Saturday, 27 October 2012

the running of the goats in cairo...

This weekend marks one of the biggest holidays in the Muslim year,  Eid al-Adha. Not to be confused with Eid al-Fitr (the conclusion of the holy month of Ramadhan), Eid al-Adha coincides with the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj. As turkey is to Thanksgiving, lamb and goat are to Eid al-Adha, and it is said that the 2 million Hajji (pilgrims) consume the equivalent of the entire lamb exports of New Zealand (remember: sheep outnumber the 4 million Kiwis by 12:1, so that's a lot of lamb). The reason for this is Eid al-Adha roughly translates as "Festival of the Sacrifice" sheep and goats are slaughtered to commemorate Abraham almost sacrificing his son, Ishmael, in accordance to God's will, only to have a God present an eleventh hour change in the line up, replacing Ishmael with a sheep. (Imagine our world today if that didn't happen).

As Muslims around the world celebrate and think of their loved ones, I instead think of my first exposure to Islamic culture during my semester in Cairo. Since I was new to the Muslim world, I became acquainted with the various Muslim holidays by virtue of classes being cancelled.  Judging by our school calendars that a long weekend for was approaching, it wasn't until Eid itself that I realised that another key indicator of what was in store was there all along: goats in downtown Cairo.

If you've never been to Cairo, then you'll need to know this one thing: Cairo is the living definition of organised chaos. When 5 rows of traffic fit into 3 lanes, tireless bicycles pass by with upside-down pita bread pyramids balanced on heads of the riders, dogs sleep atop alarm-throbbing cars, the two traffic lights in a city of 17 million are mere "suggestions," and you can politely refuse to give money when approached by guards with guns strapped to their backs...well, let's just say goats on the street really isn't that surprising. In fact, a friend and his family had a pet goat they named Lucky. Lucky lived on the top floor of the house with a comfy bed of straw to sleep and chew on. Since camels also lived downstairs, a goat in the house wasn't a big deal.

That is until the final days before Eid. Walking home one evening the (relatively) quiet, tree-lined suburb of Zamalek, the eerie sound of goats bleating would echo into the night. Unseen birds chirping in trees or dogs barking somewhere in the neighbourhood is one thing; the bleating of goats from dark apartment buildings is another, as though pleading "he-e-e-e-e-lp me-e-e-e-e-e."

The next day, en route to Lucky's family for dinner, our taxi came across an unexpected "running of the goats." Judging by the reaction of the traffic that never stops for anything, Cairo's running of the goats is a rather impromptu affair. It's also only a small event as it seems it only needs three or four Egyptian men to dodge traffic in chase of the goat. I can't verify this, but I presume the guy who grabs the goat by the horns and drags it against its well back to the apartment wins some kind of prize. Again, don't quote me on that, but that's what it looked like from the backseat of a cab.

Arriving at the Khisha household sometime later, exotic aromas of cumin, coriander, and cardamom wafted into the evening air. Our mouths water as we sat down for what was no doubt going to be an outstanding traditional meal.  Piles of couscous and pita surround a bubbling pot of stew, and we are set to dig in before Michelle asks the inevitable "So, how's Lucky?"

Silent eyes drift down to the bubbling pot, a gulp of discomfort lodges in our throats. As thoughts of Lucky not being so lucky anymore, I also gather that we missed out on the Khisha family's running of the goats. No point dwelling on the past, and with such a beautiful before us, I dug in for what was, and still is to this day, the luckiest meal I've ever had.

Eid Mubarak to all!

Monday, 22 October 2012

onna kokoro to aki no sukiyaki mo...

The other day I stepped out to meet friends for brunch at a restaurant located about an hour's walk away.  Gone is the record-setting gorgeous Indian Summer of Thanksgiving weekend, so I needed to dress appropriately for both brunch and the weather. Being late October in Vancouver, this means more thought had to go into what I wore than just first pants, then shoes. In fact, alot of what I wore needed to be complimented by a contrasting item of clothing or accessory:  the singlet undershirt needed a warm sweater; the warm sweater needed a light jacket; sunglasses and an umbrella.

Stepping out as such, I suddenly remembered an old Japanese adage: "onna kokoro to aki no sora." The first proverb I ever learned as an exchange student inYokosuka, "onna kokoro to aki no sora" roughly translates as "a woman's heart is like an autumn sky."  In other words, the reason I was dressed prepared for anything is because an autumn sky change in an instant. It starts out as one thing, but before you know it something completely different has happened. To my east it was a blue sunny sky, to the west dark forboding clouds; with no prevailing wind, there was no telling which way the weather would go.

Such, according to the Japanese, is the way of a woman's heart. Single for a long time and without sisters as a cross-reference, I cannot stand as a relationship expert that can verify to which planet each sex is from (though my best guess is Earth).  Still, I've had female flatmates and colleagues, and my experience tells me that there is a cloud of truth in this saying.  However, like the autumn sky, chances are there are reasons for the sudden changes even if you don't fully see them. It doesn't take a meteorologist to know that if it looks like sun or rain, then chances are it's going to do one or the other. A good day can be found if you're prepared for either with both sunglasses and an umbrella.

With these saying stuck in my head all day (it ended up mostly cloudy), I developed a craving for my favourite Japanese meal, sukiyaki.  The cooling autumn temperatures are kept at bay with the warm, bubbling broth of stock, soy sauce, sake, mirin, sugar, and ginger. The formula for the broth is easy: start with 2 cups stock and halve your way down the list (1 cup soy sauce, 1/2 cup sake, 1/4 cup mirin...). Into the pot go a hodgepodge of ingredients, traditionally paper-thinly sliced beef, tofu, shiitake mushrooms, enoki mushrooms, Chinese cabbage (hakusai in Japanese), and shirataki noodles (made from yam flour), but any ingredients will do. Cook in a shared hot-pot until liking, then remove, dip in beaten raw egg (the heat of the food cooks the egg coating), and eat with rice.

To me, it's a perfect autumn dish and a nice addendum to the proverb (to sukiyaki mo means "and sukiyaki too"). Like a woman's heart and an autumn sky, sukiyaki is complex but full of many great surprises too: raw egg can be delicious, clouds can turn to sunshine, and a woman's heart can love forever. All you need to do is prepare yourself appropriately.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

sweet gold for sweet teeth...

With company coming earlier this week, I decided to make a nice bread pudding for dessert. It's that time of year where autumn winds sweep in from the Pacific with foreboding signs of impending winter; a time that calls for belly-warming comfort food.  Slow cooked in an oven that doubles as a heater for my tiny flat, bread pudding is just such a comfort food. Soak stale bread in kahlua and cold coffee in a baking dish, fill the dish with a 50/50 blend of milk and cream, 3 beaten eggs, a tablespoon or two of sugar, a teaspoon or each of nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom and my standard pudding is ready to go. For fun, this time I also added a bit of homemade chestnut puree for a dessert that is like me; a little sweet if but slightly nutty.

Lovely though the pudding was, it was the accompanying wine that lifted the humble bread pudding to new heights. Slowly sipping my way through my wine collection, I decided to open a bottle of Austrian Ausbruch from my trip 2 years ago.  Ausbruch is a style of sweet wine particular to the town of Rust (roosht), with a honeyed-apricot character tempered by refreshing acidity. Matched with the bread pudding, it reminded me that a high-quality sweet wine is the perfect choice to pair with a dessert or stand as a dessert all unto itself.

After the Ausbruch, I decided to explore other sweet wines during the week to match with leftover pudding.  First, a Sauternes, which is of a similar sweetness but hails for Bordeaux.  Later in the week, a revist to my all-time favourite, Tokaji Aszu, from northeastern Hungary. Both Sauternes and Tokaj are considered to be international standards in sweet wines, although the Germans/Austrians may beg to differ with their Beerenausleses and Trockenbeerenausleses (Ausbruch is only found in Austria). The effect of the Sauternes and the Tokaji on my dessert was the same as the Ausbruch; a perfect balance of sweetness, acidity, body, and flavour (though my preference, as always, falls with the Tokaji).

The unique feature of these wines is that there sweetness is not doctored to meet the masses; masses who were introduced to wines with the White Zinfandels, Mateus/Lancers, Baby Ducks, and Black Towers of the world. In the case of the latter, I actually had to write a paper for my Diploma exam on Black Tower; I said it was suited for the consumer new to wines or one who still drinks like it's 1973. Instead, sweet wines from Tokaji to Trockenbeerenauslese (while the former is my favourite wine, the latter is my favourite wine word) achieve their intense flavours and sugars by botryitis cinerea; a.k.a. "noble rot."

Noble Rot occurs when cool September mists give way to warm afternoons. Microscopic moulds appear on the grapes and suck out the water content, leaving behind shrivelled, furry grapes with concentrated sugars.  Botrytis cinerea can happen anywhere in the world, but proximity to shallow, warm bodies of water help assure an annual harvest; the Bodrog and Tisza Rivers in Tokaj, the Garonne and tributaries in Bordeaux, the Neusiedlersee in Austria. However, it is imporant that the grapes are healthy. Should damaged grapes be attacked these spores, the end result is Grey Rot. The photo to the left is of a Riesling bunch effected by Grey Rot in the Rheingau, Germany. (The same vineyard as my backdrop for this blog, incidentally). A hailstorm damaged these grapes as botrytis set in, resulting in damaged grapes that started to ferment in the vineyard itself.
But it is to Noble Rot we owe the great sweet wines of the world, and they are the perfect companion to the comfort desserts of the coming months. I highly recommend trying any of the above wines as they are absolutely worth their price in sweet gold; your sweet tooth will thank me for it.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Garden Archaeology...

Growing up in Toronto, one of my favourite places to visit was the Royal Ontario Museum. Specifically, it was to the impressive dinosaur exhibit I would extol upon any adult (and more often than not, my Dad) to bring me to see. I would race up the marbled stairs and proceed to guide said adult through the wonderful world of dinosaurs. I would pause at each artifact, informing my minder of the name of the dinosaur before us, whether it was a herbivore or carnivore, and to which era it belonged. After what seemed an eternity of joy among the fossils (and for the fossil accompanying me, just an eternity no doubt), I was promptly done with the Museum and ready to go. If memory serves me right, I was then brought to other wings by the adult in an effort to not only teach me about other artifacts but most likely to make it worth the price of admission to see more than just dinosaurs.

In this respect, these visits to the R.O.M. inspired me as a young boy to become an archaeologist.  I remember digging a hole at our cottage near Algonquin Park in order to uncover millenia-hidden remains that would catapult me into archaeological stardom.  Two feet down a pit 5 feet wide, I had nothing to show for my 30-minutes work. More than a treasure trove of fossils, the pit ended up as the grave for my budding archaeological career.

Today's work in my garden, however, brought back memories of dreams long-forgotten. With the harvest nearly complete (some zucchini and cabbage remain), I thought it time to till the soil and mix in a summer's worth of kitchen waste before the winter winds return.  What started out as a simple gardening exercise ended up yielding archaeological artifacts from tenants of a bygone era. Included are two beer mugs, a saucer, several beer cans, and a marble. That's much more of a haul than the ill-fated dinosaur quarry ever produced, and is an insight into the ancient customs of a previous civilisation.  From these artifacts, I infer that over the ceremonial plate, a marble was tossed into its middle by warriors in a challenge of inebriation fuelled by amber elixirs.

At least that's what my inner-archaeologist thinks; it certainly brings a sense of adventure to a day's worth of gardening. 

Friday, 12 October 2012

smoke'em if you got'em!...

As per an earlier entry, the smooth sounds of Bob Marley echo in my flat as I reap the blackberry harvest and embark on my seasonal jammin' sessions. For the record, that is as much Bob Marley-ism I embrace in my life, so this entry has nothing to do with some of the "other" influences often attributed to the rasta-reggae legend.

Rather, I am referring (that's re-fer-ring, not reef-er-ing) to my recent discovery at the art of smoking food. With my varied exposure to cooking methods around the world, for some reason smoking meat has never occurred to me as a reasonable way to prepare a meal. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I was never a happy camper growing up (and to this day still much prefer the great indoors), so I was never exposed to the impact campfire can have on food and clothing.  Maybe it is because, as an rule-obeying child fearful of harmful consequences, I never played with matches and therefore never took an interest in cooking skills related to smoke. Or, maybe it is simply because I never developed a smoking habit myself; i never got the point of it, and my palate has both lost out and benefited from that in the end.

Whatever the reason, I am now a fan of the smoke.  Earlier today, I bought a bone-in turkey breast for dinner but was not yet sure how I wanted to cook it.  Autumn rains upon us mean grilling on the BBQ isn't as fun, but the temperature doesn't quite merit slow-roasting in the oven. A perfect compromise: through a few hickory chips in the un-unsed smoker try (which is not to be confused with the ashtray for smokers located near the BBQ), work up a smoke, and let sit for about an hour. To this, I added fresh-picked rosemary, thyme, sage, and lavender set atop the turkey, adding an herbaceous complexity to the otherwise unseasoned meat.

The final catalyst to the to smoke or not to smoke debate was, naturally, the wine I happened to have on hand.  Leftover from a class I instructed last night was a bottle of Pinotage; a uniquely South African red that is the love-child of a brief and torrid Cape Town affair between Pinot Noir and Cinsault.  Back in France, a long-distance relationship is just one of the many factors that keep the light and delicate Pinot Noir of Burgundy away from the full-bodied and rustic Cinsault; the two are just not meant to be together in French wine. However, thanks to the clever Cupid hands of scientists, South Africans have adopted their love child Pinotage as their own signature grape as it is intended to balance the polar opposites of its parent's characteristics. A typical Pinotage should be medium bodied with medium tannins, show a combination of red and dark berry flavours with a hint of wild game, barnyard, and toasted coffee beans, and is a wine that benefits from oak aging.

And with oak comes flavours of smoke, thus inspiring my dinner tonight. One of the basic food and wine pairing elements is to balance flavour intensity of the food with that of the wine. Intensity of flavour often comes from the method of cooking. Something poached will be delicate in flavour, so match with a delicate wine. Something slow-simmered will be deep and complex in flavour, so balance with a fuller-bodied, complex wine. With smoked food, the match is simple: oaked wine. The fact that smoke and oak rhyme is the best way to remember this pairing!

Although I broke two cardinal laws by not only eating meat on Friday but also having red wine with white meat, the dinner was excellent. Sure enough, the smokey notes of both wine and turkey matched each other perfectly, served with a side of spiced rice n' beans with cabbage. As a result, I have a new cooking skill added to my repatoire, so if you ever here me say that I need a smoke, you'll know that I am hankering for a nice dinner!

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

As Easy as Riding a Bike...

The other day I decided to do something I haven't done in 4 years: go for a bike ride. The pour mountain bike, inherited from my father, has been sitting in my room collecting dust and, like most of us, showing signs of aging with it's rusty joints and sagging tires. However, a little air, a little cooking oil, and a little bath and the mountain bike was ready to take to the hilly streets.

Despite the immediate incline out of my driveway, the basic mechanics of cycling it don't go away but leg muscles seem to have a shorter-term memory. Nonetheless, I also remembered that I like cycling because it is a great physical activity that one can do sitting down. I had stopped riding for so many years because for many years, bicycles were my means of transportation. I had thus lost the love of the activity and instead looked at it as a reliable way of getting around but with a backpack weighted down in groceries, school supplies, or bottles of wine.

Come to think of it, it hasn't been 4 years since I've been on a bicycle. Due to the aforementioned reliance on bicycles, I occasionally rent bikes while traveling. It is a great, leisurely way to explore a new area. Reflecting on this, here are my Top 5 adventure destinations on bicycle:

5) Amsterdam - With all the confidence I have from surviving the chaotic streets of Cairo, rush hour in Amsterdam scares the hell out of me. Bicycles are the lords of the roads in Amsterdam, and it is truly intimidating to go with the massive flow of cyclists let alone even try to cross the street. It is quite another task to cycle home from after a night of several wines and Abby-strength ales because no matter how many times your friend warns you to watch out for the trolly tracks, your bicycle is sure to find them and your ass the quaintly cobbled streets. A lesson in both humility and the law of the jungle for any avid cyclist.

4) Barossa Valley, Australia - The heart of Australian Wine Country, there are paths and lanes dedicated to bicycle traffic for not only workers but also visitors wishing to visit the wineries on bike. Truly, a civilised way to cycle as one makes their way from cellar door to cellar door, all the while imbibing in a Chardonnay or Shiraz. In 2004, I did just that and was somehow able to hit 10 wineries in a single day. This past February, I didn't visit that many over 3 days so I must have certainly been on a mission to visit so many. Sip, swallow, and cycle is a great way to combine these pasttimes.

3) San Pedro de Atacama, Chile - Clearly, when one is visiting a small town in the middle of the world's driest desert the best thing to do is rent a bicycle for a day. Unlike those pesky air-conditioned buses that take you where they want you to go, cycling through the desert with 5 L of water strapped to your back is the best way to go. Furthermore, when cycling the Quebrada del Diablo ("The Devil's Ravine"), it is best to take a map with you and not rely on the directions of stray dogs. Better yet, don't trust the directions of friends who have every faith that "the dog knows where he's going."

2) Wellington, New Zealand -  High in the hills above New Zealand's windy city is the Te Kopahou Reserve, home to more than 20km of undulating mountain bike trails. If you are to believe Kiwi companions, these trails are "not that difficult." However, if you are to know your Kiwi companions, you would know their habit for gross understatements; "not that difficult" means steep and narrow, so be prepared to spend most of the ride with mud on your face, shirt, shoes, and shorts. Likewise, "just 100m" is a reference to verticle climb, and can actually take up 10km of up-and-down to get there.

1) Tokaj, Hungary - Stretching along the Bodrog river, you cycle past dozens of vineyards and cellars, both large and small, passing through little towns with very long (and hard to pronounce) names. The only challenge is the language. Knowing a little Hungarian (a few words, not a petite person - although that would be helpful too) can be an asset when, say, the chain completely snaps off a long way out from a long-named town and you walk back along a highway you shouldn't have been on to begin with to the nearest cellar door to mime your issue and ask for them to call the rental company. Complimentary cellar tour and Tokaj tastings, however, make it worth all the trouble.

In spite of all these two-wheeled mishaps in their exotic locations, I am happy to say that my return to riding went without instead thereby proving the old adage that riding a bicycle is - well - as easy as riding a bicycle.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

happy thanksgardening...

Of all the Holidays we see in a year, Thanksgiving offers something special in its simplicity.  There are no pressures of gift giving, no need to celebrate with potentially dangerous explosives, no need to go against every the basic principle of "don't take candy from strangers" (evidently there is an "unless you're dressed in costume" clause in that lesson), and most important, no forced carols in every store and endless ads persuading us to give in to the true spirit of commercialism.

Without all these bells and whistles surrounding the day, Thanksgiving is simply about getting together with family and friends to enjoy a good meal. With no parable of Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock (a holiday I coin as "Yanks-giving), Canadian Thanksgiving instead celebrates the harvest; an Oktoberfest of sorts but with turkey, squash, and wine instead of bratwurst, beer, and liederhosen. In my case, although the blackberry harvest was some weeks ago, the majority of my plants are just perfect for picking now. Tomatoes, zucchinis, squash, beetroot, carrots, turnips, cabbage, beans...a bountiful harvest from a tiny plot this year indeed; a "Thanksgardening", if you will.

No matter what advertisers and carols tell you, Thanksgiving is therefore the happiest time of year because the focus is on food. It is a day where all that is required is to simply get together and enjoy a fabulous meal, be it turkey, ham, or even tofurkey. Most important, the only mandatory message at Thanksgiving is to take a moment and count the blessings you have at the table. For me, it is certainly a loving family, a warm place to live, and bountiful food that nature provides.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

guilty culinary pleasures...

On a recent business trip to Penticton, I decided to mix business with a little bit of pleasure: guilty pleasure, that is.  It is nice to treat oneself every now and then, so normally when then becomes now I like to go all out and have an excellent 3-course meal and amazing wine to match.  However, this time around I thought I would delve deeper into my primal animal hungers; hungers so deep that they rarely reveal themselves among peers yet reach such a heightened sense of satisfaction that I am reminded that guilt is part of the parcel at the onset of being baptised Catholic. I am of course talking about fast food takeout.

I am proud of many things in my life, and one of them is that even under the influences of alcohol I have not stepped foot in a McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's in almost a decade. It is therefore of great significance when I decide to have the rare fast-food dinner, and such decisions must be taken with discretion for fear of being caught. Thus being away in a small country town in a room all to myself I could indulge in the one fast-food joint that tempts my taste buds everytime I pass it: KFC.

In all its finger-licking glory, KFC is one of those comfort foods that take me back to my childhood. Always the feature at family get-togethers or nights when Dad was left to "cook", there is something about the delicate balance of 3-pieces of crispy-fried chicken, a side of fries, and flourescent green coleslaw that is so wrong yet so right. Delving deeper into my devlish indulgence, not only did I purchase my KFC through drive-thru, but I also took it back to the hotel room and ate it in bed!

Naturally, I could not go all the way and indulge in a soft drink with dinner; I do, after all, have some standards. Passing on the Pepsi, I instead paired my poultry pleasure with a Pinot Noir Rose from Sancerre. Generally known for its Sauvignon Blanc, 20% of Sancerre production is of Pinot Noir, little of which makes it to the BC market. Light in body, the crisp acidity actually worked well with fried chicken-skin, and the flavour profiles (oddly) matched quite well too. I never knew a character profile for Pinot Noir could be "flavours of strawberry, raspberry, and eleven secret herbs and spices."

As with any over indulgence, however, I found myself waking the next morning with a greasy-meat induced hangover. The lack of nutrients in the meal (the wine was likely the healthiest of the bunch) wrecked unexpected havoc on my body, and made me wonder how people could live with this type of food as part of their regular diet. All day, I craved fresh fruits and veggies, but come dinner time do you think I was off to Wholefoods?

Nope. Instead, back to more fast-food at the new and well-reviewed Burger 55 ( To be featured on Food Network's "You Gotta Eat Here!" in January, Burger 55 is an awesome, design-it-yourself burger shack in Penticton that is worth checking out. As are the fries. And curry sauce for the fries. And ample toppings. All of which is certainly healthier than KFC....but enjoyed just as much in bed with a great wine (Hess's Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon in this case).

Forgive me, Colonel, for I have sinned in thanks to your greasy goodness....and enjoyed every morsel of it!