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?