Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Justified ancients of momo

Almost everyone in Dubai has access to the food that reminds them of home. One thing that always surprises me, however, is the shocking lack of Nepalese food. It’s like: Where are you from, sir? Oh, the Galapagos Islands? Wonderful! Darwin burgers this way. And you, sir? Nepal? Forget it mate, the airport’s over there.

So although my trip to Kathmandu wasn’t governed by my stomach (for once, as I had come to Nepal to do some voluntary work at some orphanages), I was looking forward to trying the local grub.

I hadn’t expected much of the food at the hostel I spent my first two nights in, though, and my suspicions were proved to be correct. The food was Nepali alright - something approaching the ubiquitous dahl baht tarkari or lentil soup with boiled rice with a simple vegetable curry - but it appeared to have been given the once-over by some kind of spice vacuum, rendering it utterly insipid.

The night I was sent to my host family - the completely brilliant Aryals - I went out to a touristy place called Bhojan Griha to meet up with the other volunteers in my group. The restaurant was in a stately building, once the home of the royal priest to the King of Nepal, and it was set up for tourist groups with set menus, music and traditional dancing. 

And booze. Loads of lethal, 60 percent rice wine, in fact. I didn’t touch any of it myself, you understand, but the Everest lager did make me think more beers should be named after double-glazing firms (sorry, dodgy English gag).

First up was a plate of traditional Nepali murali makai, or popcorn to you and me. Yes, it was no different to the stuff enjoyed by lobotomised cinema-goers the world over, but it’s apparently a popular and nutritious snack in the rural areas of the Kathmandu valley. It was followed by something far more palatable - momos.

Momos are basically steamed dumplings made from thinly rolled flour-and-water dough stuffed with meat or vegetables, and quite often both. It doesn’t do momos justice to call them Nepali dim sum - that would be like saying pizza is just Italian cheese on toast. In any case, they almost certainly originally hail from Tibet, and are popular all over the eastern Himalayas. Anyone who’s had Russian pelmeni or overly-stuffed ravioli will know how good momos can be. I believe these ones were stuffed with minced pork and chopped onions, garlic and coriander. They were splashed with a fiery chilli sauce, which I couldn’t get enough of. It may be traditional comfort food for those long winter nights up in the mountains, but I could have carried on eating it through summer.

After badgering the waiters for extra momos, I took delivery of a thali dish, which was steadily filled with boiled rice, sauteed spinach with cumin, spicy mushrooms, cauliflower, and so-good-I-still-dream-about-them crispy pieces of mildly spiced fried trout. There were bowls of dahl and chicken curry to splash onto the rice, not to mention plates of zingy achar or vegetable pickle to give it that extra kick. Everything was combined and eaten by hand, but it could have been administered to me via a cement mixer and I’d still be happy.

Dessert was a simple affair - a bowl of sikarni, or sweetened yoghurt with chopped cherries - which rounded things off nicely.

The rest of my meals in Kathmandu were cooked by my host family, the Aryals. Like all the best home-cooked food, it was authentic, traditional, plentiful and made with special care and attention. The everyday staples of rice, dahl and curried vegetables were always present. Just before mealtimes, I would hear the familiar pounding of garlic, ginger and spices from the kitchen, and when the food was ready the flavours were every bit as resonant. Some days we'd have side dishes of cabbage with peanuts, or cauliflower and potatoes (like aloo gobi) cooked slowly with cumin, coriander and turmeric. On my final day, we had a plate of gundruk, a very traditional dish of fermented spinach-like leaves with a mildly acidic flavour.

I loved the food here, but what was just as good was the act of coming together around the table at the end of the day to eat, chat and listen to the Aryal’s special teenage son Sushant inquire as to whether I had lungs, or to wax lyrical about an imaginary American wrestler called “Big Foetus”.  I didn’t want to spoil these precious moments by whipping my camera out and snapping the roti - I’ll leave the food paparazzi stuff for the restaurants, if you don’t mind. But just look at that kitchen and use your imagination.

Dubai doesn't know what it's missing.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Korean kismet, or the serendipitous incident at the stupa of Boudhanath

As chance meetings go, it was up there with the very strangest. There I was, minding my own business on a hot day at Boudhanath in Kathmandu - one of Nepal’s largest Buddhist stupas - when this bloke came up to me and asked me to take his picture in front of the giant temple. Nothing too odd about that, I thought, so I duly obliged. Then he asked me where I was from. I told him England, living in Dubai. “Me too,” he gasped, amazed, in a heavy far-east Asian accent, “living in Dubai, I mean.” And he began to tell me his story.

The general manager of the soon-to-be-opened Asiana Hotel in Deira, he was in Kathmandu on a recruitment drive. He said that the new hotel - which will be the first Asian boutique concept in the city - would have a bunch of restaurants including a Japanese, a Chinese and a Korean. He told me he was originally from Korea, Jeju to be precise, and his name was MS Jahng. “MS, like Microsoft,” he quipped.

After explaining that I had more than a passing interest in restaurants, I gave him my contact details and asked him to keep in touch. A week after my return to Dubai, he called and invited me to dinner with him, his wife and two teenage daughters at Yehjun, a tiny Korean joint next to Sea World restaurant, above Safestway supermarket on Sheikh Zayed Road. The place is owned by the parent company of the Asiana Hotel, but is about as low-key as a dwarf’s front door.

I joined them in a private room with bamboo shutters. After exchanging pleasantries, the banchan or small side-dish plates arrived. There were ‘kongnamul’ boiled bean sprouts dressed in sesame oil and served cold, spongey fish cakes or ‘odeng’, ‘gaeran mari’ rolled omelette with vegetables, sauteed garlic stems or ‘manul julgi’, and ‘sigeumchi namul’ or wilted spinach with a splash of soy, garlic and sesame oil.

And of course, since a Korean meal without it would be like a Las Vegas Elvis impersonator without the mutton chops, sweat and 56-inch-waist gold lame suit, there was kimchi. Kimchi is the Korean superfood of pickled and fermented cabbage, which is low in calories, high in fibre, vitamins and minerals, and packed with lactic acid bacteria. Koreans usually eat it every day, often with every meal, but as MS and his girls confessed, sadly many younger Koreans are more interested in McDonalds and KFC these days.

Where I would have leapt upon the banchan like a starving castaway, my civilised Korean hosts politely waited until the mains arrived before tucking in. We had marinated short ribs, which were sweet and smokey, tender and moist. After being torn from the bone and dipped into some soy sauce, the meat was dispatched onto a lettuce leaf and introduced to a bit of kimchi, some garlic stems and whatever we fancied from the banchan selection, before being folded up like a parcel and posted straight down the hatch. It was a stupefying rhapsody of sweet, salty and umami flavours, and crunchy and fleshy textures.

There was also bulgogi, the famous Korean dish of beef marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic and sugar, and barbecued with spring onions to sweet and sumptuous perfection.

What the pan-fried glass noodles lacked in aesthetic quality (it appeared to have been dumped on the plate from the top of a skyscraper), it made up for in flavour and texture. The silkiness of the noodles and black fungus mushrooms, the crunch of the carrot, courgette and spring onion, and the tanginess of the slightly spicy sauce was where it was at.

The seafood pancake sprawled across the table like a giant pizza of egg, squid, prawns, red peppers and spring onion. Unlike a pizza, it was light and fluffy and good with soy sauce.

Like most Korean blowouts, this was a feast that simply couldn’t be finished, even by me. As I reclined in my seat, fully sated, I took my friend MS back to that chance encounter at the stupa of Boudhanath. 

“Didn’t you think our meeting like that was a little bit, well, strange?” I asked still basking in the post-feast haze.

“Yes, very strange,” he agreed.

“In English, we might call it serendipity, or kismet...” I suggested, searching for the right word.

“Destiny,” countered the youngest daughter with a bashful smile.

“You know, after walking around the stupa three times, I think you were sent to me by God,” added MS.

Yes, that’s me, heaven sent. Something may have been lost in translation, but I allowed myself to think he was right. Of course, God’s messengers are almost always sweaty, red-faced, puffy-eyed and slightly overweight English tourists, predisposed to eating you out of house and home (and restaurant) and writing blog entries about you and your family on the internet.

I raised a glass of ‘su jung gwa’ cinnamon and ginger tea and proposed a toast to our next meeting, hoping it would be just as eventful as the first two.

Yehjun Korean Restaurant, next to Sea World restaurant, above Safestway supermarket on Sheikh Zayed Road, 04 321 1500. The Korean restaurant Sonamu at Asiana Hotel in Deira opens after Ramadan.  

Monday, 5 April 2010

You say “tomato”, I say “what, in this weather - have you gone insane?”

“Grow cherry tomatoes? In the desert? Why don’t I just go and build a snowman on Sheikh Zayed Road in July, while I’m at it, or put on a sheepskin coat and go hiking in the empty quarter with a giant magnifying glass for a hat?” This was my exasperated and rather childish response when it was suggested to me that I could grow stuff on my balcony in Dubai.

But last summer, while researching a story about an unlikely home gardening craze sparked by Michelle Obama and Queen Elizabeth II (I still can’t quite picture the Queen wading through the turnips in her size-11 Wellington boots, but there you go), I met Zafar Ali Khan, and everything changed.

Khan is the horticulture engineer at Dubai Garden Centre, and he’s a man who knows a thing or two about getting edible things to grow in the harsh desert conditions of the UAE. He assured me it’s quite easy to grow cherry tomatoes, coriander, basil and oregano on my balcony, as long as I give my undivided attention to the plants, keep ‘em watered and resist the temptation to chuck them over the railings and go and buy a load from Spinneys instead.

So I bought a few packets of Franchi seeds (vigorous determinate bush variety, no less) and a little soil and got cracking. The cherry tomato seeds were not organic, at least I don’t think they were, but since I had little hope of actually getting any tomatoes out of them anyway, I thought I’d give them a go.

One sweltering day last August, I took a handful of seeds and laid them out on some moistened sheets of kitchen tissue, which I placed into a cupboard overnight. I was amazed and excited to see that little white shoots had begun to appear on each seed. Less excited when I realised I’d sprinkled about 60 of them onto the tissue. That’s a lot of tomato plants.

When the shoots were about a centimetre long, I transferred them to my improvised seedling containers - a couple of plastic tupperware tubs. This, I realised shortly after the last shoot was placed in the soil, was a stupid idea. The containers had no holes for drainage, but I simply couldn’t be bothered to replant them - it just meant I had to watch how much water went in. Then I placed the containers on my work desk underneath a window with plenty of sunlight.

Within a week of careful watering, the green seedlings began to emerge, uncurling their baby cotyledon leaves unto the glory of the sun. I had created life where there was no life before. I felt a bit like Dr Frankenstein, although less maniacal and without the grave-robbing habit.

Soon the seedlings needed space of their own to flourish, so I had to buy enough small plant pots for 60 of the blighters. Some of the seedlings, ahem, sadly perished while being transferred to their pots, leaving me with a slightly more manageable 50 seedlings to devote my time to. I reckoned a few more would fall by the wayside before I was ready to harvest my cherry tomatoes.

I decided that I’d keep the use of fertiliser down to a bare minimum, so I used nothing but water and sunlight on the little fellows for the first few months and watched them grow (not literally, as that would have been extremely tedious and taken far too long). And grow they did, into hefty, healthy, leafy plants that had to be supported with canes, and eventually began to produce little yellow flowers from which my first green baby tomatoes would emerge. Some of them died, of course, so its a matter of luck, I suppose. I ended up with about ten to fifteen strong plants.

At this point, I had to repot of few of the plants in larger containers, and I added some Phostrogen slow release fertiliser tablets to the soil. Organic fertiliser, Khan had assured me, would stink like a Satwa trashcan, so I decided against that. It was as the first budding green tomatoes appeared that I transferred the plants to the balcony. The summer was over and although some of them began to wilt a bit, they soon adjusted to the cooler-yet-hotter-than-inside weather.

In the first week of February the first blush of redness appeared on a few tomatoes, and in a matter of weeks more and more of the fruit became flushed a deep red. 

My first harvest was a bumper crop of about twenty cherry tomatoes, which were fine in salads and even better when roasted alongside some garlic in olive oil, with a sprinkle of salt and cracked black pepper.

For over two months now, I’ve been getting juicy, bright and spotless tomatoes - even from the plants that remained in their small plant pots because I was too lazy to upgrade them to a nice big pot. I didn’t have to use any insecticide either, and although the occasional bird has had it away with one or two of my beauties, some kind of large catapult might put a stop to that.

I’ve got tomatoes coming out of my ears (figuratively speaking). I could even have my own La Tomatina festival like they have in Spain, where I playfully pelt myself with tomatoes while only half losing my temper. Or perhaps I’ll just eat them?

I’m expecting the plants to succumb to the heat when the summer kicks in, but I’m ready to start all over again ready for next winter. 

Because I can.