Tuesday, July 22, 2008

We went to see The Dark Knight last Sunday. It was stunning, the only really impressive film version of that totally unreal comic strip, Batman. Heath Ledger's performance as powerful as all the critics said. However, I thoroughly agree with the reviewer from the Daily Telegraph who said:

The Dark Knight may well be judged the best of this summer's blockbusters. It's a thrilling action movie laced with psychological subtleties, its haunting crepuscular images underpinned by an edgy, nerve-jangling score. And at its heart is a spine-tinglingly incandescent performance from Heath Ledger as Batman's crazed arch-nemesis the Joker. Without doubt, this is a major cinematic achievement. And, without doubt, it's not for kids.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The One that Got Away

When I wrote about my saffron debacle earlier today, I had a problem getting my photos the right size and in the right place. If you upload a photo with blogger, you get 6 lines of computer gobbledegook with countless other symbols (which I daren't typoe here in case I muck things up again). Then you have to move these lines into the appropriate spot in your text. As I was hurrying with the post (we were off to see The Dark Knight, with a brilliant performance by Heath Ledger as the Joker) so I screwed up.

I hope this time I upload correctly 2 photos that deserve to be seen in full glory.

I Should Have Known Better

I decided to prepare an Indian vegetarian meal for lunch today: carrot pachadi (with coconut, spices & yoghurt, one of my favourite recipes from Singapore Food); dhal; cucumber with yoghurt & mint;poppadums and Basmati rice. Why not improve the rice with some of the saffron I bought in a souk in Fes?
It was a spur-of-the-moment purchase from a general mini-grocery/hole in the wall while I was buying some argan oil, which works wonders on dry skin. At the time, it seemed to me a real bargain, saffron for such a cheap price!

If I'd bought it in Marrakesh in the wonderful specialty store with spices, dried rose buds, flower essences & nuts, I'm sure it would have been great.

Today, however, when I put a pinch of strands into a little warm water, the water suddenly turned pink. It should have been deep yellow, with a heavenly aroma. This fake saffron liquid looked like a pale version of Fanta Grape (one of Tiffany's childhood favourites) and totally lacked any fragrance.

It's not the second time I've been fobbed off with fake saffron in an exotic location. The first time was in Mapusa market in Goa, more than twenty years ago. A gramme of saffron is literally worth more than a gramme of gold — when will I learn?!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Desert Dreams

Did you know that the splendid version of Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O'Toole, was actually filmed in southern Morocco, around this old outpost of Ait bin Haddou?
No, I didn't either.

As I sit here in humid north Borneo, I keep thinking of the dry heat of southern Morocco and of the sandstorm at the edge of the Sahara, where my camera lens got covered in junk (sadly visible in my photos). And where, despite my tucking it under my shirt, my lens got a grain of sand trapped in the extendsion tube and is now in Kuala Lumpur for intensive care.

How anyone but a camel could stand this type of wind, which can blow non-stop for 7 days (so I was told), is beyond me. And to think they used to ride from Zagora to Timbuktu, a mere 52 days' journey.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Slowly Does it

Last night, we enjoyed braised lamb shanks cooked in much the same way as I usually prepare them with tomatoes, a little white wine and chicken stock. Jean-François commented — after finishing every morsel of meat (poor dogs, only bare bones to chew on) and mopping up every drop of sauce — that it was the best version of this dish I had ever made. What did I do differently?
Nothing, I replied. I always add the seasonings agak-agak, not measuring them — something I do only when testing recipes for cookbooks. Then I realised the difference was that I’d slow-cooked the meat in my terracotta Romertopf dish in a low oven, rather than speeding things up in the pressure cooker as I normally do.

Now don’t expect me to explain the science of it all, why the texture of the meat is so much more melting and the overall flavour so much better when it is cooked slowly in the Romertopf (which the English call a “chicken brick”). But as I remarked in an earlier post, using terracotta to make a sort of clay oven for my bread works wonders.
The recipe for the meat? Slowly brown all over a couple of whole lamb shanks (for 2 people) in a little olive oil in a frying pan. After about 10 minutes, transfer them to the Romertopf or a heavy oven dish (Le Creuset or similar). Add about 1/2 cup dry white wine (or 1/4 cup each dry vermouth and water) to the pan and let it bubble and reduce for a few minutes. Add 2-3 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped, and simmer until they soften a little. Add 1/2 cup really good quality chicken stock, salt and pepper and pour this mixture over the lamb shanks. Bake at around 150 C for about 2 hours, until meltingly soft. Check the meat a couple of times and if the sauce is drying out, add more chicken stock.
You can sprinkle the top with a mixture of very finely chopped parsley, garlic and grated lemon zest when serving. I normally do, but although I prepared this mixture last night, I forgot to add it to the meat. Tant pis —no problem — it was superb anyway.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Moroccan Feast

You might think that our most memorable meal in Morocco was the lavish spread we enjoyed (10 "salads", which were mostly cooked vegie dishes, to commence; chicken tajine; pastries and mint tea & fresh fruit) served in an opulent Dar in Fes with rugs, coloured tiles, mirrors, brass and copper everywhere. But no. It was in a simple café opposite the ruins of the ancient Roman town of Volubilis, once the biggest Roman post in north Africa.

When I went into the gloomy interior of the café, where old men sat sipping black coffee, I asked the young owner what he proposed for lunch (since there wasn't any menu). How about salad followed by tajine of meatballs in tomato sauce? Sounded great, so we sat on the terrace overlooking the café garden and the Roman ruins. A few moments later, after giving us the inevitable bowl of olives and flat Moroccan bread, our host, Mohammed (who else?) walked a couple of paces and cut a lettuce from the garden. He then went and picked a ripe orange, and made us a superb salad seasoned with oil, vinegar and lots of black pepper.

The meatballs were bathed in a really rich tomato sauce, simple but incredibly good. Time and again in Morocco, we found the fresh produce (which had never seen a refrigerated storage room or a supermarket chiller) intensely flavoured and ripened to perfection. Even the meat always looks good, and you can see which part of the beast it has come from.
After we finished our meal, Mohammed asked us if we'd like to see a special place. Why not? So we followed him into his orchard where two pomegranate trees meeting overhead formed a shady spot. "Would you like to have a siesta here?" he asked, indicating the large mat under the trees. Alas, we didn't have time, but we did have time to enjoy the bowl of freshly picked figs that he gave us. "I don't charge you, they are a gift because I like you". Now that is true Moroccan hospitality, and what turned a simple but delicious meal into a feast.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

And then there was ...

You'd probably think I was crazy if I told you one of the things we brought back from Marrakesh is a loo roll holder. But if you saw the washbasin that inspired us you'd understand.
In all the riads and well-off homes (as far as we could tell), bathroom fixtures are in brass or copper. Drool. But even though we brought back a card table from France (for camping and picnics) wrapped in my Moroccan rug, we drew the line at a washbasin. Instead, we compromised with the holder, which JF has just attached to the bathroom wall after some nifty drilling and screwing. My hero! (In case you think I was being lazy, I was making Claudia Roden's Sephardic Jewish orange cake for dinner tonight, using some of the orange flower water I bought in the souk.)

Friday, July 04, 2008


I have finally unpacked everything after my 5-week trip to Singapore, France, Morocc and London. In doing so, I reflected that you can know a lot about a person by the contents of their suitcase, especially the goodies they have brought back from a trip.
From our idyllic travels in Morocco (11 days which we wish could have been more) I brought back:
• A typical mat made by a tribe from the High Atlas mountains, south of Marrakesh. The carpet shop was great (see photo), the mint tea routine reminded me of buying donkey bags in an Afghan bazaar 35 years ago, and the rug itself I find charming: simple, unassuming, a colour which goes well in our bedroom and cheap too!

• An old silver pot for making mint tea, bought in the souk in Fes. Lacking wine and beer during our stay, we became addicted to this drink and the heavenly aroma of mint permeating the vegetable souks.
• A simple blue and white bowl bought at the pottery of Tamegroute, way south near the start of the Sahara.
• Alas, I couldn’t add a heavy pottery tagine to my luggage, so bought (in the same pottery at Tamegroute) a turquoise-coloured mini-tagine which holds a tea light.
• Purple olives bought from an old man in the Fes souk; he assures me they’re the best type to add to tajines.
• A wooden spoon for scooping the olives out of their liquid.
• Several beautiful brass and copper spoons and cookie cutters from the medina where we stayed in Marrakesh.
• A hand-crafted wooden water mug with brass bands bought from the artisan in one of the souks in Fes.
• Ras el Hanout, the ultimate spice blend, bought with the help of Jamilah from our gorgeous riad in Marrakesh. The whole spices were weighed out then ground in front of me. Can’t wait to cook with them!