Sometimes I think living overseas, especially in a post with lots of American expats, is just one long camp or party or freshman dorm orientation week or whatever the analogy is for a bunch of adults planning specific, orchestrated types of fun that one usually associates with children. Of course I contribute mightily to that event calendar myself with the various holiday-themed and random activities I host for the neighborhood. I don’t really remember what it is like to live in America where you don’t automatically have access to a whole group of the same 40 people who rotate doing fun things on the weekends and you always have two or three invitations each week to a party or barbecue or karaoke night or other super relaxing shindig. I actually participated in a beer pong tournament last month, complete with regulation-size tables, laminated tournament brackets, and a food truck serving bratwurst for the crowd. This isn’t normal, right? It may not be normal but I like it.
Today I got out my recipe for Sausage and Fennel Stuffing: a classic fall dish from Epicurious that I first adopted for a Thanksgiving dinner back in Boston in 2004. It uses lots of butter and sausage and fennel in two different forms and it is delicious. It’s not exactly “light” and doesn’t quite go with what is happening outside my window: a hot wind to start off a day in the ’80s which will grow to ’90s before noon and over 100 shortly after that. This is spring in Botswana.
It is lychee season in Pakistan so they are everywhere. They are one of the things I remember most about first moving here a year ago…everyone in our temporary office used to walk around, peeling and eating them, while we made start-up decisions and tackled the work issues involved in launching a new project. Sometimes we would be too busy to eat lunch right away, so we would subsist on lychees for a few hours instead.Lychees are a very sweet little fruit, a clear-ish white color inside once you peel off the thin scaly skin, with a pretty big seed. So not a lot of fruit for your effort. But they are delicious once you get there. Also just now noticing the fingerprints in the thick layer of dust in the fruit bowl. Try not to judge the housekeeping. […] Read More
Lately I’ve been using chapatis in place of the flour tortillas that you can’t get here. They’re along the same lines: round, floury, good to make quesadillas with. Perhaps every culture has its version? Anyway, chapatis come freshly made right from the bakery, only cost about 10 rupees each (12 cents) and come wrapped in the newspaper of the day, offering a little leisure reading while you eat. I have to admit that I don’t read the newspaper here very often, but it’s nice to catch the headlines when you unwrap your bread. The headline peeking out from under the chapati–“Who killed BB?”–refers to Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan who was assassinated in December 2007 right before she ran for re-election. The investigation into her death, which occurred during a rally in Rawalpindi, Islamabad’s sister city that’s about half an hour away, is Pakistan’s version of the “who killed Kennedy” conspiracy. Although here, of course, the crime scene was hosed down immediately after the shooting. So, there’s that wrinkle. […] Read More
The pursuit of domesticity continues! Having installed curtains, a new bathroom, and scary gas heaters that would be illegal in the United States in every room, I turn our attention now to the garden, and my desire for fresh vegetables and herbs that I can pick and eat just outside the front door. Am I allowed to call it “my” garden when it is actually my gardener who gets the seeds, plants the seeds, waters the seeds, weeds everything, and all but hands me local, seasonal eating on a silver platter? I’m going to anyway. And I do often insist on doing the fun part myself: skipping out into the garden with a colander and a knife to harvest what I need for the dinner salad. The gardener thinks I’m weird for doing this, and everyone seems vaguely uncomfortable that I’m not having staff cut lettuce and pull radishes for me. But this is the beauty of being a gentleman farmer, right? Someone else does all the work and you get to walk around and enjoy the fruits of their labor? Speaking of fruit, I never found my orange thief from last winter, but the tree is in blossom now and smells amazing every time I walk out the door, reminding me to forgive and forget, and also to tell the guard to be on the lookout for citrus felons. Who are we kidding, it was definitely the guard who ate them. Also speaking of fruit, it is strawberry season again, like it was when I first arrived here last spring, and it is heaven. Strawberries in Pakistan are delicious red little jewels, and they […] Read More
The Subway addiction continues. Today I had the WORST craving for another Subway sandwich, so I went to the franchise down the street from the office. (There are seriously like 20 Subway stores in Lahore; they’re like McDonalds in New York City.) Based on my two visits in the last 24 hours, here are the following recommendations I will make should you ever find yourself inclined to visit a Subway in Pakistan:The quality of the veggie toppings is quite high: the tomatoes a deep red, the green peppers positively shining with color, and the red onions sliced fresh and looking vibrant. This may be because the franchises are not importing their produce, but are getting it locally. This seems like a good place to ignore that warning about not eating raw fruits and vegetables in Pakistan. The high quality of the veggies helps make up for the somewhat dubious quality of the meat. I wouldn’t say it’s bad, just that it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen at an American Subway. I ill-advisedly ordered a meatball sub last night. When he cut open the meatballs to put inside the bun and I saw that they were white inside (chicken meatballs??), I quickly ordered a 6-inch veggie sub on the side. Good move. On the other hand, the tandoori chicken is delicious. And there are about 15 different sauces you can put on your sandwich. Although, maybe it is already this way in America now too? I am old enough to remember when you could only get mayonnaise and yellow mustard on your Subway sandwich. And oil and vinegar, of course. That is the special dynamite secret […] Read More
One of the most common desserts in Pakistan, kheer is a smooth rice-based pudding, quite firm, that is served in little clay pots. It’s delicately spiced, with cardamom usually, and a thin layer of beaten silver is often laid on the top for decoration. (Yes, real silver!) Or sometimes nuts. You can find kheer at many restaurants, but I think the best versions are homemade. The kheer in the photo was from a dinner party that one of my former staff members had for a group of us at his family’s home. There were about 15 delicious dishes to choose from for the main course (I kid you not), and three desserts, meaning that I only had room for one small pot of kheer. […] Read More
Hi. Can I put in an order for take-away, please? Hello? Yes. Can I have one Mongolian Beef Noodle please. Uh-huh. And one order of chicken wings. The six, not the twelve. Six, please. Yes. And the Thai Noodles, you know the one that’s like Thai noodle curry, it’s not curry but it’s like vegetables and pasta, noodles? Thai chicken pasta! But no chicken just vegetables please. NO chicken. Right Thai Chicken Pasta no chicken. Yeah, Thai pasta, right. And…Also one piece of Mudd pie. MUDD PIE. Okay. Can I actually make that twelve chicken wings, not six? Yup. Uh-huh. Yup. Yes. No drinks. Sara. Sara. S-A-R-A. Zero three hundred eight double one xxx xxx xxxx. And the driver will be Nisar picking it up. And how much time? 20 minutes, okay. And how much money? (Four minutes pass.) Two thousand nine hundred rupees? Thanks! […] Read More
Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday. I have an extensive list of favorite recipes I like to use, and I am in full support of a holiday whose sole purpose is gathering together to eat yummy food and feel grateful. Things may be a little different this year. Not because I don’t feel grateful, but because I live in Pakistan where our quaint American Turkey Day ways don’t apply. Here is a short list of things I am most worried about sourcing in time to cook the big Thanksgiving feast I am planning: Cranberries Fennel Sausage (we’re in a pork-free country, remember) Butternut Squash Goat Cheese Apple cider (to brine the turkey) About 100 other essential Thanksgiving items Things I am not worried about: Turkey. Thanks to my friend Jamie who is working at the Embassy, I scored a nice Butterball from the commissary that even now awaits the big day in my freezer. Thanks Jamie! Pomegranate seeds (for my famous goat cheese & pomegranate salad). It is pomegranate season here, and the big, fat pomegranates that lie in heaps on every corner put all of our sad little American versions to shame. I drink fresh pomegranate juice here almost every day when I am traveling. Ginger, oranges, cloves, peppercorns (key ingredients for turkey brine). They do spices well in Pakistan, and we’re coming into citrus season now. Update: I went to a highly-recommended veggie stand in F-10 today and found the following treasures–shallots! arugula! And a large gourd like none I have ever seen that nonetheless should stand in nicely for the butternut squash. We’re in business. […] Read More
One thing that is the same all over the world? McDonald’s. Well, kind of. The ubiquitous McDonald’s sundae is actually a hundred times better at its Islamabad outpost: the ice cream is creamier and the whole thing is drowned in hot fudge (U.S. franchises being stingy when it comes to toppings for some reason). There’s another difference: remember when Big Macs came in styrofoam, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper were battling it out for supremacy, and you had never heard of global warming? You don’t have to imagine that here. Except for the Cyndi Lauper thing. Pakistan is very up-to-date when it comes to pop music. And finally, there’s one item on the menu that lets you know you’re not in Kansas anymore: the “McArabia” sandwich. McDonald’s answer to local ethnic food is a vaguely Middle Eastern chicken wrap. I haven’t been brave enough to try this yet. Of course, these days I don’t know if I’m brave enough to go to McDonald’s. It has, you guessed it, recently been added to the list of places likely to be blast targets. I’ll be finding my cheeseburgers elsewhere for awhile… […] Read More
In some ways it is getting harder to write about pound cake and muddy feet and the search for a good cheeseburger these days in Pakistan. These are still the things of daily life that are on my mind, but in the background is news, lately every single week, of terrorist violence. Close as it is in some ways, this violence still doesn’t touch the routines of my daily life; I don’t go to the kinds of places that are being attacked, and I am not one of the many Pakistanis who have lost family members in the last few weeks. When you see reports on the news of violence in Pakistan, please don’t be alarmed for me; my insulated bubble is holding up just fine. But of course we think about it. Yesterday an attack in a crowded market in Peshawar killed over 100 people, many of them women and children. Americans generally aren’t allowed to go to Peshawar anymore, and I have never been there. I’ve heard it is a beautiful, historic city. Even though it is only a two-hour drive from here, it seems like a different world, and these days not the safest place to be. This week the Taliban is targeting Pakistani citizens, normal, everyday people, in an attempt to unsettle the government and the nation. Last week it was college students in a cafeteria at an Islamic university. Before that it was an army headquarters building, and before that a UN food program office. I think these things make all of us want to work harder and do more to support stability in this country in any way we […] Read More
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, […] Read More
For the last two years, I have made an effort to eat with the seasons. That means no strawberries in October, no apples in April, no tomatoes in December (when they are hard and smell vaguely like plastic…big sacrifice). If it isn’t immediately clear to you why those items don’t go along with those months, it only means that you live in the U.S. or a similarly developed country and you are a product of your Costco, have-everything-now, big box store environment. It’s true we can certainly have everything now. If by “everything” we mean perfectly shaped, tasteless fruits and vegetables and the crazy desire to fly asparagus in from Chile in August even while a bounty of sweet corn, rich red peppers, or juicy cantaloupes are easily plucked right in your own state or even town during that same month. I understand you’re pretty busy and just reading this blog may count as your requisite non-fiction for the month. You’re probably not overly interested in reading “Omnivore’s Dilemma” or any of the other excellent books on this subject. In that case, just trust me when I say there’s a better way. As soon as I realized that the way we eat in the US is crazy, I decided to stop.
It finally got me. The deadly blister on the heel of the fantastic ex-pat experience. The reason, perhaps, why 70% of Americans don’t own a passport. The inevitable initiation that tests how much you really like your new exotic environment, all the beautiful sunshine, and the exciting development work. The devil-child birthed through the marriage of a new microbial environment and the occasionally dubious sanitation practices of my adopted country. It seems rude to talk about dubious sanitation practices, and it makes me want to retract that statement. On the other hand, many, many people who have lived here for a very, very long time have told me that the most dangerous thing in Pakistan is the food. (They usually say this as a way to minimize concerns about terrorists attacks. As in, “Nah…don’t worry about bombings. The most dangerous thing in Pakistan is the food.”) But, as we all know, I love food. I don’t ever want to be on the wrong side of food. So I started the relationship slowly and carefully, testing things out to make sure I wasn’t going to get burned. And everything went so well at first. I watched, sympathetic but relieved, as one by one, every member of our team went down except for me. It was immediately clear every morning whether a target had been hit: obvious in the haggard look of the haven’t-slept, the grimace at the sight of breakfast eggs, the cautious “Oooh, no thanks, my stomach isn’t doing so well.” I, however, seemed immune. As the days passed and nothing got me, I grew cocky. I thought my naturopath-recommended regimen of probiotics, herbal tinctures […] Read More
So I have put myself in a pickle. Let me explain. While trying to decide whether to move to Pakistan, I made a list of all the little things I would have to give up if I came, just to make sure I was ready to make the jump. You’ve heard about them all many times already: pork products, vodka & soda, lettuce, cheeseburgers, driving, skirts, showing your bum in public, a totally Taliban-free life, etc. I thought it over carefully and decided it was worth giving up all these things for a great job and a new, exciting experience. Then I got here. I discovered, first of all, that not everything on my “banned” list was truly banned, thanks to three little miracles called the French Club, the embassy commissary, and bootleggers. Turns out champagne, bacon, and even provocative clothes are not a part of my distant past (you can wear all manner of sexy outfits to the monthly French Club dance party if that is what you are into). Then another thing happened. I realized all the things you can get in Pakistan that you can’t get back at home. This includes: people to drive you around, iron your clothes, plant a vegetable garden and exotic varieties of fruit trees in your yard, help you cook, give you a spa pedicure for $10, sell you beautiful handmade jewelry, patrol your house with large guns 24 hours a day, and carve all your salad vegetables into intricate little designs, all at very reasonable cost. (Is the ability to live like royalty all the time due to a country’s cheap labor conditions problematic? I’m sure it is. […] Read More
Lately I have found myself saying “fantastic” about twenty times a day. Undoubtedly this is the honeymoon period that several people have warned me about upon moving to a new country. Does this mean I should be bracing for the return to reality when my frustration at not being able to wear jeans in public or find a good burrito place erupts into a discontented malaise? Maybe. But just because you’re on honeymoon doesn’t mean you’re not in love. The energy in Islamabad is intense. This is partly due to the high-threat environment we are living in and the very legitimate concerns about security here. But it is also due to finding yourself in a place where decisions have high stakes and there is a real opportunity to have an impact. Yes, I miss Mexican food and the ability to walk around by myself on the street, not to mention all the people I love that are now far away, but I find that the word “fantastic” keeps popping out of my mouth every few minutes regardless. I just feel like this is my kind of place. Let me give you a few examples. They eat dinner here at nine p.m., ten p.m., whenever-they-feel-like-it-p.m. Last week, before I realized this, I nearly fainted at a work dinner that started at 7 even though the food didn’t arrive until 10. Before it came, I had to hint broadly for a snack and then inhale pound cake while trying to ask intelligent questions about program management design. But now I know better (Rule: Carry Food at All Times) and can just enjoy being around my kind of […] Read More
I’ve been waiting to post until I have time to sit down and write a proper update, but if I wait for that it may never happen. So, I’ll just give you a quick snapshot of my Monday instead. Today was like any other start to a normal work week, except my 8 a.m. meeting was at the Islamabad Gun Club. The Gun Club sounds like a scary bunker shooting range kind of deal, but it’s actually a lovely spot just outside of town with rolling green lawns, stretched skins of leopards adorning the door jams, and a very civilized breakfast buffet. Once there I watched a PowerPoint presentation. That part is probably not very different from your day. While watching the presentation, I had my choice of coffee, tea, or a tall glass of unfiltered apple juice to go along with a breakfast that included chickpeas in tomato sauce. That’s probably a little different from your day (except for the coffee thing). After the Gun Club, my favorite driver, Abdulrahman, drove me back to the office in a car with screens over the windows so I could get back to work designing a plan for my next six months of work. Everything there sounds pretty normal except for having someone designated to drive you around at all times, although in New York they just call that a “cab.” So maybe…not that different. After eating lunch at my desk (not different), I went to the US Embassy (different) for a meeting that went on a little too long until I started getting sleepy and my stomach started growling with hunger (not different). I drank a […] Read More
So many new experiences, so little time to report them. I’ll do my best with a few bullet points for now. After four days in Pakistan, this is what I’ve learned: I wanted a challenging, exciting job that would stretch and engage me intellectually, and I got it. I also got ten-hour workdays. (When am I going to have time to blog?) For some reason I am totally okay with these hours right now. It is a myth that there is no salad in Pakistan! True, there’s no lettuce, but what else can we call that little pile of artfully carved and zigzagged carrots and cucumbers dressed in oil and vinegar that comes with every meal? I am ecstatic to see my old friend – vegetables. Coffee = Nescafe. When’s the last time you poured a heaping teaspoonful of flavor crystals into hot water to get your caffeine fix…like 1980? Welcome to the time machine. I can pull any wrinkled item of clothing out of my overstuffed suitcase and get it ironed, just about any time of the day, for 40 rupees (about .50 cents). It is always men who do the ironing. This is not what I expected. My new favorite thing to do at four o’clock is to have tea and homemade macaroons. I don’t like having a driver on call as much as I thought I would. I miss driving, and I’m itching to try out one of those tiny little cars on the wrong side of the road. The US Embassy in Islamabad reminds me of Disneyland. Equal parts Jungle Cruise ride and those flower beds in the shape of Mickey […] Read More
It’s 4:00 am and the movers are coming in four hours. What’s the point of going to bed at this point? It seems especially useless since my bed is covered in piles of clothes and I’ll be sleeping on the couch tonight anyway. My instructions were to stack up everything I want shipped to Pakistan in a specific location and they would do the rest. (Which, I have to say, is the WAY to pack. How fantastic is not having to scrounge up boxes by hanging around the backdoor of the liquor store? I do not miss this.) So this is what a year in Pakistan looks like, in stuff. Plus all the clothes on the bed, of course. In the end I don’t think I did too badly. Fully 30% of what you see is non-perishable food items. I hit it hard at Trader Joe’s, Shaw’s, and Whole Foods to amass the pile of high quality snacks and absolute essentials you see before you. With it, I can make the following feasts for an ex-pat community hungry for non-naan: Mexican, Italian, Thai, Chinese, American, and Crunchy-Hippie-Vegan. (Note, for example, the Bragg’s Amino Acids. If you don’t know what that is, it just means you’re not crunchy hippie or vegan). I have mac & cheese to get me through those days of homesickness for the US, roasted red peppers to put on my famous zucchini pizza assuming I can ever find gouda in Pakistan, and Celtic Sea Salt because my naturopath told me iodized salt is from the devil. Most people send their couches, bookcases, and beds to their country of posting, I send food. […] Read More