For just over a decade the Ayubi family has won hearts, minds and bellies at Parwana Afghan Kitchen. In a new book of stories and recipes, Durkhanai Ayubi shows how each dish is steeped in history, loss and preservation.
“When you look at the arc of history, it’s so short-sighted, right?” Durkhanai says. “I just knew it was so important that if anybody was going to engage with Afghan food and our story, I wanted it to be from a place that was much deeper. It wasn’t just this superficial, ‘Aw, refugees come good’ story, but actually challenging myself and everyone who reads it to think about our place in the world today in a much broader context.”
Between her mother’s vividly photographed recipes, Durkhanai weaves together the broader story of their homeland – the longue durée of an oft-misunderstood ‘graveyard of empires’, that for centuries sat at the juncture of continents, trade routes and conquerors.
Durkhanai writes that the modern nation state of Afghanistan is simply the current label applied to “a bricolage of unlikely races and cultures, each with its own gods, languages and customs”. On such a scale, Parwana’s blend of dumplings, curries, rices and sweets becomes nothing less than centuries of history and exchange served up on a plate.
“Our histories are so intertwined, all this imperialism and this redirection of resources, occupation of peoples’ lands… that stuff’s still playing out and we haven’t reckoned with it in so many ways. I really needed to write everything from a place that factored it all in – and that’s not necessarily history, that’s alive. You can’t separate the past from the present.
“But there’s also a flip side to that story,” she says, harking back to the region’s position at the heart of the Silk Road trade route. “It was really important for me to say, well, human history hasn’t always been about dominance and suppression. It’s also been about histories of exchange and ideas, philosophies, art, food… that’s a really big part of our story as a species that we neglect at our own peril.”
Parwana’s story is also a very personal one, as Durkhanai’s matrilineal heritage dovetails with Afghanistan’s more recent fate in the cross-hairs of 20th century imperialism. “So much of Parwana is about my mum (Farida) – you know, they’re her recipes,” she says. “They’re things that were passed down to her.
“In Afghanistan when my mum was growing up she just naturally loved food and loved to cook. I guess she never thought that one day it would be about livelihood, and sharing and staying connected to the memories of things, but that’s what food becomes when you’re displaced.
“It was really important for me to say, well, human history hasn’t always been about dominance and suppression. It’s also been about histories of exchange and ideas, philosophies, art, food.”
“All of a sudden in Australia food became extra important; food is like a proxy of your history and your culture, right? But it’s a good one, because it’s tasty and you can do it together, and we all need to eat. So it became a really important part of our life, and I’d wager that’s the same for a lot of people who are displaced. And it almost becomes this safe and connected place to be. For my parents, who would have been so conscious of what they’d lost, to have us stay connected to our food and to mark certain rituals or celebrations with food became really important. Then, just naturally, it crept into every aspect of our lives.”
Writing the book meant reflecting on the circumstances of the Ayubis’ flight from their homeland in more detail than Durkhanai had before, and a sense of intergenerational loss that is tangible. In Australia, where refugees and migrants are routinely dehumanised, othered and pressured to assimilate, to recognise and share the lives lived and then left behind are important acts.
We meet figures from their family tree: their great grandfather, Azrat Shah Pachach Sahib Tigiri, a Sufi spiritual leader who lived through the height of 18th century European imperialism; their grandmother Bibi Hamida Ghafour, a prominent poet who died when Farida was just four; their paternal grandfather Amin Khan, a military man who oversaw infrastructure projects funded by US and Soviet governments as the region became the focus of Cold War manoeuvring.
“It was really important for me to be able to use my mother and my father’s knowledge, and speak to them really deeply in ways that I hadn’t even spoken to them yet. For me this book was almost cathartic, because I had a chance to dig deeper, and ask, ‘What were you doing at the time that the Saur Revolution was happening? Where were you? Do you remember the minute that the president was gunned down in the Arg?’ Being able to speak to my parents about it and go, blow by blow, ‘What did it feel like when you lost everything?’
“History is interesting, but if I have the chance to tell that history through the eyes of my family and my ancestry, that’s how I wanted to be able to tell this story. And that ties into how Afghans tell stories; we tell them genealogically, we tell the stories of events through the people that were there, and I wanted to carry that on. And it ended up being a really beautiful way for me to explore things about myself and my family and my history that I didn’t even know.”
In Durkhanai’s telling, Parwana ultimately means more than a restaurant, more than a cookbook can hope to express. But across 240-odd pages, she offers readers an extraordinary glimpse.
“It was Mum’s intuition to know that it was important to first have a restaurant that could share these recipes with people in our new home in Adelaide,” she says. “[But we] always understood the importance of being able to collate that into a book, and have it there almost as an act of preservation. And this ties back to the fact that a lot of those regions in the east are the subject of decades now of occupation and imperial conquests in different guises, right?
“For people who come from a land like ours to collate these recipes and put these stories together, it’s an act of reclamation – an act of preservation, and an act of bypassing all the things that are written about us.”