Food is about so much more than nutrition—it’s one of the most personal expressions of our cultures, values, and traditions. Our series, Behind the Recipe, profiles a different healthy cook every month to explore the personal, untold stories of their favorite dishes. This month, Chef Hamidullah Noori shares what Thanksgiving means to him as an Afghan refugee living in the U.S. Plus, get the recipe for his stuffed peppers, which he serves right along with turkey kebobs, mashed potatoes, and fresh tandoori bread on his Thanksgiving table.
There were several times throughout my childhood in Afghanistan when my family faced starvation; we quite literally had nothing to eat. I remember times that we used to eat potato skins because it was all we had. It was actually the very first food I learned to cook. My mom would gather the potato skins from nearby restaurants and we would toast them with salt, pepper, and a little olive oil. We didn't have many spices other than that.
It's why I wanted to become a chef. Cooking and serving people food was something that was so meaningful to me even when I was a young child. When I was just nine years old, I was given my first job in a restaurant kitchen. I took in as much as I could from the professional chefs I worked with. Then, when I was 18, I became a professional chef myself. I worked 18 to 20 hours a day to prove my passion and get the training I needed to become a sought-after chef. Slowly, I worked my way up to being the executive chef at the five-star Kabul Serena Hotel.
Food is a huge part of culture and Afghan food is no different. Our culture was well-known for our delicious cuisine for centuries—dishes like aushak, or Afghan dumplings filled with minced meat and garlic- and mint-flavored yogurt sauce, and borani kadoo, which is pumpkin braised with turmeric, ginger, chili peppers, and tomatoes. But the Taliban ruined that. When I came to the U.S. as a refugee in 2015, the Americans I met didn't even know what Afghan food was. "Is it like Mediterranean food?" they would ask me. "Is it like Chinese food?" I opened my own restaurant, The Mantu, as a way to introduce people to the beautiful parts of Afghan culture through food.
Thanksgiving, of course, is not celebrated in Afghanistan because it's an American holiday, but I knew what it was before moving to the States because the Kabul Serena Hotel had a lot of American guests, and we would cook up a big Thanksgiving feast for them every year. My first Thanksgiving in the U.S., my family and I decided to celebrate it ourselves—it was part of accepting American culture, celebrating, and having fun. We had a big feast with traditional Afghan foods and classic American dishes all on the same table together. There was turkey (served as kebabs), mashed potatoes, fresh tandoori bread, and stuffed peppers. Oh, and pumpkin pie—you can't forget about that. This is how we still celebrate it today, too.
What I love about serving stuffed peppers as part of the Thanksgiving meal is that in addition to being delicious, they don't take very long to make—key for a holiday that includes many time-consuming dishes. Rice is such an important part of Afghan cuisine that there is always some in our fridge. All you do to make the stuffed peppers is saute the rice on the stove with a little olive oil, onion, jalapeño, cilantro, and crushed garlic. Then, spoon the mixture inside each bell pepper and put them in a steamer pot for eight minutes. (You can also use the oven if you don't have a steamer pot.) I like to make a red pepper dressing to drizzle on top too, made with roasted red pepper, garlic, pepper, salt, and apple cider vinegar.
I love the Thanksgiving tradition of sharing a celebratory meal with loved ones, but to me, Thanksgiving is not just a holiday; it's a mindset I try to live out every day of the year. I am Muslim and Muslims believe that we should always be thankful to God while at the same time make an effort to serve others in need. Thanksgiving should be every moment of your life. It's a thanksgiving when you breathe in and out. Every moment that passes you never get back so you must value every moment.
I have certainly struggled a lot, especially as a child in Afghanistan. But now I am more fortunate in life and I try to use that fortune to serve others in need. The challenges I've faced in life have made me stronger. They taught me to fight and they taught me the value of serving others. I love that I get to do that now through my restaurant. Even today I am serving people in need who have nothing to eat. What I've gone through has inspired me and it's also inspired what I serve. You know what one of the most popular dishes on my menu is? Potato skins. The only difference is this time, I have more spices to add to them.
Stuffed peppers recipe
For the stuffed peppers:
6 red or green bell peppers
6 Tbsp chopped onion
6 Tbsp chopped cilantro
6 Tbsp chopped jalapeño
6 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp crushed garlic
1/2 cup long-grain Basmati rice
For the roasted red pepper sauce:
3 roasted red peppers
Pinch of garlic
Pinch of salt
Drop of apple cider vinegar
For the stuffed peppers:
1. Soak the rice for at least one hour before cooking it. Once the rice has soaked long enough, rinse, and cook the rice for 15 minutes on the stove.
2. Add olive oil to a frying pan on the stove. Then, add the garlic and saute until it's a nice golden color. Add the chopped ingredients. Then, add the rice and stir them together for two more minutes.
3. Cut the top of the bell peppers carefully and set the tops aside. Use a spoon to fill the bell peppers with the sauteed vegetables. Put the bell pepper tops back on the peppers. Place the peppers in a steamer pot for eight minutes. If you don't have a steamer pot, you can cook the stuffed peppers in the oven for 30 minutes at 400°F.
For the roasted red pepper sauce:
1. Blend all the ingredients together and set the sauce aside.
2. When the stuffed peppers are done cooking, place them on a plate and top off each one with two tablespoons of the roasted red pepper sauce.
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