Class nosh

Food - Bee Wilson on how one man's fare is another man's feast

The foods that are treated as status symbols are interesting clues to different cultures. For many centuries in western Europe, the lavish consumption of sugar and meat were the surest signifiers of riches, until forced labour and intensive farming brought them within the reach of all. There was even a time when rotting teeth were coveted as indications of enviable sugar-eating. Very unlike our Nutrasweet era. Rich countries nowadays rate only a few foodstuffs as status symbols: truffles and gold leaf and finest beurre d'Isigny carved to look like mermaids, perhaps, but not much else. It is different in poorer countries. In war-torn Afghanistan, even using a large amount of cooking oil is seen as aspirational. Food that we might consider greasy (and hence poor) is seen by Afghans as a sign of affluence.

This insight comes from Noshe Djan: Afghan food and cookery by Helen Saberi, a fascinating work which has just been reissued. Despite its modern poverty, Afghanistan has rich and sometimes surprising culinary traditions.

The "basic diet of all Afghans" is composed of "nan, bread and chai, tea". Nan can be flavoured with nigella, poppy or sesame seeds, and is baked either in the family's own tandoor or by a nanwaee at a local tandoor bakery. If the baker is a woman, grooves are made in the bread; if a man, then cuts are made. The finished bread might be served, means permitting, with a partridge stew, or aubergines cooked in yoghurt, or maybe with kebabs, a radish salad and some coriander chutney.

Not all Afghan dishes are quite so approachable. Sa-beri, who lived in Afghanistan for ten years and married into an Afghan family, describes its peculiarities with affection and even hunger - such as the taste for lamb's fat, especially from the tail, or the use of rhubarb in savoury dishes (with spinach, for example, or lamb). Afghans are also partial to quroot, a kind of dried yoghurt resembling "white pebbles", which is reconstituted in water and sometimes eaten with garlic, salt, pepper and dried mint. The strangest-sounding dish in Saberi's book is a sweet "silk" egg kebab, which is made by drawing threads of beaten egg across a hot pan until they go "silken", a fabric which is then rolled up and sprinkled with sugar syrup and ground pistachios.

Other Afghan puddings stick to familiar eastern tastes for milkiness and rosewater. I made this custard recently and found it deliciously delicate, although it might not suit the tastes of those who dislike perfumed sweets: three of those I served it to were purring, while the other three pushed their plates away. The ingredients for six to eight would cost barely £1.50 in Britain, although Saberi says that, in Afghanistan, firni is a special-occasion sweet, reserved for weddings and Eid. But then, milk is another scarcity in the cities of Afghanistan, whereas here, as farmers know to their cost, it flows almost as cheaply as water, with no great status attached.

Firni (Afghan custard): "50g cornflour, 1 litre milk, 275g sugar (or a little less - this amount makes the firni very sweet), ftsp ground cardamom seeds, 25g each of finely chopped or ground pistachio nuts and almonds. Mix the cornflour with a small amount of cold milk into a paste. Heat the remaining milk in a pan and, when hot but not boiling, add the sugar . . . Stir well. When the milk is close to boiling, slowly add the cornflour paste, stirring continuously. Bring to the boil, add the cardamom, turn down the heat and simmer for about five minutes, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. Pour the firni on to a shallow serving dish and decorate it with [the nuts] and allow to cool. Firni is always eaten cold."

Noshe Djan, by Helen Saberi, has just been reissued in a new and revised second edition (Prospect Books, £12)

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Education, education, profit