“We provided them with the labor, the tractor to plow the ground, and we would be giving them organic fertilizer – and then we promised them that we would buy the roses from them for the next 5 years. Well guess what? Panjwayi District turned into a warzone, so I sincerely doubt that any of those 6 rose plantations survived. Either they were bombed, or the people fled – almost the entire population is displaced now elsewhere.” It was 2006, and I was having a conversation with Sarah Chayes, an assignment I was given in my time at a magazine based in northern Virginia.
Afghanistan’s nascent economy, new on the world stage after 2 decades of war – invasion, occupation, civil war, then isolation during 5 years under Taliban rule – was making a comeback after the 2001 American liberation. Yet there were still massive challenges: infrastructure had to be rebuilt, industries had to be revived, and the population had to be given the opportunity to partake. This would require immense investment, both financially and in human resources; and time. Nothing was going to happen overnight. Sarah knew this full well. She had covered the fall of the Taliban as a reporter for NPR. During our conversation, she was in the middle of a near-decade long stretch of living in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where she had established a farmer’s cooperative, a mission with its own plethora of challenges. Admittedly, I was young, 17 years old at the time of our conversation, but her years of experience boiled down to 1 simple point that she passed to me that day. “The only way to reduce the region’s reliance on the opium poppy is to compete with it – make it possible for farmers to make a living by growing something else.”
An uncle of mine once joked that “there are no exports out of Afghanistan, only imports in.” In a country where 80% of the population work in agriculture, where famine isn’t just an obscure concept, but a recent memory, what could they export? Sarah's Arghand Cooperative took the novel approach of manufacturing skincare and beauty products, such as soaps and perfumes, out of the essential oils extracted from their farmers' produce: apricots, almonds, pomegranates, roses. "Transform the traditional local food products into something less heavy and less perishable." Yes, I thought, something that could be appraised and sold for a higher value, beyond local markets; a legitimate export economy.
A year later in late 2007, my parents opened a restaurant, and in 2015 I opened my own. During my decade in these kitchens I became familiar with the spices that flavored the food I grew up eating. I had been using saffron in my recipes, to marinade chicken breast, to add a floral layer to the mire-poix in a lamb shoulder braise, to garnish basmati rice in the classical way. But I was getting my saffron from food purveyors and distributors, and their stock was often unreliable. On one occasion I bought an ounce sized tin of Spanish saffron from a local purveyor. When I got back to my kitchen and opened the tin, I discovered that it was mostly filled with dyed corn silk. The purveyor was an honest businessman, I trusted this was an honest mistake. When I showed him the contents of the tin on another visit and demonstrated the mix of real and fake saffron, he genuinely didn’t seem able to tell the difference. Well, I thought, he’s not cooking with saffron everyday like I am; how would he know anyway? I dug a little deeper, did some Googling; turns out this purveyor was buying these tins of false saffron from a distributor in New York, who was importing them from a food wholesaler in Italy. I couldn’t find a link to Spain. Was the corn silk at least Spanish?
... to be continued