Beef Stifado, Yorkshire Pudding and a Waldorf Salad

Posted on March 11, 2012

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In 1992 my parents were hired to teach college at a university in the United Arab Emirates.  I was going on eleven years old, and it was the first time I had flown anywhere (that I can remember), let alone outside the US.  I spent three years in the UAE, and I believe it has helped to define me as a person.  Sure, I didn’t much care for it at the time, but when I came back I realized just how much I enjoyed it: hot, dry weather; cool nights; fantastic sights and smells at every street corner; friendly people, and amazingly cheap goods and services.  I always knew I’d return to this area of the world, but I never thought it’d be as a soldier.

I’m here with the National Guard as a part of the Multinational Force & Observers.  Our job is to report on military activities in the Sinai Peninsula, pursuant to the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979.  In other words, the only thing we do is watch the border.  It’s a great job, because it’s so easy; but it has the potential to be a boring job.  In order to keep myself occupied, and stay sharp when it comes to my work, I’m working on a schedule, which includes a lot of time for writing.

This leads me to the point of this post: I need something to write about, I love the Mideast, and I want to share my experiences with my readers.  I’ll start with the food in this part of the world, because it’s an easy topic, but it’s as much a passion of mine as being a father and a writer.

The dining facility here is arranged like all the others on military installations.  There’s a short-order station where you can get grilled items, often made right in front of you, and two cafeteria-style buffet lines.  Now, the standard among soldiers is that army chow sucks.  Most of the time, this is correct.  I don’t know what it is exactly that prevents army cooks from making good food, but I suspect it’s the lack of spices, or any real culinary expertise.  That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate the work that our cooks do–far from it–but I recognize that Army standards for preparing and serving food limits the ability of the cook to present excellent fare for soldiers.

Here, however, there is no such limit.  I don’t know why there’s a difference.  It might be the presence of other nations; America provides a lot of soldiers for this mission, but the highest ranks are drawn from places like New Zealand and Italy.  It might be the nationality of the cooks; most of them are local nationals, and are accustomed to working with spices and techniques found in the Sinai.  Whatever the reason, I just know that I’m glad I’m here.  I mean, I’m going to have a hard time losing weight with this kind of food, but at least I can satisfy myself with having an amazing meal, no matter how small the portion has to be.

In case you’re wondering where I’m going with this, just consider the following items: beef stifado, yorkshire pudding, waldorf salad, spicy pork and bacon meatballs, turkey schwarma, and beef pot roast with mashed potatoes.  Those are the items I’ve had to luxury to indulge in since I got here a few days ago.  And that’s not all they serve.  There’s also been a taco bar, Texas spare ribs and breaded crab claws.  I haven’t even started on the salads yet, all of which are tasty and very low calorie.  I think it has to do with the spices and dressings; very little mayo, but lots of dill, cardimom, and other flavors that result in a symphony with every bite.  I can understand why people in other countries manage to stay so thin.  Well, that and the fact that they walk everywhere they go…

My direction with this post may look odd at first glance, but I think there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.  In closing, I want to tease a bit of it to the forefront.  I spent a bit of time discussing the food here, and how amazing it is, but that’s not the point.  I think the purpose behind all this is the realization of what can happen when culture work together.  The food in the dining hall is based around two primary factors: the cooks who work there, and the people they serve.  The cooks are from Egypt, so they bring their culture with them.  The people who live and work on post are Americans, mostly, but also New Zealanders, Italians, Hungarians, and others.  Since this place has been here for 30+ years, it stands to reason that the food will reflect the culture of the MFO’s people.  When I eat, I have the chance to rub shoulders with people who have travelled the world and seen so much more than me, and all of this is expressed in the fare we consume on a daily basis.

The next time you have a chance to go out and eat, I highly recommend breaking your cultural barriers, and going for something a bit exotic.  Even if you live in a small town, there’s always the internet, where you can find a hundred thousand ideas for a good meal.  Expand your boundaries, and experience the world.

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Posted in: Food, Philosophy