Dispatches from Afghanistan Sam: How to Buy, Slaughter and Spit-Roast a Sheep

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When my friend Sam told me he'd be spending a year in Kabul, Afghanistan to make documentary films, I thought, boy's gone crayzay! But now that he's there, and seems to be not only surviving but thriving, the reality of his situation has become clear to me: it's blog gold. Thus, I present what I hope will become a regular or at least a once-in-awhile feature here, in which Sam (at left, not wearing hat) will talk about not only the Flossier side of life in a war zone, but some of the trials and triumphs he's experienced while there. We'd also love to give our readers a chance to ask Sam some questions, so if there's anything you want to know, or you'd like him to discuss, speak up! He's our man in Afghanistan.

For this installment, I wanted to keep it light and practical, so Sam cooked up this handy step-by-step guide on how to buy, slaughter and spit-roast a sheep (for your girlfriend's thirtieth birthday) in Afghanistan. Enjoy -- and bon appetit!

This is a tale of love, sheep, and the perfect birthday present.

I arrived only recently in Kabul, and shortly after I got here, my girlfriend had the pleasure of turning 30. The charity she works for has its offices in a large fort here in Kabul, and they had already planned a party for her in their spacious courtyard. But with her birthday rapidly approaching, and her 20s rapidly receding, I still hadn't gotten her a present. I didn't want to buy her another head scarf, and I seem to have atrocious taste in jewelry, so I had very few options, considering the absence of Nordstroms and Bergdorm Goodmans here in Kabul. So I hopped in a taxi and decided to roam the streets, my eyes peeled.

In addition to hosting thirty years of war, Kabul is also host to some of the world's worst traffic. Cars and trucks and hand drawn carts fight for position on the dusty streets, seemingly unaware of any traffic laws. [Ed. note: Kabul has only one set of working traffic lights for more than 600,000 cars; its roads were built 50 years ago to accommodate just 50,000 cars, and haven't been updated since. Here's a video of nightmare traffic in Kabul.]

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The situation is complicated by herds of sheep, which wander at will through the city from one trash pile to the next. These herds supply Kabul with its main supply of meat, and you can wander down streets with rows of butcher shops with fresh carcasses in the windows. Just then, as I was mulling the situation, stuck in traffic, my cab driver furiously honking at one of these herds of sheep crossing the road, wondering if I was perhaps the worst birthday present buyer in history, it hit me. In a flash of insight, I astounded myself by coming up with the perfect gift (or at least it seemed that way at the time).

Here, then, are my 10 easy steps for slaughtering and spit-roasting a sheep for someone's 30th birthday.

1) Purchase sheep.

This is not that hard. Walk up to a sheep-herder (usually found near large piles of trash), and hand him $100. He will eagerly show you the best of his flock, although actually selecting one can be more challenging. I would avoid the one munching on discarded diapers.

2) Transport sheep to the fort.

Or wherever you plan to boil and spit-roast the sucker. This is not easy, and entails a fair amount of sheep wrangling skills (which I learned on the job; not recommended). And a truck.

3) Hang out with sheep

... while you wait for the butcher to arrive. (No, I didn't kill it myself). Try to avoid looking into its eyes as it follows you around, looking for more diapers to munch on.

4) Slaughter sheep.

sheep_pot.jpgHave you ever heard the expression, "like a sheep to the slaughter?" Well, I now know where it comes from. It is both comforting and horrifying to realize that your newly purchased sheep has no idea what awaits it as the butcher holds his cleaver over its throat. Thankfully, it's over soon. And after the butcher deftly skins and guts it, you are now the proud owner of a sheep carcass.

5) Boil sheep.

This step can probably be skipped in other countries, but here in Afghanistan the sheep are notoriously tough, which I assume comes from their exclusive trash diet. If this is the case, boiling the carcass before roasting it will soften it up. First, build a fire. Then, if you're like me, realize that the pot you have is nowhere near large enough to fit a whole sheep in. Frantically hunt for a larger pot. Rebuild fire. Fill pot with water. Stuff sheep in pot. Realize that you can't lift it. Empty pot. Put pot on fire. Fill with water. Stuff with sheep. Wait for it to boil. Stoke fire. Wait some more while relishing in your accomplishments thus far:
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6) Marinate sheep.

After it has boiled for two hours or so, the sheep is ready for marinating. I recommend a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and dried herbs. Remember to keep the lemon halves to stuff in the cavity.

7) Spit sheep.

Assuming you had the foresight to actually purchase a spit (or the good sense to know somebody who owns one), this part is surprisingly easy. Just take a 3" diameter metal spit and maneuver it in through the neck and out the anus. (Gross, I know, but important nonetheless. You don't want the thing you spent all day wrangling and butchering to fall into the fire you're trying to cook it over.) Just remember to screw a bolt through the ribs so that it will turn with the spit.

8) Cook sheep.

I recommend opening a beer at this stage, and enlisting helpers. For some reason, people get really excited about turning a spitted sheep over a fire. Just remember to keep basting it with the marinade as it cooks, or it'll dry out.
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9) Remove sheep from spit and carve.

Carving a sheep is nothing like carving a Thanksgiving turkey, and if you're doing it in Afghanistan you probably won't have the benefit of an electric carving knife. Find a clean surface and lay the sheep down. Get a buddy to help you, and remove the legs from the body with a sharp knife. This will make carving the body meat a lot easier. By this time, though, friends and gawkers nearby have usually had a few drinks and have been salivating over the roasting sheep for a few hours already, and because the previous eight steps took a little longer than they anticipated, it's hard to stop a ravenous, slightly tipsy crowd from carving the sheep while it's still on the spit. (If that's the case, I recommend giving up control at this point.)

10) Pass out.

After selecting, purchasing, slaughtering, spitting, and roasting the sheep, and having a few beers, I fell asleep somewhere during step 9 and never got to eat it. Apparently it was good -- at least according to my girlfriend, which was all that mattered.

July 18, 2008 - 9:06am
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