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Qabili Pilau

The March 2008 issue of Saveur Magazine has a very interesting piece, Comforts of Home, written by Jiffer Bourguignon on Afghan women reconnecting with family traditions during current political upheaval by cooking time-honored regional foods. Bourguignon visits the kitchen of several women in different circumstances throughout Afghanistan and learns their family stories while watching friends cook their favorite family recipes.

One woman prepares Qabili Pilau, one of the more famous national dishes of Afghanistan and the recipe is provided. I decided to try a taste of Kabul myself. A quick look through my cookbook collection and an on-line search turned-up many different versions of this famous dish - from Pakistani to kosher versions, some made with chicken. The only constant is basmati rice and sweet spices.

Kabul-Style Lamb and Rice Pilaf (Qabili Pilau)

SERVES 6 – 8

Qabili Pilau is widely considered to be the national dish of Afghanistan. Soaking the basmati rice in water for 20 minutes before cooking helps to keep the grains from clumping together in the finished dish.

2½ cups basmati rice4 tbsp. canola oil 2 lbs. boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1½" pieces Kosher salt 2 medium onions, roughly chopped 2 large carrots, peeled and julienned ½ cup raisins 2 tsp. ground coriander 1 tsp. ground cinnamon 1 tsp. ground black pepper 1 tsp. ground cumin ½ tsp. ground black cardamom seeds (optional) ½ tsp. ground cloves 2 tsp. rose water (optional)

1. Put rice into a large bowl and cover with water; let soak for 20 minutes. Drain rice and reserve. Heat 2 tbsp. oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Season lamb with salt and brown, turning occasionally, 8–10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer lamb to a plate; set aside. Reduce heat to medium, add onions, and cook, stirring, until browned, 12–15 minutes. Return lamb to pot with 2 cups water; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, until meat is tender, about 1 hour. Using a slotted spoon, transfer lamb to a plate; set aside. Reserve cooking liquid in pot.

2. Meanwhile, heat remaining oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add carrots, season with salt, and cook, stirring, until tender, about 20 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer carrots to a plate; set aside. Add raisins; cook until plump, 2–3 minutes. Set raisins aside.

3. Combine coriander, cinnamon, pepper, cumin, cardamom (if using), and cloves in a bowl. Add rice to reserved pot; stir in half the spices and 3 cups water; season with salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer, covered, without stirring, until liquid is just absorbed, 8–10 minutes. Uncover; sprinkle remaining spices over rice. Scatter lamb, carrots, and raisins over rice. Cover; continue to cook until rice is tender, about 25 minutes. Stir rice, lamb, carrots, and raisins together and season with salt and pepper; transfer to a serving platter. Sprinkle with rose water (if using).

This recipe was first published in Saveur, Issue #109

The Rose Market, Murray & Allen, in Beaverton, Oregon

Nearly everything was available at our New Seasons Market, but I did make a field trip to our local Middle Eastern Market - Rose (6153 SW Murray, Beaverton, 503-646-7673) - an interesting shop, with intoxicating aromas - and a friendly owner always willing to help the curious cook and readily give his advise. The recipe called for a spice I had never used before - black cardamom seeds. Black cardamom seeds do not possess the usual sweet cardamom flavor, but instead have a smoky scent and are sometimes used in vegetarian or kosher dishes to impart a "bacony" flavor. Luckily, the ingredient was listed as "optional" because they were not available at the markets I visited this week. (Black cardamom seeds are available on-line through Kalustyans,Penzeys or The Spice House.)

The cooking methods seemed quite odd and quite wasteful of time and fuel, but I followed the recipe precisely. It took nearly two hours to have Qabili Pilau on the table! In the end, I felt the lamb was cooked to death and there was too much rice and not enough lamb and carrots. The spices were the predominant flavor which could be improved by using chicken or vegetable broth instead of water to cook the lamb and rice.

Verdict: Reading Jiffer Bourguignon's report will get you to craving an Afghan meal. While this Qabili Pilau is not so good, the story behind it is fascinating.