It’s felt a little different for me to be in Pakistan lately. This is probably due to the looming specter of my unemployment starting on October 17. It turns out it is slightly more anxiety-producing to be here in the land of the foreign and the unfamiliar without the reassuring comforts of company-sponsored security detail, visa sponsorship, and danger pay. This is the case even though I will be working as a short-term consultant and things are not as grim as this paragraph makes them sound. Short version: despite my griping, it’s not time to worry about me yet.
In the meantime I am taking the opportunity to do all of those things in Islamabad that I could never do when I was working 12-hour days. This week that included: Sleeping in. Getting 8 pairs of pants hemmed. Trying a new restaurant other than Nirvana. And most importantly, attempting the grand experiment of cooking for myself.
There are all sorts of obstacles to cooking my own meals here, even though cooking is one of my favorite things to do. First there were the rumors of bacteria run amok on everything raw–various sources made me fear for my life were I to get crazy and do something like, say, eat lettuce. I have decided these fears are overblown.
Then of course there was the issue of living in a guesthouse for three months. During that period any personal “cooking” was relegated to burning popcorn in the conference room microwave or spraying fresh cherries with a hydrogen peroxide solution before gingerly eating them one by one (see above, dire fears re: bacteria).
After getting my own place, there was still the matter of unpacking dishes, pots, and pans so I would have something to cook with. That took about 2 months. Which just left me with the matter of groceries.
Like many European cities and Boston’s own North End, Islamabad requires you to go to lots of little shops to get all the things you need. I always thought this was quaint every time I went shopping in European cities or the North End. When it is the only way to get your food, it is less “quaint” and more like an ordeal. But I like the idea of small and local, so it’s good that living here is forcing me to practice what I preach.
Yesterday I went to the market, rupees in hand, to rustle up enough ingredients for a relatively healthy home-cooked meal. I settled on one that was Mexican-inspired, both because there is a dearth of Mexican food here and because it is always my go-to. (So easy!) I found whole-wheat tortillas (whole-wheat anything here being cause for celebration), a great block of mature cheddar cheese from England, a jar of exorbitantly-priced imported salsa, and a can of corn. I bought all of it. The plan was black-bean quesadillas, using my favorite Annie’s organic refried black beans that I brought in my 739 pound shipment from the U.S.
I also wanted a side dish, so I went to the fresh vegetable stand and found a lovely bunch of red carrots and some green beans. You never know what you are going to find at the vegetable stand. Sometimes they have pomegranates and kiwi fruit and you think you are in Whole Foods. Other times you are lucky to find potatoes. But this was a good day.
It took way, way more work to cook this meal than it would have to eat at one of the restaurants in town that has provided the bulk of my sustenance since I moved here. This dinner involved knives, and potato peelers, and using up 3 bottles of mineral water to wash and boil the vegetables, and turning the gas burner on the second I got home in case load-shedding started at 9pm and I would no longer have electricity to start up the stove. In short, an adventure. But the feeling of sitting down to a meal I put together myself felt worth every ounce of extra effort.
The can of corn turned out to be baby corn, adding a strange, slightly Asian flair to the Mexican meal. I didn’t have any fresh herbs to toss in the vegetables, and I couldn’t find the black pepper. But the carrots were glossy red and sauteed up tasty and buttery with the green beans, and the quesadillas were crispy and melty with that great meal equalizer, cheese. The yummy yogurt they have here made a good substitute for sour cream, and the pint of Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked ice cream that I dug out of the bottom of the grocery store freezer was the perfect ending to Experiment #1. Let the cooking begin.