More Cow’s Head: Eating Local In Afghanistan

“Chaay?” Tea?

“Balay lotfaan.” Yes, please.

Yet another glass of tea was being served. Tea is the social lubricant of Afghanistan, the thing that brings people together, fuels meetings and provides for an afternoon excuse for a break.

There are no pints of beer or glasses of wine or whiskey gingers, but in a dry country, there’s always tea. That’s the thing about food and drink, we can be anywhere in the world and they bring us together. Eating is one of the things that we all share, no matter who we are or where we are from.

Twenty-four hours into Afghanistan and I was quickly instructed on the several varieties of kebab, the chicken an orange color from a saffron marinade and the lamb version named “Sheppard’s Kebab.” Our fixer made sure I noted this all in my notebook. “We will do a Dari test tomorrow to see if you remember.” You don’t want to upset the fixer who is in charge of ordering your food at lunchtime, so I made sure to master the appropriate food vocabulary.

Food is not only a connector; it’s also a great lens for comparison. What people buy, how they make it, how they serve it.

At home, in my native Pacific Northwest, we’re very concerned with where our food comes from. I am reminded of the “Is it Local?” “Portlandia” episode where the couple goes out to eat and inquires about the chicken on the menu and ends up visiting the farm that it’s from. It doesn’t matter how conscious we are about the origin of our food, in the United States we live in a processed and packaged society, and even the artisan butcher has nice labels and butcher paper to wrap his cuts in. We rarely really see where our food comes from and how it got to a servable state. In Afghanistan, however, it’s hard to miss.

Walk past any butcher shop and bloody carcasses hang in the doorway, the animal heads lined up on the ground below. A cow’s head here and goat’s head there. Sometimes you’ll even see bloody skins, freshly removed from the carcass. I got some weird pleasure every time I saw the aforementioned scene, my eyes on high alert for a butcher shop during every taxi ride. There was beauty in the rawness of it all; the fact that it was impossible to not know how your grilled kebab made it from living animal to your lunch plate. No discounted containers saran wrapped Styrofoam packages in this country.

Reminders of just what you are eating are everywhere. It’s impossible to avoid. The adorable sheep being hugged by the little boy on the street is destined for sacrifice a few hours later. That chicken that walks up to you in a restaurant garden is most likely tomorrow’s lunch.

After a day spent at Afghan national hero Ahmed Shah Massod’s tomb in Panjshir Valley, we found ourselves sitting around an outdoor table at a restaurant on the banks of the Panjshir River. The standard meal of Kabuli rice, rounds of naan bread and kebabs was served; Afghan food was once described to me as “meat, oil and bread,” which is a very true statement. We ate with our hands, ripping off pieces of naan to soak up the grease leftover from the kebab on our plates, the sounds of the river our background music.

It was dusk as we left the restaurant. Upon exiting, we passed a group of men sitting on the ground by the entryway, busy prepping what appeared to be the following day’s meat platter. Slabs of raw meat were strewn about on a plastic groundsheet. My initial reaction included some eyebrow raising and the men immediately began to laugh.

“Aks mekonum?” Can I take a photo?

“Balay balay!” Yes yes.

The Meat Crew. A photo that for many may be hard to stomach, but also a reminder of the fact that in most parts of the world, knowing where your food comes from and how it’s prepared isn’t just fodder for another “Portlandia” episode.

At the end of October, Anna Brones spent two weeks in Afghanistan with nonprofit Mountain2Mountain working to produce several Streets of Afghanistan public photo exhibits. This series chronicles the work on that trip and what it’s like to travel in Afghanistan. Follow along here.

[Photo Credits: Anna Brones]