SOMETHING TO SMILE ABOUT Savita Nooreen sits with a plate of homemade jalfrezi.
A 15-year-old woman from Pakistan recently taught me how to cook her favorite dish from home. The Pakistani town of Gilgit, in the Himalayan mountain range, is “a four-hour drive to China,” she told me. “There are mountain peaks covered with snow throughout the year. And K2 is nearby.”
It’s about a 24-hour drive from there to the Arabian Sea, but she’s never been. “This is my first time with the ocean. I love it. My host mom loves the ocean, too. On Saturday or Sunday, when we’re wondering what to do, we just drive to the ocean.”
The day Savita Nooreen and I spent cooking together was March 21, a holiday called Novruz in her part of the world. On this day Azerbaijanis, Indians, Pakistanis, Turks, Uzbeks, and others celebrate spring, as well as peace, neighborliness, and reconciliation. Savita began to teach me how to make jalfrezi, a dish her family at home would be eating together on that day.
First, you sauté onions, turmeric, and bite-sized pieces of chicken breast in oil. Then, once the chicken is cooked on the outside and the onions are soft, you add tomato, chili powder, cumin, and a little water. Put the lid on and let that cook for about 15 minutes, until the onions melt into an orange-brown sauce. Meanwhile, using a mortar and pestle, mash fresh ginger into a paste. At the end of the cooking process, mix the ginger into the chicken along with chopped cilantro leaves and cardamom powder.
As we cooked, we talked. “Someone on the school bus asked me if we have houses or we live in caves,” Savita said in disbelief. “[Pakistan] is the same as here. It is a developing country. Fifty to 60 years ago there was no connection with the rest of the world. The northern part had no schools. But now it’s just like Freeport. We have schools, colleges, universities…”
As uncomfortable as it made me, I had to bring up the t-word. After all, many Americans associate Pakistan with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. My question, embarrassingly, came out this way: “Have you ever seen a terrorist?”
“My place is peaceful,” she responded. “I haven’t seen a terrorist, or at least I haven’t known it, or any sort of distraction or any sort of tension.” She indicated that a small percentage of the people in Pakistan are causing the trouble.
It reminded me of a conversation I once had with an Afghani woman who said something along these lines: There are bad people everywhere. Let’s not let them ruin what the rest of us think of each other.
Savita told me that her community back home has concerns about her American lifestyle. “Some worried that I might get spoiled,” she said. “There is the stereotype that all American kids party a lot — bad kind of activities.” But she’s been Facebooking with her friends from home, reassuring them: “It’s just the same [here as it is at home]. Parents keep an eye on you and your friends. We go to school. We study.”