Food is a definitive part of most cultural identities, and for Afghans especially, it is a distinct extension of their customs of hospitality and pride. While a lot of the contemporary Afghan food has seen an incredible evolution inspired by those returning from years in refuge after tumultuous decades of war, for a lot of others, preserving the local cuisine is paramount to who they are. The tradition of an early-morning breakfast and chai is among those. Even as Kabul lies in slumber, before the break of the first light of dawn, Kaka Noori, as he is fondly referred to, begins the day’s work along with his crew of helpers, preparing to receive the first customers to their little restaurant for their signature soup, kalah wa pacha (literally translated to leg and head in Dari).
Kalah wa pacha, a simple, yet nutritious soup, made from the legs, heads, and offal of cows and goats, is usually had in the mornings. It is is extremely popular among local men working in labor-intensive jobs such as farmers, soldiers, and even wrestlers. “It’s an extremely rich source of energy, and can keep me going for hours, even if I skip lunch,” explains Rahmattulah, a local wrestler and frequent patron at Noori’s shop.
For thirty years, Noori has been making one of Kabul’s most sought after kalah wa pacha. He left a job as a water supply engineer with the city of Kabul to pursue this business. Located in the Murad Khane, an old and historical district of Kabul that was recently restored to some of its former beauty, Noori’s chai khana sees around 250 to 300 customer daily. Some of them have been coming to him every morning for decades, even through the years of wars and the notorious Taliban regime. “I even had several regular customers among the Taliban ranks too,” he boasts. One portion of the soup costs AFN 120 (less than $2 USD).
Every part of the slaughter—the goat’s feet, heads, legs, brain, tongue, and cow’s legs—are used in this centuries-old traditional soup recipe, which stems from the practice of making plenty from little.
“However, the kalah wa pacha isn’t just a dish of the working class; Zahir Shah, Afghanistan’s last king, was extremely fond of it,” Noori says. It is said that the king made trips to local chai khanas—tea shops—to find the best and the most authentic kalah wa pacha in the city.
Preparations for the soup, the only offering of Noori’s chai khana, starts a day in advance, usually at the end of a working day, around 3 p.m. The parts from the day’s slaughter arrive in the afternoon and the team begins to clean the meat. The hair or fur is burned or razed, while the brain and tongue are taken out and kept aside for cooking later. “Burning helps clean the meat more thoroughly and is a very hygienic approach,” explains Noori.
This moved into a huge pot, filled with salt and enough water to immerse every bit of the meat, and set on a very low flame for the next 12 hours. When Noori and his team return the next morning, they add garlic and spices to this soup and leave it on the flame.
The result is a pot full of tender meat and strong-flavored soup infused with fat and bone marrow juices. The gelatin from the goats’ and cows’ feet give the soup a thick, kind of sticky consistency and buttery flavor. The brain, tongue, and other delicate offal meat in the meanwhile are put through the same process in a different pot, but for a shorter period of time.
All meat is strained and the soup is stored separately, as Noori sets up his counter to welcome the customers who start to arrive as early as 6 a.m. The day’s stock is often depleted by 9 a.m., even though Noori keeps the tea shop open till past noon.
Noori, himself, mans the counter displaying the different meat piece in a neat order around the big pot of soup. Customers can choose the meat they want in their soup, which is served to them sprinkled with spices, a side of chiles, and fresh naan (Afghan bread).
“It is best washed down with a cup of sweet, hot, green tea at the end,” recommends Haji Anwar, a 70-year-old regular customer, who has been having kalah wa pacha for breakfast since he was a young boy. “It costs the same as a portion of kebabs, but is so much more healthier and filling.”
Noori shares an alternate recipe for kalah wa pacha for those who wish to make it at home, with less time involved.
Kalah Wa Pacha
Wash the meat thoroughly and roast the parts that still have fur attached to them to ensure that it is sterile for cooking. Simultaneously, soak the chickpeas and wheat in water.
In slow cooker, add the meat, chickpea, wheat, garlic, a few kernels of black pepper, a spoonful of chili powder, and—most importantly—salt. Bring to a boil.
Then leave it on simmering heat for about 3 hours or till the meat is extremely tender. Add more water if required.
Serve with bread or rice.
Ruchi Kumar is an Indian journalist who has been exploring Afghanistan for the past two years now in search of authentic local cuisines and stories. She has been published in Pacific Standard, Slate, Huffington Post, and The Wire, among others.