Once of the peculiarities a traveller faces, no matter where where ends up is that of the food in any particular foreign culture. Kazakhstan is no different. There's one ingredient that achieves degrees of ubiquity previously unknown to me in any cuisine. And I come fro the land where a cheeseburger and fries make a healthy meal as long as one eats the pickle.
I speak, as I'm sure you're guessing, of meat. Meat is everywhere. It crops up in the most innocuous-seeming of dishes, and the idea of purposely making a main dish of only vegetables that tastes good is quite a foreign concept. As I mention in my previous posts The Trip of a Lifetime; Planes, Trains, and... pt.1; A First Impression Once Made; To My Anglo-Saxon Hips; and Cavemen, I am a vegan. I don't eat meat, not even milk or eggs.
When I first arrived in Astana I was put up in a dorm room (also discussed at length in Luxury and Necessity), which did not have its own kitchen. There was one shared kitchen for each floor, and of course I had only one set of borrowed cutlery and place setting, and no kitchen utensils with which to make anything. Also, due to the, well I'll call it thorough nature of labor law, human resources and accounting procedure, and banking—let's call them rules—that stipulate that before a foreign worker can get paid she must wade through a sea of paperwork (at least a third of which is duplicates, or just pieces of pater with official stamps and raised seals on them), and further undergo a waiting period determined, I believe, by a complicated calculation involving the length of one's stay in this country multiplied by the degree to which one is in danger of starving if some sort of salary is not soon paid to the now all-but-helpless employee...
What I'm saying is I had nothing to cook with and no money to buy anything with which to cook. It's common practice, I gather, for foreign employees to work pro bono, as they say, for the first month, while sufficient personal data, DNA, and guarantees of transfer of one's first-born child are gathered to open a bank account here. I survived with a small amount of money borrowed from a colleague. Most of my meals were eaten in the university cafeteria.
Which brings me back to the original conundrum. Meat.
And when it wasn't meat: milk. Either or both appeared in nearly everything served in the cafeteria. Rice, dressed salads, and fruit became the staples of my once diverse and protein-rich diet. And what should appear in nearly every salad and side dish in the kitchen (and for that matter restaurant in the city)? Ah yes, now we come to the crux of the matter. Dill. That (as I used to think) under-used herb. So green. So innocent. So pervasive. I tried a Korean-style salad with rice noodles. Dill. I tried a salad with cucumber and tomato. Dill. I tried a salad with carrots and cabbage. Dill. I tried a salad that had what appeared to be seaweed. Dill. In Italian restaurants the pasta dishes (generally the only things I ordered since they were most likely to be, or be adaptable to be, vegan) were topped with dill. I could even swear—though at this point I may have just been paranoid—that the french fries at the burger places and the vegetable stir-fry at the Chinese restaurants had dill in or on them.
At first I was fascinated. Perhaps they know something here from which I could learn. Variety is the spice of life, I told myself. I decided to embrace the ubiquity of this aromatic little weed. It's so cheap and so very available, that I looked through my cookbooks and found every recipe I'd ever tried and liked, every recipe I'd passed up because dill was so hard to find back home, and began to cook with dill. (This is, of course, after I moved from the dorm room into an apartment.)
A few months went by. I brought lunch to work most days, but still occasionally bought a salad to round it out. The dill was still everywhere, in everything.
It's been a while since I've cooked with dill. Or consciously chosen a dish anywhere that I thought might have dill on it. This little-used, little-known spice, once so spell-binding, had begun to haunt me. Dill pickles, once my favorite part of a sandwich or burger (vegan, of course), no longer had such warm memories. Worry not, dill, for while I may pass over you at the supermarket or bazaar, you'll live always in my memories. And in my teeth. And, of course, in my nightmares.