In an earlier post, I mentioned that Kyrgyz people are quite comfortable with making sweeping, all-encompassing statements about their country’s culture. It’s difficult to explain that Americans don’t think about their country in terms of a collective national dish, dress, or dance. Even so, the question What is your country’s national meal? is one of the most frequently asked, up there with Do you have a boyfriend? and Are you married?
When I hesitate (usually to decide whether to skirt around the question with a basic discussion of diversity or to just say apple pie), people are happy to supply their own answer about American cuisine: fast food.
“Gamburger! Pizza! French fries!”
I try to explain that not everyone in America eats fast food every day (which, maybe, many actually do) or offer Minnesota-centric dishes as an alternative. I show pictures of delicious Tombs burgers (mmmm pretzel buns and sweet potato fries, how I miss you) in an attempt to convince people that not all burgers are fast food. BUT, sometimes it’s easier and can lead to a more fruitful conversation to accept the terms of your conversation partner and go from there.
My host brother Nurbolot had a lot to say about fast food, both in the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan. In an after-dinner conversation, originally meant to be English practice, he covered all his bases: fast food is not healthy, it’s oily and fatty and doesn’t have enough vegetables; worst of all, you don’t know whose hands have cooked the food. At first, I thought he was being poetic, that a home-cooked meal is more valuable because you love the person who prepared and served your sustenance for the next 6 hours. Nope, he clarified – they could have just not washed their hands.
It’s been a pleasant surprise to find that Jalal-Abad offers so much in the way of American-style fast food. Granted, “hamburgers” here means slices of meat from a doner-style contraption with grated carrot and cucumber on top and slathered in mayo – BUT, they’re cheap (less than a dollar), tasty, and I have yet to get sick after eating one from a street vendor. We’ve also got a few pizza joints, a hamburger/fries chain, and – my favorite – Bek Burger. Bek Burger is a 50s-style diner founded by two Uzbek guys who used to live in the U.S. They say they learned the secret recipe for true American fast food while in Chicago, and I think they are doing a true service to the citizens of this city by serving the tastiest chicken nuggets I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating (but maybe that’s just six months of living without my other guilty-pleasure-foods talking).
Gotta run, though, I have a lunch date with some volunteers at Bek Burger.