Meet @cheftaloo, the Creator of our Kofta Spice Blend, and Learn About Her Afghan Culinary Traditions
The Story Behind Our Kofta Blend
We were thrilled for the opportunity to collaborate with chef Habiba Syed, @cheftaloo, on the spice blend formula for our new Kofta meal starter spice packets. Habiba was born in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan and moved to the United States when she was just a few months old. One of her main ways to connect with her Afghan heritage is through food and the deep Afghan culinary traditions her parents instilled in her.
We are so fortunate to be able to share her family’s food memories and flavors with all of you. Read on to learn more about Habiba’s favorite food memories and the inspiration behind this bold blend:
Meet Habiba Syed, @cheftaloo:
Rumi: Can you tell us a bit more about yourself - Where did you grow up and where is your family from?
Habiba: My family is from the Kandahar province of Afghanistan and came to the United States when I was a few months old. I don’t remember Afghanistan, so my only ties to my heritage have been through cultural markers of identity; speaking Pashto, dancing the attan, and, of course, eating Afghan food, to name a few. Even though I moved around a lot, New York City will always be the closest to what home could be. Professionally, I teach English at a community college and in my free time you will find me doing 1 of 3 things—shopping for groceries, cooking with said groceries, or exploring the city’s restaurant scene.
Rumi: Who did you learn to cook from?
Habiba: I learned how to cook from watching my grandma and my mom in the kitchen. Both foodies, they instilled the values of community and hospitality in me from a very young age. Their fearlessness and innovative spirits inspired me to break from traditions and experiment with food while having fun in the process. They often made dishes from ingredients they discovered in their local supermarkets or by finding creative substitutions for ones they simply couldn’t find. That curiosity taught me to be brave, forgiving and trusting of the process. I’ve discovered some of the most scrumptious cuisines by stepping outside of the comfort of familiarity.
Rumi: What does food mean to you and your family? What does a typical family dinner look like? Are you usually the one preparing the food?
"Food, to me, means joy. It is a connection to the people around you where strangers become friends and friends become family. In my home, there’s no such thing as a typical family dinner because we enjoy such a wide array of foods; some include my childhood favorites and others are culinary experiments gone deliciously right."
I make everything from Afghan lamb shanks to fish tacos and Mongolian beef…so it’s hard to pinpoint a typical cuisine. In the kitchen alongside me you will also find my husband as he is an astounding cook himself. Additionally, this summer my 11-year-old daughter started cooking so I foresee lots of omelets in our futures—and kitchen wars over who has dibs on the stove.
Rumi: What does Kofta mean to you and your family - Is this something you ate frequently growing up, or was this more of a special occasion meal? Who taught you how to make Kofta?
Habiba: Kofta was a very common dish and something I ate often in many different forms. I learned Kofta from watching my mom. Kofta offers a versatility that I can really appreciate as someone who mainly likes to use what’s on hand. You can eat it over rice or a refreshing salad. In a sandwich you can top it with seasonal vegetables and sauces that you love. There’s no wrong way to eat it! And that experimentation and uniqueness is profound for me. That we can both start with the same base (or star component) and end up in totally different places by adding our own touches to a dish is what draws me to cooking. This is what I like to call hybrid eating.
Rumi: What is your favorite way to prepare this dish? What do you like to eat it with?
Habiba: My favorite variation is the pan-fried Kofta but the ground meat mixture can easily be turned into a hearty stew with tomatoes, onions and diced potatoes. For the pan-fried version, I learned to make it the way my mom does which is by sautéing thick rings of onions and bell peppers in a bit of oil until they’re slightly blistered. She places the vegetables over the Kofta, adds a splash of white vinegar, and steams it. In my opinion, white rice is the way to go. But it’s just as delicious with toasty pita bread, fresh veggies, and your favorite pickled vegetables.
Rumi: How do you fuse your Afghan heritage with your upbringing in the United States? Do you struggle to find cuisine like you grew up eating, or do you feel like it is more readily available?
Habiba: Accessibility is something I think about often. What I’ve come to realize over the years is that the availability/unavailability of ingredients directly impacted what I grew up eating. I’ve lived in urban areas where a South-Asian supermarket was down the street from my home. I’ve also lived in suburban areas where the closest halal-meat store was at least an hour drive. With globalization and the growing number of Muslims and immigrants in the United States you see more diverse supermarkets popping up in regions that were historically predominantly white. This accessibility to ingredients that are familiar to families from other regions of the world is the opportunity to experience a bit of home in a strange land.
"I still light up when I smell freshly baked Afghan bread in a halal-meat store. Even though I never experienced it in Afghanistan, I know it is something my ancestors made before me."
Rumi: What is your favorite dish to cook at home?
Habiba: My favorite dish to cook at the moment is Ashaq; a leek-filled steamed dumpling that is topped with decadent meat sauce, tangy yogurt, and dried mint. The pink tinted yogurt slurry at the very bottom of the plate is what my childhood memories are made of!
Rumi: Where is your favorite place to shop for ingredients?
Habiba: My favorite places to shop for ingredients are in my local Desi/Asian/Middle Eastern and, of course, Afghan markets. Each of them offers something unique and I don’t mind strolling through the aisles finding new ingredients to test in my kitchen. There’s an excitement I feel during these trips because I never know what my next discovery withholds.
Rumi: What is your favorite spice?
Habiba: Oooh, this is a hard one. I might change my mind about this because I am discovering new spices and blends all the time but right now, I find myself experimenting with saffron a lot. Saffron teas, saffron chicken wings, saffron rice, saffron cake, and so on!
"There aren’t many spices out there that can cover as much culinary ground as saffron can and for that versatility it has become my favorite these days. On a much more sentimental level I know that it is harvested in Afghanistan and that tiny bit of closeness to my homeland brings me joyful tears. I can enjoy something that is grown in the dirt that I will likely never touch."