April 13, 2005

Prof takes soybean recipes to Turkmenistan

by K.C. Jaehnig

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CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A soybean on the plate is worth two on the bush — at least, that’s the idea behind a Southern Illinois University Carbondale nutritionist’s volunteer work in Central Asia.

Hea-Ran “Helen” L. Ashraf, a professor in SIUC’s College of Agriculture, returned March 21 from a two-week stint with Winrock International’s Farmer-to-Farmer Program in Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic that borders on Iran.

“Turkmenistan has a good amount of soybean farming already — you can buy soybeans in the market,” Ashraf said. “What they wanted was someone to show them how to cook with soybeans at the farm level.”

It was the second trip to that part of the world for Ashraf, a Korean native whose research has focused on ways to work soybeans into American diets. Last fall, she visited Tajikistan, just north of Afghanistan, on a similar mission, though there she started from scratch.

“They didn’t have a history of growing soybeans — they’re just learning how to do it — so my main activity was going to universities and speaking to faculty and students about foods you could prepare from soybeans,” she said.

Winrock, a nonprofit organization with offices in Little Rock, Ark., and Arlington, Va., works with local people and communities in 40 countries to improve economic conditions and protect the environment. Its Farmer-to-Farmer Program pairs volunteers with expertise in agriculture, food processing and marketing with individual farmers and small businesses.

“It’s a very direct interaction, and you can see the effect of your activities right away — I really enjoy doing it,” Ashraf said.

On this trip, Ashraf had a particular charge: the Gereks, a prosperous farm family of seven from the Turkmengala District in the eastern part of Turkmenistan, had come to Winrock asking for someone to teach them how to use the beans they grew to feed themselves.

Ashraf, who’s created scores of recipes using tofu, soy flour, soymilk and the beans themselves, knew from her time in Tajikistan what Central Asians like to eat. Keeping in mind the fact that her cooks would not have much in the way of kitchen appliances, she sorted through her recipe stash, sending the most adaptable on to Winrock for translation into Turkmen, the local language. She also had a host of helpful handouts with information on everything from nutritional content to cooking techniques translated at the same time.

Ashraf found when she arrived at the Gerek farm that her “class” included more than the farm family.

“The demonstration took about two hours and while it was going on, one by one people came,” she said. “Toward the end we had a lot of older ladies as well as the young people — the children came to watch, and the women came to taste. They haven’t done these things with soybeans before so they were very intrigued. They love to cook — it was a big event.”

Ashraf concentrated on showing the women how to use soybeans in meals they already serve, particularly soups, salads and a pilaf-like dish that includes carrots, onion and rice.

“Because this is their own food — it’s not like I’m introducing tofu spaghetti — it made the introduction quite smooth,” Ashraf said.

The Gereks already knew how to grind soybeans into flour, so Ashraf suggested that they use this flour to make crepes — a suggestion that drew blank looks all around. It was only when the women saw the crepes taking shape that it registered.

“They looked at me and said, ‘Oh, you mean blintzes,’” she said. Turkmenistan was, until 1991, a Soviet republic; blintzes, beloved in Byelorussia, are far more familiar than French crepes.

Ashraf’s assignment also included a visit to Dashoguz in the northern part of the country, where a number of U.S. Peace Corps volunteers have assignments. Concerned that those volunteers were not getting enough protein in their diets, the in-country Peace Corps physician wanted Ashraf to conduct the same sort of workshop for the volunteers and their host families.

“The volunteers have to eat what their host families eat, and meat there is $1 a pound,” Ashraf said. “That’s a lot of money when you make only $100 a month.”

In addition, she met with city families, Korean immigrants and restaurant owners, all of whom wanted to know more about how they could use soybeans, and she visited a 100-year-old cotton oil plant, showing the general manager, company engineers and the quality control staff how to make soymilk and tofu.

“I was busy every day,” Ashraf said.

She wound up her tour at Ashgabat, the capital, where she met with several people interested in starting a soymilk business.

“They were entrepreneurs who were looking for an opportunity to start a unique venture,” Ashraf said. “Nothing wrong with that, but I would like to see soymilk get started there to benefit schools or hospitals before it’s sold to health club patrons.”

Winrock will do a follow-up evaluation on Ashraf’s visit in about six months to see what effect it had.

“I don’t know what this work will bring for them,” she said. “I just sow some seeds and wait to see how it turns out.”

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(Caption 1: All in the family — The Gerek family matriarch, holding her grandchild, relaxes with family and friends in the cookhouse after a soy foods banquet prepared with the help of Hea-Ran Ashraf, a Southern Illinois University Carbondale nutrition expert. )

(Caption 2: Now she’s cookin’! — A Turkmen woman tries out a recipe for soy nuts in her cookhouse kitchen. Hea-Ran Ashraf, a Southern Illinois University Carbondale nutrition expert, visited Turkmenistan in March to help residents of that country learn how to use soybeans in their diet. )

(Caption 3: It was good — Hea-Ran Ashraf (right), a Southern Illinois University Carbondale nutrition expert, shakes hands with the matriarch of the Gerek family of Turkmenistan after sharing a banquet of soy-based foods. Ashraf visited Turkmenistan in March to help residents of that country learn how to use soybeans in their diet after members of the Gerek family requested such help from Winrock International, a not-for-profit aid organization working there. )

(Caption 4: Mmmmm — crunchy! — Whole soybeans can be cooked in a little hot oil to make a nutritious snack similar to peanuts.)