x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Conflict cookery

Living in a war zone cannot stop the food blogger Susan Marx from turning her kitchen into a culinary marvel.

Unlike Baghdad, Kabul has abundant fresh produced available to the expatriate cook, although certain items are still hard to come by. Here a street vendor adjusts his stock.
Unlike Baghdad, Kabul has abundant fresh produced available to the expatriate cook, although certain items are still hard to come by. Here a street vendor adjusts his stock.

Crossing Mogadishu at 35,000 feet, I am seated next to my husband in the exit row of Emirates flight 763 from Dubai to Johannesburg on our rest and recreation trip home to South Africa. The film Julie & Julia, about the American cook and sweetheart Julia Child and her modern-day protégé, Julie Powell, plays silently on my screen. Meanwhile, my husband watches the first scene of The Hurt Locker about a bomb disposal squad in Baghdad. I can't help but notice the dichotomy of what has become our life: food and war.

Apart from the correlation with my being a thirtysomething female with a passion for food and a love of writing, what makes Julie & Julia resonate with me is the added dimension of a relationship between two people profoundly in love with one another, and with food. What makes our particular story unique, though, is choice of locales. Ten years ago, our culinary crusade started in a California beach-side town. Since then, the love of my life and I have baked our way through Baghdad and, most recently, cooked our way through three years in Kabul. As humanitarian aid workers, we are foodies in a war zone.

I suppose this raises the question: how do a middle-class child from South Africa who grew up with maids making everything from oatmeal to lunch boxes to home-cooked meals, and a California kid with a health nut for a mother end up falling in love with cooking? Simple: it was out of necessity. Living on a single income in an expensive American city challenged by exorbitant rents and student loan payments did not leave a lot of disposable income to partake in the culinary offerings of the City of Angels. Enter the problem: we both love good food. So what is a young, hungry couple to do but learn to cook.

We deliberated and finally agreed that the annual subscription to a popular cooking magazine, Cooking Light, was worth the investment, in part because we could both pronounce and afford (most) of the ingredients in its recipes, unlike those of its more gourmet cousins. Despite a kitchen so small one of us had to leave the room to allow the refrigerator to open, so began our path to pastries, poaching and most importantly participating in something we both love: good food.

Fast-forward seven years to Baghdad, 2006. Not a good year for the war on terror as car bombs and kidnappings in the Iraqi capital rocketed. We had arrived to take up our positions with the US Agency for International Development (Usaid) on one-year assignments. I had recently completed graduate school, and Chris had returned after an initial six-month stint in Iraq with the US Army Corps of Engineers. We were armed with enough enthusiasm and determination to join the cause to change the world (or so we thought). Based in the Green Zone (later renamed the International Zone or "IZ"), we lived in a compound with around 120 expatriate colleagues.

Living conditions were highly restricted, with no access to the outside without prior approval of the regional security officer and then only for official business. This meant that everything happened "on campus", from working, living and laundry to going to the gym and, yes, dining in a cafeteria. Usaid staff were fortunate in that we were spared being housed in "hooches" (caravans) like many of our colleagues in other agencies, instead living in small, concrete structures consisting of a bedroom, bathroom, small kitchen and living room.

Tired of cafeteria food and exhausted by campus life, it was to this small kitchen that Chris and I retreated and eventually reignited our passion for cooking. With limited access to fresh produce, we learnt to use the cafeteria as our own fruit and veg stand. Tupperware in hand, we raided the salad bar nightly for chopped onions, tomatoes, green pepper and the odd mushroom to cook up and serve with organic pasta and other grains ordered online from Netgrocer and igourmet.com as delivered via the army postal service (one of the perks of working for the US government).

What we could not find in the cafeteria or in the limited produce available in the IZ, or get through our local colleagues, care packages from friends and family or online shopping, we simply learnt to do without. While identical to others, our "villa" became a respite for lonely friends far from family and in need of a sense of home. By the end of our year we had amassed most of our friends' pots, pans and other cooking apparatus deemed unnecessary to them but essential to us. We frequently cooked for dozens of people, even if only a simple pasta meal topped with real parmesan smuggled from abroad in our luggage.

A year in Baghdad built a fairly solid repertoire of simple, wholesome recipes and saw us co-host our very first Thanksgiving with much more experienced warzone hands than ourselves. Between about six of us, we cooked five turkeys and an enormous number of traditional side dishes for more than 50 guests. After a year, thousands of memories and too many lessons in the difference between rockets and mortars later, we relocated to "peaceful" Kabul. That was 2007. Little did we know or expect that the situation in that country would deteriorate.

For the first several months, I was located in north-west Afghanistan, living in the ancient city of Mazari-Sharif as the area co-ordinator for a French humanitarian affairs agency. While challenging - the job involved the construction of more than 1,000 shelters for refugees, conflict mitigation and health awareness programmes - this gave me the opportunity to see rural and remote areas of the country, frequently travelling to villages to do assessments, attend elections and other events and to meet religious leaders. During these months I ate mostly local food, apart from the odd steak at the only restaurant in Mazar, and as such had my run-in with intestinal parasites from eating yogurt and fresh fruit washed in who knows what.

In the meantime, Chris was based in Kabul. At the end of 2007, I got a job there and joined him. We knew that if we were going to keep from going crazy, we had to move into our own house, and so settled in a circa 1970s three-bedroom house in a local neighboorhood, away from the overpriced, walled-off developments preferred by contractors and many other expat organisations. It was winter 2008, one of the coldest in Afghanistan in recent memory, and we decided to renovate. Apart from painting the walls and installing a water-pressure pump to ensure the supply to the upstairs bathroom, where did we start? The kitchen, of course, where we installed a five-burner gas stove and fitted Ikea shelves and a pot rack brought in, piece by piece, from Festival City in Dubai, augmented by visits to Sur le Table in the US, stocked by gourmand shops in South Africa, markets in Turkey, Egypt, cheese shops in Italy, delis in Paris and everywhere in between.

Although by comparison with Baghdad, fresh produce was abundant in Kabul, we still could not source basics such as fresh basil, baby greens, celery or cherry tomatoes from the local economy. Instead of giving up, we cultivated a vegetable garden that supplied us with all of it and more. Through the combined efforts of excess luggage, our vegetable patch and generous friends alongside a growing number of "western-style" supermarkets going up around town, we do OK - and, as in Baghdad, what we cannot find we either substitute as best we can or simply do without.

We have literally lived through and for our food and love of cooking it for friends. Our home has grown up around our kitchen, where we entertain up to three or four nights a week for everyone from friends to ambassadors. I am often reminded of the secluded lives people live as guests marvel at the sense of "normality" we have created compared with the often excessively restricted nature of the living conditions.

Our counter has been called "the best place in Kabul" and - my favourite - "my happy place" by a frequent visitor. We have entertained hundreds of people at dinners including two traditional sit-down Thanksgivings for more than 30 guests each. We have laughed and cried in our kitchen and, most important, we have coped in our kitchen. We both have exceedingly challenging jobs, I as a human rights programme manager for a large NGO, and Chris building schools for the United Nations. One would think that worrying about dinner was the last thing on our minds, but in fact it becomes a refuge.

We are careful to plan and shop ahead so that whoever comes home first can get started on something. We make sure we have enough parmesan, a set of good knives, and a decent supply of fresh produce from the local bazaar, coupled with the olive and truffle oils, vinegars, tools and toys that we bring in (lots of explaining at the airport) and we are able to cope with whatever life in Afghanistan throws at us.

Not long ago, when the Taliban attacked a UN guesthouse, once we had confirmed the safety of all of our colleagues and friends, our first instinct was to get into the kitchen to bake something. For us, in these environments, more so even than before, it is about being together in a warm space the produces the aromas of what we have come to love. Susan Marx's blog is at www.warzonefoodie.com.