Martha Stewart would never survive Tajikistan

I had been planning for today’s lasagna lunch since the second week of my fellowship when one my colleagues asked if I could make his favorite dish from the U.S. How could I say no? This man had picked me up at the border, arranged my housing, and even helped me secure a SIM card and cell phone, among countless of other tasks. Lasagna was the least I could do, right? Right? In the end the lasagna required more than 10 trips to various stores and the efforts of approximately 12 people, in three countries.

When I made the commitment, I did not understand how difficult it would be to find the necessary ingredients. It wasn’t that I couldn’t find fresh mozzarella or ricotta cheese – I couldn’t find cheese, period. After many rounds through the market and trips to supposedly ‘Western-style’ stores, I came to the harsh realization that this dish was going to require some serious effort.

Luckily, I managed to secure some guests during my fellowship: I asked my boyfriend to bring a box of lasagna noodles and Jenny, who was visiting from Kiva, to bring along a bottle of Kraft parmesan – the kind that doesn’t need to be refrigerated. While in Uzbekistan, I scored a can of tomato paste and a packet of dried tomato sauce, which would replace the non-existent basil and oregano – all they have here is cilantro. I had planned to make my own ricotta, arguably lasagna’s key ingredient, but without a thermometer or buttermilk I was forced to give up on that plan as well.

So, as you can imagine, I was feeling pretty pessimistic about my opportunities for success. I stopped trying to find ingredients and started planning excuses to weasel out of the obligation. Feeling guilty, I decided to give it one last shot and wandered into a market not far from my office. I could almost hear the heavenly choir pouring down as my eyes rested upon a pile of ground beef (ground beef!) and two blocks of cheese: gouda and edam! It wasn’t exactly mozzarella and ricotta, but it wasn’t the Tajik salty soft cheese either.

Unfortunately, Western conveniences do not come cheaply and I only had enough money in my wallet to purchase the cheese. I also figured that, if I had been forced to eat meat for 10 weeks, it wouldn’t hurt them to eat vegetarian food for once. Proud and excited, I headed home to prepare the sauce and fixins…..that’s when it really got interesting.

1. I have one electric burner and no stove, which makes it pretty tricky to bake lasagna. It took a few tries, but I finally found someone to bring their stove, as well as a pan, into the office today (it’s not too big, don’t worry).

2. I don’t have a can opener, so I had to borrow one from my neighbor. After several minutes trying to figure out how to use it, I had to walk back across the hall, with my tail between my legs and ask for help. It’s never very empowering to ask for help in using a can opener. She clearly felt bad for me because, five minutes later, she sent her daughter over with a bowl of soup and some chocolates.

3. When I got to work this morning, my coworker asked what kind of meat would be in the lasagna. I explained that I had run out of money while shopping and had been unable to purchase the ground beef . Before I knew it, all of the men in my office had plopped down 5 somoni each (enough to cover the cost of the meat), saying “we want meat”. So, I ran back out to the store.

4. A coworker then arranged for the driver to take me home so that I could pick up the rest of the ingredients and cook the beef on my stove top. When I got there, the electricity was off – of course.

5. I headed back to the office to set up the stove and start baking the ground beef. Thank God that I made an obnoxious quantity of sauce the night before and thank God they made me go buy meat because the pan that my colleague had lent me was huge!

6. I got the lasagna into the oven at 11:20, which gave it just enough time to bake before the electricity went off at noon.

Well, somehow my ‘thank-you’ present for one of my colleagues turned into a celebration for the whole office. Everyone came – I ended up making lunch for over 30 people. Sadly, I didn’t get to take a picture of the final product because I got shoved out of the way so that someone else could serve it. But it was absolutely beautiful….and yummy! It didn’t taste exactly like lasagna, more like fancy cheeseburger lasagna, but it was wonderful! Everyone, including myself, had such a good time sitting around, eating, and chatting. Sitting there, looking out at my coworkers who I would soon say goodbye to, I started to fight back tears. Tomorrow is my going away party – but it couldn’t possibly be better than today’s event!

Thank you everyone for your support during this fellowship. Thank you for letting me share some of the amazing experiences and stories – I hope that I have inspired some of you to keep learning about this region.

Signing out……Carrie Ferrence with IMON International in Khujand, Tajikistan


About the author

Carrie Ferrence