15
Jul

I was asking my friend Aylin Tan what she thought of my menu for the Turkish lunch I am organising for the Oxford Symposium when she very kindly offered to bring pismaniye from Turkey for dessert. I knew that pismaniye was like the Arab Ghazl el-Banat but I thought I would check if I could find a video online showing how it’s made. I must say, I didn’t expect to find so many on You Tube and elsewhere. I like these two even though I don’t understand a word of what they are saying, and part 1, which I did not post, seems to be an introduction with each one of them talking to the camera, I assume explaining all about pismaniye while part 2 (which i can’t find online any longer) is, if i remember correctly, all about boiling the sugar.

WordPress doesn't allow me enough space to post both videos so here's the link to the next one.

The interesting thing is that in several of the clips, pismaniye seems to be made at home whereas in Syria and Lebanon, it is very much the reserve of specialist sweet-makers, and from the clips I have seen on dragon beard candy, it looks like street food in Asia.

In any case, according to my friends Majed Krayem and Bassam Mawaldi, owners of Pistache d’Alep where I shot the two clips linked here (Bassam is the one not in whites cooling and stretching the sugar; the second clip shows them incorporating the flour into the sugar), the Lebanese make it by machine whereas in Syria and in Turkey, the candy is always made by hand. There is a noticeable difference between the Turkish and the Syrian. In Turkey they don’t stretch the sugar until it is white; or perhaps they cook the sugar longer until it is a deep caramel colour while in Syria, the sugar is completely white by the time it is ready to be stretched with the flour.

And as an intimate aside, this same sugar is what women use in the Middle East to remove the hair on their legs. Not very appetising but my sisters and I loved to eat some before my mother or aunt started using it on us. It is still what most women use for depilation and the lovely Lebanese film Caramel (Sukkar Banat) must be a play on both, the sugar and the candy. If you haven’t seen it, do go.

Even more interesting: the same candy exists in Hong Kong and Korea as you can see from this clip except that Asians use rice flour and fill the candy with peanuts instead of pistachios. I haven’t tasted the Asian version yet but it looks pretty similar. even though their method is different in that only one person works on stretching the sugar with the flour, and as a result, they work with much smaller amounts.


5
Jul

Yes, surprising as it may sound, I just had a wonderful night in Manchester, and nothing to do with food. If anything, the food was the bad part of the adventure. First, horrid fish & chips at a Road Chef on the motorway, then a disgusting steak sandwich at the Lowry hotel where I was staying, followed the next morning by a seriously poor breakfast — the room was lovely though. Thankfully, food was not why I had gone up to Manchester. I was there for the opening concert of the Manchester festival, in a space especially designed for it by my friend Zaha.

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As to be expected, the space is spectacular. It also works brilliantly as a recital venue which made the pianist, Piotr Anderszewski, very happy. I am not sure if this proved to be an added inspiration but his performance of Bach’s Partitas 2 & 5 and English Suite 6 was beautiful. And of course, Zaha herself is totally fabulous, an absolute genius.

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As for the audience, they were a mixed bag. Some stylish and others less so.

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The evening finished with a reception in one of the galleries of the Manchester City Art Gallery (the space is created in one of the top rooms). Zaha said a few gracious words and I left shortly afterwords. All in all a fabulous evening. Such a shame about the food.

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29
Jun

I wasn’t sure at first. Luiz Camargo, the lovely editor of Paladar (food supplement of Estadao do Sao Paulo), had sent me an email asking if I could attend their yearly event in Sao Paulo. I was thrilled to be asked but the dates were very soon after my culinary trips to Syria and I wondered if I could make it. Still, the opportunity was too exciting to miss. So, I said yes. And boy, am I glad I did. The event was splendid. Our hosts (both at Paladar and their partners at the Grand Hyatt where it all happened), the presenters and the other guests were all wonderful and the city was great fun. And I added a whole new range of exotic ingredients to my culinary lore.

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Paladar – Cozinha do Brazil kicked off with a tremendous cocktail party with chef stations throughout the large room offering tastings of various traditional and nouvelle Brazilian specialities: an Amazonian soup served in coconut, wonderful beef served with a corn and tomato salsa, delicate sashimi (Sao Paulo has the largest Japanese community outside of Japan), delicious dumplings in a meaty broth, and so on.

The party was followed by three days of workshops, most of which were fascinating. I attended one on new Bahian cooking where I learned how to use fresh cocoa beans, how to squeeze juice out of cashew fruit (which I also tasted in Sao Paulo’s fabulous central market — sour with a strange feel that stays in the mouth) and how to play with tart flavours by using a whole range of Brazilian lemons, all quite different from those we know in Europe, or even the Californian Meyer lemon.

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In another workshop, Roberta Sudbrack told us all about chuchu, a rather boring vegetable that tastes a little like cucumber. Sudbrack specialises in researching one ingredient at a time and experimenting with it and she assured us that chuchu can be made exciting by incorporating it in various dishes. Hmm… In between, adorable Luiz Ligabue, one of Paladar’s reporters (in fact, they were all delightful), brought Jeffrey Steingarten and I a lovely pain au levain, a strong straight-from-the-farm-tasting unpasteurised fresh cheese and a smoky Italian sausage to taste. Jeffrey immediately set to work, expertly cutting the bread, cheese and sausage and we had a delightful interlude in the Paladar make-shift office.

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The next day, I went with James Oseland to a workshop about bitter flavours presented by three women chefs, Mara Salles of Tordesilhas, Neide Rigo & Ana Soares. They showed us how to prepare surprisingly delicious dishes using, in some cases, very bitter ingredients. The tasting was a revelation.

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But the real revelation, at least for me, was Helena Rizzo, a brilliant young chef who devoted a whole workshop (well, almost) to deconstructing Feijoada. Her method, which takes hours, is not for the faint-hearted. Still, the result is spectacular, and exquisite — a concentre of real feijoada which she drops in tiny balls into a solution that allows them to set while remaining wobbly and silky inside. She then uses these ‘artificial’ beans to make up the most beautiful plate of feijoada à la Mani, the name of her restaurant — I had a taste at the workshop but then, I was lucky enough to be taken to Mani by Ilan Kow, the charming executive editor of Estadao, and his gorgeous girlfriend, Rita Lobo, whose food website Panelinha, is one of the most successful in Brazil, and there I was able to savour a whole portion, albeit small, of Helena’s amazing feijoada, and several other fabulous dishes.

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Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana also did a little deconstruction of his own, with Bollito Misto. It was lucky I decided to skip the following morning’s workshops to go to MASP with Massimo because that evening, he whisked me away from the gala dinner to take me to D.O.M where Alex Atala, Brazil’s pre-eminent celebrity chef, presides in the kitchen. Alex organised a sumptuous tasting menu where I ate fresh palmito for the first time ever — I used to love them when I lived in Beirut but they were always canned. In one dish, the palm hearts were very thinly sliced and laid under a scallop ‘carpaccio’ while in another, they were cut into strips, exactly like tagliatelle and served as such. Both delicious.

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Once it was all over, I moved to Jardins, the Mayfair of Sao Paulo, to stay with my Martha, very kind, newly-found Helou cousin, to live the Paulista life for a few days. I went to all the local haunts with Rita (by then, we’d become firm friends): breakfast at Santo Grao and coffee at Suplicy, both essential places for coffee. We checked out the groovy rooms at Emiliano and the chic restaurant in Fasano.

And Ilan introduced me to Leila Kuczinsky, the delightful owner of Arabia, one of the best Lebanese restaurants in town (there are over 4 million Lebanese emigres in Sao Paolo). I was curious to see how Lebanese food in Sao Paulo compared to that in the home country, or London for that matter, and I was not disappointed. Leila even had shish barak (tiny dumplings cooked in yoghurt) on the menu; and her ice creams, including one flavoured with mastic and another made with tahini, were made with salep (dried powdered orchis tubers).

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On my last Sunday, I ventured to the northern part of the city, into what looked like Sao Paulo’s Shoreditch to eat at Mocoto, one of the city’s hottest restaurants where gorgeous Rodrigo Oliveira cooks very tasty traditional Brazilian food and where the barman makes mean caipirinhas — I became addicted to those while there.

Still, despite all the excitement and the fabulous time I’d been having, I was about to leave Sao Paulo with one regret. I had not managed to eat at Jun Sakamoto, the best sushi in town. Until, that is, my lovely cousin Nabih came to the rescue and took me there the evening I was due to catch my flight, which luckily was very late — turned out Nabih is great friends with one of Jun’s best friends. Jun made our sushi, which is indeed the best and he gave me a signed copy of his gorgeous book, And Jun does one thing that I haven’t seen done anywhere else, and that is to brush the fish with soy sauce instead of serving the sauce on the side, which means that the sushi is never too salty. Here’s a short clip of Jun in action with his sous chef brushing the sushi pieces with soy.

Everytime I watch the clip, I wish I could be back there. Never mind the lack of planning, and the horrid traffic, the city is really exciting with seriously good food, not to mention the incredible charm of the Brazilians.
Paladar – Cozinha do Brazil — 2010