I made a comment on Facebook as my wife was getting ready for Thanksgiving dinner at home that I was soooo looking forward to the Thanksgiving swill we will get at the mess hall here. Not. Yet, on Monday, our little group had a Thanksgiving dinner I was not expecting and it is some of the best food I’ve had in months.

There is an older couple here, both working in the group I am with, a Vietnam vet and his Vietnamese wife. Both wonderful people, the young guys call her Mom and she dotes on everyone. She also is a heck of a cook and gets all kinds of great stuff mailed in. Often, she makes food for everyone. Our boss has an Iraqi contact that he gets steak from once in a while. So, our Thanksgiving was a combination of good old American style steak and Vietnamese food. The Americans, many of whom never had Vietnamese, have learned a lot about ethnic food from her cooking, I am sure.

But an aside. We are now under Department of State and one adage the military has is, “don’t mess with people’s mail,” that is their lifeline to goods from home. In the WTF (if you know what that means) or stupid pet tricks category, the State Dept has as many as the Army. In this case, they are limiting mail to 2 pounds maximum coming in or out for all non-State Dept employees. I thought the military treated contractors badly and they do, especially the Air Force, but what the hell can you mail that is only 2 lbs? People are actually talking about quitting over this. This mail restriction has everyone up in arms and no mail is getting in at all now, 2 lbs or not. But, this is going to impact the foodies like this couple and myself who cannot survive on constant mess hall garbage in a HUGE way. The mess hall at al Basrah is worse than many in Afghanistan, although the one at Umm Qsar isn’t so bad. But, no one can really live on a constant diet of mess halls crap. I eat there because I have to to sustain myself, not because I enjoy it.

OK, back to this wonderful meal. Here is what we had:

  • Tofu and oyster mushroom rice noodles
  • Spring rolls, big ones, with rice noodles, chicken and veggies
  • Steak from al Basrah, not the mess hall, marinated in teriyaki type sauce and grilled
  • Sticky rice wrapped in Nori
  • Plain rice

Everything was great, especially the spring rolls and tofu/mushroom noodles. I finally learned how to do rice noodles properly. The packages I have bought in the states say soak in water for an hour. She said soak them overnight in cold water. My noodles never came out the way I thought they should even if I let them soak for a couple of hours. OK, I can deal with overnight. She used an electric rice cooker and wok. Steaks, of course, were done over charcoal on a grill.

Almost everything except the steak was mailed in, dried mushrooms, spring roll wraps, noodles, rice, even the tofu. The chicken and veggies came from the mess hall. Even though chicken at the mess hall is usually as dry as jerky, in the spring rolls, it was tender and moist. And, not overdone, the noodles, seasonings and other goodies in the rolls took center stage. She fried them to perfection using the wok and chopsticks, making sure every surface was appropriately done. The tofu and mushroom noodles was wonderful, not exactly sure of the spices used, but I do know it was tasty. The sticky rice wrapped in Nori was excellent as I love Nori. This was strong Nori and that was all it was, Nori and rice in a small roll. Nori is an acquired taste, but I love it.

Now, a word about the steaks. These were from a butcher in the actual city of al Basrah. I don’t think Iraqis eat steak like we do, so these were pretty rough looking and I have no idea if they age the meat. There were fairly small and this. The two I had were medium to medium rare and, with the marinade and grilling, were very good, if a tad tough. But they tasted like steak and the marinade was perfect. No salt or A1 sauce required, as it should be.

Contrast that to the mess hall “steaks.” You can’t really call them steaks even if they look like a steak. They are precooked, then heated up and/or slapped on a griddle to be warmed up, then put in a big pan on a steam table. They are cooked so well done it is beyond belief, are tough as hell and you have to put a half a bottle of A1 or Heinz 57 sauce on them to even choke them down. I recall standing behind a big buff guy at a mess hall in Afghanistan on “steak and lobster” night. Don’t get me started on their lobster, completely inedible and a waste of a good crusteacean, AS WELL as never any real butter. Anyway, the guy looked at me and said, “you know the steaks have to be bad when a grown man turns them down.” Truer words were never spoken. Even though they make a big deal about “steak and lobster” nights, very few people actually ate the steak and/or lobster. I usually have the fired beyond recognition shrimp. Yum. Need a half bottle of cocktail sauce for them.

This Thanksgiving meal was a complete surprise to me and very welcome. If steaks can be had locally, so can lamb……

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