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


11
Jun

It’s not that I like gruesome foods that much. The ants I ate recently in Brazil were quite repulsive. The camel kebabs were OK although I am not rushing back to the camel butcher any time soon. As for  the worms I had in South Africa, they were pretty boring. However, nothing I have seen is a patch  on the penises I spotted for sale at a bovine butcher in Sao Paulo’s central market.

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The butcher said he sold them to Chinese people to cook in soup for medicinal purposes. He did say what the purpose was but I am going senile (sadly not prematurely any longer) and I forgot what the purpose was, but it wasn’t aphrodisiac. Anyone who knows, please write and tell me.  There was nowhere I could go in the market to taste them but for anyone wanting to eat edible penises, here is where to go.


8
Jun

Last month, I fell in love with a beautiful child in the middle of Byzantine ruins in Syria. A couple of months previous to that, it was katmer, a typical breakfast pastry from Gaziantep, Turkey, that had captured my heart. Sounds fickle, I know. Perhaps it’s my nature, or perhaps it’s all the traveling that I do because now I am in love with Brazil and everything Brazilian: the people, the food, etc. but this is another story.

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There are different types of katmer. The one you see being made in the video above (rather poorly filmed at the Orkide pastry shop in Gaziantep) is filled with ground pistachios & kaymak (very thick Turkish cream) while tahinli katmer, made with tahini, is very different although just as good, or almost.

Like many multi-layered breads from around the Mediterranean, katmer is made with an incredibly thin dough. The dough for the pisachio-filled version is flattened in much the same way as that for the Egyptian fiteer, by flapping it in the air and slapping it against a marble surface. With each flap, the dough stretches further. The main difference being that the katmer maker tears the thick edges off before filling and folding the dough. Also, he keeps to the square shape while the fatatri (fiteer maker) doesn’t tear the edges off and he folds the square corners to make a round pastry.

I took the sequence of B&W photos below at a fatatri in Bell Street, London N1. I haven’t been for a while but I suspect he is still there. The fiteer he made for me is a monster one where he put one inside the other (at least half a dozen), to produce a fiteer with an incredible number of layers. You could actually say that these multi-layered breads/pastries (katmer, fiteer, the Moroccan melwi, etc.) are the Middle Eastern equivalent of the French mille feuille.

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In this photograph, the fatatri is making a fiteer filled with sujuk and eggs. Very good although my favourite remains a plain, single fiteer, topped with qashta  (the Arab version of kaymak) and drizzled with honey. It is  my daily lunch when I am in Cairo. Egyptian food is definitely not the best, nor the cleanest, and I was grateful for the excellent fatatri in Khan el-Khalili.

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And in this photograph, the waiter is drizzling hot clarified butter (samneh in Arabic) on my monster fiteer which I think they call fiteer mshattat — I have to double check.

I strongly recommend both Orkide in Gaziantep, if you happen to be there, and the fatatri in Bell Street, which is called Meya Meya, if you are in London — I am hoping they are still in business there. Going to them is like being in Cairo, with Egyptian films on the large TV screen and a Khan el-Khalili cafe atmosphere downstairs.