So the adventure has begun, and I am here lingering at Camp As Saylayiah in Qatar waiting for transport into Bagram, to eventually make my way up to the North of Afghaistan. The next six months will be sans-cooking (not sure how I am going to relieve the stress if I can't knead!). I don't have high expectations for most of the food I will encounter, as it is all mass-produced military food, but perhaps there might be a few interesting posts to squeeze out as it will be GERMAN mass-produced military food, which should at least be different, if not good. And I will have to find a way to sneak into the Norwegian Camp- I bet there is smoked fish there!
Anyway, here on base in Qatar, I am soaking up my last opportunities to eat some awful American food. I hit up the base Chili's on day one, as two of my favorite things about America are fried cheese and free refills. Of course both of those are just behind frequent liberal use of deodorant. Well, maybe not free refills. I can tolerate a lot of stink with an unlimited supply of diet coke. Today I was hunting around for something, and rejected the guaranteed stale awful hamburgers from the fake little restaurants here in R&R-ville (the USO club). But then something struck me on the menu- Chicken Tikka Masala. So much staple on any British menu it is not even seen as ethnic there, Indian food is unusual on a menu in a non-Indian restaurant in the US. And US military bases take whatever international and cultural savvy one would expect in America and dial it back about 50%. Which is not good. So I was surprised to see this. But then I looked at the staff. All Indian. In fact, I think all of Qatar is staffed by Indians and Filipinos. Qatar can't be bothered to develop labor skills internally, as the oil boom that pays for lavish lifestyles is sure to last forever. Right?
Anyway, this drew my attention to an eating strategy I have long adhered to, and never thought much about. If the staff of a place is a certain ethnicity, and there are one-off items on the menu of that ethnicity, I order those things. Chances are, they are there because its something the staff takes particular pride in making, or something they themselves want to eat. This of course involves making some superficial ethnic judgments . I have gone with "Asian men wearing suits in inappropriate circumstances (like cooking in the kitchen of a diner) are likely Chinese" as a reason for ordering Mapo Dofu, one of my favorite real Chinese dishes (I actually hate most real Chinese food- give me General Tso's any day- but mapo dofu is one of the exceptions). This isn't always a great strategy, but usually even if you aren't exactly right, close enough is good. Pakistani cooks make some bad-ass Indian food too. Plus they use more meat. One of the best Butter Chicken's I have ever had comes from a mini-mart/deli in Friendship heights called Friendship Gourmet Market. Strolled in one day, and saw a pan of delicious looking Indian food amidst all the deli staples. Took a look at the staff and decided that this might be a winner. It was. I still dream about that Chicken sometimes.
The result of this strategy is that I often sound like a huge racist. Broad cultural generalizations followed with preachy appreciation of various national dishes makes you sound like a douche. But it also has a high statistical correlation with getting tasty tasty food in an otherwise mediocre establishment. In other words, an ethnic correlation does not automatically translate to the best possible type of a dish, but it does help one find something palatable in a situation where expectations are otherwise low.
The Chicken Tikka? Delicious. Far from the best I have ever had, but waaaay better than anything else on the menu. Thanks third-country nationals for bringing something better than Popeyes to our troops overseas :-) Yea. I'm a douche. But not a hungry one!
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