The Story of a Beautiful and Intriguing Cookbook from the Pamirs, “With Our Own Hands”

Introduced and compiled by Abdulmalik Merchant
Publisher-Editor, Simerg and Simergphotos

Co-Author holding "With Our Own Hands"

Frederik van Oudenhoven happily displaying “With Our Own Hands” that he co-authored with Jamila Haider. Photo: Facebook page, PamirFoodandLife

“This…may be one of the most beautiful books I have ever read..!” noted award winning Dutch journalist Frénk van der Linden in an interview on Dutch national radio, while Bouillon Magazine called With Our Own Hands, “the most intriguing cookbook we have ever held in our hands.” And at the beginning of 2016, the book was chosen as ‘best Dutch cookbook of the year’ by the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, as well as ‘best photography cookbook’ and ‘best Silk Road cookbook’!

But for authors Frederik van Oudenhoven and Jamila Haider, nothing would be more gratifying and rewarding than to see their several year effort turn a full circle, with the hand-delivery of the first copy of “With Our Own Hands – A Celebration of Food and Life in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan” to the Pamir’s Tugoz community in September 2015.

The co-authors passionately felt that each of the 1800 communities in the Pamirs should be presented with at least one copy of the book for their libraries and classrooms. They spared no effort to find donor(s) to make their dream for the wonderful people of the Pamirs come true. Thus, they gave back to their Pamiri friends something tangible they would recognise themselves, and feel proud about. For Geerdt Magiels of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel the book became “a gift to the people in those faraway mountains, who can now, for the first time, see their culture chronicled in printed form, as a living document, for, we hope, a living future.”


The authors ensured that each of the 1800 communities of the Pamirs received a copy of “With Our Own Hands.” In this photo, schoolgirls in the Bartang valley are standing with a copy of the book. The authors have noted that they were received  time and time again with the warmest hospitality one could ever imagine. Photo: Facebook page, PamirFoodandLife.

Simerg is pleased to dedicate this entire post to the book. The post contains:

  1. A story about the book, published in full from the publisher’s website We express our sincere gratitude to LM for the story as well as some of the pictures accompanying this piece. A few photos are from Facebook page, PamirFoodandLife.
  2. A link to a great podcast at eatthispodcast in which the host, Jeremy Cherfas, talks with Frederik van Oudenhoven, the co-author of the book, who discusses the fascinating diversity of food crops in the Pamir region;
  3. A short video clip by Daan Jongbloed from Van Osch Films who travelled with the authors to the Pamir Mountains when they went to bring back their book. Daan shot over 30 hours of footage, about food and agriculture, the people, and the book. The authors are using the video clip to raise funds for a full documentary; and
  4. How to purchase the book from Simerg.

1. The Story of “With Our Own Hands”



Despite its barren nature, or perhaps because of it, there is a force in the Pamir Mountains that draws you back again and again. It may be because, in a place where every year people have to create the soil from the stony lands, the hospitality and generosity of the people who live here and share their foods are so great. The small plateaus that are carved out everywhere to grow food among the steep mountain valleys have given rise to a huge diversity of unique crops, a diversity that is mirrored in the local languages and cultures. But somehow, this richness is not reflected in the food you receive when coming to these mountains as a visitor.

When Frederik, who had first come to this region through his work on the conservation of ancient fruit varieties, commented to his Pamiri colleagues about the lack of diversity in the local food culture, they proved him wrong by preparing beautiful dishes made with the many kinds of food grown in the mountains. They agreed, however, that it was worrying that so many of these old recipes and practices were disappearing. Even the landscape was beginning to suffer from the loss of traditional practices and farmers’ knowledge. And so, Frederik and his colleagues started collecting recipes.

At the same time, in the spring of 2009, Jamila was working for a development organisation in the Pamirs on cross-border development between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Development organisations play an important role in the Pamirs, which is the poorest region of Central Asia, but most of the development ideas seemed to focus on external solutions to the problems, ignoring existing knowledge and biocultural richness. Jamila often thought about how Pamiri voices might be strengthened, how they could contribute more of their own knowledge to the discussions about development, their future.

A Promise to a Grandmother

PamirBack-270x404Photo: “With Our Own Hands”

Six months and 130 recipes later, Jamila and Frederik first met at a workshop about agricultural biodiversity in the Pamirs. It was here that Jamila tried Pamiri apricot soup for the first time and it was here that the idea of a recipe book began to take hold in their imaginations. The next day, in the village of Mun in the Ghund valley, an elderly woman started telling them stories about the food she once used to eat. Very soon, her entire family was there, listening to her, and more and more people from her community joined. When she had finished her story, she looked at her daughter, then at us, and asked us to write down her recipes in a book. “I want to share them with my children and grandchildren while I still remember what I know” she said.

Jamila and Frederik left the Pamirs and went their separate ways, Jamila to Kabul to continue to work on regional development and Frederik to Colombia to learn how to farm. The idea of the recipe book was shelved, although it was never quite forgotten. Neither was the promise to the grandmother in Mun.

Going Back to the Pamirs: The Real Journey of the Book Begins

Authors Jamila Haider and Frederik van OudenhovenAuthor Jamila Haider and Frederik van Oudenhoven.

About a year later, Jamila wrote to Frederik, to ask how things were progressing with the book. They weren’t. She said she still thought about the idea often and that it would be a real contribution to the Pamirs. She made him an offer: if he wanted to go ahead with the book, she would, too. And so the real journey of the book began: having known each other for the whole of two days, they both dropped what they were doing, put together their savings, and returned to the Pamirs on a budget flight. Their idea was to find out a bit more about the 130 recipes they had on their list, to document them and make a little booklet for the people of the Pamirs.

Article continues after Excerpts


“Bismillah – This call, the first word of the Islamic phrase, Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim begins many of the daily activities in the life of the Pamiri people. Prayer, cooking and eating are blessed this way, and so become fruitful and meaningful.”

“In the Ismaili faith, the relationship between us human beings and the places we inhabit is deeply interwoven. It is important for people who, like the Pamiris, live in places that are isolated, in which each small piece of land must be used in the best way possible. If God created us, it is believed, He also created the things around us that are necessary for us to have a healthy life…”

BreadBread at the centre of the dastorkhan, the cloth where the food is laid out to receive guests. Often there are dried fruit and nuts, some cream or butter, tea and sweets. It is important to treat the bread with care and not to step over it or put it behind your back. Photo: From the book, “With Our Own Hands.” Copyright.

Together with our friends from the Pamir Biological Institute we travelled through the Pamirs for several months to look for the people behind the recipes. In remote villages we had never been to, we arrived at people’s doorsteps as complete strangers, unannounced and uninvited. “Could you perhaps cook something for us?” we would ask, “something special,” and presented the list of recipes we still did not understand. The embarrassment we felt at doing this was always swept away by an overwhelming hospitality and kindness. It opened a window into a colourful new world of tastes, memories, poems and stories, and imaginings of what the future of the Pamir Mountains might look like. It helped us to understand more of the difficulties of Pamiri life, and more of its beauty, and to see these in a light that went beyond resource scarcity, poverty or war, themes usually associated with this part of the world. All this made the recipe booklet expand. We weren´t just documenting endangered recipes anymore, but also the world around those recipes: the places, the times, the ideas. Bit by bit, we were piecing together a mirror that we could give back to our Pamiri friends and in which, we hoped, they would recognise themselves, and feel proud.

Article continues after One Book, Three languages


WOHCover2Photo: “With Our Own Hands”

Besides English, the languages in this book are Dari and Tajik which are the forms of Persian spoken in Afghanistan and Tajikistan respectively. The languages are not as different as their distinctive scripts suggest: Dari and Tajik speakers can understand each other well, yet their different histories have meant that the former is written in the Arabic script, while the latter is in a slightly modified version of Cyrillic.

Most people in the Pamirs speak Dari or Tajik only as their second (or third) language, their mother tongue being one of a number of unwritten Pamiri languages, unrelated to Persian. Partly as a result of these influences, Dari and Tajik are spoken very differently in the countryside of the Pamirs from how they are spoken in the capitals of the two countries, Kabul and Dushanbe. In the translations, we [the authors] have sought to find a balance between these different ways of speaking the languages which, while comprehensible to all, does not oversimplify the language or take away from its beauty.

The choice to make a book in which the three languages are combined was inspired by our wish to return a copy to each community, school and library in the Pamirs. It is also intended to give expression to the close historical ties between the people on either side of the Afghan–Tajik border, and between them and the people from around the world who will read this book in English.

This was the new task we set ourselves: to make a book that could travel back to the Pamirs. The three months that we initially gave ourselves to do that became four years. Two years to research and write, disentangling the seven different languages used locally to describe seeds and recipes, learning about the natural and political history of the Pamirs, travelling back, to check and check and recheck. Two years more for everything else: the translations and re-translations into Dari and Tajik, the intricate design of 672 pages with so many different kinds of texts—from children’s rhymes to cheese recipes and revolutions—in three completely different scripts, combined with the work of several photographers. All the while, we were seeking funding for the printing of 2000 copies (one for each Pamiri community) of an ever-expanding book that just did not want ever to finish. And looming over all this work was the prospect, terrifying to any writer or researcher, that the people whose voices you recount, whose lives you portray, and whose world you try to understand, will read what you have written.

School Teachers with their own copy of With Our Own HandsSchool teachers with their new book “With Our Own Hands,” with author Frederik van Oudenhoven at right. Photo: Facebook page, PamirFoodandLife.

Thanks to the help of so many friends, in the Pamirs and in the places that have been our home over the past years, and thanks to the generosity and patience of our donors, the book is finished. We hope that with it we have done Pamiri hospitality justice and that it will find its way into Pamiri homes and hearts. And in doing so, we hope that it will help strengthen the call from that beautiful land, so that it continues to always call us back.


2. Podcast – The link between food and agricultural biodiversity.


3. Video – Wisdom of the Mountains


4. Buy this book from Simerg

Simerg is delighted to offer this book to Canadian readers on a first-come first-served basis at Cdn$85.00 per copy +  packaging/shipping/insurance (which will vary across Canada, and range from Cdn$25.00 – $30.00).

Payment Methods:

Paypal: Simergbooks has been verified by Paypal. To purchase a copy, please send a request to and an invoice will be generated from Paypal provided we still have the book in stock. In view of the limited quantities, payment should then be received within 24 hours after the invoice.

Email Transfer: To purchase a copy via email fund transfer, please send a request to Once we have confirmed to you via email that a book is available, we will request you to submit a payment via email transfer. In view of the limited quantities payment should then be received within 24 hours after the invoice.

Date posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2016.
Last updated: August 7, 2016.


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4 thoughts on “The Story of a Beautiful and Intriguing Cookbook from the Pamirs, “With Our Own Hands”

  1. I like all your articles; please continue with your work and keep us updated with new material!
    Best regards

  2. I found the information about this Cook Book very interesting. Will go on line to buy this Book. I might use it for my Book Club sessions.

  3. Absolutely amazing to know the art of food making and serving, specially the respect and love connected.

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