x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A slice of home for US expats in Kabul

A catering company in Kabul is providing American expatriates with their favourite foods.

KABUL // The streets of the Afghan capital are heavy with the aroma of baking bread, but none quite like the scent that wafts out of A Taste of Home, where Najia Fana and Farhana Weish have for the last few months been catering to the sweet tooth of American expats. Last week, the pair baked more than a dozen pumpkin pies for homesick Americans over their Thanksgiving holiday, a desert that at first did not sit easily with the two Afghan women.

Describing the first time she baked a pumpkin pie in her American-style cooking class, Mrs Fana sticks out her tongue and pretends she is sick. In Afghanistan, pumpkin was not meant to be a pie, but the American baking instructor made the students taste the unusual concoction. "It was very difficult for us to eat the pumpkin pie, but now we love it," said Ms Weish. For the thousands of western aid workers, journalists and diplomats who poured into the country after the US-led invasion in 2001, daily life can be a grind because of paralysing insecurity and poor infrastructure.

Good food is particularly hard to find. Because of security concerns, many westerners are not allowed to patronise local eateries. The handful of permissible venues are virtual fortresses - with armed guards and entrances fortified from would-be attackers by high walls, sandbags, multiple steel doors and checkpoints. Seeing a niche, a handful of savvy entrepreneurs have been opening international restaurants to cater to the growing foreign population.

Le Bistro and L'Atmosphere serve up French cuisine. La Cantina offers Mexican, while Delhi Darbar and Anar are Indian. A favourite Korean restaurant, New World, makes a great bowl of bibimbop and dishes with homemade tofu. But it is the Americans who seem to miss their comfort food the most, a niche that the two women were eager to tap. And so, after years of measuring, mixing and baking at the American-run training centre in Kabul - and learning about the bizarre list of ingredients westerners like such as oatmeal and peanut butter - the two women opened their takeout from Ms Weish's kitchen. They only take phone orders that must be placed at least a day in advance. Their menu of about 40 baked goods includes oatmeal raisin cookies, white bread and apple pie. Most of the recipes are from a tattered cookbook from the seventies, "written" by the all-American baking icon Betty Crocker.

Katharine Moulton, from Wisconsin, bought a pumpkin pie last week, as well as ginger snaps, chocolate chunk cookies and cinnamon rolls. The cookies, Ms Moulton said, were "perfectly baked - soft and aesthetically pleasing". Although the cinnamon rolls may not have had the same amount of icing that she was used to, it did not detract from the experience. "I ate so many cinnamon rolls because it seemed like a decadent treat. I wasn't hungry - I simply wanted the comfort of a home-baked, sugar-charged treat."

A Taste of Home earns Ms Weish, 25, and Mrs Fana, 34, about US$150 a month each - more than twice the salary of a policeman or schoolteacher, but far from enough to cover basic expenses for their families. Ms Weish, who lives with her mother and three siblings, is the primary breadwinner. Mrs Fana, a mother of two teenage boys, supplements her husband's income. Many of their customers, who earn several thousand dollars a month, said they would be willing to pay even more than the current prices: a dozen homemade cookies goes for $1.60, a loaf of bread for $1.80 and a standard cake for $7.

It seems somewhat perverse when you can buy a two-foot-long naan for just 20 cents, and most Afghans would baulk at A Taste of Home's expensive goods. But for the foreigners, it is a price worth paying. "The best food in town," wrote Rosemary Stasek, who is from the San Francisco Bay area and plays food critic for expatriates. "Ultimately, for many foreigners in Kabul, a good meal triggers a release of stress and tensions that build up in a city where many foreigners live on lockdown, travelling by car with armed guards from home to work and back. For some people, it is a relief merely to discover more good food."

But it is not just westerners who are talking about A Taste of Home. The women have been criticised by other Afghans for working with and allowing westerners - especially men - into their home. They are keeping their bakery a secret from nosy neighbours, cousins, aunts and uncles to try to head off any unsavoury, unfounded rumours, but it is hard work. Neighbours already are suspicious about their many trips to the market, and their long talks with westerners and men.

"People are talking, talking, talking," Ms Weish said. "I don't talk to my neighbours. When I see them, I look away and walk fast." * The National