My parents, like all Afghans I knew, were spontaneous social animals. They’d wake on a Saturday morning, decide that the house had been much too quiet during the workweek, and then call everyone they knew to invite them over for an evening of bacchanalian merriment. On these occasions, my frenzied family came together to work like a well-oiled machine—everyone playing their part for the greater social good. Mom and I handled food prep and tidying the house. Little brother was charged with the yard. Father handled the shopping. He returned with grocery bags full of fruits, vegetables and the finest cuts of meat for the star of the party, the almighty Afghan kabob. As soon as he put those bags down in the kitchen, mom and I went to work chopping onions, washing handfuls of herbs, soaking basmati in water, and, most importantly, prepping the kabob with the secret family marinade. Every family had one. When asked to share, they’d give you the recipe, minus the few ingredients that made it particular to their family.
Among Afghans, marinating the perfect kabob was as much competitive sport as it was culinary art form. Even within families, brother could be pitted against brother. It was serious business, and everything from the spices used to the duration of grill time was cloaked in secrecy from person to person, and family to family. The basics were simple enough. Unlike the American grill master’s philosophy, respect for the meat was secondary. Marinade was king. And there were a few things the Afghan kabob would never be subject to: bamboo skewers; a simple salt and pepper seasoning; vegetables; teriyaki sauce. We believed in the power of spices, and in marinating for hours, sometimes days, before putting meat on the grill. If your kabob was tasteless or bland, word got around. In the Afghan community, that could mar a family’s reputation.
Mom and I would stand in the kitchen, a heavy-duty stainless steel mixing bowl of meat between us, examining each cube like surgeons at an operating table. Anything the butcher didn’t cut accordingly had to be recut. Anything not worthy of skewering was thrown out. She’d run the marinade through the blender and pour it onto the meat while I kneaded and massaged every morsel. Like all immigrant cooks, my mother worked from taste memory. Even with marinade, she never measured, yet recreated the same flavor again and again. Hours later, before the guests arrived, my father would step in. Together we’d slide tender, spice-infused meat down two-foot-long metal skewers, the marinade running down our arms and trickling off our elbows.
Grill time approached when a substantial number of guests flitted about, warm in the head after heavy rounds of whiskey or vodka, laughing uproariously, their banter rising in volume and keeping the neighborhood from sleep. An experienced host knew that it was time to bring out the kabobs. The sizzle of meat hitting the hot grill, the hiss and crackle of marinade dripping onto hot coals, and the gamey smoke my father fanned into the air drew the revelers in. He would ceremoniously slide the savory meat off the long skewers into flat naan bread, which he held like a catcher’s mitt, and passed them around, hot, juicy and tender. It was the moment everyone waited for. As children, it was also the moment we waited for—not because we were hungry, but because as a family we were flooded with praise for a successful party and a meal flavorfully executed.
I can’t give away the family recipe, and there’s no such thing as exact measurements where I come from, but the foundation of a good Afghan kabob marinade is as follows:
Recipe for afghan kabobs.