Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Ramadan is Coming!

Welp, Ramadan is a month away now. Occasionally I hear other expats talking about Ramadan and how they want to go home because, "it isn't the same here."

Obviously. Then I hear other expats (non Muslims) talking about how people eat like they are starving to death, when in fact people have missed one meal. I gained 3 kilos myself last year, so I can say the struggle is real.

I have no experience with Ramadan outside Salalah. I am from Maine, and haven't yet participated in any of the Ramadan activities there. And you know what? They have them. The University of Orono has an Eid gathering for local Muslims that I hear is quite fun. For much of Ramadan, I am here. And I like it. I like it just fine. I don't have any emotional baggage tying me to a homeland in order to appreciate this religious observance, and why we have it . I reserve that longing for Christmas.

A friend at work asked me why Muslims have Ramadan. Like, what's the point? I don't think this person was looking for a history lesson, but for a quick wiki. Good thing, cause I don't wanna get into it THAT much. I'd have to read stuff to pull it off.

During Ramadan, you are supposed to fast with your entire self. You are supposed to refrain from gossip and backbiting. As for your eyes, don't look at things that are inappropriate or unlawful. Keep your hands to yourself and don't take things that don't belong to you. Stop cussing and don't listen to rude music. And keep your feet out of bad places. The word "sawm" means to refrain, and we refrain from food and drink too, from sunup to sundown. Refraining from being a jerk for a month increases the likelihood you will stop for good.

Before I became a Muslim, a friend told me fasting helps us empathize with the poor. Of all the reasons to fast, I like this one the most. If you are hungry for a time, compassion for the those who are hungry every day of their lives increases, and thus charity towards them. For this reason, I admit I look at people who sleep through fasting  with a little "judgeyness." We are SUPPOSED to feel uncomfortable.

So shouldn't we all do this all year long? Yeah. People are people, though, so I think it's great to have a month where people try just a bit harder to be good. Do people fail in this endeavor during Ramadan? Obviously. Conquering the flesh is no easy proposition, as any religious can tell you.

This year, I am here for the first two weeks, then I go back to America for a month. I plan to enjoy it. The air will be cool, the desert will turn green, and Salalah braces for the onslaught of tourists arriving during Eid al Fitr. Snack places open outside restaurants only for Ramadan. Yummy. The government sponsors tents in Saada and New Salalah for local ladies to sell their home cooking (yes, there are poor Omanis). More yummy. When I cook dinner, people arrive on time. Always a bonus.

As for hunger, lately I am always hungry. I PAID MONEY for the priviledge. After all that ranting about diets, I joined Smart Diet. If hunger were the point of Ramadan, I'd be a spiritual giant right now. But Smart Diet, and my whiny suffering, is a post for another day.

Ramazan with the Poor by Azim Azimzade, 1938

As for cake, I meant to make Apple Cheesecake Bars. Know what I forgot? The cheesecake middle. The part of the "cake" that made it good for posting here. Why? I blame the 700 calorie a day diet. So what came out of the oven was a slightly burned apple crisp. I remembered the cheesecake element when I saw my husband slather Philly cream cheese in a sandwich. Dang!

This is the original picture:

Yeah. Didn't happen. This is what happened.

It isn't awful.

My daughter is right. I do not have the patience to be a great baker. She is a great baker. Her cakes are divine, and look it. Like this one:

I think it's sweet that she believes I am capable but impatient. That I just can't be arsed. It's like a compliment!

In any case, here is a decent recipe for apple crisp. It's quite nice on vanilla ice cream and super easy to make. 

Apple Crisp

4 peeled apples, cut into small chunks (Granny Smiths are nice)
1 small box of digestive bisquits, or one packet of graham crackers.
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. ground nutmeg
1/2 t. ground ginger

Grind the bisquits in a food processor to coarse flour consistency. Add 5 tsps of cold butter while grinding, in teaspoon size bits.

Press into the bottom of an 8x8 pan. 

Cover with the chunked apples. Sprinke spices over the apples.

Mix 1 1/2 cups oatmeal, 1/2 cup flour, and 1/2 cup brown sugar. Cut in another 6 t. of cold butter until thoroughly mixed. I used a food processor, and I think that was a mistake. A crisp should have a bit of a country feeling to it, and the oats don't stand out this way. 

Spoon over the apples and bake for 25 minutes at 180/350

Mine burned a bit, I think because we just changed the dang gas tank and the oven ran hot. 

I made a caramel syrup but I think you should eliminate that. Too sweet. That is also the matte look you see on the crisp, rendering it distinctly uncrispy. 

So, all in all, a moderate fail last night. But there's always another day. 


Felicia El Aid

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Art of Feeding a Tunisian Husband (Yikes!)

Do you know that before the Arab Spring, I didn't know where Tunisia was? Really. Not a clue. Then the country erupted and CNN couldn't stop talking about it, and I had to google it. Until a couple years ago, to my Americano mind, it was still just a tiny country at the top of Africa, albeit a country that changed the face of modern Arabia. Oh the arrogance of it all!

Then I met my husband, a Tunisian national. He and his friends, who I call Team Tunisia (sometimes Team Arabia if others join in) are the mainstay of my social life. Life is a rum old business isn't it? If I am using my own words, I'd say life is freakin amazing...never a dull moment!

Now my cooking world is filled with attempts at making food that is at least North African in flavor. I struggle with getting just that exact Tunis taste to my food, and it's difficult. As he isn't fussy, and eats whatever is put on the table with a "very nice," it isn't TOO stressful. And here is the thing: I love most Tunisian food. And I love him. When you love someone, whether it is your person, your children, your parents, whatever...you cook with affection.

I do know women who don't cook, or hate cooking, and while we laugh about it together I still look at them and feel...bemused. But hey, I didn't cook for yonks when I came to Salalah. I raised two kids, sometimes being all momish and making healthy, edible meals, and sometimes I couldn't be arsed and served cornflakes. I keeps it real gentle reader. Salalah was my first experience at utter oneness, and I never once cooked for myself. I just couldn't be bothered. I picked up a cheap meal at an Indian restaurant (three years ago, food was cheaper) on the way home from work, and that was that.

I think I bought a pizza the first time Mehdi came over for iftar. Seriously. Iftar, by the way, is the meal that breaks one's fast during Ramadan, when Muslims don't take anything by mouth from sunup to sundown. Yeah. Pizza. Like that happens now! Ha!

Now I will make brik, or breek, depending how one's Tunisian friend spells it in English. Brik is like a Tunisian spring roll, and they are just heavenly. My lovely friend Asma taught me and a group of womenfolk here in Lala land how to do it the other day.


Brik pastry is available in Carrefour near the eggs. Outside areas with a lot of North Africans, I don't know where you'd find it, but spring roll wrappers are acceptable. They are thicker, but still nice enough. Brik pastry is simply much thinner, for a really crispy fried experience. Rabiha (another friend) talked about how in Tunisia the women make this thin pastry from scratch. Ain't happnin'. 

You will need for 12 large briks:

A package of brik pastry or a package of large spring roll wrappers
A dozen eggs
1 cup chopped parsley, flat leaf
1 cup finely chopped onions
some capers, unless you think they are revolting
good quality canned tuna

The canned tuna thing is very Tunsian. It just is. I dunno why.

Lay your brik pastry on a clean surface and line it with parsley, onions, tuna, and capers thusly:

See how thin that pastry is?

See where the fold is? See it? Drop an egg in there, fold the pastry over it and place it in hot vegetable oil. Fry that baby up crispy. You'd think the egg would run out into the oil, but it doesn't. It cooks too quickly to do so, setting up quickly in the marvy parsley nest. You can add leftover mashed potatoes to that mix, take out the tuna, whatever. Mashed potato brik is quite Algerian really. I've made it that way, and it's delish. 

She is gently spooning frying oil over the brik. We ate them with mutton and couscous. Well worth the effort, and the expansion to your waistline. The couscous directions are in my last post, by the by. 

My very own Team Tunisia. I'd put a full pic but he is just too dang good looking!

As for the cake, I made some disgusting Nutella muffins. Nutella is delightful stuff, and so I choked a couple down, but these had a greasy feel to them that I found quite off-putting. It is certainly an easy recipe, but if I were to make Nutella muffins again, I would use a regular recipe, not a fast yeast one. 

. I will never use it again, and I don't recommend you do either!

1/2 cup melted butter
6 T sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 T yeast (one packet)
1/2 t salt
250 ml of milk (sorry for the metric, but I really had to use it)
about a half cup of Nutella

Add the sugar to the melted butter and let cool a bit. Beat in the eggs. In a seperate bowl, mix the flour, yeast, Add the milk and butter mix and stir until just mixed, leaving the batter lumpy.

Here is my advice. LET THE BATTER REST FOR 30 MINUTES. This gives it more loft than if you bake them right away. The yeast gets a chance to rise a bit. The original directions didn't recommend this, but I sure do. Blech.

Line a muffin tin with cupcake liners and fill 2/3 full with batter. Push about a teaspoon of nutella into the middle. 

Bake about 20 minutes at 350. 

If you make these and you have more success than I did, let me know your trick!

This is the original pic, not mine. I forgot my mobile at home so I couldn't take a pic before the teachers here ate them. But this is pretty accurate, except my nutella was just globbed in the middle.

My cooking adventures continue, as does the experience of an inter-cultural marriage. Those of us brave enough to marry someone completely outside our realm of experience are a bit like pioneers eh? Crikey I should write a book someday!


Felicia El Aid

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Bring on the Fast Food, Salalah!

Recently I was invited to a marketing event at New York Fries in the Salalah Garden Mall. It was my first blogger swag. (If anyone else wants to give me free stuff go ahead..no problem). This new locale is at the cinema and features hot dogs (gak in general) and fresh cut french fries with toppings.

They were pretty good. And free.

By the time the other swag recipients went to the movies clutching complimentary tickets (I'm not the only social media person in Salalah. YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE FRENCH FRY SWAG RECIPIENTS!!), I was ready to scream. NY Fries plays a lot of heavy metal music in a very small space. Heavy metal. In a small space. It was a bit surreal truly.  I actually felt a bit dizzy at times. Did I mention the fries were free?

Here's the thing. I am not a small woman. I love french fries and can hardly wait for this business to get the right cheese for Poutine. Some of you might say I don't have a leg (a chunky one) to stand on when I carp about the problem of fast food in Salalah, but I do find it worrying that, as the promoter said, there is no concern by the franchise that the concession stand will lose on popcorn and candy sales. Cinema goers, DHOFARI cinema goers, simply buy both. Salalah sales are so high that indeed management came from Canada to see what was happening here. What is happening here, and call me Debby Downer, is diabetes and obesity at life threatening levels. Fact. Diet Centers are also booming right along with the fast food eateries. For all the Hardees and fried chicken places, a new nutrition center opens. And hardly anyone is getting any smaller. Lot of people getting richer though. Lot of people sicker, lot of people richer.

Holy crud it sounds like America!

Poutine. It's what's for dinner. In Quebec anyway. Dem good stuff.

This weekend I learned how to make couscous and brik, Tunisian style. If you've never had couscous, you must try it. To me, it is without doubt one of the tastiest foods on the planet. I never tried making it because many Tunisian women make it sound like it's shockingly difficult, as housewives with a specialty are wont to do. A Tunisian girlfriend from Tatooine finally showed me (and a few other Salalah ladies) how to make it. Step by step. Once she finished cooking this yummy lamb stew and couscous with about 14 large "briks," we sat down and ate like we'd just crossed the Mojave Desert. Me? It's what's on the menu Friday. Come on over.

Tunisian Couscous

First you must make your stew. You can do this with any animal protein. If you are cooking beef or mutton, you must cook the meat first and add the vegetables later. Fish is added at the end. Chicken you can cook with the vegetables. Sa? These directions serve about 4. This stew is made in the bottom of a double boiler with a steamer on top. 

Saute 1 c. rough chopped onions in 1/3 cup olive oil until translucent.

Add 1 1/2 sachets of tomato paste (a small can for Americanos)

Add 1 spoonful of harissa. If you want more heat, add more. Harissa is readily available at Carrefour, but not so easy to find in the States. 

Brown about a kilo (2 pounds) of lamb pieces.

Add 10-12 cloves crushed garlic. NOTE: Not all Tunisians use a lot of garlic. My friend doesn't like the taste of mutton, so she adds a lot of garlic. I heartily agree. I hate any strong mutton taste, and all this garlic did the trick. 

Add 5-6 cups of water.
I would also add a can of drained chickpeas. My friend added a couple cups of chickpeas she'd soaked overnight. What a woman!
Add a pinch of black pepper, a heaping teaspoon of barat, a teaspoon of chili powder and salt to taste. NOTE: We keep barat on hand because I am married to a Tunis man, BUT it is hard to find, even here. Ground coriander is a perfectly acceptable alternative, and just as authentic.

Bring to a boil and let your meat simmer for awhile, then add your vegetables. Keep an eye on it and add more water as needed.

Potatoes cut into wedges, carrots, pumpkin, whatever you have on hand for root vegetables are nice. They are cut into wedges and such so that you can "present" your couscous with the meat piled in the middle and the wedges and cubes arranged around the meat.

While your meat is stewing, pour about 3 cups of couscous in a large bowl. Add several whole cloves. Wet the couscous a little at a time and start turning it with your hand. Aim for 2 cups of water. The idea is to wet and fluff the grain. You don't want to soak it. This takes several minutes and isn't nearly as hard as it sounds. Just pour some water over your hand and fold, 

Place in top of steamer and leave about 20 minutes. Do not cover.

Remove the couscous and stir with a spoon and fluff. Once it's cool enough to handle, hand fold it again with about a cup more water. It will have nearly doubled in volume. Add it back to the steamer for 20 minutes. Add it to your bowl and fluff a bit. You can remove the cloves at this time if you are worried your guests won't like finding them. I shan't bother. 

Now, my friend is from Tatooine (of Star Wars fame). They typically skim some of the oil off the stew and fluff it into the couscous. The juice is then poured over the grain and the meat and vegetables placed on top, like this:

In the north, in Tunis for example, enough sauce is poured into the couscous to make it moist but not wet. I think this takes just takes practice. She made a LOT of couscous for us, so she put about 2 cups of sauce in the couscous. Fluff it and place it on a platter. Arrange your meat and vegetables and serve. Extra meat and vegies can go in a bowl on the side. Granted this is a dish that takes a little practice. It is WELL WORTH THE EFFORT.

Eat. Then nap. I know it sounds like a lot of bother, but it really isn't such a big deal. I say that now, but we will see on Friday when I practice alone for the first time.

Freakin yummy. 

I will be here the first two weeks of Ramadan, and hope to serve this regularly. Come on over for iftar! Just don't tease me too much if it isn't just as your grandmother made it! 

As for cake, I know I didn't post one. I'm not doing so well this week with the no sugar, no wheat, no milk regime. I go to India for the finishing touches on my tummy (lipo is my friend) and no matter what I do, the weight just doesn't come off. Bugger! 

My next post will be how to make brik, a fried Tunisian spring roll thingie, and a ridiculous German Chocolate Cheesecake I am attempting for my student's last day of class. Wish me luck. 


Felicia El Aid