Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My Last Full Week...for a while.

Last week was to be my last complete week in Atyrau.  Mercifully the Business Lunch research has come to an end and we are back to quality fare!

I have had a couple, or more, of comments suggesting that my blogging is rather food centric.  I cannot deny this but perhaps I can explain it.

When we get up in the morning Sandra gets ready for work and I prepare her breakfast (it is too early for me to breakfast with her).  I have a yoghurt making routine which involves using powdered or UHT milk, but more usually a combination and incubating it on the enclosed balcony which is usually over 100F.  After the yoghurt is made I strain it (in batches as I only have a small strainer).  I strain it to two consistencies, one for mixing with blended frozen fruit for Sandra's breakfast low fat yoghurt, and one to cream cheese consistency to eat with apricot jam on toast.  Some of this activity, like blending and straining the fruit, is part of the breakfast routine.

I also prepare Sandra's morning fuel, as some of you will know, when she gets hungry her usual sharp and logical mind turns to jelly and there is no predicting what senseless comments she will make.  So we consider it essential  for her career to have snacks at hand during the day.  Today for example she had carrot and celery sticks, cherry tomatoes, grapes, two bananas and some pieces of cold chicken (a quick fix of protein for emergencies). This is fairly typical, and is a daily routine including washing in sterile water and packing into containers.  It would be good to prepare all this for a week ahead, but the fridge is too small for even our daily needs.

Sandra will have her mug of tea as soon as possible, then grapefruit and yoghurt before getting ready for work. Then I make aggs, and sometimes some home made bacon, grilled tomatoes or potatoes.  We rotate through fried, scrambled, poached and omlets. She finishes with toast, jam and labneh.
 Sometimes I do some other cooking at the same time such as making stock or soup with leftovers from the previous evening meal, or starting the bread-maker.

In short, between getting up at 6.30 and kissing her goodbye at 8.25, most of my time is spent fussing food, early two hours.

Then I have to feed myself, which is usually just some toast, possibly an egg, and a few glasses of Cola Lite, and get myself ready to go.

In the course of the morning I will make a trip to Ram Store.  This is considered good field craft in Atyrau, as new supplies can appear at any time (like mushrooms) but you have to be ready to get them at once or they will be reaped by the expat. wives that have a well coordinated SMS network that sends out general alerts of available rare supplies to summon the troops, who, like locusts stripping a tree, can denude a supermarket shelf in minutes

As an aside, I do have to say I am astonished to discover some of the products in demand...spaghetti sauces in jars, packets of macaroni cheese, instant oatmeal.  How hard is it to make a spaghetti sauce? Having asked that I should say that tomato paste is truly abundant occupying a whole aisle in cans from small to huge (who opens a 2 liter can of tomato paste and what do they do with it?  However, whole or chopped tomatoes in cans only appear periodically, and as many as can be carried home have to be bought at once.

The shopping trip can also take some time as it is not always possible to find and identify produce.  I ended up tasting the crystals spilt on the supermarket shelf to first determine whether I had salt or sugar.  I have since usefully learnt the words and the script.  Likewise, sour cream is very popular, Smetana (CMETAHA), but it gets intermixed with the yoghurt (йогурт) which may also have vanilla and sugar (Cахар) added, so great care has to be taken looking at labels, which are usuall printed in maddeningly small print.  It 
is clearly a legal requirement to show ingredients and not a practical consideration.  Though trying to fit the 
contents details in three languages on a small tub of yoghurt is a challenge.

So there goes another hour, shopping in Ram Store.

At about 11.15 I have been going to meet Sandra for lunch.  The walk to her office takes about 30 minutes, or 45 if it is very hot and I stop to take pictures.  I am usually collecting pictures of something.  Below I am exhibiting some examples of my current "collections".  (I would rather not answer questions about why I collect these, but it will demonstrate to some of you that I do not only photograph plates of food, though now you may wish I did).
Umbrellas are commonly used by the more stylish to provide shelter from the sun 
Outdoor workers typically just have hats and sometimes swathe their heads in white cheesecloth

The other outdoor types are the fishermen and the swimmers.  I went fishing, but more of that later.
Fishermen are all along the Ural (for miles). They don't care about the sun!

 There is building everywhere and the patten of bricks is very varied.

 Larger buildings are clad in stone or marble or steel,  the tiles are usually just clipped to the Concrete sub-structure.  I have no idea why this is because the rain and snow must get behind the cladding.  Below is a picture of the way this is done on our building, Ardagar Dom.        

There is also a massive sidewalk construction effort going on.  The paving is usually some form of bricks.  They come in a wide variety of patterns and just recently have started to appear in different colors.  Red was popular at first but not blue and yellow are becoming popular being the ubiquitous colours of the Kazakh national flag.

Recently, I have started to notice a fondness of the architects for domes and cupolas and pediments that are the rounded shape of the yurt.  So I have started "collecting" these.

But as most of you know by now my favourite collection is of the overground pipes.  I now actually have favourite areas which are particularly good for pipe-spotting.  As Sandra and I walk around I frequently have to stop or detour to take a look at or photograph a particular pipe formation. Some of the collection is shown below.

But I have digressed.  At 11.15 or so I walk to Sandra's office for lunch at noon.  where we go is of course one of the more important joint decisions of the day.  The best place by far is Sancak.
This Turkish restaurant has the raw kebabs laid out behind the counter in a cool display case, hot food in an heated display, and salads (mainly Russian style with lots of mayo).  We order at the counter then sit down.  Kebabs are cooked over charcoal right in sight, and they make great fresh bread served out of the oven.

 This is the cook standing in front of the charcoal grill.  It is rather difficult to take many pictures but Sandra asked the baking girl if she could take a photo, hence the pose above.  Sandra is eating an egg-plant salad which is about the best when it is available. See the picture below.

After lunch, at about 12.50 Sandra goes back to work and I may then walk about 5 minutes down the road to Rahat market, which is cheaper than Ram Store and sometimes has different and fresher produce.  The food section is not very large and there is virtually no raw meat, except in the Ideal supermarket, however there are all sorts of other shops.  This is where I bought 1.5 meters of "table cloth".

In the food area we spread our business around.  There is the Tomato Lady, Banana Lady, and Grape Lady that Sandra has anointed and now I have added the Zucchini Lady, Herb Lady.  We are loyal to different chicken ladies though share the same dried fruit and nut Lady.  She always pretends she doesn't know how much you want and tries to sell one industrial quantities of things like prunes.  Imagine the effect!

At the Grape Lady we ask for "Bis" which means without.  I keep suggesting we learn the word for pips, but Sandra says she knows what she means.  It didn't stop her from trying to sell me her grapes with pips when Sandra wasn't there, but I tasted one and brandished the pip in front of her in a suitably admonishing way.  Next time I'm sure I'll be charged double the price for my cheek.

Usually I take a taxi home from there as I have shopping.

So here's how the "taxis" work.  They are usually Toyota Landcruisers, though there are some minivans and even some larget 12 or 15 seaters for when there is a crowd sharing.  They are part of the Agip Transport system and all have AT numbers on the front and back wind shields.  By some strange quirk, although the numbers of people on the project have been growing rapidly there are no new taxis.  They all seem about 10 years old.  Whilst they are standard issue Toyotas, they are all fitted with full roll cages inside.  Quite why I am not sure as the drivers are very careful and the roads are not too bad.  Apparently the drivers are under strict orders to follow the rules of the road, they do not speed, they will not go until seatbelts are all fastened, and they have instructions to avoid certain accident black spots, usually junctions and roundabouts.

One orders a taxi by cell phone....
"Agip Control"
"Hello, I would like a taxi please from Rahat to Ardager Dom for one person"
"Rahat to Ardager, Number?"
"My number is 31 222 5 33"
"Sandra Taylor?"
"Yes, this is Mark Taylor, husband"
"Not employee?"  (Employees cannot use taxis in working hours, which go to 7pm!)
"Not employee, wife Sandra employee"
"OK, wait message"

It that point one hangs up (not literally any more, of course) and in a couple of minutes a text message arrives.

"Vehicle number '273 (E273HBM  AT-315) will be available in approximately 10 minutes", it is always 5 or 10 minutes in the message, and one rarely waits longer than 10 for a taxi to turn up.  You will notice that the locations given (eg Rahat) are not very specific.  That is because the have standard pick up and drop of points for the large markets etc.  It is not a bad idea to find out where these are before setting out!

In the afternoon I usually do some cooking.  We have done quite a bit of entertaining since I have arrived, and have had people over 2 or three nights each week.  This usually means a few hours cooking.  I have tried not to make meals that can be found in the restaurants here.

Salads are difficult with limited greens, and there is tomato and cucumber salads everywhere.  Soups are OK as the local soups are pretty much the same thin broths with chopped vegetables (carrot, potato, onion, cabbage) in them.  I have made cream of tomato (with powdered milk!), leek and potato, tomato basil and french onion so far.

Dessert is another challenge as there is no good milk or cream.  I have just about perfected my Greek yoghurt cheesecake with a lemon shortbread crust (sorry, no Graham crackers, Digestives or anything remotely similar that I can find).  For the last version of the cheesecake I made individual tartlettes, which were topped with fresh peach.  A single peach goes quite a long way used like this!

For those of you wanting to try this low fat filling, the recipe is something like this (scale up 3x for large pan),

1 cup low fat Greek Yoghurt
1/3 cup sugar
1 egg
Vanilla extract (1/4 to 1/2 tsp to taste)
1/2 Tbs cornflour

Bake 20 to 40 minutes (depending on size of cake, tartlettes or 9inch pan) in 190C oven.
Yoghurt Cheesecake with pineapple (yes, I found a good one!)

I'm not too sure about the oven temperature as I do not have an oven thermometer, and the calibration doesn't seem right.  I have failed to cook two legs of lamb to my satisfaction, and think it is because the oven is too hot.

I have baked a few different loaves of bread and this Sunday afternoon made some banana muffins (with some black bananas Sandra had thoughtfully kept for me in the freezer).

I have frozen the muffins, so she can take one a day to work.  I also canned the apricot jam that I made the first week, having scrounged enough jars form people.  It is absolutely impossible to buy jars (Russian: banka).  Everyone keeps the jars that pickles etc come in and cannot understand why anyone would buy jars.  However, one can easily find lids and special contraptions for sealing them on the jars, which are not screw top.

So the bottom line is, with two hours in the breakfast routine, two hours going to and having lunch, an hour or two in the supermarket, and/or going to the market, and somewhere between one and four hours preparing dinner, about six to ten hours each day are occupied with food related activities.  Fortunately, I have been able to watch the test match from about 3 in the afternoon, at the same time.

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