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Archive for January, 2010

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If there is any downside to travel, it’s that I find myself feeling increasingly haunted by ghosts.

Not ghosts of people long gone, but of dishes long digested. Full sensory hallucinations of treats prepared in a very specific way in lands far far away. I — pale, wild-haired, gaunt (ok fine, not gaunt) — cut off from their delicious realms, call out into the dark trying to channel them: Manoooooooolo Fernandez pooooooollo… Gelateria del Teatrooooo watermelon granitaaaaaaaa…”

And now add to that list Beit Sissi’s hummus with grilled lamb chunks and toasted pine nuts, thanks to a quick visit this past September. Creamy. Smoky. Juicy. And maddeningly far away in Aleppo in Syria, tucked into a discreet alleyway in the city’s charming and labyrinthian Al-Jdeida neighbourhood.

Once you’re through the multiple arches and the door, however, the restored 17th century Arab-style mansion-turned-restaurant throws open a double-storey sundrenched dining room, complete with resident violinist.

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Babs and I opened with a mess of mezzes: the hummus as mentioned above, a slightly tart but refreshing eggplant rattatouille, and a dish of silky mallow leaves. All mopped up with a lot of pita bread and even more gusto.

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Just as we were feeling pleasantly and sensibly full (as is always the case when we go to Middle Eastern eateries) the main meat dishes arrive.

Cherry kebab — cooked in a lurid purple cherry sauce and garnished with yet more toasted pine nuts — is the signature dish of this region. For me anyway, the celebrity cherry sauce tasted too tart, and messed too much with — rather than complemented or lifted — the natural taste of the meat.

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The house-style kebabs, however, unadorned except for a flap of pita soaking in kebab juice, were gorgeous in the nude and voluptuous in flavour. Beautiful like Botticelli’s Venus. Another strong candidate for the haunting list. Wooooooooooo……

Beit Sissi (aka Sissi House)
Sharia as-Sissi, Al-Jdeida
Aleppo, Damascus
+963 21 212 4362

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With a little bit of luck, there is a rare and very delightful kind of nut you might find while in Kerala, India, Like everything else in nature, this kind of nut shines its brightest in its high season. In these parts that’s right about now, at the turn of the year.

The scientific name of this nut is the heckwithhighmargins-wejustwantyoutobehappy-homestayandhouseboathost nut. And thanks to Babs’s sister Aasha’s research and organising, and a little serendipity, we came across 2 during our time here.

This week the 4 of us (Babs and me, Aasha and husband Greg) paid a mere 11,000 rupees for a 1 night stay on a gorgeous 2-bedroom houseboat with AC built just a year ago. By comparison, the Swiss couple who had the boat just before us paid a whopping 34,000 rupees for the same.

The 2 Keralan nuts responsible for this delightfully bargainous travel tale?

1) Jose who owns and runs Kattayam Homestay and said houseboat in Alappuzha (Allepey), who charges a high-season rate only during the week between Christmas and New Year (while many others extend high season till mid or end January).

2) Beena of Beena Homestay in Fort Cochin, who took only a 1,000 rupee commission to set us up with Jose’s boat. (Now do some quick Math and think how much commission the Swiss couple’s houseboat tout took.)

Both Jose and Beena are the real deal when it comes to homestays. They live onsite with their guests, amid a growing number of newcomers who capitalise on the “Keralan homestay” buzzword by renting a house and subletting the rooms while living somewhere else (sometimes overseas).

Beena also provides delicious breakfasts and local dinner feasts for guests (according to rave reviews from Aasha and Greg). Add that to her unusual commission-taking behaviour, and it’s no wonder her homestay is so popular that she has to maintain a waiting list of hopefuls. While other homestay hosts rejoice when they get a Lonely Planet mention, Beena reportedly went into a bit of a fit because her waiting list — already at a healthy length from word of mouth — spurted straight to unruly.

Jose’s nuttiness burst forth from its shell the minute he found out that Babs’s Dad was originally from Kerala, and I from Singapore. Turns out his twin teenage sons are studying in Singapore. He immediately declared Babs and me to be extended family. He even took Babs’s hand and held it swinging while walking down the street to the houseboat!

Jose did indeed treat us like extended family, in the Indian context. When we came back from town to his homestay the next evening we were sat down for a long chat about Singapore’s job market. Shown assorted family slideshows. Used as a sounding board for lamenting why oh why were their sons buying iPhones, aiyoh with that money they could be buying gold. Asked when we were going to start having kids and hopefully we’ll bring a baby the next time we visit. And even put on the phone to say hello to one of the sons who called home from Singapore, even though I had of course never met him before.

Ah well. The houseboat was worth it. A few peeks below.

The living and dining deck, ensuite bathroom, hallway and bedroom.

 

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Our Captain and first mate. Nice work if you can get it.

 

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We stopped at a backwaters fish shop to pick up some still-flapping local pearl spot, to be fried with masala later in the afternoon for a snack. (Tip: if you’re serious about scoring extra seafood for your voyage, buy it in town before getting to the backwaters, where you will be charged double.)

 

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The cruise also came with a delicious Keralan lunch and dinner cooked on board. My favourites were the veggies, fried lightly with masala and coconut stubble, as opposed to the often over-gravied concoctions in so many eateries. The little pomfrets were pretty damn tasty too.

 

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The rest of the day was a delicious lazeabout, soaking in the view.

Neighbours.

 

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Phat looking ramshackle house.

 

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Waiting for the local ferry.

 

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Padi fields. Quite ingeniously water levels are maintained at a higher level than the rice fields by man-made embankments, to facilitate irrigation.

 

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All houseboats have to dock at 5.30pm each evening for the day, so that local fishermen can do their thing.

 

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Kattakayam Homestay
Nehru Trophy Starting Point
Thathampally P.O.
Alappuzha 13, Kerala, India
+91 944 743 2518, +91 477 223 2380
(Contact Jose directly for houseboat hire to minimize commissions)

 

Beena Homestay
KB Jacob Road, Kadathanad
Fort Kochi, Cochin, India
+91 484 221 5458

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30 Dec 2009

Quite the time to be in Hyderabad. The city’s in a bit of kerfluffle. Separatists are lobbying for the state of Andra Pradesh to be split into two states. Maybe three.

Depending on how adventurous you’re feeling (I’m not), you can wander into downtown hotpots to watch separatist demonstrators. Apparently there will be hordes of them, regardless of the side of the argument. Some will tell you India is a very politically passionate country. Others will tell you the demonstrators are poor people hired for the day to wear the appropriate colours and hold the appropriate banners and chant the appropriate chants. The most hardworking ones among them apparently stagger their engagements so that they can work for one party one day and another party the next.

“Nothing is what it seems in India,” people keep telling me. I can’t tell if they’re warning me or feeling smug.

The more annoying part of all these political theatrics is the separatists strong-arming the city’s merchants to go on strike. That is, goondas (hired gangsters) roam the city, making sure businesses have their shutters shut. Or else.

So the boys can’t get their sherwanis (long Indian shirt-coats) tailored today, and the henna hasn’t yet been delivered to girls’ bridal henna session.

But nothing here is what it seems.

At various food purveyors, it’s worth checking in with the security guard in front of the shutters. Sometimes, you’ll be shown the side or back door, in through the delivery entrace, the storerooms, the prep rooms, kitchens and plating areas, into the establishment where it’s business-almost-as-usual. (The sights enroute are a good way to test if you still want to eat there. Maybe all restaurants should be made to admit customers this way.) A network of lookouts send word by text message if the goondas are on the move.

This is how we got brunch from a well known city bakery today. We came home smug with a pile of chicken croisssants, chicken cutlets, chicken drumsticks and coffee cake.

The buttery croissants and moist mashed potato cutlets were chockful of pulled chicken, more generous that what I’ve seen in any other commercial establishment.

The drumsticks, on the other hand, were just a chicken legbones with chicken-leg-shaped patties of mashed potato, breadcrumbs, onions and masala. And maybe some chicken flavouring.

Nothing, nothing, nothing here is what it seems.

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“Cross the bridge… follow the detour for 4km… look for the church and the school… look for the turnoff 1.2km from the school… go 1.5km… past the neighbour’s farm… left at the fork… then go to the end of the road.”

We were on a treasure hunt for Fynboshoek Cheese, a South Africa Garden Route locavore haven by award winning cheesemaker Alje van Deemder, who has been personally serving lunches for more than a decade, with just about everything served being grown and / or made onsite.

I trust this is the right way…

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Success! We drive up to a mustard house garlanded with many a flowering tree, and get ushered into a breathtaking sunroom, where classical music is softly playing. If they had divans here I could dawdle with a book for many afternoons on end.

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There’s no menu at Fynboshoek. (The set lunch costs ZAR 110 per person. Drinks are extra.) So we wait, soaking in the view. Then the opening act arrives, with quite a bang: Fried goat cheese canapes, with a dab of jam and sprigs of fresh thyme.

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Next, salad caprese, with a sunny homemade mozzerella. And rosemary focaccia, fresh from the oven. Combine with a giant bowl of vibrantly coloured salad leaves for a soul-cleansing gorge.

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The headline act: The Fynboshoek cheese platter, with 3 goat cheeses of varying maturity, a couple of cheddars, a smoked provolone ball, and my favourite (on the far left) a cow’s milk cheese with cumin. Not being a class-A curd nerd, I sometimes find the taste of goat cheese to be too overwhelming, but the ones put forward here were gentle and gorgeously creamy.

I’ve never had a meal of cheese, bread and leaves to be this satisfying.

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You can read about the health and environmental merits of eating locally — where ingredients are grown and sourced from as close to the dining table as possible — but it’s so much more seductive to experience the difference with all five senses.

Out bread was finger-singeing hot, with salty dough and rosemary wafting about the table. The salad leaves were surprisingly sweet, having been spared nitrogen and that awful bitter plastic infusion that comes with supermarket packaging. If you have time after lunch, you can go stroll on the grounds outside the house, and say hello to the goats and cows that provided the milk for your cheese.

The other diners in the sunroom and at a long table outside were quite uniformly of the pastel shirt and shoulder-slung sweater and posh leather loafer variety. So Mr van Deemder — possibly pleasantly surprised by the diversity of a scrubby Chinese and Indian couple — tarried over expressos, asking what we were doing way out here in Tsitsikamma.

He was quite amused with our casual quest of eating our way around the world, and he visibly perked up when we said we focused especially on eateries that showcased local ingredients and traditional recipes. We shared laments about how so much of South Africa’s best produce (especially seafood) is sent overseas while locals lap up cheaper but lower quality imports. I told him about our frustrated quest to sample Knysna oysters, and he rejoined: “Our squid and cuttlefish is top quality, so it all goes to Europe and Asia. All the squid you find here is from South America.”

Tragedy! How does one hijack a South African squid boat I wonder…

The music switches to a jaunty ragtime jazz tune. Do we really have to go?

But I take heart. Fynboshoek is that kind of treasure trove that is more likely to keep keeping on if you spread, rather than hoard, the word. So go. Off-map, off-GPS, to where cheese marks, and hits, the spot.

Fynboshoek Cheese
Off the N2 Highway across from Tsitsikamma Lodge
Calling ahead for reservations and directions is essential
+27 42 280 3879

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