By Lindsay Sterling
A fifteen-year-old young woman from Pakistan recently taught me how to cook her favorite dish from home. The town of Gilgit, where she is from in the Himalayas, is in her words, “a 4-hour drive to China. There are mountain peaks covered with snow throughout the year. And K2 is nearby.” It’s about a 24-hour drive from there to the Arabian Sea, but she’s never been. “This [living in Maine] is my first time with the ocean. I love it. My host mom loves the ocean, too. On Saturday or Sunday, when we’re wondering what to do, we just drive to the ocean.”
The day Savita Nooreen and I spent cooking together was March 21st, a holiday called Novruz in her part of the world. On this day Azerbaijanis, Indians, Pakistanis, Turks, Uzbeks, and others celebrate spring, as well as peace, neighborliness, and reconciliation. Savita began to teach me how to make jalfrezi, a dish her family at home would be eating together on that day.
First you sauté onions, turmeric, and bite-sized pieces of chicken breast in oil. Then once the chicken is cooked on the outside and the onions are soft, you add tomato, chili powder, cumin, and a little water. You put the lid on and let that cook for fifteen minutes until the onions melt into an orange-brown sauce. In a mortar and pestle, you mash fresh ginger into a paste. At the end of the cooking process, you mix it into the chicken along with chopped cilantro leaves and cardamom powder.
As we cooked, we talked. “Someone on the school bus asked me if we have houses or we live in caves,” she said in disbelief. “It [Pakistan] is the same as here,” she asserted. “It is a developing country,” she clarified, “Fifty to sixty years ago there was no connection with the rest of the world. The northern part had no schools. But now it’s just like Freeport [Maine]. We have schools, colleges, universities…”
As uncomfortable as it made me, I had to bring up the t-word. After all, most Americans associate Pakistan with the workings of Osama bin Laden. My question, embarrassingly, came out this way. “Have you ever seen a terrorist?” She responded, “My place is peaceful. I haven’t seen a terrorist (or at least I haven’t known it) or any sort of distraction or any sort of tension.” She indicated that a small percentage of the people in Pakistan are causing the trouble. It reminded me of a conversation I once had with an Afghani woman who said something along these lines: there are bad people everywhere. Let’s not let them ruin what the rest of us think of each other.
Savita then shared a concern from her community at home with me. “Some worried that I might get spoiled [here]. There is the stereotype that all American kids party a lot, bad kind of activities. She’s been Facebooking with her friends from home, sharing the news. “It’s just the same [here as home]. Parents keep an eye on you and your friends. We go to school. We study.”
Jalfrezi tasted a lot like Indian food: bites of meat in a zippy sauce, served with rice. I’m actually not sure whether to call it Indian or Pakistani because my Indian friend also knows jalfrezi as her native food, and it was voted the most popular Indian dish in the UK. Certain things are just beyond borders, like Novrus, chicken jalfrezi, and – now I think about it – peace.