Spaghetti with Sardines

For the longest time I snubbed my nose at the idea of canned fish. Sure, I enjoyed the occasional tuna salad on crackers as a child, but when I had my first taste of a seared tuna steak there was no way I would go back to the can. How wrong I was! It all started with a recipe from Mark Bittman, a pasta made with canned sardines, sautéed onions and garlic, topped with parsley and bread crumbs. Flash forward a year and I am inAzerbaijan, starved for protein like some jackal. I occasionally buy beef or mutton from the butchers, but the quality is mixed at best, and I do not trust buying the stuff in summer. The mere sight of the slowly rotting pieces of meat dangling with flies swarming sends shivers down my spine. There is chicken; however, I am getting pretty tired of the stuff. Whenever I walk around the local supermarket I stop and look at the canned fish and debate for a good minute or so whether or not it is worth the risk. Just like the beef and mutton the quality of fish can be mixed, especially if the fish is locally sourced. I love fish, but the muddiness of the local sturgeon made me throw up a little bit.

However, one day I went for it. I sautéed some onions and garlic, throwing in the canned sardines and tossed it with some spaghetti, finishing it with parsley and bread crumbs. And it tasted amazing. There was the meatiness I crave and the brininess of the sea. Additionally, this dish is made with minimal ingredients, and can be thrown together in the time it takes for pasta to cook. I have tried a few different brands, and I can vouch for a brand called Kaiga. It is imported from Latvia, and I suppose the frigid waters that border the country provides for some tasty fish. Sardines can have a tendency to have a strong fishy flavor, since it is an oily fish, as opposed to white fish like cod. So if you are unused to oily fish, I recommend buying canned sardines in tomato sauce. The acidity of the tomatoes masks the fishiness, while adding a nice acidity. This dish offers everything I look for when I am down to my last manat: tasty, cheap, and quick.

Ingredients:

  • 1 can of canned sardines, with or without tomato sauce
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced finely
  • 500g pasta
  • 1 bunch parsley, chopped finely
  • ½ to 1 cup bread crumbs.

Directions:

  1. Bring a large pot of water to boil and start cooking the pasta.
  2. Sauté garlic and onions for a few minutes, until the onions have softened.
  3. Add the canned sardines, and mix, being careful not to break up the sardines up too much. Let the sauce thicken for a few minutes, and toss in the pasta. Mix in the chopped parsley and season with salt and pepper as needed. Top with the bread crumbs.
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24th

I turn 24 today. I’ve never really celebrated my birthday much. In high school, my birthday fell in the middle of AP exams, SAT studying, or final exam studying. In college, the school year ended before my birthday, so I never had the pleasure of celebrating my birthday with them. Every year around my birthday my mom always bring up her hardship in giving birth to me, and how my birthday isn’t really a celebration of me, but a celebration of her. Hard to feel good about my own birthday after hearing something like that for the 20th time.

Thinking back the last 12 years or so, my only memorable birthday was the spring of 2008, when I was studying abroad in Shanghai. My closest friends and I went to the Black Café, a themed restaurant where you ate in pitch-black darkness, served by blind waiters. Without sight, many of us resorted to eating with our hands. Also, I tricked my friend Chen into taking off his pants. My other friend, Emily, took her bra off and passed it around the table. My friends “surprised” me with a Cold Stone ice cream cake. I put “surprise” in quotation marks because I found it earlier in the fridge, and I heard them playing with the dry ice a few days ago.

So here I am, three years later, and three years older. No longer am I in my early 20s, I am now in my mid 20s. I’m the same age as when my mother gave birth to me. Weird, isn’t it? Interestingly enough, this particular birthday is special. Why? Because it’s “my” year. Yes, the year of the rabbit. I am kinda hoping at the exact time of my birth I will be struck with incredible fortune.

I’m having my birthday party in a few weeks, since my site-mate Amanda’s birthday party is next week, but I’m spending my actual birthday alone. Amanda is off in Goycay, and JM is in Baku celebrating her friend Allison’s birthday party. Even though I could’ve invited some friends from the neighboring regions, I’m in a particularly contemplative mood. I finally swept and mopped my floors, and I’m slowly decorating my walls with photos of friends and family, as well as cut-outs from my favorite magazines. As I look at photos from home, I am a bit overwhelmed with my life right now. It’s not being in very bad time machine. Time stops for me, but everybody’s lives are going on without me. My dads found a new job, my sister will be graduating college next year, and some of my best friends are traveling in China or Europe.

When I go back to the states, my friends and family will be in such a different place than when I left them; however, I will be starting my life fresh. I don’t know where I’m going with all this, but it’s definitely given me a lot to think about.

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Cooking in Azerbaijan

Everybody says to write what you know about, and because I love cooking I think it’s worth while to discuss what exactly I cook here. It’s been slim pickings since winter, but while I was walking through the bazaar today I noticed some bunches of asparagus. They were slimmer and taller than American asparagus, with a more distinct purple coloration. Today was also the first day I noticed decent looking lettuce, which has been coming in over the past few weeks. I’m not sure exactly what kind of lettuce it is, but it looks like an elongated iceberg lettuce. I’m not a fan of iceberg lettuce so I didn’t get too excited, but since I saw asparagus I thought maybe I’d give it a shot.

I sure as hell didn’t want to make a salad with just iceberg lettuce so I thought of things I could do with lettuce. I randomly remembered how unsatisfying the Korean food I had a few weeks ago was. It was tasty, but it was more of a Chinese stir fry than anything else. Huge disappointment. So I set my mind of re-creating my fantasies of Korean barbeque here in Azerbaijan. My soy sauce stash is precious, pears are still expensive, and I had no sesame oil…so this would be a Korean inspired dish.

I had some chicken thighs defrosting in the fridge, so I immediately came up with the idea of a spicy Korean wrap, using a marinade of Korean hot pepper paste, garlic, sugar, and some fish sauce. I know the last part isn’t Korean, but who’s counting? Oh, I also squeezed a splash of lemon in there to get some nice acidity to cut through the spiciness.

Even though chicken is the cheapest meat protein here, it’s still pretty pricey. Okay, maybe not pricey…but it is for a guy who spent a good part of his living allowance on daiquiris in Baku. So to stretch out the meal I thought of putting some sort of “slaw” in the wrap. I had some beets and carrots so I thought that’d be a winning combination. But wait, isn’t a slaw supposed to have some cabbage in it? Wrong! I swore off cooking cabbage after three straight days of cabbage soup at my host family’s house. I shredded the beets and carrots while watching Ocean’s 11, and thought that’d be the end of it.

A few hours later it occurred to me that just leaving the beets and carrots plain would be pretty lame, and I thought of banh mi sandwiches. Even though the bread and the pate is what makes a banh mi good, what elevates it, in my opinion, are the pickles. I sprinkled some kosher salt over the slaw and weighed it down a colander to let the water get out. This is becoming more of a generic “Asian” wrap than a Korean one, but it’s good enough for me. After letting it sit for a few minutes I threw in some sugar and a splash of sauce to keep the Asian theme going.

When I was shopping for kitchen stuff in Xachmaz I came across this wok, and I’m not gonna lie…it’s pretty sweet. I stir-fried some sliced onions before throwing in the marinated chicken. Immediately my face is hit with a blast of delicious, spicy, fishy (in a good way) aroma. As a wash the lettuce I realize it’s not actually lettuce but some variation of cabbage. I feel pretty stupid at this point, but the leave to stem ratio is much better so I roll with it (literally).

I throw some of chicken on the cabbage, along with a generous serving of the pickled beets/carrots. I bite down, and I’m immediately transported back to my favorite Korean place in Orange Grove, and as I close my eyes I’m surrounded by the familiar sounds of sizzling meat.  Utterly delicious…probably one of the best things I’ve made since getting in country. The chicken fat (coming from the chicken skin…never de-skin chicken thighs!) combined with the marinade to form some sort of spicy sauce. I’m having a culinary boner at this point. I only prepared a third of what I made (approximately one chicken thigh), and I have enough to make three reasonably sized rolls. I was iffy on how satisfying they would be, but six hours later and I’m not terribly hungry.

This kind of meal has tremendous potential…especially since it’s pretty cost effect. I reckon it probably costs about 1.20 AZN at the most, and I’ll definitely be returning to this in the future. In hindsight, I don’t know why I didn’t get spring onions, which totally would’ve made this dish even more. Cucumbers, if they were not so expensive, would’ve been a nice touch too. Also should’ve sprinkled some of the sesame seeds I have as a garnish…

So whatever happened to the asparagus I bought? I got side-tracked by my spicy Asian rolls, so they’re sitting in my fridge. I figure I’d sauté them in butter and garlic just to see how much potential they have.

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Changing the World?

I recently received a care package from my New York and Boston friends (thanks again guys), and one of the gifts I got was a signed copy of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Ah, the benefits of having a friend attending the MFA program at New York University. Emily has raved about this book and the writer for a while now, and for reasons beyond my control (a lie…I was just lazy and had other books to read) I haven’t read it yet. Well, now it’s in my hands, so I guess I don’t have a reason to delay my reading of this book. I started it as soon as I got it, figuring it would be a refreshing break from my re-reading of Les Miserables. But this isn’t an entry about how amazingly different this book is from my usual fare…it’s about what Mr. Foer wrote in the part before his autograph. Is there an actual name for what that’s called? A dedication? No, that sounds way too vain…anyway, here’s what he wrote:

“For Sanyo: Who is off changing a world that needs to be changed.”

I’m extremely flattered that Emily took time to talk about me with Mr. Foer and get a signed copy of the book, but these words have been haunting my mind and unfortunately not in the best way. I don’t think I’ll be wrong to think that many people think that’s what we do in Peace Corps: changing the world; however, since starting my work as a volunteer there is a gap between the ideal and reality.

 

Even though I’ve only been a volunteer for three months, it’s beginning to dawn on me that any real “change” isn’t probably going to happen while I’m here. I can’t get into details about some parts of it, but the Azerbaijan that exists while I’m here will probably still be here long after I leave. So if I’m not able to change Azerbaijan, maybe I can help my community, right? That was what I got out of my training…our “mission” was to help teachers improve their teaching, so they can continue to “mold minds” long after we’re gone. If Mr. Foer knew this is how I’m “changing a world that needs to be changed,” he’d probably want his autograph back.

 

Obviously I can only speak for my program in this country, but let’s cut the crap…we’re pretty lame in the scheme of things. Teaching English? Helping teachers become better teachers? Compared to other volunteers, even just talking about the other sectors in Azerbaijan, we’re pretty lame. I’m not surprised that TEFL volunteers get their “kicks” from YD or CED related activities, and not just TEFL stuff.

And here’s a scary thought: what happens if your counterpart, who has so passionately taken up lesson-planning or using creative non-textbook related activities, stops doing all that the second you leave? Congratulations! You failed in your primary mission! How does it feel to slave away for two years of your life, only to have your carefully thought out plans for sustainability knocked down like a house of cards?

 

This is probably a little too harsh…I mean, that isn’t the only goal of the TEFL program here, and there are other things you can hang your hat on right? You know: softball, summer camps, art clubs, sending students to FLEX, etc. But a lot of these things weren’t really focused on during TEFL technical sessions. Somehow by the end of PST, I had forgotten what else I could do as a TEFL volunteer here.

Maybe this is really all my fault. Honestly, if I wanted to even get close to “changing the world,” I should’ve known that TEFL isn’t necessarily the best way to get to that point. For some reason I thought being a TEFL would be a loftier position. I’d be a prime position to be a mentor for a new generation of liberal, western-leaning youth, and through them that’d be my way to “changing the world.” Oh how naïve I was with such expectations. Even though I’m working with much brighter students than what other volunteers have, a lot of them still cling onto the more traditional aspects of Azerbaijani culture. I assumed that better educated automatically meant more liberal…guess I was wrong. A lot of these liberal youth packed and left for Baku long before I got here. And I have to tread so carefully in this culture that thoughts of prodding my students to be more modern are only fantasy.

So I’m trying to find a different way to “changing the world,” but until then I’m perfectly fine teaching a bunch of adorable kids and acting like an idiot in class. Until of course, it’s two months before I leave and I’ve still got nothing.

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Identity

So I’ve been asked by my program manager, Flora, to lead a diversity session for all the Azerbaijani teachers at the upcoming counterpart conference in Baku. Even though Katie, Michael, and I are only beginning to throw a presentation together, the basic gist of our session is to show that America is a really diverse place and not all Americans are blond haired, white skinned, and blue eyed. I think in some ways that I’m not really “qualified” to lead a discussion on political-correctness and refraining from racist/bigoted comments, because I myself am pretty nonchalant about racism. Yes, I do agree that Asians have small eyes (unless you have double eyelids) and Yes, I have eaten dog (it was greasy and not very good). Yes, when you ask me where I really am from, I do have an answer (I emigrated here from Taiwan). Racist slurs and stereotyping haven’t really bothered me yet. Ironically, the only time I am riled up about this topic is when it’s other Asians hurling slurs…weird, right?

The reason I feel slight reluctance about this session is because how I conceptualize my own identity. In America when somebody asks me about my ethnic/cultural background, I say that I’m Taiwanese or less frequently, Taiwanese-American. I didn’t really see myself as “American” and amongst some of my Asian friends calling me that were fighting words. Here at Azerbaijan, when the same question is asked I say that I’m 100% American. Saying anything otherwise would probably lead to a long discussion and a defense of my heritage/background. I don’t think I’ve ever tried so hard to be American before in my life.

Interestingly enough, I’m beginning to realize, and accept my “Americanness.” I began to realize how much “American” I really am. Maybe distance makes the heart grow fonder, because I find myself jonesing more for a steak than a bowl of white rice. So I’m getting more comfortable accepting a Taiwanese-American identity, except the struggle now is selling my interpretation of American to the Azerbaijanis. Yes, you can still celebrate all the traditions of your homeland and still be American. Because that’s just one of the millions of ways to be American.

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Waiting

It’s been four months since I’ve been at site, and I’m surprised at how life here is so “normal.” I haven’t had any panicking thoughts (omg, what am I doing here?!), nor have I really faced serious harassment. All of my reservations about being at site (good site mates, cooperative counterparts, etc.) haven’t materialized yet. However, I tread cautiously with my work here, afraid that some minor thing will snowball and bam!… I’ve ET’d (early termination) and I’m sitting back home.

Everybody says that the greatest numbers of early terminations are  in the first three months. I’ve heard stories of volunteers arriving at site and packing up their bags within days. So I wait with abated breath until March 9th, when the three-month mark arrives. I know it’s ridiculous to think that I’ll be “safe” if I can survive three months…I mean, there are a fair number of people that ET after a year. But it’s mostly a mental thing for me.

Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely things that frustrate me here. The awkward host family, the obnoxious nature of students at school, and the general feeling that I’m not really making any impact on the way students learn English or how teachers learn innovative teaching methodologies. But I try not to dwell on these things,  in the hope that change comes slowly. Also, there are much worse things that can make service unbearable, so I’m  pretty lucky that these are the worst of my frustrations.

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First Month at Site

It’s been a little over three months since I’ve been in Azerbaijan, and a little under three weeks since I’ve been sworn in as a volunteer. Before moving to site I was a bit apprehensive about finally moving to site. Stories of volunteers ET’ing (Early Termination) within days of moving into site haunted me. What could possibly be so bad that a person would decide to leave so quickly? Even though some time has passed, I wait with anticipated breath for the three-month mark. Luckily my school, site mates, and host family are all awesome.

What’s been most exciting, if not awkward, experience is life with a conservative Muslim family. The father works in Baku and with the older brother/sister studying in university, many nights it’s just me with the host mother and sister. If that’s the case, I usually have to be in my room unless I’m having meals or tea in the living room. Apparently it’s improper if I’m in the room and the host mom is just lounging on the couch. Also, there have been times when I enter the living room, and the host sister packs up her homework and move into the kitchen. When the host father is there, I try to be more social to “make up” for the time when I can’t be. The host father comes home after dinner, but I’m never sure when he comes home though.

The host father is a very intelligent and funny person, and he is always interested in talking to me when he can, which is a nice change of pace from my old host family. Unlike many of the Muslims in this country, he actually practices it. He prays five times a day, he’s been to Mecca on haj, and because cleanliness is important when praying the hamman (bathroom) is impeccably clean.

He hasn’t talked to me about this, but I know he despises Iran’s brand of Islam, and he believes that politics shouldn’t mix with religion. He also has contempt for men who beat their wives. He neither drinks nor smokes, and when he is at home he’s often helping the younger host sister with homework. It’s a nice change of pace from the typical men of this culture.

I went to Sheki for Christmas and I spent New Years in Shabran and Baku. New Years Eve in Shabran was pretty uneventful. I had to sit in the corner of the house with the host dad because the guests were mostly female, and I was ushered into my room at 8 PM. Super lame, but oh well. I rang in the New Year with my favorite episode of Friends (Season Four, The One with all the Embryos). JM and I headed down to Baku, and we were talked into spending the night, which was pretty nice. I had a few drinks and headed back to the hotel with Sally and Moses, where we watched The Royal Tenenbaums. I passed out early on, but I woke up sober, w00t w00t! Sleeping on the floor was kind of cold, but I snuggled with Sally in the brown monster, so it got quite toasty. Before JM and I went back to Shabran we stopped by the Peace Corps Office and I picked up a few grammar books. I feel inspired to start teaching when the break ends next Thursday.

So for everybody who has complained about the lack of pictures, here’s a non-sequitur photo:

Isn't She Lovely?

 

 

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