Friday, May 14, 2010

26th Blog

26th Blog Weekend of May 14-15

After one of our recent blogs, one respondent wrote back, asking about food: where it is grown and produced, how it comes to the local market. We will try to respond, to the best of our knowledge, and give you a few prices so you have a sense of what food costs.

Milk and dairy products: all of these seem to come from places other than Iraq. Yogurt comes from either Iran or Turkey. Price: $2.50 for a 3.3 pound container. The most widely available milk comes from Saudi Arabia, and comes in the form of 1 liter (just over one quart) paper containers. The yogurt is kept refrigerated at the stores and at home, but the milk is of the ultra high temperature (UHT) processing that allows it to be kept at room temperature until such time as we begin to use it. The milk in our cabinet right now was processed on March 14, 2010 and has a shelf life until October 10, 2010, all at room temperature. Milk is not cheap, about $5.50 for four liters or just over one gallon. We have found a kind of cheese we really enjoy, called Kashkaval cheese, that comes from Turkey. Cost: about $4.00 per pound. Parmesan cheese is available only in Erbil and is ghastly expensive. Eggs are sold by the piece and are not refrigerated in the shops. One of our AUI-S student’s father owns the big egg production unit just outside of Suli and that family is considered very comfortably situated. Our recollection of what we pay is about $1.80 per dozen.

Poultry: Chickens can be purchased either fresh or frozen. The frozen chicken comes from such far away places as Brazil. The packages of imported boneless, skinless chicken breasts all look pretty decent in the store, but our experience is the meat is tough and chewy. Sorry, I cannot tell you a price. People generally prefer fresh chickens and there are a number of poultry farms on the edge of Suli that provide the fresh chickens, but we have never bought a whole chicken because there is so much of a whole chicken we do not eat. There is an area of the bazaar where one can purchase freshly slaughtered and processed chickens or one can purchase a live chicken and come back later after it has been slaughtered and cleaned. It doesn’t get much fresher than this.

Beef: is raised and slaughtered locally. We have been told on excellent authority that the cows are delivered to the slaughterhouse, kept in quarantine for several days before they are slaughtered, and then inspected after slaughter and before they are delivered to the numerous butcher shops around the city. The meat is not kept refrigerated as it hangs in the shops, but is fresh as of the morning it is available, and is not kept from one day to the next. We have seen beef cuts in packages in refrigerated cases in the three large modern grocery stores, but we have never seen it purchased. People seem to prefer the hanging beef in a local shop. Beef is expensive: about $6.00 per pound, but what is made available is only the leanest cut of the meat, whether bought whole or ground. It is really quite good. Fresh lamb and goat meat are readily available but we have no experience in purchasing either.

Just as people prefer fresh meat, so too do they prefer fresh bread. The city is dotted with small two and three person storefront bakery operations that make large round pieces of flat bread called naan, or small loaves, about the size of an enlarged hamburger bun, called samoon. These are very cheap, about 80 cents for ten pieces/buns, and they are very good, especially if you happen to get to the bakery just after the bread has come from the oven. With the naan, no one seems to worry about packaging as we often see people leave the bakery with bare hands carrying a stack of unwrapped bread. The samoon lie loose in a bin, and are sold in bags only because it would be impossible to carry them loose.

Fresh vegetables: One of the real glories of this place is the availability of a wide range of fresh, inexpensive vegetables. These come from local farms, and from Iran and Syria. Eggplant, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, carrots, green peppers, cucumbers are in regular supply and cost in the range of 40 cents to 50 cents per pound. Bananas come from Guatemala and cost around 60 cents per pound. The watermelon is the most amazing fruit available—it is the sweetest we have ever tasted and comes from Syria. Cost: about $5.00 for a melon. Pomegranates are grown locally and are readily available in season. They have a wonderful flavor but we don’t buy them often as we find the seeds a real nuisance. What we have discovered about the local people is that many of them avoid the problem of seeds by just chewing them with the fruit and swallowing them. That is true for sunflower seed hulls too.

Olives are another widely available food product. There are lots of varieties of olives and of processes for seasoning them. Some olives are green; others black. Some are quite pickled, others are mild. Cost of large black olives: $1.80 per pound. Also available: dried apricots, raisins, figs, almonds, walnuts and dates.

Large scale farming: this area is part of the Fertile Crescent, an arc of land that starts in Israel and the Occupied Territories, goes north, sweeps around the east and then proceeds south along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. It is not called fertile by accident; all along the foothills of the Zagros Mountains around Suli are multi-hundred acre fields with a rich, loamy soil of the type you might find in some of the large fields of Indiana and Illinois. Sometimes the fields are a bit rocky, but even these can be plowed and cultivated. Because of rainfall patterns these fields are mostly sown in the fall and harvested in the early summer, and are planted with either wheat or barley. Below photo of fields, note Iranian knock-off of a John Deere combine. We haven’t a clue about what happens to the wheat after harvesting. That is, how does it enter the food chain of products that we consume in products like bread and cereal?

Summary: we have no trouble getting good food. We can also get, but try to avoid, grocery store aisles full of all variety of cookies and candies, and freezer cases with Magnum ice cream bars -- giant hunks of vanilla ice cream formed around a stick and covered in chocolate.

Sorry we cannot you provide you with a description of another important historical site, or of an amazing story about a group of students, but hope that this is helpful in understanding our everyday living.

Thanks for reading.

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