A to Z at home

A to Z at home: Cooking in Vancouver

The year of the virus has been a unique experience. It seems there is a pattern in their occurrence, at least when they are truly global, real pandemics. If their frequency is every 100 years (the Spanish flue in 1918, the First Cholera pandemic in 1817…), it is less likely for one person to experience such a horror twice in his/her lifetime. It is not like wars, certainly not like wars in Europe or particularly in the Balkan region, where one cannot live without experiencing war (unless dying from a disease or non-natural causes). (more…)

Throne

Thailand strangely brings back memories of school days and geography classes. I was part of the UN club, even then, interested in other countries, in far away lands. I picked Thailand for some reason. Maybe it was because the national flag colours (red, white and blue) were the same as the colours on the flag of my country. Maybe because of the pictures of the lacy, golden temples with eaves stretching up towards the sky, or the abundance of flowers everywhere. Or maybe I picked Thailand because of torquise waters in the magazines, that I carefully cut out and glued into my album, creating a “profile”, a presentation to use at the UN meeting. I can see myself sitting at the desk with a small flag on the stand next to my name tag, waiting for my turn to show off – everything that I learned to introduce Thailand to my classmates.

Regardless of the fascination with Thailand when I was in my early teens, my actual introduction to Thai food came much later, in Canada in 1997. I ended up in a restaurant with a group of my new foreign friends, not paying attention to where we were and what we were going to eat. Except for a few rare visits to one Indonesian and one Chinese restaurant in my home town, the only two with Asian food, I was absolutely unfamiliar with the dishes or flavours from this part of the world. I let others choose for me. The thing I remember was that I really liked what I ate, and I looked at the name of the restaurant on my way out. It was Thai. The encounter with the authentic experience and this country is still in waiting. One day…

Although it is now one my favourite types of food, I didn’t dare trying to cook anything Thai. This was a challenge, and, as it often happens, some of it became less of a mystery and more of a joy at the end of the day.

T

Reminiscence

I was on vacation in Romania in my late 20s or early 30s. It was a short break from my work, from family, from my small children. Laying on the beach in Constanța next to the Black Sea, I was thinking about the fact that the Danube ended here, traveling for almost 3000 km, from one Black (Schwartzwald: Black Forest) to the other Black (Sea). Everyone was so welcoming, unaccustomed to tourists as the country was in the process of opening up to possibilities.

On our way back home, the bus made a long stop at Herculane Spa, established during Roman times (“Herculus Baths”) and know for its 16 thermal springs. I used the time to stroll through the town and then later on to hike up the trail into the mountain. The parking lot was at the entrance to the beautiful Cerna Valley Domogled National Park. As it was really early, the town was still asleep. Although it was summer, a heavy layer of fog was hanging low over the houses and buildings. I was carried away by the architecture, a combination of styles, each period leaving its stamp on the construction and habitats. Due to the politics and other priorities, this elite resort was neglected for years. The old buildings, with a combination of Austrian Baroque style, Romanticism, Neoclassical architectural elements, such as ornaments and reliefs, half in decay, looked mysterious and even eerie.

I remembered us a few years earlier, all glued to a radio broadcast of the demonstrations in Timișoara and Bucharest that eventually led to the execution of the Ceaușescu couple in 1989. We used the word Scuritate (his secret police) as a synonym for instability and oppression. Although my trip was in the 90s, the country was still recovering from years of Russian occupation and then Ceaușescu’s policies to deal with the foreign debt, that impoverished Romanians and exhausted the nation’s economy. After driving though pitch-black Arad, that had one of its frequent power blackouts, I think I was not the only one who sighed with relief when we crossed the border. It is always the people who suffer because of the politics, because of one person’s inadequacy or over-ambition of an individual.

Only much later did I realize how similar we were with our neighbours in culture, traditions and beliefs, including cuisine. They also like cabbage rolls, stuffed peppers, moussaka and even tripe soup (which is one of the rare dishes I’ve never learned to like), and many more. I mostly stayed away from the familiar and I discovered Romanian cheese/sour cream donuts, that I liked a lot!

River under the bridge

Dark and mysterious,
with whirls swirling fast,
like a water tornado
sucking you in and taking you with it
into its depth.
It claims life every year,
regardless of the swimmer’s experience.
It is like a dragon’s mouth,
always open.

Holding onto my mom’s hand
crossing the old bridge,
walking over aged and cracked timber sidewalk,
not damaged enough to be replaced,
but scary for a little girl,
I skip the hole through which,
the moving water calls.

Despite the sound reason saying:
look ahead, not down
and you will be free of fear,
there is something fascinating, alluring
about that imminent threat.
I imagine my feet slipping
and my whole body dropping
through the tiny crack,
my dress inflating like a balloon on my way down,
meeting the cold water of the Danube.

Numerous repairs and upgrades,
makes the bridge eventually safe,
but it still has a body of World War 2 steel cage.
As if testing my courage,
I go across it almost daily,
riding my bike to university,
catching a bus to go on a date,
watching the water level rising and subsiding,
fishermen trying their luck,
kids playing on both sides,
the sun rays gleaming of the waves.

When its body gets broken in multiple places,
repeatedly targeted,
the Danube is finally fed.
The bridge leaves its fractured bones untouched for years,
until it is pulled out from the bottom of the river
and probably taken to a scrapyard.
The river becomes even darker grey,
unfriendly to the crowds on ferries, rafts and boats,
as if asking for a break to chew,
for no more crossing,
for peace.

The Rainbow, they call it
because of the colourful lights
that illuminate the new bridge
and reflect into the water,
an illusion of needles stretched and thrust into the mud.

It has even nicer, unobstructed view
to both east and west.
I am not afraid of the river any more,
but we have very little to say to each other.
The words are all gone with a stream
to the Black Sea.

Quality vs. quantity

The dishes we decided to make as Qatari are prepared and served across Middle Eastern countries and they have variations in spelling (both the main dish and the dessert). I hope I am not making a huge mistake with the options I chose from the Internet.

I am not familiar with either majboos or mehalabiya. I might have made similar dishes before, but it is always a new ingredient that I learn about. In this case it was the combination of spices: cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric… and dried limes. They are also called “black limes” as they turn black inside when dried. In some countries, they call them “loomi”. I found them in Persian store. Although I needed only a few, I would assume it is used a lot, based on the size of the package I was able to find. They have intense flavour and add a whole new note to the dish. Now I have to figure out how to use the rest of them in my usual cooking. I thought about trying a black lime in tea, so I did a bit of research and they are indeed often used this way.

The photo of the tea on the website from the link above caught my attention because of the borage flower. Suddenly I had a memory flash, taking me back to my teenage years. I was quite a prolific letter writer at that time, sending and receiving letters almost daily from friends all over the country and abroad. One of my friends was from Rijeka (Croatia), but went to Iraq for a short period of time. I was in my early twenties. I still have all of those letters and I remembered that he sent me a dried flower from Baghdad. I remembered him saying that the flowers were hard to find in the desert, and that they usually had deep roots to hold them. Despite the war raging, he went out to pick one for me. In my naive and totally oblivious manner, I asked him about vegetation in Iraq and to send me some photos to “see” as if he was a tourist there. It was forbidden and dangerous, especially for foreigner soldiers, to take any photographs, but it was March 8, the International Women’s Day. and he wanted to surprise me. Equally young and reckless, he went to search for flowers. It is said that “fortune favors the brave” but I would add “and innocent”. Anything could have happened to him, but nothing had. He came back home eventually, got married… we lost touch. I hope he is happy and satisfied with his life somewhere.

Questions

How much do we know about each other?

How often we say:
“It is nice of him to do this for me.”
“Such a wonderful person, helping everyone,
bringing joy to everyone,
caring for everyone”
but not realizing that he doesn’t do it for ‘everyone’?

How terrifying it is not to recognize
that we have become someone special to someone,
and we brush it off?

How powerful is the heart’s call?
We swipe everything in front of us,
blind for pain or low voices,
pushed by glowing energy inside,
hoping that we can bring everyone along,
united, harmonious with our heartbeats.

Those without answer stay on the margin
forgotten.

When a heart is offered on a plate,
how vulnerable we are to every word, every action?
What is the meaning of the Cupid’s arrows
flying in different directions and never hitting a target?
Who is there to tell us that there will be
so many missed opportunities for love,
and so many mistakes that we will make?

Play with the past

Continuing this “Cooking at home A to Z” journey was challenging for me in December. I am not very religious, but there is a long Christmas lent that I wanted to do. It stretches over six winter weeks and ends on the Orthodox Christmas eve on January 6th. It is an opportunity to eat simply, be more reflective and not indulge in over-eating, over-consumerism, and other over-“doing” habits. To simplify, the lent is mostly like being vegan, so no animal derived food. I like vegetables, soups, stews… – there was no problem with finding those in Portuguese dishes. As probably evident from these postings, I like making desserts whenever there is a chance for them, so instead of looking for vegan options, I looked for something I like and then learned about alternatives. I find culinary explorations quite exciting. It is not only that people are inventing new dishes, but also that there have always been alternatives that were used in the past (and usually healthier), but were replaced by well-marketed, more profitable product. Food industry is scary when you start reading about the ingredients on the back of the packages, the additives and all the chemistry.

This is how I ended up with discovering aquafaba, which was perfect for the Portuguese soft doughnuts! I loved it so much that I made them a few times after, even when I didn’t have to use aquafaba.

from Past Poetic Production

The end

The bus winds up the narrow road,
cranking and screeching like a chased beast.

Walking from the entrance of the palace
through the labyrinths of gardens.
Up, up the cobbled roads and pathways.
I touch tiled walls and lacy concrete
decorations on turrets and columns,
warm from October sun.
The colours of Pena Palace make it look like a giant wedding cake.

A beautiful place to be with someone you love,
I think walking next to you in silence.
Your eyes rest on other spots but never on me.
I long for your hand to take mine,
for a smile to radiate on our faces.
Instead, I ask you to take a photo of me, reluctantly,
to put myself in this site for eternity,
without you.
Neither of us dares to ask for a memory of us together.
We will remember Lisbon as a city
where we became strangers
more than a boy dancing on the street,
or a lady selling “Pastéis de Belém”, their favourite pastries.

At the end of the day
I hate you more than at the beginning,
as it is one more without love,
further and further away from each other.

We both try to bring back, to resurrect smithereens
of the past feeling that used to make us “us”.
It hurts so much that it prevents us from knowing “how”.
Because of you, Lisbon would be a city of silhouettes,
a pain in beauty, a well with a broken rope to the bucket,
leaving my heart and my mouth dry.

Out of the ordinary

I knew nothing about Oman, except its geographic location. Searching for dishes resulted in (no surprise there) mixed cuisine, influenced by neighbouring countries. As I read, Masjuai was traditionally made with king fish and lemon rice, but finding a king fish on Granville Island marked in Vancouver, proved to be difficult, especially when you need it for today or next weekend. The fishmonger was really kind and open to answering all my questions. He suggested swordfish as an alternative. It was supposed to be grilled, but we did what we could at home. I am sure it was far for what I would potentially be served in Oman, but it was an adventure. A swordfish stake was very different from other fish I’ve had before. It is a mild-tasting, white-fleshed fish with a meaty texture. It is sold exclusively in steaks and it really tasted as meat. I am happy I opted out for something new and unknown.

A recipe for halwa was very similar to what my mom used to make for us, and we knew it as a home-made halva as opposed to what we could find at the market, confectionery stores or bakeries, which was closer to Greek tahini halva. Although I thought there was something secret in their recipes, both are actually easy to make.

Once is enough

It was difficult to hide
in a white night
bathing the bedroom,
with so many shiny witnesses,
looking down at us.
At first, I took is as romantic
and promising.
Then I realized how quickly it would reveal
the naked truth, the silent fear.
It made me uncomfortable.
Touching you
was like grabbing an iron rod,
burning and cold at the same time,
white and smooth from outside,
but cracked and rusty from inside.
The broken you,
The broken me.
How did we ever arrived to this moment?

Morning will sand the edges,
introduce smiles and words.
What a self-deception!
The dawn was a relief from
sharing the white with a stranger.
The words stayed never uttered,
like we forgot how to speak.
I tried to take it light, but
my feet were aching for the road,
my heart was yearning for air.

Once is enough
when all the lines are gone,
when eyes are searching for refuge,
when walls of different emotions
are crashing us down.
There is no decimal point
to allow for finer distribution,
for tiny components,
for slight variations.

Once is more than enough.

Never say never

It is impossible to count the number of times I was on Amsterdam airport, a transit hub for travelers coming from North America or different parts of the world to Europe on the way to their final destination. Only once had I decided to stay an extra day and visit the city. It was in 2015. Every time I travel, the “theme” of the journey somehow emerges without my preparation. That year was the year of museums and galleries and Amsterdam was a perfect place to get lost in art and culture. As I had only a day at my disposal. I didn’t want to simply check the box, so I managed to see only two of many wonderful places. I picked the famous Rijksmuseum, where I could barely breathe in front of Vermeer’s Milkmaid and that dance of light and shadows. The second one was Van Gogh Museum, learning about his life, seeing his struggles and drive to create. Exhausted, I returned to my room in one of the nicest affordable hotels I ever stayed in, CitizenM. Needless to say, I had no time to look for authentic restaurants or dishes.

I would like to go back to Netherlands and not only for the cuisine, tulips, windmills and clogs. I would like to see Elfstedentocht, the world’s largest speed skating competition and leisure skating tour on the canals that connect 11 cities, at almost 200 km. It is held in the province of Friesland, in the northern part of Netherlands. This race only happens when the entire course is at least 15cm thick and I am not sure if I am already too late. Because of the climate change and the rise of temperatures, the last Elfstedentocht was in 1997. I wonder if it would be possible to do the same tour by bike instead. Never say never.

At the beginning of Fall, we always crave for something earthy and simple. Lots of Dutch dishes that I found were with a sausage, so we tried two of them (although with different sausages). The first one was a traditional soup with lots of vegetables and split pea, which provides thickness and would have probably been filling on its own. The second dish, Stamppot, was a combination of mashed potatoes and something green. We went with kale, but it could be spinach or chard. What I liked the most were the almond butter cookies. They are good at any time of the day and go well with a cup of tea or coffee.

Nature patience

Weeding around bulbs,
on a ring-shaped flowerbed,
like on a pedestal bordered by shrubs,
my father waits for yellow tulips to lift their heads,
tiny yellow suns on the green stem.

When the bravest are out,
the red ones will follow, adding splash of colour
on the Spring canvas.
Finally, the royal purple, almost black
will show up, to stay the longest and close the season.

Year after year,
that plate of joy
until the knees became hard to bend,
the sheers too heavy for shaky hands to trim.
Like snails under attack,
they slowly moved their heads inward, hiding.

It was hard to see the bare island in the yard.

Then suddenly,
they found their way through,
almost like drunken boys
jumping over the hedge,
and started populating the long pathways
through the abandoned vegetable garden.

I came to visit one other Spring
and they waited for me,
not the island any more,
but a sea of tulips singing in the breeze,
caressing my palms as I stroll,
walking on water.

My, my, what a magic

Mentioning Mexico always brings thoughts of my first and only one “all-inclusive” vacation. What does it look like to go and not worry about anything and have everything at your disposal. The Barceló resort was one of the great places to experience that kind of rest. Despite all nice day-trips and learning about the area, I wish we had more opportunities to try authentic Mexican cuisine. There are restaurants of course, in Vancouver, where you can have a taste of it, but I am not sure how close they come to the original.

Memories

I remember the evening we arrived,
and walked barefoot on sand, still hot
from a long exposure to a sunny day.
I couldn’t wait to get into the warm waters,
that hugged, there in Cancún,
coming from the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea,
mixing the hues of green and blue.
Water so different from cold Pacific Ocean
and the black bottom.
Days so full
of explorations, of joy,
so full of us.

Climbing the ruins,
swimming in a cool cenote,
driving a jeep through the dust…
spicy food, cold drinks,
music…

There is nothing left,
no repeated trip,
no repeated anything,
just a few photos
and these minty memories.

Labour of love

I love Lebanese food for many reasons. Strange as it may sound at first, it reminds me of home. It is amazing to think how cultures and customs travel and mix, especially cuisines. Maybe it is not particularly common to have Mediterranean diet in the continental part of the country, which has no access to the Adriatic coast and therefore, no connection with Mediterranean, but our family was different. My mom has always been an excellent cook and never scared to try to make something new and tasty. She was born in Macedonia and grew up with tomatoes, eggplants, cheese, olives, basil and mint, sometimes lamb… Pastry is what she could best “feel” in her hands, so we had variations of bread, pies, doughnuts and other delicious bites. Occupied by Turks for centuries, close to Greece – the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean influences were inevitable.

I was happy to make manakish, as it very much reminded me of Turkish pide, or, how I experienced it, of Macedonian pastrmalija. Pastrmalija was not served at restaurants like today and it was primarily made in winter. As my visits to Macedonia were usually over summer school break, being there in January and having pastrmalija was even more special. My aunt would make a dough and prepare the meat that was on the top, but she would take it to a baker to bake it in the brick or stone oven. Nothing can beat the dough baked in those ovens! With snow outside on cold winter days, someone would bring the steaming hot pastrmalijas and we would soon all be gathered around the table, breaking it, sharing and diving into it.

Although I used some of the ingredients I didn’t eat as a child, such as sumac, for example, when I closed my eyes, I was closer to home.

Love

It defines us, changes us, moves us.
What are we willing to do for it?
How many times are we ready to die for it?
How to live without it?

When I lost you,
the void was so enormous,
I thought I would never be able to
find a bridge across,
and make a step forward.

There were other loves.
I was blessed.
But no one as permanent
as your non-existence.

Friendships, blood lines, children…
lots to give and receive.
Still…
when I reach out over the bed sheets
I catch only air.

I thought I would wither without love,
but I am still walking.

Maybe when I fall one day,
and they open my heart,
there will be a dry leaf inside.

Key to knowledge

Not too many countries starting with K, and not too many cuisines to explore. We decided to try and make Korean this time. We had such a good experience at the Sura restaurant in August 2019. The day was hot, so a cold cucumber soup seemed like a good idea. Despite the simplicity of the recipe, I don’t think I did a good job. Too much seaweed made it hard for me to enjoy. However, the main dish was tasteful and it went well with the Korean black raspberry wine.

My only connection to this country are a few colleagues from work, but their personal stories are not necessarily part of our conversations. The other source of my knowledge are, of course, books. I borrowed The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See from a friend, and I was immediately captivated by the good writing. I later recommended it for our book club and gladly read it once again. A story about hard life and exceptional women divers, haenyeo, on a small Jeju island is a testimony of how little we know about the limits of human body and spirit.

The other book that I read later, The Last Exiles: A Novel by Ann Shin was a completely different experience and “closer to home.” The political regimes that make human life meaningless and hell is not a matter of the past. How often do we see the brutality over millions to satisfy the greed and ego of a few? The indoctrination and brainwash to warship the leaders to the extend that they become larger than God, and the censorship of information so that there is no free mind, and therefore no free will is such a powerful weapon. I am happy that socialism/communism in our country didn’t go to such extremes. It makes me angry and devastated at the same time to think how human life (that we have only one of) can be wasted, and these beautiful opportunities to be happy, joyful, creative… have never been given to so many.

Knowledge

I avoid news.
What do I need to know about the world?
I learned so much already.

The war will never end,
just change location,
leaving broken homes, broken hearts
and broken cultures behind.

It will take longer than life to recover,
to repair, rebuild…
It is happening again,
if not in our neighbourhood,
then in the country one over.

Earthquakes, volcanoes, fires and floods
– it is not about them

It is about human to human,
one person to another:
killing someone because he is black,
abusing children because they can’t fight back,
torturing women because they are already wounded.
I can’t actually name the reasons
as there is no reason at all.

When I turn the TV on,
I see the eyes that witnessed the horror,
the memories that will never fade.
I go to bed shaking,
another sleepless night ahead.

My TV screen is only for movies and documentaries,
my radio only for music.

When I get up,
I dissolve the yeast in lukewarm water
and bake a bread for another neighbour,
leave a flower in front of someone’s door,
or make a pillow for a friend.

That, I know how to do.