A Celebratory Afghan Dish Dripping With Sunshine
It is not a beauty, this fruit, and yet it’s coveted. The skin is rough to the touch, bumpy and thick. Beneath it, the flesh is flooded with juice, but too tart to eat straight. In English, it is called sour orange or bitter orange — the first species of orange brought to Europe by the 11th century, a gift of the Arabs. The sweet orange, more placid and less fragrant, today dominates global trade but did not make inroads in the West until hundreds of years later.
To Shazia Saif Naimi, it is norinj, orange in Dari, the language she spoke growing up in Kabul, Afghanistan. When she and her husband, Asadullah Naimi, started their life together in Los Angeles in 1984, she couldn’t find bitter orange in local markets, a necessity for the celebratory Afghan dish norinj pilau. But two kumquat trees stood at the ready in the backyard, and for years, that’s how she made do.
Shazia, who was once a geography teacher, left Afghanistan in 1981 at 31. The army was conscripting young men off the street, and her family sent her to India with her 19-year-old brother, to save him. They wound up living in the Singapore airport for a month, then in a government detention center outside San Francisco. She did not yet know Asadullah: He was a mujahedeen fighter, in the war against Soviet invaders, until he crossed the border into Pakistan in 1983 and later settled in the United States.
Now Asadullah tends to their garden. Out of a small patch of earth, he has coaxed pomegranates, persimmons, peaches and six types of chiles, which he leaves on a tarp in the driveway until parched, then turns into a hot blend for Shazia. He does not like spicy food. It is all for her.
With norinj pilau, he does the work of washing, drying and peeling the oranges, leaving behind as much of the white pith as he can. Then he cuts the peels into skinny strips using a razor blade and brings them to a boil three times, as if performing a task in a fairy tale. Each time he drains the water and refills the pot. It’s a time-consuming method, to make sure that most — but crucially, not all — of the peels’ bitterness is leached out. After the last boil, he stirs in sugar, saffron and cardamom. The scent of honey and white flowers expands through the house. The sugar thickens into syrup and is set aside while the peels, now soft with a jewel-like sheen, are laid out to dry.
In the meantime, Shazia braises the lamb and soaks the rice, carefully massaging the grains to release the starch. Her daughter, Shahla Naimi, who lives across the country in Queens, says that the greatest compliment her mother can give another cook is, “Your rice is excellent.” Eventually, lamb and rice are made one, mounded together with the liquid fat glossing the grains — save for one cup of rice that’s simmered separately with the orange-peel syrup, to be spread over the top like spilled sun.
All the while, the 1956 movie “The Ten Commandments” might be running in the background, alongside the music of Ahmad Zahir, the beloved Afghan pop star of the ’60s and ’70s who wedded folk songs, Persian poetry and electric guitar, and whose sideburns and swooning audiences won him comparisons to Elvis before his early death at 33 (in what many believe was a government-sponsored assassination).
Today Shazia has her own norinj tree, grown from seeds brought by a cousin from Afghanistan. Shahla’s husband, Ethan Frisch, whom she met working at a humanitarian organization in Kabul, learned to boil the peels on a visit with his in-laws two years ago. A founder of the spice company Burlap & Barrel, he is the cook of the couple — Shahla was always “too busy studying” to learn, her mother says — and he pitched her mother the idea of writing down her recipes. “I would scramble after her in the kitchen as she cooked,” he recalls. “It was magnificent,” Shazia says. “These were some of my happiest days.”
Later, back in New York, Shahla found herself craving Afghan food — she turned out to be pregnant — and Ethan was able to recreate her mother’s dishes for her, the likes of bamiya (okra) and kecheri quroot (sticky rice and lentils with meatballs and yogurt). After their son was born, her parents flew out, carting a giant container of frozen aushak (leek-scallion dumplings). “And nine pomegranates,” Shahla adds. The orange tree was not yet in fruit, but next time, her mother promised: norinj.
Recipe: Norinj Pilau (Rice With Candied Orange Peel, Saffron and Lamb)