26 March 2021
26 March 2021
“Food is never just about food,” says author Durkhanai Ayubi. There’s a hidden history in every dish, a map that unfolds with every mealtime and a story in every bite. Parwana, her family’s restaurant in Adelaide, vividly reflects this.
The fried ashak dumplings with garlic yoghurt, the fragrant Kabuli palaw topped with caramelised carrots, the celebratory roht sweet bread – they form a portrait of Afghanistan that goes far beyond one-dimensional headlines about the conflict that has ravaged the country for two decades.
“[The war is] just a thin sliver of who it is and what it is,” says Ayubi of her family’s homeland and how it’s portrayed in the media. “I think so much of our identities are trapped around ideas of domination, control and violence.” Parwana the restaurant – and the cookbook of the same name she co-authored with her mother Farida Ayubi – convey a richer picture.
“It was this chance to tell this much bigger, way more beautiful story about Afghanistan,” she says.
Leaf through an atlas, rewind a few centuries, scan Parwana’s menu and it’s clear that the Ayubis’ version of Afghanistan is far more compelling and resonant. It starts with the country’s location, which sits in “the heart” of the Silk Road. “It’s always been a significant place in terms of how culture has evolved”, Ayubi says of Afghanistan and its millennia-long history.
“It was part of the ancient Persian empire of Cyrus,” she says. Then came the rule of Alexander the Great. “For centuries, the official language of Afghanistan was Greek,” she says. The Mediterranean country also gave Afghanistan saffron – an ingredient that richly brightens palaw and other spiced rice dishes.
The nation’s cuisine is also shaped by its borders: the earthy, fiery spices, particularly in the cuisine’s dahl, travelled from India, from its south. “The syrupy desserts, that nutty influence in our food” can be traced to neighbouring Middle Eastern countries. Aush (hand-rolled noodles), mantu dumplings and Afghanistan’s rice dishes originated from China, she explains.
“Rice forms the centrepiece of Afghan cuisine,” says Ayubi, who grew up with 20-kilogram sacks of rice around the house. “Everything else forms itself around the rice.” These grains are the star of sauce-rich dishes, spiced palaws – even dumplings and salads shine when served alongside rice.
“The thing about rice is, it’s not always this side note that’s made just for carbs and energy. It is this artistic, five-step process that brings out the best in the rice,” she says. Boil it for a Kabuli or Narenji palaw, and you’ll need to monitor each grain until it doubles in size. “By the time you’ve finished spicing and putting caramelised onions through it and baking it, it has to extend in length again.” The result is a meticulously soft, fluffy rice – long, lean and clump-free. When served with meat, dried fruit and nuts, the rice acts as a visually striking centrepiece of the table.
At Parwana, rice is “central” to the menu. “It is not often that a dish as common as rice will knock me off my dinner chair,” wrote Besha Rodell in her rave review for The New York Times. The restaurant critic described the toasty, fragrant grains as the Ayubi matriarch’s “greatest gift to the universe”.
But Parwana, which opened in 2009, was a success before this glowing assessment. Bookings had long been in high demand (Rodell begins her article by noting how hard it is to get a table on at 6pm on a Tuesday) and the restaurant’s cookbook, written by Ayubi with recipes from her mother, is about to be published in Germany, The Netherlands, the UK and US.
Parwana is more than a neighbourhood eatery: it’s an act of cultural preservation for the family who fled Afghanistan in the 1980s. “Over half of its population became exiled as refugees”, says Ayubi. It was a time of political disappearances and mass graves; her mother remembers gunshots in the neighbourhood and her father, who was blacklisted by corrupt officials, had to escape along the mountainous Khyber Pass, forged papers in hand.
“People just don’t know how to cook this food anymore, because of what happened to Afghanistan,” her mum would say. So the family opened Parwana, to keep the recipes alive.
“The way this culture and cuisine works, it’s not like you’d go to a cooking school and learn – it’s all just passed down generationally into your family,” says Ayubi. “I learnt from my mum how to cook the Afghan rice in the Afghan way.” She repeats the ritual every day at their sister eatery, Kutchi Deli Parwana – and it remains special to her.
“The rice captures so much of the story of Afghanistan,” she says, with joy. “And I get to cook it in Adelaide every day, for people to enjoy with their lunch.”
Our Story on a Plate is a series unpacking the cultural influences behind some of Australia’s most popular restaurants and profiling the people who are sharing their stories through the medium of food. Try Parwana’s recipe for roht, an Afghani sweet bread traditionally made for birthdays and engagement parties, below:
Roht (Serves 6-8)
Roht (Serves 6-8)
170 ml (⅔ cup) lukewarm milk
2 large eggs
125 ml (½ cup) sunflower oil
300 g (2 cups) self-raising flour
300 g (2 cups) wholemeal (whole-wheat) plain flour
330 g (1½ cups) caster (superfine) sugar
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
2 tablespoons milk powder
1 teaspoon white poppy seeds
1 teaspoon black poppy seeds
Whisk together the milk, eggs and oil in a bowl. Place the remaining ingredients, except the poppy seeds, in a separate bowl with ¼ teaspoon salt and whisk to combine.
In the centre of the dry ingredients, create a well with your hand and gradually add the wet ingredients to the well, mixing by hand to combine until a soft, sticky dough forms.
Lightly dust the workbench with flour and turn out the dough onto the bench. Lightly and quickly knead the dough for 2 minutes, or until soft and elastic. Place it in a clean bowl, cover with a tea towel and set aside for 10 minutes to rest. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F) and line two baking trays with non-stick baking paper.
Once the dough is rested, divide it in two and use your hands to spread and flatten each portion on each tray into a rough circle about 20 cm (8 in) in diameter with an even thickness. Sprinkle the poppy seeds on top, then place the trays in the oven and bake the roht for 25–30 minutes, or until golden brown.
Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before cutting into wedges to serve. Roht will keep for 2–3 days stored in an airtight container.
Parwana: Recipes and stories from an Afghan kitchen by Durkhanai Ayubi, with recipes by Farida Ayubi, is published by Murdoch Books, RRP $45.
By Lee Tran