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‘What’s Up With That?’ is a guide to the many cultural oddities U.S. soldiers and their families encounter while serving overseas. It appears three times a week. E-mail your questions about goings-on in the Mideast, Europe or the Pacific to

Nov. 14, 2006Q:In Afghanistan, I've heard of jirgas and loya jirgas. What's the difference? What's up with that?

A: The tradition of the jirga in Afghanistan is pretty much as old as traditions get. From the beginning, Afghan society has used the "jirga," or conference process, to figure out problems, elect leaders and plan the future. The loya jirga is the national version of that, where local leaders come together to select a national ruler. A plain old jirga can happen pretty much anywhere at the village level.

There are two kinds of loya jirgas, one call by the people and one called by the leader. In the first instance, the people will decide that it is a time of national crisis and will come together to decide important matters, or to elect a new leader. A loya jirga called by the leader would, in turn, be a chance for the leader to consult with the people on similar issues, such as controversial laws.

Some famous instances of loya jirgas being called are the outbreak of World War I, World War II, and of course, following the overthrow of the Taliban in 2002. During the war against the Soviets, though, regional and militia rivalries largely prevented a true national loya jirga.

Nov. 13, 2006Q:I’ve seen these folks throughout Europe — by the banks of lakes in sleepy Swiss towns, in the busy city streets of Rome, at the markets in France — selling some kind of treat with a sweetish burnt smell that gets doled out in paper cones. What’s up with that?

Noga Ami-rav / Stars & Stripes

A: Known as a castagna in Italian, a Kastanie in German, or a châtaigne or marron in French, chestnuts in Europe are not associated exclusively with that certain time of year when Jack Frost comes nipping. Throughout the centuries, chestnuts have served as a dietary staple for multiple cultures, and a wide region of southern Europe encompassing the Italian and Swiss Alps was known as the “Chestnut Civilization.” The chestnut was known as the “bread tree,” and its nuts can be ground to produce a flour which is still used to this day. Chestnuts can grow where other crops fail, and their high starch content keeps the belly full. But don’t try to eat them raw, as their high content of tannic acid is a sure guarantee for a hurting stomach.

That’s where the chestnut seller comes in. Usually they operate out of a push wagon or a trailer, roasting the nuts on the spot over a bed of coals until their shells begin to curl upward and the meat of the nut has achieved a slightly sweet flavor and melt-in-your-mouth texture. You only need to shell out a couple of euros for a small bag of roasted chestnuts, so next time your nose detects a whiff of that distinctive, hint-of-autumn, slightly singed smell, head for the nearest vendor’s cart.

Nov. 12, 2006Q:Here in South Korea, you can feel the tension in the air as the annual college entrance test date approaches. I know it's a big deal, but people here seem to really stress out about it, much more so than for the SAT in America. What's up with that?

A: While America's Scholastic Aptitude Test is a big thing, South Korea's College Scholastic Ability Test, known and dreaded as CSAT, is, well, everything. Or at least that's how it feels if you're one of the 600,000 kids taking it this year.

The goal, according to an Asia Times article written after last year's test, is to get a score high enough for entrance to one of South Korea's elite colleges. Acceptance means not only fancy academic credentials, but also access to an alumni network that's key for placement in a good job later on.

Technically, you can take the test more than once, but it's offered only once a year, and reform attempts change the test format so drastically each year that a retake is no guarantee of a higher score.

The pressure is immense, and it starts early. Students are enrolled in "cram schools" and private classes from a young age, with one study cited by the Asia Times article estimating that middle-class Korean families spend an average of $700-$1,000 a month for CSAT-tailored tutoring. Recent cheating scandals, including one in 2004 in which students were caught using cell phones to pass answers, shed light on how far some students will go to ensure they succeed.

The entire country acknowledges the CSAT's importance. On test day - which falls this year on Nov. 16 - the national government mandates that businesses alter their workdays so commuter traffic stays out of the way of students heading to schools. Police ask drivers to refrain from honking horns - no small request in Korea - near schools, and the U.S. military scales back noisy activities such as live-fire training and flights.

Nov. 7, 2006Q:This sounds impossible. But I heard that Kuwait — Kuwait of all places — has to import sand. That can’t be right. What’s up with that?

Noga Ami-rav / Stars & Stripes

A: Irony of ironies, no? Kuwait — a small slice of desert whose most memorable feature is the endless, flat expanse of sand surrounding its one major city — relies on other countries’ sand. As counterintuitive as it sounds, Kuwait imports sand for an important use: construction.

Yes, Kuwait is a desert. Yes, deserts are made of sand. But if you’ve ever spent any time there, you’ve noticed how fine, thin and generally annoying Kuwaiti sand can be. It’s so fine, in fact, that it’s virtually impossible to use it in making concrete. So, for building purposes, sand from outside the kingdom has to be imported. (Yes, we know, it’d be like importing snow to Alaska because theirs is too fine to make a snowman.)

Now, a little more logically, because Kuwait is surrounded by boundless expanses of desert on one side and the Persian Gulf on the other, another long-imported quantity was drinking water. Until desalinization plants were completed along the Gulf, most of Kuwait’s water was imported from other areas.

If you’ve got a few hours to kill and NOTHING better to do, do a quick Internet search on “Kuwait,” “sand” and “import,” and scroll through the hundreds of business chat sites and trader forums dealing with the wonderful world of bringing sand to a desert.

Nov. 6, 2006Q:I hear that the famed mozzarella di bufala, a variety of cheese that comes from the region around Naples, Italy, shouldn't be refrigerated. It's a soft cheese made from buffalo milk. Not keeping it cold is one of the strangest things I've ever heard. I mean, it's cheese, and non-pasteurized at that. Wouldn't keeping it out of the fridge just invite stomach trouble? What's up with that?

A: When asked whether mozzarella di bufala should be stored in the refrigerator, a look of terror crossed over the face of Angela, an employee of a caseificio, or a store that sells dairy products, in downtown Pozzuoli, a suburb of Naples.

"Mai, mai, mai!" she screeched. "Never, never, never!"

For starters, the cold seems to "rob" or "sap" the unique, delicate flavor from the snowy-white cheese, made from the milk of water buffaloes, she said. Secondly, chilled temperatures make the cheese rubbery and not nearly as enjoyable to consume.

So, here's her expert advice. Store the mozzarella balls, usually about the size of a baseball, at room temperature either in the plastic bag from the caseificio, or in a glass or ceramic bowl, Angela said. Never store the cheese in metal. (They come in smaller balls too - call bocconcini.)

Keep the mozzarella balls fully covered with the milky water provided by the vendor. While ideally consumed on the same day as purchased, mozzarella will keep for a few days if the balls remain covered. After which, however, it loses elasticity as well as flavor.

Nov. 5, 2006Q:Back home we wouldn't dream of keeping eggs anywhere but in the refrigerator, but in my travels in Japan and South Korea I see unrefrigerated eggs all the time in local grocery stores. What's up with that?

A:According to the Camp Zama-based Japan District Veterinary Command, which handles food inspections for U.S. Forces Japan, it's simply a shelf-life issue.

In America, we obsess about keeping eggs cool - and that's because we like to keep them around a little while. All the refrigeration – from minutes after a hen lays the egg all the way to grocery shelves and to your home - means eggs in the American market are usually good for a month or more. But in Japan and South Korea, where eggs usually go unrefrigerated until the consumer brings them home, the shelf life is only about two weeks.

Of course, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS, might argue it's also a health issue.

FSIS says leaving eggs unrefrigerated for any amount of time heightens the risk of salmonella. That's why the U.S. government requires eggs to be stored and transported under specific refrigeration conditions, and why eggs sold in the U.S. (or in your overseas commissary) carry labels advising refrigeration at home and other safe-handling methods.

Refrigeration prevents temperature changes that can cause condensation on an egg's shell, and according to the FSIS all that dampness is a great place for bacteria - like salmonella - to grow.

But by that logic, never refrigerating eggs in the first place is another way to avoid condensation, right? Japanese and Korean consumers may refrigerate eggs once they get them home, but they also know to use them immediately after taking them out of the fridge, so there's no time for condensation.

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