Marble Splendour in Abu Dhabi

“Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun…” ~ Noel Coward

As I sit in London, in Holland Park under scattered clouds and mere wisps of blue sky, amidst all the lush flamboyance of summer foliage, it seems unlikely that barely a week ago I was wilting in 47’C in downtown Abu Dhabi.

IMG_0601There the rabid sun struck the sand with the intensity of strobe lighting, extrovert and forceful, determined to make an impression on innocent eyeballs that cowered behind tinted sunglasses. Here in England the sun is more demure, almost shy, tucking itself modestly behind cotton wool clouds, reticent about shrugging off a slight chill in the air, or making its presence felt with too much enthusiasm. Am I really on the same planet?

Last week I was barrelling down broad boulevards with an old friend in a shiny new car, past stately high rise office blocks, the sunlight reflected ostentatiously in acres of glass or glittering prettily off the sea, as we followed the beckoning minarets to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The tour started at 11am, the thermometer was rising by the minute, and there was no shade anywhere.

Ahead of us we could see this enormous marble structure glowing white as a beacon on the skyline, but the roads ducked and wove like knotted wool, one entrance wass blocked by road works, and the GPS was proving fractious in the heat. Eventually, like those childhood mazes, we found our way to the visitors carpark, and sat for one last, self-indulgent minute in the icy air-conditioning, gazing with awe upon the breath-taking splendour of the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates.

As we bravely ventured into the extreme heat of the day, we wrapped ourselves in cardigans and scarves, to avoid censure from the security guards. Abayahs were available for hire, but we had luckily remembered our own, lighter fabrics. Nonetheless, I had to scrabble to keep my headscarf in place,  wishing fervently that I had thought to bring an elastic, as my hair fought to stay under the confines of a light wool wrap. Eventually my friend swaddled my head as best she could and pinned the scarf in place with my sunglasses. I walked tentatively, partly in fear of the scarf unravelling and falling to the floor, partly in fear of breaking a sweat.

Conceived by the late president of the United Arab Emirates, His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the IMG_0595mosque named in his honour also contains his tomb, as he died in 2004, three years before the completion of his masterpiece.  Construction began in 1996 and would not finish until 2007, nonetheless a monumental achievement for such a vast complex that covers an area of thirty-odd acres and can accommodate up to 40,000 people.

Apparently Sheikh Zayed’s dream was to establish a structure that would combine the cultural diversity of the Islamic world with the best of historical and modern art and architecture, and his mosque is the realization of that dream: a fusion of Arab, Persian, Mughal and Moorish architecture. The domes, milky, Rubenesque, flawless are inspired by the Mughal architecture of the Taj Mahal, the keyhole archways are Moorish, the slim and graceful minarets pointing to the moon are Arabic.

The architects have borrowed some of the world’s best architectural designs and imported some of the world’s best products to create this ethereal mosque and monument to Islam.

Wandering through the airy colonnades, we admired the sleek pillars inlaid with semi- precious jewels such as mother-of-pearl, agate, lapis lazuli, jasper and amethyst, cut into simple but exquisite designs of long-stemmed, individual flowers. Gilded date palms blossomed at the top of the pillars, and were reflected in the pools around the perimeter.

We walked towards Sheikh Zayed’s tomb, where we could hear the prayers that continue to be said for his soul, eleven years after his death, twenty four hours a day. The memory of Sheikh Zayed is obviously still much loved in the UAE. Headshots have been mounted on huge billboards all over the city and it seems as if every building and street is named after him.

This brilliant and liberal Muslim prince, raised amongst Bedouin tribesmen, was responsible for forming the United IMG_0596Arab Emirates in 1971 from the seven Trucial States, a collection of sheikhdoms on Persian Gulf. He then stood as its first President for 33 years, until his death at the age of eighty four. With the new country sitting on huge oil reserves, Sheikh Zayid had enormous wealth at his disposable with which to raise the cities of the UAE out of desert sands. He also used the country’s enormous oil revenues to build hospitals, schools and universities and, of course, this sumptuous mosque, the third largest mosque in the world, only belittled by Mecca, and Madina in Saudi Arabia.

Crossing the vast marble square, we shed our shoes obediently in front of the mile high doors to the mosque. Revered as a symbol of purity and piety by the Sheikh, much of this mountain of white marble was sourced from Italy and Greece. Somehow the white marble remained cool underfoot, despite the molten sun beating down on it – but beware the darker marble flowers which can burn through the soles of your feet. these had us leaping awkwardly from foot to foot, as if on hot coals.

Inside, the air was cool, and we all breathed out audibly with relief.  Wandering through the foyer into the main prayer hall, our eyes were drawn upwards to the concave roof beneath the largest of 82 domes. There swung a gobsmackingly grandiose chandelier made in Germany from Swarovski crystal, plated gold and garish Venetian glass from Murano, particularly surprising amongt the subtle and elegant simplicity of the rest of the architecture and artistry that embellishes this imposing, rather patrician structure.

The main hall can accommodate over 7,000 worshippers, while two smaller prayer halls accommodate 1,500 women and 1,500 elderly respectively. Literally acres of carpet (over 60,000 square feet) cover the floor of the main prayer hall. The carpet was designed by Iranian artist Ali Khaliqi and handwoven in Iran by a team of 1200 artisans, who took two years to complete it. The finished piece weighs thirty five tons, and had to be delivered in several pieces, arriving on two airplanes, and accompanied by five hundred workers who travelled with it, to sew it back together.

Our guide explained that once inside the mosque there is no hierarchy beyond ‘first come first serve.’ Thus, whoever arrives early earns himself a IMG_0615front row position, close to the Imam and the carved sandalwood menbar, or pulpit, inlaid with mother-of-pearl. On the wall behind the menbar, the ninety nine qualities or attributes of God (Allah) are featured on the Qibla or direction wall in traditional Kufic calligraphy.

Our cultural tour guide was a friendly, cheerful young man, very open and happy to impart general information about Islamic beliefs. He responded particularly patiently to the avid young English schoolboy who questioned him closely about Islam, and Muslim beliefs.

Our guide explained that Ramadan – due to begin the following day – is a time of spiritual reflection, self-improvement, self-denial through fasting, and the opportunity to focus on Allah – which sounded surprisingly similar to the Christian observance of Lent. Our young interrogator promptly asked if they shouldn’t be doing that every day, anyway and completely floored our genial guide, who eventually smiled and agreed, but added that this was a special time in the year to really concentrate on God and goodness.

As we returned back to the dazzling white light of the forecourt, we reflected quietly on everything we had learned. I would definitely go back for another visit, especially as our tour guide proudly provided so many amazing details that it is embarrassing to admit how many I have already forgotten. But next time I will go at twilight, rather than in the middle of the day, at the hottest time of the year. Mad dogs and Englishmen indeed!


Posted in Local Culture, Travel | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Kitchen Table

rotate1_rubberwood_treesTwenty years ago we bought a kitchen table. We bought it in Kuala Lumpur, as our family expanded to five, and it is made from the local rubberwood. Rubberwood is, according to Wikipedia, high quality, hardwood timber with a tight grain and a soft, honey colour. Despite its name, rubberwood does not bounce, but it is durable, strong, and smooth, and unlikely to warp or crack. It is also ecologically sustainable, as the timber is only recycled after a long career producing latex, when it will be felled for furniture and a new tree replanted in its place. It is not fancy, but it has a warmth of character that always makes me want to stroke it as I walk past.

Our kitchen table has travelled all over the world with us. It has been repainted, revarnished, battered and bruised, even chewed by one small teething puppy, and the scars are there for all to see. It has lived in dining rooms and kitchens, studies and bedrooms; the most versatile piece of furniture we have ever owned. Sadly, we have broken or mislaid all the original chairs, but while other tables have come and gone – larger, longer, rounder – this original family table is still with us, and it seems we cannot let it go. We are emotionally attached to it. It symbolizes family. It symbolizes home.

For some, home is the town where they were born, a house they have lived in all their lives, somewhere they feel they belong.  As gypsies, we cannot rely on bricks and mortar to define a home, so home is wherever two or more are gathered together around the table, be it in Prague or Peru, Kuala Lumpur or Kathmandu, Townsville or Timbuktu. It may be a moveable feast, but it is on a steady, reliable table with tough roots.

Sharing a table, sharing food, is a human instinct. My one constant role as an adult has been providing meals for our family and friends. I like to cook, but I love to gather people around our table to eat. It is a trait I inherited from my mother, who, even with four children to feed, was incorrigibly hospitable and always happy to squeeze in a few extras for dinner.

Sociologists worry that the concept of the family meal is dying out thanks to a number of modern alterations to the social fabric of our lives: the pace of life; working mums; TV dinners; divorce, or the dispersion of the extended family that has create familial Diasporas across continents and time zones. Fifteen years ago, one food writer whined that “the family meal is dying on its sofas. All those end-of-day catch-ups; all that witty banter, gone… Between them, television and convenience foods seem to have brought the family to its knees.”

In recent years, computers and mobile phones have replaced the TV as the devil incarnate, but the inference is that younger generations have been set adrift, no longer anchored to traditional family values, but shaped by social media, microwave meals and fast food. Conservatives, nostalgic for a past era – or a Victorian ideal – of Sunday roasts and family feasts bemoan the dwindling cooking skills and kitchen-less homes that are eating away at the heart of our society. Remember Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ and those grim family encounters around the TV with separate tables, microwave meals, dim lighting and no conversation? Apparently that joyless little scenario is today’s stereotype. While there is little evidence to support these speculations, writers continue to raise the spectre of a hemorrhaging family unit; to idolize the family mealtime as a cornerstone of family viability.

I agree, times have changed. What we eat, where we eat it, when we eat and with whom we eat it may have altered over the last half century, but the reasons we like to eat together have never actually disappeared. To paraphrase food historian Bob Ashley, good food and good conversation still matter. Solitary grazing is depressing. People enjoy eating together. It is a basic human instinct, a cultural tradition, and a symbol of friendship and family life. “Two, four, six, eight, dig in don’t wait. And first one finished helps his neighbor!”

At the core of human relationships is the concept of connecting people to each other and to their culture and community. And the kitchen table can still provide that medium for social interaction, social renewal and spiritual growth; that place to teach our children social values such as sharing, respect, etiquette and familial responsibility; that lectern from whence to promote stability, security and solidarity, cementing the family unit and teaching our kids how to look after themselves.

Living in the Philippines has made me acutely aware of these concepts. Wherever two or more are gathered together, there is food and community. If it is not time for a specific meal, there is merienda, the Filipino version of afternoon tea or morning coffee that simply fills a gap between breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner. The Spaniards introduced the term to the Philippines four hundred years ago, and it was the perfect gift to a nation who loves to graze.

renoirAt lunchtime in the city, group gatherings at local cafés and restaurants are the norm, be it a flock of friends, a whoop of work mates or a gaggle of giggling students. Many of my Filipino friends are still be expected to spend Sundays with parents and grandparents, siblings and cousins, uncles and aunts. And while many of us will recognize the modern mall dining scenario where an extended family lunch means everyone, from lolo (grandfather) to toddler to yaya (nursery maid), seems to be glued to a screen, the point is, they have made the time to be together. Eating alone is a totally foreign concept in the Philippines, where it seems every meal looks like this Renoir painting.

For me, too, family meals are important. My One & Only grew up in a Mediterranean culture very similar to the Philippines, full of food and family, and we have always tried to maintain the tradition of eating dinner together at the end of the day. One of my favourite movies is My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which perfectly illustrates those cultures who seem to be forever focused on the next meal, and Toula describes how “Greeks marry Greeks to breed more Greeks, to be loud breeding Greek eaters.” And let’s face it, eating is so much more entertaining with the clan, at a table laden with all those lovely concepts like conviviality, community, conversation and sharing, not to mention lashings of good food. It is the best of all possible worlds.

Since the kids left home, we have stored our Camelotian round table in the spare room and we are back at the old kitchen table. It’s a bit scuffed, and the chairs don’t match, but we can squeeze six adults around it if you don’t mind knocking elbows occasionally, and it can be used for writing or painting or ironing when it is not required for eating: a Jack of all trades, and the bones of family life. Hardwearing and homely, I hope it sustains its reputation as the focal point of family meals for many years to come.

* With thanks to Google Images for the pictures.

Posted in Lifestyle, Local Culture, Philippines | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Stop and Smell the Flowers

“You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry, don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.”  ~ Walter Hagen

Maya Maya (1)It has been unbelievably hot in Manila this past month or more. Every day for weeks all we can talk about is the heat, and Facebook has been choc-a-block with weather reports about record breaking temperatures. Tempers are fraying and it is obvious that the whole population is wilting. So we were delighted to get out of the city last weekend and trek down to the coast to stay with friends in their lovely little corner of Nasugbu, Batangas amongst the hardwood narra trees and the flirty, fitful sea breezes.

We left early on Saturday morning to maximize the weekend and drove up to Tagaytay and down the other side. All along the way we exclaimed at the glorious Flame trees that have acquired nicknames around the globe like ‘Phoenix Tale,’ ‘Flamboyant’ or ‘Peacock’ with their deep orange, sunset-coloured flowers and feather-like leaves that brighten the lush, tropical landscape and provide a parasol shade.

But beneath their branches, the hilltops were crying out for rain, the earth bare and dry, reminiscent of my own home state in summer, and dotted with grazing goats and their soft, sweet, hazel-coloured kids jumping up and down off the low stone walls.

As we descended to the sea, lush, vibrant colour returned to the landscape.

The road through Maya Maya winds down steeply to the water, somewhere between Tali beach and Terrazas de Punto Fuego. (Mayamaya is a Filipino fish, known elsewhere as snapper; a rare gem even here in a similar shade of sunset blood-orange to the flame trees.)

As we drove down the almost perpendicular road, we passed many houses clinging tenaciously to an often vertical Maya Maya (7)hillside, or balancing precariously on wooden or concrete stilts, and boasting breath-taking views from roof top terraces.  We were staying in a pretty, old-fashioned wooden beach house with a wide balcony and a newly created roof deck, in the middle of a green and shady garden, with glimpses of the sea through a curtain of leaves.

I love this time of year. Despite the suffocating heat and humidity, April and May are the most colourful months in the Philippines, and Maya Maya was boasting a veritable bouquet of bright and beautiful flowers. White frangipani with their egg-yolk yellow centres lay thick amongst the deep green leaves bursting forth from those awkward, knobbly branches, their dense, cloying scent drifting sluggishly past our noses. Around the corner, we found dark pink frangipani flowers with that now fashionably discordant orange core. The bougainvillea was flourishing, scrambling over every fence and garden wall like a paint palette: hot pink and pastel pink, orange and peach, red, pale yellow and white, magenta and even lilac  flowers. The brazen hibiscus poked out its long triffid-tongue, showing off its variety like a peacock: scarlet, apricot, pink and purple, its centre touched with a contrasting colour that spread like water colours up the almost transparent trumpet of papery petals, calling seductively to bees and birds and butterflies.

The air was heavy with humidity but unblemished by pollution, and full of the chirps and chirrups of nature: birds, lizards, crickets, bats blending harmoniously into the background or suddenly soaring into a deafening crescendo.

At the base of the hill was an old and rather jaded resort consisting of a handful of thatched cottages, a small pool, an Maya Maya (11)open-air restaurant, deserted and decaying gently around a run-down marina, yet obviously maintained by an invisible hand that swept up the leaves from the pool and placed flower arrangements on the centre of the tables. A large billboard announced that  soon it will all be demolished and replaced by a new, more polished holiday spot, with a gentrified marina, a landscaped garden and a small sandy cove. And yet, despite its faded glory and slowly deteriorating facade, the locals, who have visited here every holiday and long-weekend for decades, mourn the passing of this private wilderness beside the sea.

We meandered aimlessly up and up the fractured road to the lookout, or wandered drowsily across the dry and dusty park to clamber down to the rocky cove and wallow and bob in heavily salted waves. Or we lounged listlessly beneath the trees with beer and chips and chatter, as the clouds lit up with fierce and feisty splashes of lightening. Pushing the pause button on a busy life to relax; taking time out to appreciate the beauty of life; stopping to smell and enjoy the flowers.

Posted in Lifestyle, Philippines | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thunder Storms

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks! ~ William Shakespeare, King Lear

rainThe rainy season is almost upon us. Tonight the thunder and lightning pre-empted the rain by a good hour, performing ostentatiously above Makati like a grumbling, mumbling old man, interspersed with flashes of bright white temper, totally drowning out the endless muttering growl of the traffic on EDSA. Yet as I sat on the balcony after sunset, the sky was almost clear of clouds, the storm stalking up behind us like a panther, where I could only catch the claw-flick of lightening out of the corner of my eye.

Then suddenly, when the oppressive heat threatened to submerge the whole city under its duffle coat weight of humidity, the sky broke open and the rain came down in sheets, pulling a net curtain across the horizon, and veiling the cactus-spiked skyline of the Fort from view.

I love a roaring, pouring stroppy, tropical storm. I grew up in ‘the driest state in the driest inhabited continent in the world.’ In summer, when hoses were banned and bushfire warnings reached their peak, we would collect buckets of used washing water to rehydrate Mum’s parched garden. So the sheer, excessive, self-indulgence of a tropical downpour leaves me breathless and wide-eyed with excitement. It’s a better spectacle than New Year Fireworks.

In Bangkok, the rainy season delivered a deluge of rain every afternoon at 3pm on the dot. We could set our clocks by it, and would settle ourselves out on the balcony to watch the clouds empty themselves vigorously over the city, flooding the drains and the sois with murky, rubbish-strewn storm-water, stopping the traffic in its tracks, ambushing the pavements and washing away the grime of a modern Asian city.

In Malaysia, we had a ground floor flat, and I remember on one occasion gathering up a bundle of small children andlightening storm opening wide the sliding doors to watch the show, while trying to convince two nervous little neighbours that there was nothing to be scared of, it was only rain, until we were all shrieking with delight as the wild and boisterous clouds lashed rain across our faces and the sitting room floor, while the thunder cheered enthusiastically from the wings. The aftermath was cool and fresh, the acrid, murky air clearing for a few hours of much-needed relief.

In England we exchanged steamy, torrential downpours for damp and dreary mizzle: a mist of rain, cold and persistent
that soaked through our hair and our clothes, chilling skin and skulls with impressive powers of impregnation for something so feathery and insubstantially fine. Unpleasant and unwelcome, it nonetheless gave birth to the glorious spring woodlands bursting with bluebells and primroses, lime green leaf tips and lush grass.

I remember the weeks after we first landed in Sydney, innocent and unsuspecting that Australia could provide other than arid, ochre deserts and scorched earth. In winter, the skies of this sub-tropical city held more water than I could ever have imagined possible. Not just an hour long, daily deluge, but a constant cataract, crashing down on the roof like a liquid battering ram for days, until gutters blocked up and overflowed, overwhelmed by the onslaught of floodwater and debris. Steep drives turned into rivers, and trees were swept into the road, uprooted by the merciless torrent of rain.

Here in Manila the rain is something equally awesome, combining torrential downpour with suffocating tropical heat. From our eerie, safe and secure above the city streets, it is spectacular. And yet, doubtless it won’t be long before we receive the first SOS of the rainy season, the start of an endless torrent of emails asking for aid for the thousands of citizens rendered homeless by typhoon and flood, as reservoir and river levels rise and fill the streets and houses where infrastructure is so inexcusably far beyond efficient as to be rendered useless.

floodwater.2And we will fill our shopping trolleys with rice and cans to be delivered to the halls and schools serving as temporary shelter until the water levels drop and the ravaged slums and suburbs can be dried out and scrubbed back into some semblance of habitability.

Poets make the rain sound affectionate and attractive, a kiss of nature, a welcome precursor to the rainbow. Tell that to the victims of an obstreperous and obdurate typhoon, that perseverates like water torture on the heads and homes of the unfilial masses…

And yet somehow there is a wild and furious beauty to a summer storm that I cannot resist. It is hypnotic in its determination to drown the earth, and a rough reminder that the battle between Man and Nature is one we may never win.

*With thanks to Google Images for sharing its storm-torn shots for this piece.

Posted in Lifestyle, Philippines | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Birthday Surprise

Marwell2An unexpected shake-up of carefully choreographed plans found me spending my birthday, not in the south of France with a good friend, but in the country lanes of Hampshire with our older son, on the rim of the South Downs National Park. I was aiming for Winchester, en route to the New Forest, but after trawling the internet for last minute options, we ended up a few of miles out of town, amongst woodland and wintry fields and strangely, most unexpectedly, beside a zoo.

One of the “bespoke” series of hotels that claim never to be “off the peg” or “run of the mill,” the Marwell is certainly an unusual hotel, sitting amongst the trees beside Marwell Wildlife conservation zoo. Built in 1989, it was designed by an architect who had been inspired by a colonial safari lodge “Treetops” in Africa. The rooms are housed in four lodges connected by glassed-in breezeways, and while we may not have been quite amongst the treetops, we were certainly looking out at a stand of deciduous trees and down upon bright clusters of primroses peeking out from under the leafy ground cover. Inside, our room was perfectly comfortable, although the bathroom was a little ‘tired’ (A little sprucing and spring cleaning might be overdue.)

However, jetlagged and dusty, we arrived after lunch, dumped our bags, and decided on a long walk while the daylight lasted, not too bothered by the lack of bathroom allure. Tramping up hill and down dale, briefly lost, then found again, we returned in the dark with muddy shoes and a hearty appetite, but no energy left for our original idea of heading into town to hunt for food. Luckily the Marwell had an attractive dining room and a promising menu full of locally sourced ingredients that I had checked out earlier, just in case.

The dining room was beautiful in daylight, with huge windows and a high, oak-beamed ceiling. Light, airy and spacious, it had become a little frosty on that early Spring evening, so we simply kept our jackets on, as the menu looked as if it might be worth flirting with the chill factor.

Our waitress was a joy. Intelligent and well-informed about the food she was serving, she dealt with our requests in a marwell1capable and friendly manner. We found ourselves at a small table beside the window and – gratefully – beside a low oil heater. The menu was a short set menu, for which we were grateful as neither of us felt up to difficult and lengthy decision-making. Executive chef Phil Yeomans described his menu as ‘English cooking with a modern twist.’ Simple, but interesting, there was definitely a recognizable lean towards British comfort food, albeit with a soupçon more sophistication than your average pub menu.

Shortly after sitting down we were presented with a variety of freshly made rolls. All good, our personal favourite was a neat little number flavoured with sun dried tomatoes. Moments later an amuse bouche arrived: an espresso cup of onion espuma.  Espuma is the Spanish word for foam or froth (think cappuccino, zabaglione or even whipped cream) and this onion espuma was lightly flavoured, warming and, of course, frothy. Espuma has become a firm favourite with trendy restaurants who want to emulate the popular molecular gastronomy or deconstruction techniques favoured by the likes of Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal. Although it was no longer the surprise Blumenthal was out to achieve, it was delicate, delicious and wonderfully warming.

My appetizer deserves only praise. When living in Sydney, we always judged a restaurant on the state of the scallops, and the Marwell passed with flying colours. I would happily have ordered a second round, as my usual anguish with scallops is that no restaurant ever serves more than a mere morsel of these dulcet dainties. (Anyone remember buckets of prawns?) Simply presented, lightly grilled with a delicate sauce, these little wafers of delight were perfectly cooked and slipped down with effortless grace. My son’s pumpkin ravioli was equally well received: a triumph of perfectly cooked fresh pasta filled with a soft pillow of pumpkin.

I am, however, getting a little tired of chefs who provoke me by insisting I eat rare lamb. I love raw fish, and I am happy with rare beef, but I like my lamb well cooked, even a little crisped at the edges, and definitely no bleating. To me, undercooked lamb lacks flavour and texture, and when I ask for medium to well-done, I really wish they wouldn’t assume I am ignorant and serve it rare to almost medium. It might be the fashion at the moment, but it’s not to my taste. Unfortunately for our kind and understanding waitress, it was the third time this had happened to me in as many weeks, so yes, I did risk the wrath of the chef and sent it back to the kitchen for further discussion with the grill.

On the other hand, my son’s pork was a huge success, and it is safe to say not a squeak was left on his plate.

Marwell3Filled almost to overflowing, we were not particularly interested in dessert, but our waitress insisted we sample the honeycomb, which was apparently handmade from the honey of local bees – a peculiar claim, as honeycomb is generally made from golden syrup, bicarbonate of soda and lots of sugar. But I was too tired to think of that until later, so I didn’t query it. And who knows? Maybe this was a special recipe. Anyway it led to a long, cosy discussion about her upcoming travels in Australia, so we nibbled and chatted on in an almost empty dining room until other waiters started to clear the table for breakfast and our pillows called.

PS: If you are interested in the zoo, check out the website. We didn’t make it next door this time, but with a carful of smaller kids than mine, I suspect it would be well worth a visit.

*With thanks to Google Images, coz we were talking too much to remember the camera!


Posted in England, Food & Wine | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Purple Yam Comes Home

Purple Yam (52)I first came across Amy Besa in her beautiful coffee table cook book, Memories of Philippine Kitchens. A chance meeting at Enderun, a few emails, and I finally introduced myself properly at a Christmas Fair in New York, where she and her husband Chef Romy Dorotan were showcasing a selection of interesting dishes from their Brooklyn based Filipino restaurant ‘Purple Yam’.

Last weekend we drove down to Manila Bay to see her latest venture, the Malate-based version of Purple Yam. Located in the original Besa family home at 603 Julio Nakpil, down a mind-boggling maze of back streets, it was almost the only house left in a street full of little supermarkets and sari sari stores. “We never abandoned the house,” Amy stated, as we assembled in the snug, upstairs dining room, once her mother’s bedroom. Built in 1949 by architect and artist Enrique Ruiz, it has been beautifully renovated and restored by Lara Fernandez-Barrios and the kitchen expanded into Amy’s own childhood bedroom. The original floor boards were subsequently recycled into attractive side tables.

We had arrived in time for a late brunch. The long dining table – a solid slab of wood (Molave) from Bacolod, Negros Occidental where Amy bought it twenty years ago as an antique piece – had been set for six under a stunning capiz chandelier. The menu, freshly printed, lay on the table to be studied at leisure, later. Meanwhile we heard much about Amy’s family history, the furniture, portraits and paintings that fill the house. Her baptismal godfather and National Artist of the Philippines, had long ago presented the family with a series of paintings, some of which still remain, and take pride of place in the dining rooms.

After a subtle hint from my hungry son, we brought an end to Amy’s fascinating stories and headed in to eat. It felt like an intimate family lunch, as we arranged ourselves in our private dining room. The only other customers – a table of four – were seated next door.

Purple Yam (51)Our waiters had already handed out glasses of refreshing homemade ginger beer as we sat down to a fresh, colourful palette of spinach salad, chaperoned by a variety of fruits and two wafer-thin slices of king oyster mushrooms, grilled and smoky and oh-so-delicious that I was tempted to ask for more please, like Oliver Twist. The salad was finished off with a light, bright pomegranate dressing. The waiter passed behind us with a solid chunk of salt from Amy’s ancestral land in Botolan, Zambales, to be grated over the top of our food like parmesan.

Next, two platters of grilled panini arrived, which we quickly decided would be much easier to eat in our hands, as the ciabatta was toasted and crunchy and likely to fly across the table and land in laps other than our own if we used cutlery. The ciabatta has been sourced from local bakery “Staple & Perk” and is quite the best any of us have eaten in Manila. Amy expressed her pride in its natural ingredients and lack of additives.

There were two types of these tasty sandwiches with which to indulge our taste buds. The first was filled with beef tapa, that favourite Filipino breakfast meat of salted, dried beef, which seemed to have been barbecued, going on the wonderful aroma of slightly charred meat arising from the platter. It had been topped with Asiago, a locally made version of a pungent Italian cheese. The second type consisted of pork tocino – again, a much favoured local breakfast dish of cured pork. The cheese was also local, made in the style of a southern Italian variety, Cacciocavallo, a close cousin to Provolone. Both panini had then been seasoned with pickled sugar beets and carrots, to which we were invited to add a hot and tangy salsa of tomato, chilli, green mango and singkama, or Mexican yam. The silence was noisy as we all tucked in.

Purple Yam (44)The following dish was also finger food: lashings of crab claws, prawns and clams totally covered the dark red rice beneath – heirloom varieties of nutty balatinao and lasbakan from the north-western Luzon province of Benguet. This had been cooked pilaf-style with capsicum, and coconut milk, shitake mushrooms and sitao (long beans). Accompanied by a sharp but smooth citrus and butter sawsawan poured liberally over the seafood, we were soon left with only a midden of shells in the centre of the table, and another of used cocktail napkins.

Then it was ‘help-yourself’ to the Halo Halo bar. The uninitiated in our group were wary, but I can say, quite candidly, that this was the best halo halo I have ever experienced. Starting with a range of toppings as wide as any to be found at Smuckers, we had a quick lesson from Pastry chef, Pat, before creating our own. Actually, I took the sample, with everything in it apart from the kitchen sink. This included: a strawberry compote from Baguio; those delightfully crunchy, delightfully named pinipigs or toasted rice grains; a jackfruit jam, and of course, the ubiquitous, immodest ube, or purple yam. Buried beneath an avalanche of shaving ice, and drowned with a splash of creamy caribou milk, my halo halo extraordinaire was finally crowned in an unusual choice of homemade ice-creams: cassia (cinnamon) or sarsi (labelled ‘root beer’); and pandan. The resulting blend of flavours and textures was delicately delicious.

We completed the feast with a large mug of lusty coffee: an organic Arabica from Mount Atok in Benguet.Purple Yam (5)

Much has been done to support local producers at Purple Yam, as we saw from the variety of regional ingredients used to create a truly Filipino flavoured menu with a gentle twist, by a truly hospitable Filipina hostess. Amy tells me that they do change certain aspects of the menus regularly depending on the availability of seafood, organic poultry and local produce. And they are also happy to tailor menus depending on the guests. She also says that as they have a lot of repeat customers, they will change items on the menu so that guests can taste different dishes. So we will certainly visit again, to see what else may be on offer, and to further explore this interesting take on Philippine cuisine.

*With thanks to my One & Only for his photographs.

Posted in Food & Wine, Philippines | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Goose Station: Reinventing Philippine Cuisine

“Of all our senses, taste, such as Nature has created it, remains the one which…gives us the maximum of delight.”  ~ Brillat-Savarin

IMG_2464Last month I had the joy of meeting Rob & Sunshine Pengson at Madrid Fusion Manila (MFM). Rob’s presentation about his role in developing Philippine cuisine and the innovative, ingenious, inspiration behind their showcase Rizal menu was utterly beguiling. Translating cultural narrative into food? I realized that a visit to The Goose Station was long overdue.

The Goose Station was established in the Fort almost as soon as Bonifacio Global City began developing in 2009 (a  new city for a new cuisine?),  the name a satisfying play on ‘degustation.’  At that time, the neighbourhood was largely open grassland. Today the area is swaddled in netting and scaffolding as new buildings rise up almost daily. With ever-changing landmarks, it took a couple of laps before we unexpectedly rounded a corner and spotted the distinctive Goose Station sign with relief. Once inside, we were instantly impressed by the décor. Elegantly intimate, there is plenty of dark wood, a barn-like ceiling of raw beams art and a huge mirror to aggrandize the diminutive dining room. We were taken to a table right in front of the kitchen. This is open to watching diners through a long, narrow serving hatch, framed by attractive wooden shelving stacked haphazardly with a variety of coffee table cook books and ornamental geese. (One The Goose Station (18)
looked more like a penguin, but hey ho, he was friendly enough to pose on our table for photos.) We were comfortable, relaxed, and well looked after by a professional and unobtrusive team of waiters. The scene was set.

When the Goose Station first opened, the menu leaned heavily towards French cuisine. Today, the Pengsons theme is “anything goes”: a cosmopolitan kitchen influenced by tastes and techniques from China, Japan and the Philippines, France, Italy and Spain and even Australia. Unfortunately they are no longer featuring the showcase Rizal menu Rob described so bewitchingly at MFM. Nonetheless, by the time our friends arrived through Friday night traffic, we had delved deeply into the new menu, and were wondering where to begin on a menu over-flowing with tantalizing dishes.

I was sorely tempted by the scallops on the à la carte menu, but Rob kindly let us tweak the tasting menu a tiny bit and there was general delight with everything that arrived on the table. I am a natural grazer, so dining on a banquet of canapés suited me down to the ground. Typically hobbit-sized, small tasting serves never seem enough, yet eight dishes later, we came away amply satisfied. We also found that everyone simultaneously pressed the pause button on the conversation, to ensure that we were truly focused on the food – exactly as it should be when ‘degustation’ means to taste with relish, to savour. Above all, the whole experience was really good fun. So would you like to follow me vicariously through the menu? I promise it will be worth it.

The Goose Station (6)Our first amuse bouche was literally a mouthful: foie gras mousse served on unagi toast and topped with a wafer thin slice of apple.  Unagi is Japanese for freshwater eel. A common ingredient in Japanese cooking, Pengson used it to flavour the spongy, lightly toasted bread.  With an added raindrop of seaweed oil, the delicate flavours of salt and sea contrasted merrily with the rich earthiness of the goose liver.

The second dish could equally well have served as dessert. The generous serve of crab and caviar parfait arrived in a glass dish settled on a bed of grey pebbles. Thick and velvety as pannacotta, and just as smooth, it was interwoven with the subtle flavours of white asparagus, sea urchin – the foie gras of the Philippines – and yuzu, a sour, yellow citrus fruit like a small, wrinkled grapefruit, second cousin to the kaffir lime, visiting from East Asia. The crab meat topping was so fresh it could have walked out of the waves and onto our plates. The sea urchin, of which I have always been rather wary, tonight found a new admirer.

The next to arrive at the feast was a smoky oyster tempura served in a beautiful shallow shell, like a pearl, and topped with a maple-bacon marmalade. I am fascinated by this north American product, notorious in the Philippines now, and happy to be blended into cupcakes, swirled through ice-cream, poured on pancakes or served with fried eggs. The tempura batter was unexpectedly dark and heavy – we were reminded more of Indian samosas than light, crunchy Japanese tempura – but enjoyed it nonetheless, the batter providing a gentle crunch to accompany the soft, warm,
The Goose Station (15)moist oyster.

The deconstructed burrata salad that followed was both colourful and entertaining. The prima donna of this dish was, of course, the burrata, a fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream, unusually soft and smooth, almost a curd. Like Carmen Miranda, it was bedecked in cherry tomatoes, the most beautifully ripe and luscious strawberries orange and walnuts, with a feathery spray of bright purple sorrel flower. Like a paint palette, the side of the deep black bowl was smeared with a bloody streak of beetroot gel, through which I ran a spoonful of burrata to delightful effect.

Our solitary but jumbo-sized scallop came in one of those roughly attractive Pinatubo pottery bowls, glazed with volcanic ash. Sweet potato and an apple and pear coleslaw added sweet and tart to the firm, ever-so-slightly salty scallop, which was large enough to share out in nibble-sized pieces.

On a square, matt-black slate tile lay a soft, round tortilla, on which sunbathed three squares of fried pork belly, seasoned with cilantro, hoisin sauce and cucumber: a moreish Filipino version of the popular Peking duck pancakes.
The Goose Station (17)Wrapped up, it was easily devoured in three mouthfuls, comfort food at its finest.

Our final savoury dish was a simple but truly cosmopolitan combination of English mash, Aussie-grown Japanese-style wagyu beef and a sprinkling of dehydrated caviar powder (looking like pepper but tasting salty), a kind donation from one of the Spanish chefs who dropped in last week for MFM.  Perfectly cooked in a bag, then grilled, our knives cut through the thick chunks of beef as if they were butter, and the meat was tender as the night.

Let’s have a break before dessert, and have a quick glance at the backdrop to this captivating menu. In the nineteenth century, Georges Auguste Escoffier took that sophisticated, somewhat pretentious French cuisine. He simplified its techniques, modernized its traditions and made it accessible to the world. Rob and Sunshine Pengson have taken a simple, home-based comfort-food cooking style into the realms of fine dining, likewise creating a modern, internationally accessible Philippine cuisine, to be appreciated by those of us who did not grow up with adobe, kinilaw and sinigang. They have managed to enhance the traditional, familiar flavours – the gustatory memory – of the Philippines, at the same time highlighting the fact that Philippine cuisine is a fusion of Filipino, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese and American influences thanks to a long The Goose Station (14)colonial heritage. And they have made eating a fascinating adventure.

The last mouthful was a surprising, refreshing, deconstructed calamansi tart. Reminiscent of the lemon meringue pie, it consisted of a pastiche of tastes and textures: from the small shards of softly melting honeycomb to the crunch of tiny pilli nuts: from the ice-cold, creamy coconut sorbet to the puddles of tart calamansi curd, with just enough sweetness to finish the evening on a high note… and the realization that, like Winston Churchill, “my tastes are simple: I am easily satisfied with the best.”

Posted in Food & Wine, Philippines | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sashimi: a Japanese Cooking Philiosophy

sushiAs a rule, the philosophy of cooking aims at the creation of new tastes that do not exist naturally… but Japanese cooking methods are antithetical to this philosophy. The ideal of Japanese cooking is to retain the natural tastes of food with the minimum of artificial processes. Thus sashimi… can be viewed as a representative product of the Japanese cooking philosophy. The basic concept of fish preparation in Japan is suggested by the following proverb: “Eat it raw first of all, then grill it, and boil it as the last resort.”

 ~ Michael Booth, Sushi & Beyond

Japan is a nation of islands, so, as in the Philippines, fish has always been a staple of the Japanese diet. In the seas around Japan, the fishing has, until recently, been plentiful. Sadly, poor fisheries management and severe over-fishing in the past century has caused a drop in the volume of catches and a subsequent hike in prices. Yet fish continues to be popular here, at any price.

Raw fish is served in many different countries. Since the beginning of time, the Filipinos have made kinilaw, which is similar to Peruvian ceviche. The French eat poisson cru, while the Italians prefer carpaccio or pesce crudo, and the Scandanavian gravadlax is delightful with vodka. The Fijians, Tongans and Tahitians like it with coconut milk, the Catalans, Koreans and Thais prefer it in a salad. The Japanese created sashimi.

Sashimi has been a favoured delicacy in Japan since the 17th century. In the Japanese cook’s bible “Japanese Cooking: a Simple Art,” Shizuo Tsuji describes sashimi as ‘the best loved food in Japan… [and] unbearably exotic.’ Fish – only the best quality – is the most popular meat for sashimi, but horse meat or chicken are also used. Sliced into bite-sized pieces, it is then dipped in soy sauce or smeared with wasabi. It may also be garnished with pickled ginger, a perilla leaf, like mint, or shredded daikon, the Asian white radish that appears in many Japanese dishes in a variety of forms.

Just about any seafood can be used to make sashimi, although the most popular fish are salmon and tuna, largely due to affordability and availability. But in Kochi, a largely rural island to the south of Osaka, the local specialty is katsuo, or bonito.

Katsuo is a plump, charcoal-coloured fish shaped like a torpedo, averaging the size of a man’s arm, fingertip to elbow.Kochi (5)It is closely related to the tuna, but smaller and faster. Dried, fermented, and smoked, it becomes katsuobushi. Katsuobushi flakes are umami dense and a key ingredient in dashi, the base stock that is the cornerstone of Japanese cooking. Served as sashimi, it is, quite simply, perfection.

On my first night in Kochi, we gathered at an intimate sashimi bar in a narrow back street. The katsuo launched the meal, and we leaned across the bar to watch it being prepared. Seared briefly on the outside, it was then sliced into small steaks that were easily airlifted to the lips with chopsticks, via a nugget of wasabe.

The next day, our kind hosts drove us up into the mountains for fresh air and edifying scenery. On the return journey we stopped at a small and much-favoured local fish shop to buy a whole katsuo for dinner. We watched, fascinated, as the fishmonger carved off fins and head in swift, sure movements with what was obviously a bitingly sharp blade.

Sashimi sounds like such a simple dish. Slices of raw, unadorned fish on a plate. That can’t be too difficult, surely? Yet it takes time to perfect the skill of preparing sashimi properly.

Kochi (66)Sashimi knives are high maintenance tools that must be sharpened daily to ensure that the single beveled edge is always razor sharp. And the chef or fishmonger must be well versed in the texture of the fish he is dissecting, the way the muscles lie, and the thickness of the slice that best complements the fish and its flavour.

Swiftly skinned, deboned and filleted, our fish was packed on ice into a polystyrene box with a bag of left-over bits to make our own dashi. Then we headed home to create sashimi par excellence, or Katsuo no Tataki. This is a speciality of Kochi Prefecture. Apparently the late Spring catch (hatsu-gatsuo) was once considered so desirable that a popular saying suggested a man would trade his wife for a soupçon of katsuo. We have missed the Spring migration, but have made it in time for the modori gastuo, or the coming home for the winter, the fish meaty and succulent.

Smoked over a sweet-smelling rice straw fire in a barbecue in the driveway, and seared briefly in the leaping flames, the katsuo was then submerged in a large bowl of ice. (This will rapidly arrest the cooking process, and ensure the fish remains raw on the inside.) Once it had cooled, our chef sliced the fish carefully, gently, smoothly into small fillets, rather thicker than traditional sashimi, before arranging it them a wide, deep bowl with a ponzu sauce of citrus and sake. Garnished with ginger and radish sprouts and topped with a raw egg, Katsuo no Tataki is truly exotic. Truly heavenly. Perhaps it’s lucky I don’t have a wife to give away. How about a husband?

As seen in “Chop Soy” issue 2, 2015.

Posted in Cooking, Japan, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Simple Joys

Mode Gakuen Cocoon TowerTokyo. A shopper’s wonderland. My friends are green with envy at my good luck. Sadly, I am not a woman who lives to shop. Basement food halls, malls and department stores make my eyes blur with panic. Too much stuff. Too many choices. So, heartily tired of concrete, traffic and effulgent electric lighting, I follow my nose through the narrow back streets of Shinjuku and Shibuya to the Meiji-Jingu Shrine. Ducking across a railway line between convoys of commuter trains, I round a corner, and bump into a dazzling vision of deep green foliage.

Yes, really. Hidden backstage, behind towering high-rises and roads crowded with those snub-nosed little Everywagons, is Yoyogi Park; 250 improbable acres of high-rise trees, a mere 100,000 of them, planted back in 1920 to honour the memory of Emperor Meiji and his wife, the Empress Shoken, who died in the early years of the 20th century. Emperor Meiji came to the throne in 1867 and was instrumental in modernizing Japan. While he was opening doors to the west that had been kept firmly locked for centuries, his wife was also being busy and important, promoting both the education of women and national welfare.

Shinto, the original Japanese religion, values a sincere heart and harmony with nature. This preferred state of mind is amply reflected in the extensive woodland of Yoyogi Park, where it is hard to feel anything but serene. Once saplings, donated from all over the globe, those same trees now shade the forest pathways from lofty heights.

Despite the hotel manager’s anxiety that it would take me hours to walk here –  it would be much better if I were to Yoyogi Park (10)
catch the train three stops – I have skibbled down the hill and under the vast Shinto arch (a torii) in less than half anhour. And suddenly, like Alice through the looking glass, I am immersed in a new world, a muted world of dappled green. While the trains keep up their urgent background hum, now the air is filled with bird noises and the steady crunch of gravel under my feet. Majestic trees arch overhead in a glorious leafy canopy. Elderly gardeners maintain the tidiness of the forest floor with long necked brooms that they sweep like scythes across the broad gravel paths, making small, neat mounds of recalcitrant leaves that will be scooped into bucket-shaped baskets. I imagine this will be a huge job in November, when the torrential downfall of autumn leaves might threaten to overwhelm, but today it seems a fairly peaceful, part-time occupation.
Yoyogi Park (3)Wandering aimlessly, I reach a fork in the road, and another vast wooden arch, marking the entrance to the shrine. A sign to Kiyomasa’s Well tempts me off the highway and through the little wooden gate beneath the trees. A road to fairyland? Almost. This is the Inner Garden, designed by the Emperor as a tranquil retreat for his wife. There is an entry fee of 500 yen, but it is worth it to follow the narrow, winding paths to a large pond surrounded by thick foliage and full of koi carp and water lilies, reminiscent of Monet’s garden. Oak trees drip acorns onto the paths. Dainty St Andrew’s Cross spiders weave intricate webs amongst the undergrowth. Fragile and lowly ferns kowtow to the stately elegance of the trees. A gardener kneels in a muddy flower bed, planting irises in a broad brimmed hat. Photographers wait patiently by the spring for spiritual serenity or that special moment with capricious nature, while I capture that moment when an enchanting, sparrow-sized bird steals a peanut from my palm, its tiny feet, delicate as Japanese characters, clinging briefly to my fingers.

But I am hungry, and the quiet garden is filling up with a sudden torrent of tourists. I wander off to look for lunch, and find an airy, empty restaurant on the edge of the park, where I am offered an autumn feast, a glorified bento box, that Japanese lunch box of both beauty and convenience.

Arranged alluringly on a tray, is an assortment of eye-catching bowls and platters. Some of the dishes are a mystery, but I must take my chances, as no one speaks enough English to explain. I somehow survive my ignorance, and enjoy making some new acquaintances. There is a clear broth which I leave till last – not miso, my waiter corrects me shortly, but won’t elaborate on what it is – and a bowl of rice dotted with cubes of an unknown yellow fruit, or possibly a vegetable. A large blue egg cup offers up a teaspoon of sardines garnished with tiny pink and purple petals that tastes unexpectedly like the Baltic rollmop of my childhood. A cooked prawn cuddles up to a piece of grilled salmon on a pillow of boiled daikon, or Asian radish, of which I am growing inordinately fond. Two enormous, plum-sized red grapes are so ripe they taste drunk, and they are topped whimsically with a tiny amber maple leaf.

But the plat de résistance is a lacquered box of tempura. And here I must use my imagination. Apparently, I am informed curtly, the spray of wheat is edible. My waiter isn’t rude, just a little embarrassed by his lack of English.Yoyogi Park (16)
Goodness knows why, as it’s easily better than my non-existent Japanese.  The wheat grains having partially ‘popped’ in the oil so it looks like a corsage of puffed wheat. It is crispy, but the fine stems lodge between my teeth and dig into my gums. This pretty piece might be better on a lapel after all. The mushrooms, however are moreish, and I wish there were. More. I crunch through them happily. I don’t know their names, but they are those long stemmed white ones that grow in clusters like pins on a pincushion. Google says enoki or possibly shimeji, but cooking tips don’t include tempura, so I assume the chef is being creative, and it works. A scattering of maple leaves lightly coated in tempura are so small I feel guilty about eating them, it’s like swallowing those diminutive quails eggs. I am only slightly discomfited, however, before they disappear down my throat with as much substance as fairy floss. The final mouthful is an indefinable piece of foliage that might be mushrooms or could be a branch of some unknown shrubbery, but tempura waves its magic wand and wraps whatever-it-may-be in crunchy, crispy, mouth-filling deliciousness.

And I am done. And I emerge, reluctantly, from my sensual haven into the surreal world of futuristic, fantastical Tokyo.

* First published in Chop Soy Issue 2, April 2015

Posted in Food & Wine, Japan, Travel | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Seducing the Soup

ottoman-cuisineTurkey, like the Philippines, is located at a geographical and cultural crossroads between east and west, right on the cusp of Europe and Asia. Turkish cuisine is a synthesis of centuries of cultural and culinary fusion: a patchwork of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences that have created a mouth-watering menu. While spending a couple of weeks eating our way through Istanbul, I thought it might be fun to learn how to make some of the dishes in which we were so enthusiastically indulging.

Eveline Zoutendijk opened Istanbul’s first Turkish cooking school in 2002. Cooking is her passion and it is her pleasure to introduce travelers to the tastes and textures of Turkish cuisine. Fow a while, Eveline told me, she held the only casual cooking class in Istanbul, but gradually the idea spread, and now a quick trip to Google will turn up any number of alternative classes across the city.

Tucked away down a cobbled street behind the Blue Mosque,  Cooking Alaturka consists of a dining room and a small but efficient kitchen. The restaurant is bright, colourful and cosy, with a maximum of eleven tables for guests.  Last week,  the kitchen contained seven excited students quite comfortably: our family of four; an American lady travelling solo from Africa, and a couple of young men from Taipei.  Head chef, Feyzi, assisted Eveline in teaching the class, his brand of 200 (2)cheeky humour the perfect counterbalance for Eveline’s attention to detail and firm control of the the kitchen. We washed our hands, wrapped ourselves in aprons, and set to work to create a four course dinner, orchestrated by Eveline and Feyzi, and featuring many local, seasonal ingredients.

Our first task was to prepare the eggplants for the main dish, Karniyarik or ‘stuffed belly eggplant’. These were neither the long, pencil thin eggplants we know in the Philippines, not the fat-bellied Buddha-shaped Aussie ones, but an in-between size, glossy and gently curvaceous. We were shown how to trim the stalk and peel three strips of purple skin from the vegetable before basting them in oil and tucking them into the oven for 30-40 minutes.

Then we limbered up to chop and slice enormous volumes of onion and peppers, runner beans, tomatoes and garlic. We all had a go at wielding the two-handed curved kitchen knife – a ridiculously large mezzaluna – perfect for chopping up your worst enemy or mountain of onions a la Julia Childs. Later we would also use it to annihilate the herbs.

Once we had all our ingredients prepared, we began to assemble the dishes. First, Yayla corbasi, a ‘meadow soup’ favoured by the goatherds and shepherds when they head up to higher summer pastures with their flocks like Heidi and her grandfather. Eveline described ‘layers of flavour’ as we combined yoghurt and egg yolks with cumin and flour in a bowl. A freshly made lamb stock simmered on the stove, to which we added rice – al dente – ‘for texture’ and dried mint and chilli flakes for flavour. The liaison of dairy and flour was then blended slowly into the stock, the yoghurt providing a smooth finish, tangy and refreshing. Feyzi gave me the task of stirring the soup, curling the spoon slowly smoothly, seductively, through the liquid to prevent the rice sticking to the bottom.

193Imam bayildi is a traditional Ottoman dish of stuffed eggplant. The name means “the priest fainted” based on the tale of a newly married Turkish religious leader, whose wife’s cooking caused him to swoon with pleasure. It is a variation of another popular Ottoman dish, Karnıyarık, which is eggplant stuffed to the gunnels with a mix of tomatoes and onions, minced beef and lamb. Rich and filling, it is a favoured winter comfort food. And, like adobo, every Turkish mother makes the best karniyarik.

To accompany the eggplant was a cracked wheat or bulgur pilaf. Bulgur is a native staple in Anatolia, the larger, eastern part of Turkey, once known as Asia Minor. Bulgur or burghul wheat is far more traditional and tastier than the imported rice of modern times, with a nutty flavour, popular in kisir (a Turkish version of tabouleh) and pilaf. Mixed with the last of the onions, peppers and tomato paste, the result is a traditional Turkish pilaf. Interesting as it was to taste, we found it rather a heavy accompaniment to an already hearty main course. An unadorned green salad, we felt, would have better balanced the red-blooded flavours of the karniyarik.

Kabak mueveri is a popular Turkish mezze, but as Eveline handed out the job of grating a pile of zucchini (courgette), I saw, from the corner of my eye, our sons’ lips start to curl. Zucchini, the boys think, is great to grow in the veggie patch, but  not wildly popular on our dinner table, even when heavily disguised in a vegetable pasta sauce. I groaned inwardly.

Creating these small, bite-sized fritters involved a tutorial on the correct way to grate a courgette, before we mixed  in a local feta style cheese (beyaz peynir), eggs, flour, herbs and chilli. The mixture was then fried into patties in a heavy frying pan. The results were simply delicious and much to my joy, I may be able to reintroduce those infamous courgettes to our dinner table, albeit in a slightly different format. Eveline served it with a modest garlic yoghurt dip. Personally, I would probably embellish this with cucumber, dill and a splash of lemon juice to create a slightly more sophisticated tzatziki – but then I wanted to adorn every dish I tasted in Turkey with tzatziki, as it is definitely one of my favourites.

So, we had soup, an appetizer, and a main course ready to go. Dessert anyone?

The dessert Eveline had chosen was great fun to make: dried figs stuffed with walnuts and cooked in a light sugar 187syrup, or incir tathsi. (Turkish can be hard enough to pronounce sober, imagine saying that after a bottle of wine!) Dried fruits and nuts are traditionally served at Turkish festivals and celebrations, and are now exported around the world.

Turkey has a reputation for terribly sweet and syrupy snacks, such as baklava. I was pleasantly surprised to find the local version of these popular pastries not nearly as sickly as their Filipino or Australian counterparts. Likewise, I expected these amuses bouches of fruit and nut to be too saccharine for my taste, and yet it was not so. The sugar syrup was neatly tempered with lemon juice, lemon zest and cloves, the scent of which hung enticingly in the air. (Eveline’s notes suggested that the sweetness can be further subdued with the tannic addition of bay leaves or Turkish tea.) We all got childishly giggly as we attempted to stuff the walnut halves carefully through the small slits we had made in the bellies of the figs, desperate not to tear a broad gash through which the nuts could fall out. We then had to close the wound and gently massage the fig into the shape of a small spinning top.

Each fig was then placed carefully into a large, shallow pan of syrup, stems up, to spin gently like Whirling Dervishes around the pan. A couple of gentle flips and they were ready to be served, topped with grated coconut and ground pistachios. It was a fitting finale to a wonderful meal, although I would love to have tried the kaymak, or heavy Turkish cream that Eveline mentioned in the recipe.

034Our meal was accompanied by some interesting local wines, and finished off with a lesson on how to make Turkish coffee, which apparently, like those Whirling Dervishes, has been labelled an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Turkey by UNESCO. The result was milder than Italian espresso, but also quite gritty, and was served with a small cube of Turkish Delight, to which I am now totally addicted. Nothing like the rose-flavoured, chocolate coated Fry’s Turkish Delight of our childhood, these Ottoman morsels of Bergamot jelly and nuts, dusted with icing sugar can be found in the Spice Market in endless variety. We were, finally, replete, and with all our newfound wisdom and a list of recipes, we wandered home.

* With thanks to Cooking Ataturka website for the picture of an Ottoman kitchen, and to my One & Only for managing to chop and take photograph at the same time!

Posted in Cooking, Turkey | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment