Papers published in the Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery:

‘Public Eating in Afghanistan’ in Public Eating, Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1991

Extract from Public Eating in Afghanistan

‘The type and standard of chaikhana vary considerably. Some are very basic and serve only tea, either green (Chinese), or black (Indian), but many are quite large, even luxurious – with tables and chairs, and the mud floor covered with the beautiful red traditional carpets and rugs of Afghanistan. Pictures, mirrors and decorations cover the walls. Popular Afghan and Indian taped music is often played. These chaikhana can provide customers with a variety of refreshments and food; some even provide a guest room which is shared by all those travelers planning to spend the night.

Entering the chaikhana one removes one’s shoes according to the Muslim custom. In some chaikhana a small boy (bacha) will bring a haftawa-wa-lagan, a bowl and a pitcher containing water, for the dusty traveler to wash his hands.

In fact I have one vivid memory of arriving at a chaikhana after returning from a particularly exciting but grueling landrover ‘excursion’ to Badakshan in the north of Afghanistan. We arrived at one of the large chaikhana in Kunduz and were led to a small room off the main one. As a foreign woman I could go in. The room was very luxurious and filled with carpets and cushions to sit on. A little boy brought a haftawa-wa-lagan for us to wash our hands and refresh ourselves. What luxury! Feeling much better, and cleaner, we returned to the main chaikhana. They had an impressive menu and we ordered several of the specialities of the region as we were so hungry. They had mantu (a meat and onion filled pasta which is steamed); ashak (a boiled pasta stuffed with gandana and served with quroot and minced meat); an Uzbeki pilau and bonjon-e-burani (fried aubergines with a yoghurt sauce). We tucked in and really enjoyed returning to civilization.’

‘Rosewater, the Flavouring of Venus, Goddess of Love and Asafoetida, Devil’s Dung’, in Spicing Up the Palate, Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1992

Extract on rosewater

‘My husband remembers his grandmother distilling rosewater in their garden when he was a little boy. The blooms were picked while very fresh in the cool, early hours of the morning. (It is usually the damask rose, Rosa damascena, which is used for making rosewater. This rose is sometimes called gulab-e-asel, meaning ‘original’ rose.) The petals are picked off the blooms and piled up on a piece of cloth. A large copper pan or cauldron-type pot is then filled with water. The petals are added (the amount of water is usually about twice the weight of the petals).

Now the water is brought to the boil and a steady temperature is maintained; the boiling should not be too vigorous. The pot is covered with a type of copper dome attached to which is a pipe or tube. The apparatus is called an ambiq. The ambiq is joined by a pipe to a glass bottle called a meena (a poetical name which means translucent - the same word is often used in poetry to describe the sea or glass). The pipe fits inside the meena and is sealed with dough. The ambiq and the pot are also sealed with dough. This prevents the fragrant steam from escaping. The steam rises into the dome which is cooled by cold water, causing the steam to condense into droplets. The droplets travel along the pipe and slowly the fragrant rosewater drips into the bottle. Sometimes the rosewater from some or all of the bottles is poured into a larger pot or pan and slightly warmed again and left to stand until a thin film of oil forms on the surface. This is atr of roses; the Persian word, like the English version, attar, means fragrant essence. It is collected by skimming it off with cotton wool and squeezing it into another smaller bottle.’

‘Silk Kebab and Pink Tea’ in Look and Feel, Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1993

Extract about Abrayshum kebab

The word abrayshum comes from the Persian reshidan which means to spin. Abrayshum originally meant something which is already spun but is now usually used for silk alone. Abrayshum kebab is a rather unusual sweet dish and is so named because it is prepared in such an extraordinary way that the finished product seems to be made of silken thread in a kebab-like shape. (I should explain here that kebabs come in many shapes and forms and this particular shape is like the shami or lola sausage-shaped kebabs found all over this region.)

The ‘silken threads’ are made solely from eggs which are beaten and then strung rapidly across the surface of the hot oil making a mesh of silk-like thread. The mesh is then rolled up with kebab skewers. Syrup is spooned over the kebab and then it is sprinkled with pistachio.

Extract about Pink Tea (Qymaq chai)

Tea is not usually drunk with milk in Afghanistan but it is often flavoured with cardamom. On formal occasions, however, such as wedding and engagements, a special tea is prepared called qymaq chai. This tea is prepared with green tea and by the process of aeration and the addition of bicarbonate of soda the tea turns dark red. Milk is added (and sugar too) and it becomes a purply-pink colour. It has a strong, rich taste. Qymaq [the same as the kaymak of the Middle East – a sort of clotted cream] is floated on the top.

‘Travel and Food in Afghanistan’ in Food on the Move, Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1996

The nomads who have criss-crossed the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan for as long as anyone can remember ... migrate with their livestock and other worldly belongings from winter to summer camp or vice versa, setting up camp each evening until they reach their destination, often living in extreme and harsh conditions. They are sometimes called kuchis; the word comes from the Persian word meaning belongings, kuch meaning belonging; it can also mean leaving – leaving one dwelling place for another.

... The type of food the nomads eat depends a lot on their environment and the time of the year. It is safe to say, though, that the diet of a nomad, wherever they may be, is usually quite limited and that life is very hard, especially for the women. (The women put up the tents when they set up camp, they make the bread, milk the goats and sheep, make the dairy products, do the cooking and in the evenings spin and weave.) The staple foods for most nomads are bread and dairy products. The sheep and goats furnish the milk for making butter (maska), cheese (panir), yoghurt (mast), strained yoghurt (chaka), dried yoghurt (quroot), etc. (Quroot is often the only milk-based food of the Kirghiz in winter.) They often barter dairy products in exchange for grain and luxury products such as tea, sugar and salt. Sabrina Michaud, in Caravans to Tartary, says that,‘Tea is worth so much that each camel driver carries it about his person in a beautifully embroidered little bag, which is cautiously produced to put tea in the kettle. Sugar is so precious that tea is drunk with salt not sugar, and salt is so scarce that it is only used in tea ...’ .

‘Fish in Afghanistan’ in Fish: Food from the Waters, Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1997


‘ There is, however, one aspect of eating fish which is perfectly familiar to me, and which I think is quite unusual and interesting. This is the traditional way of selling and serving fried fish with jelabi. Jelabi is a fritter bathed in a sweet syrup scented with lemon, rosewater and saffron, which is commonly found in India (and in Iran, where it is known as zalubia). In winter it was a common sight to see the fish displayed in the bazaars alongside mounds of jelabi.’

Articles published in PPC (Petits Propos Culinaires)

‘A Spicy Mystery, or … with soap on our hands and foam at our mouths’ (with Anissa Helou and Esteban PomboVillar) in PPC 47, 1994

‘A Spicy Mystery, Part Two in PPC 48, 1994

‘Where are the Pouting Nibblers of Yesteryear? Or, What happened to Boudoir Biscuits’ in PPC 49, 1995

‘Whims and Fancies of a Trifle-Lover, or, ‘An Idle Tale, A Thing of No Importance’ in PPC 50, 1995.

‘Eating Out in Kabul’ in PPC 72, 2003

‘A Life in the Day of Alan Davidson’ in PPC 100, 2014

Other articles published

‘Picnicking in Afghanistan’ in Food, Culture and Community, Moving Wor(l)ds, 2006.


Afghan picnics are elaborate affairs. Pots, pans and all the equipment and food for a real feast are loaded into cars along with rugs, cushions and other paraphernalia. Nan (bread) is usually bought from a bakery on the way. Fruits are also bought on the way and so are soft drinks.

On arrival at the picnic spot everyone gets to work preparing a feast. The women make the rice dishes, qormas and salads, often bringing some ready prepared food with them. The men are in charge of the kebabs - cutting up the meat and threading the cubes interspersed with dumba (the fat from the fat-tailed sheep) on to skewers called sikhs. A brazier, called a manqal, is set up, the coals are set alight and, when glowing, there is much wafting of the pakka (kebab fan) to keep the coals hot and cook the kebabs. Much chatting, joke telling and gossiping by both males and females will go on.

While the food is being prepared, and if their help is not required, the children play. Boys might fly their kites (a very popular pastime in Afghanistan, especially in spring time and something else the Taliban banned). Called gudi paran bazi which means ‘flying playing doll’ kite flying provides children, especially boys –and men – with an enjoyable and competitive pastime. The colourful kites made of flimsy tissue paper and on a light wooden frame are ‘fought’ in the sky, each kite trying to outmanoeuvre and cut the thread off its opponent. Afghan kites have no tails and the thread, specially made with ground glass, is extremely sharp. When the thread of one of the kites has been cut, the children (or grown ups!) scramble to catch the falling kite and if one can manage to catch it and run away with the prize before the delicate tissue paper is torn, he is lucky and can use it again. Usually however these kites were torn to shreds in the scuffle for ownership as they flutter down to earth. It is a regular sight in Afghanistan to see telephone wires and trees festooned with the trapped and colourful kites.

Music is also an important part of the picnic. Either someone takes a cassette player and lots of popular Afghan and Indian popular music is enjoyed with perhaps some dancing, or musical instruments such as tabla (drums) and harmonia are taken and played. The harmonia player is often a singer too and there is much merriment and handclapping.

The entry for Afghanistan for Food Cultures of the World Encyclopaedia edited by Ken Albala, 2011.

‘Afghan Food and Culture’ in Afghanistan Revealed, an e-book published in aid of the Afghan Appeal Fund, 2013. Now available as a hard back.


The traditional mode of eating in Afghanistan is on the floor. Everyone sits on large colourful cushions (toshak), with large pillows (bolesht) behind for support. A large cloth or thin mat (disterkhan) is placed on the floor in front of the diners before the dishes of food are brought. During the cold winter months in the evenings the family might keep warm around the sandali, the traditional form of Afghan heating. A sandali consists of a charcoal brazier (manqal) under a low table covered with a large duvet (liaf) that is big enough to cover everyone’s legs, sitting on their cushions and supported by the large pillows. The charcoal has to be heated in advance and covered with ashes. During the hot summer months, food is often served outside in the garden under a shady tree or in the cool night air.

The entry on Afghanistan for Street Foods of the World edited by Bruce Kraig and Colleen Sen, 2013.

Street vendors are particularly active on religious or festive days such as an Eid or Nauroz (the Persian/Afghan New Year on the first day of spring) when children and grown ups go out for picnics or fly their kites. In the crisp spring air people enjoy a plateful of steaming hot and spicy pilau-e-tolaki, or ‘weighed’ pilau, so-called because the tabang wala weighs out the pilau on scales, using stones that weigh one-quarter or half a pound. Pilau is rice cooked in stock with meat or vegetables with spices added and, in Afghanistan, often garnished with carrots, nuts and raisins. Children buy roasted chickpeas, pine nuts, raisins or sugared almonds sold in cone-shaped paper bags. Khasta-e-shireen is a kind of nut brittle made by pouring caramel over almond or apricot kernels and formed in large round plate-like shapes. Other sweet treats include halwa-e-swanak, a nut brittle made with pistachios or walnuts. Halwa-e-marghzi is a rather odd looking sweet, made with a milk, sugar and walnut syrup. It is very viscous and is stretched and shaken in the air from a wooden pole until it sets hard.

The entry for ‘Afghanistan’ for At the Table: Food and Family around the World edited by Ken Albala (2016)