Saturday, January 19, 2008

Tajik Food

Mmm's actually good. Nice and simple, but fresh and healthy. And good.

Let me start with an over view. The most common agricultural product in Tajikistan is cotton, so correspondingly, cotton oil is use in almost everything. The most common grain is rice, the most common vegetables are carrots, onions and potatoes and the most common fruits are pomegranates, grapes, apples, watermelons and persimmons.

The Tajik food staple is lepioshka (non in Tajik) which is a round bread, very flat and almost inedible in the middle and about two inches thick on the outside. I ate it at every meal from the day I arrived--with eggs or sausages in the morning, with salads at midday and with soups in the evening. Frankly, it's some of the best bread I've tasted especially when warm-- it's almost creamy and perfect for soaking up soup, oil or tea. I have no idea how it is made, since my hostfamilies always bought theirs, but in many Tajk families lepioshka is homemade in a stone oven. (Left photo shows the back side of a lepioshka.)

One thing I found hard to adjust to was the fact that the Tajiks rarely drink water, probably because the tap water is definitely not sanitary enough to drink and bottled water is an additional cost ($.50 for 1 liter). So instead, they drink hot black or green tea with every meal. My host families mostly preferred green, and I liked it plain or with sugar and a slice of lemon. We drank out of small v-shaped, handle-less cups which are meant to allows the heat to dissipate quickly but are in reality are just emptied of contents quickly. By tradition, a new pot of tea has to be poured into a cup and then returned to the tea pot three times before it it fit to drink. No one could tell me the origin of this, though Canyon did mention something about one cup being for Allah, the second for Muhammad and the third for...who knows but no Tajik could confirm this for me. Another tradition that goes along with tea drinking is that the host pours half cups for the guest, until he wants the guest to leave; then he pours a full cup. Apparently, tradition varies in this matter, for in Dushanbe they pour full cups from the get go.

Tajiks celebrate everything-- from birthdays to weddings to the welcoming of a guests--by eating plov, (or oshenpalo in Tajiki). It is made from rice and garbanzo beans in cotton oil and is garnished with chunks of lamb. Served in a large bowl, Tajiks traditionally eat it with their hands and a communal napkin, but many have started using utensils and I was certainly always given a fork or spoon. Plov is served with a salad of nothing more than tomato chunks and onions. Simples, but it was one of the tastiest salads I'd ever had! (See the feast before plov at a birthday in the photo right)

Soups are huge in Tajikistan and vary only slightly, most having water, potatoes, meat (beef or lamb only since it's a Muslim country) and salt , decorated on top with parsley. Sometimes there are meat-filled ravioli (like pot stickers) in the soup and this is called montou.

Another specialty is sombosas, which are hot pastries filled with meat, pumpkin or spinach. These were some of my favorite foods to go out and eat with friends (there was a perfect little place near the Waldorf School) and we would smother them with sour red sauce. (See my host-sister, left, eating a sombosa)

The last, and very cultural summer food, is shashlik. This is just chunks of meat on a stick, cooked over a grill and topped with raw white onion. It is sometimes accompanied with ba carrot salad and some kefir (which is basically yogurt, though as I understand it, is made from the fungus of milk instead of the bacteria) and is very cheap at $1 a stick.

A couple of times, Canyon and I made an "event" of it and went out of town with our friends to eat Kurutob. This is a cheesy dish of noodles and can be served with chunks of tomatoes. It was the closest thing to Mexican food we could find, so we cherished it to be sure!

We also went out for ice cream early in our stay (it's really creamy--like soft serve in the States), but since my host family concluded that it was the source of a sore throat I got the next day, I did not have it more than once.

Lastly, I did encounter some "Southern Fried Chicken" at a fast-food joint in Dushanbe. It was less thrilling than I expected my first western meal to be after two months of simple Tajik food, but it satisfied me nonetheless.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Well, I have just bought the tickets! I leave February 4th flying via British Airlines (Austin-Chicago- London-Moscow) and Siberian Airlines (Moscow-Khujand). This way turned out to be the least expensive, even with a $100 transit visa through Moscow. The catch is that I arrive on February 6th at 4:05 am, after spending 10 hours in the Moscow airport. I do hear it is a nice one, though.

Since I left, I have been keeping in pretty consistant touch with friends from Tajikistan who tell me that it is currently -17 C in Khujand (about 0 F) and there is snow! But, good news. The government is now giving gas all day-- 12 full hours of it. That is an improvement since I left!

I will be staying with the same host family as before (photos below) who really welcome me as one of them, and fortunately have an extra electricity line which allows them to have more than four hours of electricity a day. I'm very glad about this.

Also, not part of the plan this time cutting. I have mentioned this a few times, but more than once Tajiks commented that I really stand out, and even look a bit masculine, with my "short" hair. It remains part of the culture for most women to leave their hair uncut for many years. So, I guess I'll just have to go along with tradition.

There are just three weeks left before I depart, and my Tajik visa will be coming in soon. I hope that my plastic box of donations will continue to fill with anything and everything deemed appropriate for 1st-6th graders, or Tajiks in general. (Ideas: pencils, notebooks, recorders, warm blankets, warm clothes....)

And thank you again to those of you who have already donated.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Cotton Picking

I spent my first Sunday in Khujand cotton picking. Arriving at a parking lot in central Khujand at 7 am, we (four teachers from the Waldorf school, Gertruda a German friend of the school and myself) crowded into buses for the one-hour ride to the fields. I remember the ride well as I, already overwhelmed by language and cultural differences, attempted to understand the German chatter of Gertruda as she relayed stories of life in Kenya and Sudan. The other Tajik women on the bus, worn and tired from the fasting month of Ramadan, started muttering and complaining about us two foreigners talking (rather loudly) in a strange tongue. I felt so ashamed that already I was appearing as a loud American in Tajikistan yet that was unfortunately not the last time strangers reprimanded me for being too loud in public transportation.

I actually enjoyed the cotton picking because it gave me a chance to talk with and get to know Tahmina. We picked slowly, rested frequently and at lunch time fell asleep under the cotton bushes. But fortunately for us, we had to do this only once.

I have mentioned it before in the blog, but since it does not cease to astound me, I will write it again. The government requires that all university students pick cotton for an indefinite period of time every fall. Teachers are supposed to go on Sundays, their only day off from school. Starting in August, students live together, eat together, sleep together and pick cotton together not returning home until November or December. And this is because the government is committed to paying salaries and tuition.

At the end of the day I was tired and my back was sore, and the buses were over full with sweaty grumpy people, so I stood the whole way home. Tahmina and I, together, had picked only 40 kilos of cotton in eight hours, about 40 kilos below par. But we just laughed it off and were glad to return to the city, thankful that come morning we only had to teach children and not pull white fluffy lumps off brambly bushes for days on end. We decided not to return again.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Istanbul From Above

Shots of Istanbul from our airplane
-September 26th 2007