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  • September 18, 2014

We Are What We Eat: The High Altitude Diet of Afghanistan’s Nomads

The origins of Matthieu Paley’s documentation of food and culture for National Geographic began in the Pamir Mountains: 14,000 feet above sea level in an area known as the Bam-e Dunya, which means “roof of the world.” His work here, photographing the lives of Afghanistan’s Kyrgyz nomads, led to another assignment, the “Evolution of Diet,” in the September issue. Over the coming weeks, Paley will be sharing his visual food diaries with Proof as he travels the globe in search of our ancestral ties to the food we eat.

Winter-Summer 2012

Being French, all we ever talk about at the family dinner table, through delicious mouthfuls, is what we have eaten, what we are eating, and what we will be eating. For me, food is inseparable from culture, so when I began photographing in Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains, including this aspect of life felt important. Granted, this is not a place known for its haute cuisine. But that’s exactly the point. We seem to only care about the high end of the culinary chain, the nicely prepared dishes with fancy titles. What interests me here are the eating habits, developed over centuries.

Picture of a man carrying a tray of tea
A Wakhi man brings a tray of tea to welcome a guest.

I have been photographing the Afghan Kyrgyz nomads for fifteen years, though this is my first time for National Geographic. I have been bumping around in a jeep for 5 days, followed by a 7-day hike, so naturally by the time I get there, I am hungry—for pictures, for some kind of intimate shots that would show who these people are. And intimacy takes place foremost in the kitchen; touching with your hands what will go into your body, what will make you grow. Food is primal, undeniable. No food, no life.

Bowls and cakes of kurut are spread out to dry. The product is made by boiling yak milk for hours over a low fire until it’s reduced to a paste, forming it in containers or shaping it by hand into cakes, then placing the kurut on mats or rooftops to dry. Once hardened, the dry cakes can be stored for use in the winter, when fresh milk is less plentiful. They’re steeped in hot water to rehydrate them. They can be kept in your mouth for hours too, like a local shepherd's chewing gum.
Bowls and cakes of kurut are spread out to dry. The product is made by boiling yak milk for hours over a low fire until it’s reduced to a paste, forming it in containers or shaping it by hand into cakes, then drying it in the sun. Once hardened, the dry cakes can be stored for use in the winter, when fresh milk is less plentiful. They’re steeped in hot water to rehydrate them. Kurut can also be kept in the mouth for hours, like a local shepherd’s chewing gum.

This community of Kyrgyz nomads are originally from Siberia, but as their lifestyle is centered around their herds, they are always on the lookout for good pasture land. Food makes you travel, and so over the centuries, they eventually ended up high in the Pamir of Afghanistan. It often snows in summer and temperatures routinely drop below minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. Their diet is a typical one of high altitude plateaus where nothing much grows apart from grass, artemisia, and some wild onions in summer. It is similar to the diet found amongst other nomadic societies, like the Tibetans and the Mongolians. They raise mainly goats, sheep and yaks, as well as Bactrian camels and horses. Because there is no wood, fuel is mainly dried dung. Kebab probably wouldn’t taste so good if it was barbecued on dried dung, so meat is boiled and sometimes fried in yak butter.

Picture of children chewing on mutton bones
Kyrgyz children chew on boiled mutton bones.

Kyrgyz can drink huge quantities of salty milk tea. I do too. Salt is good for rehydration at that altitude, and unlike sugar, it is a condiment readily available in the form of rock salt. Yak and goat milk is boiled for hours, down to a paste. It is then sun-dried for a few days on top of the family yurt. The dried curd is called kurut—it is hard as stone (you might actually need a real stone to break it!) Kurut is dissolved in hot water and used in soups throughout winter, when there’s no other dairy available.

Picture of a plate of food
Sheep are usually only slaughtered for special occasions. All parts of the sheep are cut up and boiled in large cauldrons. No seasoning is added except for salt. The boiled mutton pieces are then divided equally and distributed amongst family members and guests.

In the Pamir, they slaughter goats with a knife and the blood spills on the ground. Deep red on the dust. Of course it can be painful to watch, but if you will eat the meat from that animal, I feel it’s almost respectful to see that process. Everything is eaten on the animals. I was offered the eye—a local delicacy—a few times. It tasted a bit chewy, like cartilage. In the yurt, once the meat is consumed, the bones are broken down with a hammer or the back of a knife. The marrow tastes like meaty butter. It’s amazing.

Picture of a man roasting a sheep's head
At a wedding, the father of the bride roasts a sheep’s head to remove the hair and skin.

Dogs get to pick the meager meaty bits off the skulls, which then slowly bleach in the sun. They fall asleep beside them, keeping an eye out for wolves. The ground around a Kyrgyz camp is full of horns, some are piled up and used as fence.

Picture of a hand and a herd of
A Kyrgyz woman strains milk with her hand, removing yak hair and other debris. Herders in the Shimshal Pamir, a remote part of northern Pakistan bordering China, tend their flocks. Yaks, goats, and sheep are fattened for months in summer pastures so that they can survive and provide food through the winter.

The Kyrgyz eat bread as well. Because no vegetable can grow at that altitude, they barter their animals for flour. It takes a Kyrgyz yak caravan over a week to go down to the lower valleys, where they trade their animals in Wakhi villages. In winter, the only way down is over the frozen Wakhan river. Horses sometimes fall through the ice… men sometimes drown. Back home, on an open fire in the middle of the yurt, they cook a flatbread called “non,” or chapatti. Women usually make them in the morning. Water must be fetched out of camp, hard work when it is minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Food in its most basic expression always comes with physical exercise—a lot of it.

Picture of a herd of sheep and goats
A herd of sheep and goats on the move in the morning light

Cross-legged, we sit on the dusty floor of a yurt. Our host is making chapatis. I am in a haze after a hard day’s walk, fighting the wind at high altitude. From the yurt next door comes a bucket-full of steaming goat meat. My neighbor slices a piece of fat and hands it over to me. Fat is the pride of the herder, the candy of the steppe. He leers at me with piercing green eyes, wipes his large greasy hands on his leather boots and pushes the felt door wide open as he leaves without a word. The harsh sunlight on the snow inundates the yurt and for a moment, I am blinded.

Next, seal and polar bear: The all-meat diet of the Inuit

*****

Evolution of Diet” featured in the September issue of is part of National Geographic‘s special eight-month "Future of Food" series. More photographs from Paley’s 2012 story about the Kyrgyz nomads of Afghanistan, “Stranded on the Roof of the World,” can be seen here. Follow Paley on Twitter, Instagram, and his website.

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There are 78 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Hikayat shah
    November 14, 2014

    while i was reading i was complete involved to read next para of your article
    Kurut is not only did it is also use for medicine it is ben boiled with onion medicine
    for High altitude headache and fever
    as wakhi i am thankful to you for yo hard work
    Hikyat shah

  2. Imran Hunzai
    November 13, 2014

    Amazing stories!

  3. Lauren
    October 22, 2014

    Stunning mate

  4. Asel Daniyarova
    October 22, 2014

    This is a very interesting material about Kyrgyz eating habits and traditions in Afganistan. It would be of interest if the author compares this with Kyrgyz eating habits in Kyrgyzstan (my country). While all Kyrgyz people were nomads of the mountains, still in the main land our people could go to lower altitudes in winter and higher in summer. This means that conditions were not so tough as in Afganistan, where they can stay only on the highest altitudes. This certainly affects food.

  5. b.dinith randira
    October 14, 2014

    this photographs and details help me a lot improve my knowledge.in our school education syllabus we learn these stuff.i’m alot happy about this.i also want to be a part of this work.great job!!!!!!!!!11

  6. Chelsea Fleshman
    October 11, 2014

    wow i didn’t know about any of this, my dream is to be a photographer and travel the world finding what people have forgotten and show the people the world and how beautiful it is. i find this to be amazing, the photographs are beautiful. i wish to travel there at some point in my life. Your work is greatly appreciated because it inspires me more.

  7. Abdul Hamid Rahmaani
    October 7, 2014

    incredibly beautiful Photographs !
    Thank Very much for Your Amazing Work,
    Long Life My Beloved Homeland Afghanistan “

  8. Ernesto de Lorenzo
    October 5, 2014

    I knew of kurut food but in this exceptional article is plained. widdenly. Shows relation between food and culture. Congratulations for the author from Argentina.

  9. Sandy Hines
    October 4, 2014

    Wonderful article and pictures. Wish I could have been there to experience everything first hand. I am curious about their health with the restricted diet. has anyone ever done a study?

  10. Nidhi Ranji
    October 4, 2014

    Thats a lovely article ,
    and you have explained the lives of people with detail.it must have been fascinating to actually be there and watch what they daily do.I would like to know more about this place.it sounds adventurous.

  11. Heather Hess
    October 4, 2014

    What a wonderful experience – I have always dreamed of going to that part of the world and you brought part of it to me. I have also always desired to have a photograph(s) in National Geographic – have a wonderful day and I look forward to your next article.

  12. Benedict
    October 4, 2014

    It’s amazing to see the diet of people in that corner of earth. Thanks for the sharing it with us.

  13. Mauricio Perez-Badell
    October 3, 2014

    Top Quality material.Keep publishing it

  14. Shanooj
    October 3, 2014

    What a beautiful place !! Cant wait to explore Afghanistan!

  15. Audrey Fredericks
    October 3, 2014

    Thank you so much for this beautifully written article and fascinating images. I will be reflecting upon it for ever.

  16. jill
    October 2, 2014

    ohhh!!! I just can’t wait to jump out of city life and live there~~

  17. Ahmed Kazmi
    October 2, 2014

    Wonderful article. Author communicated pretty well

  18. Paul
    October 1, 2014

    A great read and great photos!

  19. Ikhan
    October 1, 2014

    I love Kurut and inspired by the story I will surely travel to that area. Bam e Dunya

  20. PPardo
    October 1, 2014

    amazing

  21. Sulton Beg
    October 1, 2014

    all I can say is ” I am a Pamiri and I eat Kurut”

  22. Tamoor Khan
    October 1, 2014

    Fascinating. That’s all we could be, fascinated. Lucky guy, Matthieu Paley, getting paid for such a thrill that most of us would pay for. It still needs guts though.
    Your work is nice perhaps. Keep up the good work.

  23. Salahudin
    October 1, 2014

    Actually nice and interesting information and photos.

  24. Bala
    October 1, 2014

    Its amazing how people in different countries in such altitudes lead life. It takes so much of work to get a meal. In this modern world where we have everything at the tap of a button its strange how still life is in its natural form..Amazing photos..great work

  25. swee shiong
    September 30, 2014

    Beautiful Pictures and Story…That’s Really Living & Experiencing Life from a “Difficult Reach” of the World!

  26. Chris Madden
    September 30, 2014

    In outback australia in the 1930’s we killed and ate all the sheep much as they do. We had other food as well of course

  27. AhhNysah
    September 30, 2014

    Good works congrtaz!

  28. Michael
    September 29, 2014

    Interesting that dietary research is finally coming to realize that “pre-agricultural” foods are healthier for the human body than our modern fancy stuff

  29. Douglas Scott Treado
    September 29, 2014

    Hard but simple life…as long as they stay on top of their responsibilities to each other, their livestock and environment. Something we should all learn to do…and waste not!

  30. J Szukalski
    September 29, 2014

    No Super marts out there. People should learn from this, especially kids when they don’t want to eat there food.

  31. S.M.J.Neangoda
    September 29, 2014

    It’s facinating to see how the Kyrgyz survive in such an environment on such a diet. Fantastic portrayal of life.

  32. Marisa Ficarelli Aun
    September 29, 2014

    I am amazed with everything described!

  33. Paula Bichuete
    September 29, 2014

    A humble, conscientious, respectful and marvellous way of knowing a culture and spreading it out . Thanks a lot for sharing this experience.

  34. gopalakrishna
    September 29, 2014

    Good information , which we can not imagine in India

  35. Kerry
    September 29, 2014

    Wow, love these images. Secret Compass runs an annual expedition into these lands and I’ve seen their images but never such food-focussed ones – it’s fascinating. Thanks!

  36. Chay G T
    September 29, 2014

    We should make good use of time as we are still alive. Can you imagine living in those places until they die ?

  37. mishila
    September 29, 2014

    I am a tribal and I can identify with this type of food n cooking style ..the simpler it is the better in taste and health…

  38. Peter
    September 29, 2014

    Centuries apart but co-exist peacefully
    on the same Planet….God’s World…His Children All.

  39. radha
    September 28, 2014

    Wonderful narrative. Enjoyed reading it.

  40. S.Mohan
    September 28, 2014

    Very informative and gives us deep insight into life of people in such remote place. Thanks to Matthiew.

  41. Hamid Hameed
    September 28, 2014

    Tremendously Majestic people and their Land…Romantically Impressive photography. Those who go there, are already blessed to avail the rare opportunity life offered to them. These nomads and their culture need to be prevented from use of plastic goods and politics.

  42. Jorge
    September 28, 2014

    Thumbs up. Should come to colombia where hormigas culonas(big a– ants are a delikatesses or to the amazon basin where worm oil is a multipurpose denree

  43. Mark E Davis
    September 28, 2014

    Thank you. It awakens the nomadic soul..

  44. Janet Cannon
    September 28, 2014

    Just an observation- while surviving in this demanding way, like so many “primitive” peoples, they are also able to produce, or maybe obtain now, beautiful traditional fabrics and jewelry, that we hardly even value any more. Think of the life-hours required! It does make me wonder how we assign value to things in life…

  45. Sherry Ruais
    September 28, 2014

    Love your story & Pictures – I’m a dedicated arm chair traveler now but grew up in Aruba during WWII times and things were very different from now.

  46. Irene Brady
    September 28, 2014

    Do they use the wild onions in their cooking? And if so, how?

  47. Shirley
    September 28, 2014

    How long do these people survive? Their bodies must be able to synthesize vitamins/minerals from what they eat. Just speculating here.

  48. Ikuko Otsuka
    September 28, 2014

    I think that these people didn’t happily chose the place that they live. I imagine that there was a competition for furtile land or lands that is easier to make living. They end up living here because that was left for them to live with dignity. I truly admire these people who sustain their lives with so little.

  49. Mathy Maes
    September 28, 2014

    J’ai connu le même procédé dans la vallée de la Marka (Ladakh) en 1978 où les femmes faisaient des “croustillons” avec la pâte de lait de yack bouilli : elles en prenaient une poignée et ça coulait entre les doigts. Ca séchait vite et c’était facile à stocker pour l’hiver.

  50. pat cooper
    September 28, 2014

    “eating habits developed over centuries” quite a concept, and an antidote to the recent “fast food” craze

  51. Dawn Elder
    September 28, 2014

    I think the Vitamin C would likely come from the butter. Sheep butter is higher than average for V-C and with out a high carb diet to deplete it, it should be more than enough.

  52. C.Krom
    September 28, 2014

    True survivalists,most likely to outlast us pansies in this uncertain world.

  53. Prabhat Ghosh
    September 27, 2014

    Through Matthieu Paley’s amazing style of seeing people, I’m fortunate to witness this amazing people and their culture.

  54. kathleen sankey
    September 25, 2014

    amazing

  55. Irfan D
    September 25, 2014

    fascinating documentary and narrative- love it!

  56. Robird.W.McCurry Ceng
    September 25, 2014

    我们西藏也是一样

  57. Deepak
    September 23, 2014

    Wow!! amazing pictures.

  58. Haroon Rahimi
    September 22, 2014

    I love Kurut. It could be found in any afghan grocery stores in u.s and canada

  59. nicolas himonas
    September 22, 2014

    it is very interesting the way of leaving. like everything!!!!

  60. Johanna
    September 22, 2014

    watching these photos reminds me of past lifetimes..become emotional! thank you..

  61. Mike Hill
    September 22, 2014

    Nice Info.Nice Photo’s.

  62. Majid
    September 21, 2014

    Good work bravo

  63. Phanupong Asvakiat
    September 21, 2014

    From what do they get their vit.C;Eskimos get it from raw fish,but these people destroy it through boiling.

  64. Teresa
    September 21, 2014

    Intriguing article. Thank you for sharing your fascinating experience with us!

  65. Harriet Kuhnlein
    September 21, 2014

    Stunning and sensitive photographs, that are educational and awe-inspiring about how the tribal people of Afganistan live and nourish themselves. There is so much to learn from them.

  66. Thomas Schaber
    September 21, 2014

    I am overwhelmed by how hard it is for many people of the world just to maintain survive – while we hop in a car to go buy junk food.

  67. AHMED NABEEH
    September 21, 2014

    Our peasents in the rural areas of Egypt have a somewhat similar way of producing ” Fetta / White ” cheese .

  68. Roshane Nanayakkara
    September 21, 2014

    Humbled by the hard work put in to make a meal but also fascinated by what can be done with so little.

  69. mina puchan
    September 21, 2014

    Its just amazing !

  70. Leroy Humphries
    September 20, 2014

    Most spoiled Americans, especially our teenagers, would come close to starving before they would eat as these people routinely eat.

  71. Katy Syed
    September 20, 2014

    Somehow the Kyrgyz children make it to adulthood – without their Flintstone vitamins.

  72. Krishnakali Sinha
    September 19, 2014

    Interesting details. I wish we could try some Kurut. Sounds good. What is the origin of their language ? What is the status of women in their culture?

  73. Gary
    September 19, 2014

    U want to ‘go’ there? A very hard, difficult and dangerous journey indeed it is. Besides the elements, the topography, there are the Taliban, gangs of criminals, all looking for money and ransoms. I don’t recommend it for the foolhardy. Advice from a former Peace Corps volunteer.

  74. Feroz khan
    September 19, 2014

    Thank you so much. I feel at one with you and the people there.
    They are my ancestors and their diet is as if our beginning .
    I pray for their continued survival in the way they know best as we may not.
    Thank you again . I am grilling prawns from the ocean with Italian sundried tomato paste with some asparagus tips and wild mushrooms for my dinner. I eat once a day no breakfast or lunch. Just pure serious coffee.

  75. Suzanne Shermer
    September 19, 2014

    Important life lessons are missed by most of the “developed” populace.

  76. Jason cook
    September 19, 2014

    Awesome I’m fascinated!!!

  77. Jennifer Swain
    September 19, 2014

    fabulous, fantastic

  78. MEHMET OZPINAR
    September 19, 2014

    i want go to there.

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