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MARKETS : Old Rice and Orange Prunes

Hawthorne Market and International Grocery, 24202 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance, (310) 373-4448. Open 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.

Hawthorne Market may not be as impressive as the large department store that owner Shakour Hamidzadah left behind in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, but it’s the best Middle Eastern market in the South Bay.

In 1978, Hamidzadah had just finished putting up a new five-story building in Kabul when Russian tanks rolled into his country.

As one of the largest stores in the country, it was an obvious target for government confiscation, so he canceled his plans to expand into the upper floors of the building. He also urged his two sons, then studying in Europe, to stay out of Afghanistan, where potential emigres were known to be executed. One day, with his wife and remaining children safely in India, Hamidzadah packed a small bag, quietly went on a business trip abroad, and never returned.

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In 1983, with the family reunited in the South Bay, Hamidzadah acquired the tiny, struggling Hawthorne Market. Over the years he has managed to expand into three adjoining retail spaces, which are now as well laid out as any department store. Orderly displays of cookware, produce, Middle Eastern and Indian ingredients are arrayed in a bright airy space efficiently run by Hamidzadah and several of his adult children.

Many of the goods found on the market’s shelves are manufactured or packed in the United States by people who, like Hamidzadah, have had to start anew. There are the Afghan-style pickles produced by a small company in Lancaster. Shelves by the door hold delicate Iranian-style cookies from several bakeries around town. The dairy case keeps American-made chaka, kashk and Middle Eastern breakfast cream to spread on locally made Afghan breakfast bread. Alongside the spices are Iranian herb blends packaged in Encino.

This eclectic mix means Hawthorne Market is well stocked with the basic ingredients of the Afghan larder. Because the country is located along the trade and invasion routes between Central Asia and India, Afghan cookery has a lot in common with both Indian and Near Eastern. It has inherited North Indian masalas and dals as well as Near Eastern kebabs and the Persian flair with fresh herbs. Afghan naan is the direct ancestor of India’s tandoori-baked naan bread (but they’re pronounced differently--the Afghan “aa” sounds like the English “aw”).

At the moment, the only restaurants where you can sample Afghan food in California are San Diego’s Khyber Pass and Helmand in San Francisco. But Afghan dishes are easily made at home. And if you want to try your hand at this cuisine, Hawthorne Market carries a cookbook that includes Afghan recipes. Fortunately you won’t have to make do with the recommended substitutions for qurut or aash. The ingredients are all here, and Jamila Hamidzadah, an excellent cook, is also on hand to advise you.

Note: Afghanistan has two official languages, Pashto and Dari, the latter being very close to the Farsi spoken in Iran. Dari terminology is used here.

SHOPPING LIST

RICE

Urban Afghans eat rice at nearly every meal. Chalau (rhymes with “allow”; known in neighboring Iran as chelo) is plain basmati rice served with one or another type of curry-like sauce/stew ( qorma ) on top. In palau, rice is steamed with fragrant, spiced meat or vegetables and sometimes garnished with nuts or dried fruit.

Given the Middle Eastern and Indian passion for the grain, it’s not surprising that Hawthorne carries many kinds of rice--15, to be exact. Most of these are various qualities and brands of basmati, one of the longest and most slender-grained of all rice varieties. In Iran and Pakistan, farmers add to its aromatic flavor (basmati is simply a Hindustani word meaning fragrant) by smoking the rice in an earthen room for several days. The best basmati, says Jamila, is aged for as many as 20 years in salt, but it’s unavailable outside the Near East. Fussy Afghan cooks here prefer Elephant Brand. Aged more than a year, it has the longest and cleanest grains.

Jasmine rice, one-third the price of basmati, has a lovely fragrant aroma too, but the grains aren’t as long as good basmati, and the rice may break and stick together unless it’s expertly handled.

While basmati is the preferred rice for chalau and palau, the short-grain glutinous rice, often referred to as Japanese-style rice, is the grain of choice for shola dishes and some soups. Shola is both the Dari word for the grain and the name of a dish that combines the rice with cooked mung beans. Shole shiriin (“sweet shola "), a milky rice pudding-like dessert, is reminiscent of Indian khir, while shole holba, made with meat, is flavored with the fresh fenugreek ( holba ) leaves found in the produce department.

BREADS

* Naan: The market carries all sorts of breads familiar to anyone who shops in Middle Eastern markets, but several here are specifically Afghan. You can’t miss the naan, an enormous focaccia-like flat oval loaf, almost a yard long and a foot-and-a-half wide. This slightly leavened bread, sprinkled with sesame seeds, accompanies most meals, and at breakfast it’s served with feta-type cheese and fresh mint.

* Rot (pronounced rote ): A sweet breakfast bread, labeled “Afghani cookie bread,” rot is an inch-thick round, about the diameter of a large pita. It’s made with milk and eggs, only slightly sweetened and intensely flavored with cardamom. The bread is delicious dipped in tea or spread with rich creamy qaymaaq, a special thick cream.

* Lawaash: Also known as paraki in Afghanistan, lawaash is a tortilla-thin bread the size of a small tablecloth with tiny puncture-marks over its entire surface. Traditionally the bread was baked on the side of a cylindrical clay tandoor oven, but today tunnel ovens equipped with conveyer belts do the baking. Lawaash comes folded like cloth and sealed in plastic food bags. As in Iran, where it’s called naan-e-lavaash , lawaash is served under fried or grilled kebabs and torn off in chunks to use as an eating utensil.

DAIRY PRODUCTS

* Qurut (also spelled quroot ): Imagine what you might do if the milkman came to town once a month. In the Near East and Central Asia, people have solved this problem by making a salted, thickened yogurt and drying it out until it resembles a piece of chalky stone.

Qurut is rarely eaten in this form, though, except by pregnant women, who snack on pieces of it. Cooks turn the qurut into a thick, nearly yogurt-like cream by soaking it and rubbing it on a stone under water. The reconstituted qurut thickens sauces or makes a creamy topping for vegetables.

At Hawthorne, qurut comes in three forms. In the spice section you’ll find it both in chunks and crumbled into a beige powder. In the dairy case are jars of reconstituted qurut. Some packages may be labeled kashk, the product’s Persian name ( qurut is a word borrowed from the Central Asian Turks).

* Chaka (labneh): Throughout the Near East and Central Asia, people drain the whey from yogurt to make a sort of tangy cream cheese. The Dari word for it is chaka, though the brand Hawthorne Market sells uses the Arabic word labneh on the label. This brand also happens to be made from kefir, a cousin of yogurt native to the Caucasus Mountains, which is a little less tart than most yogurt. The result is like a dense, spreadable sour cream (the label boasts that it has only 60 calories per ounce, as opposed to 105 calories for cream cheese). Chaka’s use as a topping is illustrated by the recipe that follows for Mrs. Hamidzadah’s Buraani Baanjaan.

* Qaimaaq: You’ll find this cousin of English clotted cream in small cartons labeled “breakfast cream.” It’s a thick, sweet, slightly evaporated cream, and as the name indicates, it is good spread on the Armenian sweet bread gata or the above-mentioned rot to eat with breakfast tea.

FRESH HERBS

Hawthorne’s produce department stocks many herbs found in Iranian dishes, such as a Near Eastern basil. The herbs I’ve listed here are all used in Afghan cooking and identified by their Dari name. Some are seasonal, so cooks frequently substitute the dried ones found neatly packaged in the store’s spice section.

* Taratezak: This Near Eastern-style watercress with zigzag-edged leaves, unlike the smooth leaves of common watercress, is eaten as a salad dressed with lemon juice, garlic and salt or simply offered plain as a garnish to be munched along with other foods as a refreshing counterpoint.

* Gandana: At first glance this bundle of herbs could be mistaken for sawed-off Chinese chives, but gandana is actually the tops of young leeks. It’s best known in a filling for aashak, the Afghan-style boiled dumplings similar to ravioli, which are served with a Near Eastern-style ground meat sauce and topped with garlic-laced chaka. Another gandana -filled pastry, bulaani, is much larger so cooks here have adopted egg roll wrappers for the covering. Bulaani (also spelled boolawnee) may also be filled with seasoned potatoes and then either shallow- or deep-fried, much like Indian samosas. Like samosas, they are both street food and something you serve at a festive celebration.

* Dill (shebed or shabit) : This familiar herb is often used in stews and soups. For instance, the beloved shola includes plenty of dill mixed with short grain rice and mung beans. And maashawa, a popular meatball soup based on yellow split peas, mung beans and red beans, has generous amounts of dill stirred in just before it is served.

* Cilantro (gashniiz) : Afghanistan is definitely part of the Cilantro Belt--cilantro is so abundant in the cuisine it’s often referred to as Afghan parsley. Chatni gashniiz, a blend of finely chopped fresh cilantro, minced nuts, garlic and a touch of chile, is a fresh chutney offered at nearly every meal. And copious quantities of gashniiz flavor Zamurud Palau, a rice dish made with spinach and meat.

* Mint: Known in Dari as naana, mint flavors sweet drinks and fresh fruit desserts and is ever-present as a green garnish. For breakfast, naana always appears along with the bread and cheese.

* Holba: Fenugreek greens, seldom found fresh elsewhere, are used in shole holba, described in the rice section.

SPICES AND SEASONINGS

* Ghora angur: Sour, unripe grapes are sold fresh (in season), frozen and bottled (as juice), and are used by Iranian cooks to flavor khoresh , their equivalent of the Afghan qorma. But Afghans prefer sour grapes dried and ground to sprinkle over kebabs--it truly enhances the meat’s flavor. (For sprinkling purposes, Iranians use sour dried sumac berries, also sold here.)

* Cardamom: Sold whole or ground, cardamom often flavors Afghan tea and is favored in baked goods and pudding-like desserts made from rice, cornstarch or semolina.

* Masala Palau: Rice seasoning, as it is labeled on the package, is a convenient mixture of spices that includes cinnamon, cloves, rosehips, ginger and cardamom. Masala Palau goes into many stews and rice dishes, notably qaabuli palau . Traditionally made in massive quantities on Fridays after the men of the household return from services at their local Mosque, qaabuli palau is presented on huge ornately decorated platters. The store carries these in its cookware department.

* Curry powder and other seasonings: The familiar-looking ocher mixture of ground turmeric, cumin, cinnamon and other curry spices is, according to Jamila, what many Afghan cooks use in their qormas. Each of the spices in masala palau and curry powder come packaged separately. And the store also offers a complete selection of seasonings for Near Eastern cooking.

MISCELLANEOUS GOODS

* Aash: Also spelled awsh, this word means any grain-thickened soup in Iran, but in Afghanistan it’s a fairly baroque soup made with a thin, flat pasta that is also known as aash. The soup is a thick mixture of yellow split peas (dal nakhud), kidney beans and spinach topped with a delicious meat sauce and then a layer of yogurt sprinkled with dry mint and garnished with fresh coriander. The aash noodles Hawthorne Market sells come in a package labeled in Dari, Farsi and English.

* Turshi: Pickles are an Afghan mealtime fixture, and those sold here, made by Shamco International, are a tart mix of vegetables that includes pumpkin, eggplant and cauliflower enhanced with garlic, mint and other seasonings.

* Dessert flavorings: Lettuce might not seem like a special treat, but in Afghanistan, when unripe fruits are still on the trees, street vendors sell snacks of lettuce (usually romaine) dipped in sakanjabiin, a refreshing blend of sugar, water and vinegar with a pronounced mint flavor. Hawthorne Market sells bottled sakanjabiin. For a dessert or a snack at home, this sweet-sour syrup is served with a few fresh mint leaves in a shallow dish with lettuce for dipping on the side. Mixed with ice water, sakanjabiin also makes a refreshing drink.

For Afghan-style desserts there’s a good supply of rose water and orange flower water. Afghans like to pour these essences over vanilla ice cream--almost like a sauce--to impart that indescribable Near Eastern perfume.

* Bukhara prunes: These tiny, very tart, deep orange prunes are imported from the area where Afghanistan joins the southern region of the former USSR. They give the same tang to many Afghan qormas that Iranians would provide in similar dishes by adding pomegranate juice, quinces or unripe grapes. When this hard-to-get item is unavailable, the tart yellow prunes, also sold at Hawthorne, may be substituted.

* Senjed: These are the genuine jujubes--not the chewy candy you buy in the movie theater, but dried fruits that resemble small dates until you bite into them and discover their tangy flavor and dry, almost cottony, texture.

* Dried Mulberries: Mulberry trees grow prolifically in many areas of Afghanistan, and the flavor of their tiny yellow berries is sorely missed by homesick Afghans. They can’t get fresh mulberries, but the dried fruit, which resembles a bumpy yellow currant, is available. In Afghanistan, dried mulberries are often mixed with nuts and served as a snack to children at school or offered to guests as a sign of hospitality.

* Teas and coffees: Hawthorne grinds to order several styles of Middle Eastern coffee including Turkish, Arabic and Armenian. Of the packaged coffees, the “Turkish"--flavored with cardamom (actually a Bedouin, rather than a Turkish, thing to do) and packed in keep-fresh vented bags--is most intriguing.

Afghans, who drink tea at least four times a day, enjoy both black and green tea spiked with cardamom. Hawthorne’s selection includes Temple of Heaven brand Chinese green tea packed in tin boxes decorated with scenic gardens and women in flowing robes. Among the full-bodied black teas are the Royal Darjeeling in little wooden chests emblazoned with a crest, Indian Kalimi and a black tea packed in Calcutta.

* Floral Teas: Little bell-shaped purple flowers, gol-e gavzaban, are dried for a tea that is reputedly good for the heart and for stress. The flavor of gol-e gavzaban tea is mild, honeysuckle-like and slightly tart. It’s an Irainian favorite, served with or without sugar. Gul-e khatmi , a soothing yellow flower tea, vaguely resembling camomile, has a reputation in Afghanistan for alleviating children’s coughs.

SWEETS

* Nuqul: These sugared almonds or roasted chickpeas have a faint perfume of lemon and cardamom. “Nuqul represent good times and celebrations,” according to the package label, which has also dubbed the candies “Almond D’light” for an American audience. Jamila says that people eat nuqul all the time but especially at Id Ramadan, three days after the yearly Muslim fast, and Id Qorban, three days after the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca. In any case, the lacy-looking candies are clear relatives of the opaque, sugar-coated Jordan almonds found in Near Eastern homes. Some might prefer nuqul because they are less sweet.

* Nabaat: Crystalline rock candy is another favorite treat with Afghans, and it comes in many shades, from pure white to dark brown. Guests are often welcomed with nabaat and a cup of tea. The pale beige version is thought to relieve children’s stomach aches.

* Pastries: Although Afghanistan has a whole pastry repertoire of its own, here in Los Angeles the more easily acquired Persian-style sweets are often substituted. One pastry case holds bamieh, a walnut-sized fried pastry drizzled with heavy syrup; thin sweet Persian baklava flavored with cardamom and rose water; and jilebi , a thin cylinder of dough piped in concentric circles into hot oil and then dipped in a sugar syrup. Another case holds Turkish delight buried in snowy powdered sugar, and baklavas and cookies.

This festive-looking dish with seasoned rice mounded high over spiced, stewed meat and garnished with raisins and thin wisps of carrot makes terrific entertaining fare.

MRS. HAMIDZADAH’S QAABULI PALAU

1 2/3 cups basmati rice

3 tablespoons oil, about

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound cubed beef or lamb or 1 pound boneless chicken meat, cut into about 2-inch square pieces

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons masala palau

3/4 cup water, about

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

2 large carrots, cut into long thin julienne

1/3 cup raisins

Chatni Gashniiz Afghan-style vegetable pickles

Wash rice several times until washing water runs clear. Soak rice overnight or at least 4 hours in water 2 inches above rice.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large skillet. Add onion and garlic and saute over medium heat, stirring frequently, until tender. Push onion and garlic to side of pan and add little more oil. Add meat and brown on all sides. Stir in cumin and masala palau. Blend in 1/4 cup water and cook about 3 minutes. Stir in remaining water.

Cover pan tightly, reduce heat to low and simmer beef or lamb about 1 hour until completely tender. (If using chicken breast, simmer about 20 minutes).

Add more water, if sauce is thick and dry (volume should almost be same as when you began to simmer meat). Season to taste with salt. Remove meat from sauce.

Drain rice and cook in 1 quart boiling water in large pan until done, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain well and return to pan. Add sauce to rice, stirring gently to blend. Turn rice into lightly oiled 13x9-inch glass baking dish. Cover with foil and bake at 300 degrees 15 minutes. Remove dish from oven and bury meat pieces in rice. Continue to bake 10 to 15 minutes more just until rice is tender. Do not overcook.

While rice is baking, saute carrots in little oil until barely tender. Add raisins, cover pan and cook about 5 minutes or until raisins are puffy.

Turn palau onto large plate or platter and garnish top with carrots and raisins. Pass Chatni Gashniiz and pickles separately. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Chatni Gashniiz (Fresh Cilantro Chutney)

2 bunches cilantro (gashniiz) leaves

2 cloves garlic

1 serrano chile, seeded, if desired, for mild chatni

1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

1 tablespoon distilled vinegar, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Chop cilantro and garlic finely in food processor. Add serrano chile, walnuts, vinegar and salt. Blend until almost pureed. Adjust vinegar and salt to taste.

This is often served as a side dish with palaus.

MRS. HAMIDZADAH’S BURAANI BAANJAAN (Baked Eggplant With Yogurt Sauce)

3 large Japanese eggplants

Salt

Oil

1 large tomato, seeded and chopped

1 clove crushed garlic

1/4 cup water

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

Labneh

2 teaspoons dried mint, or to taste

Cut stems from eggplants and slice lengthwise. Sprinkle with salt on both sides and let stand 30 minutes. Blot dry with paper towels.

Heat 1/4 cup oil in skillet over medium-high heat and fry eggplant slices on both sides, few at time, until tender. Remove to double layer of paper towels.

Wipe out skillet. Heat about 2 tablespoons oil and saute tomato and garlic until tender. Add water, 1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste and turmeric, cover and simmer 10 minutes.

Arrange eggplant slices in lightly oiled glass baking dish and top with tomato mixture. Cover and bake at 350 degrees until warm throughout.

To serve, place tablespoon-size mounds of labneh over top of dish and sprinkle with dried mint. Makes 4 to 6 servings as side dish.


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