huhOrganizing dinners was an essential part of our household when I was young. I grew up in the city of Kandahar in a predominantly Pashtun region of Afghanistan. My paternal grandparents came from the Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan, and their families spread all over the country. My maternal side was more of a mix and my maternal grandmother was born in Iran and raised in Tehran, so I really grew up with a lot of cultures.
Women were expected to cook while living in their parents’ home, and it was considered mandatory in preparation for marriage. My father was a doctor, so many people knew him and unexpectedly came to our house for dinner gatherings. I remember my mother likes to take on guests and cook up a storm for them.
I grew up during the reign of the last king of Afghanistan, King Mohammad Zahir Shah. That time, 1933-73, is considered one of the most advanced periods in Afghanistan’s history. Infrastructure, education and women’s rights have all progressed and women are also getting the chance to vote. These freedoms lasted until the late 1990s, when the Taliban were occupied.
I grew up in a fairly large family, the second oldest of five sisters and two brothers. My paternal and maternal side both have huge families too. Because of my father’s profession, we moved a lot. Doctors in Afghanistan usually traveled through different states to study and work.
I grew up in a very strict family. My mother was the Disciplinarian and Aunt Homa, who I lived with for a year in the city of Kabul, was too. We were not allowed to visit or have friends, we were not allowed to go to the movies or to dinner parties. This was the norm for most women in Afghanistan; not many young women had access to the outside world unless they were with their families.
In certain phases of my life I have pushed the boundaries. I secretly went to protest demonstrations and gave speeches at large gatherings. And so I was spotted at a meeting by my father-in-law. I gave a speech at an army meeting and my father-in-law, who was a general, was present. He asked who I was and what family I came from. Then he went to our house and asked for my hand in marriage for his son!
This was considered the norm in Afghanistan in the early 1980s when I got married. It has changed drastically over the years as young men and women decide to marry whoever they want without parental pressure, but it still occurs in certain tribes.
I had never met my husband until he came to my house with his parents to ask for my hand in marriage. My father was over the moon. He agreed to the marriage and because I was so close to my father, I willingly said yes. I had an extravagant wedding with over 1,000 people because of my father and father-in-law’s positions in Afghanistan.
A year later I gave birth to a beautiful daughter. And within a few months my father and grandfather died. That was the hardest thing to deal with and it still haunts me 40 years later. I was 25 years old and I still cry every time I hear his name. My youngest sister was eight and it was heartbreaking to watch her grow up without him.
After my father passed away, I found comfort in my father-in-law’s house. I was treated like a daughter and not a daughter-in-law. My husband’s family is also quite large so dinner gatherings were huge. Once I got married, I took on the responsibility of hosting guests. Since I had learned to cook at home, the task was not that difficult.
After the Soviet attack on Afghanistan, my husband and I decided to leave. My mother and some of my siblings had already gone to Australia, so we were sponsored and left Afghanistan in hopes of a better future for our children.
I have devoted most of my life to raising my four children. I wanted them to understand the importance of family and how much it means to stay connected. I hosted many dinner gatherings at my home while the kids were growing up, which I think played a part in shaping their understanding of the importance of family and hospitality.
Now I go to my children’s houses and am entertained by them. My daughter Nasreen has a passion for food and for human rights. Sometimes when I look at her, I feel she has the same fire that I had in me.
Narange palow is a dish that I have always loved to make. I inherited it from my mother and her mother. It was a regular at their dinner gatherings and became one at mine. My family and friends still regularly ask for it after all these years and I think it is one of my signature dishes.
I love watching my kids cook it. Nasreen says cooking gives her a close bond with her parents, and I’m so happy to hear this. This food gives us both a great sense of continuity. I hope you will enjoy this little taste of my life and one of my favorite savory dishes.
Maryam’s narange palow (chicken and orange rice)
8 cups of rice (I like India Gate basmati)
3 large oranges
2 cups sugar (depending on the amount of your orange peel)
1 tbsp cardamom
1 tbsp orange food coloring
3 tbsp oil
2 brown onions, finely blended in the blender
3 cloves of garlicfinely sliced
1 tsp salt
1.5 kg chicken thigh fillets
1 pack of silver plated almonds
Wash the rice in water until all the starch is gone. Let it rest in water for two hours or more.
To make the orange topping, peel the oranges into triangular shapes and slice them thinly.
Place the orange peels in a pot of water and simmer until the peel softens – about 30 minutes. Drain the water and return the orange peels to the pan. Add cardamom, orange food coloring and almonds. Bring to a boil and remove from heat to rest.
To cook the chicken, put oil in a large pan and add the chopped onions. When they soften, add the garlic and salt and let the onions caramelize until they are dark brown.
Add the chicken and fry well on all sides. Add one or two cups of water and simmer the chicken over low heat for about 30 minutes, or until the oil has risen to the surface of the pan or the water has reduced.
Then make the rice using a pasta cooking method. Fill a large pot with water almost to the brim and bring to a boil. Drain the soaked rice and add it to the water. Let it cook until soft, according to package instructions. Drain the rice and return it to the same pan.
Then divide the rice into two portions: a larger portion should remain in the pot to mix with the chicken, and a smaller portion is removed and mixed with the orange zest on it.
Stir the chicken mix you made into the larger portion of rice, making sure to mix well. Wrap a towel or cloth around the lid of the pan and place it over the pan to prevent steam from escaping. Then simmer the rice-chicken mixture over low heat for 20 minutes, or until the rice makes a crackling sound.
Strain the orange mix and reserve the liquid, which you will need to mix into the smaller portion of rice to give it color.
Place the orange rice mix in a smaller saucepan. Then put the orange peels and almonds all on top with some cardamom. Wrap this pot in a cloth and place on the stove to cook for about 20 minutes.
Once both batches of rice are done, transfer the brown chicken rice to a large bowl, placing the chicken thighs between two layers of rice. Place the orange-colored rice on top and finish with the orange peels and almonds. Enjoying!
Maryam Hanifi was born in Afghanistan in 1956 and moved to Australia in 1990. She lives in Sydney, surrounded by her four children, 10 grandchildren, several in-laws and her siblings.