The tastes and aromas of the food of our childhood can be a great source of comfort in difficult times. For Hamida Ghafour, whose life has been shaped by exile and upheaval, it has also provided a sense of place and a vital connection to her Afghan heritage.
When I was seven years old, our parents announced to my younger brother and me that we were going on a long holiday to a place with a lot of snow. We were living in New Delhi and I jumped up and down on my bed in excitement at the prospect of seeing this exotic substance, which I had only seen in those Bollywood films that were set in, for some inexplicable reason, the Swiss Alps. It was 1985. We were in India as political refugees because the Soviets were occupying our homeland, Afghanistan, and my parents did not support the regime. After four years of waiting we were given political asylum in Canada. This was the "long holiday" my parents promised.
I don't actually remember my first impression of a deep winter in the great white north. But I do recall our last meal in India: masala dosas. We celebrated our final night at a dosa stall in one of the bazaars near our flat in Defence Colony and I greedily tore small pieces of those crispy, savoury pancakes stuffed with potatoes and onions and dipped them in tangy sambar. My life is peripatetic. I was born in Kabul, then lived in India for four years before moving to Toronto, where I grew up. As an adult, I drifted to London, back to Kabul, London again, then Amman and now Abu Dhabi. In between I have travelled to other countries and lost count of how many times I have actually moved house. I think, 18.
The one constant in my life, and that of my family during all those times of upheaval has been food, particularly Afghan food. Food and nostalgia go together so perfectly and the fresh, home-cooked meals my mother fed us when I was young still make me yearn for a gentler time in my life, although in reality my childhood was a period of anxiety and change. My parents were liberals, democrats and had ties to the royal family. The urban centres however were becoming polarised between supporters of the mujahideen and the communists. Daylight assassinations on the street were common. The ancien regime was not welcome by either camp.
We had to get out and either emigrate to the West or wait for the fighting to end. My parents spent a fortune on bribing and cajoling the Soviets to give us permission to leave on a pretext of a holiday to the Eastern Bloc and the Indian consular official at the embassy accepted a small Afghan carpet in exchange for a visa. Of course, the occupation continued, the fighting worsened and my family never moved back home.
For exiles, food has a particular resonance because it is a connection with a faraway, lost homeland. To this day I cannot breathe in a bouquet of coriander without missing my father's kebabs he grills on the barbecue with finely ground beef and green chillis. In times of hardship and change, people cling to the familiar, an axiom as true for refugees of war as those struggling with economic difficulties. And as the global financial crisis takes a tighter grip over all our lives, people are seeking comfort by recalling the foods with which they grew up.
Magazines are full of recipes and advice for preparing cheap, homemade meals and there are a growing number of cookery books and memoirs reminiscing about recipes from the 1960s, 1950s and even food made during the war years. How many more variations of shepherd's pie or chicken in gravy can anyone come up with? These are the fondly remembered meals of my European and North American friends but for me the foreign is the familiar. I never ate a ready-made, microwave meal when I was growing up (I still have not) and back then the most exotic dinner possible in our adopted home was takeaway pepperoni pizza.
When we settled in Toronto in 1985, we were among the first Afghan immigrants and my parents sought out others like us with whom we could socialise. These gatherings always revolved around food and nearly every photograph of my parents' parties show a large dining table somewhere in the background groaning with about a dozen classic Afghan dishes. These parties were also a chance to celebrate living in a land of plenty. In New Delhi we lived in a flat paid for by the gold jewellery my mother pawned. The kitchen was so small she cooked on a hotplate on the floor. She even "baked" butter cakes in a pressure cooker. Now we were in a big, wealthy country with all the modern conveniences associated with it.
The highlights of those dinner parties always included tender beef and chicken kebabs, baked rice dishes, lashings of creamy rice puddings infused with rose water. Afghan cuisine, like its history, has been shaped by invasion and conquest. It is about fragrance, not heat, and represents a fusion of influences from Persia, India, the Middle East and Central Asian states. Flat breads, salads, baked rice, barbecued meats and kormas form the backbone of the cuisine.
Even the British left their mark. Before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, my parents used to have afternoon tea in the rose garden of their old house in Kabul with tall, thin glasses of green tea, quince compote served with cream and savoury biscuits with aniseed. Every Afghan housewife kept a jar of char masala, or four-spice, on the shelf. It is a mix of cinnamon, cumin, cloves and black cardamom ground together in equal measure and added to kormas, meatballs or pilaus. I keep one in my kitchen cupboard in Abu Dhabi and open it sometimes to take a whiff and remind myself of my mother.
And the pilaus of my childhood! One of the best dishes, served on very special occasions, including my engagement party two years ago, is naranj pilau: saffron-tinted rice baked with chicken, slivers of orange zest, pistachios and blanched almonds. Of course, Eid is not a public holiday in Canada, and it was never celebrated to its full potential, so Christmas evolved into a good excuse to gather everyone around for a feast - with an Afghan twist. The roast turkey had pride of place on the table next to the Kabuli rice which is made with thick pieces of veal and seasoned with cinnamon and raisins.
During those late-night parties, the children (we never had a babysitter) were called to take their share from the table and then herded into one room of the house to be as noisy as we liked while the grown-ups discussed the latest development in the war. The subjects bored us children, and my cousins and I complained that kebabs and rice were boring, too, and why couldn't our mothers just cook roast beef and mashed potatoes like other "normal" parents? Sometimes my mum would give in and make "Canadian food" but, bless her, her roast beef resembled the sole of a shoe.
Immigrants must cope and adapt. The arrival of a Canadian winter meant the preparation of a great Afghan tradition: landi. This is a shoulder of mutton my father bought with great anticipation at the supermarket and rubbed with a lot of salt then left outside at the first hard frost to dry in the wind. Landi is an acquired taste and impossible to prepare inside because of the pungent smell. One year my father took our camping tent, normally used for weekend summer jaunts in northern Ontario, and set it up in the backyard to keep the landi safe from the raccoons prowling our neighbourhood as the meat dried. I was mortified to think what our Canadian neighbours in the steady, ordinary suburb would say if they knew half a sheep was hanging from a hook in our back garden.
For my father, this ritual was a way of remembering the best and most treasured years of a youth spent hunting in the northern mountains of Nuristan province for partridge and deer with his friends. Back then, he knew who he was and his place in society. The disorientation and displacement that came with building a new life in Canada could only be borne by hanging on to cooking traditions. My parents did not like to talk about Afghanistan. The memories of all the friends and relatives they have lost is too painful and yet sometimes they would unexpectedly tell a story that would shed a bit of light on my heritage.
In the days when Afghanistan was still a monarchy, before 1973, the royal court often travelled with an entourage of hundreds of soldiers and camp followers to remote Nuristan on deer hunts. In the 1920s, the prime minister at the time, Hashem Khan, who was also a royal, sent a messenger on horseback that he was on his way to his hunting lodge in Nuristan and would stop at my great-grandfather's shrine to pay his respects.
My great-grandmother, Bibi Hawa, a formidable woman who ran the household by herself after her husband's death, prepared a feast for the royal party and the 400 soldiers who would accompany him. Sheep, cows and chickens were roasted on spits, four different pilaus were made with pomegranates, emerald ones prepared with spinach. Sweetmeats and biscuits were baked for breakfast. But the prime minister changed his mind. Instead of stopping at the shrine, he continued on to his hunting lodge. My great-grandmother waited and waited for a sign of soldiers on horseback on the horizon of the terraced green fields. They did not come and the vast banquet went to waste.
One of his advisers told the prime minister he had made a mistake. "There were orphans in that house and out of their pockets your dinner was made," he said. Realising his error, Hashem Khan sent another messenger with a letter of apology, promising that he would come to the house as soon as he could. When my great-grandmother read the letter, she scooped lentils into an earthen bowl, pushed it into the messenger's hands and said, "Here, feed him this."
This exchange of misunderstandings and insults nearly started a blood feud that could have lasted generations (Afghans are famously quarrelsome) but it was averted. One of the wasted dishes at Bibi Hawa's feast was roast chicken marinated in yogurt ground cumin and turmeric. It was a great favourite of the kings and this recipe, Kunar roast chicken I still make at home in Abu Dhabi on the weekends.
In 2003, I went back to Afghanistan out of a combination of curiosity for a place my parents have been homesick for as long as I can remember - and a desire for a bit of adventure. All these spices, traditions and recipes had been forgotten and vegetable oil became the only available flavouring during all the years of war. The greasy, gristly mutton, the plain oily rice was not what I had eaten when I was growing up. I realised that my family are, in a way, museum pieces that represent an era that no longer exists. The years of my forefathers entertaining royal parties, my father hunting in the mountains, those were gone.
The total destruction of Kabul, the spirit of the Afghan people, broken after so many years of turmoil. I can still picture the children sitting on the corner of the roads small and brown-eyed like little lost sparrows and feeling suffocated by their grief and disconnected from the country. I had left when I was barely more than a toddler, returned at the age of 25 with a Canadian passport that could get me out anytime I liked. I was not really one of them.
But the fruits and vegetables were an unexpected source of pleasure in the landscape of war and a way of connecting with my culture. Afghanistan's breathtaking valleys have always been fertile. Everything is left to ripen on the vine or tree and brought to market within hours or a couple of days at most. There are no pesticides or hothouses because farmers can't afford them and the only fertiliser available is manure.
I learnt to eat seasonally like everyone else and with the turn of the season there was another delight to look forward to. With the celebration of Nawroz, the ancient Zoroastrian festival announcing the arrival of spring, Kabul's pastry shops were packed with melt-in-your-mouth cookies, pale, crumbly and flavoured with ground pistachios. As the weather warmed, gandana, a relative of the chive, appeared and these long, flat bundles were chopped and folded into thin pancakes with potatoes and fried into boulanee, the tastiest snack in the world.
In the summer, a profusion of deep red cherries from northern Balkh province arrived; then apricots, sweet and fuzzy from Bamiyan (home of the Buddhas blown up by the Taliban); and finally the green melons, with their honeyed richness and seeds a pale froth of yellow. Melons grown in the West are a watery imitation of what grows in the orchards of Takhar province. Food was my only connection with a country that had changed beyond recognition and a culture destroyed by so much fighting.
I left Kabul for good in 2005, a mess of stress and anxiety with even more questions about what all my time living there had meant. I was not Afghan but not truly a westerner either. In the end I tried not to think about it. As the aeroplane left the runway in Kabul, I concentrated on Nigella Lawson's How To Eat, a present given to me by the man who is now my husband. I couldn't bear to think about the guilt of leaving behind such desperation and the cookery book was a distraction.
I moved to London and wrote a book about my experiences in Afghanistan. The process was as difficult as everyone warned. I spent days cooped up in a little flat in north London, lost in my family's sad history with the grey gloom outside for company. Nigella was my companion in spirit. When I grew particularly frustrated at a passage I switched the laptop off and wandered into the kitchen for a bit of culinary therapy from the domestic goddess.
I made loaf after loaf of vanilla cake, pheasant and mushroom stew and spaghetti carbonara. Not surprisingly, I put on about 10lbs that year. And I started writing down recipes from my parents because I was worried I would forget them. The book is already faded and a bit tattered. The first entry is a recipe for chocolate mousse passed on by my old London flatmate, a French girl who, in an endearingly French way, gives instructions to whip the egg whites "until they resemble crème Chantilly".
Those years in London were a slow realisation which I can only see now that I would probably never again live in Afghanistan. My husband was born in London and, from his mother, a superb cook with a solid repertoire of classic British and French dishes, I learnt some new recipes that I will pass on to our children, who will have a mixed heritage. My mother-in-law was recently clearing out her loft after 30 years and has an amazing collection of old cookery books, including a 1964 edition of Constance Spry and the Penguin Cordon Bleu which she still uses.
One of her specialities is Boodle's orange fool: double cream flavoured with the juice of lemons and oranges layered on sponge cakes which she serves in an elegant crystal dish. She has been making it since 1966 when it was still a secret recipe of Boodle's, the gentlemen's club in London where it was served. It is an old-fashioned pudding, "not politically correct" as she says, because of all the cream. Yet retro dishes are making a comeback.
Indeed, there is an entire industry around nostalgic eating, as publishers capitalise on a desire for comfort eating in an era of deep uncertainty as millions of people lose their jobs, and governments bail out banks. This September, the British publisher Michael O'Mara will publish Battenberg Britain, which asks the question: "You can negotiate a gastropub menu and whip up a risotto, but isn't there a part of you hankering after those convenience foods of the Sixties and Seventies we were raised on?"
That means Paxo stuffing, HP sauce and Battenberg cake, a sponge cake with a distinctive check pattern, which is still sold in British supermarkets. "As with any element of nostalgia, seeing those images and especially tasting those foods and the foods included are all still available, takes you right back to being young," says Ana Sampson, head of publicity and marketing for the publisher. "Sales of these packaged foods are apparently soaring in the current gloomy economic climate probably because they last well, unlike fresh foods, so reduce waste, and are cheap, but also because they remind people of a more safe and secure time in their childhoods."
Advertisers are also getting in on the action. Hovis bread has a new television advert of a boy carrying a loaf and running through scenes of key events in 20th century England such as the miners' strike and the Blitz with the slogan "as good today as it's always been". There is even an industry of recipes dating from World War II, among the most well-known is the redoubtable Marguerite Patten's The Victory Cookbook, though I can't imagine why anyone would want to read about dried eggs in such an age of plenty.
My aunt Naheed, who lived through Kabul's dreadful civil war in the 1990s, fed her six children radishes and rice to survive. When she moved to Canada and cooked chicken for the first time for an ordinary weeknight supper, her youngest daughter was confused. "Are we having important guests to our house?" Chicken in war-torn Afghanistan was unimaginable. In Jhumpa Lahiri's beautiful novel The Namesake, Ashima, an immigrant from Calcutta, pines for home in her American apartment. She mixes Rice Krispies with Planters peanuts and minced onion to create an approximation of the spicy Indian snack sold on the railways back home. She pauses, wishes there was some mustard oil (it is 1968 America) and as she tastes it, she thinks, "As usual there is something missing."
What is missing is home. I am not sure yet where mine is.