Afghanistan is a landlocked, mountainous country situated at the crossroads of four major cultural areas: the Middle East, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, and the Far East. It is bordered by Iran in the west, Pakistan in the south and east, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan in the north, and China in the far northeast. Afghanistan was also a major crossroad on the ancient Silk Road that linked East and West and played a vital role in the exchange of ideas, religions, foods, and plants.
Afghanistan has had a turbulent history, which continues to the present day. Because of its geographic position Afghanistan has been invaded many times by armies from different places, each bringing its own influences on the culture. After a brief period of relative stability under King Zahir Shah, since the late 1970s Afghanistan has suffered continuous conflict and war. The Russians invaded in 1980. After they left, the 1990s saw a brutal civil war and the rise of the Taliban. In 2001 the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban, but the war against them continues.
Afghanistan, which became an Islamic Republic in 2001, has an estimated population of between 28 and 33 million. The population is made up of a number of ethnic groups, the main ones being Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Aimak, Turkmen, and Baloch. While the majority (99%) of Afghans are Muslims, there are also small pockets of Hindus and Sikhs, and there used to be a small community of Jews. Afghanistan has been a melting pot for a large number of cultures and traditions over Afghanistan the centuries, and the cuisine reflects its internal diversity and the tastes and flavors of its neighbors.
Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, and many years of war and political instability have taken their toll, leaving the country in ruins and dependent on foreign aid. It is a land of contrasts, with vast areas of scorching, parched deserts; high, cold, inaccessible mountain regions; and extensive green valleys and plains. Generally the summers are hot and dry, and the winters are cold with heavy snowfalls, especially in the mountains. It is from the snow-capped mountains that water is available for irrigation. The plains and valleys are very fertile as long as there is water. With the diversity of its terrain and climate Afghanistan can produce a wide variety of foodstuffs. Agriculture is the main source of income. Cereals such as wheat, corn, and barley are the chief staple crops. They are ground into flour and made into different kinds of breads and noodle-type dishes. A small amount of rice, another staple, is grown on the terraces of the Hindu Kush in the north and in the Jalalabad area in the southeast, although much has to be imported.
Vegetables, fruits, and nuts are cultivated extensively, and many are exported. Afghanistan is famous for its numerous varieties of grapes, from which green and red raisins are produced, and for its melons and watermelons. Other fruits include pomegranates, plums, mulberries, quinces, cherries, apricots, nectarines, apples, and pears. Bananas, lemons, and oranges grow in the subtropical region of Jalalabad. Vegetables include onions, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, gandana (a kind of allium similar to Chinese chives), spring onions (scallions), green beans, okra, cabbage, cauliflower, radishes, and numerous kinds of pumpkins, squashes, gourds, and zucchini. Nuts also play an important role in the Afghan diet. Walnuts, pistachios, pine nuts, and almonds are all used in cooking—in pastries, pilaus, and desserts—but they are also eaten on their own as snacks, often salted and mixed with dried fruits such as raisins and served with tea. Afghans add spices and herbs to their food for flavor and fragrance; the results are neither too spicy nor too bland. Some spices are imported, but many herbs are grown locally. Saffron, although expensive, is the preferred spice for flavoring and coloring rice dishes and desserts. It is grown in Afghanistan, and its cultivation is being encouraged to try to persuade farmers to switch from growing poppies, which are processed into opium and are thus an enormous cash crop. Similarly, farmers are being encouraged to cultivate more quinces and pomegranates for export. Other popular spices include aniseed, cardamom, cassia and cinnamon, chilies, cloves, coriander, cumin, dill, fenugreek, ginger, nigella, black and red pepper, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and turmeric. Asafetida, which grows profusely in the north of Afghanistan, is not used much in Afghan cooking but is an important crop, as much of it is exported to India. Herbs such as cilantro, dill, and mint are used extensively in cooking, especially in soups and stews. Garlic is also widely used. Other flavorings include rose water, especially for desserts. Roses grow abundantly in Afghanistan, and distilling rose water is a cottage industry.
Industry in Afghanistan is based on agriculture and pastoral raw materials. The major industrial crops are cotton, tobacco, madder, castor beans, and sugar. Sugar beets are grown in the north, and sugarcane is grown near Jalalabad in the southeast. Nabot (crystallized sugar) is a popular energyboosting snack, especially with children. Gur (unrefi ned sugar) is used as a sweetener.
Lamb, which comes from the fat-tailed sheep, is the preferred meat, but beef, veal, goat, water buffalo, horse, and camel are also eaten. Chicken, which used to be a luxury and not always available, is liked, and today many chickens are imported (often frozen) from Iran, Pakistan, and India and are plentiful in the cities. Since Afghanistan is a Muslim country, pork is not eaten. Game meats such as quail, pigeon, duck, and partridge are eaten when available. All parts of animals are eaten including the heads, feet, and testicles. A sausage made from boiled horse meat using the innards as a casing is made and eaten by Uzbeks and Kirghiz in northern Afghanistan.