Hierarchy of Needs: Food

Hearty, healthy, wholesome and meaty.

“The only creatures that eat more meat than Kazakhs, are wolves.”

The bottom of the Kazakh food pyramid would be meat. When I recently asked a Kazakh person if there is a traditional Kazakh salad, like chichuk- the lovely tomato, onion and chili Uzbek salad, he paused and answered: “meat”.

The restaurant I went to last night had ‘Horsemeat Salad’ on the menu. And yes, I have eaten horse.

I ate it at a wedding, in the national dish Beshbarmak. Unlike other dishes, which are more regional, Beshbarmak is strictly Kazakh.

DSC_0301

Beshbarmak can be made different ways and is not really served at restaurants. It’s more like each family has a recipe that varies. It consists mainly of noodles and horsemeat. The kind I ate had thick buttery noodles, horsemeat and a sparse bit of carrot, pepper, squash and parsley. Traditionally a meat broth is served separately.

Kazakhstan is also influenced by Russia, Uyghur people from China, and Uzbekistan. It shares characteristics with its other neighbors and can be called ‘Central Asian’ cuisine. ‘Manty’ is reminiscent of Chinese dumplings and can be served as a pasta dish, or in soup. ‘Plov’ reminds me of Iranian pilaf, or Pakistani biryani, while ‘shashlik’ is any meat grilled on a stick, like Arabic kebabs. Rice and meat, potatoes and meat, noodles and meat, these types of dishes, with a sprinkling of vegetables, dominate lunch and dinner.

Central Asian food

A tasty Russian breakfast influence is in the thin, crepe like pancakes made with buckwheat and served with a dollop of sour cream, as well as ‘kasha’, which can be different kinds of porridge. Borscht soup, caviar and cabbage rolls are popular too.

My favorite regional food to order at restaurants has been ‘lagman’(pictured above). It is a Uyghur food, with noodles, bell peppers and beef, in a nice, spicy, peppery broth. Also, everywhere I have had it, has had homemade noodles, which makes it extra delicious.

There is a lot of good just-baked bread and savory pastries, called samsa. The traditional bread is like a thick wheel. Their Fried bread is irresistible.

bread!

Despite being very heavy on the meat, the grocery stores and open-air bazaars have an excellent variety of fruits and vegetables. I have been told by locals that the produce is so tasty, because it is without chemicals. It really is super fresh and delicious.

You can get some Western food at more expensive restaurants. It will never taste exactly like what you want, but it can provide some satisfaction. Sometimes I miss the ease of Dubai and variety of food, being able to easily order anything to my door.

One thing I love: There is no McDonald’s in the entire country. In Shymkent, there is no KFC. No Burger King, Popeye’s, Hardee’s, Arby’s, Wendy’s etc. This won’t last. They are building a McDonald’s in the country’s capital, Astana.

Currently, I’m experimenting with the variety of pickles. Spicy, pickled garlic and wild cucumbers. Yes please.

Pickles!

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No Rest for the Good

Last year I wrote a post, Kierkegaard and Eid Mubarek, about Eid-Al-Adha, here called Kurban Bairam. It is a holiday celebrating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, which is a true test of faith, also called Feast of Sacrifice. Animals are typically sacrificed to represent God’s literal Deus Ex Machina, which at the last minute replaced Abraham’s son with a ram.

I realized the other day that I have lived in three different Asian regions: the Far East, the Middle East and now Central Asia. Each with its own flavor.

Kazakhstan, in Central Asia, has Eastern borders with Mongolia and China, and a Western border that partially rests on the Caspian Sea, which is shared with a few countries, including Iran.

The Silk Road brought Islam here in the 8th century. It was the most important commodity route of the ancient world, responsible for a vast cultural diffusion; sharing, spreading and modifying languages, clothing, technologies, religions and foods, long before the internet.

Islam arrived here when Baghdad, Damascus and Cordoba flourished as centers of learning and tolerance. Yes tolerance. While Europe was mired in the Dark Ages, science, philosophy, math and art were thriving in the Muslim world.

As Islam spread in Kazakhstan, it incorporated Tengrism, the country’s shamanistic animism and ancestor worship, seen in cultures of the Far East. Islam here has not changed much since that Golden Era and considers itself very moderate and modern.

It is a majority Muslim country, but very secular, with a tolerant attitude towards other religions. To help keep the peace, proselytizing is not allowed, unless you are here on a missionary VISA.

Kazakhstan is a country with multiple ethnic groups and religions, peacefully coexisting. This has made it the most prosperous and stable Stan ‘of the post-Soviet era ‘Stans’.

On the Ancient Silk road, it now sits between two powerful neighbors, Russia and China, while cultivating a close relationship with the West, in order to bring about its capitalist revolution.

I’m finding this place is both a mix ancient and modern influences, and yet wholly unique. It possibly hosts the crash site of Noah’s Ark, has an Islamic holy site in Turkistan, boasts a navel of the world rock, loved by the New Age, which was probably part of Tengrism. There are petroglyphs that denote sun worship, mausoleums dedicated to great Khans, and Scythian burial mounds full of treasure. To top of this sacred blend, Kazakhstan’s President had the Pyramid of Peace and Reconciliation built, as a gathering place for leaders of the world’s major religions to come together.

Every night, I hear the call to prayer, which reminds me of Dubai, but every day at work, it reminds me of Korea. There are few holidays; for local  teachers school is 6 sometimes 7, days a week, working late is the norm and taking sick leave is very frowned upon.

For Eid, Kurban Bairam, we only had only one day off. In Dubai, I had a whole week. My fellow local teachers said we only had one day off because this is not a Muslim country, unlike the Gulf Coast countries. I’m more inclined to think this is a Korean style, Asian trait, where sacrifice to work is valued more than leisure.

But maybe limiting this holiday to one day is just its secular, moderate modern, nature.

To not give favor to one group, to keep the peace, we must work.

Steppes into the Unknown

Apples

“Was Marilyn Monroe Kazakh?”      

Christopher Robbins, Apples are from Kazakhstan

This quote comes towards the beginning of the book, which I have been using to educate myself about the 9th biggest country in the world. I began looking for it over the summer and finding it out of print, finally ordered it from Amazon. I prefer bookstores and eventually, after I had waited weeks for Amazon, I stopped into a Half Price Book location and found their last, single copy. So now I will have two copies, which is wonderful, because it’s an absolutely fantastic travel read.

Last spring, strange doubts about my move had begun to creep in. I liked Dubai: the beautiful beaches, futuristic buildings, ease of communication and the ability to order anything and everything to my apartment door. I had friends and routines. At the same time, I wanted more adventure, more new experiences, more challenge.

I wanted to read unreadable signs and communicate with pointing. But a fear was there too and all summer I had conflicting feelings. I got Apples are from Kazakhstan just days before flying with my life packed up to this unknown place, where I didn’t know anything or anyone.

The book made me believe in my choice again. It made me excited for the journey, hopeful and energized. From the moment I opened it, Robbins pulled me in and made me want to go.

A couple years ago I read, The Botany of Desire, about apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes. Plants humans have cultivated for sweetness, beauty, altered states of consciousness and control. That book fascinated me too, especially the bit about tulips. It changed forever how I looked at this cliché spring blooms. I’d thought them bland. Pedestrian pastel things. The book enlightened me to the history of tulipomani of the Dutch Golden Age, when tulips were exotic, highly desired, and ridiculously expensive.

The Botany of Desire begged the question: Do we cultivate the plants or do they cultivate us? Apples, it said, were bitter and tiny when they originated in Kazakhstan.

I had this idea of the wild, bitter apples and finding the first apple trees when I ordered Apples are from Kazakhstan. Robbins wants to find these origin trees too and many Kazakhs are skeptical. They wonder why he isn’t looking for tulips.

It turns out tulips are from Kazakhstan too.

When the guide brings him to Shymkent National Park to look for apples, she talks about bringing people from around the world to these fields of wild, blooming tulips, poppies and other wildflowers.

I was moving to Shymkent! This seemed like a fortuitous sign.

As Robbins meets Kazakhs historians, guides and intellectuals they share more of the fabulous history of this mysterious place.

Even before the Iron Curtain of the U.S.S.R., the Czars closed Kazakhstan to outsiders. The subtitle to Apples are Kazakhstan, is The Land that Disappeared. Robbins discusses the world amnesia towards this place. It is a collective, massive blank spot.

King Arthur may have been a Kazakh. This is the premise of the quote about Marilyn Monroe, where after Robbins learns of all these marvelous things born from the Asian Steppes, he jokes about the blond icons birth place.

I have taught Middle School Social Studies, which includes history of the Greeks, Romans and Egypt. Textbooks and courses have added the Kingdoms of Ghana, China, Japan and India into the mix, but I had never heard of the Golden Man. The Golden treasures of Issyk Kurgan. Intricately carved relics, with complex designs and incredible craftsmanship, sharply contradict the concept of unsophisticated nomads. I want to see these treasures.

The more recent history caught my imagination too. Here in Kazakhstan I’m in the land of the exiled. Leon Trotsky, Revolution outcast, had a pleasant exile, while authors Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn suffered in forced labor camps.

This is a huge country, with a long and rich history, unique traditions, and beautiful landscapes.

I’ve been here almost a month, learned a lot from Apples are from Kazakhstan and I still have a couple chapters to go. So far, Shymkent is a charming city, not too small, not too big; bursting with parks and tree lined boulevards full of cafes. Random, roadside roses.

Diplomacy

Today, it is being reported that Congress voted to accept the Iran Nuclear Deal.

The insane U.S. media circus and especially election politics, is something I never miss when overseas. When I was at home this summer, I admittedly, like a car crash, couldn’t look away.

Before coming to Kazakhstan, I got to say another little ‘goodbye Dubai’. My hotel, Deira Comfort Inn, was in one of the older neighborhoods of Dubai. More grit and less glitz. It’s brimming with lots of cheap, little, delicious restaurants for Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Korean, Arabic and Pakistani food. My hotel was right by a nice, big shopping mall and conveniently close to the subway.

Despite its less glamorous exterior, the inside of the lobby was all rich, red-brown wood and marble. My room had a royal feel with its red faux velvet curtains and chairs.

There was a boy, about 11 or 12 that I kept seeing in the elevator. He was always polite, using broken English to chat and had a big smile. One morning he asked, “You American?”

“Yes.”

“I am Iran. America like Iran?”

I was dumbfounded on how to respond. The American-Iran deal had been all over the news recently.

The boy had a huge smile as usual and was looking at me inquisitively.

A myriad of thoughts about geopolitics swarmed my head. The relationship status between Iran and American could read “It’s complicated”. Finally, I responded, “I like Iranians”. This is the true and diplomatic thing to say. The elevator stopped at his floor.

“America, I like America. You have a good country”. And with that sentence he was out the door.

This encounter reminded me of other conversations with my Dubai students who want to know why Americans think every Muslim is a terrorist. My students always say that terrorists are not Muslim at all.

Traveling and living overseas, I’m often put on the spot to explain America. Americans living and working overseas serve as unofficial ambassadors.

Personal views aside: Does America the country like the country of Iran? I think it would be dishonest to have answered ‘Yes’. The news keeps saying Iran is untrustworthy and I wonder why the Middle East should have trust in us.

Dubai is incredibly diverse. Alongside people from the Americas, Africa, Europe, the Far East and Southeast Asia, it attracts Arab nationals from the region and has a sizable Iranian population, which is considered Emirati and has been there for over 100 years.

The Middle East is so diverse. I used to picture in my mind a kind of Lawrence of Arabia vast desert, but there are ski resorts, forests and beaches, rivers and dead seas. Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon have large Christian populations that have been there for millenia. Some of my Arab students had these beautiful blond manes and piercing blue eyes. Beautiful, local Emiratis can have mostly African heritage. At the same time that there is this linguistic, cultural, and physical diversity, people are people. The Muslim students and families I met are the same as my family and your family.

We cannot paint the whole region with one brush of fear and mistrust. I am glad I got to live in the Middle East. And no, I did not have to cover up.

There is No Place Like Home Not Home

Minnesota is like a warm, cozy sweater.

When I go home, I feel such a deep sense of nostalgia. Love and sadness. I can’t stop calculating the sameness against a myriad of changes, cataloguing my foregone youth.

A kind of surreal, uncanniness permeates, this time heightened by the fact that I hadn’t been home for two years. I hadn’t been to America for two years. Coming back was both shocking and familiar.

Each place a story. Memory triggers on every corner. It all reminds me of things I didn’t even know I forgot.

Everything is layered and filtered through my sense of time, belonging and loss.

Arriving on American’s July 4th birthday, but too late for fireworks, the next morning I met friends for Sunday Bruch. We went to Lord Fletcher’s on Lake Minnetonka, in the posh Western suburbs of Minneapolis. I was met by cheesy hash browns, bacon, an omelet station and walleye fish cakes. The all-American breakfast in the timber cabin, full of bric-a-brac, was so perfectly Minnesotan.

Like a film set.

Coming off jet leg added to the dream-like aura and my sense of being completely home and not at home at all.

Every day in Minnesota the sky hit me with its super blue. So wondrously bright blue punctuated by cartoon fluffy clouds. The weather printing out one perfect day after another.

Perfect days were broken by nighttime thunderstorms, a rare event in my life since I left home. Several nights the sky was pulsing with the most spectacular lightning I have ever seen. High energy storms caused the whole sky to flash on and off, lighting up the neighborhood over and over to the rhythm of thunder and rain.

Every morning the green grass glistened with fresh dew.

The lakes seemed more blue and sparkling. The trees glowing shades of green, tussled by the wind off the water. Growing up I didn’t appreciate the beauty that now assaulted me.

In Minnesota, land of sky blue water, land of 10,000 lakes, you are always going to ‘the lake’, or ‘the lakes’. It doesn’t matter which lake. All lakes are The Lake.

I found myself understanding the appeal of the cozy, closed, round lake, soft rolling hills and flat land.

The city, like the nature, was on full summer display. Colorful, luminous, vibrant.

Minneapolis is a lovely place. People were out in full force enjoying its lakes, parks, bike trails, cafes and rooftop bars. The city was homey and fresh at the same time, offering up my favorite places and new ones. I saw childhood friends and friends from my 20’s. None of us can believe how much time has passed. None of us can believe how 90’s fashion is making a comeback.

I wonder at how we have changed and how we have crystallized those essential parts of ourselves that will likely remain. This mysterious part of myself, some deep part of my consciousness, has lived so many lives and yet is like the constant companion of my ever changing life. We reflect more and more of our true selves. Our past selves like other lives.

Beyond the lakescapes and cityscapes, I spent the summer at my childhood home. There is something disconcerting about being in my 30’s and sleeping in my old bedroom.  And I love my parents and appreciated spending time with them. I enjoyed their cable T.V., eating family dinners , the peaceful back porch overlooking the yard and gardens.

Porch light

Porch light

I don’t own property. I have no personal home base.  My own self is my own true home when I don’t know the who what when where why of any sort of material home.

Somehow, even though I was home for almost six weeks, I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time with family and friends as I would have liked. I didn’t make it to the Walker Art Center’s International Pop Exhibit or sculpture garden. I didn’t rent a bike.

One of the things I miss most when living overseas is American breakfast diners. Simple food done well. I looked up City Pages 10 best breakfasts and went to at least five. One of them, Al’s Diner in Dinkytown, was one of my favorites when I went to the University of Minnesota. Since I left they have made it on to Food Network’s “Diners, Drive In’s and Dives”. It was always popular, but now you could wait hours to saddle up to one of its 14 stools. There are no tables.

I listened to the college kids around me and felt old. I read “Apples are from Kazakhstan” to prepare for my upcoming move and waited my turn. It was everything I remembered and more.

Kazakh, meaning wild, and free

Next year I will be eating horse meat and speaking Russian. At least this is what I tell my students about my next big move: Kazakhstan.

This year I applied for jobs all over: Spain, Hong Kong, Morocco, Brazil, Tibet, Norway and more. I had quite a few interviews and very few offers. Wondering if I was a bit crazy, I took the job in Kazakhstan.

I will be teaching high school English at an exclusive school for Kazakhs. I will be living in Shymkent, the 3rd largest city in Kazakhstan, whatever that means. The country is the 9th largest country in the world, which means it’s big! The next largest city, Almaty, is a 10 hour car drive away, and they don’t look that far apart on the map. According to the internet, it’s full of beautiful landscapes, which is part of the draw.

Part of the former U.S.S.R, and famous for Borat, I am picturing Soviet Era apartment blocks in my town. People speak Kazakh, but Russian is the lingua franca of the region. There are over 100 ethnicities peacefully cohabiting. Almaty is known to be quite European-cosmopolitan and Kazakhstan is the most stable and prosperous ‘stan’ of the former U.S.S.R. I’m very curious to learn more.

There is no strong desire to say, “well I’m done with this whole international teaching thing”, pack up and head to the States. But moving to Kazakhstan, more than Dubai, seems like a much bigger decision. This will be the fourth country I’ve lived in and my fourth year away.

I floundered around a lot in my twenties. The whole, modern, existential crisis of what am I supposed to do with my life? First world problems. Was it easier when we lived in huts? Had only to hunt. Gather the nuts. Sing around a fire. We knew our roles and our place in society. Now there are so many life options and so much stress over picking the “right one”. A perfect, forever life purpose, like a perfect, forever soulmate.

I looked around for years. Did many things I enjoyed and plenty I didn’t. I once read that the real difference between Communist Russia and America, was that in America there are so many brands of toothpaste, so many shampoos. And the toothpastes, they are all the same, all the choices can make an immigrants head spin, while really there is no choice better than others. Is life like the toothpaste? Is there a “right choice”.

Obviously this is simplistic and I wouldn’t want to wait in a Moscow winter bread line. But maybe all paths lead to the same thing: life and more life.

Just buy one. Just make a choice. Roots or rootlessness.

For now I choose Kazakhstan. I want to hike their mountains, ride the Trans-Siberian railway, visit the people who hunt with eagles, see the other ‘stans’, drink yak milk in a Mongolian yurt.

The other day I woke up worried. I’m getting sad, saying goodbye: to friends, my favorite cafes, palm trees and the beaches of the ever super salty gulf. Have I made the right choice? I don’t know.

I’ll need a winter coat. I never have much of a plan for more than a year. AmeriCorps for a year. Korea for a year, grad school for a year. The one time I thought I had it all figured out, in love, getting married, becoming a teacher, moving to the forest to raise goats and chickens, the future disappeared and I had to make new plans. I had to mourn the future. And I think it’s a resurgence of this mourning, along with these new goodbyes, while stepping into an unknown again, that has me on edge.

This next contract is for one year and then I will have a chance to ask again, should I stay or should I go now. It is not a forever choice.

So, despite my recent doubts, I took the job in Kazakhstan, because the idea of going alone to a place I have never been, won’t know anyone and won’t speak the language, makes me inexplicably excited. The word Kazakh means wild and free, or an independent free spirit. I’ll take this as a good sign.

Schlemiel, Schlimazl, My neighbor probably thinks I’m crazy

I don’t want to think I have bad luck. In fact, despite life’s major ups and downs, I have a positive outlook. Have even been referred to as bubbly. Everyday I am thankful for my apartment, which my job pays for, which means I will never be homeless and burnt to death by the unforgiving Dubai sun. I am thankful for my family, friends, toes, eyes, coffee, books, chocolate. I am thankful for the ocean, the palm trees and fresh juice. The list is possibly as endless and infinite as the universe.

A friend posted to facebook: illustrations for words that do not exist in English, by Marija Tiurina  It’s awesome. Then she said as soon as she saw ‘Schlimazl’, she thought of me! A chronically unlucky person. Not so awesome.

This winter, I had bed bugs. It was awful. I had my apartment treated. Twice. Bagged all my knick knacks- bric-a-brac-everything into black garbage bags, after cleaning it all with rubbing alcohol. Then I put the black bags in my car. The heat is supposed to kill the eggs. I had Post-Traumatic-Bedbug-Disorder, sleeping on an air mattress instead of my bed, for an extra month after the treatment.

This winter I spent weeks shopping for the (expensive) gear I would need to hike the Great Wall. I don’t have winter clothing in Dubai; I needed thermals, a really warm jacket, boots and more. I packed it all in my carry-on…in case my checked baggage got lost. So smart! Until my carry-on suitcase, was stolen, at the airport. “Oh, it will turn up…it won’t be stolen! People wouldn’t do that in Dubai!” It was never seen again.

My neighbor probably thinks I’m crazy.

My ground floor hallway, with its perpetually propped open side door, near the garbage, attracts massive, fatty, monstrous cockroaches. Recently I saw three of these saunter in the side door. I’m in a horror movie fussing with the sticky key. When my door finally opens one of the giants slips in! I screamed so loud. I screamed so loud my cat hid in the bedroom for two hours. I screamed so loud my throat hurt. I screamed so loud that my neighbor poked his head out. I heard him in the hall “Is someone being attacked!” I didn’t answer. Embarrassed and still too panicked trying to find a weapon. I’m proud I managed to kill it with Windex.

Not too many days later, I am playing with my cat. He’s got that bushy tail, huge-eyes- hyper, pouncy look. He’s running back and forth, jumping at the wall. Skids under the kitchen table, pulls the computer plug, sending my computer flying, until it crashed. Hard. I screamed. Loud. This time like an angry mad woman. Then swore a bunch. The screen blinking a question mark.

In the morning I saw my neighbor for the first time ever. I wanted to tell him, ‘There was a huge cockroach and then my cat broke my computer. Okay. I’m not crazy Thank you for asking if there was an attack’.

More things, like having a super-exploded tooth, needing laparoscopic surgery, winning a phone that doesn’t work…also: banks. A string of years of stressful life events, are probably a few reasons my friend thought of me, when she saw “Schlimazel: a chronically unlucky person”

Sometimes it feels like one thing after another. Always some problem to solve.

When your friend tells you she thinks of you as a chronically unlucky person, you have to wonder about your luck or lack of luck. What is this luck thing anyways? Being born without all my molars?

Am I a negative person? I don’t think so. Is it random? Is it fate? Part of my karmic cycle? Do any of us deserve it? Do I need to read ‘The Secret’? You could read this blog and think I’m lucky with the travels and living in Dubai, the so-called lap of luxury. It’s all somewhere in between. In the end, the good luck and the bad luck both make good stories.