We’ve been in Kazakhstan for just over a month now, but already life is becoming more routine. I feel comfortable walking the streets of my town, riding the bus, and shopping at the local bazaar (or bizarre). I’m even adjusting to the food (which I’ve written about before). It’s different than in America, especially what I’m used to. There’s usually only one main dish with bread as opposed to the meat, veggie, and carb combo that I always strive for in my meals. There are also a lot fewer spices. Salt, pepper, sometimes. Mostly not. The food has its own natural flavor, but not much kick to it.
I’ve always liked ethnic foods (always being like for six years, since before that I was one of the pickiest eaters on earth) with a lot of spices (e.g. Thai and Indian). However, during my year in Illinois, I began to like more spice in my foods. It started with adding crushed red pepper flakes to most things, and then turned into a deep infatuation with sriracha sauce aka hen sauce aka cock sauce. For those of you that don’t know what this is, I’m sorry. You are truly missing out on the new condiment that is sweeping the US. Imagine ketchup, but much spicier, with a hint of sweet garlic. You can put it on pasta, eggs, hamburgers, French fries, bread, vegetables, stir fries, etc., etc. etc. During my final months living in Illinois, it was pretty much my go-to ingredient to make an ordinary plate of white rice turn into an extraordinary dish of white rice with heaven mixed into it. In short, I love this stuff.
In our long packing list sent to us by Peace Corps, one of the things they told us to bring was our favorite spices. But they warned us to not use it too early, as we’ll wish we had waited for later. It was one of the last things I added to my luggage, but I managed to squeeze a bottle of sriracha sauce in there. And even more impressive is that I managed to not touch it for the first six weeks that we were here. During this time, I even purchased some red pepper at the local bazaar to add spice to my food, but in the back of my mind, I knew the solution was locked away in the closet under my clothes and next to my external hard drive.
And then Ramadan came, and I decided to set a date for breaking out the sauce. I would end my month of fasting by unsealing my dream condiment and slathering my food with spice for the first time in weeks. This past Monday was the end of Ramadan. All day, I was excited. Strange, yes. But I think other volunteers or even just people who have traveled can relate. You are fine not having peanut butter or bbq sauce or hoppy beer or sweet potatoes (oh, how I miss sweet potatoes!), but part of you deep inside never forgets the taste. And when the opportunity arises to quench this deep-rooted desire, you face food with a strange excitement. It’s not a ravenous frenzy, like a starved dog tearing into a fresh steak, but rather like an artist looking at a beautiful sunset. You appreciate it and realize you appreciate it and you can’t get enough of it and you can’t really describe it adequately, but it is, and you are. And you savor it, trying to relish every possible sensation and taste.
That’s how Monday was for me. And more than that, the taste brought back home, memories of life in America. The meals that I made, the meals that I shared, even shopping trips with my friends. And I was able to share my culinary joy too. My host brother was curious to try this American sauce. He put some on his food, took a bite, and immediately noted how hot it was. But he said he liked it, and put it on more of his food. (Later in the week, he gave it to his friends, and he said their common reaction was pretty much: take a bite, then “Shit,” that’s hot. Sorry for the vulgarity, but that was my host brother’s word, not mine. Just wanted to be accurate.) And so far, I keep forgetting to bring it to other volunteers, but there are quite a few that are excited about sharing it as well. And I’ll be excited to share it with them, not just a hot sauce to add to their Kazakh dishes, but a small tangible taste of memories for them to savor and enjoy.