Qabili Palau, the national dish of Afghanistan

There were times when guests were coming and going at such a pace it was hard to remember names and faces. During one of these times, one young woman stood out. Zarmina was from Afghanistan and was brought to the United States for surgeries to correct a rare condition in her left hand called gigantism. The concern was that Zarmina might not be able to marry.

"Look at us in all our humanity and need for each other. I often wonder if the person just to the right of center was inspired by Zarmina. This piece from Mom's collection is one of my personal favorites."

Cloaked in a full-length jet black burqa and surrounded by family, she was tall, she was silent and she was magical. As soon as they arrived I could tell that this family was from a world unknown to us. They communicated with a tiny bow or slight nod of the head. Zarmina’s hands were completely covered, she did not show her face or her hair and she rarely spoke. Her communication was mostly non-verbal but still somehow very clear. Sometimes a family member would speak for her. And they were never far. I was too young and too small to interact so I decided it was best to observe and learn.
Afghan music pulsed and repeated in sad desire as we played the old record over and over. It would invite you closer and grab your spirit. I remember swaying as if in a trance and allowing the ancient instruments and passionate voices feed my soul and fill me with hope. This was a culture of respect and dignity. And dignity was reached through careful and meticulous adherence to tradition. Zarmina’s parents clearly loved her. They clearly worried for her.
We sprinkled citrus, nuts and fruits into rice, meat, pastries and puddings. We cooked chicken and lamb in dark complex slurries of cardamom, cinnamon and cumin, just like the desirous sounds of Afghan music. And we tasted Afghan hope in a splash of orange or freshly chopped mint, dill or cilantro.
"Quabili Palau (chicken with rice pilaf) is the national dish of Afghanistan."
In time, Zarmina and her entourage began to relax and we enjoyed many meals full of laughter, music and smiles. When she spoke, her voice was small but sweet like a tiny caramel candy to savor on your tongue. Once, Zarmina wore a headscarf which began to slide back on her face and head, revealing creamy brown skin, piercing brown eyes and thick black hair. And I thought, how could this beauty ever have any trouble finding a husband? She showed us the progress on her hand and I breathed a silent prayer for her each time. I wanted her doctors to succeed. I wanted Zarmina to find a husband.
The food and culture of Afghanistan is ancient and unique. If you're interested in learning more, check out this beautiful blog with even more Afghan recipes Afghan women take great care to make this dish in the traditional method. There are many steps involved to achieve just the right textures. My hope here is to do this dish justice while simplifying a very complicated recipe. The aromas, textures and layers of flavor are simply enchanting. Let them fill your home and your spirit too.

Qabili Palau (Chicken with Rice Pilaf)

the national dish of Afghanistan
serves 8 hungry friends
For the chicken and onion:
3 ½ lbs chicken, I used a combination of dark and light boneless & skinless chicken but traditionally it is made with bone-in chicken legs and thighs
2 big ol' onions, chopped
½ cup olive oil
2 cups chicken broth
2 TBSP ground cumin
1 ½ tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp black pepper
2 tsp orange zest (set aside for garnish)
For the carrot mixture:
4 large carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1 cup water
1 cup raisins
½ cup slivered almonds
3 TBSP sugar
1 TBSP olive oil
For the rice:
2 cups basmati rice
3 cups water
1 tsp salt
  • Preheat oven to 500 degrees F.
  • Rinse your rice under cold water until the water runs clear. Set aside.

"Rinsing rice helps to reduce some of the starchiness and removes any unwanted bits."

  • In a dutch oven on medium low, saute onions in oil until translucent. This takes about 7 to 10 minutes.
  • Push the onions aside and add your chicken to the pan. Sprinkle with salt. Increase heat to medium high and sear the chicken on both sides. This takes about 4 to 5 minutes on each side. It’s ok if the onions brown and begin to melt.
  • Add half the chicken broth, and scrape bits off of the pan. When the broth has evaporated, add the other half and bring to a simmer.

  • In the meantime, bring the carrots and a cup of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Reduce heat and simmer for about 3 to 4 minutes, just until the carrots are al dente. You don’t want to overcook them. Drain off excess liquid.
  • To the same saucepan, add 2 tablespoons of oil, sugar, raisins and slivered almonds in with the carrots. Stir quickly and bring to a simmer.
  • Remove the chicken pieces from the broth and set aside on a plate. Stir the cumin, cardamom and black pepper into the onion mixture. Continue to cook on low heat for a few minutes.

  • To cook the rice, bring the water and salt to a boil. Add the rice to the water and boil until just al dente, about 3 to 4 minutes. Check the rice, it should still be a little toothsome in the center. You don’t want to overcook the rice. Strain off excess liquid through a colander.
  • Add the rice to the dutch oven with the onions. Mix thoroughly. Arrange the chicken pieces on top of the rice. Pour the carrot mixture on top of the chicken. You now have three layers.
  • Put a tight fitting lid on the dutch oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes.
  • Garnish with orange zest and serve with vegetables or a salad. I sauteed some purple cabbage (photo below) to go alongside.


1 comment

  • Martha Pritchard Spear

    This brings back happy memories! Love your work, Liza.

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