KABUL, Afghanistan — My first winter here was cold and spare. It was 2001, a few weeks after the fall of the Taliban regime. I had been a foreign correspondent for barely six months, and never a war correspondent.
I packed with only the faintest idea of where I was going. I was taking over from an experienced journalist whose only advice was: “Bring dry soup, good ones. There’s almost nothing in the shops here.”
I didn’t much like dry soup, either, but I dutifully bought packets of Knorr and some dark-chocolate bars. I arrived at a concrete house with space heaters that could barely warm the area right around them and went off whenever the generator ran down. The kitchen was small, the cupboards filled with dry soup – apparently every reporter who had come through had brought some. They had also brought tea and jars of Nescafe, mostly stale. The refrigerator had a few shriveled and rotting vegetables and (fortunately) bottled water, since the tap water was filled with parasites.
Over the months I discovered that if I could re-create small moments of home that would carry me (in my imagination) to times and places and people I loved, then the worst hardship could be endured. That first year, I returned to Kabul in March, but this time I brought real coffee, ground the day I left, a pack of paper filters and a plastic filter holder.
Each morning when I turned on the kettle, I heard the whistle of the kettle on my family’s stove in New York and felt the presence of my father, carefully measuring his coffee into his Melitta. As I stood in my grimy Kabul kitchen, the hot coffee made me feel almost at home.
I brought, too, Dutch-style unsweetened cocoa. On the coldest winter days, I would pour hot water into a mix of cocoa and milk. A froth would appear on the surface and I would see myself crouching by a small propane stove in the moist green of the mountains of upstate New York, the steam of the cocoa made outdoors mixing with the curls of low-lying clouds drifting through the trees. The first sip of cocoa on winter days in Kabul was a promise that I would return to the mountains of my childhood summers.
Dreams of risotto
Because I loved to cook cooking magazines began to have a place in my luggage. Their glossy pictures of seafood risotto, goat cheese souffle, a larb gai salad were the antithesis of my Kabul kitchen’s offerings; they were imaginary meals that held the promise that some day there would again be peace and plenty, a time to compose beautiful dinners and not feel guilty about enjoying them when other people had so little.
On that second trip to Kabul, as I unpacked my rucksack, I found, among the woolen socks and a book of beginners’ Dari, a hunk of Parmesan that I had forgotten to unpack from a shopping expedition before leaving home. I learned then that hard cheeses are great travelers.
A luxurious dinner in Kabul was to grate some Parmesan, slice and sauté a couple of mangy zucchini, beat a couple of eggs, add the cheese and pour the mixture over the zucchini, cooking it until it solidified. It was a savory, poor man’s frittata. I would sit with my frittata, a sliced tomato and my Gourmet magazine, reading how to make a proper coq au vin, and feel restored.
Taking something back
Gradually as places (and wars) grew on me, I began to find foods in war-torn places that became part of my life. Afghan apricots were a revelation. Large as peaches in the U.S., less sticky yet succulent, they became the essence of summer. Eager to share the tastes that had come to signify the war zones I had come to care about, I carefully packed a box of apricots to take to my husband, who grew up with an apricot tree in his yard. Hoping that, he would be moved by this bit of nature that had survived the ravages of war, I bought them the day before my trip home from a farmer selling them in the shadow of the mountains that rise north of Kabul.
“These apricots were picked this morning by my son,” the farmer told me proudly.
Sadly, by the time I reached home, the fruit had begun to ferment. Those sun-ripened apricots that had seemed a window to another world, to Persian poetry and a life so different from ours, could not survive the journey.