A Shepherd, a Cook, a Palace Chef: Making Food With Less Under the Taliban

The New York Times

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.

March 31, 2023

In a time of famine and money shortages, meals are a rallying point — and a topic of worry — during a season of change in Afghanistan.

The last lunch for the last president of Afghanistan was vegetable fritters, salad and steamed broccoli.

Nasrullah, the head chef at the presidential palace in Kabul, fried the fritters and steamed the vegetable himself. He tasted it all to make sure it was good — it was, although steamed broccoli has a limited range of gastronomic possibility — and to prove that no poison had infiltrated President Ashraf Ghani’s food.

The precaution was unnecessary. The broccoli and other lunchbox dishes went uneaten that day, Aug. 15, 2021, as the Afghan capital suddenly fell and the Taliban walked in. Mr. Ghani had fled Afghanistan already.

Part of an ethnic group unfavored by the Taliban, Mr. Nasrullah was demoted to vegetable scrubber at the palace. His skills coaxing sweetness out of onions and carrots sautéed in sesame oil, of building layers of flavor with raisins and a variety of spices for the favorite lamb and rice dish of another Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, are wasted these days. His new bosses, he said, come from the countryside. They prefer their meat unadorned.

The shifting tastes at the presidential palace are just one example of how Afghanistan has changed since the Taliban returned to power after more than two decades of insurgency. From once-bustling eateries in Kabul to the frozen mountains shadowing the capital, a nation is having to learn how to survive on less.

Gone are the formal banquets of saffron-stained, rose-scented languor — and the protein-bar and light-beer cravings of the American contractors who roamed the secure confines of Kabul’s Green Zone diplomatic enclave.

President Ashraf Ghani standing and speaking into a microphone at the head of a long, lavishly set table lined with people in different kinds of attire.
President Ashraf Ghani dining with lawmakers in 2017. Nasrullah was his head chef.Credit…Afghan Presidency

Famine and the hardship it brings have reasserted themselves, too, as a bone-chilling winter has been made more desperate by a dearth of international aid.

About 100 miles from Kabul, along a road that runs through the snowy folds of the Hindu Kush mountains, apricot and peach trees were frosted in ice during a recent visit by Times journalists. So were the beards of shepherds, who led dwindling flocks.

In the blue twilight, after nearly a week in the hills and snows, Jomagul brought his flock to a village for refuge. He recited a shepherd’s elegy: He started with 45 sheep; 30 remain. Three died the night before. One carcass lay near the road, ringed by traps for the foxes that, like the frost, steal animals from the herd.

Often the sheep are slaughtered, salted and dried for laandi, a kind of jerky that sustains Afghans through the cold. Laandi is favored at the palace with the new crop of Afghan officials. But with the thinning of sheep herds, there is less laandi for the rest of the population. In just two weeks in January, 260,000 head of livestock died, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock.

Mr. Jomagul, the shepherd, described how he liked to eat laandi in a soup thick with chickpeas, alliums, tomatoes and root vegetables, enlivened by ground ginger, turmeric and coriander. A jolt of dried unripe grapes and two fistfuls — exactly two — of cilantro, and the soup is done, he said.

“It makes you warm from the inside,” Mr. Jomagul said. “You can face the winter.”

This past drying season, when the temperature began to plunge, the shepherd could not prepare laandi for himself and his family. There were no animals to spare.

In Kabul, even middle-class families have cut back on meat. Salaries are down. The government has prevented most women from working.

The old hospitality remains, if subdued by circumstances. Traditionally, hosts serve visitors bowls of dried fruits and nuts: floral-scented green raisins, apricots twisted into sugary helixes, pistachios fat like rosebuds about to bloom. Sometimes there is tea tinted gold by strands of saffron.

Mr. Nasrullah, the palace chef, still puts out offerings for guests. His home, he said, was not grand, not like the ones celebrity chefs in the West inhabited, with gleaming tools and kitchens bathed in light. In the weak glow of a bulb wired to a jug of fuel, during one of many power cuts, Mr. Nasrullah laid out a plate of bread and a pot of cardamom tea on the carpet. He apologized for the limited spread. Everyone wore their winter coats inside.

“In other countries,” he said, “someone who worked at the palace as a chef would have a beautiful life.”

His father and uncle were the first to work at the palace, part of the assembly line of feast-making for Mohammad Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, who was ousted in a coup in 1973. Mr. Nasrullah began his apprenticeship at 15 or 16 years old, scrubbing vegetables and washing dishes.

After American-led forces drove the Taliban from power in 2001 with the help of Tajik and other fighters, Mr. Nasrullah returned to Kabul. He worked for Mr. Karzai, the first U.S.-backed president and a devotee of royal Afghan cuisine. When President George W. Bush dined at the palace, he complimented Mr. Nasrullah’s kabuli pulao, the famed national rice and lamb dish, Mr. Karzai told his chef.

“President Karzai told me, ‘Even if I want you to prepare a banquet for 100 guests at 11 o’clock at night, you will do it successfully,’” Mr. Nasrullah said.

“Yes, I could do it,” he added.

During Mr. Ghani’s presidency, Mr. Nasrullah was promoted to head chef. But Mr. Ghani, who had part of his stomach removed because of cancer, required smaller meals delivered more often. The grand banquets became rarer, and then disappeared after the summer of 2021.

But he still recounts the recipe for his kabuli pulao, made in the Uzbek style with sesame oil, gesturing like a conductor. His hands mimic the slicing and stirring, the laying of cloth to steam the long grains of rice with warming spices — cardamom, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper — and onions softened to the hue of the skin of a pear.

In his retelling of the recipe, Mr. Nasrullah might have withheld an ingredient or two. That was a chef’s prerogative.

The recipe for pulao is slightly different — though still done in the Uzbek style — at one popular restaurant in Kabul. On a recent day, hungry men hunched at low tables, waiting for their food. Upstairs, the seating accommodated women. A bukhari stove offered a bit of smoky warmth. Outside, street children kicked dirty snow.

Amanullah, the restaurant’s pulao master and the son of a man who spent his life cooking only rice and mutton, lifted a conical lid from a vast pot set into a stove. Perfumed steam rose from the rice. In an adjoining, windowless room, two men in fuzzy caps sat cross-legged, threading meat and fat on skewers.

The family that runs the restaurant — the Andkhoi Tordi Pulao Restaurant — is ethnically Turkmen, not Uzbek, but the pulao is practically the same, they said. (Many Turkmen fled repression in the Soviet Union and settled in Afghanistan, as did many Uzbeks.) Sesame oil pressed in their home province of Jowzjan in northwestern Afghanistan arrives every couple of days by bus, a 15-hour journey. Each day, the restaurant goes through almost 90 pounds of rice, more than 20 pounds of carrots and 15 pounds each of raisins and onions.

Mr. Amanullah has cooked in Kabul for 16 years. He is illiterate, he said, “but I know the flavors in my mind.”

The restaurant’s business is down by about 40 percent because most people don’t have enough income for dining out. Mr. Amanullah himself hadn’t eaten meat at home for 20 days, he said. Many restaurants in Kabul have closed. In public places, the authorities have indicated that music is no longer welcome, and men and women are generally disallowed from dining together.

Still, the restaurant survives. There are enough customers who pine for the pulao.

“People need to eat,” Mr. Amanullah said.

Kiana Hayeri and Zabihullah Padshah contributed reporting.

Hannah Beech is the senior correspondent for Asia based in Bangkok. She was previously the Southeast Asia bureau chief. 

A Shepherd, a Cook, a Palace Chef: Making Food With Less Under the Taliban