Saturday, August 30, 2008

An Afghan Lunch

Interview for a job in the United States and there are several critical pieces of information you want to ascertain from your prospective employer, such as expected salary, retirement plans, and annual vacation time. Health insurance benefits will likely be forefront in your mind as well, and deserving of a query. In Afghanistan, a primary question for an employer is: Does this job provide a proper lunch?

Afghans traditionally take bread and tea for breakfast, followed by a large lunch and then a small supper. Most Afghans are poor, unfortunately, so what constitutes a large lunch varies by income; but also by job. Those Afghans blessed with employment, and especially those working for government ministries, the military, and large businesses, usually enjoy a lunch provided at the workplace; and that meal is, by far, the largest repast of the day for most Afghans. The lunch benefit is so important that an Afghan-American surgeon who has returned to his hometown of Kabul to start a medical clinic after more than 35 years of practice in Florida recently told me that he has problems recruiting qualified staff as his budget does not allow him to buy his employees lunch.

I’ve kept abreast of news reports detailing recent food shortages in Afghanistan and many other poor sectors of the planet; but if you sat down for the midday meal, as I have done, at a military medical clinic or an Afghan ministerial office, you would think you were living in the Fertile Crescent during a period of bumper crop harvests. The typical lunch I’ve seen (and eaten) begins when you receive a plate of rice voluminous enough to feed a small Chinese village. Often the rice will come as a traditional palao and include a combination of raisins, cherries, carrots and meat. The palao usually carries the aroma of cooking oil and butter indicating a quick light fry prior to presentation (a process that we all know makes everything taste better). Whatever the type of rice offered, your serving will be just short of a bushel.

If you stand up to peer over your serving of rice and scan the rest of the table, you will see several other standard Afghan dishes including a very tart yogurt that is slightly curdled and feared by many Americans as pasteurization has not yet made it across the Khyber Pass as standard practice in the dairy industry of Afghanistan. I like to use the yogurt, which is unflavored, as a condiment for my rice and meat because I like the rich tangy bite it provides. No Afghan has yet confronted me on anything improper about mixing dairy and flesh, perhaps because the Islamic dietary laws apply here, not the Jewish.

Stewed vegetables and perhaps lentils will also grace the table. Okra seems to be popular, especially a soft, moist okra that tastes slightly of cooking oil and butter, indicating a quick light fry prior to presentation (a process that we all know makes everything taste better). You might also have before you a thin soup with carrots and noodles.

Certainly you will have a plate of naan flat bread, and larger institutions have their own traditional naan ovens where bakers (often teenage boys working for a couple of daily meals and perhaps a bit of cash) knead and flatten the dough before sticking it to the underside of the ceiling of a wood-fired stone oven. At one clinic I visit regularly, my first stop upon arrival is at the house naan bakery for a piece of hot bread fresh from the oven. It’s my Afghan equivalent of entering a Krispy Kreme donut shop when the hot light is on. The edges of the naan are thicker and softer than the middle of the disc, which is thin and crisp. I’ve discussed with a couple of naan experts the possibility of baking full pizzas just as they bake the bread, as I thought that might be a unique and marketable Afghan twist on the already prevalent stone-oven pizza concept, but we cannot devise a method to keep the toppings from falling off the dough into the fire once the pie is inverted.

Naan at the lunch table is useful as a scoop for yogurt, a shovel for rice, and a pincer pad between your fingers for snagging meat morsels. Rural Afghans might not have any table utensils at all, and need the naan for manipulating the rest of their food. Most tables I’ve seen in Kabul feature silverware. Contemporary urban Afghans will even use their left hands to reach for naan if necessary, breaking a taboo against the cleanliness of the hand that traditionally performs necessary bodily hygiene maneuvers and therefore considered, for good reason, as unclean and not to be offered to guests in greeting or commingled with vittles.

The meat at lunch might be served in a small individual dish, cut into slender strips and mixed into the palao, or still attached to a large bone from the donor beast and sitting atop another tub of rice. I like the latter presentation best. I call it “Leg of Something,” as I’m never sure the species represented. I know what it is NOT: pork. But you can place your money on any other mammal, with goat the odds-on favorite.

The Afghans do not forget about dessert. You will see fresh oranges at lunch, along with lemons that many Afghans will slice and eat like any other citrus fruit. My favorite post-lunch treat is a peculiarly dry and slightly sweet melon, usually the size of an average watermelon, with white fruit and a yellow rind. I asked an Afghan colleague for the English name of the fruit, and he said, “We call it MELON.”

I asked if it is a certain type of melon, and he responded, “Like a watermelon, but just a MELON.”

My Dari is lackluster, at best, compared to his English. And I really don’t care what it’s called. It’s delicious, and I eat more than my share every time I find it on the table.


sandra said...

yummy! how do you guys stay thin over there??

Anonymous said...

Happy Labor Day Ron! Tucson buddy had a little girl- Joe

jbryant said...

Your the man Ron! I look at this blog at least once a week. Great inside info for a country we still have only scant knowledge of. I'm in the USAF and hope to make my way over there eventually. Keep up the good work!

frisco said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gloria said...

Wow-that sounds delicious--especially the naan and MELON. Have never eaten lemons like oranges--thinking about it makes my mouth water!

Anonymous said...

well written and funny. great representation of what is, to me, still a foreign cuisine.