinsically, having a connection to my own culture and ancestry. When you’re told, “You don’t know the ins and outs,” you just know there’s something more. And then my teenage years were in the post–September 11 world, when the world was all about Islamophobia and this war on terror takes over and dominates the narrative about Afghanistan and the Middle East. I knew that there was a story that transcended far beyond the last 20 or 40 years of narratives of Afghanistan.
I thought, If I’m going to write this book, I want it to be a book that ties together this immense, glorious history of Afghanistan, that makes the food as palatable and as familiar and as tasty as it is, and that comes from this really long history of interconnection and cultural exchange that is kind of the neglected story of how human civilization has evolved, I think. And so much of it evolved in Afghanistan.
The saying about Afghanistan is that it’s where empires go to die. Everyone has been there at some point, from the Zoastrians all the way to the Taliban. It ended the Russians and the British, the Mongols and the Mughals. How do you think all of the different empires occupying that piece of land have shaped the culture?
Basically every single kind of empire and culture that’s been through there has left its mark. I think now we see the world through this lens of Western domination over everything else and there’s no other space for other stories of progress or modernity or culture or civilization. But it hasn’t always been like that. All those people that passed through, a lot of them stayed for centuries. And it’s not to paint this rosy, nice picture of what conquest is or was, but that there were often these centuries-long intertwining of cultures and history. It’s shaped Afghanistan’s artwork. You can see it in the language. Afghanistan was like this spiritual hub, so all of the major base and spiritual belief systems have had really significant evolutions in Central Asia. Zoroastrianism, for example. I mean, people think that it’s just this really obscure, millennia-old concept, but it underpins all the Abrahamic faiths.
The Silk Route ran directly through Afghanistan. The luxuries, the goods and the culinary and cultural exchanges that happened over the centuries on that road and maybe had their nexus there. How did that influence the food, and I’m thinking about ingredients specifically?
We had spices from the Spice Islands and India come through Central Asia into the rest of the world—cardamom, turmeric, cumin, those kinds of ingredients. The really warm spices that form the bedrock of Afghan flavors. But then there are also the dals, the lentils — they’re a really big part of Afghan cooking — and rice dishes as well, that kind of thing from India. And then we had the influence that came from the north, which was the Chinese and Mongolian influence. That’s really strong in our food, but it’s blended with indigenous ingredients and indigenous flavors. The dumplings and hand noodles, that’s all influenced by the Asian connection. And then from the West, from Turkey and the Middle East, there’s a lot of nuts and syrupy-sweet desserts. Then of course right next door you have Persia, where you’re getting saffron and little tart cranberries and that kind of thing. It all converged and mixed with indigenous ingredients and flavors, and it creates something that almost anybody in the world can have and feel like they know a flavor or they know that dish. And I think that’s a really beautiful part of Afghan cuisine: It is its own thing, but there is a comforting familiarity.
There is a spice mix that you say is essentially the building block of Afghan cuisine.
Yes, char masala, a spice blend. It might differ from region to region, household to household, but it is a choice of these primary spices that kind of dominate Afghan cooking: proportions of cumin, turmeric, chili and coriander — warming spices that are comforting and aromatic. It is this blend that helps differentiate Afghan food from its neighbors. We also often have a lighter touch. But it is especially the rituals that differentiate us.
Can you give me an example of some of those rituals?
Hospitality is this massive part of our culture. I think it’s almost like the divine primary tenet of how you eat. So even if you have unexpected guests, you insist that they stay. I just remember this as a kid, being like, I really want to go home now! But no. You have to stay. You have to eat. And that’s just because at the center of the silk roads, you hear these accounts of people passing through, and they passed through from distant lands and they were either merchants with riches to share or they were people who had a divine message or some sort of spiritual lesson to share. So you wanted that person to stay and to have tea and to look after them. That’s how we treat guests. And what ties into that is the communality around preparation: We would eat dishes all together. A lot of these things are really kind of labor-intensive, especially things like dumplings or flatbread. There is this whole ritual of bonding and communality in the preparation that leads up to the eating as well.
The book is so vividly Technicolor and pure visual joy. The colors are insane. When I saw it, I was kind of gobsmacked that it was a book about Afghan food. I say that because I think it is safe to say that it is not the colors people associate with Afghanistan. Perhaps it is my own ignorance, but was making it so colorful a very deliberate, contrarian choice?
It wasn’t deliberate at all! We didn’t do anything we wouldn’t normally do. These are all very traditional recipes passed on to my mother from her ancestry. Our culture is actually very colorful; the food is especially. Things like the rice dishes, they’re always topped with really vibrant, beautiful ingredients. And then when you put them out on a spread, they just pop.
It was wonderfully jarring. It really made me take notice and think about things in a very different way. I’d never seen a cookbook from Afghanistan, full stop. And then I found out it was from a restaurant in suburban Adelaide Australia, and then I said, Well, I want to hear more.
It is so wonderful to hear you say that, because it is what we wanted. We wanted the average person who maybe didn’t know much about Afghanistan — who had these associations of, you know, desert and aridity and a war-torn almost nothingness. I am not sugar-coating the latter, but we did want to challenge that Western narrative. It was the important thing that we wanted to achieve with the book.
Well, you achieved it! Now that you’ve written this book, do you feel a responsibility to represent a cuisine and indeed a culture? One that so many people have never had or potentially will never have the opportunity to experience firsthand? I mean, you and your family and now kind of cultural ambassadors.
Our story is about these recipes being passed down to my mother and my ancestry that has brought them all to life. On one hand it is the story of Afghanistan. I want people to be able to engage with it, but I also want them to know that it’s not the only story. I wanted to make a book that did go into detail on shifting perspectives and highlighting things about Afghanistan that people might not know.
It does take you by the hand, and I think the way that it presents the facts and the history is much more effective than something overly sentimental, because there’s so much rich history there.
I didn’t want to write another sanitized version, and it would be sanitized through sentiment. There are all these narratives about Afghanistan, which are sanitized and censored through just violence and war and dehumanization. And if I wasn’t to pick up the pen and tell and uncover my own truth — if I wasn’t to make that commitment to just unmask as much as I could — then you’re right, it wouldn’t have been as effective because it wouldn’t have been as real.
I just really wanted to not write it sentimentally, because my life hasn’t been sentimental. As displaced people, your life has its challenges and you have to really fight to find the beauty in it and to reconcile that kind of stuff that’s been quite challenging. That’s the other narrative that pisses me off, which is, like, oh, these wonderful people: They’re so different, but they’re still okay. We’re people with our histories, with our complexities, with our own desires for our futures, with our own personalities, flawed or otherwise. And I think that really had to come through, because that’s a really big part of the history of the region.
This book is politically very current in terms of the story of refugees and assimilation—in the States as well as globally. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about how you maintain food culture, and what are the challenges for refugee communities?
I think this is a very consistent theme and undercurrent of what I wanted for the book, which was to make people stop and think about what a migrant or a refugee is. That’s definitely another part that brings us into the contemporary world, because so much of Afghanistan’s history has led to this point now, where we’re one of the biggest refugee populations in the world, and then, not to mention this seemingly unending displacement caused by the war on terror. Just two weeks ago, this report by Brown University said that the number of displaced people because of the 20 years of the war on terror is about 37 million. And that’s a conservative estimate. So they’re thinking more like 59 million people. That’s nearly two thirds of the world’s displaced people generated by this ideological war on terror. How can we, in this age of information where you see everything all over the internet, still be so sheltered from the reality of that displacement?
These were all things that were running through me as I was writing this book. When I was working on one of the chapters, I was in Jordan and I went to a refugee camp where I met people who’ve been displaced. There were Syrian refugees and Palestinian refugees displaced by these unending geopolitical tensions and war. There were these young kids there, and I was aware of that thin line separating my family’s future from this, and not to be sentimental about it. I’m so lucky. But really more, it made me just go, how can this still be happening after 20 years?
And so I think that what I want the book to do is ask people, when they see a migrant refugee or somebody from a diaspora community living in their neighborhood, to really go beyond what they think they know about that person, because our world has been torn to pieces because of the fact that we can’t see the connections between us.
Last question. Do you think that I’ll be able to visit Afghanistan at some point?
With all my heart I hope so, because I think it would be a global travesty for our generations if people couldn’t visit Afghanistan. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. I’ve traveled a lot, and the kind of visuals and the feeling and the epicness of the landscape of Afghanistan hasn’t left me as one of the most beautiful sights. I want people to be able to engage with history that isn’t just our history, but it’s a history of the entire world. There are so many significant ancient sites and significant things that have happened that have shaped the trajectory of the human story, and I want people to be able to see that, touch it, smell it, you know, and be really close to it, because I think it will change us all if we could start to have those understandings of each other.
There is one sense you forgot there. Taste. We all want to taste Afghanistan now.
Yes! Taste, the most important of all.
Co-Founder and CEO David Prior was formerly Contributing International Editor of Condé Nast Traveler and Contributing Editor at Vogue Living. David was named by Bloomberg Businessweek as “One to Watch” in 2018 as part of the publication’s prestigious Global 50: the people who defined business in 2017.