Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Experiencial eating

Turns out I have more to say about food. Excessive quantities of food in particular. A few months ago I experienced my first Friday Brunch, thought I'd wait until I finished digesting to write about it. Kidding.... mostly.

dubai landmarks in chocolate
Fridays here are like Sundays in Utah (and perhaps the whole of the south excepting New Orleans), many things are closed all morning and the devout are praying or visiting their place of worship. An enterprising hotelier spotted a market among the aimless non-Muslim expats- just add vodka and Brunch was born. This is Brunch with a capital B for Booze. Most brunches get started around noon and go until 4PM. It's not like in the US where you might make a reservation for 2PM while the brunch buffet is on offer, instead you make a reservation for brunch and it's assumed you'll arrive around noon and stay until they're rolling the carts away and rolling you out the door at 4. Brunch packages come in 2 or 3 sizes. There's brunch with soft drinks which, I think, has grown away from the original intention of having a little "forbidden" entertainment while the believers were stuck at mosque, but in any case, that's always one option. Then there's frequently a beer and wine and sometimes "house spirits", what might be called "well drinks" at bars in the US , package for a bit more. Lastly, some places have the "free flowing bubbly" package which, as the name suggests, includes champagne. We're typically talking about prices in the $70-$100 range for option 1, option 2 might run $85 -$150, option 3 rarely comes
in under $100 and could go to staggering heights at the truly swank and experiential places. (Experiential as in "you need to experience this at least once in your life".) It seems extravagant but then you start thinking about what a single glass of wine or mixed drink costs and multiply that time 4 hours worth and add food, a lot of food and...

The brunch I tried- at the Sheraton at the Mall of the Emirates- bragged about its chocolate room- and for good reason. You walk through the chocolate room on your way to being seated and the aroma was out of this world. They had chocolate sculptures, petite fours, bon bons, brownies, truffles, cake pops, a chocolate fountain, tiramisu... They also were pouring a pleasant lavender tea but with a floater of dry ice smoke that somehow smelled of chocolate. You'd "drink" the smell first as the smoke dissipated and then there was just tea. The non-chocolate food of the brunch was hit or miss: grilled lamb was tender and juicy but I was underwhelmed by the sushi selection, the tandoori chicken was a little dry but there was a nice calamari salad... it wasn't especially remarkable food, but solid. Except the chocolate. We went with the mid-range drinks selection- more than soda, less than champagne and I surely drank mojitos enough to justify the bill. Headed out around 4PM to float home on the metro but was sidetracked by a home store where I impulse bought a bedspread that I later returned. Note to self: don't make decorating decisions while under the influence of brunch with chocolate room. I'll brunch again, I'm sure, but I think not so often. Not healthy for waistline, liver or pocketbook!

Had another experience in indulgent eating just this past weekend. A co-worker and her family took me out for Egyptian food. They called it lunch but it was more like all three meals for one day rolled into one plus all of your needed caloric intake for half the next day. Oof. Tasty and interesting food!
We went to a restaurant call Hadoota Masreya not too far from my house. I let them order whatever they thought was best. We began with kaware soup which tasted a lot like a chicken noodle style broth but had stuff in it that might have been softened bones or cartilage? They described it as a gelatine soup good for joint pain and I've found one online reference to something similar where the bones are boiled and softened with vinegar. I don't actually know what precisely I ate, but it was pretty good if a little disconcerting. There was also a Karob juice drink that reminded me of tamarind but was different. Maybe my favorite was the pigeon stuffed with wheat (had the mouth feel of couscous) and herbs and spices then fried crisp. yum. there was also a green herby soup called molokheyyah served over a baked rice made with milk instead of water and with tender lamb chunks baked in it, little turkish style lamb sausages, puffy bread, yogurt dip, and 2 desserts. One, considered a national dish and described by Ahmed as more of a symphony than a dish, was Umm Ali (Ali's mother) and it was a kind of pistachio bread pudding-like concoction which was so wonderful, the only thing that could convince to eat one more bite, the flavor of that dessert! wow. my performance at cleaning my plate of all the dishes served was only mediocre. My hosts, even skinny little Shaimaa, ate as though this were a normal quantity of food, they described it as more of a taster menu, actually!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

What's for dinner?

A few words on a favorite topic: food! One of the ways I love to interact with different cultures is to try local and traditional meals and ingredients. The manti (tiny lamb ravioli in a slightly spiced yoghurt sauce) at the Panorama Cafe in Cappadocia, Turkey lives large in my memory of the place. Or the very tender but disturbingly bony guinea pig enjoyed in Cuzco, Peru before hiking the Inca trail! The limoncello of the Amalfi coast, melon from Green River, UT, the polsen (hot dogs) with snappy casings and smart pocket shaped buns bought late at night from street vendors in Copenhagen. Food and place become intimately connected.

So what am I eating here? Subway. Pizza. Quesadillas.
At the culture lunch before everyone dived in

OK, it's not quite so consistently sad as that, but it is actually a bit of a challenge to identify and enjoy the local cuisine. When Andrea visited we went to the Sheik Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding to a "culture lunch" with traditional foods and the chance to ask questions and have an open dialogue with the staff about all things related to the Emirates. (It was a must-do introduction, very nice experience.) We had dishes of rice and chicken, rice and lamb, a layered veggie dish in what was essentially a bechamel sauce. Rice was introduced to the emirates, possibly from India, certainly the spices and flavors of the rice-meat dishes are reminiscent of Indian biryanis. We had deep fried dough balls in date syrup for dessert. I think every culture has come upon the bright idea of frying dough! At work one of the staff brought a kind of crepe/ pancake that is considered a traditional breakfast food and I've enjoyed a camel meat burger and camel's milk chocolate and a
camel's milk shake
camel's milk shake. But essentially, the UAE, and especially Dubai, is, has been for most of its history, a place of international trade and culture swapping. A large variety of familiar and unfamiliar food is on offer at restaurants and in the grocery store. The international-ness of my diet is determined by my choices.

When I was living in the temp housing, the nearest grocery store was a big French chain called Carrefour. This particular branch always had tubs of moutabal in the deli. Moutabal is what we might call babaganoush, a smoky smashed eggplant dip. Babaganoush is also on menus here but it usually means a chunkier eggplant and tomato dish, more along the lines of a ratatouille. So I developed a slight addiction to moutabal with soft Lebanese bread. That was my dinner a few nights every week. Now the closest grocers don't seem to carry it so I'm at a loss.

I am having some fun trying to incorporate some of the interesting grocery options into my diet. I was planning to make tortilla roll ups for a potluck when I discovered that Philly cream cheese here comes in a sweet Thai chili flavor that is out of this world. I made tomato soup one day but was out of bread or croutons or crackers but I had some Indian snack mix on hand to make bhel puri and so I sprinkled these little crunchy lightly spicy rice puffs and potato crispies in the soup and it was awesome. I wanted to make the Italian sausage and tortellini soup recipe that Andrea gave me but Italian style sausage isn't super easy to find. A friend suggested I try this butcher shop near the bank metro stop (Prime Gourmet) and sure enough, they had Italian beef sausage AND they had a lamb rosemary sausage too so I went with half and half and it was amazing. Plus I found basil and pine nut tortellini which I haven't seen in the US before.
pizza hut delivery not so unusual, but dunkin donuts delivers too!

As for going out to eat, there is every chain restaurant known to man in town and they'll all deliver. I saw a Hardee's delivery guy in the elevator yesterday, a McDonald's delivery motorbike cut me off in traffic last week, there's a Subway at the Dubai campus of ZU and a Starbucks at the Abu Dhabi campus. I've eaten at celebrity chef Jaime Oliver's restaurant and had my birthday dinner at a Cuban/ Mexican place whose flagship location is in NYC. There's a Garrett's of Chicago popcorn shop at the Dubai Mall- I don't think you can get Garrett's outside of Chicago In the US, can you?

I got away from the chains and franchises last night though with a trip to Buq Tair aka the Jumeira fish place. Some guys from Kerala India go fish in the morning, rub the fresh catch with a lightly spicy rub/ sauce and then in the evening, fry up your choice in a converted shipping container and serve it to you on plastic picnic tables in the sand/ dirt outside. It's got quite the following these
we picked from the pile
days so there's a line out the door. You wait for your chance to get up to the counter and look at the tub of spice rubbed fish, heads on, tails on, the works. We went with a hamour and a sherri and half a kilo of shrimp. Then you go sit on some plastic stools and wait for them to call your name. When your fish and prawns are ready, they grab you a table, offer you some paratha (flat bread), some curry sauce, rice, drinks... that's about it for your "sides" options and then you dig in. Using fingers and bread. I
the orders go into a pan
found the shrimp to be especially addictive. We didn't eat the head but apparently the hardcore fans and Kerala locals do. So fresh and tasty! One of my favorite Dubai dining experiences so far.
they lightly fry it up in one of these wok-like things

our dinner- ready to dig in!