Food, Middle East

The Middle East, as you may be aware, has some amazing food. I’ll admit, I get sick of eating the same thing over and over, and right now, I pretty much can’t eat anymore felafel and hummus. But I have had some truly wonderful meals here, and most of them have been in someone’s home, in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, or even cooked out in a field. But if all else fails, there is really nothing quite like a bowl of fresh figs, ripe to bursting, still hot from the sun hitting the tree in a village in western Turkey.

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Food, Life, Middle East

Ever since I started planning in earnest for our stateside reception, I’ve been trying to think of little gifts/thank yous to leave at each seat, and also to think of ways to bring both of our cultures into this. The restaurant serves hummus, baba ganoush, and tabbouleh, so we’ll be having that alongside crawfish etouffee and muffuletta orzo. And I’ve been picking out a few favorite Arabic songs to play.

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Sometime last year my friend Kathleen invited me to her and Niluk’s wedding. I didn’t think we’d both be able to make it to San Diego this spring, but as Niluk’s family hails from Sri Lanka, and Layth had wanted to visit Sri Lanka for a long time, this was the perfect excuse for us to hop on a plane and go have an island vacation.

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It also happened to be Layth’s birthday while we were there, and since we won’t be traveling anywhere right away after our wedding party in July, it was kind of a birthday trip/honeymoon/much-needed vacation all in one.

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We spent our first three nights in Colombo in a little hotel called Lake Lodge, which I chose for its price, its proximity to the Cinnamon Grand Hotel (where the wedding would be) and for the fact that I wanted us to have a few days in a nice hotel before we started shlepping it across the country on un-air conditioned trains and buses with our backpacks.

And as you can see, the hotel was perfect. We were greeted with cold face towels and lime, ginger and mint popsicles. Breakfast was delicious and served by staff who seemed to radiate pure happiness. The place is tucked away down a quiet street, with fish ponds that come alive with frogs at night, and several seating areas. Only a swimming pool would have made it better.

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We were close to this little lake, which was home to birds like this (this photo is by Layth, I didn’t want to get so close to this guy), and were also near Gangaramaya Temple, which was a very relaxing, yet kind of hodgepodge Buddhist temple. There were of course many statues of the Buddha, flowers and incense for prayers, but there were also a few rooms of antique collections – old photos, plates, bowls, watches, religious figurines – along with this life-sized elephant head statue.

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If you’re traveling to Sri Lanka, especially on a short trip, I’d highly recommend looking up a calendar of their holidays beforehand – including the lunar phases. We happened to arrive on the Sinhala and Tamil new year, and while we were driving into the city, marveling at the lack of traffic, once we arrived in town it hit us that nearly every shop and restaurant was closed. The next day, some of the more touristy shops re-opened, and big shopping centers were open, but we still couldn’t visit a lot of shops or markets we’d read about.

And then, just when we thought the holiday was over, a full moon happened, bringing the country to a halt again. I think many of the restaurants we went to were owned by Muslims, since – perhaps with the exception of a couple hours for Friday prayers – they stay open the most. As one Muslim business owner there told us (in slight exaggeration), “Buddhists – they’re on their own path, they don’t want to bother anyone. But how can they be successful businessmen when they go to bed at five?”

Also, before we left I’d read somewhere that if you wanted to eat Sri Lankan food at a restaurant, you’d have to order it the night before. Someone else told me not to worry about it, but it ended up being kind of true. It’s something that still sort of baffles me – I know all food needs time to prepare – but usually when you travel, local fare is what they have on hand, ready to go. But if you want Sri Lankan breakfast, you have to order the night before. If you want Sri Lankan dinner, find a halal restaurant (aka “Muslim Hotel,” a local quirk of calling restaurants hotels). 

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But then we had a pre-wedding dinner to go to, where we got to meet some of Niluk’s family, and where we did finally sample some Sri Lankan cuisine. And then the next night was the wedding.

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The wedding ceremony was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Traditional dancers sang with drums and bells, even did backflips at one point. Then there was a complex ceremony of the bride and groom’s family being presented to one another, gift exchanges, prayers.

Kathleen and Niluk started dating about 5 ½ years ago, weeks before she and I found ourselves in the same study abroad program in Jordan, learning Arabic. We learned to cope with some of the challenges of living abroad, and we eventually became roommates and worked in similar fields (she in film, I in media/publishing). Most everyone in that group (myself included) went through breakups while studying abroad, but these two became closer even with all the time spent apart. And so being there with Layth, who I met around the same time, although we didn’t start dating until much later (and then had our own very long-distance time), just made it all the more special to see them get married in Sri Lanka. 

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We also spent a lot of time looking around for cute tea houses like this one. I had what might have been the most amazing iced tea of my life here, iced Earl Grey with honey.

Also, I don’t know what couple goes on a honeymoon and basically comes back with groceries, but that’s what we did. I stocked up on coconut oil – that bottle was about $2, but a smaller jar of it would cost about $14 in Amman – various kinds of coffee, tea, spices, chutney, fresh vanilla, etc. And we got some nice textiles and other decor for the house, but more on that later. 

Next time: central Sri Lanka – Kandy and Nuwara Eliya.

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I made this cake a while back, adapted from this recipe. It’s amazing and has all of my favorite flavors – rosewater, honey, cardamom, lemon zest, plus a generous sprinkling of pomegranate seeds and coconut flakes between each layer.

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When I’m searching for a recipe, I personally hate scrolling through 10 paragraphs of how the food blogger was feeling that week, why their kids/husband like the food so much, plus 20 process photos, so for now, I’ll just say that these are tasty little savory meat pies from the Levant, and I’ll give a little more exposition after the ingredients and directions.

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Sfiha (Levantine Savory Meat Pies)

Dough / عجينة

2 cups all purpose flour
3 tsp yeast
1 Tbs sugar
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp baking powder
2 Tbs powdered milk (or 1/3 cup regular milk)
1 Tbs plain (Greek) yogurt
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup veg/canola oil
1 cup warm water

Combine all the dry ingredients in a large bowl, then add the milk, yogurt and oils. Add the warm water last and mix until it forms a sticky, almost runny dough. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place to rise for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, make the meat filling/topping:

Filling: (this makes twice as much filling as you’ll need for the dough – you can either cut it in half, or save the rest to put on a pizza or something else)

1 pound ground beef or lamb
1 tsp white vinegar
juice of one lemon
3 tomatoes
1 onion, chopped roughly
1 clove of garlic
1 hot green pepper
¼ cup tahine
¼ cup plain (Greek) yogurt
1 Tbs pomegranate molasses
½ tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
Optional: add a handful of chopped mint leaves and 1 tsp Lebanese 7 spices, top with pine nuts

Heat the oven to 230 C (450 F). Place the ground meat into a mixing bowl, add vinegar and ½ the lemon juice, and mix in. In a blender or food processor, put the tomatoes, onion, garlic, pepper, yogurt, and remaining lemon juice, and blend until pureed. Add the tomato puree to the ground meat and combine, adding salt and pepper, then add the tahine and pomegranate molasses. All the acidic ingredients help to cure the meat, so when you bake it, it only takes about 10 minutes to cook without drying out.

Once the dough has risen, coat a few baking pans with canola oil and divide the dough into balls, about 1 inch in diameter. Put them back in a warm place to rise a little more. Then flatten them with your fingers, so that the dough is about ¼ inch thick. Place a spoon of the meat filling on each piece of dough and spread out evenly. Bake about 10 minutes, until the dough puffs up and turns golden brown.

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This particular variety – Sfiha Qudsi – is the Jerusalem version. Sfiha Shami (from Syria) is mostly the same ingredients, but the dough is rolled out into longer pieces. The Syrian version is also quite similar to what you’ll find in Turkey, but it’s called pide or lahmacun (”lahm” is meat in Arabic, and the word is also found in the name “Bethlehem,” which literally means “House of Meat.”) And if you want to make it Lebanese, add some fresh mint and 7 spices mix (paprika, pepper, cumin, cassia, cloves, coriander seed, cardamom, and nutmeg).

And if you find yourself in Brazil, you might know this as esfirra (the Portugese “r” approximates the hard “h” sound in Arabic), brought there by Levantine migrants.

Recipes like this affirm my theory that every culture has its version of pizza, sandwiches, noodles, and the dumpling. Deep down, we all just want to eat carbs. There’s also a pretty compelling argument out there which says the modern-day burrito is actually the fusion cuisine descendant of shawarma/doner/gyro, again brought to the Americas by immigrants from Asia minor and influenced over time by Latino cooking.

Enjoy!

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Fun day of cooking Black Sea dishes in Urla, Turkey.

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Today’s my last day of work in DC. I’m seeing family for the holidays, then off to Turkey. OUTTA HERE.