Monday, August 03, 2015

Kabul: Breaking Bread

A week into my term in Kabul, I had my first taste of Afghan food, or more correctly, I had my first taste of Afghan food inside Afghanistan.  Everyone in my office gets together for lunch once a month, and on this occasion, we had voted for local fare.

Being the experts, the Afghans in our office selected the dishes, and we ended up with a fine assortment of items.  Afghan cuisine is influenced by Iran, Pakistan and India, Central Asia, and even China, so we had the regional palate on our plates.

a nice spread

There was a momentary stalemate because no one wanted to be first in the food line, but that problem was soon resolved.  It was decided that my colleague who would be leaving post a few days later should have the honor.

Naturally, there was some chit-chat while we ate.  It was general office banter at first, but then I changed that with a simple question.

"Did you grow that beard just for Afghanistan?" I asked one of my American colleagues.

"Sort of," he replied.  "I used to have a smaller beard, but I let it go wild when I came out here."

He definitely had a big beard, but the ironic thing was that of all the Afghans present, none had anything even approaching that amount of facial hair.  A couple had small beards; two had rugged stubble, and one was clean-shaven.  It would seem that growing a big beard wouldn't go very far if one was trying to "blend in" - at least not in Kabul city.  A bushy beard might play better in the sticks, though.

My beard question then evolved into something more.

"You know," one Afghan colleague commented, "during the time of the Taliban, men had to have a beard."

"If you didn't have one, they would lock you in jail until you grew one."

"It's funny," another replied.  "They supported very big beards, but that is not even in accordance with Islam.  A proper Muslim beard should only be one fist-length from the chin."

One of the female Afghans shyly joined the conversation.

"I was fortunate," she said. "During Taliban rule, my family relocated to Pakistan. I didn't have to deal with it."

Several others had been in similar situations.  They had spent all or most of their time in Pakistan during the Taliban's tenure.

One colleague, however, had remained in Afghanistan with his family throughout the darkest of days.

"It was such a terrible time," he recounted.  "I remember when I was a small boy, I went with my uncle to the stadium.  We watched the public executions together.  They had taken away all the sports and activities by then, so the executions were our only amusement."

One of the others who only spent sporadic time in Afghanistan under the Taliban added to the narrative.

"I remember when I would come to visit my relatives in Afghanistan, the bodies of those who had been executed would be on display in the town.  It was usually for three days, I think."

"As a warning to others?" I asked.

"No, it was done for entertainment," he replied.  "You could even throw a stone at the body if you liked."

Another colleague added a different perspective.  "They displayed the bodies in case you missed the execution.  It was like recording a TV show to watch later."

The poignant conversation lasted for several minutes, and very soon after it started, every last fork was grounded.  I guess it's hard to eat when you've got a lump in your throat.

The conversation soon changed course, however, to the sad state of affairs in modern Afghanistan.  Violence and poverty were bringing everyone down, and leaving many with the desire to escape.  Hope was in short supply.

While discussing the matter of poverty, one colleague touched on unemployment.

"Most people can't find a job," he explained, "and it puts a big burden on those who do have jobs."

"I am supporting 15 people with my paycheck."

All the Afghans present had similar stories, and in the worst example, one young man was directly supporting 19 family members.

The issue of family support was a key consideration for those thinking about relocating to the States under the SIV program.  Most realized they would face a difficult time starting from scratch in the U.S. and this would have a direct impact on the amount of support they would be able to provide to family back home.

This had really turned into a heavy lunch.

People had gradually begun eating again after we moved past the discussion of executions, and a few people were ready for seconds.  I soon joined the clean-plate club myself.

For dessert, we had fresh mangoes and the American contribution, brownies.

A few of us Yanks began skinning and slicing our mangoes on our plates.

The Afghans have a different method, however.  They simply run a knife around the equator of the mango, as deep as the seed.  Then hold each end and twist.  When the mango separates in two, one half will have the seed projecting from it, and the other will form a little cup, ready to be spooned out.

Several of the Americans embraced this "novel" approach, but I wasn't so quick to jump on the band wagon.

Using the Afghan method, a lot of flesh clings to the seed, which either requires gnawing or cutting it off if you don't want to waste it.  Therein lies the problem for me: I don't enjoy sucking on mango seeds.

After dessert, we started cleaning up.  Some of the food for our feast had arrived in small clay pots, and a handful of these pots were sitting on the table.

Afghan take-away food

"Does anyone want these?" one of the Afghans asked.  "They are included with the food, and I already have plenty at home."

"What a novel concept!" I thought to myself.

In my travels around the world, I had paid good money for pots like these, and here in Afghanistan they were free like a styrofoam box.  I used one as a doggie bag and loaded it with mantu and stewed okra for later.

There had been plenty of cross-cultural exchange during this lunch, and for me the little clay pot was the perfect parting shot.


Unknown said...

When we order in , chicken , lentils , mostly come in these earthen ware pots , and you can keep .
Rice pudding and yoghurt also comes in clays bowls and you can keep them , wash and use again .
Clay bowls enhance the flavour of the rice pudding , so we believe !!!
Traditionally we serve rice pudding as dessert in smaller clay bowls the size of an ashtray , at all occasions .

Mangoes are sliced in the middle if it is a large size variety , it's a less messy way of eating a mango .Otherwise you dice and chill mangoes to serve .
The smaller variety is sliced from the sides and you can scoop it out with a spoon .
Then comes the Desi ( local ) mango , usually small in size , you nibble the top off soften the mango with your hands suck the pulp , this is done in an informal setting .

Wallyworld said...

A fascinating (if somewhat depressing at times) read, Chris.