Sunday, November 7, 2010

Culture Night/Kulturabend/Kultyurnii Vyecher

Last night was Culture Night at my work. Let me explain what Culture Night is all about...

I work in a school where students from the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, the USA, Africa, and South America take special courses in democracy building, counter-terrorism, and national security. The students are military officers, police officers, or government workers in their countries. They come for various courses, ranging in length from 3 to 12 weeks.

The 12-week course is offered twice a year. The highlight of that course, at least for me, is Culture Night. For Culture Night the students cook their national dishes, wear traditional clothing, and even play music from their countries. They also display photos or other items from their homelands. The alcohol flows freely, with vodka, wine, and different types of schnapps (which could also be used as paint thinner) offered by almost every country. It's wonderful to see the national and personal pride that goes into preparing the food and displays.

Culture Night is always on a Saturday. The advantage of working on Saturdays is that the kitchen in the building where I work is next door to my office. I get to smell all of the good cooking and often be the official taste tester. Working the day of Culture Night also has its down side. There have been a couple of times where I’ve had so many free samples during the day, I was too full to enjoy the main event.

The most important thing to bring to Culture Night is an appetite. Every table that you pass has students calling you over to try their food. It’s almost like being in a room full of Jewish grandmothers telling you, “Eat this. It’s good for you.” I learned early to serve myself. If I let the students serve me, I’d get a portion large enough for a 300-pound man. The students are rightfully proud of their national cuisine and want people to enjoy it like they do. But they forget that there are about 40 other countries being represented, all with students wanting you to try their food.

I think that one of the questions on the application for the 12-week course at the school where I work is, “Are you a good cook?” People who answer, "No" have their applications rejected. The students do a great job cooking their national dishes and the food is always delicious. There are a couple of delegations who “cheat” and order food from local ethnic restaurants. But these are the small delegations with only one or two students. The Romanians have a fellow countrywoman in town who makes their Culture Night dishes. But everyone else cooks their food. The Kyrgyz students impress me the most because they make their noodles from scratch instead of buying pre-made ones.

Last night's Culture Night was a success. I had a lot of my favorites, such as: Tajik plov (a rice dish with meat and carrots), Afghan chicken and rice, Turkish pizza, Mongolian dumplings, Turkish and Moldovan stuffed grape leaves, and Romanian nut-filled pastries. Some new things which I had that were also great were: Pakistani chicken over basmati rice, Saudi dates with an almond rolled into the middle, Georgian eggplant that had lots of garlic, Latvian ham-filled pastries, Argentine meat-filled pastries, Libyan nut cookies, and a unique Belgian jelly-filled candy. Every Culture Night I also have a glass of wine from a country that is not usually thought of as a traditional wine producer. Last night I had good red wine from Montenegro.

The next Culture Night will be in May. I'm looking forward to having some of my favorite dishes and trying new ones.

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