A recipe is never just a recipe — especially when it’s one that’s been shared from generation to generation. The ingredients, the steps, the technique, they all carry meaning. And for Durkhanai Ayubi, author of Parwana: Stories from an Afghan Kitchen, she hopes the recipes in her book broaden readers’ understanding of her country and its people.
So much of what we associate with Afghanistan comes from the last three or four decades — when conflicts and humanitarian crises have dominated headlines about this beautiful country and people. But Afghanistan’s history, like its food, is rich and layered. This is why I wanted to hear from Durkhanai and learn more about her family’s history, their restaurant in Adelaide, Australia and her work to support the Afghan people. If you can’t visit her restaurant in person, I hope you’ll try some of the recipes from her cookbook and think about the history behind them.
Podium: Tell us about yourself. When did your family emigrate to Australia and how did you arrive at opening a restaurant?
Durkhanai Ayubi (DA): After leaving Afghanistan in 1985, the same year I was born, and spending some time in a refugee camp in Pakistan, my family eventually arrived in Australia in 1987. I’m one of five girls – when my parents decided it was too unsafe and unstable to stay in Afghanistan, they fled the country with nothing, and travelled with us, all under the age of 10, facing only uncertainty as displaced and stateless people. We left at the height of the Cold War, when tensions between the US and the USSR were playing out on Afghan soil. During this era, so many Afghan people became exiled, much like what is taking place in Afghanistan now.
My childhood was basically growing up as part of a migrant family, new arrivals negotiating how to start life again. I’ve come to understand that one of the most defining aspects of life as a displaced person is that moment of disconnection from one’s own land and ancestry – it takes life down a path that tends towards questions of identity.
Having arrived in Australia as young children, the two most tangible ways I remained connected to my ancestry were through my connection to language because we all still spoke our native language, and also through food. These touchpoints would, over time, develop and form a pathway for me to explore and interrogate my own self further.
Like so many migrant families, food was an important part of our life, and took on increasing poignancy as our lives unfolded far from our homeland. Apart from cooking and eating together and the significance of food for us at home, my mum would cook food for community weddings or functions and then eventually it turned into catering outside of the community, and then it organically grew into trying out a bricks-and-mortar restaurant to see what would happen. Ever since being a child, my mum had an innate connection with food, and grew up with a love for preparing and sharing Afghan cuisine.
By 2009, here in Adelaide, we had opened the doors to Parwana. Slowly people started to find out about it and things became busier and busier. Sharing Afghan cuisine became something central in our lives – it offered a way to stay tethered to our own history, while contributing something beautiful of Afghanistan with those in our new home. I wrote the cookbook with my family before this latest rise of the Taliban just this year. But even before then, I had this really palpable sense that it would be very important to write the book in a way that drew people into understanding Afghanistan beyond the confines of just these narratives of violence and war that so many around the world associate Afghanistan solely with.
Podium: Was there a time when you were growing up that you ever sort of rejected your culture or being an immigrant or maybe wanting to embrace Australia more? Or have you always embraced your culture like you do now?
DA: There was so much about my life growing up that was about a clash of [Eastern and Western] ideologies. As a young girl, eventually in adolescence, having to negotiate those apparent irreconcilable differences basically formed my identity. I see myself as somebody who had to learn to negotiate my way between cultures. One thing it taught me was that for all the differences we’re taught to perceive about one another, and for the irreconcilability between cultures that has now been normalised in dominant narratives - they can both demand a conformity, a dogma, which plays out in exactly the same way, especially when it comes to demands placed upon women and female bodies and female identities.
So much of my coming of age was about understanding what parts of both of those cultures...I wanted to take on, what parts of those were very life-giving and enriching, and what parts of those I needed to reject so that I could grow more fully into who I wanted to be and not remain confined by these preset ideologies or play into preconceived notions of who I should be. In the end, it ultimately gave me a broader range of ideas from which to crystallise a sense of self from.
Podium: Your cookbook Parwana ties the recipes to Afghanistan and your family's history. Why did you decide to approach writing your cookbook with more of a narrative instead of the more straightforward collection of recipes?
DA: Looking back, it seemed so intuitive for me to write it that way — the cuisine holds a far bigger story than that of food alone. It is a proxy for the broader culture, geography, memories, trading routes and moments in history of a region and its people. The cuisine, with the ingredients and the rituals and the significance of its dishes, tells a story that has been largely neglected in most of our understandings of ourselves – it is emblematic of cross pollination and human creativity that underpins the human story. I felt that writing a cook book about Afghan cuisine, then, was naturally a way to bring Afghanistan out of the ashes of narratives of war and destruction, to add a human dimension to it and to allow people a glimpse into the richness and the layers of its history that are of significance for all of us.
I decided to weave a few narrative strands together in order to try to do that story some justice. One was a historical strand — the things about Afghanistan many people don’t know. Afghanistan is a melting pot and birthplace of so many ideas, a place of cultural fusion from which new culture emerged from and spread. It was also a hub of spirituality and philosophy, home of Zoroastrianism, a key site in how Buddhism spread through the world, a key site for how Islam and Sufism emerged through the world. There are all these unexpected stories about [Afghanistan’s] richness that are reflected in the cuisine that I could tell by reaching far back into its history beyond the last 30, 40 years of what most people understand.
The other layer of the narratives was personal family history. I thought I could combine that into the story of the cuisine and let it meet in moments of history. There were things, like the 1964 constitution of the country, which not many people know about, how it privileged democracy and women's suffrage and revolutionizing the education system. I was interested in how my own family story tied into that history. It was a process of exploration and transformation for me personally. There were so many things that I learned, so many primary sources that I unearthed, so many writers that were telling the story of Afghanistan through Afghan eyes — which is another important part of how I wanted to write the book. For people that have been marginalized by the first world, our histories are always pasted over top of us. It was a chance for me to actually unearth voices of Afghanistan and not just Western sources that ‘study’ us according to notions of our tribalism. I wanted to change the language by changing the sources and by also privileging different forms of knowledge, including oral histories. I spoke to my mum and dad and family members at length about what certain moments in history felt like and looked like. For me, it was definitely never going to be just a cookbook because there was so much I felt I needed to share and recontextualise about Afghanistan. The cuisine to me is emblematic, like an icon of everything about Afghanistan that most people don't have a chance to encounter.
Podium: You've been very active in fundraising and advocating for Afghan refugees following the Taliban's takeover earlier this year. Can you tell us more about the dinners and what sort of response you've received?
DA: In mid-August, when Kabul collapsed to the Taliban and Afghanistan basically began this entry into such trauma and grief, Afghan people everywhere were feeling the convulsions. We were in this state of shock and grief. But very quickly, I felt this irrepressible urge that we had to do something. The most natural fit for me and my family, was to pull together a fundraising dinner. Hospitality is a ritual of healing and togetherness and conversation, you're bringing loved ones and people that you care about together.
It was probably one of the most special things I've ever been a part of because we put the word out that we wanted to do one dinner and within an hour 300 tickets sold. People asked us to host another one and so we opened up for another, and then within a few hours, another 350 tickets sold. People donated their time, skills, belongings and expertise. The sense of urgency amongst our community, the desire to want to contribute in some way, was overwhelmingly, groundingly, supportive.
One of the most important things in conceiving it was, yes, we wanted to raise funds — and we raised around $180,000 — but we also didn't want this to be just about the money in a sense. Of course, any amount of money is important as a matter of survival for people in Afghanistan, but given the scale of the catastrophe there, almost every amount seems just like a drop in the ocean. There had to be more attached to this moment.
For me, it was a really important chance to start different conversations and generate a way for people to understand Afghanistan differently to the way we understand it now so that things make sense when they watch the news. Afghans are being vilified as the architects of the failure of Afghanistan. They're blamed for Afghanistan collapsing, while there is no sense of accountability from the occupying Western forces. I thought, this is a chance to shatter some of those myths and create a concept around everything that's happening in Afghanistan that is much more resonant and grounded in political and historical reality. Afghanistan is not this peripheral issue, but something that has been the entire world's making, and further, it is not just trauma alone – we are vast and multidimensional like all that lives.
It was a really special two nights and lots of other life-giving things rippled out because of it. My aim is to keep building on that work as well because it was a demonstration of what can be achieved. We need togetherness and a shifted understanding, a shifted consciousness around Afghanistan, and I wanted to sow the seeds for it and keep building on that and keep working on it, because obviously it's a very long road ahead for Afghans everywhere.
Podium: It is really heartbreaking to see history repeat itself with the Taliban banning girls' education again. And it also feels like the women and girls who remain in Afghanistan are already fading out of the global consciousness — world leaders no longer have a sense of urgency to help them. How do you think we can continue to ensure the world does not turn away from what is happening in Afghanistan?
DA: This is a difficult question because we live in a world of 24-hour but fleeting news cycles, trying to stay across multiple disasters as we seem to be moving from one moment of catastrophe to another. In so many ways, we are in a hyper-aware world and we're all overexposed to news and information. So I feel as though awareness is one part of what I personally would like to be working towards, but another part is, at a deeper layer, we have to understand the world differently, to see the concerns and perspectives of those that have for too long, been erased. To me, it's not necessarily about saying, “How can we keep something at the peak of a news cycle?”
I feel as though we've come to this critical moment collectively in the world where we have to understand disasters like that in Afghanistan differently and see them as part of an interconnected chain – stemming from a sense of power that's been designed to exclude and built on authoritarian hierarchies that stretch back centuries. We need to have completely different conversations around the social norms that we have. There are so many narrative norms that we unquestioningly participate in. But when you start to unpack them a little bit and understand how power and notions of success that regulate our world today are structurally designed to exclude and demonise most, while elevating a handful of others, you begin to see interconnections between what's happening in Afghanistan and, for example, the climate crisis and COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement and Indigenous struggles globally. It’s really important to start to have these multilayered conversations that don’t just demand awareness about an issue, but which aims to move us from a space of aid dependency and crisis, into a place where our future is rooted in a sense of our own cultural identity.
As an Afghan woman, I am thinking about the narratives and language I normalise now, that I want to pass on to the next generation – where we don't see ourselves as a problem or an issue to be solved or as victims alone. We have to be able to reclaim the narratives of ourselves and reorient the world in how it engages with us.
Podium: Last question, are there recipes you turn to in times of distress or when you are in need of comfort?
DA: One important aspect of Afghan cuisine is comfort! One of my favourite recipes is for aush — which is in the book. It’s a hand-rolled noodle soup with lots of protein, different legumes. If you want, you can add some lamb. It's a hearty and warm soup, the density and the richness...it's really comforting. But it's also something that, like so much of our cuisine, we would make together as a family with mum. We would help her roll up the noodles and then put them into the soup. That's one of the most beautiful things about Afghan cuisine is you don't just come together when it's time to eat. The togetherness, the collectiveness is built into every step, every ritual of food. Recipes like that, where you get together and you all work together and you make something and then you enjoy it together, remind me so much of everything about Afghan cuisine that's special.