Afghanistan's prized porridge may take patience to get, but it's worth the wait
It took three visits and several personal requests to the head cook at Kabul’s women-run Bost Restaurant to finally be served a piping hot, hard-to-get bowl of kachee, a kind of porridge made by Afghans exclusively during winter after the first snow has fallen. The first two times, I was turned away, albeit politely. “It’s a winter food!” the restaurant manager—one of the only three male staffers at the women’s restaurant—explained. “But, winter is already here,” I tried to reason from below three layers of woollen and thick jackets. “No, it hasn’t even snowed yet,” he insisted. The head cook, a middle-aged woman in her mid-40s agreed with him. It was me against the Kabulis who pride and cherish their white gold. As the popular Afghan saying goes: “Kabul can be without gold, but not snow.”
In fact, kachee is among the canon of the Afghan delicacies prepared to welcome the advent of rough winter days. No one truly knows its origins but they seem to all agree that it is the speciality of the Kuchis, a nomadic tribe in Afghanistan.
Its heavy servings, rich with dairy and dry fruits, are a celebration in themselves. “I learned to make kachee from my mother when I was only 14 years old,” explains now-37-year-old Masuda as she prepares the flour that serves as the base of the porridge and gives it the thick texture, and the light brown color. “This is my grandmother’s recipe who got it from her mother,” she says, adding that while the basic ingredients for the porridge are same all over Afghanistan; what differs is the method of preparing it, which can change its flavor from region to region.
Masuda, who like most Afghans only goes by one name, works as the head cook at the Bost Restaurant that was started by Afghan Women Skills Development Center to help support destitute women in Afghanistan, especially those are survivor of gender-based violence—a widespread epidemic across the region. “My mother made it on wood fire, stirring the ingredients for hours at times, till it was the right consistency,” she explains, illustrating the physical effort required to make the perfect kachee by vigorously stirring the pot.
Nearly all the recipes on the Bost menu are family-owned and developed by the women who work there. Masuda shares her formula for making kachee: seven portions of water to one portion of flour, stirred gently. “Once it begins to change color, you add the other ingredients: sugar, clarified butter, dry fruits of your choice,” she explains. The porridge has taken the form of a thick paste at this point and Masuda stirs it continuously with her expert hands. The result is a thick, pasty, and sweet porridge to warm your bones in the harsh winters of Afghanistan.
Serving the kachee the right way is just as important as the preparation. The porridge is brought to our table on a flat plate, with a well of melted butter at the centre, and warm greeting of nosh-e-jaan which translates to bon appetit.
The porridge tastes like it looks, with paste-like texture, sweet and buttery flavor with hints of dried nuts—some of the best from south of Afghanistan. While extremely delicious, it was more than what I bargained for and between my friend and me, we couldn’t even finish half of the portion of kachee. (Although, that’s true for nearly all meals served in Afghan portions which can be very generous.)
“It is meant to provide nutrition for the working men and women to last all day,” explains Masuda, echoing an underlying theme in most Afghan meals—making plenty from little.
“Despite the generous portions of butter and sugar, kachee is actually very healthy, especially for women,” Masuda says. “My mum used to make it for me to help ease cramps during those days,” she says, almost whispering the last part, a reference to the usually taboo subject of menstruation.
“It’s good for you, even if it may add a little bit here,” she says, pointing to her stomach with the joyous laugh of someone who loves to feed others.