We’ve had a couple of sari wearing days recently. The first sari above is a local cotton, loosely woven but heavily starched with rice water. It’s rather difficult to wear because of all the starch. The second sari is also somewhat difficult to drape, because it’s embroidered, appliqued, and has sequin trim. I guess I know how to pick ’em.
Another difficulty here is that the Bangladeshi way of draping sari is different than the western Indian way I’d learned before, and requires a lot of pins to get it right it seems. At least 2 are required. Because I’m inept, I go to the local salon to get draped. The wedding sari took 30 minutes to put on (just adding to the fun of the evening, yessirree).
People sometimes wonder why I don’t make a big effort to go out and enjoy the amenities of Dhaka more often. After all, there is a Western movie theater here, only 12 km (7.5 miles) away, inside the 12th largest mall in the world!
Well, last night we went to a wedding, only 10 kms away, a distance that many people run (for fun?) on weekends. It took us 3.5 hours to get about half way there. Yes, we sat in the car in uncomfortable, expensive clothes (saris and suits, bulky local jewelry), listening to cars honking consistently for 3 hours before deciding to give up (because the wedding had already happened), and another 30 minutes to reach a place where we could even turn around and head back home. For this exciting adventure, we had to pay our ayah 10% of her monthly salary in overtime, buy the aforementioned saris and jewelry, and deal with a bunch of annoyances due to the craziness of shopping, public shutdowns and rain.
I have taken a large amount of tylenol, and I am still suffering from a headache. bleh.
If I were to do it all again, what would I make sure to bring to Dhaka? Many of these would be great at any hardship post, but they definitely would have made life here nicer in some ways. I’ll do these posts in a series, so check back for more. I’m starting with this one, because I am still hungry after last week’s post on cookbooks!
Many people here have lovely roof decks perfect for making a rooftop garden. Unfortunately, there aren’t any great seeds available here. You’ll have to train your gardener, if you have one, on how to grow these plants, and some might not be able to handle the seasons, but many of them would do well. If I were coming here again, I’d get:
Food For Health Emergency Garden Seeds There’s enough in there to help you recover from an apocalypse, so there should be ample for a roof garden. Includes: Corn, Peas, Radish, Sweet Onion, Beet, Tomato, Eggplant, Kohlrabi, Spinach, Cabbage, Swiss Chard, Romaine Lettuce, Buttercrunch Lettuce, Carrot, Broccoli, Jalapeno, Pepper, Cucumber, Pole Bean*, Zucchini, Crookneck Summer Squash, Green Hubbard Squash, Spaghetti Squash. (Italics designate things available only seasonally for 1-2 months in Dhaka, and bold is not available at all. Many of these plants could be grown year round, if you’re willing to water them and improve their soil). *There is a long bean here, but it’s nothing like a green bean. It’s a lot tougher, for instance.
Assortment of Culinary Herbs Fresh Herbs are rare here, except for in early spring when Cilantro takes over the market. This assortment of seeds includes: Italian Parsley, Thyme, Cilantro, Sweet Basil, Dill Bouquet, Oregano, Sweet Marjoram, Chives, Summer Savory, Garlic Chives, Mustard and Culinary Sage
Lettuce is particularly hard to get here, especially if you want something other than the anemic green leaf lettuce that never gets bigger than 3″ or so. So, if you like salad, bring a lettuce assortment. A blogger friendhas become the hero of the community for the lettuces she grew from a mesclun seed mix.
I personally have a tomato addiction, so I’d bring an assortment of heirloom tomato seeds too. The local tomato is a mealy Roma/plum tomato. It’s good for cooking in a sauce, but is usually rather repulsive raw. Those who are less of a tomato fiend may find it ok. I am terribly tomato picky though.
There are bugs(links to a study of the insects that affect farming in Bangladesh) and birds here, so you’ might want some kind of organic pesticide and netting. Nettingand construction workers are available here, and one of our neighbors has a kind of greenhouse made of net to keep the birds out of their garden. There’s sun in abundance, however, so a glass or plastic greenhouse isn’t necessary, unless you really want stunning year round tomatoes.
The soil here is all delta silt clay, so you should bring some soil amendments to help those tender roots grow. The carrots available in the market are all stubby and wide because of the dense soil. The poor things can’t dig very deep in the silt-clay. Plants like runner beans or herbs would never make it without lightening up the soil. When the soil drys, it clumps and cracks, so you’ll want to bring a humus agent and/or some vermiculite to retain water and nutrients.
Some kind of low-chemical fertilizer would also be good, as the soil is not always very rich. The local produce is heavy with pesticide, fertilizer, and post-harvest chemicals, so it is a good idea to keep your own produce chemical free.
Both humus and fertilizer can be made by composting, and the Berkeleyite in me feels more than a bit guilty for not doing that here. I like a rolling composter for roof gardens. This one looks like the Death Star, for twice the fun! This one looks like a barrel of fun (groan!). The key to a rooftop composter is that it shouldn’t have to be completely composted and emptied before you add new material. Most of them have some kind of catchment system to allow access to the finished compost without having to pick out chunks of uncomposted stuff. Compost heaps aren’t very practical because of space and smell issues. A good composter should be odor free, even in Dhaka heat. Also, since your time here isn’t all that long, comparatively, you might want some compost kickstarter to get things going.
On many roofs, you can install a drip irrigation system. Our roof has a spigot in a convenient spot to help you with that. Alternatively, you can have your gardener water the plants every day with a hose. However, this would require training the gardener thoroughly, as these plants are not grown here, at all, and most gardeners aren’t really green thumbs, regardless of their job title. Ours killed a bromeliad, for example, a plant that’s pretty hard to kill.
Raising chickens is not unusual here, at least among the local population. I’m not sure if your landlord or GSO would approve of a chicken coop, but if you want to give it a try, get some chicken supplies before you come too. This coopis pricey, but stylish… a veritable chicken chalet!
Last, if you’re a novice to gardening, you might want some instruction before you begin. I haven’t read any of these, but they’re all about gardening after a disaster. They all seem to be helpful for a novice working in strange conditions and without access to a helpful local gardening center.
(I’m not an Amazon affiliate, and get no kickbacks from them, but the links below connect you to Amazon.)
Trying to cook familiar (or, lets face it, even edible) food when you are unfamiliar with the local produce or unable to communicate what item you want in a dauntingly large produce market can be a tough challenge for those of us serving abroad. It’s such a challenge that some foreign service folks have a blog called Hardship Homemaking that features recipes and substitutions for American foods that can be made with decidedly un-american ingredients. The title comes from the pay differential earned by those serving at posts where food is scarce or terrifically expensive. (On the other side, places, like Paris, where food is abundant, but terrifically expensive, qualify you for a COLA-cost of living adjustment-so the financial bonus for being in a hardship country isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.)
In the spirit of that blog, I wanted to share some of my favorite book resources for ‘marketing’ and ‘cooking.’
As I’ve said before, we couldn’t deal with the gastronomic trauma of having a ful time cook here in Dhaka. The food was just SOOOO oily, and so much the same every day. However, I don’t want to be completely confined to a life of frozen foods from the commissary, so I do have to get fresh produce somehow. If we plan it right, we can find many of the items ourselves, by venturing into the market. If time is short, or our luck is short, we have to send someone out to help us find what we need. Of course, I don’t know the names of all the vegetables in Bangla, and my household staff certainly doesn’t know all their names in English. So… enter the first two books:
The Field Guide to Produce, by Aliza Green. This book has great photographs of tons of vegetables and fruits. I point to them and my housekeeper/shopper can let me know if she’ll be able to find such an exotic item as romaine lettuce in the market. It also has useful information on how to prepare various veggies. When something unusual comes home because it’s in season and looks interesting, you can find it here and learn to peel it before you steam it, or to be sure to season it with salt so that it doesn’t get bitter, etc. They offer field guides to meat, herbs & spices and seafood too.
The Visual Food Lovers Guide, by QA International has even more varieties of fruits and veggies, as well as nuts, meats and other edibles. Instead of photos, however, it has drawings. I worried that might not be useful for the point and send method of shopping, but it’s worked well. It’s helped me find things like cilantro, rather than parsley. (Of course, my housekeeper brought home a KILO of cilantro, but beggars can’t be choosers!). This book also includes preparation advice, even on how to skin and fillet your particular fish, should you be so inclined.
There are some similar books to these which might suit your needs better. Vegetables, Herbs and Fruit also includes growing and harvesting advice, but we never braved a rooftop farm, though many other families did it successfully. Edible is more of a coffee table book, but looks lovely. Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini seems most helpful for the “what the heck is this?” moments.
I also found that having a cookbook or two around is quite helpful to both me and my staff (I do occasionally have someone else cook, but am still gun shy). That’s why I invested in some “visual cookbooks.” Intended for novice cooks, they have photographs of recipes step by step. They’re great for people who are unfamiliar with the particular food and common techniques of cooking it, because it goes step by step. What to Cook and How to Cook It includes a section at the back showing the different kinds of cutting that you can do with veggies (mince, chop, dice, etc.). This book is great for a limited English reader with a basic knowledge of cooking, or as a reminder trick for a recipe that you teach the first time to a non-English reader.
This is a sample page, illustrating the first three steps of a penne with tomato-olive sauce recipe. You can see that it includes pictures of the measured ingredients as well as the steps you use to make the recipe. The recipes are broad, including modern American favorites and adaptable versions of world cuisines like Pad Thai or Fajitas. I would be happy eating everything from the book, well… except the mushroom thing. I hate mushrooms!
Rachel Ray also has a visual cookbook,Look and Cook, but I thought the ingredients were a little harder to find outside the US. Fabulous pictures though!
There are also some great children’s cookbooks full of illustrations, especially for baking, but I prefer to do my own baking, and so I have no advice here.
Here’s a cute shot of Neko all dressed up and ready to head out to the Easter Vigil mass.
We went to mass at the Vatican delegation. It’s a great big imposing building, but always seemed rather empty from the outside. It’s really close to the American Embassy, so I pass it everyday, but this was our first time inside. The nuncio and his secretary, a monsignor, were both very hospitable, and hosted a potluck on their formal china afterwards. The attendees were varied, and included both high and low brow folks, but a pretty small group. Still, we filled the little chapel and had to squeeze in a few extra chairs. It was a homey little service and reminded me of my time in Boston, both architecturally and spiritually.
The rain has started again, though it’s probably just a preview of the rains to come. I bet we’ll have a few more weeks of relative dryness before the deluge. I went Sari (or sharee, if you want to say it with a Bangla accent) shopping this weekend, and forgot to take photos, so a thousand words will have to suffice for the photo.
There are some moderately western style stores here where expats are welcomed with high prices and a more limited selection in exchange for the freedom to sort through the racks yourself. Of course, you’re still followed closely, and they tidy up immediately after you. I thought it was just a weird cleanliness thing, but after speaking with the owner/manager of one of these shops, it is an effort to cut down on losses from theft. I can’t imagine stuffing a sari, painted trunk or metal elephant in my bag (items that I’ve touched under the close surveillance of a store employee), but apparently the expats who visit Dhaka have sticky fingers. Hard to believe that the relative strength of the dollar isn’t enough. I feel so profiled.
Anyway, while the mister watched Neko, I went with a friend to one of these expat-y shops, and found nothing. They had lots of nice things, but nothing appropriate for the event. So, off to a more traditional sari shop we went.
Traditionally, sari shops in the area act more like the personal shoppers of high end New York department stores. You, the client, sit in a chair while the vendor parades the saris before you. Of course, all the vendors are male, so watching them drape the folds of fabric off their shoulders is additionally entertaining. The vendors stand atop a long low dais that has a kind of sheet-covered mattress on it. They shake open each potential sari, chosen to fulfill the requirements you’ve outlined, and lay it on the dais. It’s got all the fun of hanging sheets out to dry in the sun added to glittery rhinestones and deep colors.
Of course, they want to sell you the nicest saris. My friend really liked one of these high end options, but balked at the $300 price tag, so we asked if we could see something in a similar color but lower price. Their first response was to show us the same sari in a different color. Not quite. Then they went immediately to the cheapest possible sari in a similar color, like something you might buy to give as a charitable donation, about $15. Is there nothing in between, we asked. And, finally, something. Not the same quality as the first, obviously, but very workable, and still elegant for the occasion.
Once you’ve decided, there’s a bit of a price negotiation, if you’re up for it. They gave us 25% off, most likely as an incentive to tell our friends to come to the same shop. Then, it gets folded up in a small flat box, and brought home, unless it needs additional sewing or cutting (as there are occasionally finishing needs on some saris).
On my own part, this was my first sari purchase, as I’d never really needed one, and they can be quite expensive when you factor in all the tailoring, petticoats, accessories, etc. I ended up with one I really love, though it doesn’t fit the “color code” of the event we’re going to. But, really, I’m not going to buy a fancy cream and gold sari that I’ll hate and never wear again (because I look awful in the color), just because someone wants their guests to look similar. I might be the one colorful thorn in the Bollywood dreams of the bride, but I don’t mind that.
Tomorrow, we’re hoping that the tailor will show up to take our measurements and make the shirt and petticoats to match the sari. I chose a beautiful raw silk in a similar hue as the sari. Most saris come with an additional yard or so of matching fabric to make the top out of, but since mine is a netted fabric, that would be quite risqué, a la Madonna in the 80s. There is, however, some trim on the blouse piece that can be transferred to the silk for the full effect.
All I need now is some bling and shoes. I’m worried, as the glitz code here is pretty high. I don’t have anything appropriate for either, and fear the cost/tiny size factors might be a problem. We’ll see. I promise pics of the event by the end of the month!
Occasionally in Dhaka there will be a public strike (hartal) which affects most industries and political sectors, or some other kind of mass political event, which leads to the Americans being “confined to the diplomatic enclave.” The borders of the enclave are defined by the government of Bangladesh, and so… sad as we are that Cream and Fudge (one of the few ice cream options nearby) is outside the area (as is North End, the coffee and cinnamon roll heaven), we cannot venture there on such days.
However, thanks to the engineers at Google, we can now pursue other adventures in our 8-bit enclave… saving princesses, recovering the Tri-force, locating the black cauldron, etc.
If you need a MAP to guide you in your quest, put this one in your LEATHER BAG.