Twenty-one years ago Shamayel Kargar and her husband had a hankering for good lamb. What they had found at Shop 'n Save was very different than what they were used to. Where they were from in Afghanistan, lamb came straight from the farm, and I mean straight. Since "sheep farm" wasn't a category in the Greater Portland phone book, Shamayel asked her sister to watch the kids while she and her husband got in their car and headed away from town on Forest Avenue. They figured they'd come to a pasture with some sheep on it eventually.
FRESH, DELICIOUS, SIMPLE Afghan kourmet.
In Windham things were looking promising. They started seeing farm signs and open fields with cows on them. They drove down a couple driveways, asking any farmers they saw, "Hey, do you have any lamb?" Eventually, they came down the driveway of Lisa and Phil Webster. Yes! They did! Their families had been in the lamb business collectively for 200 years, and the couple had recently started their own venture: North Star Sheep Farm. Shamayel has been buying North Star lamb ever since.
When I see lamb at Trader Joe's today, it's usually from New Zealand. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't New Zealand the farthest possible distance in all the world a little lamb could travel to your table? My husband recently went there on a business trip and the jet lag was something else. What's even crazier is this little bit of quantum reality: If you — or a leg of lamb, say — traveled from New Zealand to Maine against the spin of the Earth at the speed of light, technically the lamb leg would travel back in time. Hey, maybe we're on to something here . . . Perhaps one day, lamb meat leaving New Zealand would actually become a whole, live animal upon landing! But why even consider jet-lagged, time-warped lamb when we have North Star Sheep Farm's 65 acres of gorgeous pastureland with little fuzzy sheep on it munching on Maine grasses less than an hour from Portland? You can get North Star lamb any time at the Whole Foods fresh meat case.
I'm thrilled that fresh lamb is now available and convenient because the dish Shamayel taught me to make is about to overtake beef stew in my family favorites book. She calls the dish "kourmet." That's like "gourmet" but with a K. And it's the easiest dish I've learned so far inside immigrant kitchens. In a covered soup pot or pressure cooker, you cook a lot of yellow onions and chunks of boneless lamb meat with a little oil, and a spice mixture of ground turmeric, clove, cinnamon, and black cardamom. For the final ten minutes, add fresh tomato slices and a dollop of tomato paste. Over time, the structure of the onions disintegrates, and the moisture from the onions and lamb and tomatoes stays in the pot, making an incredibly satisfying thick sauce studded with chunks of tender meat. You eat it all up with your hands using flatbread. The Iraqi bread sold at markets and stores around town is close to what they'd serve in Afghanistan.
Shamayel reminded me as we cooked that Afghanistan is not just desert, war, and destruction. "I love where I grew up: the cultures . . . the people, their hospitalities." She showed me the Afghani tradition of neighbors cooking together, eating, talking, and having tea. This, as much as the delicious recipe, I hope to pass on.
Visit ImmigrantKitchens.com to get the recipe and how-to photos, and to contact the author.