Report from Afghanistan

Originally emailed on December 12, 2012

Hi there! I hope you’re all doing well. Things here are good.

I’ll bet some of you are wondering what the food is like here and whether I’m having any trouble as a vegetarian. Well, let’s just say…they get the vegetarian thing in the office because the Afghan staff have had so much exposure to westerners, but vegetarianism is a pretty foreign concept anywhere else. After all, the ability to refuse food — or particular types of food — is a pretty privileged position. I’m fortunate that lunch is provided every day at the office — the program has in-house cooks who prepare and serve the lunchtime meal for the entire staff. Each day, we go to the kitchen and get a tray that has a small fresh salad (lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and radish tossed with some lemon juice, salt, and pepper), a bowl of yogurt (which is a little sour and tastes very similar to greek yogurt — it’s good), two pieces of bread (typical Afghan flatbread that is like a crusty Naan bread — delicious), a banana or apple, and the main course. The main course varies from day to day — it’s usually a bowl of rice that has different spices and lentils in it (that changes depending on how they make it each day, and I’ve really enjoyed it) and meat (chicken or beef) with another bowl of red beans (also good). Usually the rice is cooked separately from the meat, so I can get the rice without the meat in it, but occasionally I’ve not been able to eat the rice because they cooked it all together with the meat. Sometimes they serve pasta instead of rice, and it’s a penne pasta tossed with some kind of red sauce and local spices. I’ve really enjoyed these meals and the spice combinations. But I was totally surprised when yesterday they served fried chicken and french fries! So they sometimes switch it up.

Dinner is a little more challenging [… The place where I’m staying] does offer meals, but they are expensive, and they haven’t really understood the vegetarian concept too well. I had lunch [at the guesthouse/hotel] over the weekend (when the office was closed), and I explained that I could not eat meat. The cook said she understood and brought back a beautiful carrot/tomato/bell pepper salad, a rice dish, and a potato mash meat pie. I explained that I couldn’t eat the pie because of the meat and then asked if there was meat in the rice, to which she said “no, no meat.” But after eating a few bites of the rice, I realized it had been made with meat (lamb, I think), but that the chunks of meat had just been pulled out. So…not quite getting it there.

Sometimes I go out to dinner after work with some of my ex-pat coworkers. You might be surprised at the restaurant scene in Kabul. There are so many international workers here, that there are quite a few options for eating out with cuisines from all over the world. Plus, there’s not a lot to do here, so that is one way to get a little entertainment instead of being at work or home all the time. Dining out in Kabul is an interesting experience and can be kind of surreal (for the newly arrived…I suppose you just get used to it if you’ve been here for a while). As I’ve mentioned before, you can never tell what a place is like in Kabul because everything is hidden behind security gates and walls. Driving through the streets, you just see concrete and metal fencing, with heavy metal doors, barbed-wire, gates with places to peek out and see who is approaching, guard boxes, and road blocks. Everything looks very military-esque or prison-like. It’s lots of grey, green, brown, and metal. The streets appear dusty, cold, and very uninviting. [Once we pass through the restaurant gates] … That moment is kind of like that scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy goes from black-and-white to color. Depending on the restaurant, you find yourself in another world. We go from a concrete, metal-walled cell into a well-appointed […] restaurant with beautiful tables and chairs, tapestries, twinkle lights, paintings, etc. Some places even have outdoor beer gardens or inner courtyards, but it’s too cold to use them right now. Since mostly ex-pats go to these places, the women take their scarves off, and it’s like being in a regular restaurant. Almost.

Eating out in Kabul is pretty darn expensive, although you can get good deals in some places. A few nights ago I went to a restaurant with a coworker. Instead of ordering off the menu, he told them to prepare us a sample platter and to make sure it was vegetarian. They brought us so much food! It was delicious, and we had a platter with about sixteen different dishes, and they even brought us chocolate cake to finish. There was no way we could eat all of it, so we wrapped up the leftovers, and it took me four days to eat through them. Last night, I went to dinner at a restaurant with a coworker and his wife. The food was pretty expensive too, but it was tasty and a pleasant change of pace. We decided to get some beers, too, because we needed to unwind after the long day. You can get alcohol in restaurants, but it is even more expensive than the food, and a lot of places are serving it illegally. Recently, a law or declaration was made saying that it is not illegal for internationals to drink alcohol, but it is illegal for Afghans to own and serve it; so that puts everyone in the Catch-22 situation where serving alcohol is still technically illegal (you can imagine what has to happen for restaurant owners to get around these restrictions). Five years ago, a can of beer cost about $5, but then the borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan closed, and that was one of the main routes that supplies (including alcohol) were brought in. Prices shot up, and beer started costing $12 a can! Since then, supply routes have opened back up, but it looks like some restaurant owners have figured out that ex-pats are willing and able to pay those prices, because they haven’t gone back down. My co-worker told me about one place that serves red wine in teapots and teacups. You order “red tea,” because they don’t have an alcohol license. If you want to get harder stuff, you can buy it, but you can’t get it in restaurants, and the prices are very high. I’ve heard that a bottle of whiskey or vodka here can run $150 to $250 dollars, and that’s not the “good stuff.” So you can imagine why bringing a bottle of wine or liquor is a good gift when traveling here (you’re allowed to bring in 2).

Speaking of drinks, I’ve also been enjoying the tea here. There is an endless supply of hot water in every office because everyone sips on hot tea all day long. There is also Nescafe if anyone wants coffee, but people mostly stick with black or green tea. There was a special treat the other day when a member of the gender team brewed a pot of green tea with saffron in it. It was so delicious!  Another drink I’ve enjoyed is hot black tea with fresh ginger slices, lemon, and sugar. It is soooo good. And I’d imagine it’s great if you’re feeling under the weather. I love it, though. I’m planning to keep making it when I’m home. You should definitely try it! 🙂

So are you hungry yet? I find food culture so fascinating. And I thought it was really funny when a staff member told me that she had traveled to a bunch of countries and among the things she enjoyed in her travels was the McDonald’s in India. She was shocked when I told her that McDonald’s wasn’t nearly as good in America. I hope I didn’t disappoint her too much! There are other, much better, American foods I think she should try! 🙂

Hope you’re all doing well!