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Travelers to the South Asian country of Afghanistan will not be able to avoid the country's national dish, kabuli pulao, or qabili palaw. This entree features a nutritious and filling blend of several prevalent local flavors. Though variations exist, its key features are browned and traditionally seasoned basmati rice, shredded lamb or chicken and beans, with a distinctive smattering of slivered carrots, nuts and raisins.
Kabuli pulao is primarily served at restaurants or at large gatherings like festivals or weddings. Other native rice dishes requiring less expensive ingredients are more common for everyday dishes. That is not to say, however, that this dish would not be found at an out-of-the-way roadside stand or used to impress visitors from other countries.
The basmati rice and meat are the components of kabuli pulao that require the most precision. The traditional way of preparing the rice starts with rinsing it three times in cold water, then cooking it in the same stock with the meat. This broth builds in flavor with the help of a few distinctively Middle Eastern flavorings.
It all starts with onion caramelizing in a hot, oiled pan, then chunks of lamb or chicken. Then lightly seared, water, salt and seasonings like cumin, saffron, cardamom and cinnamon are added to submerge the meat. The kabuli pulao is covered and should simmer until the meat is soaked through with flavor and tenderness. Various blends of seasonings are possible, leading to any number of flavorful and colorful broths. Other common additions are cloves and masala, which is a native blend of ginger, garlic, onion and chilis.
As soon as the meat is cooked to the chef's satisfaction, it is removed from the stock to avoid being overcooked. Then, the basmati rice and lentils go into the pot, as they take about the same amount of time to cook. None of the rice should stick out of the broth, which will be completely absorbed by the rice and beans after the pot is covered and left over medium-low heat.
While the rice is finishing up, julienne sliced carrots, then full raisins, and finally sliced almonds or other nuts are sauteed in a pan with some oil until cooked and tender. The almonds will take on a slightly brown coloring, and the raisins are said to puff up when ready. Once the rice is done, serving is usually accomplished in one of two ways. Some chefs will scoop the rice into a serving bowl and then layer on the cooked meat, carrots and raisins. Others will combine all the ingredients in the pot and then toss the kabuli pulao before presenting it to diners.