Cooking with Jonibek

Tajikistan, August 16, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jarrett Basedow/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A spread laid out for guests in Kashot, Tajikistan. Photo: Jarrett Basedow/Mercy Corps

One weekend morning, I walked into the kitchen of the house here in Garm to see what I could scrounge up for breakfast. I smiled when I noticed there was coffee ready.

My previous housemate was often up before me and I’d wake to find all sorts of good surprises. I did my customary check to see how my protracted battle with my sworn enemies – the ants – was going. Not well. But then I noticed there was something else sitting by the stove.

A pan filled with some sort of batter. “Fikr mekuned, Jonibek – think, what could this be?” I asked myself. My still-sleepy mind flashed back to the previous weekend, when we’d enjoyed some delicious French toast. “Didn’t that have some sort of batter, and didn’t Amy show me how to dip it and grill it up?”

Excited, I cut some slices of bread and dipped them in the batter.

“Hmmmm.this batter seems a bit thicker, but whatever. Also, remember to Google the advice someone gave you about ants not wanting to cross a line of chalk. They must be stopped,” I thought.

The area around the bread began to get fluffier and I realized I was basically making pancake-wrapped toast. My co-worker was infinitely amused, but I stand by my creation – it was pretty tasty.

From this example it should be clear this post is about my own kitchen-based deficiencies, and not about how hard it is to cook here. This isn’t anything new, as I once borrowed a glass pan from a friend to try and make lemon squares, and had to call her back two hours later telling her I owed her a glass plan.

Our facilities aren’t bad, although they require a little ingenuity. Gulsara, our weekday cook for the office, whips up some great meals – even on the day where a lack of gas and power outages gave her intermittent access to one hot plate. If that had been a weekend, I probably would have survived on Clif bars and maybe managed to make some ramen.

But every day, residents of the Rasht region provide for their families with basic stoves and worries about power supply, harsh weather and food security. I’ve been humbled by some of the meals I’ve received when interviewing villagers, and am able to truthfully tell them it’s way better than what I eat at home.

The lack of food security in this region has been demonstrated to me by these trips, and by seeing what is often unavailable. Even seeing the dip in products at the local bazaar has made this clear – much of what was present throughout the summer is already beginning to fade from view.

In light of what I have available, I’ve resolved to make more of an effort with cooking and using fresh local produce. Successes include a decent tomato sauce and several vegetables grilled with garlic. I even made pancakes for some of our staff, most of which were edible.