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It's lunchtime!

Tajikistan, June 22, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Amy Spindler/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A beautiful bowl of otala for sharing. Photo: Amy Spindler/Mercy Corps

Working out in the field is exhilarating for so many reasons. It’s a chance to see the program in action; to meet with locals and hear their stories; and to take in the stunning landscape that this country offers so effortlessly.

Oh, and then there’s lunch.

The Tajiks have adopted a saying from the Russians: “Even during war, we all stop at noon for lunch.” Good timing: at noon, the sun is scorching. Dust swirls around me, sticking to every inch of exposed skin, which indecently includes just my face and hands here in the conservative Rasht Valley.

Islam says that guests are a gift from God, and we are treated as such as we are welcomed into the homes of community members. We often lunch outside on the topchan (upholstered benches), usually situated in the shade where a cool breeze hides out. We sit on pillows, around a table that is piled high with bread, fruit, jam, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, often grown in simple greenhouses that Mercy Corps has introduced to the region.

And there is always candy. The best candies are imported from Iran, so I always look for the tiny Persian script. Tajik candy is so sweet that my teeth ache from the first bite. We talk. The team laughs —Tajiks like to tell jokes — as we snack tea, bread and fruit before the meal.

I found out while living in Kyrgyzstan that the youngest girl in a family does all of the serving for guests. Here in Rasht, guests never see the women of the house. They are nearly invisible, and men bring out the meal as well as tea, spoons, extra salt and other needed — or requested — items.

Last week, tpakkshak was served first. It’s a refreshing soup of thin noodles topped with a mix of minced herbs. This was followed by my favorite dish found throughout Central Asia — plov. It’s a simple mixture of onions, carrots, rice and beef or mutton. It's usually cooked over an open fire and somehow impossible to replicate in the States (I’ve tried!). While the Kyrgyz usually make it with mutton, Uzbeks are known for adding raisins and chickpeas. The Tajiks seem to add more fresh cumin. In any variation, it’s absolutely delicious.

Today, we’re enjoying otala, a less soupy version of tpakkshak that includes chickpeas and small pieces of beef. Sharing a plate among my colleagues is a good feeling, like we’re all in this together.

We end the meal with watermelon, which has been cooled in the creek, and then we head back to work, refreshed and grateful.