Landai Season: a delicacy and a feast in rural Afghanistan
Many find the arrival of fall and the beginning of winter depressing, but Landai, a traditional food feast in Afghanistan, makes the season something to look forward to. In certain ways, the anticipation of Landai can be compared to the way people around the world prepare for Christmas, with happiness; with one major difference, that Landai has no narrowly fixed date. AANâ€™s Fazal Muzhary, looks at how LandaiÂ â€“ which is both the name for the procedure of drying the sheep and lambâ€™s meat, and for the meat that results from it â€“ can bring happiness and connect communities.
The preparation for Landai (1) usually begins when the weather starts getting colder, the farming activities have been completed for the year and the preparations for winter have been taken care of. In Andar district, which is the coldest part of southern Afghanistan, this starts around the 15th of the Afghan month of Aqrab, which corresponds to around the first week of November. Depending on the weather, Landai can take place any time until the end of December. This is the time when people are collecting firewood and going to the bazars in the cities to buy what they need to get through the winter. It is also the time when most of the work on the farms and in the fields is finished. Landai then is a time to enjoy a break from the hard work during the past seasons and to celebrate the completion of the farming year. It is festive event in which everyone in the family and the community takes part.
The preparation process of the specialty
The tradition of Landai emerged when communities, especially in remote locations, needed meat supplies when there was too much snow in winter for them to reach the bazar and purchase fresh meat and other supplies. It is the name for the special way of slaughtering a big sheep or lamb (and in some areas also a cow) that has been especially fattened and selected for this preparation. After slaughtering the animal, the children and women of the household are tasked with plucking the hair from its skin by hand, so that all hair is completely removed without damaging the skin. Once this step has been completed, the men of the house singe the skin, burning any remaining hairs. In the past, people would do this over an open fire using bushes of twigs, but nowadays the use of gas burners for this task is more common. The reason for the plucking and singeing is to save the skin. Not only does the skin help facilitate the drying of the meat and protect one side of the Landai meat against bacteria, it also makes up several kilograms thatÂ because of the special preparation can also be eaten. After the singeing the meat has already become half-cooked and the skin often becomes a crispy layer on top of it.
AfterÂ the skin of the sheep has been prepared this far, the women and children gather around the workspace, while picking bits and pieces of the crispy roasted skin of the meat to snack on. They cut the meat into smaller pieces and salt them to facilitate the drying process. For the meat to dry quickly and evenly, each family designates a cool and dry space with a small window for ventilation and hangs the meat on wooden bars or ropes. On clear and cold winter days, some members in the communities string ropes across their courtyards and temporarily hang the meat outside. It often takes about a month for the meat strips to dry throughout, but it is not unheard of that some people start eating the meat before it is fully dried. However, it is only once the meat is fully dried, in the middle of winter, usually towards the end of January and the beginning of February, that people start to really appreciate it.
The Landai meat, either on its own or as part of a prepared meal with rice, is known to provide strength, warmth and comfort during the whole winter. Traditionally, it was the favourite food for the men who remove snow with snow shovels; a labour that takes a considerable amount of physical effort, with the people involved needing high-energy food.
While the Landai preparation mostly focuses on the dried meat, the families usually use the other parts of the animal as well. The next step for the women of the house is to cook the fat tail of the sheep in a big pot. This sometimes only takes place on the third day after the slaughtering of the animal and the preparation of the salted meat. The women cut the large fat tail into several pieces and put it in the pot; usually some left over meat pieces are also added and later given to the children of the house. When the fat has rendered and crystallised, the women keep it in a pot to use throughout the winter as cooking oil. The remnants of the sheep tail, known as Spinki or Speedey, are served to the guests who stay for longer after the Landai feast, as an addition to their breakfasts.
Landai â€“ a community celebration
After the killing of the animal, the boys of the house are tasked to go around the village and inform the villagers that they are invited for dinner on the occasion of an animal having been slaughtered for Landai. Among the most important guests would be the imam of the village, who is usually the first to be invited. In the evening when the guests arrive, they are served roasted meat, feasting on those parts of the animal that were not used for the Landai.
A rule for the invitation of the villagers to a Landai feast is that anyone who has slaughtered a sheep has to invite all those who had invited him last year for their feast. Inviting and sharing this event within the community is very important. Therefore when the animal has been slaughtered and the meat is cut into pieces, the head of the family consults with his wife and other family members to draw up the list of guests. During the discussion, the family carefully considers all those who had invited them last year to ensure that nobody is left out.
Landai and its traditions and invitations are common throughout Afghanistan, but each area has its own variations. In Andar district of Ghazni, it has a special significance for newly married couples. The recently married girls receive special invitations from their parents. The invitation is for the girl, her husband and sometimes also her in-laws. A day or sometimes a week before the slaughter of a sheep for Landai, the brother of the recently married girl comes to tell his sister and her in-laws that they are invited to the special Landai event. While normal Landai feasts are already often a big affair, the newly married girlâ€™s arrival at her parentsâ€™ house often takes place in the form of a special ceremony. The parents of the girl take one or two cars with female relatives who then accompany the newly married couple to the girlâ€™s home village. Upon arrival, she is welcomed by the whole extended family in her parentsâ€™ house. She is expected to bring dry fruit, which is considered to be the first gift after the wedding. Therefore, those girls who got married during the fall and at the beginning of winter are considered particularly lucky, because their first return home as a newly married wife coincides with Landai, which doubles the girlâ€™s joy and happiness and that of her family.
Not only newlyweds can look forward to an invitation, also women who married long ago receive special invitations from their parents. When they receive the invitation, they quickly try to finish all the house work of the next few days before their departure. This might include washing all the dirty clothes, bathing the children and getting them ready for the trip, but there is also another ritual that needs to be competed. The night before the invitation, women preparing to travel to Landai mix water with henna powder and decorate their hands, as well as those of their daughters, symbolising that the invitation is as happy an occasion as the day of Eid. The women also get the children excited about the visit to their grandparents; they share stories of happiness with their children, preparing them to meet their relatives from other villages, and tell them they will enjoy the days in the house of their motherâ€™s parents. There, the children will have a chance to play with their cousins and other children from the village, allowing the parents some time to catch up on news and gossip.
Landai is also a special time for the men of the household, especially if they are the son-in-law of someone; the parents-in-laws, concerned that their son-in-law be happy with their daughter, will usually treat him very well. Landai invitations are not one-sided and there is an understanding that the families will visit each other. When men take their wives to her parental house, they are equally welcomed by their in-laws, sometimes even more happily, as it is an occasion for all to hear new stories from the more distant family members and to share new ones with them. The women that visit their home village usually stay for a week, or even two, after the Landai feast is finished to enjoy time with her parents, siblings and children.
Change in trends of Landai compared to the past
Landai still presents one of the highlights during the fall and winter season, but there have been several changes over the past decades. For example, in the past the Landai would take place in early December, but now it is moving more and more to late December. This might be because of the recent changes in the climate, as the Landai meat needs continuous cold and dry weather conditions, which seem to arrive later and later. This has also affected the time when the Landai meat is ready; in the past if an animal was slaughtered in November, the dried meat would be available in or around the end of December. Now it is usually available in January, or even February. Also, in the past when a sheep was slaughtered, the women would clean the lungs of the sheep, cook them and serve them at the dinner to all the guests, but now people usually forgo this, maybe as it is no longer seen as an â€śacceptableâ€ť dish. They also now serve a variety of other food, such as rice, vegetables and fresh fruit, which can be more easily purchased in the bazar, on the Landai feast table.
Landai is still an occasion for people to come together; greetings are exchanged and the hosts and other guests inquire about everyoneâ€™s health and exchange good wishes. The conversation is of course often about current affairs. In the past, this often focused on the harvest or on local issues. In the 1990s, when the drought had hit Andar district, as well as other parts of the country, many of the discussions were about the benefits of digging wells and installing water pumps. Nowadays conversations are often about the fighting between the Taleban and the government and about national-level political developments, which tends to result in lively discussions among the guests.
The feast also travels abroad
While families, especially in remote areas, often still need the Landai meat to survive the winter, its reputation as an Afghan speciality and delicacy has caused it to be used more widely. Often the joy over Landai is shared with close relatives living in the cities inside Afghanistan or, further away, abroad. Whenever the people living away from home call their relatives, they ask about the Landai and often hope to receive some. Over time a trend has developed that anytime someone travels during winter, either to the Gulf countries or Europe and the US, villagers will provide them with pieces of dried Landai meat to deliver to relatives living abroad.
Landai thus has a special place in the heart of many rural Afghans; because it is a delicacy, but also because of the memories it brings back. While most Afghans of course look forward to joyful weddings, the two Eid festivals in the Islamic calendar, the ceremonies of giving names to newly born babies, engagements, graduations of students, the return from Hajj and many other festive occasions, the occasion of Landai is also a major highlight of the year. As with every tradition, it has undergone changes and it has adjusted to the declining security situation and the political changes, but it continues to bring joy and happiness, bringing families and communities together.
(1) In Pashto the tradition is referred to as Landai, while in Dari it is pronounced Landi. As this dispatch focuses on the particular traditions in Andar district of Ghazni province, it has followed the pronunciation as used in this location.