How to: Make Qabili Palau

by Joshua Foust on 4/13/2009

Qabili palau is one of those legendary dishes that have made Afghan cuisine famous (or what passes for famous). Taste wise, it is in the same family of other forms of Central Asian plov, and can take a similarly wide variety of meats, spices, and flavors. Again much like Central Asia plov, one’s qabili palau recipe is a very personal thing, and I anticipate much hemming and hawing over how badly I screwed this one up. Here’s the thing, though: it tasted damned good… and what’s more, I made it using only a few bowls, a big pot, and wooden spoon. It can be made everywhere, and judging by the amount of leftovers I had after serving three very hungry people, costs less than four dollars a person to make. Also, since this happened at my friend C’s house, we had to dress up his puggle in a shemagh.

Needless to say, it was an enjoyable way to pass a Saturday evening.

This recipe comes from Afghan Cuisine: Cooking for Life : A Collection of Afghan Recipes (And Other Favorites) for the Novice Afghan and Non-Afghan Cook by Nafisa Sekandari (purchase here). As far as the spices go, believe me it’s worth the work to buy them whole and grind them as you need them—you will never have better tasting spices, and they last longer, too. The recipe itself is actually surprisingly simple:

  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut in half
  • 1 medium white onion
  • 3 cups of basmati rice (pick over it to remove any rocks or other detritus)
  • 1/2 cup oil (I used regular old vegetable oil, but canola would do as well)
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground cardamom (buy the pods, break them apart, and grind the little black nodules inside)
  • 3-4 quarts of water to cook the rice in
  • 2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 carrotes, julienned (I just used a cup and a half of the bagged julienned carrots and it worked just fine)
  • 1/2 cup of black raisins

Wash rice until the water runs clear and soak, covered in water. Sprinkle in at least 2 tablespoons of salt. Grind the spices, and mix in a bowl. Slice the onion into thin half-moons, and caramelize in the bottom of a bit pot until caramelized (i.e. brown a slightly crispy).

Drain the oil out into a separate bowl, then mash the onions in the pot until they are pulpy. Add the oil back to the pot, squeeze in the tomato paste, and add the water. While that’s coming to a boil, wash and trim the chicken breasts of any remaining fat.

Yes, we set up the hookah as well. I highly recommend Fumari tobacco, especially Citrus Mint and the Fumari Apple blend. Add half a squeezed lime (slice the lime and place it in the vase as well if you want to extract the extra lime-ness from the rind) to vase if you’re smoking the citrus mint, or a cup of apple juice and a cup of bourbon to vase if you prefer the apple.

Add the chicken to the mixture and sprinkle in 1 tablespoon of the spice mixture along with 1/4 teaspoon of salt (preferably rock salt, though sea salt would do well too; I would avoid kosher salt here). Make sure the chicken is covered by the liquid, and cook for fifteen minutes. Remove the chicken from the liquid and set aside; drain the pot through a seive—keep the liquid but discard all the solids.

Wash the raisins until the water runs clear, then set them aside. In a small pan, glug some oil and fry the carrots until they just turn warm and a tiny bit soft. Remove and set aside. In a new pot (you can just clean out the other one while the carrots heat up), add the 3-4 quarts of water and bring to a boil. Drain the rice and dump into the pot. Cook until the rice is slightly al dente.

Drain the rice through a colander. Put the rice back into the pot, add the onion liquid and stir until it’s well-incorporated. Sprinkle the remainder of the spice mix over the top and mix. Taste for seasoning, and adjust as needed (especially the salt). Add the chicken to the center of the rice, and pile some over top, forming a mound. Use the back of a wooden spoon to poke several holes through the mound so liquid can escape.

Toss the carrots and raisins on top of the mound, then cover the pot’s lid with a towel and cover. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook for a good 30 minutes, maybe more if the rice needs the time to cook. When ready, Scoop the rice onto a big serving platter, place the chicken in the center, and scoop some rice on top again to form a mound. Scoop the carrots and raisins out and scatter around the platter. Serve family style.

I highly recommend serving with naan of some sort. I’ll cover some of those recipes in the future. And don’t forget to tire your puppy through constant fetching and tug of war!

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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