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Back in May, as part of my debut pilgrimage to my ancestral village in Dabu in Guangdong Province, we daytripped across the border into Yongding county in southwestern Fujian. Yongding county is famous for the architectural phenomenon called Hakka roundhouses or tu lou (earth buildings). This landscape of donut-shaped mansions allegedly caused quite an international kerfluffle in the 1980s when US President Reagan and the CIA thought that satellite photos of the region showed a whole mountain range of Chinese missile silos.

To be fair, the tu-lou — built over a period spanning the 12th and 20th centuries — were indeed built with military strategy in mind.

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Above: A view of the concentric-circle structure of a roundhouse tu-lou, from a model at the Hakka Museum in Dabu.

Because imperial China was often awash with bandits, and because the migratory Hakkas (which literally translates to “the guest people”) weren’t always welcome by the incumbent southern Chinese residents, these tu-lou dwellings were built also to function as fortresses.

Each of these buildings are between 3-5 stories, and there are no windows on the 1st couple of levels. The rammed earth walls are 1m thick at the base, and there is only 1 iron-reinforced door in and out of the building. Each house is built around a well, and there is space in the central courtyard to raise animals and grow vegetables. Add that to the food stored away within, and the fortress can be sealed off and stay self sufficient for up to 18 months, said our young and pretty local Hakka guide who still lives with her family in one of these fortresses.

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Inside, the donut is “sliced” top-to-bottom into townhouse-style apartment blocks, with each individual family occupying one vertical “slice”. The ground / first floor is often used for storage or housing the staircase-averse elderly, and younger members of the clan live on the upper floors. If a clan outgrew the house, it could simply build an additional concentric circle if it didn’t want to build a separate house nearby.

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Many houses have a central clan gathering area, anchored by a family altar and poetic couplets exhorting the clan to live in harmony, as exemplified by this well known one at Zhengchenglou. Definitely necessary as the concentric-circle architecture means secrets are almost impossible to keep in the clan!

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46 Fujian Tulou sites were declared to be World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 2008. Babs and I have grown to be very ambivalent about such sites as our travels progressed. Many a time we’ve seen such sites turn into tourist traps, housing uninspiring multinational fast food tenants or tacky souvenir shops in otherwise beautifully restored and preserved shells.

Tourism has risen in Yongding since the UNESCO inscription. There is now, for example, a very comfortable 8-hour express bus between Dabu and Guangzhou, which didn’t exist when my Dad first visited the area in 2007. Only time will tell how the vibe in these tu-lous will evolve over time. It could go the way of the lurid painted shells, or it could persuade the younger members of the clan — many of whom have gone to work in live in big cities — to move back and make a life here.

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Above: Many Hakka families have moved to the city, padlocking their ancestral houses and returning only for big family reunions. Some families don’t have enough money to maintain their house in their absence, leading to the decay of the earthern walls.

In the meantime, many of the houses that are open to visitors still have the resident families living in them, with hanging laundry, spider webs and functioning kitchens et al as lovely “this is the real deal” touches. Spare rooms and empty spaces have been converted into tea, wine and mountain herb shops, as well a few as guest rooms which often house researchers interested in the area.

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It’s lush around here. Vegetable patches line the riverbanks and ducks drift serenely downstream.

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I wanted to share this photo below to

  1. Show that some tu-lou are built as concentric squares instead of circles — in these cases each son of the family would get a corner or a wing of the house
  2. Demonstrate some classic fengshui principles — The Chinese love to have the back of their house back up against a mountain (for security) and the front of the house facing water (for prosperity)

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I pause to take in the river running through the village.

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The river takes on new significance, in retrospect. Much later, as I work through my photos and notes, I recall that anyone selling tea or wine or any of the array of locally grown produce, kept harping on about the provenance of the stuff. About how they didn’t use chemicals. And specifically, about how they are high up enough here such that there aren’t any factory pollutants in the ground and water.

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I thought about how the Hakkas had settled up here in the highlands all those centuries back, only because the incumbent populations had already occupied all the fertile lowlands. Which are now chockful with factories and all their by-products, leaving many Chinese people with more money in their pockets, perhaps, but increasingly insecure about the safety of their food. (These articles in China Daily and Facts and Details are just the tip of the iceberg.)

Funny how things go around…

… And maybe come come around again. If the food safety situation in China deteriorates at pace, I wonder if one day these earthen walls will once again come under siege.

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Above: You gotta keep your ear — or at least your ass — pretty close to the ground to know where to party with these hip Hanoians

We’d been walking and eating around Hanoi for a few days. There were a few hits, there were a few misses. I was developing a theory for eating well in this city: The closer to the ground you need to sit, the better the food will be. Eateries with regular-height chairs or stools will likely be mediocre fare targeted at tourists; benches where you have to contort your legs to fit in means you’re getting warmer; tiny stools that you have to squat on means seriously delicious business.

(Hanoi foodies, am I on to something here?)

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So, taking that theory a little further, what happens when you actually sit on the ground? You encounter the cut-tlefish-ing edge of Hanoi nightlife, as we found out one balmy night this past March.

Right near the Hang Dao night market, we come across a street corner parade of dried cuttlefish vendors. My Dad, brother and I love this pungent chewy snack, but they’re usually a handful of shreds in little packets or else in crispy rolls in a tin. What on earth do you do with a whole cuttlefish?

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We turn the corner and find out.

There, more cuttlefish vendors squat-sit, fanning furiously away at small tins of red-hot charcoals, toasting planks of the stuff.

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Afterwards, the cuttlefish are transferred to wooden blocks, and BASHED INTO SUBMISSION with a metal pipe. (Note to self: don’t try to leg it with these guys) Then they’re served up by (often) the vendor’s son, and shredded by hand in front of you if you look helpless enough.

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But served up to whom, exactly?

The sidewalks of both sides of this little lane are covered with straw mats, and sitting on them are a cross section of the city’s denizens — fashionable 20somethings, pot-bellied uncles, families with grandmas and infants et al in tow. There’s a lot of laughter and easygoing sounding chat in the air. When the road in front of the mats gets too cluttered with motorcycles (the condition of the entire city, frankly), the vendor’s son is given instructions and permission to go skooch them up into a sardine-tight line. I’m loving the vibe.

We settle in on a mat next to an extended family of 10, and start nibbling on our platter of toasted cuttlefish. Like I’ve said, I’ve had this salty-sweet chewy stuff plenty, but never toasted! This changes everything.

I sneak a peek at the family next to us — they’ve got milk bottles for the babies and bottles of beers and local-brand whiskeys for the increasingly red-cheeked adults. And — now that I’m looking more closely — only 1 cuttlefish between all of them.

Babs and I were just commenting that at about the equivalent of ~£5, this wasn’t exactly a cheap snack for locals. Obviously, how they afford it share it among 10 people, not 2.

Oh well. Better eat it all and not waste any of it then!

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Toasted cuttlefish vendors emerge on many a Hanoi sidewalk at night. Some have small tables and tools for customers, some have straw mats. This particular one was opposite shophouse 2B on Pho Hang Bo.

May, 2010

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When you’re travelling and kitchenless, being invited to a homecooked meal is a very special thing. Especially when that meal is at one’s great grandfather’s house (above), which one is visiting for the first time.

The Soh ancestral home is nestled in the Hakka hillsides of Dabu, Guangdong Province, China. On our drive in from the urbanised lowland side of town, the main crops I spied were rice, vegetables, bananas, and fields upon fields of tobacco.

A view of the neighbourhood from the house:

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The size and the relative elevation of Great Grandfather’s house suggest that he was fairly well-off in his day. I grew up with part-told, part-whispered, part-hinted, remainder-imagined stories about how he made his fortune opium-dealing in big bad Shanghai, but lost then lost it through an embezzling business partner and the toxic gambling habit of some secondary wife (not my biological great grandmother, Ah Pak assures me). Hence the need for my grandfather and later his nephew Ah Pak to board a slow boat to Singapore to eke out their own living, and hopefully make a fortune which they could send back to China.

Granddad never did catch his lucky break in Singapore. Regardless, he sent back to China what he could, even if it was sometimes just tins of rendered lard, recalls my Dad.

But then “lucky” is relative. When my Dad and his older sister Tai Gu (Big Auntie) first visited Dabu some 3 years ago, and mentioned the tough times their father went through in Singapore, Ah Pak’s sister who stayed back in China apparently replied, “Your father was the lucky one. He managed to get out.”

Having read Wild Swans by Jung Chang a memoir of the travails of a politically well-placed family under Communist rule — I might be inclined to agree.

But now as I gaze at the bounty on the lunch table, I can only feel thankful that we’re here at all, that life has improved by this much within 3 generations. The rest of the elders can debate about who was lucky and who wasn’t. I am well aware that I am.

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Most of today’s lunch is being whipped up by my cousin Zhiguang’s sprightly mother-in-law. I have no idea how old she is, given her long jet black hair, but she whirrs around washing and chopping vegetables and intestines alike at the pace of a ninja on speed.

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I offer to help out but guests chipping in with muscle doesn’t go with the etiquette around here (more likely they’re worried I’ll just get underfoot I reckon). So I wander off to see the rest of the compound.

Here’s the wood fired kitchen. Not quite your designer magazine centrefold, possibly, but I think it’s gorgeously rustic.

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Here’s one of 3 upstairs bedrooms, now long uninhabited and very dusty. Pak Meh tells me this was her room when she used to come visit with Ah Pak, a few decades ago.

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Possibly the most fascinating spot in the house: A wall of photos by the upstairs stair landing. On the left are various relatives I’ve never heard of or met; on the right is Pak Meh, Ah Pak and their 5 kids. We estimated this photo to be around 35 years old.

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And there he is. Great Granddad. I recognise the eyes, and the wide-as-a-movie-screen forehead both my Dad and I have.

I have so many questions for him. What were his Shanghai cowboy days like? How did he react to the advent of the Kuomintang and then the Communists? What did he like to eat? What would he think of China today? Could he have imagined it, or would he actually think — technological advancements aside — “same same but different?”

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I wander back downstairs and outside, to the half of the house that hasn’t been maintained. Was this caused by dilapidation or destruction? Either way, it’s fodder for a helluva restoration project someday. *Wistful sigh*

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Outside, I stroll past a structure that used to house pigs, chickens and ducks…

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… a room that looks like it was usually used for brickmaking. Further on, a closed-off courtyard labelled as a “gathering place for the Sohs”. Through the crack in the door I spy chickens scratching around in the grass. Must’ve been pretty lively around here back in the day.

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A chain of hollers filter through the compound to announce that it’s time for lunch. We sit down to a feast of (from top left, clockwise) crunchy sliced ears, suan pan zhi (yam gnocci), salt-baked chicken with chunks of gizzard, a reddish-brown crystalline chewy dough I still can’t name, sauteed bamboo shoot slices, savoury glutinous rice, braised duck and yong tau foo (tofu stuffed with marinated minced pork and shitake mushrooms).

Yeah. I realise. Hakka food is very… brown. Not that you’ll keep thinking about it the minute you start chomping down.

The chicken and duck have an almost gamey flavour and muscle tone that makes me optimistic that the animals weren’t kept in battery cages all day. The bamboo has that lovely clean taste that suggests it was recently picked, and the suan pan zhi has bite but isn’t overly chewy, which suggests a generous yam-to-tapioca flour ratio. This be the real deal.

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Oh wait, you didn’t think that’d be all, did you? How about some boiled intestines and their flappy bits stir-fried with ginger and salted vegetables? Not my favourite thing, but bang-on authentic, judging by how the elders are slurping it up.

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It’s customary (or so we keep being told) for the hosts of a meal to toast elders and guests at these big meals. There is a laaaaaawtta maotai (the local firewater) and brandy swishing around the 2 tables. Especially ours, as Ah Pak is essentially the current patriarch of the clan.

Many many MANY gan-beis later, the table finally disperses. The women adjourn to pack leftovers away; the men adjourn for more drinks, smokes and nuts.

Ah Pak (far right) shoots the breeze with his China relatives. I lean over and whisper to Dad, “Who are those 2 old women who just showed up?”

Dad whispers back, “They live in the village, so we’re related somehow. But I have no idea how.”

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They look fabulous when they laugh. The woman on the right kinda looks like my late paternal grandmother.

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All too soon, it’s time to head back to town, but not before Dad and I get a shot together at the front door. See that red sign behind us? It just about reads: “Peace out”… from the Wu Tang Clan.

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May, 2010

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Above: We Chinese are dead serious about food

It was our first morning in Dabu. Today is the day I’ll get to see my great grandfather’s house for the first time, and have lunch with my new-found China relatives there.

But first, an errand of grave importance: “Lunch” at my great grandfather’s memorial stone.

It’s ancient Chinese tradition to venerate one’s ancestors, based on the belief that they in turn will continue to look after and guide their descendents from the other side. During major festivals — such as Chinese New Year, Qing Ming (tomb sweeping) and the Hungry Ghost Month (where the dead are given a one-month pass to roam among the living) — as well as during during big life events, it is custom to offer food to one’s dead ancestors. The belief is so deep seated that it survived even the mass bludgeoning of Chinese culture and traditional family bonds during the Cultural Revolution.

Dabu these days is a bustling urbanised town, so we’re on the road for half an hour before the landscape starts to turn green and the pace of traffic starts to slow down.

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We approach the village and drive under an arch heralding 2 words that translate to “Five Halls”, or “Five Paternal Cousins”. My eyes widen and I start to laugh uncontrollably. My Dad and Babs reckon I’ve lost it.

Between guffaws, I read out the sign in Mandarain: “Dad, you didn’t tell me we were part of the Wu Tang Clan!”

Word.

We pass a large plaque that pays tribute to all those who helped to finance the building of the road between town and village. I’m proud to note Dad’s and Ah Pak’s name on the list. Ah Pak — my Dad’s first cousin — is our link to our relatives here. He comes back every few years to visit his siblings, and over the decades has contributed towards the building of roads, schools and temples alike around here. The overwhelming hospitality our merry troop is shown here is due much more to the respect our relatives here have for Ah Pak rather than the novelty of my arrival, I’m convinced.

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Finally it’s a 10 minute off-road trek uphill to the memorial stone. Great grandfather died more than half a century ago obviously, and his initial grave was elsewhere. This memorial was erected only in 1996 because that’s when the family could afford it. I’m not even on the property ladder yet and now I find out we might not be free from real estate upgrades even in death?!

Zhiguang’s wife sets up the lunch offering and joss sticks so that Ah Pak, his brother and Zhiguang can pay their respects. Dad, Babs and I hang in the back.

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But before they get started proper I sneak a quick preview of lunch for later. I spy noodles, rice cakes, salted chicken, braised duck, suan pan zhi (yam gnocci), savoury glutinous rice, fuji apples and oranges… and… a bottle that says ‘fruit juice’.

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The view from the memorial stone. I’m not convinced great grandfather can actually enjoy this, but at least I can.

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Now that great grandfather has been “fed”, he’ll want a big night out on the afterlife town. And so he’ll need some spending money. Or so ancient Chinese logic goes.

And so Ah Pak and Zhiguang get down to sending him some, the old-school Chinese way. They buy a ton of hell money for burning. At traditional Chinese funerals, stacks upon stacks of these are lit on a pyre, together with elaborately constructed and painted paper houses, paper cars, paper credit cards, paper mobile phones and whatever else one can imagine to make the afterlife more comfortable.

Pimpin’.

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And now the grand finale. Firecrackers. An alarmingly large roll of it. I am a wuss when it comes to firecrackers — the result of a Singapore upbringing, where firecrackers are illegal and every Chinese New Year brings sensational news stories about idiot kids blowing their their hands or their eyes into oblivion because of this stuff.

So I’m going to stand over here and just max out the zoom on my camera, thanks.

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About an eternity later the long string of explosions are finally done and I can see our group again through the smoke. It’s time for lunch at the house now. Sorry, wassat? I’m deaf. I can only hear ringing in my ears.

IT’S TIME FOR LUNCH AT THE HOUSE NOW!

Right. Coming.

We didn’t have a red-carpet welcome coming here, but we sure as hell have a red carpet exit now.

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May, 2010

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Above: Chikininabuckit, Hakka style, is poached, rubbed with salt, then baked just before serving. Hunting down traditional Hakka dishes such as salt-baked chicken was a big motivator for me to come “home” to Dabu in Guangdong province

After 15 months on the road, I finally came home this past weekend.

Whatever that means.

“Home” is a funny thing. “Home” in terms of this past weekend was London, the city I lived in for about 3 years before Babs and I started off on our honeymoon. “Home”, as I write this, is my mother-in-law’s place near Birmingham, our basecamp while we figure out what we’ll do next. In my parents’ and childhood friends’ view I’m probably still not “home” yet, because in their minds “home” is sunny food-mad Singapore.

This past May I even managed to come “home” to a place I’d never seen, to family I’d never met.

Accompanied by my Dad, his cousins Ah Pak and Pak Meh, and Babs, I came “home” for the first time to my great grandfather’s village. I came “home” to Dabu, in the hilly northeastern corner of Guangdong Province in China — widely regarded as the Hakka dialect group’s capital of the world.

And even then, “home” for the Hakkas can be a somewhat ephemeral concept.

Hakkas, which translates to “the guest people”, have been on the move for the last thousand years. Said to have originated from central and northern China, they fled south in waves, upon each onslaught of military conflict. In the last few centuries they clustered in southern mainland China provinces such as Guangdong, Fujian, Sichuan and Jiangxi.

The incumbent residents of these southern provinces already occupied the best agricultural flatlands, so Hakkas were often left to eke out a living from more mountainous terrain, or else no terrain at all. By sheer necessity, they emphasized education and exhorted their children to pursue careers in government and military service, or else seek their fortunes abroad. Well known figures such as China’s Sun Yatsen and Deng Xiaoping; Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew; UK’s Woon Wing Yip, Alan Yau and Jimmy Choo; and the strange phenomenon of “Hakka Noodles” being a staple on many a Chinese eatery menu throughout India, are just a few examplar products of this Hakka alchemy of ethos and circumstance.

My own family’s nomadic history is a much humbler one: my Hakka paternal grandfather boarded a small boat from China and headed to Singapore with just the proverbial (but literal) shirt on his back; my Dad made Singapore his home but has undeniably itchy feet. I am still finding my feet in life, but have very obviously inherited itchy ones.

And this past May those itchy feet retraced some of those steps my ancestors had taken.

But not just yet. We’re only at Guangzhou Airport, and Dabu is an 8 hour drive away. We’ve just been met by the Hakka welcome wagon, made up of Ah Pak’s brother and sister and their sons, who still live in Dabu. Zhiguang — the son of Ah Pak’s dead brother — is the chattiest of the lot and has signed up to be our guide for the next few days.

We pile into 2 cars, and AWAY WE GO!

Late that night we arrive at a nondescript streetside eatery in Dabu. The wonderfully authentic kind where the one-wok kitchen — condiment array, live produce and all — is out front for all to inspect, while the dining room is in the back.

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As I tumble out of the car, bleary eyed, Zhiguang says to me: “Eat first. Eat first. Everything else, later.”

Given their nomadic history, Hakkas are sometimes called the Jews of Asia. In which case, Zhiguang’s utterance was certainly our shibboleth — that was the precise moment I knew we came from the same stock.

And so began the first of many mindblowing “home”cooked meals:

Steamed chive dumplings, made fresh by hand (and 1 chopstick) just a few minutes before serving.

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Offal in broth with coriander. We were to have a lot of this in the days to come. Especially for breakfast. You really do feel like you can take over the world after eating this. Or you should at least try. Just to burn off the energy.

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Fresh-rolled springrolls, stuffed with shredded meat, hard tofu, beansprouts, chopped shitake mushrooms and other bits of bitey goodness.

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Alkali wheat noodles with beef. Noodles — especially the handmade variety — and beef were going to prove quite the treat throughout our Dabu visit.

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I can’t believe I took so long to come home for the first time.

And we’re back!

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Well, that was fun. None too shabby as far as honeymoons go.

15 months, 40 countries, 4 farms, many family recipes, and a countless number of the best meals a backpacker could buy.

To our family and friends, thank you for your immense generosity. Thank you for housing us, feeding us, showing us your favourite grazelands and watering holes, taking time to hang out with us on your home turf or faraway places and putting up with undoubtably too many obnoxious “when we were in <insert exotic location>” stories.

To all of you who have spent some time here, thank you for coming along for the fun and sharing your thoughts and questions. I hope our journeys together here are just starting. I haven’t yet figured out how to write at the speed of life, so I’ll be posting about our adventures here for some time yet. I’d be delighted if you kept reading!

So. We’ll see you on the other side.

A full Eid ul-Fitr late, no doubt, but still quite fresh in our memories! (It’s true. Time flies when you’re having fun)

IMG 4243Through some half-baked planning and a touch of luck, Babs and I found ourselves in paradise for Eid. By that I mean Damascus, Syria. Legend has it that when the prophet Muhammed gazed upon Damascus from a nearby mountain, he refused to descend, proclaiming that man should enter the gates of paradise only once, and he would save his entrance for the paradise above.

I’m beginning to wonder if that was partly why the biblical Saul of Tarsus was struck blind on his way to Damascus. Would he have been too distracted by the bright lights, big city of that era to find Ananais on the Roman (and still existing) Straight Street and meet his destiny as St Paul otherwise?

But I digress.

Eid ul-Fitr, the festival at the end of Muslims’ month-long fast, is traditionally an affair celebrated with new outfits, with family at home. Even though Shamsuddin seems to be a popular family name in these parts, Babs and I didn’t have any family to visit here. Nonetheless, we decided on a whim that we would haggle ourselves a new traditional Syrian outfit each (right), and roam the old city in them to mark the festival day.

Many of the city’s businesses were shut for the day, as we expected. But many of the city’s festive feeders, bless them, were up and about doing a roaring trade of making sure that today’s feasting would outdo a month of iftars (the break-fast meal at the end of each fasting day).

For brunch, we joined a queue of boys at this schwarma stall, all dressed in their dandy Eid best and determined to spend their Eedis (small cash gifts given to children during Eid) as quickly as possibly.

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We’re more used to Turkish-style doner kebabs, where the slivers of meat are stuffed — or sometimes dramatically overstuffed, as in Berlin — into a pita or fluffy baguette envelope. But these Damascene schwarmas were demurely and tightly rolled up, and nowhere near as drippy with garlicy yoghurt as a London-style doner kebab. Well. Less risk of messing up our new frocks I suppose.

Next, on a tip from a reliably fabulous foodie friend Goz (thanks Goz!), I dash into legendary local ice-cream parlour Bakdash in the Al-Hamidiyah Souq for some of their signature pistachio-covered booza. The perfectly colour coordinated accessory for my Syrian dress!

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Bakdash, said to be established circa 1885, makes a curiously chewy and melt-resistant ice-cream by hand. The booza mixture, held in vats, is pounded and stretched by giant bats by the Bakdash boys, and then hand-churned and stretched some before rolling the stuff around in trays of pistachios.

The secret ingredients in the recipe include mastic and salep. Mastic is the resin obtained from the Mediterranean Mastic tree. Its popular name is arabic gum, and one of its first culinary uses was as a chewing gum (hence the English word ‘masticate’). Salep is the flour ground from the dried tubers of a species of orchid. Its popular name is fox-testicles in Arabic, or dog stones in English — a graphic description of orchid tubers.

Charming.

I’m now wondering if this cheery chappie was really posing for me or just laughing at me.

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Well. Onwards into the back alleys of Old Damascus. After a couple of hours I wonder if we’re walking in circles. Maybe I’m just seeing circles.

We come across one man churning out palm-sized pides

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… and another slapping and spinning naans in and out of a tandoori like the best of DJs at a turntable.

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And this just takes the cake.

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I’ll stop my meanderings here for now. May your days ahead be sweet, and may all the nuts that cross your path be tasty ones!