Making a meal of it

Food - Bee Wilson relishes a fragrant feast from Afghanistan

It had been planned months in advance, so no one could have known. There was nothing political about the decision that the dinner served to the 16th annual Oxford Food Symposium on Saturday 15 September 2001, four days after the disaster in the US, would be an Afghan feast. Equally, there was nothing political in the decision to go ahead with it, despite the absence of many of the Americans who had originally planned to attend. "Oh, how unfortunate," said various people to whom I mentioned the Afghan meal. But it wasn't unfortunate at all. It was wonderful, every mouthful.

Nasir and Helen Saberi, the hosts of the meal, have been unofficial ambassadors for Afghan cuisine ever since they left Afghanistan, reluctantly, in March 1980, soon after the Soviet occupation. Helen, an attractive Yorkshirewoman who puts on no airs - though she had put on an ornate Afghan dress for the occasion - is the author of Noshe Djan (Prospect Books, £12), by far the best book in English on the food of Afghanistan. Having read it, and made some of the recipes, I knew that the meal would be good. But it exceeded all expectations.

The meal was held at eight in the evening. Symposiasts (as you are rather preposterously meant to call yourself if you go to this conference) had spent the day in college lecture rooms listening to various papers on the subject of "the meal", this year's theme, including 16th-century banqueting and Mexican street food, the table manners of modern Iran and ancient funerary offerings. The symposium holds a dinner with a different, carefully chosen theme every year; last year's, for example, was an ancient Roman dinner. Symposiasts, who are the kind of educated people who relish tasting obscure things such as yak's milk and dried kangaroo meat, do not necessarily expect to enjoy these occasions. After the Roman banquet, many people could be heard saying, "Well, it wasn't exactly what I would call delicious", in a matter-of-fact way, perhaps not even intended as criticism.

Anyway, there we were, sitting at long tables in the unromantic dining hall of St Antony's College - not a very promising setting, though exotic rugs had been hung from the walls. Then Nasir, a dignified man in a smart grey suit, stood up and addressed us. He told us that the dishes we were going to eat were special occasion food, the kind eaten at feasts in his "homeland". Afghans do not eat meals in separate courses but, as a compromise with western mores, we were served a first course at our tables and a second, main course as a buffet.

The first thing I tasted was ashak, a kind of pasta filled with leeks and anointed with a minty, garlicky yogurt sauce and savoury minced meat. This description does not begin to convey how unusual and delectable a dish it was. The "pasta" is kneaded with water as well as egg, which gives it a slippery lightness, not dissimilar to certain steamed Chinese dim sum (indeed, many Afghans in the west now use wonton wrappers instead of home-made pasta dough). The leek filling was green and very lightly cooked (in Afghanistan, they would use a green, oniony vegetable called gandana). It went perfectly with the minty flavour of the sauce and the sparing quantity of rich-tasting minced meat. There were also little skewers of lamb kebabs, nan bread (the only disappointment, it was a little bit dry) and a fresh, fragrant green coriander chutney.

But the true majesty of the meal arrived with the buffet. An Afghan pilau is a great thing. I have eaten numerous rice dishes before, both eastern and western, but none had revealed the true delicacy of rice like this one did. There were beautiful heaped platters of zamarud pilau, or "emerald" pilau coloured with spinach, and qabili pilau, the national dish of Afghanistan, a pilau with lamb, carrots and raisins, perfumed with char masala (a mixture of cloves, cassia, cumin and black cardamom seeds). The secret is that the rice is cooked by the "sof" method, whereby it is washed, soaked, parboiled and then cooked in the oven with meat or vegetable juices. Another revelation was the shola-e-ghorbandi, the Afghan equivalent of risotto, sticky short-grained rice cooked with mung beans and yellow split peas and served with a minced lamb and sour plum stew, a haunting mixture of sweet and sour tastes. There was also a delicious okra stew, a buran of fried aubergines served with yogurt and a piquant and refreshing salad (almost like a fresh chutney) made in the true Afghan style from finely chopped tomatoes, cucumber, green chilli, mint and coriander.

Afterwards came pistachio ice cream, milk pudding (firni), copious grapes, cardamom-scented tea and Afghan sweets, all as delicious as these things can be if you, like me, love the perfumed style of Middle Eastern desserts.

At the end of the meal, when the chef appeared, everyone spontaneously applauded him. The name of this master of the culinary arts is Haji Nabi Qader, and he owns and runs Ferdows Catering in London. He is also, incidentally, a fairly recent refugee from Kabul. How lucky we are to have him in our country.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, What would you do?

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.