Saturday, August 28, 2010

A foodie in the UAE: #7

The hardest part about living overseas has been missing out on an entire year of my sister's life. We are two years apart in age and are at the same time complete opposites and exactly alike. We were always close growing up but as adults have become freakishly linked, despite the fact that we haven’t lived in the same city since we were both in high school, and have lived over a thousand miles apart most of the past 8 years. Through this distance we’ve managed to speak on the phone almost daily, take turns visiting each other’s homes, meet up for half a dozen sister weekends in New York City, and join each other with spouses on several vacations, so that we’ve consistently averaged 3-4 visits a year.

But this past year, my decision to live on the other side of the world combined with her owning a successful and growing salon in San Antonio made phone calls difficult and visits impossible. When we saw each other this summer it had been just shy of 12 months, a record which would explain the tearful scene we made in the lobby of the hotel in Austin, where we finally reunited.

My sister and I are close for many reasons, but one of our shared passions is food. Together or apart we are always in search of the best dining experience possible, whether this means cooking at home or going out of our way to visit a spot we saw reviewed on Food Network. Fortunately our husbands are into food as well and are more than happy to accompany us. Together the four of us have eaten some really stellar meals in San Antonio, Boston, New York, and New Orleans as well as more remote places like Missoula, Montana and Bar Harbor, Maine.

So when we all decided to fly to Chicago to visit our brother and his family this July, we started researching the plethora of dining possibilities. As we were making plans I stumbled upon the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for 2010, and it just so happened that the highest ranked restaurant in North America, #7 in the entire world, was right there in Chicago. This was a no-brainer. We had to try it.

Aptly named Alinea (Latin for "off the line"), it is off the beaten path in a somewhat nondescript neighborhood and is the kind of place you don’t just stumble upon but must plan (and save) for months in advance. You have to know it’s there and they have to know you’re coming. And if you’ve signed up for the Chef’s Tasting (really the only way to go), you must be willing to suspend control over your dining experience (literally, you have waiters introducing each of the 12 courses and instructing you exactly how to eat them). But if you are compliant, you and your taste buds will be introduced to combinations of flavor you never thought possible.

The restaurant is decorated in neutrals and minimalist furnishings with a noticeable absence of music and everyone speaking in hushed tones, slightly odd at first. But once the parade of dishes begins you're grateful not to have any distractions. The food is designed by chefs, who are equal parts artist and scientist, to engage and manipulate each of your senses and bring about a symphony of taste.

I’ve eaten in a lot of fine restaurants, but it’s rare that I want to stand up and applaud. I am so grateful to have shared one of my most memorable experiences of the past year with my sister. It helps to make up for lost time.

I can’t possibly do justice to each dish, but I’ve posted several pictures from our meal. You can read more about the inspiration and creative process on Alinea’s blog.

Down the rabbit-hole we went,
this other-worldy entrance was indicative of the Wonderland to come
(iberico [cured Spanish ham], sherry, honeydew) -
Kind of like a split-pea-soup sorbet ...except not gross
(curry, cashew, lime) -
A super-rich-create-your-own taco
(celery, Tabasco, oyster cracker) -
I spent 4 years in New England but never had clam chowder so good
(rhubarb, lilac, fennel) -
A three-layer "egg" starting with cold crab mousse (shown here) followed by warm bites of seafood in the middle, and finally a hot fennel soup on the bottom. Delightful.
(cold potato, black truffle, butter) -
This one came with specific instructions and, if done correctly, brought a mouthful of creamy, buttery heaven
TOURNEDO a la persane
(Australian Wagyu, tomatoes, stuffed pimentos, fried banana) -
Banana and steak? Who would've thought, but yum!
(lemon, pine nut, caramelized white chocolate) -
Dessert #1: Looked like pasta but tasted like lemon meringue
(hibiscus, vanilla bean, tapioca) -
Dessert #2: This one required one giant slurp to get the full effect
(coconut, menthol, hyssop) -
Dessert #3: chefs covered our table with a silicone cloth and proceeded to create this work of art in chocolate. We ate every last bite straight off the table.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A foodie in the UAE: party in the USA

This entry is dedicated to the solid 3 pounds I gained on vacation this summer. After reading this entry you’ll agree it should have been more.

A year abroad left me desperately craving American junk food – not fast food mind you (we actually have a McDonalds next door to our apartment), but junk food from the kind of independently-owned diners and dives you can only find on the back roads and boardwalks of America. During our 5-week vacation we were forced to sample a variety of dishes, as each US city brings a unique twist on quintessentially American fare. Here are some highlights—

Taos, New Mexico –
egg and sausage with green chili breakfast tacos and home fries (Taos Cow)

Austin, Texas –
club sandwich and green chili cheese fries (Shady Grove)

Charlottesville, Virginia –
Italian sub (Little John’s Deli)

Williamsburg, Virginia –
Southern breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, sausage, Virginia ham, grits and a biscuit! (Chickahominy House)

Virginia ham and cheddar sandwich (The Cheese Shop)

barbecued pulled pork and hushpuppies (Pierces Pitt)

Virginia Beach, Virginia –
hotdog and onion rings (Sea Salt)

And of course there are the meals we didn’t capture on camera – the quaint cheeseburger and strawberry shake on a sidewalk cafe in Chicago (M Burger), rustic blue corn enchiladas and hominy in Santa Fe (The Shed), decadent mac-n-cheese at Sunday brunch in Austin (Lambert's), Texas ribs in Lockhart, sausage Kolaches in West, cheesy, saucy, spicy Tex-Mex in Dallas (Matt's), and last but not least: pizza. We had it 6 times.

There are some things that just can’t be replicated, and American junk food is one of them. But lest you think I have lost my distinctive culinary taste, stay tuned for a recap of the best dining experience of my life, so far...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sophomore year

Coming back for year two was harder than I expected. Having enjoyed such a seamless re-entry to the US, I figured it would be true for the return, especially because this time we wouldn’t have to deal with all of the start-up activities (shopping for furniture, getting driver’s licenses, learning the cultural ropes, etc). But the reality is the UAE hit me like a (really hot) brick. The intensity of Ramadan, the frustrating habits of other drivers, the 4:30 am daily wake-up call, and, probably most pronounced, the sudden isolation after a summer surrounded by friends and family, was harder to accept this time around. Last year we arrived in the UAE with so much adrenaline that I hardly noticed these things, or if I did notice them I found them delightful in their novelty. Without that same sense of awe and wonderment this go around, I quickly slipped into a general malaise, being unproductive at work and wanting to spend my evenings in front of the TV. Seeing my general lack of interest in things, Sam keenly decided we needed to get out of the apartment and back into society.

Very late on Thursday night Sam and I drove deep into the Dubai desert to watch the Perseid meteor shower. One of the desert resort hotels was hosting an evening under the stars, inviting guests to lie on cushions scattered across the lawn and watch the celestial show. They had invited an astronomer to narrate and provided telescopes for people to take turns getting a closer view of the action. The air was warm but not stifling as in the city, and there was a palpable energy surrounding us as hundreds of people, of all ages and nationalities, Emiratis and expats, waited in anticipation to see that first shooting star, and cheering when they finally spotted one. Each successive meteor brought the same series of responses: First, “Oooh!” Then, scattered applause. Finally, laughter (which seems is the natural reaction of adults just caught shouting “Oooh!”).

I realize that people all over the world were watching this meteor shower, but something about this activity felt distinctly Arabian. Maybe it was that when we arrived, the parking attendant asked if were there for the “star-gazing,” a term I associate with the story of the wise men searching for the Christ child. Maybe it was the way we were all reclining on cushions, or that people were eating, drinking, and smoking in merriment, the Ramadan fast having been broken at sunset. I had the distinct understanding that this was a middle-eastern experience and that I was enjoying it despite my recent crankiness. I felt a bit more like myself, and more human as I shared in the collective, childlike delight at seeing streaks of fire burst across the sky.

Had we not had a long drive back to Abu Dhabi we probably would have stayed half the night, but we reluctantly dragged ourselves back to the car and began the journey back to the main freeway through dark, sandy back roads. It was well past midnight and I was tired but feeling relieved to be on this pseudo-adventure. And then, almost like the UAE was welcoming me back, we came upon a small herd of gazelles (the animals for which Abu Dhabi was named) in the road ahead. This was our first time to spot them in the wild, so slowing to a crawl we watched these graceful creatures head back into the sand and finally run off into the darkness. Okay, I get it. We’re back.

Admittedly did not take this photo (found it on TripAdvisor) - even if we had our camera at the time of sighting, it was too dark to capture.

Friday, August 13, 2010

What you don't know can hurt you

Demonstrators protesting an Islamic community center near Ground Zero
(Photo: Johnnie Utah)

While in the US this summer, a few people asked my thoughts on the proposal for a mosque to be built a few blocks from Ground Zero. I hadn't heard about the project so I followed it in the news throughout our trip and now back in the UAE have had the time to research the issue and formulate an opinion. Here is what I've learned --

This project, rather than involving simply the construction of a mosque, is better thought of as a community center complete with, yes, a mosque, but also a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, bookstore, performing arts center, and restaurant; an Islamic YMCA, if you will. In other words, it's meant to serve not only the Muslim needs of the neighborhood, but the neighborhood itself. As Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the organization's founder, put it, "Cordoba House will be a place for Muslims and non-Muslims alike to hang out and where young kids can be mentored because extremism is a big threat in our communities."

The organization responsible for its planning and construction goes by the name of the Cordoba Initiative, which is an intentional reference to a Spanish city renowned for its religious tolerance and intellectual advances under Muslim rule in the 10th-12th century. That this is the intended reference and not a surreptitious attempt to honor a time of Muslim rule in the West (as some demagogues have claimed) is quickly confirmed upon a visit to the organization's website where it states in bold font: "Improving Muslim-West Relations" (see for yourself: According to the Aug 4th post, it is apparent that the project has already worked to strengthen relations between Muslim and Jewish Americans.

As one would imagine, the proximity of the proposed mosque to Ground Zero has elicited, how can I put this delicately, "negative" reactions from Americans. Here's one, albeit extreme, example: "The monument would consist of a Mosque for the worship of the terrorists' monkey-god." --Mark Williams, chairman of the Tea Party Express. While most Americans have not reacted in such a hateful manner, a national Rasmussen reports poll found that 54% of adult Americans do not support a mosque being built near Ground Zero, the tragic site of a heinous crime carried out by individuals claiming to act in the name of Islam.

While the lack of support for the mosque is certainly understandable given the history of the site, I cannot help but feel that it is unfair to associate a fanatical fringe group with the rest of the Muslim population, 93% of whom, according to a Gallup poll conducted in 2008, condemn the 9/11 attacks. The most important question to ask here is WHY so many Americans feel this way. From the comments I have read given by those who oppose this project, most feel that the construction of a place of Muslim worship in such proximity to Ground Zero would be disrepectful toward the victims of 9/11 because this act of terrorism was perpetrated by Muslims.

So it seems that in the minds of many Americans, the faith claims and worldview of those building the Islamic community center are virtually identical with those responsible for 9/11. This tendency to possess such a monolithic view of Muslims stems from the fact that so few Americans know anything of substance about Islam or those who practice it. Why else would so many oppose this project carried out by American Muslims who believe that what happened at Ground Zero is anathema to their Islamic faith? And, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Fear always springs from ignorance." Unfortunately, Western media hasn't done the best job at presenting the multifarious dimensions of the Muslim world, instead focusing on what attracts more viewers -- violent acts related to either the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps the most significant thing I have learned since moving to Abu Dhabi is the extreme diversity of the Muslim world. In a geographical region which extends from North Africa to the South Pacific with a population of about 1 billion, could we expect anything else? In fact, there is no one "Muslim world" anymore than there is one "Christian world." The UAE, with its close proximity to Mecca and Medina, bedouin history, and harsh desert climate, interprets many facets of Islam differently than, let's say Lebanon, which borders the Mediterranean and has long been a cultural hub in the Middle East. Such differences might be akin to those, let's say, between Chilean Roman-Catholics with socialist leanings and robust capitalist Southern Baptists in the US.

Fear of the unknown is a powerful thing. It's also the most powerful weapon that terrorists wield. I can't help but imagine Osama bin Laden, wherever he may be, loving all of the controversy this mosque has stoked in the United States and using this vocal opposition as a recruiting tool saying, "See, they talk about religious freedom but really it's just a facade because deep down, they're utterly opposed to Islam in America." Supporting such a project being carried out by American Muslims, some of whom also lost loved ones on 9/11 and all of whom condemn it, is the very thing that extremist Muslims would not want. Such initiatives which seek to promote peace and understanding between religious communities are the very ones we should support. As a person of faith, I certainly do.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

...And we're back!

I’m happy to report successful completion of our first “repat leave” (the term for expats who return to their home country on extended vacation). We’ve been back in Abu Dhabi a week now, just long enough to get past the jet lag, unpack our suitcases and get back to work. Incidentally, today also marks the start of Ramadan.

In June, we looked to our coming vacation with much excitement and a bit of wariness, as it would be the first time home in nearly a year as well as the first time for both of us to travel for 5 straight weeks. Ours was an ambitious itinerary including 9 flights, at least 13 cities, and visits with about 43 people, which completely defies common expat wisdom which is simply not to do this. Each time I summarized our trip to my colleagues I was warned it would be frenzied and somewhat frustrating (after all, after a year of absence it is impossible to catch up with loved ones in just a few days, much less a few hours, as we had with some folks).

Yet, we forged ahead with our plan, our philosophy being to take it one day at a time and just accept the fact that we might feel a bit like a travelling circus, lugging our stuff from city to city, unpacking and re-packing, and giving the same “show” night after night to different crowds. But you know, we really didn’t feel this way. True, the trip was tiring, but it was so amazing to spend time with each member of our immediate families including all 7 of our nieces and nephews, plus a few cousins, my aunt, Sam’s grandmother, and about a dozen good friends. We’ve mentioned before that making true connections with people while in the UAE has been challenging, so this was a refreshing rain after a drought. We also had the opportunity to enjoy and explore so many parts of America, as varied as they are beautiful, including the mountains of New Mexico, the hill country of Texas, the architecture of Chicago, and the forests of Virginia. And to our great pleasure, we got to eat all of the foods that go along with it (I’ll blog more on this later).

One of the most commonly asked questions this summer was whether it felt strange for us to be back in the US, or in other words, whether we were experiencing reversed culture shock. Without going into all the theories as to why this might be, the simple answer was “no, not really.” It just felt like home.

With Sam's family on 4th of July in Taos Ski Village

White-water rafting down the Rio Grande

At the Rio Grande Gorge

Hiking Whealer Peak, the highest point in New Mexico

Visiting Sam's dad and brother in Texas - unveiling the model airplane that Sam built for his dad's birthday
Family haircuts at Lisa's salon in San Antonio

Hanging out with my nephews, Jason, Christian, and Cullen after chowing on some much-needed Tex-Mex!

Chicago by day

And by night

Shannon and niece, Jolie

Sam with nephew Brodie

Saying goodbye to brother Ryan after a perfect Chicago day

Our first real time alone came just a few days before the end of our vacation when we drove aound eastern Virginia. This picture is taken on an island off Jamestown. I took it because the path ahead of us looked so serene in comparison with the hustle and bustle of our journey so far and seemed symbolic to me, since we were about to leave the US and head back on our somewhat isolated path of living abroad.