Sunday, December 27, 2009

Welcome to Kabul, Part III

Hello again! I am back amongst the living, finally over my cold and recovered from a llloonggg week at work. Today we continue on with Part III of Welcome to Kabul. As always, stop me if you have questions!

Food and clothing….my two biggest concerns about packing for Afghanistan. Actually, when it came to food, concern probably isn’t a strong enough word. Scared, is more like it.

When Nick came home on leave in September, he came armed with horror stories about the food choices I’d soon be facing. Cheese & pepperoni-stuffed fried meatballs. Hash browns and bacon for breakfast every day. A fried food bar at every lunch and dinner. Everything processed and packaged and reheated and sitting on a warmer tray and NO FRESH PRODUCE!

I was pretty sure that I was going to starve.

So I panicked over what to pack in our consumables. Some items were obvious: healthy snacks, because food was only available in the dining facility (hereafter referred to as the D-FAC) during meal times. Low-calorie drink mixes because I don’t like tap water, and I knew that I’d need to drink a lot given Kabul’s altitude and dry climate. Basic items that we could use as a base for a variety of dishes, such as rice, pasta, plain tomato sauce, dried & canned lentils/beans. And of course, enough Kashi Go Lean to get me through at least a few months. Ok, who am I kidding? I packed 13 boxes; if I eat Kashi for breakfast every day, this will only last me about 6 weeks!

But there was no way for me to pack enough food to be able to eat every dinner (and most lunches) at home and not have to face the horror of the D-FAC. So I did my best to pack a variety of foods so that we could take a break from D-FAC food when necessary, and then tried to ready myself to eat some really unappetizing meals.

What I found upon arrival in Kabul is both better and worse than what I expected. First the bad news:
  • Nick wasn’t lying; there really is a fry bar at every lunch and dinner. Onion rings, potato logs, chicken wings, chicken tender, pepperoni-stuffed deep-fried meatballs. I find it pretty easy to resist, because none of it is good (except for the potato logs), but unfortunately fried food – even bad fried food -- is one of Nick’s weaknesses. He’s been pretty good about restraining himself, but I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to resist a buffet of one’s ideal comfort foods day after day.

  • Wait, yes I can. The D-FAC offers a sundae bar at every lunch and dinner, with soft chocolate chip cookies and caramel brownies making a regular appearance on the dessert menus. I’m clean for the ice cream and cookies; I caved on the brownies once. All I can do is try to avoid making eye contact with any of it, and remind myself that the taste is not worth the waist! And considering that I’m consuming more alcohol than usual (not too much – just more than I do in DC because there’s not much else to do here), I have to be careful of my empty calorie consumption.*

*I know that all this talk about calories makes me sound really vain, but weight gain is a serious concern. It’s not like I can run out to Macy’s if my pants start feeling tight. Going a size up is not an option. I have the clothes that I brought with me, and that’s all. So please excuse me if I seem to be obsessed with calorie intakes and workouts and such.

  • I find the main courses offered at 9 out of 10 lunches and dinners completely inedible. Square salmon fillets in a gelatinous cream sauce. Ick. General Tso’s chicken, with lots of breading, sans the chicken. Gigantic ick. Hamburgers swimming in what I can only imagine is dirty hot dog water flown in from NYC hot dog carts. A starch of some variety of fried potato, or rice and/or pasta with some sort of butter/gravy/cheese sauce. Various “meat in sauce” dishes that rack up an impressive 350+ calories per 4 oz serving. I don’t want to even think about the sodium content. I just can’t stomach it. I can barely even stand to look at it.

  • There are sandwich fixings, but the bread is always stale.

So, I’ve been sticking to a vegetable and starch-heavy diet. My lunches and dinners are pretty consistent: plain rice with whatever’s being offered as a vegetable side -- which is always cooked to death -- on top. Green salad. One potato log. I’m seriously lacking in protein; I try to boost my protein intake at breakfast to compensate. I’ll have cereal with a whole juice box of soy milk and a hard boiled egg. A buttermilk biscuit as a mid-morning snack…..Ok, there’s no protein in that. But it’s super yummy. My Kashi Go Lean cereal, once it arrives, should also help me to compensate.

So, with all that said, it’s hard to imagine how there’s a good side, eh? Well, I’m happy to report that it’s not all gloom and doom. Although that’s hard to write after the lunch I just had. Nick and I both ended up staring glumly at our plates, picking at yet another green salad and sandwich lunch. With reheated marinara sauce as a side of "tomato soup." Tomorrow they'll throw frozen veggies in it and call it "vegetable soup." But I digress.

Right. The good news:

  • The salad bar is open for every lunch and dinner. It’s not a great salad bar; the leafy greens are limited to either iceberg or romaine lettuce (I already have an intense craving for some dark kale!), the choice of toppings is meager and repetitive, and the produce isn’t always particularly fresh or tasty. But at least it’s clean, healthy food. Which is more than I can say for the entrees. There’s also a small selection of whole fruits available for snacking. So although it’s not my ideal diet and eating salads day in and day out gets awfully boring, I’m not going to starve for lack of edible food. And hey, I’m probably doing a good job of getting in my 5 servings of vegetables per day.

  • The food at the locals’ cafĂ©, called Brothers, is pretty good, and makes for a nice alternative to D-FAC lunches. Fresh naan, chicken and beef kabobs and sour yogurt sauce sound like a simple meal, but after a string of salad and marinara sauce lunches, they just about add up to a 5-star dining experience.

  • There is a decent (but expensive) Thai restaurant and a pizza joint over at Camp Eggers, where we can go on Fridays for lunch. And there's a pizza joint over on the ISAF compound, where we can go for a long lunch on work days.

  • There is a grocery store on the compound. It's small and the selection is limited, but one can usually cobble together a decent meal whenever the D-FAC food becomes unbearable. There’s a selection of frozen meats and seafood (although I won’t risk trying the seafood in a land-locked developing country), and a limited selection of produce. We can get some real cheeses – although they’re of rather poor quality, but at least they’re cheese and not “cheese food product” – as well as fresh bread, usually French baguette. Unfortunately it’s all rather expensive. A tiny bag of flour (maybe 5 cups worth) is $6! A tiny round of poor-quality brie, about 3.5” in diameter, is $7. So although it’s nice to get a break from the D-FAC food, cooking all our meals at home is a bit cost-prohibitive.

  • The Americans here have a remarkable ability to procure special items and to improvise with the ingredients they have on hand. Our meals over Christmas are a perfect example.

1. For Christmas Eve dinner, I wanted to give Nick as taste of home for the holidays. That meant putting together a Polish dinner. So I started keeping my eye out for polish foods to pop up at the D-FAC. I lucked out when the D-FAC had sauerkraut out (trying saying that 5 times fast!) on the salad bar for Wednesday lunch. I boxed up a whole container and stuck it in the fridge. I didn’t luck out with polish sausage (D-FAC has it every once in a while), but Nick bought some beef sausage from the grocery. I bought milk, eggs and flour (at great cost) from the grocery store, and using some instant mashed potatoes from our consumables shipment and shredded cheese and onions from the salad bar, made homemade perogies. So, with a little ingenuity and improvisation (a wine bottle makes an excellent rolling pin in a pinch) we ended up with a lovely, home-cooked meal.

Showing off our perogie fillings

Stuffing the little beauties
Praying that they won't fall apart when boiled

Mostly homemade Polish dinner for two!

2. Every Christmas morning, Nick’s mom makes an egg and cheese casserole for breakfast. Again, with a little improvisation I was able to give Nick at least a taste of home for the holidays. We bought the bread, eggs and milk for the casserole at the store; the meat, cheese and veggies for the filling came courtesy of the D-FAC breakfast and salad bars. I used the leftover bread to make some French toast (topped with syrup from the D-FAC), and again we ended up with a lovely, home-cooked meal.

Breakfast casserole, fresh out of the oven....

...and ready to eat, with a side of french toast

3. The piece de resistance was Christmas Dinner for 17; really, it was a sight to see. One of our friends had the foresight to order some extra turkeys when the call went out for Thanksgiving orders; I think the order went in over the summer. The appetizers and side dishes were all potluck. It was truly amazing to see what people were able to cook up. Here’s the menu:
Hors d’oeuvres
Port wine cheese ball (carried from the States) w/ crackers
Pizza crostini
Pumpkin-cream cheese spread w/ crackers
Nuts and dates
Hot buttered rum and mulled wine

Roasted squash soup
Green salad
Turkey, w/gravy and stuffing
Mashed sweet potatoes
Garlicky and cheesy mashed potatoes
Quinoa and black bean salad
Rice and olive casserole
Mixed bean casserole
Corn bread
Cranberry sauce (from a can, my favorite!)
Homemade brown bread
Honey and ginger glazed carrots
Cheese and roasted pears (a Southern dish that I couldn’t quite bring myself to try)
Enough wine and beer to float an aircraft carrier

Homemade chocolate-chip muffins
Homemade apple and pumpkin pies
Caramel-pecan torte (insanely delicious, like a gourmet Snickers’ bar)
Homemade chocolate cake
Homemade spice cake
Homemade cookies
More wine, buttered rum, mulled wine, and Irish coffee
We sat at proper dining tables, with proper tablecloths, ate from proper plates and with proper flatware, and drank out of proper glasses, including proper wine and water glasses. Everything was mismatched and cobbled together from various kitchens and it was absolutely perfect.

Seating for 17!

A smorgasbord of deliciousness

Making it work: no gravy boat? Coffee pot of gravy it is!

I need desserts!

So, although one does have to be creative, improvise with limited equipment, take advantage of the food offered at the D-FAC, and plan ahead for any meals requiring special ingredients (like the turkeys), making a homemade meal isn’t entirely impossible.

So, like I said. The food situation is both as bad as and better than I imagined. I’m not going to starve, but I do find myself drooling over cooking blogs and day dreaming about all the good food we’ll eat on our first vacation. We’re looking at two weeks in Singapore and Malaysia in February. We’ve heard that both are foodie paradises, especially for people who like adventurous eating, and now our mouths are watering with thoughts of giant bowls of laksa, fresh seafood on a stick, handmade noodles, rotis of endless variety, and miles of hawker carts offering Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Middle Eastern and Malay food. And to satisfy our Western cravings, maybe we’ll even stop in to a McD’s. But only if Nick is a good boy.

In the mean time, we'll get by with a combination of D-FAC food, Camp Eggers Thai and "cook what ya got" potlucks.

Oh, and to all of our family and friends: please DO NOT read this entry as an appeal for care packages full of delicious goodies. You all sent us such wonderful Christmas/Hanukkah packages that we are fully stocked on snacks and sweets. We're running out of food storage space, and we still have our big consumables shipment coming! So thank you so much for thinking of us, and we'll give a shout if our chocolate and dried sausage supplies start to run low. To Mom X and Mom M: please DO read this entry as an appeal for more lemon soup and dried sweet potato, respectively. Love you!

And I’m spent. It looks like my report on what Nick and I do on our downtime will be pushed back again, saved for yet another (and hopefully final) instalment of Welcome to Kabul. I wish I could say that I’ve saved the best for last, but……really, there’s not much going on here. We work, we eat, we workout, we watch seasons 1-4 of How I Met Your Mother on DVD. I’m sure that living in Kabul sounds exciting and exotic, but really it’s not.

But I’ll save that discussion for another day.

Until next time, here's wishing all of you lots of health and happiness in 2010!


  1. Sorry in advance for the contents of our packages! (so lovingly picked out by Frank) maybe they will still take a while to get to you. Glad to hear you are doing well. It was so nice to "see" you on Christmas. The Vivio house was full of food, football, games and laughter over the past weekend- but it was not the same with out you. We almost played a game of Risk but knew we could not do that without Nick! Amy and Frank

  2. My favorite posts are about how make your food. So anytime you improvise, put pictures and stories up. I'm fascinated and impressed by your culinary prowess.

  3. Just be glad you are not having to pay to eat in the cafe and that you have the ability to cook in your apartment unlike those who served before KBR and apartment living.

  4. Anonymous--

    Trust me, I am very grateful to have an apartment. I realize that Nick and I are very lucky, and we try to share our luck by offering our kitchen for use by all of our hooch-dwelling friends.

    With that said, if the Embassy were to offer better quality food, I would gladly pay for it. I cannot imagine how much damage we are doing to our health by eating the high sodium/high fat/high calorie DFAC food. I'd be happy to pay for edible, healthy food.

  5. I found your blog yesterday while searching for accounts of living in Kabul. I am a finalist for a job there and have been frantically gathering information. Thank you for sharing some of your experiences here. It has helped me better visualize what life might be like there.

  6. Destabee--

    You're quite welcome. Is it a gov't job?