Quirks of Taste


A long time ago I expressed my desire to live in a Peter Mayle (the first PM in this post) novel, and then in 2008, experienced a realization (of sorts) of that fantasy after a visit to the gorgeous Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, about which I’ve rhapsodized at length–just check out posts under the’08-Italia category. It wasn’t his stories or writing (in fact I have friends who positively dislike his writing) that I fell in love with as much as his descriptions of the food and environs; I wanted to be there, eating thatwhich depending on the particular book was a cassoulet from Bordeaux, the last morsel of truffle-imbued foie gras chased around the plate with a piece of crusty baguette or simple a really fine cheese with a glass of equally fine wine.

A good many years later, but still quite some years before today, I find myself writing about another PM–Patricia McKillip–about whom frankly I have no idea why I’ve not yet written anything in this blog. In my defense though I have rated & reviewed her books both on Amazon and Goodreads. Now here’s someone whose writing I imply love–her books are a wondrous mixture of fantasy, good food and the world of academia of some sort (schools for bards or magicians for example) all packaged or presented in, as I just said, really fine writing. Any wonder that she is one of those people that I would, if I could, be? I recently found out she lives in Oregon, which might explain not just her foodie leanings but really great descriptions of sea-food.  Food doesn’t always play a role in her books but one of my favorites, called The Bell at Sealey Head and the recently completed Kingfisher, both featured food and beautifully, although there was a complex relationship with it and the protagonists.

I am not, these days, the happiest of people, but I have to say, her books are a lovely escape for a time at least… (#28)

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And add some thyme to foods that rhyme? A writing-from-the-senses inspired title where I’ve combined 3 food items whose names imparted a certain rhythm and which I feel would be a good prompt to write …

Except that it’s been years since that I wrote those words down and nothing has been forthcoming. But something about them won’t let me delete the prompt and be done either. What can one do with those three things anyhow. Combine the first two to smoke the third, as in a hock of ham? Or how’s this to keep with the rhythm of the original rhyme?

Hickory Chicory Hock,

They all went into my stock.

When the stock was boiled,

The hock I broiled,

And poured it all into a crock.

Corny in the extreme, what? But it counts as writing (#30)

 

So, I just added a page to my food blog, titled by the neologism that’s in the title of this post as well. It is a recipe, but since it counts as a legit entry, I figured I’d claim it as my #37, which is slightly overdue. But is also an entry point into these plays on words that I delight in concocting, almost as much as I do in concocting the foods in question. More often than not, the concoctions are created in spur of the moment, rather than with any planning or forethought, the word plays even less so than the foods.

Both guac-un-mole and squashamole are derived from guacamole, that delicious avocado dip that is now quite common-place the world over or at least in North America. Guac-un-mole (named so because it’s not a mole–which is sort of a word for sauce) but has all or most ingredients that go into it, and the squashamole because it was basically a dip made of squash that vaguely resembled guac in texture. It then occured to me, given that I used nuts as well that it might just easily be compared to homous, which lead to its other name squashomous.

Then there was the whole bit about salsifying and falsifying which brought in Popper in a most satisfying way and suggested a whole new way to enjoy poppers as well.

Okay.. enough.. like I said, this post is a short way to link to a real post on another site, which gives it some free advertising and helps me fulfill a quota too. Double and triple whammies abound! (#s 37 & 36)

… as opposed to back biting, is a perfectly legitimate activity. Especially when the subject in question issued the invitation to “Bite me” in the first place. Uh.. no thanks, I’ll pass.

Believe it or not, “Bite me,” is actually the title of a new food column in The Caravan, AUC’s weekly student-run newspaper. In and of itself the title wouldn’t be offensive or more than just mildly  ribald, since it’s a student paper and one assumes that its staff is peopled with college kids: freshmen, sophomores and the rest. So the humor in it will be understandably enough, sophomoric in nature. The title “Bite me,” with its mild sexual innuendos is sophomoric. But the column is being written by a faculty member. One of my colleagues at AUC, whose name, I shall for various and obvious reasons, leave blank. And that changes the tenor of things somewhat, in my opinion (or imho as some people would prefer to say).

Because somehow, I find the idea of a teacher inviting students to ‘bite me’ just a tad inappropriate. Even if it was meant as a joke, it is inappropriate. Okay, so I’ve worked for newspapers and know that the writer isn’t the one who necessarily comes with the the headlines or titles. But I also know that the writer has input. And the very fact that a faculty member is writing for a student paper means that he can have a say in the title of his column. As it is, the title to me suggests that the writer is trying too hard to fit in with the audience. I suppose that means he’s trying to be sophomoric, and if that was his intent, kudos. He managed it with flying colors. On the other hand, it is just a little bit pathetic.

In more ways than one actually. Two installments of the column have been published and both show the author taking cheap shots at someone else. In the first the target was Omar Sherif’s son, for buying and successfully running a restaurant where the author owned and operated one of his own and ran it to the ground. Two of them as a matter of fact, though the author didn’t mention that little factoid in his column. What he did say was that the son of OS is successful where Man Kai, his own restaurant failed,  was because he panders to the crowd and shows no imagination in the menu and spends all the money on decor. Man Kai was too avant-garde, according to its former owner, Japanese-Italian cuisine with offerings like miso pasta apparently too out there for Egyptian diners. It diverted all its money to the food and kitchen, he claims, and nothing on decor (except perhaps, as he let slip in a momentary slip of self-contradiction, its bathrooms). I would have sympathized on that point, because I like culinary innovation and twists on themes as much if not more than the next person and don’t think that decor should get higher play, but according to some of other colleagues who were reading the paper last week, it was a patently false claim. The main reason the earlier restaurant failed was that the food was exorbitantly priced, said more than reader of the column, most of whom joined me in alternately hooting with laughter and cringing in embarrassment as they read their way through the piece.

One could say that success is the best revenge against petty pot shots, in which case the owner of Trattoria (as the new restaurant on the premises of the restaurant formerly known as Man Kai  and then as Sand) can read this article with a smirk, for his place is doing quite well. Ever the contrarian, I visited the place a few nights ago, when it came up as a choice of eateries, in a complete act of coincidence not long after I’d read this article. I thought it was okay as Italian restaurants go outside of Italy. Nothing spectacular, granted, but quite nice really. Certainly not deserving  of the disparagement our columnist has dished out. And what’s more the experience did not empty my pockets.

I’m not so sure if the target of the cheap shots from the second article would smirking if he read the piece on koshari, but then again, why would anyone outside of the AUC community be reading The Caravan at all? And even if he read it, would he care that a former colleague actually organized his schedule to avoid  him just because he ate koshari by himself. (I didn’t get that – if anybody else reads the column and can explain the connection between the solo eating of koshari and the lack of friends, please enlighten me). The only thing that was suggested as a possible reasons for avoiding someone after koshari was related to flatulence, but why would flatulence be experienced only eating it alone as opposed to eating in with company?? As I said, do enlighten me if you have any ideas.

On the matter of avant-garde food I feel as a foodie I must interject my reaction – that Japanese-Italian doesn’t seem quite that innovative to me. Sure, it could give rise to interesting combinations, but really why such a specific pair of ethnicities? If one were adventurous for real then surely the mixing and matching should have drawn from a larger pool of possible cuisines? After all there’s nothing specific about the stuff we get here that lends itself to Japanese cuisine, over say, Thai, Chinese, Indian or even Brazilian or Mexican? When I commented on this fact to my friends who have been here longer than I have, I learned that it was the ethnicity of the talent (read hired help) that was determining the menu. So much for being imaginative!

Back to the issue of embarrassment, cheap shots, lies, and sophomoric humor aside, there are other causes for it in this endeavor (i.e. the food column) that I could point out. Sloppy editing for one. And inaccuracies for another, opinions stated as fact.  And oh! Just in case I forgot, references to food porn. Apparently a carb overload of the type provided by koshari is food porn. Or if it it is not he doesn’t know what is. Now, that was a comment I found about as outlandish as his claim that falling in love is a group activity. Say what ??? Yes you read right. The author of “Bite Me” claims that falling in love is something to be done in groups.

Maybe he has experience in these matters? As far as I know or have experienced falling in love involves 2. One person falling for one other. Even one more than that makes a crowd. But not according to the wannabe-bitten author, who even as he issues his invitation to bite, is fondly playing his fingers over a knife. I kid you not. In case the words didn’t tell you enough, there’s the picture to add a thousand more to your experience. Readers beware, like all good columns, this one comes with a photo of the author. Only his is more than the standard mugshot. Fondling a knife resting on his lap, he beams benignly (or so one hopes), bestowing his good wishes to the world at large. If you can stomach it, more power to you. Bite him, not me.

No, this is not the title for a spin-off for Vikram Seth’s wonderful novel A Suitable Boy, though it could be. And maybe should be. Maybe some day? Meanwhile, here’s the story that set off this post:

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Out shopping at the spice market last week, I needed to get some dried coconut. Now, although I’ve been here for three years, I have to sheepishly admit that my Arabic is not very good and though I’m able to get by at the markets, I rely a lot on visual communication, body language, pointing, hand-waving and even pure guesswork to get the items I need. In my defense, once I do find the item, I always ask the guys for the Arabic word for it. Invariably I’ve forgotten it by the next visit and I have to enact the entire pantomime again, but some of the words do stick and over the years through tiny, very tiny increments my vocabulary has grown. In this instance it was the Indian husband. Which is the literal translation of the Arabic word (or at least the of Egyptian dialect, Ameya)  for coconut, Goz el-Hind. Hah! the next time someone asks me why I’m not married (and believe me, even now some people seem to think that such intrusive personal questions are fair game if you’re Indian and single) I should probably tell them I already have an Indian husband at home. After all I wouldn’t be lying would I?  I usually do keep a stock of dried coconut at home… in my freezer.

Jokes aside, this is a great mnemonic because coconuts do feature prominently in wedding ceremonies back home. In fact, as I remember, a coconut is even used as the proxy for the man in certain ceremonies if the guy for whatever reason can’t be there. Coincidence, or does this tradition (or the perception of it) lie at the foundation for the Arabic word? Maybe a factoid worth researching, but that’s a subject for the Rhetoric and Composition class I am teaching this semester.

p.s. Coconut photos courtesy of downloads from Google Images

Alone with my penses

I sat at my elevenses

At sixes and sevens-es…

About what?  You may ask and take me to task

For writing bad rhymes in these trying times

Okay okay enough bad poetry. I’ll stop now and explain the phrase that began this and go on to give a brief account of my second London walk on which my cousin Renuka accompanied me much to my delight and as I will explain later, gustatory gratification .

According to a dictionary, to be at sixes and sevens  is to be in a state of confusion over something, although I always understood there to be an element of rivalry between the parties that were at sixes and sevens with one another. I was not completely wrong, as it turns out. According to Peter, our guide on the Thursday night walk called the “Ancient city at night,” the phrase came to be as a result of  the confusion or rather competition for precedence between the trade guilds of the merchant tailors (excuse me, taylors) and the skinners in the City of London. The guilds were formed circa the twelfth century A.D. to protect member’s interests and were ranked according to their seniority. They were called livery companies incidentally for they got to wear a special distinctive livery or uniform too but that’s another story I got from the net not the walk. Anyway,  the livery companies for taylors and skinners (who traded in furs and were NOT tanners, who had/have a separate guild) being founded the same year were apparently at loggerheads over who got to be in sixth place. A year later it was decided in court no less, that they would alternate in ranking each year and thus they remain at sixes and sevens to this day.

Now there are other possibilities for the origins of the phrase – websites (including Wikipedia) give Chaucerian, Biblical and Shakespearean possibilities, but this was Peter’s story and I’m sticking to it! Moving on.. or rather back, our walk began at the Royal exchange at the base (and rear) of a statue of Wellington, where we were surrounded by these columned buildings that try so hard to look Grecian. The Royal exchange, the top part of the Bank of London and the Lord Mayor’s Mansion, all have this same architecture.

Thank goodness for the quintessential red double-decker buses that are so characteristic of London to remind you where you are, other than Bombay of course. From this busy hub we walked past the Lord Mayor’s where ladies and gentlemen dressed to the nines (I wonder where that expression came from?), at least one with a dress that was sweeping the cobbled streets before she entered the house, for some fancy event, and then (back to us now) down a narrow little alley along St. Stephen’s church to view another church, the one that transcended originality according to Eliot (who despite his American-ness I always thought of as English and after wandering in London I can see why).

And now my memory is getting fuzzy on the exact sequence of spots we paused at, to listen and learn, but my camera shows me a pair of original 16th (?) century houses as well as the London Stone before we stopped at our first watering hole. Here are glimpses of the Stone – stored behind a grating and marked with a plaque, which I thought was capturing since it gives the story so much better than I could…

Our first watering hole – this walk included pubs etc – was a little wine bar tucked in the middle of this financial area – and possibly one of the well-kept secretes of the city. Before we went in, we passed a mystery box on the side wall, about which we played guessing games over our drinks, mine a glass of the house red, a nice claret, a wine that I will not stick my nose up at unlike those Regency Bucks. Most of us thought it was an oven or furnace or coal storage-bin of some sort. We weren’t even close! Turns out it was a safe in the bedroom of the adjoining house. The prize for that one went to this Italian lady in our group. Fortified with our libations we walked on to the site of the original bridge and saw the livery house of the fishmongers and the site of the original London Bridge and learned about sixes and sevens, before heading out to the site of the gild-topped Monument (capitalized on purpose) and heard Peter’s account of the Great Fire.

Lovely names those streets had and thank goodness they haven’t changed… Pudding Lane & Fish  Street Hill. We saw the corner with the plaques commemorating the place where the infamous fire began, and Peter told us where it ended and why. The Monument for which the eponymous underground stop is named, designed mostly by Wren (who else) but crowned with a creation of that unsung and deeply weird hero of those times, Robert Hooke, is around the corner and you’ve seen pictures galore I’m sure or can elsewhere on cyberspace and so I won’t bother here. We passed another Wren church, which was once according to our regretful guide, one of the most  sumptuously-decorated interiors until about 30 years ago after which some catastrophe destroyed it and now he finds it heartbreaking to enter. We also passed an old building on Eastcheap (another lovely name)  bearing a boar’s head on its facade, which may well have been the inspiration for Falstaff’s drinking break.

From Eastcheap we headed to our next pub nestled in the marketplace that posed as  Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter movies. Lovely pub but unfortunately by that hour they were serving drinks only and no munchies and so I held my peace while we went to the site of the famed Lloyd’s whose modernistic and very original-looking exterior still houses a part of the original interior I believe. Standing in front of this building is an odd feeling for you really do see the old juxtaposed with the new here on four corners. There is Lloyd’s of course (photo on left), and London’s new iconic building, the one our guide so charmingly labeled the crystal phallus (right side). But then you can also see the stone medieval church (in the same picture with the crystal), which has an interesting association with one of the longest continuously-in-print histories of the City of London. There is also in another corner (not photographed) the inner city’s own Westminster Abbe-like church with headstones etc, which has been newly restored.

This was nearly the end of our tour. We ended at a pub called Dirty Dick’s whose banner I shall end the account of the walk with, and whose story is tragic indeed! But rather than repeat it I’ll exhort you to take the walk yourselves and learn about it yourselves, leaving you only with this teaser, He may have been the original Miss Havisham, of Dickens’ Great Expectations fame, who was mimicked in glorious detail by Jeanne Arnold last Hallowe’en.

Postscript: The walk ended at Dirty Dick’s but the evening was not over yet. One of the attractions of this walk was that it promised us a possible dinner at the best and best-value curry houses in London. This would be the famed Brick Lane. Nobody from the walk chose to join us, even the guide, but Renuka and I trudged down the way Peter told us and wound up at Brick Lane which at first glance with its flashing neons and pimp-like guys outside each restaurant brought to mind well, a red light district minus the gals. It also reminded me a bit of 6/7th st in the East Village in New York where the entire block between 1st and 2nd Avenues is full of Indian restaurants with near-identical menus. Same deal here with an offer for free drink etc. etc. Nothing seemed attractive – very generic chicken-tikka-masala places they all appeared to be. But we persevered and walked past all of these into one which had no over-anxious welcoming committee (in fact no one even greeted us on entry) and no menu on the window either. The folks were Bangladeshi and they seemed to my delight to have lots of different fish curries and the staple Bangla egg curry as well. We decided to eat there and our instincts served us well. I loved the fish – good and spicy – and Renuka liked her eggs, even asking for extra gravy, but the star of the show was a daal cooked together with mutton (but it was not Dhanshaak) which we both loved. We ate and ate and spent less than 25 pounds altogether, which is cheap by London standards. Then we rolled our very tired selves into the tube and home stopping to pick up ice-cream en route, only to find the man of the house already in bed, though he did get up for ice-cream.

A further postscript – Renuka & I did have our elevenses (albeit at one) aka high tea at Fortnum and Mason’s the next morning where I got a taste of a smoked Earl Grey that was delightful, along with all sorts of delectable canapes and scones and cream and lemon curd. For all that I turn my nose up at British cuisine, I do love their customs and idiosyncrasies concerning food. Enid Blyton worked her magic on me very early and it has proven indelible I’m afraid.  Viva Britannia, I write even as they lost today to Germany in the World Cup rounds and are out of the tourney this year.

A little shy of 48 hours in London and I’m reminded why I so badly need to move to a place that offers a diverse and vibrant restaurant scene. From homey Indian takeout at Usha’s home, to a tapas lunch in Kensington/Chelsea with authentic Spanish morsels served up by cute Mexican waiters to Renuka and me, and a “Oh that looks nice let’s check it out,” moment in Notting Hill which took bum chum Ranjit and myself to a gem of a Chinese restaurant – neither take out nor a chain – in a strip otherwise occupied by the likes of KFCs and Mickey Ds, I’ve had quite the world tour of kitchens. In Cairo I often complain that even the best restaurants are high end of mediocre, which is only a slight exaggeration. Okay so there are great exceptions which I have to write about to be fair, but the variety is severely limited. Here in London on the other hand, even the mundane out in the ‘burbs was on the not-so-low-end of great. As in super. Yum.

Indian takeout included stuffed karelas (bitter melon – a subject I must put on my food blog) and a spicy handvo flavored with methi leaves and with a crunch topping, plus the classics that Ramesh and Usha get routinely — parathas and kaddi. I’m mentioning just the highlights, there was actually a whole lot more that we got and consumed. If not the very first night then the next morning and lunch as well I reckon, tho I was gone by that time to well my tapas lunch.  Which had the two crazy foodie cuz’s ordering up half or at least a third of the menu, with a sangria to wash it all down. Only I had the latter, Renuka being pregnant and wisely avoiding wine as well some other favorites but as soon as she delivers we are going to treat her to a plate of stinky cheeses (can’t you see why she’s a person after my own heart???), a glass of red – nah make that a bottle – preferably in Paris!

Now to explain the lotuses in the title. Well aside from the fact that it’s alliterative (lo-lo-lol) and that it is what my name means, the real reason is because it was one of and possibly the star dinner items last night. Now I’ve included them in my other blog (labeled simply as lotus root in the born of the water section) but never had them like this. Thinly sliced and gently sautéed so it was still crisp-tender, with bits of garlic and Szechuan spices, it was a masterpiece of texture and flavor. But let me back up.. the restaurant we went to is called Seventeen. As I said, two old friends (we’ve known each other since our kindergarten days) reunited and went to town looking for a place to eat. Most places we passed in the burbs were closed or just didn’t feel interesting enough and so we drove to North London. Parked the car in a reasonable looking spot and started to walk. At first it seemed as if all we saw were chain food joints but then this place with interesting decor caught Ranjit’s eye and we walked in. We looked over the menu and were about to order, when I asked the waiter what he recommended or if there were any specials. Do you like spicy food, he asked. Wehll-huh- yes! I said enthusiastically as both R & I nodded vigorously. Then you’ve come to the right place, said the waiter before whipping out a second pair of menus with their Szechuan offerings. Thereafter we did what I’ve come to learn is the wisest course when a waiter or chef cares enough to talk to you. Leave the meal to them or at least take their suggestions seriously. And sure enough we didn’t go wrong.

I just looked up the place on Google and found several reviews including a description of the fish dish we got. Water-cooked fish it was called and now I remember a dish at a New Haven Chinese place that served up a water cooked meat dish with a similar sauce. There was also a twice-cooked pork (excellent), a plate of skewered morsels that was appetizer and for Ranjit, a veritable love at first bite. Another appetizer of duck – basically duck confit in pancakes Peking-duck style at Cheema’s insistence tho god knows there was enough food and the classic rounding up with noodles in this case a bowl of translucent potato-based noodles in a spicy broth. Too much food. Yes! But we did a fairly good job, lubricating the way down with an excellent Argentinian Malbec, and also, this way various kids – Tanvi here with lotus and noodles, Cheema’s kids with fish and pork (which will be thrice cooked now) – get a taste of our meal.

I still don’t have a job other than an extension at Cairo and am still worried about all that but I’m a simple soul. And perhaps the lotuses have turned me into a lotus eater of the Odyssey losing my grip on reality, but hey, it’s hard to be unhappy or anything but optimistic  when you’re replete with good food.

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