Photograph by Matthieu Paley
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A goat and sheep herd on the move in the morning.
Photograph by Matthieu Paley

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.