“Food was never static, but an ever-evolving way to stay anchored to our history while filling our sails with hopes for tomorrow,” writes Durkhanai Ayubi in the prelude to restaurant Parwana’s debut cookbook. “For us, food had become a means to tell a bigger story.”
For Durkhanai and her family – who own and run the beloved Adelaide eatery and its spin-offs Kutchi Deli Parwana and Shirni Parwana – that story is the largely untold history of the country they left behind 35 years ago.
Parwana: Recipes and stories from an Afghan kitchen is not just a cookbook. Yes, there’s a long-awaited collection of vibrant, fragrant and flavourful Afghan recipes – jewelled rice dishes, steamed dumplings, spicy curries, slow-cooked meats, flatbreads and sweet desserts – that have made Parwana one of Adelaide’s, and Australia’s, top dining destinations.
But punctuating these recipes is a detailed retelling of Afghanistan’s political and cultural history through the centuries, and an eye-opening reclamation of a broader narrative usually pushed aside in favour of accounts of war and unrest. Like the Ayubi family’s Torrensville restaurant, this book is a vehicle for sharing stories.
“So much of our history and the narrative surrounding Afghanistan are about really damaging things. And that’s not my experience of being Afghan and being a displaced person and a migrant,” says Durkhanai, who is also freelance writer and undertaking a Fellowship for Social Equity funded by the Atlantic Institute in New York.
“I know how much richness and joy and immense history is attached to my story, and I wanted people to be able to engage with these recipes – which are really special to me and my family and my mum [Farida Ayubi], and have obviously become a huge part of our life here in Australia – in a way that wasn’t superficial and wasn’t about ‘refugees come good’.
“So if I was going to write [a cookbook], I wanted to be really careful and considered and thoughtful about the huge history beneath it. And I’m not a historian, so I didn’t want to write it in a way that was impersonal. So I thought the only way I could tell this story, and in a way that resonates with me, is to tell it through the lens of where my family was during these moments and events.”
The five-part book includes recipes from significant moments in Farida’s life; dishes made to mark cultural occasions such as Nowruz, a New Year’s Eve celebration significant throughout Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia; popular Afghan street foods; and highlights from Parwana (yes, the crowd-favourite banjaan borani – braised eggplant in tomato sauce and drizzled with yoghurt – is in there).
The book details the jumble of cultures and cuisines that have come to define Afghan food – influenced by its position at the juncture of the once bustling Silk Road trade route – from the dahls and spices of India, to the hand-rolled noodles and dumplings of China and Mongolia, to the rose water and syrupy, nutty desserts of Turkey and the Middle East.
“Afghanistan sits at the centre of Central Asia, which is basically where all the different trade routes diverged, so north to south and east to west,” says Durkhanai. “So it’s kind of like this time capsule of what happened when all those cultures mixed together.”
Contemporary Afghan culture, she says, “is about that history – we have so many different bloodlines … whether it’s the ancient Greek bloodline, the Indians, the Asian influences that came down from China and Mongolia. All of this blends together to create who we are.”
Durkhanai says immersing herself in her own history was “the most rewarding and cathartic experience ever”.
“Because I just understood myself and my family and my parents and their mannerisms and what’s important to me – this ancient history that’s trickled through into the reality of my everyday life – and I finally could piece together where it all came from. It was a really amazing and joyous, almost meditative experience.”
Flashing forward to more recent history, the Ayubi family – Durkhanai, her siblings and her parents, Zelmai and Farida – fled Afghanistan at the height of the Cold War in 1985, after members of their family were taken in the middle of the night and never seen again.
“Before the war, [Afghanistan] wasn’t a fanatical Islamic state,” Durkhanai told Broadsheet in 2017. “It was a monarchy, it was relatively secular, and people of all different faiths and expressions lived together. War changed all of that.”
The Ayubis landed in Melbourne before settling in Adelaide. Zelmai, a lawyer, took on odd jobs, while Farida – who previously worked as a teacher – raised their five children. “They had to start from scratch, because of course no one comes over with anything,” Durkhanai said. “But when you’re in that situation and you come out with your life and your children’s lives, you’re pretty grateful. You just rebuild with all the important things there.”
When Parwana opened in 2009, Durkhanai was working interstate as a policy analyst and writer. In 2013, she came home to work in the family business, and opened Kutchi Deli on Ebenezer Place a year later.
She hopes that the book, like her family’s restaurants, can facilitate a broader understanding not only of Afghanistan, but of readers’ own family histories, too.
Through her research, she saw “just how much of our world is shaped by narratives of domination and authoritarianism and power being imposed on people . . . But then when you dig into the human story, you see actually a really important part of our history that’s so negated is about interconnection and shared dependency and an exchange of philosophies and ideas,” she says.
“I want people to be surprised by the things they don’t know about Afghanistan. And ultimately I want people to see themselves in [the book], because I really believe the story that we’ve lost – to our own detriment as a civilisation – is just how interconnected our pasts are. And I want people to see that when they plate up this food, the reason parts of it might seem or taste or look familiar is because it is. I think that offers us a path forward for a world that is more cohesive and connected.”
Parwana: Recipes and stories from an Afghan kitchen is out now through Murdoch Books.