Breaking Down Cultural Barriers with Food in Afghanistan
It should have come as no surprise that my favorite Dari word from nine intro language lessons would have been “lunch.”
The first step to traveling respectfully is to learn how to say “hello” “thank you” and “goodbye” in the local language. The second step is to learn a few things food related, because no matter where you are in the world, you are going to need to eat.
Thanks to volunteer work and media support of the humanitarian organization Mountain2Mountain, my good friend and founder Shannon asked me to come along on a trip to Afghanistan to help produce the organization’s latest endeavor, several full-scale public photo exhibits in and around Kabul. The first line in her email went something like, “I know going to Afghanistan is a big decision, so I will give you time to think about it.” The second line went something like “but I hope you say yes because there’s so much good food there. Can’t wait to get you fresh squeezed pomegranate juice!”
Sold. She knows me all too well.
Not that the decision to travel to Afghanistan was based upon the prospect of eating new food, but tempting me with lamb kebab and pomegranates was certainly a smart choice on Shannon’s part.
And that was how I found myself sitting on my couch in Portland repeating Dari phrases aloud to myself, overjoyed when I finally learned my first food related word: lunch. Naane chaasht directly translates to “bread noon,” just as ingenious as our own “break fast” if not more so. Bread at noon? Makes complete culinary and linguistic sense.
I wasn’t entirely sure what constituted Afghan cuisine, but based upon previous successful travel-food related adventures I planned ahead and mastered “Afghan food is very delicious” in Dari.
Food and travel go hand in hand, not just because it allows a view into a culture, but also because it provides a thread for connecting two people from two very different places. Put a pot of tea in the center of table and language barriers immediately begin to wash away.
Individual meals, much like people are memorable, reshaping your views of a culture. A country can be looked up in an encyclopedia, a Google alert set up online, but an insight into the everyday only comes from a one-to-one personal connection. In the same vein, it’s easy to find a bulleted list of the top foods of a country, but a shared meal is more than individual ingredients and tastes, it’s an all senses experience, tying together culture and friendship, breaking down barriers; a catalyst for connection.
“Chaaynaki,” says Mohammed, the policeman next to me, the base of his rifle grounded on the floor and the barrel leaning against the side of the toshak that we are sitting on. He is pointing to the tray of silver teapots that the restaurant owner has brought to the table.
“Ah, chaay!” I respond. Chaay means tea, an important word to master in this culture, and I am convinced that teapots must equal tea.
“Nay, chaaynaki” he says with emphasis. Language nuances are always difficult.