The Jewish Palate: The Jews of Afghanistan

A column about Jewish history and food. This week: why did the Jews flee Afghanistan and what traditional dishes do their descendants eat today.

Spices 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Spices 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jews have lived in Afghanistan for at least 2000 years.  According to Afghan tradition, it is highly likely that Jews have inhabited this area of the world since the Babylonian Exile in 586 B.C.E. and the subsequent Persian conquest.
It is a little known fact, especially in the West, that many of the countries that are today predominantly Muslim once had very large Jewish populations. We hear so much about Afghanistan, but we never hear about the plight of its Jews, and the horrible persecution that led to the destruction and scattering of the Afghan Jewish Community.  We never hear about how the Jewish population went from 80,000 in the 12th century to just 1 Jew today.  The lone Jew of Afghanistan is named Zebulon Simentov.  He is the caretaker of the last, rundown synagogue in Kabul who refuses to leave the country as he sees it his duty to be the last member of the Jewish faith to reside in Afghanistan.
It wasn’t just radical militant Islam that the Jews of Afghanistan had to worry about.  They also had to deal with the oppressive Soviet Communists.  Long before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970’s, Afghan culture and politics were being influenced by the Soviet Union.  Communism was slowly introduced in the 1950’s and 1960’s by the Soviet education of Afghan school children.  Before long, a once tolerant government began to turn against the Jewish Community as it was influenced more and more by Moscow.  Those who were lucky emigrated to Israel, New York, and Pakistan.
After the defeat of the Soviet Army by the Mujahidin in the 1980’s, life for the remaining Jews worsened as the country erupted into civil war and the Taliban eventually came into power.  More Jews left the country, joining their compatriots in Israel and New York.  By 1996 there were only 10 Jews left in Afghanistan.  For those who stayed, life was uncertain and filled with strife.  The Taliban confiscated the last Torah in Zebulon Simentov’s dilapidated synagogue.  Thus ends 2,500 years of Jewish History in Afghanistan.
Today, more than 10,000 Jews of Afghan descent live in Eretz Yisrael, and over 200 Afghani Jewish families live in New York City.  They are a very tight, close-knit community.
The Cuisine of Afghanistan has been greatly influenced by its neighbors, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.  Dishes from the region are characterized by warm, toasty spices and the use of an abundance of dried fruits. There are also influences from India and China.  The cooking of the Jewish Community reflects these influences.  Rice is the main cereal crop, but wheat, barley, and maize are also consumed.  In addition to cereal crops, fresh fruits and vegetables form the backbone of the cuisine, and dairy products abound. Chicken and lamb are the preferred meats, but beef is eaten when available.  Dishes are very flavorful without being overly spicy.  Afghan Cuisine is about balance, and contrasting flavors.  The main herbs and spices are mint, saffron, coriander, cilantro, cardamom, and black pepper.
As Basmati rice is the king of Afghan grains, rice dishes abound.  They are considered the pinnacle of any meal.  The most famous of the Afghan rice dishes are the Palao, also known in the West as Pilaf.  A pilaf in its simplest form is rice that is simmered in a flavorful liquid.  There are hundreds of recipes for Palao in Afghanistan.
The following recipe is for the Palao Shabati, Shabbat Pilaf.  This is the Hamin of the Afghan Jewish Community that is enjoyed on Shabbat afternoon upon returning from the synagogue.  It is a combination of rice and meat that is lightly scented with spices and slowly baked for at least 12 hours.  The slow, gentle cooking process yields a multi textural dish with savory mouthwatering flavors.
Palao Shabati (Shabbat Pilaf)Serves 6
Ingredients-2 pounds beef stew meat (chuck), cut into 1 inch pieces-3 cups Basmati rice, well rinsed-5 cups water-1 tablespoon kosher salt-2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into ¼ inch slices-1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon-1 teaspoon ground coriander-½ teaspoon ground cardamom-½ cup raisins-½ cup dried apricots, sliced-1 cup boiling water-6 large whole eggs in the shell-½ cup olive oil-Kosher salt and pepper to taste
Directions1.  Combine the cinnamon, coriander, and cardamom, set aside.
2.  Bring 5 cups of water to a boil and add 1 tablespoon of kosher salt.  Add the meat, and allow to simmer for 5 minutes, skimming any scum that rises to the surface.  Remove the meat and set aside reserving the water.  Into the same water, add the rice and allow to simmer for 5 minutes.  Drain the rice through a colander, and discard the liquid.  Rinse the rice under cold water and allow to drain. 
3.  Place the potato slices in the bottom of a Dutch oven or slow cooker insert, overlapping the edges.  Spread half of the rice over the potatoes and season with salt, pepper, and half of the spice mixture.  Spread the raisins and sliced apricots evenly over the rice.  Spread the meat evenly over the dried fruit.  Finally, spread remaining rice over the meat and season with salt, pepper, and remaining spice mixture.  Add 1 cup of boiling water, and drizzle olive oil over the top and around the edges of the pan.  Add whole eggs in their shells on top of the rice.  Press them slightly into the rice.  Cover pot and cook over low heat for 30 minutes.  Place covered pot into a low oven (200 degrees F.) or into a slow cooker and bake for 12 to 18 hours. 
The Palao should be served hot and scooped on to a decorative platter with the crispy potatoes and hard cooked eggs on the top.