Toba from Herat of Afghanistan, the aubergines and the smell of sanjit
by Julia Turner, SolidarityNow intern – trainee
“I’m slicing the aubergine and putting them in the oil; but you must do it fast because if you take it slow it will go brown.”; Toba, a mother of four, is cooking a traditional meal from Afghanistan for me.
Her eldest son, Suhail, is translating for us. While slicing, she tells me more about the dish. It is from Herat, a city in the west of Afghanistan where Toba was born. She learnt how to cook it from her mother – “obviously”, pipes in Suhail.
I ask Toba about the differences she’s found between cooking in Greece and Afghanistan. Happily, there are no ingredients that she hasn’t been able to track down. Hours of scouring the shops of Athens mean that she can find everything the family wants. That said, she has noticed differences in the ingredients themselves: “In our country, the aubergines were bigger. They were so sweet that you could eat it without cooking them”. Similarly, with the garlic, “in Afghanistan when we put the garlic in with the aubergines, the smell filled the whole house. Even the neighbours could smell it! Here their flavour is, perhaps mercifully, less potent.” The biggest difference to cooking here is, of course, the conditions of cooking in camp. The electricity is not very strong so it takes much longer to cook everything. Whereas the aubergines would cook in ten minutes in Afghanistan, it takes a least half an hour here. There is also the challenge of space, as the family occupy a space of approximately two metres x three metres, much of which is taken up with a double bunk bed for them to sleep on.
Two girlfriends cook together between partitions
Since arriving in Greece, Toba has also got to know Fatima, who lives with her family in the makeshift ‘room’ next to Toba’s. Fatima has taught Toba how to cook an Iranian rice dish, not so much through formal lessons as by cooking together – or rather, by cooking in their respective rooms and shouting over their partitions. Suhail demonstrates: “She cooks and she says, ‘What shall I do with this?’ and Fatima shouts [from the other side of the partition] ‘Like this!’” What about the rest of the family, I ask. Does your husband cook? “Only egg”, Toba responds. And Suhail? Suhail grins sheepishly and tells me that even eggs are too difficult for him: “I cook the worst eggs in our family!” Toba plans to teach her children to cook when they’re a bit older.
A smell “traveling” with her wherever she goes
Once soft, Toba removes the aubergines from the heat and places them in a bowl for later. Then the tomatoes and garlic go into the pan, she turns down the heat, leaving these to cook for up to an hour. While she does so, I ask Toba to tell me a bit more about Herat. What is it like as a city? “Perfect” she says, “100% perfect”. “It’s not busy, it is green” Suhail adds, “If you want to have, like, some space there are so many places; it is quiet. And it’s just such a great city – for holidays, for travelling…”. As for the people, Toba is diplomatic: “everywhere you go, there are all types of people. But the culture of Herat means that the people are so welcoming.” Along with the greenery, the architecture and the people, Toba misses the smell of sanjit, a fruit whose fragrance lingers throughout the streets of the city. But despite her love for Herat, Toba is no city girl. “I’m a village girl”, she tells me, having grown up in a village just outside Herat, where the family still lived before coming to Europe.
Despite frugal ingredients, Toba’s cooking skills ensure that the resulting meal is a luxurious affair: deep-fried aubergines melt in the mouth with tomato and garlic, accompanied by the compulsory mountain of rice and washed down with a glass of Doogh, a yogurt-based drink that is extremely refreshing and very welcome in a hot and crowded room. As we finish our lunch, I ask Toba how it feels to continue to eat traditional Afghan food in Greece: “It is a very good feeling when you eat it.” And to cook it? “I feel comfortable… because it’s from my hometown.”
The BlueDot program is supported by UNICEF and funded by the European Commission – Civil Protection & Humanitarian Aid Operations – ECHO
[Note: The program in Elefsina was concluded after the closure of the local camp, on October 2017]