Ryle Smith said “some of the poorest countries in the world come up with the most amazing dishes” and for Afghanistan that is absolutely true. For two millennia, Afghanistan had been a country playing host to travellers and traders from across the Globe, hence, serving as a crossroad to a rich culture that ushered in varied cuisines which has surprisingly survived decades of wars and civil- wars and instability in the country. This mountainous region may seem harsh and unwelcoming but the reality is utterly opposite as Afghans are perhaps the most hospitable people in the world and that is why they pay special heed to their cuisine. Even with what it has been through, the innovation of Afghan cuisine is absolutely mind boggling. You would wonder, how a country so poor in resources would be so rich in flavours. The key thing I have always admired about Afghan food is its simplicity to spices and flavour; it seems the more simpler the ingredient the more luscious the flavour; which can be hardly achieved in any other cuisine in all honesty. The food is literally an east and west blend as the cuisine serves a balanced flavour of spice. With traveller and traders using routes through this rugged mountainous region like Marco Polo travelling to China and the British en-route to India and sharing borders with China, Persia, Pakistan, India, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the cuisine took influences to its food. From Persia came the influence of herbs which contributed mint, coriander and the use of vegetables; from India came the spices in particular saffron and all-spice and the dumpling and noodles of the Afghan cuisine takes its influences from Mongolia.
My reason for writing all the above is because not many are aware of how rich in culture and food this beautiful country really is apart from it being war-pressed. Afghans take great pains and go out of their way to make sure their guests are well fed with high standards of ingredients, flavour and taste. You may ask, how do I know? Well, I am an Afghan decent and the hospitable nature and love of flavour and vivid texture in my food is inherent. I make sure my guests at my dinner table are introduced to a whole new discovery of taste buds their palates have never sensed before.
Now coming to the recipe, first thing, this isn’t an all authentic recipe I will be honest but it’s inspired from the Afghan flavours. Every cuisine in the world has key ingredients of its own that serve as the fundamentals for innovation of any other recipe in that particulat cuisine. The key ingredients of Afghan cuisine are very much similar to Indian and Pakistani cuisine i.e. Roasted gram flour, coriander powder, turmeric, cardamom pods, black pepper, rose water and the most essential of all Ghee (clarified butter). Yes! That is true folks, we love our Ghee and trust me when I say, the flavours infuse more happily with ghee as compared to oil. Ghee or clarified butter is absolute must in Afghan food. It is as if Ghee is what makes flavours of individual spices come alive, extract maximum flavour and converge harmoniously. Obviously you can opt for Oil but just out of curiosity, if you are not a Ghee fan because you are counting calories, try it once to believe it. You can always shed those extra calories the next day. However, What differentiates the Afghan food from Indo-Pak food is their use of nuts and dried fruit; be it rice or curry or yogurt or naan or salads, the use of nuts and dried fruit is frequent, which is the signature style of Afghan food. This particular recipe, I personally haven’t used any nuts as my family is not a very nutty fan, but it can be garnished with roasted flake almonds or pine-nuts to counter the subtle tangy flavour of the dish.
This recipe is very quick to prepare. Half hour and you are done. The shallow frying of the kebabs is what gives this dish it’s “Umph” flavour. The only thing I did differently is I infused a little Indian flavour to it by adding Curry leaves to the “tadka” at the end. “Tadka” is tempering of spices in hot oil to infuse a punch of flavour to the gravy or curry. The burst of flavour from those Curry leaves was OH SO! Amazing!
Okay, moving forward, this dish has three stages. One, the prep and fry of the kebabs; second, the prep of the gravy and third, the coal smoked flavouring at the final stage. Now, before I talk about the kebabs, let’s talk about that luscious amber gravy. In Asian cuisine the base of any gravy starts of by using either finely chopped or puréed white or brown onion, to which tomatoes or puréed tomatoes are added to make a thick and pulpy Curry. With this dish however, there is no need to use any sorts of onion and I personally think, the absence of onion in the gravy is what makes it really light. It’s not too heavy on your palate as the gravy of Chicken Korma and that’s what I love about it. It differentiates itself from the clichè Asian Currys. Apart from that it carries simple ingredients with a burst of flavour. I however, made a little red onion salad as an accompaniment which really compliments the dish.
Talking about the kebabs, they are extremely simple to assemble, but lets talk about roasting the Gram Flour first. Just take 4 tbsp of Gram Flour and dry roast it on a fry pan until it becomes light brown and you start smelling its aroma coming through or if you can find roasted Gram Flour from a supermarket, simply use that. This is what will bind the mince together.
The mince is mixed with roasted Gram Flour, green chillies, a pinch of ginger and white onion and blended together in a blender. Assembled into kebabs and shallow fried. It’s as simple as that. Also, the oil or Ghee used for frying the kebabs is the same that is used for “tadka” or tempering at the end; and I must say it makes a huge difference.
The Seekh kebabs I made were of chicken meat but anyone willing to make it from any other meat is welcome to do so. I personally prefer chicken for this.
Okay! before I move onto the recipe, what I want to highlight, is the untraditional tadka I give to this dish. Usually with tadka as I have explained above is frying spice in oil to extract full flavour of certain spices to pack a punch to the Curry. The spices release essential oils and hence, remarkably change the aroma and taste of any dish it’s added to. Usually the spices used is cumin seeds, red chillies, garlic, Curry leaves and mustard seeds to name a few. The tadka of this dish includes cumin seeds, curry leaves and I added jalapeño chilli. Trust me when I say to all those spice lovers out there, you will not regret it and to all who are mild when it comes down to spices, leave the chilli out of your tadka and it will still taste as delectable. And lastly, that smoked coal flavour at the end just takes this dish to a whole other level.
So, I couldn’t take a picture of the tadka but the following image is what tempering looks like,
In all honesty, from time to time I love to take a break from the traditional Indo-Pak dishes to these lighter yet earthy flavours of the Afghan cuisine and for my dinner parties, this is a dish that requires minimum effort and time and yet presents itself in all its royalty.
This is served with Naan Bread or can be served with rice. Me, personally, don’t mind having it with rice and yogurt as its accompaniments. The final outcome thus;
This will serve 2-3 people
– Seekh Kebabs –
1/2 kg mince (chicken)
4 tblsp Roasted Gram Flour
1 tsp red chilli powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp coriander powder
2 green chillies
1 small white onion
1/2 tsp grated ginger
1/2 bunch fresh coriander leaves
2 tbsp Ghee or Butter
– Gravy –
4-5 tomatoes or 3/4 can of chopped tomatoes
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp red chilli powder
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp cumin powder
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp all-spice (Garam Masala)
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 tbsp tomatoe paste
– Tadka (tempering)
6-7 Curry leaves
1 tsp cumin
2 jalapeño green chilli (optional)
– Garnish –
- In your food processor, blitz the chicken mince once. Add the onion and green chillies and blitz it all together again. Transfer to a bowl, add roasted gram flour, coriander powder, red chilli powder, ginger and coriander leaves. Mix well. Grease your palms with oil and shape the mince into Seekh kebabs.
- Heat 2 tbsp of Ghee or if you are using butter, with 2 tbsp of Butter add 1 tblsp of oil. Fry the kebabs, only to give them colour. It’s not necessary that they are cooked fully at this stage as they will cook in steam in the gravy later.
- Once fried, place them to one side.
- Leaving about 1 tbsp of oil in the pot, take the rest of the oil out in a separate bowl. This will be used in the Tadka later.
- Add the tomatoes to the pot. If I am using tinned chopped tomatoes, I tend to blend them in the blender to make a smooth lump free gravy, before I add it to the pot. Add the spices; salt, red chilli, turmeric, coriander, cumin powders, all spice, black pepper and tomato paste.
- Cook this for 5-8 minutes until the tomatoes are tender and juicy. Add a little water and add the nutmeg at this stage. Add the kebabs to the gravy.
- Cover and cook on low flame for 15-20 minutes.
- Add the fenugreek leaves at this stage and cover. Turn off the flame.
- Heat the same oil the kebabs were fried in, in a pan. Add the jalapeño green chilli, diced in circles, to the oil and fry until they become light brownish green. Add the cumin seeds and curry leaves and fry for 30 seconds.
- Pour this Tadka on top of the gravy carefully and cover the pot.
- Heat a small piece of coal.
- Take foil paper and place it on the gravy in the centre. Place the hot coal on top and pour a little oil over it to smoke it.
- Cover the pot and let the smoke spread throughout inside the pot. Leave it for 5 minutes. Discard the coal after and garnish with coriander and fenugreek leaves.
Serve with rice or naan with yogurt and a red onion salad.
Happy eating 🤗