“When you look at the arc of history, it’s so short-sighted, right?” Durkhanai tells The Adelaide Review. “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 page after eye-popping page of 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.