Eid-al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, and Muslims all over the world celebrate by feasting. Lamb, often bought whole, is considered the finest meat to serve family, friends, and neighbors who often drop by unannounced throughout the three-day celebration. Often the lamb is cooked ahead of time and reheated, while the accompanying dishes are made fresh as visitors make their way through the front door.
Khadija Hemmati, an Afghan chef based in Charlottesville, VA, stopped by on a Sunday evening with two lamb shanks and an Instant Pot cradled under her arm. She taught me how to make kabuli palao, a traditional Afghan dish of tender spiced lamb served alongside rice bejeweled with almonds, pistachios, carrots, and sultanas. Each component is prepared and cooked separately, and then beautifully layered right before serving. It’s a labor of love worthy of the most important time of the year.
What is Advieh?
Advieh, a Persian spice blend, is used to season the lamb. There are so many blends, depending on what they’re being used for. The advieh Khadija uses in this recipe hails from Afghanistan and may be difficult to find in the U.S. It’s a homemade blend with almonds, walnuts, and dried garlic, cilantro, parsley, and chilis. It is okay to use any advieh you can find—here is one.
What is Felfel?
This question gave Khadija some pause. “Well, it’s ground red chili peppers. That’s it! There is only one kind we use in Afghanistan. They are bright red from the heat and sun.” Felfel tastes slightly floral, with neither smokiness nor other pronounced flavors. It’s spicy, but not enough to knock the wind out of you. Cayenne pepper is a great substitute—use half the amount.
Options for Cooking the Lamb
Khadija makes this traditional recipe speedy by leaning on the Instant Pot to cook the lamb in about half the time it would take to braise them in the oven or boil them on the stovetop.
No choice but to go retro? Here is how:
- Braise in the Oven: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the lamb in an oven-safe lidded pot. Add the water, onions, and seasonings. Bring it up to a boil on the stovetop first then transfer it, covered, into the oven. Braise it for about 2 hours.
- Simmer on the Stovetop: Place the lamb in a large pot. Add just enough water to cover them. Add the onions and seasonings. Bring it up to a boil then lower the heat to maintain a simmer for about 1 1/2 hours with the lid on but slightly ajar.
Parboiled then Steamed Rice
The basmati rice is cooked in a method called palao—the rice is parboiled just enough to break through the hardness, drained, and then steamed over low heat until the rice at the bottom of the pot is lightly golden and crusty and the rice on top is fluffy. Khadija has a few tips for us to nail the rice:
- Unless the rice looks gritty, there is no need to rinse it.
- The water used to boil the rice should be saltier than salty. The recipe calls for 1/2 cup kosher salt for about 3 quarts of water—use 1/4 cup table or sea salt if that’s what you have. It’s your only chance to season the rice from within. I let out a gasp when I saw her dump salt into the water. She replied with a wink, “Promise it won’t be too salty.” It wasn’t.
- While the rice boils, occasionally stir it gently with a rounded wooden spoon. Metal spoons have sharp edges that may break the long rice kernels.
More Ramadan Recipes to Try
Kabuli Palao (Afghan Lamb Shanks with Rice, Carrots, and Raisins)
- 2 lamb shanks (about 2 pounds)
- 2 cups water, plus more to cook the rice
- 1 large sweet onion, roughly chopped
- 1 teaspoon advieh
- 1 teaspoon felfel or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon curry powder
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup, plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
- 3 quarts water
- 2 cups uncooked white basmati rice
- 1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
- 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon slivered almonds
- 1 tablespoon slivered pistachios
- 1 cup sultanas or golden raisins
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 2 x 1/4-inch matchsticks
Cook the lamb shanks:
With the tip of a sharp knife, poke each lamb shank 4 to 6 times to pierce through its outer membrane. Place them into the Instant Pot with 2 cups of water (or use one of the other cooking methods mentioned above).
Scatter the onions on top and sprinkle in the advieh, felfel, turmeric, curry powder, black pepper, and 1 teaspoon salt. Stir to incorporate the seasonings in water.
Secure the lid on the Instant Pot, set the steam valve to “Sealing,” and set it to cook on high pressure for 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the rice:
In a large pot add 3 quarts of water, the basmati rice, and 1/2 cup salt. Promise the rice won’t be too salty. This is your only chance to get the rice seasoned from within. Don’t worry about oversalting it. If using table salt, use 1/4 cup.
You don’t need to rinse the rice and there should be enough water for the rice to freely float and tumble around as it cooks.
Set the pot over high heat. As soon as it comes up to a boil, cover it with a lid and reduce the heat to maintain a simmer for 12 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. Don’t stray too far from the stovetop since it may bubble up and overflow. If that happens, take the lid off until the bubbles subside then place it back on slightly ajar.
The rice is done when tender but not mushy, and you can no longer see small white dots on the rice kernels—the dots indicate the rice is undercooked inside.
Place a colander in the sink and drain the rice into it. Do not rinse it. Let it fully drain and cool slightly.
Finish cooking the rice:
Dry and set the same pot over medium heat. No need to rinse it out. Add 2 tablespoons oil and when it is hot and rippling but not smoking add the cumin seeds.
Immediately reduce the heat to the lowest setting and add the cooked rice. Stir to distribute the cumin seeds throughout. Spread the rice to evenly cover the bottom of the pot. Cover and cook for 10 to 15 minutes. The bottom layer may get crispy and lightly browned—that’s okay! The rice kernels on top should slightly curl, looking like a crescent moon. Turn the stove off but keep the lid on.
Boil the nuts:
In a small saucepan, add the almonds, pistachios, and just enough water to barely cover them. Set the saucepan over high heat and bring it to a boil for 2 minutes. Set a colander in the sink and drain the nuts well. Transfer them into a small bowl and set it aside.
Fry the sultanas:
In a small frying pan, add the sultanas and 1/2 cup oil. Set it over medium heat. Fry the sultanas, stirring frequently, until they puff up into tiny plumb balls. This will take 3 to 5 minutes, depending on how fresh the sultanas are.
Set a fine mesh strainer or heat-proof colander over a bowl and drain the sultanas. Transfer them into a small bowl and set it aside. The oil can be discarded.
Cook the carrots:
In the same frying pan, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat. Add the carrots and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender and cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes. The carrots should not brown. If they start darkening, stir in 1 tablespoon of water to cool the pan and stop the browning.
Assemble the rice:
Use a large spoon to gently stir the rice, scraping the lightly golden crust on the bottom of the pot, if any.
On the same serving platter, spoon about half of the cooked rice. Top it with half of the boiled almonds and pistachios followed by half of the fried sultanas and carrots. Repeat again with a layer of the remaining rice, nuts, sultanas, and carrots. Serve warm.
Plate the lamb:
When the lamb is done cooking in the Instant Pot, do a quick release of the pressure by carefully moving the steam valve to “Venting.” Use an oven mitt or a thick kitchen towel to avoid burning yourself! When all the pressure is released, open the lid. The lamb will be tender, and the meat will pull away from the bone easily.
Carefully transfer the lamb onto one side of a serving platter large enough to hold the lamb and the rice.
Do not discard the lamb cooking liquid. It is so flavorful and perfect for serving alongside for sipping or drizzling over the lamb and rice.
Refrigerate any leftover lamb or rice in separate containers for up to 5 days.
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