Sunday, August 15, 2010

Afghan Tea, Afghan Food, and Afghanistan

After a frustrating apartment search in Madison, WI, I decided not to move. The downtown and surrounding areas seemed to be dominated by either slummy student housing or upscale luxury condos--neither of which is particularly my style, and I would have had to pay more than I was comfortable with to live in a situation I would be less than comfortable with. But on my recent trip, I had an interesting and seemingly unlikely experience relating to tea, food, and Afghanistan.

Why Afghanistan?

I deliberately chose to eat at an Afghan restaurant one day (Kabul Afghanistan & Mediterranean Restaurant), when I was searching for a place to eat lunch. Pictured below is a map of Afghanistan, courtesy of the CIA's World Factbook.

I am particularly interested in Afghanistan right now because it is the site of a brutal war in which the U.S., my country, is involved. I myself am neither a fan of war nor of terrorism, and I am eager to explore any options through which these sorts of conflicts and violence can be brought to a complete and peaceful end. I think that mutual understanding of culture is one of the best starting points both to prevent and alleviate conflict. I particularly think that a lack of understanding of the culture in countries like Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan is strongly connected to a U.S. foreign policy and military policy which continually fails to address the root causes of violent extremism and anti-U.S. sentiment in these countries.

Maybe something as simple as tea and a meal could provide a starting point to bridging these gaps.

What is Afghan Tea?

Afghanistan, like most regions of the world, has its own unique tea culture. The Jaya Tea Blog, in their post Afghan Tea Shop, describes a type of green tea consumed in Afghanistan which is also consumed in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (regions which constitute a single state), a region that borders Pakistan and does not border Afghanistan, but is as close as one can get to Afghanistan within India. According to that blog post, in India this tea is called Kahva. Kahva is produced by boiling the green tea leaves together with spices, producing something that in the west could be called a "Green Chai" or a spiced green tea. Interestingly, this brewing method crassly violates the ubiquitous warning among both western and southeast-Asian tea cultures to not brew green tea with boiling water.

The type of tea I had, however, was different. The cup is pictured below:

It was black tea, and it was brewed with a very heavy dose of green cardamon, my favorite spice for use in tea. It is no surprise that I loved the result. The cup was strongly aromatic, but surprisingly smooth. Cardamon absolutely dominated the aroma--definitely much more cardamon than tea presence. I have no idea what kind of tea was used, but it was a black tea, and it had the character of a high-grown Ceylon tea, such as those from Nuwara Eliya. It was served without milk, with the option of lemon or sugar on the side. I tried half the cup without lemon and half with a few drops of lemon (as pictured--the lemon greatly lightened the tea--it was very dark before adding the lemon). I have no idea about the authenticity of this type of tea, or the restaurant in general. But I absolutely loved the tea; it was aromatic, but not particularly strong and definitely not too tannic, so I had a second cup.

The Food:

The food was simple but I enjoyed it greatly. I particularly enjoyed the soup served before the meal, which had several types of bean and was flavorful but light. Pictured below is the soup, some bread, and two sauces served on the side:

What struck me about this meal was that the taste, aromas, and textures of both the food and the tea were in many respects intermediate between what I know of north Indian cuisine and middle-eastern cuisine. The red sauce was very garlicky, lightly spicy, and tangy, and had a more middle-eastern character. The green sauce seemed to be made out of cilantro, mint, and hot peppers, and was very similar to an Indian chutney made of those ingredients. The bread was softer and spongier than pita, but more pita-like than any Indian bread I've tried. The tea, with its simplicity of two ingredients, tea and cardamon, contrasted greatly with the complexity of most Indian spiced teas, but the cardamon was definitely reminiscent of a Masala Chai--although in a fresher, lighter way.

What did I learn from this?

Something about tasting both the tea and the food "filled in the gaps" in a continuous transition of tea and food culture. I had tasted vague similarities between north Indian and middle eastern cuisine before, but the food on the table before me filled in a gap, much in the same way the Archaeopteryx fossil filled in a gap in the evolutionary record:

Just as Archaeopteryx made it easy to intuitively grasp the possibility that birds had evolved from reptiles, I found that tasting this food and tea made it easy to innately feel the connection between two food cultures that had previously seemed quite distinct from each other. And I had in a moment a glimpse of the unity of all cultures, and of all human beings.

I started crying when I thought about this. Why are we over there killing each other? How can we stop the violence? We have to...we are all humans, and we are just killing our own people. How can we achieve a lasting peace?

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