Saturday, August 31, 2013

Dubai China Night at Homey

Our China interest group on, Dubai China Night, held its monthly dinner at Homey once again. It was my first time attending, and it was nice to make new acquaintances with the members who also attended.

I had been there once before, and was pleased to note that a lot of people shared my fondness for the red rice shrimp rolls.

I also gave the soft tofu and century egg starter a go, mainly considering that it had century egg in it. It was steeped in chili oil, which really went well with the cold soft tofu, and imparted an amazing and novel flavor to the diced century egg.

It was nice to see how many other people in Dubai are interested in Chinese culture and/or had been to China and/or could speak Chinese. I look forward to attending another one when I get the chance.

Talal Rahwan seminar on coalition algorithms at Masdar Institute

This week, Dr Talal Rahwan, a research fellow at the University of Southampton, dropped by our department at Masdar Institute to talk about the work he is doing on algorithms for reward maximization and reward distribution in agent coalition formation.

He gave us an overview of the improved dynamic programming algorithm (and one of its hybrid versions) for reward-maximal coalition formation, briefly presented his work on using domain-specific properties of the reward functions in reward maximization, and described the reward distribution problem and some of its algorithmic solutions. He used graphical representations a lot, making much of his material accessible to even those without formal acquaintance with the theory at a graduate level (I think).

Finally, he described applications in power generation management, marketing referral networks, network analysis for node targeting, etc. It was a very interesting and well-delivered presentation, and it was nice to see some solid algorithm work after quite a while.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Motion and illusion at the Moving Image Museum

TECOM is the kind of place one would associate with business and residential towers, assorted hotels and bars, and an odd, winding, ring road (seriously, it looks like an amoeba eating smaller microbes if viewed using Google Maps). Not "al culthshur", for sure.

Moving Image Museum in TECOM

But culture is exactly what we got earlier this year, when communications magnate Akram Miknas contributed his personal collection of pre-movie motion illusion novelty pieces to create the Moving Image Museum on level 1 of the MCN Hive, the HQ of his MCN company.

Akram Miknas narrating

A short video is first shown to visitors in the film room, narrated by Miknas himself, in which he describes the history of moving image art, and demonstrates with some examples and clips. In the timeline on the entrance wall, one can see that it is dominated by the 1790s to the 1890s, the golden age of the moving image. This is, of course, to be expected; it was the time when global fairs and expositions came into fashion, and attracting attention with crowd-pleasing innovation was the order of the day. To than end, men used all available illusions, materials, techniques and technologies to wow the masses.

Magic lantern

Although the museum looks small, there is a huge assortment of items within. There's an especially nice collection of magic lanterns, ranging from small to huge. These are the days in which projectors had chimneys, instead of vents, as they used combustion to produce light. Whether intricate or rustic, each piece is its own line, being made before modern mass-production injection-molding and standardized parts took off.

Depth illusion peep show and phenakistoscope slides

Other display cases house collections of stereoscopes, mutoscopes, zoetropes, praxinoscopes, and many other devices. There are also a number of these kept out of the display cases, so that visitors can interact with them.

Zoetrope with rotation mechanism, and thaumatropes

The far side of the gallery is dominated by a huge kaiserpanorama, with which multiple visitors can peer at beautiful, high-definition yester-century photography, colored vibrantly, and rotated through 3D steroscopic visors.

Interactive stereoscope and mutoscopes. You can watch the steampunk edition of Avatar 3D.

The gift shop has a nice collection too, priced reasonably. Outside, there's table space for private events. The entry price of AED 50 is about worth the experience; after all, this is the kind of exhibition one typically sees in European capitals. Each item on display is unique, incorporating intricate hand-crafted decorative art work as well as the mechanical and optical trickery necessary to amuse viewers, and and so will invite close inspection. If you're interesting in history and/or science and/or art, you will want to spend a lot of time here; I recommend an hour at least.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Abri and the Funk Radius at Sublime

Saturday night saw the launch of a new weekly gig by Dubai-based music acts Hamdan Al Abri and The Funk Radius. The Funk Radius, consisting of jazz musicians Elie and Rony Afif together with rock musician Jay Wud, provided bass, drum and guitar support for soul singer Abri's vocal performance. A very interesting genre mix, Abri and the Funk Radius had performed together late last season, and I guess it worked out well, because they'll be doing it every Saturday night this season.

The launch took place in the "space baroque" Sublime Lounge at the Ibis hotel DWTC, conveniently located near the DWTC metro station. Substantial attendance could already be seen by 9pm, and the place filled up quickly during the first set and interval, with most staying on until the last set, near midnight.

The four performed three sets of funk, funk fusion, rock and reggae, including classics like "I Shot the Sheriff" and "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a ) Sex Machine", and more recent hits like "Get Lucky" and "Crazy". They kept the energy going until the last song of the last set, eliciting enthusiastic responses from the crowd at the lounge, especially on their more widely recognizable numbers.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Cooking old favorites from New England

Several months after my first visit to Boston, I finally got around to doing a New England meal, with as many specifically Bostonian dishes as possible. The cuisine of the area has a lot of British and Irish influences, and also incorporates many region- and hemisphere-native ingredients like cranberries, potato and corn. Molasses are a common ingredient, thanks to Boston's past as a rum production hub (in fact, a tragic but amusing accident about a century ago saw parts of Boston literally flooded with the stuff). Seafood is huge in coastal New England cuisine, while bacon or salt pork contribute flavor to a number of dishes from around there. I had 5 guests, but these portions serve about 8.

For the soup course, I prepared a New England Fish Chowder. For this, I crackled about 100g of chopped bacon in a pot, set the bits aside, added 2 tablespoons of butter to the rendered fat, and in it sauteed 2 cups of chopped onion, thyme leaves stripped from 10 fresh sprigs, and 3 bay leaves, for about 10 minutes.

I then added 5 cups of chicken stock (better to use fish stock, if available), and 750g of diced peeled potato, then boiled for 10 minutes. In hindsight, I should have mashed some of the potato in the pot; it would have improved the thickness of the chowder. After the potatoes started getting soft, I reduced the heat and added salt and pepper. Finally, I added about a kilo of perch fillet in chunks, letting them poach for 5 minutes, then letting the pot sit away from the stove for 10 minutes. Finally, I added 1.5 cups of thick cream, stirring gently so as to not mash the fish.

I served this fresh, with the previously-prepared crackled bacon, salt crackers, and chopped parsley to garnish. Yummy, with the thyme really coming through, and the fish done just right. Even the "I don't like seafood" dude chowed down on this chowder.

To serve as a trencher for the main course, I decided to bake a Massachusetts historical specialty: Anadama Bread. To make the dough, I stirred 2 cups of hot water into half a cup of cornmeal until smooth. Once this dropped temperature to slightly warm, I stirred in half a cup of molasses, 45g of lukewarm butter, and a tablespoon of salt.

I then added half a cup of warm water that had been cultured with a small packet of dry yeast for 5 minutes, as well as 560g of flour, and combined to get a dough too loose to knead. I spooned the dough into a large buttered baking dish and let it rise until it about doubled in volume. Finally, I baked it for little under an hour at 180C.

The bread had a hard brown crust, and a sweetish taste that went great with the savory main.

The main dish of New England Boiled Dinner was pretty simple to prepare. After I simmered 1.3 kg of beef in large cuts with 15 whole peppercorns, 8 whole cloves, 3 bay leaves and 2 teaspoons of salt for about 4 hours, I just got a bunch of peeled root vegetables - 3 large carrots, 4 medium new potatoes and two medium turnips - and cut them into chunks. I removed the meat from its soup, added the vegetable chunks, and let them boil in it for about half an hour, adding chunks of a small head of cabbage before the last 20 minutes elapsed.

Finally, I added the sliced meat back on top of the vegetables, and served it hot, with horseradish sauce on the side. Simple, but hearty.

As a side dish, I made Boston Slow-Cooked Beans. It requires a bit of planning ahead. I soaked 400g of white beans from 24 hours before the lunch, in warm water. In the night before the lunch, I chopped about 200g of bacon, and prepared a sauce by mixing a half cup of molasses, a half cup of brown sugar, 3 tablespoons of Dijon mustard, and a half teaspoon of ground cloves with 3 cups of hot water. I also kept 1.5 cups of chopped onion ready.

From bottom to top in the pot, I layered half the bacon, then half the beans, then the chopped onion, then the rest of the beans, and, finally, the rest of the bacon. I poured the sauce into the pot until it covered everything.

I let this cook on low heat for about 8 hours, and let it sit for a while, before reheating to serve. It had a lovely savory-sweet taste from the combination of bacon and molasses, and the beans had become deliciously soft.

For the dessert, I did a Boston Cream Pie. This is, in fact, not a "pie" at all; rather, more of a cake sandwich. The batter for the cake layers was prepared by blending a cup of sugar with 60g of butter and an egg. 225g of flour, a pinch of salt, and 4 teaspoons of baking powder were mixed into this in small doses, alternating with splashes from a cup of milk, after which a teaspoon of vanilla extract was stirred in.

The cream/custard filling was prepared by mixing 6 tablespoons of sugar, 2.5 tablespoons of flour, an egg, a half cup of milk, and a pinch of salt, and cooking on low heat until thick. Finally, I removed the mixture from heat, stirring in a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and chilling it. While it chilled, I halved the cake batter and baked each half at 180C in a shallow pan to make the layers, and sandwiched the chilled cream/custard between them.

I frosted the top and sides of the cake with a thick layer of store-bought dark chocolate frosting (milk chocolate is normally used, but hey, dark was available).

The event was enlivened with some classic all-American Colt 45, purchased specifically with this afternoon in mind.

Fall 2013 CIS Orientation at Masdar Institute

We're welcoming the newest batch of students to Masdar Institute this week. From what I've seen of at least those specializing in Computing and Information Sciences among the incoming students, they're a unique mix of nationalities.

They're also fortunate to be the first batch to enter the university after the campus expansion was officially opened for use last month. That means plenty more office, lab and living space for them.

I delivered the STEVAS lab's talk on behalf of the lab's head, who was away. A couple of the students took a keen interest in our work, and I gathered from the self-introductions that some others had experience or interest in relevant areas of research and/or industry. I look forward to working with any of them who do make it into our lab.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Progressive Dinner II

Our second attempt at doing a progressive dinner may not have been as numerically successful as the first, but we made up for it with some great food. Just three of us this time; everyone else in the vicinity with culinary skill seemed to be moving house, traveling, or down with the flu.

Kathryn took on both the soup and salad courses, and spared no effort. She went exotic this time, making a delicious Jamaican pepperpot soup of okra, sweet potato and shrimp, with delicious home-baked bread on the side. It had a delightfully savory-hot taste, and the sweet bread was excellent in complement.

Her salad was a pleasant surprise, combining cucumber, mango, avocado and cilantro with a sweet-salty dressing. A perfect salad for the summer.

We also got to play with her adorable kittens, who were slightly less shy this time around.

Earlier that day, I had begun preparing my main course, themed Portuguese. For the Portuguese tomato rice on the side, I sauteed a cup of chopped onion and stirred in 2 cloves of chopped garlic, a teaspoon of salt, half a teaspoon of red chili pepper flakes, and two bay leaves. I then added a cup and a half of chopped fresh tomatoes for a little more time cooking, finally bringing to a boil after adding two cups of water and two tablespoons each of chopped parsley and cilantro.

After we got to my place, I added the cup of long-grain rice I had been soaking, and let that cook for about 20 minutes until the water disappeared. This turned out really well, if I may say so myself.

For the main course dish of Portuguese baked fish, I also kept the sauce ready in advance. I started with a chopped onion, a sliced leek and four minced cloves of garlic, sauteed in olive oil. I then added two cans of peeled tomato in tomato juice, two tablespoons of tomato paste, half a teaspoon each of cumin, rosemary and oregano, and salt and pepper.

When we arrived at my place, I poured some of the simmering sauce in to a baking dish, placed the grouper fillets on it, and laid out strips of a sliced green pepper over the fish. Finally, I poured a cup of white wine over everything, laid out some slices of lemon over the peppers, poured on the rest of the sauce and sprinkled on a chopped bunch of parsley.

I baked this for about half an hour at 180C. The fish took in the flavor of the sauce, as well as the lemon slices and the wine. It made for a lovely and fairly healthy main course.

Phil's dessert of home-baked carrot cake was dense and hearty, frosted with his own preparation of sweetened butter and cream cheese. Despite having been refrigerated for two days, it tasted great.

Giving soya wadi another go

I noticed soya wadi in the supermarket for the first time last week. It's quite easily available in Mumbai, but I had no idea it was available here until now. My only prior experience with cooking it gave me a major case of "Delhi belly". Although, to be fair, it was probably the peas, not the wadi.

So I decided to try it again, and improvised a spicy stew of the soya wadi I bought. I threw a packet of it into chopped tomato and chopped leftover leek simmering in vegetable stock, mustard, cumin and garam masala, along with fava beans and garbanzo beans. It actually came out pretty good. The soya wadi soaked up the stew and acquired a very mutton-like texture, just as I recalled from when I last ate it. I liked it so much that I went out and bought a couple more packets for further experimentation.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Katie Quinton at PizzaExpress JLT

PizzaExpress in JLT kicked off the season last Thursday night with a gig by singer Katie Quinton. I'd never heard of her before this gig, but I and my friends were most pleased with her show. Her enthusiasm for music was evident in the way she moved to her songs, and her vocal control and range made for some nice renditions. Pleasant surprise of the weekend, that.

Along with Nathan Hill on the piano and some of the vocals, it was a good night of jazz, soul and rhythm & blues classics, such as by Norah Jones and Ray Charles, as well as appropriately rearranged versions of more contemporary songs.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Resuscitation Theatre play reading with Saleh Karama

It's not often that theater groups get to meet the writers of plays on which they're working, but Emirati director/playwright Saleh Karama dropped in on one of the play-reading sessions of Abu Dhabi-based theater group Resuscitation Theatre last week. I have been doing readings with the group for a couple of months, and we've covered three of his plays thus far. After their success together with One More Try last season, the group will be staging more of his works in the coming months.

With each play having been originally written in Arabic, and replete with metaphor and allusion to boot (one being particularly abstract as well), there were a lot of burning questions on everyone's minds, and it was great to be able to get these out and answered. I look forward to these plays making it to stage, especially the second one.

Rachael Calladine and Shay at Bahri Bar

I dropped by Bahri Bar at Mina A'Salam last week to enjoy one of the first regular gigs of the season: a Dubai-based duo of British singer Rachael Calladine (who contributed her musical talents to Kalubela last year) and Nigerian musician Shay (who recently featured in the first volume of local artists' collaborative album Sikka Score). The Arabesque-modern bar, with its soft lighting and relaxed ambiance, lends itself well to the performance of their jazz/soul/funk genre.

Calladine sang classic hits from various decades, as well as contemporary ones, mostly reworked along jazz and soul lines. It was a seemingly effortless vocal performance, featuring a good deal of improvisation and scat. While I am more used to her singing style going with jazz piano, Shay delivered great instrumental accompaniment, using a loop machine to electronically layer beats and tunes from his guitar. He also contributed a few commendable vocal performances. They both harmonized well in the final song of the night; I hope they include more opportunities to do this in future performances.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Film review of Pacific Rim

A lot of comparisons (and contrasts) have already been drawn between Neon Genesis Evangelion and summer "Gundam vs Godzilla" flick Pacific Rim. I do wonder if this is the closest we will come to seeing an NGE-like film in our lifetimes - the plot and backstory of NGE is far too complex for a popular action film.

The human drama was about as cheesy as would be expected of the genre, with tropes and archetypes galore. There's a convenient plot device of the world-saving war machine needing cooperative piloting by two people, setting the stage for inter-protagonist tension. There's a bumbling scientist duo, people with dead relative trauma and daddy issues, a tough general dude in need of a chill pill, a cocky superstar warrior in need of humbling, etc. There's even what appears to be a tribute to Samuel L Jackson's death in an infamous creature feature.

The rest of it, however, was spectacular. A lot of the film is set in urban coastal East Asia, which is great for battles in colorful cities and beautiful sea locations. It's also closer to home for the Japanese origins of both of the film's constituent genres. I really liked how the mecha - called jaegers in the film - were designed and implemented. These things were so huge they could wade around littoral waters like they were in paddling pools. As were their opponents, the kaiju - extra-dimensional monsters invading Earth. Each kaiju and jaeger had distinctive looks and unique characteristics (which I'm sure will be great for toy lines), from extra arms and specialized weapons to claw tails and bio-EMP.

Guillermo del Toro was a good choice for this film, as he is great with choosing the right imagery - a sort of Mexican Tarsem Singh. The battles take place at night, so the urban glow, jaeger feature lighting and kaiju bio-luminescence really come through for a great overall look. Both jaeger and kaiju tower over most buildings, inspiring awe in the viewer, and their mechanical and biological aspects of each were well-executed. The battles featured little use of ranged weapons, except as finishing moves; they would rapidly descend into what can basically be described as massively super-scaled epic bar brawls (justifying the jaegers' otherwise-unnecessary humanoid forms), complete with the opponents wrestling, butting, pummeling, and using available objects to bludgeon and hack at one another. Which is simply glorious.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Menu for a Manoos: Cooking Marathi

Yes, I grew up in the UAE and the US, but as far as India is concerned, I am more of a Mumbaikar than anything else. After all, I was born in the city, and I spent a little over a year working there. Hence, of the small portion of my life that I did spend in India, the vast majority was spent in Mumbai.

But a cosmopolitan megalopolis like Mumbai offers few opportunities for those wishing to sample the cuisine of its mother state of Maharashtra, leaving one to find it in the odd restaurant or in Marathi homes. Indeed, my first real acquaintance with Marathi food was at the dinner table of one of my relatives, who married a Marathi. Living nearby during my aforementioned stint in the city, I would frequently find Marathi dishes on the menu when I visited.

The Marathis, whose warrior caste was classified as one of the "martial races" under colonial British ethnic taxonomy, bear the distinction of founding and ruling the subcontinent's last great empire, which encompassed most of modern-day India at its peak, and set sail one the few powerful blue water navies in the region's history.

Marathi cuisine shares some features with other Western Indian cuisines, putting the heat of Indian spices together with the sweetness of jaggery and the sourness of tamarind pulp, and using ground nuts, desiccated coconut and/or sesame seeds to add body. Of the dishes in the Marathi menu I planned for my party of 8, I had prior familiarity with only the cold dishes, so much of it was new territory for me on both the kitchen counter and the dining table.

One of my favorite Marathi dishes is the cold raita of red pumpkin, bhoplyache bharit. While the original recipe called for boiling of 3 cups of the Indian red pumpkin, I cut and baked mine instead (180C, until I could easily stick a chopstick into all the baking pieces), and scooped the pulp into a bowl before mashing it. I then added 2 cups of yogurt and 8 chopped green chilies, and mixed well.

For the tempering, I added a teaspoon and a half of garlic powder to 3 teaspoons of mustard seeds popping in hot oil, and poured this, sizzling hot, into the mixture prepared earlier.

Refrigerated for a couple of hours, and garnished with chopped cilantro just before serving, this dish is a good, cooling side dish, but it has enough flavor and bite of its own to be served with bread or eaten by itself as a snack.

My next dish was a black-eyed pea masala called chavlichi usal. This dish pretty much hinges on the masala mix, which I made by roasting 2 tablespoons of desiccated coconut and 4 teaspoons of cumin seeds, and grinding them with 8 chopped green chilies.

After adding a teaspoon of garlic powder, 2 teaspoons of turmeric powder, and 10 sliced garlic cloves to 4 teaspoons of mustard seeds sputtering in hot oil, and frying with two chopped onions until translucent, I added 3 cups (about 500g) of black-eyed peas I had soaked and boiled, along with enough water to just about leave the topmost layer of peas dry. I then stirred in the ground masala mix, 2 teaspoons of loosened tamarind pulp, 2 teaspoons of jaggery and a teaspoon of salt, cooking for a few more minutes before garnishing with chopped cilantro and serving. This turned out to be a tasty and hearty dish, going very well with the chapatis.

My next dish was stuffed mini-eggplants, bharli vangi. I prepared the stuffing by grinding a cup of roasted and skinned peanuts and 4 tablespoons of roasted sesame seeds into a coarse powder, then adding 3 tablespoons of coriander powder, 2 teaspoons of cumin powder, 2 teaspoons of garam masala, 1 teaspoon of turmeric powder, and 3 teaspoons of red chili powder, along with a teaspoon of salt. After adding 2 tablespoons of jaggery and a 2 tablespoons of broken tamarind pulp, I mashed all of these into a paste, adding just enough water to ensure cohesion.

Mini-eggplants are not available everywhere; I found these in a West Zone in Karama. After removing the green stem parts, I cut two slits at right angles to each other, on the non-stem end, going almost all the way down to the stem end. I let them sit in lukewarm salt water for about 15 minutes.

Finally, I stuffed the stuffing into each eggplant, pinching the latter across the slits to get them to open up for the stuffing. I had these frying in a pan with the rest of the stuffing for about 10 minutes, then transferring them to a baking dish to roast at 180C for about 20 minutes, until the skins had become crackly short of burnt. After baking, the eggplants just fell apart when prodded with eating utensils, and the sweet/sour/nutty taste of the stuffing made it even better.

The chicken dish of chicken kolhapuri, named after the town of Kolhapur in southwest Maharashtra, involved the most complex and time-consuming preparation process of the evening. 20 large pieces of chicken on bone were bought for this purpose. After skinning them and marinating them for 15 minutes in 2 teaspoons of turmeric powder and 3 tablespoons of ginger-garlic paste, I let them cook for a few minutes, tossed into 2 teaspoons of black pepper, 4 small bay leaves and 2 inches of crushed cinnamon frying with a cup of chopped onions. Finally, I added a liter of hot water and simmered all of this, covered, for half an hour.

For the curry paste, I lightly browned 3 cups of sliced onions in oil, next adding 1.5 cups of desiccated coconut and browning that too, then adding 2 tablespoons of roasted sesame seeds and letting it all cool. After adding 2 cups of sliced tomato, 3 tablespoons of ginger-garlic paste and 2 tablespoons of coriander powder, I ground all of this to a paste. I then roasted the paste in a pan with 2 teaspoons of cumin seeds sputtering in hot oil, stirring in 3 tablespoons of red chili powder when done.

Finally, I strained out the chicken from the simmering pot, and tossed it with the roasted paste, salt and a bunch of chopped cilantro for a few minutes. I then poured the stock back in, and let it all simmer for another 15 minutes before serving.

Dessert was a Marathi variation on the Western Indian dessert shrikhand, known as amrakhand. It was made by beating 750g of strained yogurt (labneh or greek yogurt) with 3 cups of blended mango pulp, 3 cups of powdered sugar, a tablespoon of cardamom powder, a teaspoon of nutmeg powder and 10 strands of saffron. This simple sweet was served chilled like a fro-yo, and was appreciated by all.