Food has been the most common topic for questions from friends back in the US who are curious about my life in Kabul. Let me start by saying that this would be a very difficult place to be a strict vegetarian or to be on a low carbohydrate diet. For me the hardest adjustment with regard to food has been lacking a connection to the sources of my food—eating local and seasonally were not just things I did but part of how I experienced the world back in Indiana. I miss my weekly trips to farmer’s markets and various farms and orchards. I miss the sensory delights that shift with the season. I miss being able to give the names of the producers and to have stories for the things I consumed. Beyond that my diet here is no longer centered on the same categories of food-fresh (often raw) fruits and vegetables, great cheeses, and nuts. Of those categories the only one that can be safely and easily obtained in a fresh and high quality form are nuts. With that said, “What am I doing about food?”
I have never been a breakfast person unless you count coffee as food. That has not changed. Lunch is available on campus on work days. For lunch you have the option of the “International” meal and two or three Afghan meals. The International meal is more expensive and can be a little bit of everything except that pork is obviously not an option and unlike most college cafeterias in the US lamb is regularly offered. The main way that the international meals differ from meals you would get in the United States is that they often include two or even three starches (e.g., French fries and rice, potatoes and past, etc.). Quality of these meals ranges from only partly edible to okay and rarely even good. The Aghan meals regularly include a kabob of one sort or another (these are cooked outside on a grill) and are served with rice and sometimes a bit of the vegetable dish of the day. You can substitute fries for the rice. See what I mean about meat and starch? The other dishes are often beef stew or pilau (also here) . Here are some additional recipes for the types of things that you might get in the cafeteria. The Afghan option comes with fresh salad and nan. I eat lunch once or twice a week and probably eat the International and Afghan options pretty much equally.
Cooking at home comes with challenges – access to ingredients, relying on bottled water for cooking, not having a way to judge temperature in the oven (I’ll be correcting that soon), and sharing an ill equipped kitchen with someone who can be described as neither neat/clean nor considerate. I find that more and more I exist on grilled cheese, peanut butter on toast, scrambled eggs, or some dish that I make on weekends and eat for several days.
Each weekend transport arranges group shopping trip. On the regularly scheduled weekend shopping trips the decision where to go is made by vote/consensus of those on the trip within the parameters of what Security will allow. You can also request a special outing from time to time. I shop mostly at the newest Finest Supermarket in the Puli Surkh area of Kabul because it is closest to the guesthouse where I live and has most of the things I want (assuming that they can be found here in Kabul). Less often I go to the Share-e Naw Finest . I have been to the oldest Finest store in Wazir Akbar Khan and Spinney’s each once. I was not impressed with Spinney’s and will probably go there very seldom and only if others are insistent. All of the stores take both US and Afghan currency and each has a sometimes working ATM though there are some questions about the security of using them. Prices are a mixed bag though I wouldn’t describe most things as inexpensive. Of course most Afghans don’t shop at Finest or similar stores, in the area where I spend most of the time they can choose from a variety of street vendors and small bodaga type shops.
The grocery items are a mix of Western and Afghan products. Western products are more expensive. Each of the stores has some items that you can’t find at the others. I find the biggest limitations to be in the areas of fresh produce, dairy items, and meat. Milk is available in shelf stable form and yogurt is common. Sadly, the best option I have found for cheese if “processed cheese food.” The items I can’t find yet and miss are good cheeses, sweet potatoes, bay leaves, high quality old steel cut or rolled oats, really good coffee, fresh mushrooms, and plain corn chips. I have added some new things to my mental pantry –most notably, figs and even more nuts.
Produce is one area where the extra travel time makes it worth it to go to the Share-e Naw location of Finest. At the Wazir Akbar Khan you can sometimes get mixed frozen vegetables. Eggs are purchased in the produce section of the stores and bought in whatever quantity you wish. I plan to pick up a container for eggs from a camping equipment store; that will increase the likelihood of getting the eggs home unbroken. Unless you bring something in which to put them, they will be placed in a plastic bag in the same way as your potatoes or onions.
Transport and security will sometimes agree to stop for that on the way home. You can buy produce from vendors on the street when Security will allow the stop. The advantage of in doing so is buying more local items that are generally fresher. The downside is contending with beggars and the need to spend more time disinfecting the produce before you use it. When you shop on the street for produce the security escort assists with interpreting for you-my attempts to learn Dari are progressing very slowly. Scales are generally old fashioned and the counter weights used are generally stones. Among the times prevalent at this time of year are pomegranates, onions, potatoes, apples, carrots, and winter squash/pumpkins. You see lots of bananas though I do not know their source. You also see tomatoes and melons though they are starting to taper off. The other item that people buy from vendors on a regular basis is nan.
I hear that there is a place to buy meet that I have not yet visited. It is near Spinney’s and is called Prestige. Several of my coworkers speak highly of it. Short of that you can buy some frozen meats at Finest and Spinney’s. Unfortunately the meat like many other items come in packages meant for fairly large households (e.g., the chicken breasts come in packages of six) and spices come in bags that fill a fill an empty instant coffee jar. Of course, I could buy meat in the way that many locals buy meat but I am not that brave. Those squeamish about meat and animals might want to skip to the next paragraph. One option for this is to pick a live chicken from a cage in the way that one might pick a lobster from a lobster tank. The chicken will then killed for you. I am not sure if the seller will gut and clean the chicken or if that job falls to the customer. For larger animals (most notably goat and sheep) you see carcasses hanging at vendors along the road. To give you idea about sanitary conditions here, you would actually want to pick a carcass with flies on it as this means it hasn’t been splashed with chemicals to keep them away. From what I have seen once a customer arrives to make a purchase the appropriate size and portion of the carcass is hacked off by the seller. You can buy some pork products and frozen seafood at Chiano market but I’ll save more about that for another time.
A regular stop on shopping outings is the French bakery. This is a small store where you can buy various breads. I am partial to the sliced walnut bread for toast and grilled cheese sandwiches. They also sell cookies (the gingersnaps are very good), small fruit pies (the apple ones are the best in my opinion and I am not even a big apple pie fan), freshly made yogurt and some local cheese, meat pies, croissants (the chocolate ones have quite a following among folks here) and a small selection of grocery items. They also sell a Dari phrase book if you are looking for one.
At the Puli Surkh Finest and Spinney’s (and possibly the others) you can find stationary supplies, some over the counter pharmacy items and personal care items, videos and jewelry. At least the Puli Surkh finest has some linen items, small appliances, and even a few larger appliances as well. I believe that it has some clothing items on the third floor though I haven’t been up there. Spinney’s has a small selection of books. I noticed that the Puli Surkh Finest also has some pet food; this may be true of the others but I haven’t noticed it there.
It is hard to know what you will and will not be able to find; for example, shampoo is available in many forms but you are lucky to find even one or two options for lotion and deodorant. I have found the quality of kitchen items available (knives, utensils, etc.) to be pretty low—if you like cheap plastic items with cutesy designs from China you will be pleased. I, for one, do not need googley eyes painted on my toilet bowl brush. I intensely dislike plastic so I long for things like glass storage jars even as I understand the reason that shipping such items here is prohibitive.
My week usually includes one or two evening/weekend meals out. So far I have eaten at: Taverna du Liban, Sufi 2, Golden Key Chinese, New World Korean, Gandamack, Flower Café, LeBistro, and LePelican. I’ll save writing about those for another time. In the meantime, I welcome more specific questions about eating in Kabul.