Maryam’s Narange Chicken Palow
I grew up in Kandahar city in a predominantly Pashtun region of Afghanistan. My paternal grandparents were from tribal Pashtun areas in Afghanistan and their families spread around Afghanistan. My mother’s side was more of a mix and my maternal grandmother was Iranian-born and raised in Tehran, so I really grew up with a mixture of cultures.
My family was raised during the reign of the last king of Afghanistan, King Mohammed Zahir Shah. That time 1933-73 is considered one of the most advanced periods in Afghanistan’s history. Infrastructure, education, women’s rights all advanced with women also being given the opportunity to vote. These freedoms continued until the late 1990s when the Taliban decided to occupy Afghanistan.
It was traditionally expected that women would cook whilst living in their parents’ house and it was considered an obligatory thing to do in preparation for marriage. Hosting dinner events were an essential part of our household. My father being a doctor meant that many people knew him and would randomly and unexpectedly visit our house for dinner gatherings. I remember my mother gladly accepting any guests and cooking up a storm for them.
I grew up in a rather large family. My paternal and maternal sides both have massive families and in our immediate family, I am the second eldest of five sisters and two brothers. We moved a lot in Afghanistan because of my father’s profession. Doctor’s in Afghanistan usually travelled around different states to study and work so we never stayed in one place for that long. I actually spent a year with my Aunty Homa and her husband in Kabul city and didn’t travel around then with my parents.
I was raised in a very strict household. My mother was the disciplinarian and Aunty Homa was too. We weren’t allowed to visit friends or have them over, we weren’t allowed to go out to the movies or to dinner gatherings. This was the norm for most women in Afghanistan; not many young women had access to the outside world unless they were with their family. At certain stages of my life, I pushed the boundaries. I would secretly attend rallies to protest and I would give speeches at major gatherings. And this is how I was spotted at a gathering by my father-in-law. I was giving a speech at an army gathering and my father-in-law who was a General was in attendance. He asked around as to who I was and which family I was from before attending our house and asking for my hand in marriage for his son. This was considered the norm in Afghanistan in the early 1980’s when I got married. It has changed drastically over the years as young men and women decide to get married to whomever they wish without parental pressure but it is still prevalent in certain 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 agreed to the marriage and because I was so close to my father, I willingly said yes. I had an extravagant wedding, more than 1000 people were in attendance because of my father and father-in-law’s positions in Afghanistan.
A year later, I gave birth to a beautiful daughter. And within a few months, my father and grandfather passed away. That was the hardest thing to have to deal with and it still haunts me today after watching him pass away 40 years ago. I was 25 years old and I still cry every time I hear his name. My youngest sister was eight and it was heartbreaking watching her grow up without him in her life.
After the passing of my father, I found comfort in my father-in-law’s house. I was treated like a daughter and not a daughter-in-law, in fact they never made me feel like an outsider. My husband’s family is also quite large, coming from a Pashtun tribe in Afghanistan, and like my family both my husband’s paternal and maternal side of the family were large.
The dinner gatherings at both houses were massive. Once married, I took the responsibility of entertaining guests. Because I had learned how to cook at home, the task of organising dinner gatherings for many people was not that hard.
After the Soviet attack on Afghanistan, my husband and I decided to leave Afghanistan. My mother and a few of my siblings had already gone to Australia so we were sponsored and left Afghanistan in the hope of a brighter future for our kids.
I’ve dedicated the majority of my life to raising my four children. I decided not to work in Australia because I wanted to raise my children myself in a hands-on way. I wanted them to understand the importance of family and how much it means to stay connected to everyone. I hosted many dinner gatherings at my house whilst the kids were growing up which I feel played a part in shaping their understanding of the importance of family and of hospitality.
I also wanted my children to understand the importance of having a mother present, to have food on the table and connect with each other. I see the same qualities in all four of them, now they are married with young kids of their own. Seeing them exhibit the same values is a proud moment for me as a mother.
I guess when you’ve gone through so much in life and your major focus and dedication becomes your kids, then watching them grow and become these amazing people – you feel a sense of pride and joy inside. Now, I attend their houses and am entertained by them. My daughter Nasreen, is passionate about food and about human rights and sometimes when I look at her, I feel she has the same fire that I had within me.
Narange Palow is a dish I have always loved to make. I inherited it from my mother and her mother. It was a regular feature at their dinner gatherings and became one at mine. My family and friends still regularly request it all these years later and I suppose it is one of my signature dishes. It brings back so many memories for me of growing up in Afghanistan and of happy memories here in Australia. I love seeing my children cook it themselves and am so happy to hear Nasreen say that cooking it makes her feel close to her parents, my husband and me. This food gives us both a great sense of continuity. I hope you will enjoy this little taste of my life and one of my favourite savoury dishes.
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Wash the rice in water until all the starch has disappeared. Let it rest in water for 2 hours or more.
Preparing the orange topping
- Peel the oranges in triangular shapes and slice thinly.
- Place the orange peels in a pot with water and simmer until the peel softens.
- Drain the water and return the orange peels to the pot.
- Add cardamom, orange food colouring, sugar and almonds.
- Bring to a simmer then let rest.
Method to prepare Chicken
- Place oil in a large pot and add the chopped onions. As they soften add the garlic and salt and caramelise the onions until dark brown.
- Add the chicken and cook well.
- Add one or two cups of water and simmer for about 30 mins or until the oil has come to the surface or the water has reduced.
- Let it rest until the rice is ready.
- Fill a large pot with water all the way and bring to the boil.
- Add the rice to the water and let it boil until soft.
- Drain the rice and place back in the same pot.
BRINGING THE INGREDIENTS TOGETHER
- Separate the rice into two portions: a larger portion to mix with the chicken and a smaller portion for the orange filling on top.
- Cook the larger portion of rice and towards the end stir in the chicken mix you made earlier. Mix well. Wrap the pot* and let it simmer for 20mins or until the rice makes a crackling sound.
- Strain the orange mix and stir the juice of the orange mix into the smaller portion of rice to give it colour.
- Place the orange rice mix into a smaller pot. Then place the orange peels and almonds all on top with some cardamom. Wrap this pot up with a cloth* and place on the stove to cook for about 20mins.
- Once both lots of rice are done, place the brown chicken rice in a large dish, layering it with chicken and then layering with rice again. Then layer it with the orange coloured rice and place the orange peels and almonds on top. Enjoy!
* Wrap a towel or a cloth around the lid of the pot and place it on top to prevent steam escaping.