Bismillah and Asalamwalikum.
This month is pretty special. Persian New Year’s is on March 21st. Every new year makes me so happy for one reason - haft mewa, also known as seven fruits.
Someone considered haft mewa to be a salad. It’s not. It’s a dish that is made of water, dried fruit, and nuts. The one thing I will absolutely not eat is senjed. Senjed is a dried red olive. I hated it then and still do. It’s honestly a texture thing.
But everything else in that dish is phenomenal. There’s senjed (of course), apricots, golden raisins, regular raisins, almonds, pistachios, and walnuts. The way haft mewa is made is that the dried fruit is left to soak for a few days before the new year's. The nuts are soaked as well, but then we would have to peel the nuts.
My mom would also make Sabzi, a cooked spinach dish with tender beef/lamb. It is often served with rice or pulao. My mother told me you get good luck for the new year when you eat food that begins with an “s,” or “س.” I have always wanted to follow up with her and ask if that applies to the English language because it would be a great excuse to binge on Sour Patch Kids.
I remember all the nights I would sit beside my mother and help her peel the nuts she soaked for around a night or so. I would try my best to remember not to clip my nails until new year's day because if I clipped them too soon, my nail beds would hurt.
My sisters and I loved peeling almonds because it was the easiest one. Walnuts and pistachios were a lot harder, but my mom is an absolute pro. You would think she spent her whole life making haft mewa.
As I got older, my sisters got busier, so sometimes it would just be my mom and I sitting at night. Sometimes my mom would put on an Afghan news channel, a Turkish drama, or nothing at all. We would both peel the almonds, walnuts, and pistachios and talk to one another. I always felt closer to my mom every year when I did this with her.
We would sit and talk about life. I would tell my mom how much I wanted to sleep in during the mornings and not go to college. My mom would encourage me to go. She would tell me that I’m almost done getting my bachelor’s degree. My mother would then share a memory of her going to school.
Peeled almond after peeled almond, my mother told me her stories of eating pomegranates for less than $2.50 each. She would insert a stick inside of the pomegranate, then stir the stick until the seeds turned into juice.
My mother also told me how she celebrated Eid with all of her aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, parents, and neighbors. My mother would wish them all a happy Eid, then ask for Eidi (money given as a gift during Eid). When my mother wasn't happy with the amount of Eidi she received, she would ask for more.
She told me stories about her childhood friends. My mom told me the games they played, the stories they would share, and how she would get in trouble at school for talking to her friends too much. She also told me that she misses them and that she still thinks about them sometimes.
And like so, every new year I found myself peeling nuts and listening to the stories my mother would share about her life. I grew up hearing these stories and eating all these types of food that I define to be a part of Afghanistan. I grew up seeing pictures of my family sitting and smiling together in Afghanistan. I grew up seeing the beauty of Afghanistan. I still see Afghanistan as beautiful. I don't see Afghanistan as this forever broken and war-torn place the West perceives it as.
I want to see and live in the Afghanistan my mom and dad did. But, I can’t even step into Afghanistan. I never have and fear that I never will. I envy people who can visit their families, see where their parents grew up, visit their family's friends and neighbors, and so on.
Sometimes I wish my parents stayed. Then, I wouldn’t have to live with this guilt of being here, deal with discrimination, and live in a country that steals money from a country for no good reason at all. Of course, I’m thankful to live here, but it does suck to live in the United States and every other country knows this. (Like seriously, masks have the same level of threat as hijabs to some people. And both are nothing to be scared of.)
I appreciated the days I spent cooking with my mother way more once I moved out of the house. My husband and I cook together all the time, but I find myself missing food made from my mother’s hands, hearing the language I grew up with often, and being around my culture. I realized that if I learned to cook like my mother, a part of home will always be with me no matter where I am.
I never understood the meaning of home until moving out either. Food is a huge influence, but it’s culture that makes it feel like home for me (along with my husband and two cats). Home was walking and hearing Tolo news. It was seeing the red handmade carpets throughout the house. It was speaking in Dari with an American accent while not having to worry about what anyone thought. It was a place where I didn’t have to build walls because of my identities.
I wasn’t always so appreciative of my culture. I felt isolated because of my culture for so long when I went to school and in college. I felt this way because no one around me shared my culture.
There was this white kid in my class who came up to me and asked what type of music I listened to. I responded with alternative music such as Fall Out Boy, The All-American Rejects, etc. He looked at me and said, “You look like you would listen to tunak tunak tun tunak tunak tun tunak tunak tun da da da type of music.” This struck me by surprise over how ignorant and racist this was. But he wasn’t wrong. I did (and still do) listen to a lot of Bollywood.
Side note: Many people don’t know this but Bollywood is pretty big everywhere, especially in Afghanistan. My husband, who is Pakistani, was surprised to hear how I grow up watching Bollywood films throughout my childhood. (If you ever catch him talking about DDLJ or any of the old classics, just know I hooked him onto that.)
All the racist comments I heard throughout this time made me feel so isolated. It came to a point when people asked me what my ethnicity was, I said, “I prefer not to answer.” I didn’t tell people I was Afghan unless they were close to me. Eventually, I told people when I was 16 years old.
When I was in college, I had more Muslim friends which made me feel happier. I didn’t know much about religion during that time, but I learned a lot more through my friends. It was great to invite my friends over to iftar (the meal we eat at sunset on our fasting days) or even ask my friends if I can borrow their prayer mat. I heard my first Jummah Khutbah (Friday Sermon) next to one of my college friends.
Most of my friends in college happened to be Desi. I did feel super connected because there are a lot of similar things Afghan culture has in common with Desi culture - language, jalebi, Bollywood, chapli kabob, etc. It made me feel close to home, but it was still isolating.
Most of my friends spoke in Urdu, listened to a lot of songs in Urdu, the clothes were also really different. When I was invited to events, I never really had any Desi clothes to wear. When I did end up wearing Desi clothes to events, they didn’t feel like home.
I sometimes feel the same way when I attend my husband’s family and friends’ events. Most of the time, I do wear my traditional Afghan dresses with heavy sets of earrings. I stick out like a sore thumb every time I do, but I think now people have learned to identify me in them.
I feel the most confident and happiest when I wear my traditional Afghan clothes to events. I know people don’t tend to like the design, colors, material, or embroidery, but that’s more of their personal problem.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that culture ages like cheddar cheese - as more years pass by, the taste gets stronger and more appreciated. And yes, I had full intentions to make a cheese analogy since I am from Wisconsin.
So if you’re ever around an Afghan Restaurant on the 21st of this month or want to check it out in general sometime, look for Sabzi Palao for the new year, or maybe order the classic Kabuli Palao. But whatever you order, get it with a side of Mantu. I promise you, that will be one of your top favorite foods.
And another side note, just know that Afghan food will always taste best from an Afghan mother’s hand, especially if she’s my mother.
Sheer Chai (milk tea) for one
6-8 ounces of water purified/distilled/anything but tap water
1 tsp Black Tea Leaves (CTC tea preferred, I like using Red Label tea)
pinch of cardamom
a splash of milk
Boil your water in a sauce pan (I use the 1 qt./3 qt. sauce pans). Once the water has been boiled turn the temperature down to medium heat and wait 2-3 minutes. Add your black tea leaves and cardamom.
Wait 5 minutes before adding your milk. Add milk to your desired taste or color. I like to add milk until the color of my chai is the same color as an old-fashioned caramel candy. Wait until the milk begins to boil (keep an eye on the sauce pan). If you’re impatient, you can turn the heat up to medium-high. Remember to keep an eye on the sauce pan because the tea might boil over.
Once the tea boils, remove the sauce pan immediately and strain the chai into a cup. Add sugar/sweetener if desired. I like to add (and recommend) 1 tsp of sugar. If you want to take things up a notch, add in a teaspoon of rose water.