24 November 2010

Afghanistan Gourmet: Bon Appetite!

Ferran Adria has announced that El Bulli is closing its doors in 2011 to become some kind of high-concept culinary academy.  Well, there’s one of my life’s ambitions shot all to hell; there’s no way I’m getting a reservation now.  Go ahead – take a moment to process or cry a bit; I had to and so totally understand.

Ready?  I know that this counts as a global tragedy, but it is a good reason to talk about food.  The culinary genius actually made unexpected cameos in my life thrice lately. 

I’m on the road right now, touring some of the more remote FOBs to the far east of Afghanistan, on the border of Pakistan’s North Western Frontier Province.  There is a distressing lack of non-meat foods out here.  I think it might have something to do with the overall paucity of women.  This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it seems that 20-something Marines (and 40-something, judging by my site mangers) are perfectly content to chow down on popcorn shrimp, chocolate pudding, and chicken wings forever.  My first nod to Adria came as a means of coping.  Both of the last two sites I visited were without lettuce, so I haven’t been able to make a traditional salad.  That said there are almonds, shredded cheddar cheese, kidney beans, steamed broccoli and cauliflower, snow pea shoots, and grapes.  Admittedly, not all of these elements go together.  However, when you divide them across a segmented dish, you can combine them in various ways to create a series of deconstructed salads that vary widely in flavour and texture.  I think our vaunted chef would approve.   

But salads alone, however avant garde, are not always enough to keep a girl happy.  I also seriously needed a chocolate fix.  This is not an uncommon occurrence (and with chocolate apparently about to go the way of El Bulli and the dodo, I plan to take all I can get) and I went to the PX to satisfy it.  The only chocolate they had on hand was a slightly battered box of Whoppers.  Seriously.  That’s it.  Everything else was stuffed full of gelatin.  Sure, those treats keep better, but they are tragically not vegetarian-friendly.  More importantly, though, they are deficient in that cocoa goodness.  I went ahead with the Whoppers purchase, only to find that during their journey they had been exposed to something, possibly cosmic rays and, like the Fantastic Four, were forever altered.  For no particular reason, I’m blaming Pakistan.  The malted milk centre – that which defines the Whopper – was, for the most part, gone.  Left in its place where sticky, malt-flavoured hollow chocolate spheres.  Although not all together unpleasant and almost certainly how a malted milk ball would be served at El Bulli, it was not what I was looking for.  Not all of the specimens were so abstract; some were just chewy, while others had totally liquefied.  Those were kind of fun to eat – sort of a Whopper truffle.

My only other food adventure worth note actually occurred at Camp Phoenix.  Excitingly, the command just approved a clinic for local nationals working on base.  This is a fantastic development – the clinic we had been sending them to was very run-down and on the other side of Kabul.  The Phoenix clinic is staffed by US medics working alongside local physicians, and it’s fantastic to feel the synergy.  Never mind that they now have better health care than I do… 

Anyway, as our own Doc was instrumental in getting the clinic up and running, we were invited to the grand opening party.  Well, not invited so much as allowed to partake of the leftovers, but who’s quibbling?  I think I’ve mentioned before my love of Afghan food, and it is unchanged, even if I can’t eat most of the dishes.   My co-workers did at one point try to convince me a rice pilaf cooked with lamb was vegetarian.  When I pointed out the bits of lamb that were mixed in, they opined that they weren’t meat, but rather raisins.  The spinach, however, was delicious – both spicy and totally lamb-free.

The buffet also boasted this fascinating fruit.  It was bright orange and looked vaguely like a tomato.  When he proffered it, Doc also tried to convince me to take one that was terrifically discouloured and bruised.  I ended up selecting one that was in slightly better shape.  In hindsight, I maybe should have listened to the experts.  The fruit’s skin was thick, and could almost be peeled off.  Inside, it was extremely juicy, like an overripe tomato, even as it tasted more like papaya.  No joke, ‘twas a soft, juicy, tomaya.  Perhaps a papayto.  Simply put, it was pretty delicious!

At least, it was for the first few bites - then the aftertaste kicked in.  Unbeknownst to me, it appeared that this delicious fruit was in fact comprised entirely of papier-mâché.  Or so thought my tongue, which was promptly coated in a foul-tasting film.  I’m not sure even Ferran himself could save this monstrosity.  It took three bottles of water, a can of Coke lite, and the better part of an hour to kill that odious taste/texture combination.  I ditched the rest on the sly, and when my co-workers remarked that I must have enjoyed it as I ate it so quickly, I allowed that I’d never had anything like it.  They brought me a basketful the next day.  Politeness really is a bitch sometimes.