Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Last Meal

I was in Paris for 12 hours before my flight back to the States. I met up with some friends for a bistro meal. We shared escargots as a starter. Flo had some kind of herbed chicken kabobs while I went for lamb shank confit. Really nice food.

This Was My Waffle

1.50€ at the Marche du Midi on Sunday morning. It was decent.

Ceci n'est pas des Frites

Before coming to Belgium, I kept parroting some line about coming to drink beer, eat frites and mussles and waffles and chocolate. While I didn’t get around to mussels, I did have some of the rest. The chocolates were undoubtedly impressive, but I’d had good chocolates before. Likewise for the beer. But the frites in Brussels blew me out of the water. Sharon told me about a place where you can choose to have them fried in your choice of 30 oils and fats. I was interested in going, but Sharon wasn’t sure where it was and seemed to mention the 30 oils and fats with a tinge of disgust. So I settled for a non-descript place, “La Frite Doree” down the street from a supermarket where Shar and I had some shopping to do. So there’s no simple way for me to describe how incredibly good these fries were. Maybe if Sharon joins the blog she can add her two cents, but all I know is that I kept saying “oh my god, these are so good. These are so fucking good.” Part of it has to be that they’re fried in beef fat. They guy also fried them in vats with different temperatures, though he didn’t really explain why. The mayonnaise on the side was nice, but tangential to the perfect crunch, perfect interior texture, perfect level of greasiness and perfect amount of salt on these fries. Truly magnificent. I waiting to see if anything in the States can top these.


Life in Belgium is pretty cushy. Public transportation is efficient, and comprehensive; the streets are clean, and filled with mostly well dressed well fed people. Sure income taxes are about 54%, but oh the benefits… Sharon, for instance, gets the following deal. She contributes 1.40€ from her paycheck which her employer adds another 4.60€ which the government returns to her in the form of 6€ vouchers for every day that she works which can be exchanged for food at restaurants or groceries. The government with employers thereby provide substantial assistance to local eateries, though I guess you could spend the vouchers at McDonalds if you really wanted. Along with food vouchers, Sharon gets something like 100€ per year in athletic vouchers that she can use for a gym membership or sports classes as well as 100€ in culture vouchers. This year she’s splitting hers between books, movies, and theater tickets. To be entirely honest, this system has a drawback. Employers tend to distribute tax free benefits like these rather than raise people’s actual salaries to avoid having to pay the extra taxes. It’s a nice way to supplement discretionary spending, but people like Sharon who will end up looking for work outside the EU need to show cold salary figures to future employers. Even so, lunch on the company/state sounds swell to me. Sharon had a yellow tofu curry and I got fresh spring rolls.

Le Grand Sablon

There is something to all the talk about Brussels being a gastronomical mecca out of proportion with the other points of interest of the city. Sure it’s the capital of the EU, sure it has some palaces and royal parks and royal art museums and stuff, but there’s a distinctive blandness to Brussels. It’s all very pleasant, but lacks the arrogance and style that define Paris, the formerly-colonized-of-the-world-unite! vibe of London, and the quirky preciousness of Amsterdam (full disclosure: I’ve never been to Amsterdam, but I imagine it’s quirkily precious). So Brussels is a reasonably charming city with lots of excellent yet reasonably priced restaurants. My second sister, Sharon Light, whom I visited along with her fiancé Gidon Van Emden, took me on my first day to le Grand Sablon, a picturesque square lined with the country’s finest chocolate stores. We went first to Wittamer because according to Shar, they sell standard chocolates of excellent quality. We got a few to try – some truffles, some earl grey flavored pralines, and a couple others, and then went outside to the square to sample. They were exquisite. I don’t really have the vocabulary to describe them, but they were super flavorful, smooth, and fresh tasting if you can imagine chocolate as such. Next we went in to Pierre Marcolini, which Sharon calls the Prada of chocolates. It made sense to go there next because evidently Wittamer taught Marcolini everything he knews; Marcolini decided to style it up and come out with some new stuff. The store is all shiny glass cases, white walls, and dark dark chocolates. The staff was impeccably dressed and incredibly polite. Though the first words out of our mouths were “nous sommes des touristes, nous seulement regardons les chocolates,” they offered us samples from the summer collection of fruit flavored pralines: raspberry ones, melon ones, passion fruit ones, some kind with balsamic vinegar, and maybe another one or two. Again, exquisite intense flavor in a minimalist yet very appealing package. By the time we made it upstairs to see the rest of the stock, Sharon had already decided to buy a box.

More Mezze

After the kokoreç and findik and then some beers, Fulya and I had a lovely dinner at Ciya in Kadikoy. You choose from a number of hot entrees there and also get to load a plate up with your choice of mezze. I’m not sure what most of the mezze were, but they were all delicious. Fulya herself didn’t recognize most of them, since the restaurant bring ingredients in from little villages in Anatolia where people cook very much based on what is locally and immediately available. We shared a lovely eggplant and lentil stew after the mezze and for the dessert had these candied fresh walnuts served with clotted cream. They were fantastic with hot black tea.


Spit roasted intestines, anyone? There’s doner galore on the streets of Istanbul, but I had my eye on this stuff. At first, I thought it was string cheese on a spit, but my friend Fulya set me straight. When I asked her if she ever tried it, I got a look of complete disbelief. “Are you kidding,” she asked me, “I love this stuff!” Since we were on our way to dinner and since kokoreç is usually a post-drinking indulgence, we ordered a quarter sandwich. It was totally enough to get the full effect of the crispy fried spicy faintly organy goodness.

Istanbul Street Food

Above are fresh hazelnuts. Who knew they came in those neat leafy bunches?

Below are Turkish sesame rings. Real tasty with some freshly squeezed portokal suyu. Apologies for the Lee Friedlanderesque shadow.

Airline Meal

Say what you will about Tajik (Tragic) Air, but this meal wasn't half bad. It sure beat the crap Continental served me on my way to Europe.


My dear friend Minoo Alipour cooked this fine Iranian meal for my goodbye dinner in Dushanbe on Monday the 13. Clockwise from bottom right:

Ghormeh Sabzi – meat stewed in fresh herbs and lemon
Adas Polo – steamed rice with lentils
Kashk-e-Bademjaan – usually fried eggplants mashed with dried whey, in this case some yoghurt
Maast o Khiar – yoghurt and cucumber salad

Minoojaan! Dast-e-to dard nakone!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Dreams Come True

Ever since visiting Kiev in May 2001, I've wanted to try sour cherry varenniki, the Ukrainian dumpling cousins of Polish pierogis. But alas, I never seemed to be in Slavland at right season and as I have complained before, sour cherries are far too rare in N America. Luckily, though, Dushanbe's supermarket chain sometimes stocks these frozen varenniki. Of course I'm still hoping for an invitation from some babulya for a steaming bowl of homemade ones, but until then these will do.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Vegetariano Social Clube

For my last night in Rio, we went to farewell dinner at Vegetariano Social Clube. I had the healthy version of a typical Brazilian dinner - meatless beans, whole wheat rice, veggies, and a tasty tofu fritatta. Also shown in the first picture are juices of maracuja (passionfruit) and ginger, and VSC's special "sujo rosa," a surprisingly tasty blend of maracuja and red cabbage! Hil ordered an amazing pumpkin soup and some vegan dessert, including some very strong ginger sorbete. http://www.vegetarianosocialclube.com.br/midia.htm

Monday, August 06, 2007

Brazilian Feast

While our Brazilian friends enjoyed BBQ, Hil and I feasted on a lovely salad and the best gnocchi we've ever had. We washed it down with fresh fruit juices and complimentary caipirinhas.

Grilled cheese on a skewer.

At Buzios, among the most famous of Brazilian beaches, you can buy sticks of freshly grilled cheese. You place your order with young boys who wander the beach. They will then cook and deliver the hot, finished product to you directly, so you never have to leave your comfortable spot in the sand. Hil and I shared one seasoned with oregano.
For best results, pair with fresh agua de coco.

Guava Cheesecake

Happy Meal

Brazilian french fries. It seems appropos that this dish would be served by some of the friendliest, happiest people we've ever met!

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Sambusai Varaqi

I have the best khola in the world. She's shattered gender boundaries to share with me the art of baking sambusas, the Central Asian cousin (ancestor?) of the Indian samosa. Since I was napping at the time, I wasn't able to see exactly how she made the dough, which is the toughest part. She said she used something like two big cupped-handfuls of flour, water, and some salt to taste. My guess is that the flour she used had a really high gluten content because she didn't use any egg yolks but even so the dough was super springy and supple. In any case, she rolled out the dough the Central Asian way by wrapping the floured dough several times around a dowel and then working it from side to side rather than into a flat circle. It's miraculous to watch! Khola then spread the dough and spooned oil all over the surface. Then she rolled the dough again into a big rope that she then squeezed all over so that it would stick together. Next she had me cut the rope into the pieces pictured above. We then pressed them into fat discs that we rolled out into proper circles later. Then she had me spoon in the filling and then fold them into triangles. For the filling khola uses raw ground beef, onion, and cumin, though people also use pumpkin and sometimes potatoes or cheese curd. We baked them in a medium oven, I'm guessing something like 375 degrees. They turned out gorgeous and were so much flakier and lighter than the ones for sale on the street. I can't wait to try making a batch of pumpkin sambusas this fall.

Khuroki Milli

Behold osh: the national dish of many a Central Asian nation. When I visited Uzbekistan six years ago, I saw this on my plate pretty much at every meal. It's the traditional food served to guests and at significant events like circumcisions, weddings, funerals, etc... It can do real damage given the feast or famine eating culture here. It's oily, really starchy, and takes about a week to digest. People warn that you should only eat it for lunch and then wash it down with a lot of water. Inspite of the dangers, I find myself craving it from time to time. Dilya, oshpaz extraorinaire at the Aga Khan Humanities Project office, cooks the best osh in Dushanbe for a crowd of 25 every Friday. Here's how she does it:

Soak 5kg rice in warm water for about an hour

In the mean time, build a wood fire in a converted oil barrel. Dilya's helper Jengo usually takes care of this.

Heat 1.5 liters of oil in a seasoned osh kazon.

Fry 3kg of beef in oil until it turns red.

Add 1kg of julienned/matchstick-cut carrots and 1kg chopped onions.

Then 2-3 piolas of soaked chickpeas and a few spoonfuls of cumin and barberry

Pour in the soaked rice, 6 liters of water, and salt to taste.

Bring to a boil and then cook over a steady medium-low fire for two hours.

Garnish with chopped cukes and tomatoes, hot pepper spread, chopped herbs, and chakka, a tangy dairy dip.

Tajik Bruschetta

Made this appetizer for a cocktail party chez Julien Pelleaux, a Swiss Brazilian UN worker who has a real way with cachaca fruit shakes.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Wild Pista

A couple weeks ago, some friends and I took a driving tour of Khatlon oblast, the region to the south of Dushanbe. Along with the remains of a 10th century fortress, an impressive reservoir that provides over half of this country's hydropower, a holy mountain made of salt, the masoleum of a 16th century philosopher/poet/scientist, and many billboards praising the deeds of the revered president Emomali Rahmon, we saw lots of wild pistachio trees. We stopped to walk a little in the groves and then sampled some of the nuts at a roadside stand. For some reason, though, they weren't as tasty at the ones at the bazaar here in Dushanbe. Go figure.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

It's a summer gazpacho, if you will...a delicate mix of yogurt, herbs, and vegetables...chilled to perfection with a recycled bottle of frozen water...Comments, Eli?
Posted by Picasa