Monday, October 26, 2009

A foodie in the UAE: dining out

The first time we ate there was during Ramadan. We had spent the entire day shopping and organizing our apartment, and when the sun finally set, signaling that restaurants were open, we dragged our weary selves the few blocks to the local Lebanese joint, arriving hot, thirsty and famished. We were seated in a room with just one other table (a family of 8 or so), and about 5 waiters milling about. Yet somehow it took 10 minutes before anyone brought us menus and another 10 for water, even though we had twice flagged someone down and reminded him of our needs.

We finally ordered, deciding to skip the appetizer and jump right into dinner, and splitting an entrĂ©e because it was so late in the evening by then that we didn’t want to eat too much. After another sizable wait our food arrived, and it was an absolutely fabulous array of grilled lamb, chicken and beef, all perfectly seasoned and tender, with generous sides of flatbread, hummus, olives and pickles. Despite our grouchiness, we loved the food and scarfed it down quickly, declining our waiter’s offer for dessert or coffee, as we were anxious to get home. But after this last exchange, no one out of the cadre of waiters would even glance in our direction, or if they did notice my hand waving at them, they seemed to be ignoring it. They stood around chatting with each other, and then would suddenly rush by our table to the table across the room, bringing them more food, laughing and interacting as if they were part of the family.

Our plates long emptied and pushed aside, our water glasses empty, we asked for the check but then continued to sit for what seemed like ages without being able to catch anyone’s eye, confused as to why the other table was receiving such good service and wondering if it was racially motivated. Exasperated, we gave up and walked to the front entrance to ask the host for our check. We paid our bill without tipping and left in a huff, vowing never to return.

The second time we ate there was this weekend, after yet another long day of unpacking and organizing around the apartment. Enough time had passed to allow our anger to dissipate, and we decided the food was so good that avoiding the place was only punishing ourselves. We were seated on the lovely patio (now possible with the cooler evening air) which was strung with colorful lights and wafting with the fragrance of a fruit-flavored Nargile pipe. Though we were tired, we decided to order in courses, first nibbling on the olive plate, then ordering falafel and fries, then the mixed grill that we had enjoyed so much the first time, along with the house-special fruit cocktail (non-alcoholic, of course). We ate slowly, relaxed in our chairs, enjoying the lively music playing in the background and observing the interactions of the families around us. Our waiter did not hover but was attentive, making certain we had enough water, spacing our courses evenly, and stopping by periodically to banter with Sam, who was practicing his Arabic.

When we had eaten as much as we possibly could, the waiter asked if we wanted coffee. I started to decline, saying it would keep me awake, but when I saw an injured expression pass across the waiter’s face, I reversed course and said “sure.” He smiled and rushed away, returning not with coffee but with a huge plate of sliced watermelon which he had lovingly garnished with ice cubes, and said it was on the house. He returned a few minutes later with two very strong Turkish coffees. We nibbled on the watermelon and sipped the coffee, assuring the waiter of how much we were enjoying it when he asked expectantly—by this time his concern for our pleasure had begun to amuse us. During the course of our meal, it had occurred to Sam that the change in the restaurant’s behavior toward us was a direct result of the change in our behavior as diners.

Middle Eastern cultures take hospitality quite seriously, so even in a restaurant, it seems, you are not entering into a mere business transaction – money for prepared food – rather, you are a guest in the hands of the restaurant owner and staff, the same as if you are a guest in someone’s home. Sure, you can make genteel requests, such as whether you would like sugar in your coffee, but you must not make demands, and certainly must not rebuff an offer of hospitality such as coffee (or watermelon); even if you are in a hurry, it would be rude, an affront to the quality of their goods. Thus, it is the waiter, not the patron, who decides the pace of the evening (no notion of table-turnover here), for he is proud of his restaurant and anxious to show you all he has to offer. By not having our own agenda that evening, we not only felt more relaxed, but we pleased our host and encouraged him to pamper us.

When it seemed like enough time had passed and there would be no more surprise courses or visits to our table, we asked the manager for the bill (we learned that waiters there do not handle money), tipping generously this time, and made our way to the exit, completely amazed at the difference in our two experiences. At the doorway our waiter met us and shook our hands (a first for me), delighted that the evening had gone so well.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A foodie in the UAE: cornbread redux

Last night we went to a potluck at our very international Anglican church, and it had announced a Western theme, so I thought I’d get back on that saddle and rustle up some cornbread. Thanks to my sweet mother in law who sent real cornmeal from the states, and the fact that my oven and I have come to an understanding, I was able to whip it up in no time flat. As an extra touch, I made cute little cornbread muffins in colorful wrappers with a side of honey butter, and proudly set them on the buffet table, feeling quite satisfied with myself for making a comeback. But here’s the kicker-- No one at the potluck seemed to know what they were. While I was going through the food line, I heard a couple different people say in British accents, “look, little cakes!” I told them that they were actually cornbread muffins and was returned with blank stares. Scanning the room during the meal Sam and I noticed that most people who had gotten a muffin had set theirs aside to eat for dessert, and only one person had figured out to spread the honey butter on top. I watched an Indian man peel off his wrapper and bite into it, no doubt expecting it to taste like a cupcake, and then put it down with a confused look on his face. Not quite the triumph I was hoping for, but it gave us a good laugh.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

30 years old and 2 months in

I turned 30 yesterday. I woke up early, made coffee and sat by the kitchen window to write in my journal. This is a ritual that has not changed in 10 years, though just about everything else has changed, drastically - my circumstances and environment, way of thinking, and life goals. Since turning 21 I have graduated from college, gotten married, moved out of Texas, found a career, earned a master’s degree, and moved overseas to work in my field. Looking back, I feel satisfied and looking forward, hopeful. And living in a country where the majority are migrant workers just trying to survive, I have come to recognize that such feelings are not as widely experienced as I might have thought. I am especially grateful for the hope I have that things can and will change for the better, a kind of freedom that I can take with me no matter where I go.

We’ve been in Abu Dhabi two months now, and somewhere along the way it stopped feeling like we were on an extended vacation. At the same time that we were finally able to recognize landmarks and street names and know where to find the best produce or where not to buy screws, the inconveniences that we once found quirky began to lose their charm and become unbearably annoying – and the realization that we live here started sinking in. This evolution has been bumpy, largely due to the fact that many details of our existence have remained as unsettled as when we arrived: our shipment from the US was MIA; Sam didn’t have a job; we didn’t have a car; I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to be doing at work; we hadn’t decided on a church; we didn’t have any regularly scheduled events during the week. Taken individually, it’s not so hard to deal with these gaps and uncertainties, but collectively the absences were felt more intensely and seemed interminable. I was having a hard time remembering why we had left our comfortable lives in Cambridge of our own free will. What I was experiencing was (and is) textbook culture shock – the stages, apparently, are exhilaration, irritation, depression and acceptance – and I knew I just had to wait it out.

And suddenly, in the past week even, things have begun to fall in place. Sam was hired as an adjunct faculty at a local university to teach two courses a week; he joined a soccer league and a basketball league and now has two games a week; we leased a car; we decided on a church and will go to a fellowship event tomorrow night; I joined a monthly book club and found a weekly Pilates class; Sam enrolled in Arabic courses three times a week and is already reading street signs; I’m starting to figure out my job description – both what it should entail and how to go about doing it; and miracle of miracles, we got a call yesterday that our belongings arrived in port and will be delivered in the next week or two. These small victories are accumulating, and though it hasn’t happened yet, I anticipate waking up one day in the not-so-distant future, or perhaps while walking to the supermarket after work, and coming to a vague awareness that Abu Dhabi has become home.