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Nasrin Rafiq (center) chats with Sally Van de Water (right) and Isha Vyas (left), in her home after filming an interview.
Nasrin Rafiq (center) chats with Sally Van de Water (right) and Isha Vyas (left), in her home after filming an interview. Photographed by Claire Denny on May 26, 2022.

AFC’s Homegrown Foodways Film Premiere: Afghan Food and Women’s Empowerment with Nasrin Rafiq

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The following is a guest post by folklorist Sally Van de Water, Folklife Programs Manager, Division of Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Arts Institute of Middlesex County, New Jersey. The AFC’s Homegrown Foodways in Central New Jersey film series is a collaboration with Van de Water and colleagues at the Division of Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Arts Institute of Middlesex County. Read the introductory post about the 2022 film series here.

The first film, Folklife, Foodways, and Women’s Empowerment in Afghanistan with Nasrin Rafiq, in the AFC’s 2022 Homegrown Foodways in Central New Jersey film series premiers today! You can watch it in the player above and on the Library of Congress YouTube channel.

The film features Nasrin Rafiq, a relative newcomer to New Jersey and leader in local efforts that serve to welcome recently resettled Afghan refugees. Rafiq grew up in Kabul, Afghanistan, surrounded by the aromatic foods, vibrant textiles, and exquisitely crafted jewelry of Central Asia. She learned to cook after her mother told her that she should not “rely on marrying a rich man and having servants,” and she is now famous among family and friends for her shir berenj and qabuli pulao dishes. Find Rafiq’s recipe for qabuli pulao below!

A post-filming photo of the full Share Your Foodways team and Nasrin Rafiq
Members of the Share Your Foodways team (back row from left to right) videographers Andrew Voigt and Hamza Masood, folklorists Claire Denny and Sally Van de Water; (front row from left to right) Nasrin Rafiq, Share Your Foodways host Carolina Moratti, and Esmeralda Garcia. Photographed by Masood on June 15th, 2022.

Despite the rise of the Taliban, Rafiq worked for more than 15 years to develop women’s empowerment projects, leveraging folklife to create financial independence for Afghan women. Often working with single mothers, Rafiq worked with groups of women all over Afghanistan to mobilize their knowledge of traditional art forms to make textiles, jewelry, and other personal adornment for sale on the international market. She also worked with women farmers to transform former poppy fields into fields for growing the saffron crocus, which supported hundreds of families and created a viable alternative to the opioid industry, an effort that continues today. She has led programs for the United Nations, USAID, and the World Bank, and created jobs for more than 1,000 women.

Nasrin Rafiq prepares adds saffron to the broth for qabuli pulao, a time intensive Afghan dish full of flavor and vibrant color.
Nasrin Rafiq adds saffron to the broth for qabuli pulao, a time intensive Afghan dish full of flavor and vibrant color. Photographed by Claire Denny on June 8th, 2022.

Rafiq and her son left Afghanistan in 2017 after her programs’ successes led to specific threats to her safety. Since moving to the U.S., she has continued to connect Afghan expats and refugees around the country, and provides an important connection between her heartland and new home. When thousands of Afghan refugees were guests at Fort Dix in southern New Jersey in the winter of 2021-2022, Rafiq visited regularly to support newcomer families and help connect them to already established Afghan communities in the U.S. She works in collaboration with local nonprofits to direct donations of household goods, clothing, and other supplies to newcomer families, bringing touches of home. In addition, she maintains connections with friends still in Kabul, and directly supports families in need there. Through the sale of handmade traditional arts – most frequently jewelry and new or repurposed textiles — Rafiq is able to send funds directly to individuals, who then purchase food and medical supplies for women and children in Afghanistan. Rafiq also continues to encourage women to practice their traditional handwork in the hope that — despite the challenges brought by the long war and current strife in Afghanistan — women will be able to support themselves and their families through the practice of traditional arts.

About the Film

Serendipity played an important role in the development and execution of this film project. Knowing we wanted to work with someone in the local Afghan community (hundreds of whom are recently resettled guests following the Operation Allies Welcome operation at New Jersey’s Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst), we reached out to Nasrin Rafiq as a key contact. (Folklife Division Head Isha Vyas’ husband met Rafiq at a local Asian community leadership event and connected her with Isha.) We explained our desire to make our services and programming available to the local Afghan community, including our aim to identify a cook who might be interested in sharing Afghani foodways for this series. When she heard that, she said, “Well, I can cook!”

And can she! Throughout three days of filming, Rafiq treated our Share Your Foodways team to a number of dishes, as deceptively simple as oven-baked bread and as complex as qabuli pulao (see recipe below), always sharing the name, importance, and ingredients of each dish she presented.

Qabuli pulao is perhaps the most emblematic Afghani dish of all: complex, flavorful, and full of vibrant color. Among other delicacies, Nasrin also prepared shir birinj (a rich cardamom and almond-topped rice pudding), saffron teas and yogurt drinks, and chicken kabobs. Viewers can find these recipes and more on Middlesex County’s Share Your Foodways page.

Nasrin Rafiq (left) and program host Carolinia Moratti (right), make bread using an outdoor oven at the home of Esmeralda Garcia.
Nasrin Rafiq (left) and host Carolina Moratti (right), make bread using an outdoor oven at the home of Esmeralda Garcia. Photographed by Claire Denny on June 15th, 2022.

In addition to filming at Rafiq’s home, and in the downtown New Brunswick demonstration kitchen, our shoot led us to the backyard brick oven of Esmerelda Garcia, a gracious host who welcomed us when we learned of Rafiq’s interest in cooking in clay and brick ovens. As viewers will see in the second film we produced on our Middlesex County Share Your Foodways website, Garcia’s exquisite, hand-built backyard oven provided the perfect setting to learn about bolani, a stuffed flatbread.

As with other Share Your Foodways videos, local residents will have an opportunity to try these recipes themselves through our partnership with REPLENISH, the Middlesex County network of food pantry partners. For each video we produce, 100 recipe kits containing all the ingredients necessary to make each dish will be distributed free to families making use of REPLENISH’s partner pantries. In this case, we will be sharing the recipes and ingredients for chicken kabobs and dogh, a refreshing yogurt, cucumber, and mint drink. And stay tuned for the third film in the AFC Homegrown Foodways in Central New Jersey program, which premiers on Wednesday, November 16, and spotlights the work of REPLENISH and the recipe kits!

We are grateful to Nasrin Rafiq and her wonderful family for welcoming us into their lives with such enthusiasm and candor, and we hope that this film celebrates the complexity and richness of Afghan foodways and the women who share them.

Follow along with making qabuli pulao using Rafiq’s recipe below!

Qabuli Pulao

Qabuli Pulao is the Afghan national dish, a light and aromatic rice dish with lamb, or other meat, and carrots and raisins. It is also popular in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Other forms of spelling include Kabuli Pulao, Qabeli Palaw, and Qabuli Palau. In Persian, it is called Qabeli Polo. No matter what, it is flavorful and full of texture, while also being sly: with some secret lamb or chicken hiding under the rice!

A note on ingredients:

  • Meats: Feel free to substitute stewing beef for the lamb. For a lighter dish, use cubed chicken breast or thigh meat. Chicken won’t have to simmer as long to become tender.
  • Dried Fruit: Use golden raisins (sultanas), a mix of golden and black raisins, or some dried apricots.
  • Nuts: Use pistachios or a mix of pistachios and almonds.

Ingredients for 8-10 servings:

  • Basmati rice – 3 cups
  • Vegetable oil – 1/2 cup
  • Stewing lamb or beef, cubed – 2 pounds
  • Onions, thinly sliced – 2
  • 1 1/2 tbsp butter
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1/8 tsp saffron
  • Garlic, minced – 3 or 4 cloves
  • Cinnamon – 1 stick
  • Cardamom pods – 8 to 10
  • Cumin seeds – 2 teaspoons
  • Whole cloves – 6 to 8
  • Stock or water – 2 or 3 cups
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks or shredded
  • Sugar – 1/4 cup
  • Raisins, soaked in water and drained – 1/2 cup
  • Ground cardamom – 1 teaspoon
  • Salt to taste
  • Sliced almonds, toasted – 1/2 cup
  • 1tbsp sliced slivered pistachios
  • Garam masala – 2 teaspoons


In a large bowl, wash and drain the rice in 3 or 4 changes of water. Add more water to cover and set the rice aside to soak for 1 – 2 hours.

Heat 1/4 cup of the vegetable oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium flame and, working in batches, brown the meat on all sides. Remove the meat to a plate and set aside.

Add the onions to the hot oil and sauté until cooked through and softened, 4 – 5 minutes. Then add the garlic and whole spices and sauté for another minute or so.

Return the meat to the pot and pour in the stock or water along with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for about 1 1/2 hours, or until the meat is fork tender.

Strain the meat, onions, and spices from the simmering broth and set aside, reserving the broth.

Heat the remaining 1/4 cup of oil in a sauté pan or large pot over medium flame. Add the carrots and sauté for 1 – 2 minutes to soften. Stir in the sugar and continue to cook for another 1 or 2 minutes to lightly caramelize the sugar, taking care not to let it burn.

Remove from heat and carefully stir in 1 cup of the reserved broth. (Be careful; it may splatter a bit.) Then stir in the raisins, cardamom, and salt to taste and set aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drain the soaked rice and stir it into the boiling water. Return to a boil and cook the rice for 3 or 4 minutes. Then drain the rice, discarding the water, and place it into a large bowl.

Lightly oil or grease the inside of a large ovenproof pot with a lid. Mix the remaining broth with the reserved rice. Spread half the rice smoothly over the bottom of the greased pot. Spread the reserved meat and onions evenly over the rice. Top the meat with the carrots and raisins. Finally, layer the remaining rice smoothly over the other ingredients in the pot.

Use the handle of a wooden spoon to poke four or five holes through to the bottom of the pot. These holes allow excess liquid to boil out of the rice so that it doesn’t get soggy. Cover the top of the pot with a clean kitchen towel. This keeps condensed steam from dripping back onto the rice. Finally, top the pot with a tight-fitting lid and fold the overhanging towel over the lid.

Set the pot over medium-high flame for 3 – 5 minutes. Next, reduce heat to low and simmer gently for 15 – 30 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and let it rest covered for another 10 minutes.

Gently stir the rice and meat together with a large fork. Mound the pulao on a large serving dish and garnish with the toasted almonds and a sprinkling of Garam masala.

Serve warm and enjoy!

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