The hospitality of Qabuli pulao

At our communal table sits Sahar, expelled from Kabul for being from the ‘wrong’ tribe

September 17, 2021 02:42 pm | Updated 02:48 pm IST

Family time: Sitting cross-legged on the floor in Kabul Delhi.

Family time: Sitting cross-legged on the floor in Kabul Delhi.

A Rumi maxim best describes Afghanis’ exceptional hospitality, not just at home but wherever they go: ‘treat each guest honourably... meet them at the door, laughing, and invite them in.’

When Massoud and his brothers fled the first rule of Taliban in 2009, they set up the famous Kabul Delhi restaurant in Lajpat Nagar and have been warmly welcoming clientele ever since.

When I ask why they left Afghanistan, Massoud tells me he could not live peacefully in the land of his birth. “They said they would kill me simply because I was from the north of Afghanistan. I was from the wrong tribe,” he says.

Massoud’s family employ sous-chef Rohit in their busy kitchen. He is soft spoken and his eyes have the look of a man who has seen much. Rohit’s Qabuli pulao is the stuff of legend. Rohit escaped Kabul with his wife and four children three years ago: though his roots are in Kabul, his Tajik ancestry went against him. “One night,” he tells me, “a letter came through the door while we were sleeping. It said that the Taliban wanted to take my son for their army.

He was a teenager and aspired to be part of the Afghanistan diplomatic corps. I dismissed the note as a hoax, but a week later, a second threat was posted. This time it said if I didn’t give them my son, they would kill me. A week later, they came to the mosque when I was praying and told me that my time was up. We fled for our lives to India.’

Salad & mantoo

Before long, I find myself sitting cross-legged on the floor in the Kabul Delhi restaurant, as plates full of succulent deep-fried fish and finely chopped, well-seasoned salad marinated in dahi are placed on the circular dining mat.

My friend has decided to try the mantoo, a kind of momo stuffed with goat meat. At our communal table sits the articulate, quietly confident Sahar, another persona non grata from yet another ‘wrong’ tribe, the much persecuted Hazaras. She fled to India in 2017 along with four siblings and her mother after her father died from injuries. “He was attacked by the Taliban on his night-watch duty as a policeman,” she tells me. “We lived in Kabul at the time. I had just graduated from Kabul University in computer science.” In Delhi, as the main bread-winner, Sahar works as a waitress. “My dream is to teach at a university, but as a refugee, without a bank account and other essential documents, I feel it will be a long journey.”

Sheer disconnect

For many of the Delhi-based Afghani community, this second coming of the Taliban is like history repeating itself. “We may hear talk of a bloodless transfer of power and end of war, but as eyewitnesses we can say better days are not ahead,” says Sahar. “There is such a disconnect between what a spokesperson says in the media and what an 18-year-old holding a Kalashnikov in his hand is doing on the streets.”

Rohit’s daughter brings a basket of soft white tandoor-cooked flat bread to the table and joins us. I ask her about her transition from Kabul to Delhi during a critical time in her studies. “I was in Class XI when we fled. I am happy because we still have our father with us. But financially, it is tougher. And my dream to be a doctor and help the people of Afghanistan seems unlikely to come true.”

Sahar nods in empathy. “We are victims of the crisis in Afghanistan, but we are survivors,” she says.

Before we eat, we are wished ishtiyae khoob , noosh’e jaan (may it be sweet for your soul, joy for your body).The food is delicious and this feast with new friends feels like a blessing in such troubled times. I say a private prayer that this hospitality and kindness will be rewarded with equal generosity; that our diverse communities, regardless of religion or economic status, will enjoy with empathy each other’s many rasas .

Rohit’s Qabuli Pulao


1 cup of long grain basmati rice, soaked

Pinch of salt

Pinch of elaichi powder

Sunflower oil

1 onion

1 grated carrot

20 gm red Afghani kismis, soaked

Meat option: goat


1. Soak a cup of long grain basmati rice in a bowl of cold water, an inch higher than the level of the rice, until it has absorbed most of the water (this should take about half an hour to an hour).

2. In sunflower oil, fry a pinch of salt and a pinch of powdered elaichi. Add chopped onions. Stir until golden. Add soaked rice, grated carrot, soaked Afghani red kismis, and water/ stock to an inch above the level of the rice.

3. If using meat, pressure cook the meat for 30-40 minutes and add to the pulao.

4. Simmer until the water is absorbed; then stir above a low flame until buttery and light.

The writer is a freelance journalist, teacher and editor of the young people’s journal Apple Press .

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