“Food can’t be good without eggs, milk, cheese, and/or meat.” Such was my host mother Shaxnoza’s exasperated declaration, when I informed her of my “peculiar” eating habits. As a veteran of two previous homestays, I was not surprised by this reaction. My list of “prohibited” foods, however, had grown to include dairy products since the last time I had lived with a host family. To my Russian host mother, Anna, in 1995, vegetarianism seemed reasonable, healthy, even economical considering the high cost of meat. In the late ’90’s, my Uzbek hosts pitied me and my choices because of the many tasty national dishes I would have to forgo. Nevertheless, they all tried in their own ways to accommodate me. But this time around, for the Tajiks, the exclusion of dairy products from my diet marked me as misguided at best, an extremist at the worst. I was subjected to an intense and thorough interrogation: “Why don’t you eat meat? For religious reasons? What’s wrong with milk? It’s good for you! Are you allergic to eggs? How can you live without dairy products? They’re good for your bones!.” They tried valiantly but in vain to get me to eat small amounts of the “forbidden” foods: “Come on, just a little meat won’t hurt you”, “Won’t you have a little fish, there’s some left over?”, “Won’t you have some coffee with sweet milk? I would love for you to try it!” They stopped trying when it became apparent that I was holding firmly to my convictions.
According to Shaxnoza, there is no Tajik cuisine without meat. It was then that I understood that the task of watering and feeding a vegan in Dushanbe would involve nothing less than a complete reconsideration of food, not to mention cooking methods. Shaxnoza gave serious thought to how she would feed me and worried out loud about finding something suitable for me to eat. Luckily for me, she is clever and resourceful. She began by simply asking me what I like to eat and kept a constant supply of those items in the refrigerator. One day she told me quite excitedly, that she had made some inquiries around town and much to her amazement found soy meat. This, then, became a mainstay of my diet, stir fried with vegetables and served with rice and a salad. I’m sure that before my arrival, a pizza without meat seemed odd, not to mention tasteless, but Shaxnoza decided to make one, just as a kind of experiment. The result, all agreed, was unexpectedly delicious. We also made vegan brownies with a rather different result: I liked them, Shaxnoza and company did not. Shaxnoza also found ways to rework old and familiar recipes: A small portion of a dish prepared without animal products was usually set aside for me. These are but a few of the many examples of Shaxnoz adapting her cooking methods to meet my dietary needs.
In the States, I barely give my diet a second thought, but here in Tajikistan it has become Shaxnoza’s primary concern as well as subject of interest for the whole family. Every other day she asks, with a worried look on her face, “What shall I feed you?” Sometimes our relationship takes on the appearance of a collaboration, as I help her search online for recipes and we improvise dishes, using the ingredients she has on hand. The other members of my host family are aware of my dietary restrictions as well. Whenever they offer me food or a beverage, they earnestly inform me that it is safe because it does not contain meat, cheese, eggs, or milk. When my host parents went out for the evening, my host aunt even prepared a salad for me without mayonnaise. For all of their solicitousness, however, my host family is also adept at ribbing me. “If you stay here long enough, Kara, we’ll make you into a meat eater. If you ate meat, you’d be taller. Poor Kara, we’re all eating these delicious meat cutlets and all you can do is watch!”
In the end, Shaxnoza and I have formed a unique partnership, one in which, I think, we learn from each other. She has learned to think differently about food and cooking. I, on the other hand, have learned perhaps the most valuable lesson of all: That people are not always as rigid as they seem.
By: Kara Madison
Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program
Term: Summer 2013