It’s been over a decade since The Kite Runner was first published, and although it spent nearly two years on the NYT best-seller list I never got around to reading it. My mom thought the subject material too disturbing for a twelve year old, so at the peak of its popularity The Kite Runner occupied the Inappropriate category of my mental library (subcategory: Scary). Eventually I just forgot about it.
Her reasoning made sense at the time – I thought some of the Harry Potter books were frightening enough, and The Kite Runner actually has plausible antagonists. (Yes, I was kind of a wimp.) More awkwardly, the parental shield didn’t just block stories of violence and war, but those of sex and romance as well. This was tested to its limits during our weekend family TV nights when we’d barrel through soapy Chinese dramas until the sun rose. While most of the material was relatively benign, every few episodes would have inevitable romantic escalation that was Not OK in the eyes of conservative Chinese parents. As part of his diversion efforts, my dad became very good at making sesame bagels from scratch; they’d emerge hot and buttered just in time to divert attention from the scenes on-screen. He’ll likely claim that correlation isn’t causation here, but I find it suspicious that as I grew older the movie nights continued and the bagels did not.
I recently remembered The Kite Runner again and ended up reading all three of Khaled Hosseini’s novels in quick succession. I'll admit the delay has brought me to an age when I'm more able to appreciate them. While his narratives contain shocking content, Hosseini's diction is devoid of sentimentality or voyeurism, making the web of relationships between friends and family the central focus. I like this kind of book, which explores foreign cultures without any "othering" and tragic circumstances without being melodramatic. Read all three and you'll notice some similarities: Hosseini writes what he knows, so the characters live in Kabul and immigrate to the Bay Area. And on a less serious note, each novel has devoted at least couple of paragraphs to the Afghan kabob! I found myself craving deep, fragrant Middle Eastern spices during my Hosseini book binge; taste and smell, after all, are the most powerfully evocative senses.
So after much reading while snacking on kabobs and flatbreads, I ended up developing my own Afghan-inspired dish. Kabuli Pulao is a national dish of Afghanistan, made by steaming rice mixed with spices, aromatics, and meat then topped with fried carrots, nuts, and raisins. I simply swapped out the traditional long-grained rice with sticky rice, which I love for its texture and ability to soak up flavor. The result had the warm, penetrating heat characteristic of Middle Eastern dishes, cut through with bursts of sweetness. Food inspired by a story tells one too.
Kabuli Pulao-Style Sticky Rice (serves 2)
- 1 1/2 cups sticky rice
- 6 boneless chicken thighs, chopped
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, smashed
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- Salt, pepper
- 1/2 cup chicken stock
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 small onion, diced
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 1/2 cup shelled pistachios
- 1/2 carrot, grated
- Steamer basket and leaves (bamboo, banana, lotus, or cabbage leaves)
The night before: Soak sticky rice in water; set aside. Make the chicken marinade by combining olive oil, garlic, cumin, paprika, turmeric, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Toss the chicken strips in this mixture and let marinate overnight.
The next day, begin by browning the chicken: Heat a large pan or Dutch oven to medium high heat and add the chicken and marinade. Stir until the chicken is browned, 3-5 minutes, and then remove from heat and set aside. There will be browned bits remaining in the pan; deglaze with the 1/2 cup chicken stock and reduce heat to low.
Create flavor base for rice: Add tomato paste and chopped onion to the pan, stir until the onions are just translucent. Turn off the heat. Drain the rice and pour the rice, along with 1/2 of the raisins, into the pan; mix until the rice is fully coated with the stock and flavorful oil. Finally, mix in the chicken and the resting juices.
Steam: Line a steamer basket with the leaves of choice. Fill it with the rice and chicken mixture, and steam over low heat for 1 - 1 1/2 hours, or until the rice is quite tender and sticky.
Prepare the garnish: Saute the remaining raisins, grated carrot, and pistachios over medium high heat until the carrots are tender and the raw edge is off, ~3 minutes.
Serve: Top the sticky rice with the garnish, and enjoy with hot sauce and/or yogurt sauce.