Yesterday’s topic was an ‘Afghan war-themed’ dinner attended by British military and diplomats in India in 1880. The dishes themselves, as we saw, were indisputably British nineteenth century style, with the names of the dishes being the only concession to the conflict in question.
Less than a decade earlier, Henry Walter Bellew described a quite different meal taken in Afghanistan. Bellew was a surgeon in the Bengal Staff Corps during the British Raj, and had previously written of his experiences in Afghanistan in 1857-8. In 1871-2 he again travelled there, and on his return he published From the Indus to the Tigris: A Narrative of a Journey through the Countries of Balochistan, Afghanistan, Khorassan and Iran, in 1872.
In his introduction, Bellew has some rather prophetic words to say on the relevance of Afhanistan to Europe:
But as it is seldom than Europeans have an opportunity of visiting much of the country embraced within the limits of the journey of this mission, I have thought that a popular account of our experiences would not be unacceptable to the British public; particularly since the region covered by our travels, apart from its own special claims upon our interest, is, I believe, destined ere very long to attract the most serious attention of European politicians and statesmen.
In Chapter V he discusses a stay in Kandahar, during which he and his colleagues were entertained in very fine style:
We halted four days at Kandahar to recruit our cattle, and replace the broken-down ones by new purchases. Our entertainment all this time was most hospitable, and was really more than we could conveniently endure. The apartments were luxuriously furnished with Persian carpets, Herat felts, and Kashmir embroideries. Several coloured glass globes were suspended from the ceiling, and every niche that was not already occupied by an American clock - and there were some ten or twelve such -was ornamented with a glass lamp. The clocks were all of the same pattern, and brightly gilded all over, and, together with the globes and lamps, appeared to form
part of an investment ventured in this yet barbarous region by some enterprising merchant with a partiality for "Yankee notions."
We had hardly been left alone in our palatial quarters when a succession of huge trays of all sorts of sweetmeats began to arrive. Each was borne in by two servants, one supporting each end, and deposited one after the other on the floor. The array was quite alarming, for I knew they would go to our servants for disposal, and was certain they would exceed the bounds of prudence and
moderation ; a surmise in which I was not far wrong, for nearly all of them had to undergo a physicking before we set out on our onward journey. One of the trays in particular attracted our attention, on account of the variety of zoological forms its surface was crowded with. We dubbed it " Noah's Ark," and kept it till our departure, partly from a suspicion that the different species of animals might not all be good for the food of man, and partly as an amusing specimen of the artistic skill of the confectioners of Kandahar. Much cannot be said for their proficiency in the art of moulding. Their figures generally left a good deal for the imagination to supplement before their identity could be satisfactorily brought home to the mind; but some, with even the most liberal allowance of fancy, were altogether beyond recognition ….
After these encouraging signs of a peaceable division of the spoils, we were glad to see the trays removed, fortheir size and number incommoded our movements. On their removal, an excellent zujáfat or cooked dinner, was served up Afghan fashion, and with the profusion of Afghan hospitality. The principal dish, as a matter of course, was the puláo — a whole sheep stuffed with a rich and savoury store of pistacio and almond kernels, with raisins, dried apricots, and preserved plums, &c., and concealed under a tumulus of rice mixed with pomegranate seeds, caraways, cardamums, and other aids to digestion, and reeking with appetising perfumes. Around it were placed, in crowded confusion, a most substantial array of comestibles, the variety and excellence of which were rather puzzling to inquiring foreigners with only limited powers of digestion. There was the yakhni, the mattanjan, and the corma, the kabáb, the cuímá, and the cúrút, with the phirín, and falúda, and the nucl by way of dessert, together with sherbets of sorts, sweet preserves and sour preserves, and bread in the forms of the nán, paráta, bákir-kháni, and tuakí. Our host, the Saggid, with an inviting bismillah ("In the name of God,"used as an invitation to commence any act), stretched forth his hand against the puláo, and we followed suit, but without making the smallest impression on the savoury heap before us. With this as a secure foundation, we dipped from dish to dish to make acquaintance with their contents. Each had particular merits of its own, but as only an Afghan palate can distinguish them, of course they were not appreciated by us. The Saggid, who had seen a good deal of the English in India, and was familiar with our mode of living, was careful to point out the dishes most resembling our own; but alas! for the prejudice of human nature, I could trace no points of similarity, and would have preferred a good mutton-chop and some mealy potatoes to all the rich chef d'œuvres of the Afghan culinary science that loaded the table. As a nation the Afghans are gross feeders. They eat largely and consume astonishing quantities of fatty matter. The merit of any particular dish with them depends more upon the quantity and quality of the melted butter or fat in which it swims than on the tenderness or flavour of the flesh, and the more rancid the fatty matter is, the more highly is it esteemed. This is particularly the case amongst the peasantry and the nomads, amongst whom it is an ordinary occurrence to dispose of the tail of a dumba sheep between three or four mouths at a single meal. The tail of this variety of sheep is a mass of pure fat, and weighs from six to eighteen pounds. The hardy out-door life they lead requires that they should have a certain amount of carbonaceous pabulum in their food; and as by their religion they are debarred from the use of fermented liquors, the deficiency is very probably supplied by the abundant use of fat and butter. At all events, they lay great stress on a liberal supply of roghan, or grease, in all their food, and to its plentiful use, I believe, is to be attributed their physical superiority, combined, of course, with the influences of climate, which, taken alone, are not sufficient to account for their large limbs and robust frames.
As the recipe for the day I give you an English interpretation of puláo from the chapter on Oriental Cookery from A New System of Domestic Cookery (1808) by Maria Rundell.
Polao or Pillaw.
Wash a pound of rice, and boil it in a quart of white broth; when about a quarter of the grains remain hard, strain it. Rub smooth in a mortar half an ounce of coriander-seed, three onions, six peppercorns and four cloves; six ounces of salt butter in a saucepan on the fire; add the coriander-seed, spices, &c, with two ounces of curds; then put in a whole fowl, or two chickens, a rabbit, or half a dozen quails; fry of a nice brown, sprinkling water, if necessary, to keep the meat from burning, and keep it on the fire until the meat is tender; then add the rice; stir the whole gently so as not to break the grains, and place the pan near the fire to allow the rice to swell. In dishing up, surround the fowl with the rice. The broth in which the rice has been boiled may be used to moisten this polao: a vegetable curry is a good accompaniment.
P.S. I have previously given another version of pillau here.