When I read the news of the United States withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in August, I never imagined the impact it would have on my work as the executive chef of local nonprofit, Kitchens for Good. Concluding a 20-year war, the Taliban swiftly regained control of the Afghanistan government and forced the evacuation of thousands of Afghans from their home country. Over 114,000 Afghans have since been evacuated, many of whom are currently being resettled by San Diego-based nonprofits like the Alliance for African Assistance and the International Rescue Committee. San Diego has long been a safe haven for refugees and individuals displaced from war, persecution, or natural disasters, and in collaboration with these nonprofits, the County is set to resettle at least 1000 Afghan refugees by the end of the year.

Kitchens for Good (KFG) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, located in Linda Vista, that uses kitchens to transform lives and nourish communities. Since the start of the pandemic, KFG has prepared over 350,000 meals for our neighbors experiencing food insecurity through two programs: 

  • Culinary, Baking, and Food Service Management is a California State Certified Apprenticeship Program that offers transformative training and employment opportunities to individuals whose lives have been impacted by trauma; and, 
  • Project Nourish, a KFG hunger relief program that provides nutritious prepared meals to San Diegans in need every week. 

In mid-October, KFG received a call from the Alliance for African Assistance requesting 400 meals per week to feed the 125 Afghan evacuees that have resettled into homes in the region. I met with my culinary colleagues of the Project Nourish team, Karen Marcum and Iva Boykins, to discuss the need to change course on our menu offerings and provide the evacuees with the familiar comfort dishes of Afghan cuisine. I emailed all of our staff requesting contacts with Afghan institutions or individuals that may be able to provide guidance on incorporating Afghan recipes into large-scale meal production.

One of my colleagues connected me with Waheedullah, an employment specialist and data coordinator at a resettlement agency in San Diego. Waheedullah is from Kabul and formally collaborated with the US during their occupation in the region. Waheedullah graciously guided us on the preparation of Kabuli Pulao, a national dish of Afghanistan composed of braised lamb and basmati rice. The dish is brightened with saffron and sweetened with raisins and caramelized carrots. We served it with Qorma-e-Sabzi, a citrusy and herbaceous stewed spinach side dish with dill, cilantro, lemon juice, and cumin.

Waheedullah of the International Rescue Committee, Karen Marcum of Kitchens for Good, and Chef Ryan Rizzuto of Kitchens for Good. Image: Courtesy of Dani Heckman.

My fellow cooks and I waited anxiously for feedback as Waheedullah tasted the final product. He quietly ate each bite with a smile and gave us honest feedback on how to improve the Kabuli Pulao recipe by frying the onions and garlic together to season the pot, removing the cooked vegetables, and searing the lamb in the leftover oils. Once seared on both sides, Waheedullah suggested we submerge the lamb in halal beef broth and simmer for an hour. When the lamb is cooked to our preferred tenderness, we remove the lamb and cook the rice and saffron in the broth until al dente. To serve, the rice is plated first, topped with carrots, onions, and raisins, with the lamb presented on top. A few ladles full of lamb au jus over the rice completes the dish.

Waheedullah taught us a plethora of traditional Afghan dishes and waited patiently as I jotted down the Arabic names and their translations in my notebook. In the following weeks, we prepared thousands of servings of Shorwa-e-Tarkari (beef and vegetable soup), Lubya (kidney bean curry), Gulpea (curried cauliflower), and Shour Nakhod (chutney chickpeas).

Iva Boykins and Karen Marcum of Kitchens for Good. Image: Courtesy of Dani Heckman.

In learning about these delicious recipes, we began to explore the bounty of Afghan restaurants and purveyors in San Diego. Not far from our kitchen is the Balboa International Market which boasts walls full of imported spices, halal meats, and an in-house bakery featuring Sangak flatbreads, Barbari, Mashadi, and Persian sweet breads baked in a hearthstone oven. Adjacent to the market is Sufi Mediterranean Cuisine, a cozy eatery with lamb kabobs, stews, and salads.

Lamb Kabuli Pulao with Qorma-e-Sabzi (spinach). Image: Courtesy of Dani Heckman.

Intrigued by our research, Abdul, a KFG culinary apprentice, enthusiastically shared his experience and knowledge of Muslim traditions with our team. As a result, he helped to broaden our meal offerings and cultural knowledge of how to best serve the Afghan recipients. Abdul is currently enrolled in KFG’s 25th culinary cohort, a 12-week apprenticeship program that builds confidence through training in knife skills and life skills. Abdul is a first-generation American, his father is Egyptian and his mother is Moroccan. In our conversations, Abdul educated our team on the cultural and religious significance of the halal diet. 

Halal is an Arabic word meaning lawful or permitted and its parameters are outlined in the Quran. In order for a meat to be considered halal, the name of God must be said before the cut is made with one continuous motion of a sharp knife. There are many measures taken to ensure that the animal is free from the pain and stress of slaughter. Our conversations brought to light the significance of Islamic food customs and how they inform the daily lives of Muslims.

Abdul was reminded of a quote from the Prophet Mohammed, “Smiling in your brother’s face is an act of charity”. 

“Everything you do, removing dirt from the floor, or a rock that someone might trip on, all of that is an act of worship because you're doing it with the intention to please your creator,” Abdul reflected.

Abdul joined KFG to focus on his passion of cooking for others. Now, five weeks into his apprenticeship, his confidence is growing, he remains dedicated to his craft, and focused on sharing his knowledge to better the lives of others. This is the nexus of cultural appreciation and self-growth—where food has the power to change lives.

With the guidance of Abdul and Waheedullah, our team of cooks at KFG continue to make the Afghan recipes that were entrusted to us. We aim to serve these comfort dishes to the resettling community in San Diego in hopes that we can provide them with a taste of home. Abdul believes our doors should remain open and willing to serve, “over here [in America], you’re an equal. You’re not a refugee anymore. Someone cares about you, you’re not just waiting.”

To support these programs, please visit Kitchens for Good.

Note: While Chef Ryan Rizzuto serves as the executive chef of Kitchens for Good, this article does not represent the opinions, beliefs, or affiliations of the organization.

Volunteer meal packaging shift when we packaged hundreds of meals composed of traditional Afghan dishes in the Kitchens for Good kitchen. Image: Ryan Rizzuto.

Make Lamb Kabuli Pulao

Bring this story to life in your own kitchen. Chef Ryan Rizzuto shares the recipe for Lamb Kabuli Pulao, with each step and instruction to build and represent the flavors of this traditional Afghan dish perfected thanks to Waheedullah advice.

About the Contributor
Ryan Rizzuto
Ryan Rizzuto is a chef, entrepreneur, and event curator in San Diego. You can taste his work at his own soul food popup, Southside Biscuits. Chef Ryan was nationally-recognized as a 2020 Food Hero by Edible Communities and Niman Ranch for his Covid-19-related hunger relief operations at Kitchens for Good. Follow him on Instagram at @chefryanrizzuto and his soul food and public events at @southsidebiscuits.