HHosting dinner parties was an essential part of our household when I was young. I grew up in Kandahar City, in a predominantly Pashtun region of Afghanistan. My paternal grandparents were from Pashtun tribal areas in Afghanistan, and their families were scattered across the country. My mother’s side was more of a mix and my maternal grandmother was born in Iran and raised in Tehran, so I really grew up with many cultures.
Women were expected to cook while living in their parents’ house, and it was considered mandatory to prepare for marriage. My father was a doctor, so many people knew him and unexpectedly came to our house for dinner parties. I remember my mother gladly accepting all the guests and preparing a storm for them.
I was brought up during the reign of the last king of Afghanistan, King Mohammad Zahir Shah. This period, 1933-73, is considered one of the most advanced periods in the history of Afghanistan. Infrastructure, education and women’s rights have all improved, with women also being able to vote. These freedoms continued until the end of the 1990s, with the Taliban occupation.
I grew up in a fairly large family, the second eldest of five sisters and two brothers. My paternal and maternal sides also have massive families. We moved a lot, because of my father’s profession. Doctors in Afghanistan usually traveled to different states to study and work.
I was brought up in a very strict family. My mother was the disciplinary officer and Aunt Homa, with whom I lived for a year in Kabul, was also. We weren’t allowed to visit or entertain friends, we weren’t allowed to go to the movies or have dinner. This was the norm for most women in Afghanistan; few young women had access to the outside world unless they were with their families.
At certain stages of my life, I pushed the limits. I secretly attended rallies to protest and gave speeches at large rallies. And that’s how I was spotted at a rally by my stepfather. I was giving a speech at a military rally and my father-in-law, who was a general, was there. He asked me who I was and what family I was from. Then he came to our house and asked for my hand in marriage for his son!
It was considered the norm in Afghanistan in the early 1980s when I got married. It has changed drastically over the years as young men and women decide to marry whoever they want without parental pressure, but it is still prevalent in some tribal parts.
I had never met my husband until he came with his parents to my house to ask for my hand in marriage. My father was over the moon. He accepted the marriage and because I was so close to my father, I willingly said yes. I had an extravagant wedding, with over 1,000 people because of my father and stepfather’s positions in Afghanistan.
A year later, I gave birth to a beautiful daughter. And within a few months, my father and my grandfather passed away. It was the hardest thing to deal with and it still haunts me today, 40 years later. I was 25 and I still cry every time I hear his name. My youngest sister was eight and it was heartbreaking to watch her grow up without him.
After my father died, I found solace in my father-in-law’s house. I was treated like a daughter, not a daughter-in-law. My husband’s family is also quite large so the dinners were massive. Once married, I took on the responsibility of receiving guests. Because I had learned to cook at home, the task was not that difficult.
After the Soviet attack on Afghanistan, my husband and I decided to leave. My mother and a few of my siblings had already gone to Australia, so we were sponsored and left Afghanistan in hopes of a better future for our children.
I have spent most of my life raising my four children. I wanted them to understand the importance of family and how much it means to stay connected. I hosted many dinner parties at my house while the kids were growing up, which I think helped shape their understanding of the importance of family and hospitality.
Now I go to my children’s homes and have fun with them. My daughter Nasreen is passionate about food and human rights. Sometimes when I look at her, I feel that she has the same fire that I had in me.
Narange palow is a dish I have always enjoyed making. I inherited it from my mother and her mother. It was a regular feature at their dinners and it became one of mine. My family and friends still regularly request it all these years later and I guess it’s one of my signature dishes.
I love watching my kids cook it. Nasreen says cooking makes her feel close to her parents, and I’m so happy to hear that. This food gives both of us a great sense of continuity. I hope you enjoy this little taste of my life and one of my favorite savory dishes.
Narange palow de Maryam (chicken and orange rice)
8 cups of rice (I love the Indian gate basmati)
3 large oranges
2 cups of sugar (depending on the amount of your orange zest)
1 tablespoon of cardamom
1 tablespoon orange food coloring
3 tablespoons oil
2 brown onions, finely mixed in a blender
3 cloves of garlicthinly sliced
1 teaspoon of salt
1.5 kg chicken thighs
1 bag of silver almonds
Wash the rice with water until all the starch is gone. Let stand in water for two hours or more.
To prepare the orange filling, peel the oranges into the shape of triangles and cut them into thin slices.
Place the orange zest in a saucepan with water and simmer until the skin softens – about 30 minutes. Drain the water and return the orange zest to the pan. Add cardamom, orange food coloring and almonds. Bring to a simmer then remove from the heat to let stand.
To prepare the chicken, pour oil into a large pot and add the sliced onions. As they soften, add the garlic and salt and caramelize the onions until they turn dark brown.
Add the chicken and cook well on all sides. Add a cup or two of water and simmer the chicken over low heat for about 30 minutes, or until the oil reaches the surface of the pan or the water has reduced.
Next, prepare the rice using a pasta boiling method. Fill a large pot with water almost to the top and bring to a boil. Drain the soaked rice, then add it to the water. Boil until tender, following package directions. Drain the rice and return it to the same pan.
Next, separate the rice into two portions: a larger portion should remain in the pan to mix with the chicken, and a smaller portion will be removed and tossed with the orange zest on top.
Stir the chicken mixture you prepared through the larger portion of rice, making sure to mix well. Wrap a towel or cloth around the pan lid and place it over the pan to prevent steam from escaping. Then simmer the rice and chicken mixture over low heat for 20 minutes or until the rice makes a crackling sound.
Strain the orange mixture, reserving the liquid, which you need to mix through the smaller portion of rice, to give it color.
Place the orange rice mixture in a smaller saucepan. Then place the orange peels and almonds on top with some cardamom. Wrap this pan with a kitchen towel and place it on the stove to cook for about 20 minutes.
Once both batches of rice are cooked, place the chicken brown rice in a large dish, placing the chicken thighs between two layers of rice. Spread orange rice on top and finish with orange peels and almonds on top. Enjoy!
Maryam Hanifi was born in Afghanistan in 1956, and moved to Australia in 1990. She lives in Sydney, surrounded by her four children, 10 grandchildren, several in-laws and siblings.