Thursday, December 30, 2010

Ten years to the day

Nothing beats sharing life with your best friend.
We are blessed and grateful.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A foodie in the UAE: waiting for my ship to come in

A side effect of moving overseas, and one I didn't anticipate before moving to such a modern and international city as Abu Dhabi, was that my carefully developed and refined mental list of food products acceptable for use in my kitchen would be forced to change drastically. I am a firm believer that a great recipe can downshift to mediocre if made with sub-par ingredients, so I am pretty particular about my choice of groceries.

As a result, I spent many hours in the first weeks after our arrival combing the major grocery chains in town for tried and true pantry staples. Not that I was opposed to trying new brands - after all, there were suddenly international product lines at my disposal - but with all the other major changes going on in my life (including learning to cook using the Metric system and Celsius scale), it was just comforting to see familiar names in my cabinets.

Some American brands I was delighted to find pretty quickly (Jif, Tostitos), but for most other foods, I either could not find my favorite brand or I couldn't find any brand. Most distressing was a complete lack of canned chicken broth, which I use in probably half of my weeknight meals (I know, homemade is much better, but after full day at work, Swanson does the trick). I was also struggling to find American-brand flour (European flour with its higher gluten content does not jive with American recipes). Feeling I could not live without these and a few other staples, I sent out distress calls to our families to send rations.

My mom and sister, as well as Sam's mom, were quick to send us boxes of goodies. But the journey across the sea, customs security checks and the extreme heat of September in the UAE led to some interesting results in those early days, the funniest pictured below. (They have all since become experts at how to wrap food stuffs for a trans-Atlantic trip.)

This box landed on my desk at work with a poof of white smoke, caused by a busted container of powdered buttermilk and a ripped bag of flour. I'm sure there were Anthrax suits involved with its inspection at customs. Fortunately, the quart-sized box of chicken broth stayed in tact, otherwise we may have had a much goopier mess!

Realizing that care packages were not a sustainable method of grocery shopping, I soon began to experiment with new brands, and in some cases new food products altogether, conducting scientific tastings in my kitchen. In the absence of Ghirardelli, my go-to baking chocolate for years, I bought 12 different brands of dark chocolate to find the most suitable. I know, it's a tough job, but I am incredibly dedicated to my craft. Unfortunately for my chocolate desserts and all who eat them (i.e. Sam), the trial winner was a brand only found at the organic grocery store in Dubai Mall, about a 90-minute drive.

Not long after I blogged about my first cornbread experiment, at which time I was convinced the island of Abu Dhabi had yet to discover cornmeal, and after Sam's mom shipped us bags of the stuff (which led to my second cornbread experiment), wouldn't you know, I suddenly began to see cornmeal everywhere! Then I began to notice this was true of a lot of things I had been unable to find in my first few months, including chicken broth, black beans, and baking powder. I also realized (duh) that some groceries are stocked on a seasonal basis only, like canned pumpkin and fresh cranberries.

Last fall, I began to panic when by late October I had not seen canned pumpkin anywhere, and I had volunteered to host Thanksgiving for 10 people. I bemoaned this fact to my sister, in response to which she bought an entire case of the stuff and was about to mail it to me as a surprise when she received my "Found pumpkin!" text and aborted her mission. (Lisa's probably still working her way through that stash.)

So this fall I didn't worry about the pumpkin. As predicted, it was on the shelves by early November, and since last year it was stocked through Christmas, I only bought three cans at the first sighting. Big mistake. The week of Thanksgiving, finding myself one can short for pie, I went back to the store. No pumpkin. I went to another store, and another, and another. I even went to a smaller chain which sometimes stocks items I don't see in other stores. No go.

At this last store, a kindly manager of Indian descent overheard my sighs of distress in the canned fruit aisle and asked if he could help. I told him I had been all over town looking for pumpkin, and then he told me something extremely enlightening which I probably could have figured out on my own but for some reason never thought about. He said there was a problem with the pumpkin shipment from the U.S. and it hadn't made it on the boat, but not to worry, another shipment would come in a few weeks.

Me: "So you're saying there is no pumpkin to be found in all of Abu Dhabi?"

Manager: "Probably not."

Me: "But Thanksgiving is in two days! You're telling me that no Americans in Abu Dhabi will be eating pumpkin pie this year?"

Manager: Nervous laughter.

I don't think he knew about pumpkin pie.

It's not a great mystery, really. Aside from dates and camel's milk, Abu Dhabi doesn't produce much of its own food (with the climate, it simply can't), and so everything has to be imported, which is not only an environmental nightmare (a post for another time), but involves complicated shipping logistics, which if you have ever moved across states, much less across the world, you know are destined to break down at some point. This, I get.

As if to prove my above point, several vans and trucks marked "logistics" were unloading boxes of goods into the back of our grocery store on Christmas Eve as the expats inside madly dashed around for last-minute items.

But it is still a great wonder to me how store owners decide on which brands to stock in the first place and how much to order, and at what intervals. I'm sure it's based upon trading agreements, embargoes, tariffs, profit margins, etc, etc, but I have to wonder how much market research goes into it. I mean, no one has ever asked me whether they should stop stocking Frank's Special Sauce, which we (used to) consume in large quantities, yet mysteriously has been missing from the shelves for the past 6 months.

Another case in point: when I started this post I hadn't seen Ro-tel in stores since March (I know, can you believe they had it in the first place?), but then seemingly out of the blue, I found rows of it at the Lulu. After which I turned the corner to the dairy aisle and found fresh buttermilk for the first time ever! To stock or not to stock: how do they decide the answer to this question?

This shopping uncertainty has turned me into somewhat of a hoarder. Every time I see a product that has previously been denied to me, I feel I need to buy it in bulk, regardless of whether I actually have plans for it. I used to buy only what we needed for the next few days, but now... well, now my shelves look like I'm stocking for a nuclear disaster (one that requires that we eat large quantities of chili con queso, apparently) --

After all, who knows when the next ship will arrive or what will be on it?

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas toast

Here’s to holiday traditions, old...

and new...

Sans family, they keep us from feeling as blue.

Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year to you!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

'Tis the season

This time of year, it's easy to walk around Abu Dhabi without really being able to tell it's nearly Christmas. No wreaths on doors, nativity scenes on lawns, or pageant advertisements on marquees are visible from the street. Add in the balmy weather, and it's hard enough remembering it's December!

However, if you go to the right "expat-friendly" venues, Christmas smacks you in the face as squarely as it would in any American city at this time of year. Muslim country or not, it seems that hotels, malls, and grocery stores alike aren't going to miss an opportunity for economic gain as golden as a commercialized Christmas. 

Sam and I went in search of some holiday cheer this weekend, and found a quintessential example of "Christmas, Abu Dhabi-style" in none other than the Emirates Palace Hotel--

Sure, it's pretty, but it looks like any other Christmas tree, no?

But let's take a closer look--

Nope, that's not tinsel! 

To quote the placard in front of the display: "Emirates Palace is proud to present another Guinness World Breaking Record for World's Most Expensively Dressed Tree.. bejeweled with precious gems valued at over 11 Million US Dollars."

11 Million Dollars! And evidently, about 10 percent of that amount is owed to this little beauty--

Nothing recalls the birth of our savior like a tree full of bling! (Perhaps if we imagine these as gifts of the Magi.)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Now that's what I call a holiday

I graduated from a high school in Texas that was very rich in tradition, a large part of that tradition centering on, you guessed it, football (American, that is). During football season, rituals surrounding each game (Practices, pep-rallies, pre-game dinners, prayers, post-game dinners) were followed religiously by everyone involved. And even if we lost a game, nothing gave us greater pride than singing the school song beneath those lights on the field.

Several years after my graduation, a new high school, called Reagan, was formed in our district, a bit further north in town. Many faculty members, coaches and students were annexed into the new school, some likely without consent, and I have to wonder what kind of school spirit was present in those early years. The school board must have sat around and chosen a mascot, the colors, and a song. And I guess whatever happened the first year probably became tradition by the second year. In order to survive against its rivals on the football field or other arena, the school must have been forced to fabricate an identity for its students as quickly as possible.

I think of the UAE sometimes as that new, shiny high school, suddenly coming into existence and having to compete like it had been around forever, and needing a national identity that would unite its citizens beyond cultural or tribal ties that previously bound them. By necessity, like the board at Reagan High, the founders of the UAE too had to choose a flag, a national anthem, a bird, and other symbols that would one day would elicit pride from its people. The day on which they began this process was December 2, 1971, UAE National Day, the date of the region’s independence from the British Empire and the beginning of the formation of the seven emirates into one nation.

Last year we were in Beijing on UAE National Day and so while we witnessed the build-up in the days before, namely the decorating of cars and buildings in flags and images of the sheikhs (as shown here), we missed the day itself.

We’d heard that it is quite a scene in Abu Dhabi, especially along the water’s edge (the Corniche), so this year we made it our intention to witness it. Yesterday, we made our way from our apartment to the Corniche on foot, camera in tow, to record our findings on the ground.

Now, imagine the Fourth of July, Halloween, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, Christmas, New Year's Eve in Times Square, and let's say, the streets of Boston on the night the Red Sox won the World Series, all rolled into one night on a small island in the middle of the Arabian Gulf, and there you have UAE National Day. Okay, that might be slightly exaggerated, but there were certainly elements of each of these celebrations present throughout the evening. And it was pandemonium, pure and simple.

We finally understood the reason for the decorated cars, as the highway along the Corniche had been transformed into a parade route, each car becoming a float of sorts. The cars were not only decorated but their engines suped up. Combined with the horns and noisemakers they were all carrying, the result was very, very loud.

Rather than smile and wave at the crowd lining the streets, the parade participants were armed with endless amounts of silly string, spray foam, and confetti, which they used to raid each other's cars as they rode from one end of the Corniche to the other. 

The young Emiratis, many decked out in crazy wigs, hats and masks, rode atop many of the cars so they could jump off at a moment's notice to take part in this celebratory warfare.

While thousands of expatriate laborers, who finally had a day off, looked on in amusement, or perhaps bemusement.

As the afternoon turned into evening, exquisite light displays on buildings and along the corridors began to show up against the dark sky.

And the event took on a carnival-like feel, with rides and musicians, large families eating picnics on the grass, kids chasing each other in the sand, and older kids setting off firecrackers. We missed it, but apparently there was a fireworks display later on. We have to hand it to the UAE; maybe they haven't been around all that long, but they know how to throw a party. And they seem to have achieved that all-important "school spirit," as national pride was tangible in the air.

Monday, November 29, 2010

This city reminds me of...

Something I've grown to love about travel is that the more places I go, the more places I have to compare and contrast, making them increasingly easier to describe. For instance, when we visited Istanbul I was struck by its similarities with San Francisco (incidentally, the city in which Sam and I honeymooned nearly 10 years ago, the first of our travels as a married couple), with its sharp hills and cable cars, suspension bridges covered by fog, and hip vibe.

But it also made me think of Cairo, because of its colorful markets and plethora of really old mosques.

I would add a bit of Zurich as well, both for the integral role of the river in the life of the city and for the way the tram weaves through immaculate city squares dotted with cafes and fashionable youth ...and then suddenly you spot a castle.


Yet even with this San Francisco-Cairo-Zurich combo as a point of reference, Istanbul, like all cities, holds a quality that cannot be compared with anything else. It is uniquely Istanbul. The fun part is knowing that at some point in the future I'll look at my surroundings and think, This kind of reminds me of Istanbul. And I'll have a new color for my palette.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A foodie in the UAE: eating my weight in Turkey

The coincidence of visiting Turkey right before Thanksgiving has been the brunt of many a joke around here. The title of this post will be the last one.

In preparation for our trip I read a novel written by a Turkish author (translated into English) and set in Istanbul. I thought this would be a fun way to learn more about the sites and culture we would encounter. What I didn't expect was how intimately food is woven into the fabric of the society. This was a delightful surprise in the novel, and it led me to do a great deal of internet research before we left to determine which restaurants and foods we needed to try. I ended up with a very long list! We weren't able to try them all but you'll see from the pictures below that we gave it our best effort. 

Upon arrival, lunch was our first priority, so we stowed our bags in the room and immediately ventured into the nearest square. We landed at Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi, which has just one item on the menu: köfte (meatballs), served with peppers, pepper-sauce, and bread. Köfte is one of the most common dishes in Istanbul - you find it everywhere, though prepared in a variety of ways (apparently there are nearly 300 kinds served in Turkey). 

We spent the afternoon seeing the major landmarks of Sultanahmet and then wandered through the Arasta Bazaar, a pleasant if contrived venue for tourists to buy local arts and crafts. Just outside was a three-story establishment called Tamara which had a rooftop terrace. The sun was beginning to set so we thought we'd have a snack and see what kind of view we could take in. For reasons we cannot fathom, the terrace was deserted except for us and the waiter, who served us freshly-baked puffy bread, oozing with salty cheese yet somehow not greasy at all. We were sad to see they didn't serve beer or wine, but in fact the bread was perfectly paired with fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice. And when we looked up from this--

We were rewarded with this--

In my opinion fantastic atmosphere cannot make up for bad food, but it can make good food taste fantastic.

Later that evening we went looking for the positively-reviewed Paşazade Ottoman Cuisine. Located on a cozy, cobblestoned street lined with elegantly-restored historic buildings, we felt we had stumbled into the set of a romantic comedy (French Kiss, perhaps?). We started with a round of meze, the small appetizers traditionally served before the meal. There were 6 items on the plate, every one of them a new experience of flavor and texture, and all of them outstanding. Anyone sitting near us would have heard the sounds of happy chewing with the occasional interjection of "I usually don't even like eggplant!", "these green beans are like candy!" or "how did they get the zucchini to taste so good?" Parents, if your kids won't eat their vegetables, perhaps you should send them to Turkey.

Every morning our hotel put out a beautiful spread for us to eat on the terrace. All manners of fresh fruit, yogurt with homemade honey, half a dozen different cheeses and several kinds of bread awaited us.

And we got to eat it out here--

Feeling we had eaten a bit too healthily for vacation standards, on day 2 we stopped at an outdoor cafe called Konyali, on the Topkapi Palace grounds overlooking the Bosphorus, and ordered the most decadent thing we could find--

Thinking this was the most chocolatey eclaire I'd ever seen, I dug in with gusto and was startled to find it was actually topped with a chocolate-dipped banana! Istanbul was determined to keep us healthy.

Moving on to the Grand Bazaar, a shopkeeper helped us find a highly-recommended hole-in-the-wall called Aynan Dürüm, for a traditional Döner kebab, made from lavaš (tortilla-like bread) wrapped around meat sliced from a rotating spit and stuffed with tomatoes and parsley. Wrapped conveniently in a paper sleeve, it's a satisfying lunch on the go!

Worn out after completing all of our Christmas shopping in the Bazaar, and with the air turning a bit chilly, we were ready for comfort food. We found the Turkish equivalent at a restaurant located in the shadow of the Suleymaniye Mosque. They didn't have a menu, so you just pointed to whatever looked good from the pots bubbling behind the counter. Waiting for our food I noticed that all the locals around us were lapping up dishes of flat white-beans, so we ordered one of those as well. Of all the colorful food brought to our table, this was my favorite. The creamy beans stewed in spicy-sweet tomato base warmed me right down to my toes.

The next morning we ventured over the Galata Bridge to explore the modern side of the city. Before attempting the hilly streets of Beyoğlu, we stopped at a bakery for a mid-morning coffee break. We had been noticing bakeries everywhere with lovely display cases, so we could no longer resist.

We asked for baklava, and the man behind the counter smiled and quickly filled a plate with five different kinds, not really asking, or caring, if we wanted five different kinds. How could we ever eat them all?

Like that, I suppose-

We made it to Taksim Square right at lunch time, and stopped at Kizilkayalar, recently made world-famous by a feature on Anthony Bourdain's show, No Reservations. They serve up something I've never seen before and will be perfectly fine never having again: it's called the "wet burger," and it's pretty much exactly like it sounds. It's a hamburger patty that has been fried, put in a bun, basted in tomato sauce (bun and all), and then steamed in a box like this--

And this is what you get--

Supposedly this is the perfect food to eat after a wild night of drinking; fortunately the place is open 24-7.

That evening we went 180° the other direction in terms of food and ambience, to a restaurant called 360°, a yuppy-friendly establishment on the top floor of an apartment building and the kind of place you have to know about (I had read about it in the New York Times but actually finding it was pure luck). As the name suggests, solid floor-to-ceiling windows provide a lovely panoramic view of the city.

The food was decent, trendy fare with a bit of a Turkish twist, but nothing to get excited about. What was odd about this place was the decor, which reminded me a bit of senior prom, with sporadically hung disco balls inside and oversized plastic chairs dotting the terrace, all serving to compete with the view. The longer we sat the weirder the atmosphere became - they began projecting on two walls what must have been a Turkish version of Star Trek (the sound was muted), some of the light fixtures began to glow red, and a ticker started to run above the bar broadcasting the evening's drink concoctions like they were stock reports. We left at this point. Back home Sam looked up the place online and discovered that in the evenings the restaurant transforms into this--

Courtesy of 
Apparently we were watching the metamorphosis as we ate. This picture had escaped me when I read the article the first time, so luckily we escaped before it came to this.

Istanbul is lousy with simit-vendors, reminiscent of hot dog vendors in NYC. But somehow we managed not to have our first taste until our last day. Unfortunately, it did not live up to the hype we had built in our minds. Though it looked good, it tasted like a stale bagel. Hopefully this was just a fluke, but we'll have to wait until our next trip to Istanbul to confirm.

Our final day was all about the sea. We spent the day aboard a ferry sailing up and down the Bosphorus, and ate lunch at this quaint little village--

Having sea bass, probably the freshest fish I've ever had!

And that night we braved one of the fish sandwich restaurants lining the Bosphorus shore. See those colorfully-lit boats? They are grilling fish right there on the water, slapping it in a piece of bread and throwing it out to customers.

We weren't feeling quite that adventurous, so we settled on Balik-Ekmek (translated: "fish in bread"), a surprisingly clean, bright and modern establishment for being literally underneath the Galata Bridge. It was packed to the gills with locals (pardon the pun), and was either a family-run affair or an egregious violator of labor laws (the bus boys were about 10 years old and the barmaid maybe 15; Dad was at the grill, Mom was running the books, and Grandma seemed to be mopping the floor). They were serving the same fare as their counterparts outside - fish fillet sandwiches - but on plates and with napkins, a side of fries and a frosty beer.

And how did they taste? Well, they were fishy.

Thus ended our tour of Turkish cuisine, my overall impression being that Turks love to eat and they love their own food. What I mean is that we saw very few restaurants serving cuisine from other countries. In this way it differed heavily from other big cities we've visited. Turks seem to have specific tastes and find they can satisfy themselves best. I can relate. It's the same reason that, when in Abu Dhabi, we usually eat at home.