When Durkhanai Ayubi and her sisters set out to their family’s homeland of Afghanistan, they found a trove of culinary inspiration for their restaurant in Adelaide, Australia. In this excerpt from her new cookbook, Ayubi details the experience and reflects on how cuisine connects us to our roots—and one another.

Durkhanai Ayubi
The author, Durkhanai Ayubi, with her parents and sisters (clockwise from top left: Zelmai, the author, Fatema, Farida, Zelaikhah, Zahra, Raihanah). Photo credit: ALICIA TAYLOR/COURTESY OF INTERLINK PUBLISHING

The most striking thing about Afghanistan was its epic landscape, lush and fertile when we arrived in spring. The snow-capped mountains of the Hindu Kush, and the cascading layers of crumpled and velvety peaks that lay staggered beneath them, inspired an overwhelming reverence. The peaks played with light and shadow, creating a rolling spectacle from daybreak to dark, always with an ethereal luminosity. Vast valleys of bright green grass and crops stretched out like gently rolling oceans. The country wrapped us in a warm embrace as if it had been permanently imprinted with the memory of seeing us come into the world. Many things seemed strangely familiar—from the worn, but still kind, features of its people and the social mannerisms to the sweet smell of the spring air.

It was April of 2012, and my sisters and I had returned to Afghanistan for the first time since 1985, the year our parents had bundled us together and, under a cloud of uncertainty and blind hope, negotiated our way out of the country and into our future. We crossed the border on foot, from Pakistan into Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass, following in reverse the path taken years earlier, when the long and continuous chain of my ancestors’ connection to the soil of Afghanistan was first broken. We were pulled by an allure we were yet to understand—perhaps, simply, by a need to know more.

Durkhanai Ayubi
Parwana, the Ayubi family’s restaurant. Photo credit: SIA DUFF

We spent the first few days in Kabul, then made our way to Dari Noor—the “valley of light”—where my mother and her siblings had spent their summers growing up. There, my mother’s cousin welcomed us into his home as though we were his own children. Dari Noor is a breathtaking, self-sufficient valley, with clear brooks nestled between endless green hills and surrounded by fruit orchards, banana plantations, and wildflowers.

Our meals were made with ingredients from the valley. There was paneer paired with large, purple-tinged raisins; sweet and almost perfumed honey; sabzi, or wild spinach, cooked with native onions and chillies; chai, brewed using pure mountain water pumped from a well; and long breads made with local grains. We were extended the type of hospitality Afghanistan is famed for, which felt even more poignant given that it was unfolding during times of hardship when people had very little but still insisted upon giving their guests the best they had to offer.

If for us there was room to feel enthralled by the experience of reconnecting with our ancestral lands, there was also a deep awareness of the difficulties of life in a region that, for almost four decades, had been assaulted by attempts at control waged by various regimes. By the time we returned to Australia, we had connected more dots— about ourselves, our parents, our ancestors, the land where we had been born and the paradoxes that define it. We had affirmed a new resolve: if those inside Afghanistan were still making objects of beauty and preserving their heritage in creative ways while bombs exploded overhead, then an ocean away in Australia, we could also contribute to the story of our times in our own way, through creativity and food.

Durkhanai Ayubi
Preparing bolani, pan-fried flatbreads stuffed with garlic chives and potatoes, at Parwana, in Adelaide, Australia. Photo credit: ALICIA TAYLOR/COURTESY OF INTERLINK PUBLISHING

It was an echo of the same realisation that had led my family to open a restaurant, Parwana, in Adelaide in 2009. Parwana’s menu came from the recipes and rituals passed to my mother, Farida, by her foremothers and forefathers. There were mantu, steamed dumplings dressed with lamb mince and chana dal and layered with a tangy garlic-yoghurt dressing, and the crowd favourite, banjaan borani—melt-in-your-mouth eggplant simmered in a rich tomato sauce, perfectly balanced in acidity and sweetness. Each dish bore the marks of ancient cultural exchanges, melding native ingredients with those from the Mediterranean, India, China, and beyond.

Five years after opening Parwana, and two years after our first return to Afghanistan, my sisters and I opened a second business, Kutchi Deli Parwana. Our deli emerged from the notion that we could offer something that captured our experience as the children of migrants, who, while forever tethered to our history, had spent almost all of our lives in Australia.

The small lunchtime space also reflected the sights we had absorbed on our travels through Afghanistan. There we had seen bright pops of colour splashed through small food spots, decorated with a mix of fluorescent and incandescent lights, and tiled with geometric patterns. We had seen the street vendors offering piping-hot naans cooked over hot plates; parcels of vegetables, dipped in batter, fried, and served with herb chutneys poured on top; and deliciously tangy bowls of a vinegared chickpea dish called shor nakhot.

Durkhanai Ayubi
The Ayubi family enjoys a feast of mantu, pekowrah, and other dishes from the Parwana cookbook. Photo credit: ALICIA TAYLOR/COURTESY OF INTERLINK PUBLISHING

On that trip, we’d also gained insight into the ways that food was so closely intertwined with art and beauty in Afghan culture, and so we hand-painted the walls of our little shop with scenes from old Persian miniatures. And, importantly, we had learned more about how food is inseparable from a deep sense of generosity, invitation, gratitude, and honouring one another, with little space left for pretence.

These restaurants hold many layers of significance for us. They tell a story of the unexpected—as those who dine on Afghan food for the first time find themselves surprised by the familiarity of the dishes, hinting at a rich and interconnected history. They tell the story of my mother, raised by a father who encouraged her to pursue her love of cooking from a young age. And they tell the story of how we experience, through food, a universal desire to connect, irrespective of perceived differences— hinting at a future into which we can all move forward together. My family’s story is but one strand in the web of existence in which we are each apart. With deeper consciousness of the extent to which we are all bound together, we can create the untold stories of the tomorrows still to come.

(Recipe by Farida Ayubi with assistance from Fatema Ayubi)

In Afghanistan, falooda is sold in small, colourful ice-cream shops known as sheer yakh feroshees. This milky, rose-water-infused cold dessert comes in a tall glass, with layers of rose syrup, maghoot (a jelly dish), ice cream, milk, and nuts.

Durkhanai Ayubi
Falooda, derived from a Persian recipe, is a creamy parfait full of flavours and textures. Photo credit: ALICIA TAYLOR/COURTESY OF INTERLINK PUBLISHING

For The Maghoot

  • 15 drops yellow food colouring
  • 4 tbsp cornstarch

Bring 2 cups water and the yellow food colouring to a boil in a saucepan. Stir the cornstarch with 3 tablespoons of cold water to form a smooth paste, then mix in 2 tablespoons of the boiling water to make a slurry. Slowly add the tempered cornstarch to the boiling water, stirring continuously to prevent lumps. As soon as the mixture begins to boil again, pour it into a shallow heatproof dish. Refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours or until set. Cut the jelly into small cubes and set aside.

For The Rose Syrup

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp rose water
  • 20 drops pink food colouring

Add the sugar and 1 cup water to a small saucepan over high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a boil, and boil without stirring for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the syrup thickens and reaches 111°C on a candy thermometer. Stir in the rose water and pink food colouring to combine. Set aside to cool.

For The Sabja

  • 2 tbsp sabja (basil seeds)

Pace seeds in a bowl and pour 2 cups boiling water on top. Soak for about 15 minutes, or until the seeds are sticky and gelatinous. Set aside to cool.

To Assemble

  • 4½ cups milk
  • 6 scoops vanilla ice cream
  • Coarsely crushed pistachios and rose petals to garnish

You will need 6 tall glasses. Put 2½ tablespoons of the rose syrup into each glass. Add a heaping tablespoon of diced maghoot, followed by a heaping tablespoon of soaked basil seeds. Pour in cold milk to threequarters full, add a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and top with pistachios and rose petals. Serve immediately, with a straw and a spoon.

Durkhanai Ayubi

Excerpted from Parwana: Recipes and Stories from an Afghan Kitchen by Durkhanai Ayubi. Reproduced with the permission of Interlink Books, an imprint of Interlink Publishing, Northampton, Massachusetts, USA. 

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