Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Object as Mediator

Flemish artist duo Robbert&Frank/Frank&Robbert brought their performance art piece, The Object as Mediator, to the city this week. It's rare to see something of this abstract level here, even deep under the dermis of Dubai's art world. I had to miss their show at the Mahani event on Dec 10th, but there was, fortunately, another opportunity to see them perform today at The Mine, along with an unexpectedly strong turnout.

One especially interesting dimensions to their 45-minute performance was the lighting. The performance began with the gallery lights shut off, and all the lighting from then on came from performance props, including a film projector and the headlamps of a MINI they drove through the gallery. Featuring no dialogue, their performance, as well as the occasional audience members' participation, took place silently, with an oddball music track mix playing in the background.

Employing such props as wooden blood pools, forensic brushes, and miniature pine tree cutouts, the artists' actions during the performance seemed to be portraying the construction of violence, and depicting as farce the process of investigating, analyzing, and assigning responsibility for it. Such themes could be particularly relevant now, given recent events in the US and in the Middle East.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Dubai International Film Festival 2014

DIFF: the week in which I go to a film theater more than during the entire remainder of the year. And attending the biggest cinephiles' carnival in town is not just a way to see films that do not typically make it to theaters here -- it also means bumping into and catching up with many people I've not seen in a while.

I had to be particularly selective this DIFF, though, since my busy schedule that week meant I could take time off only during the weekend evenings. Looking back, I'd say I was generally pleased with my six choices, which encompassed documentary, comedy and drama in equal measure.

(clockwise from top left) Afia Nathaniel on the right, director of Dukhtar; Hind Shoufani on the left, director of Trip Along Exodus; Ali F. Mostafa on the far left, director of From A to B; Gautam Sonti on the left and Usha Rao on the right, directors of Our Metropolis.

Except Haemoo, all of my films had Q&As with filmmakers and/or cast afterwards. I was especially fascinated by the journeys of Ms Nathaniel in making Dukhtar (10 years, in her case), and of Sonti/Rao in making Our Metropolis.

Following are some of my thoughts on the films.


Whatever people may think of wasta, this Emirati comedy by Tent Pictures makes its titular character come out likable. The film is set in many locations viewers, Emirati or otherwise, would likely recognize, like Zayed Sports City, and the ADNOC on Sheikh Khalifa Highway, and otherwise avoids glitzy spots in favor of run-down freej alleyways, homely homes, and tranquil terraces. This, in addition to such sequences as the lingering shot of the preparation of the familiar-to-old-timers Oman Chips sandwich, establish Abood as "one of us". The soundtrack was very nice too, and I liked the guerrilla style (well, mostly).

Perhaps this film is about how people don't need wasta, and will be freed from insincere friends/crushes if they are kind and generous. In terms of plot, though, that results in subplot similarity to many "redemption of the good guy" type films, and therefore a good deal of predictability that's not helped much by the obvious Chekhov's treasure chest in the beginning. The deus ex moment that brings the film to a resolution is also jarring in how it does not clearly follow from the plot of film to that point.

I thought the lead actor, Abdulrahman Al Nakhi, was a good fit for the dorkwardly comedic Abood Kandaishan. The supporting cast, however, was mixed among those who did excellent work of it (such as the Indian housekeeper and the Emirati rooftop sage), and some others who seemed to be, well, just going through the motions. The grating perception of the latter was exacerbated by some of the dialogue that might look better on paper than it would in a spoken conversation.

Abood Kandaishan is still trailblazing in Emirati cinema in its genre, and I think this path of portraying the real lives of people who live here through comedy should definitely be explored further.


South Korea is home to one of my go-to film industries, so I had high expectations. This one had a nicely gritty and realistic style, with good action scenes and dialogue, and good acting talent. The exposition scenes in the beginning were concise, and the tilt was implemented well. Much of the film was shot in nighttime outdoors or low-light indoors, and the scenography for this was done superbly.

Character development was a bit predictable, though, as the established archetypes' traits were simply amplified in response to the escalating horror. A couple of them were outright cartoon characters, and the film was overall very heavy on tropes. Despite these, Haemoo, which was based on a true story, did a good job portraying the perils of human trafficking and the high seas through drama.


Excellent actors and world-class cinematography made this film about a dramatized escape from child marriage one of the best I've seen this year. The writing was most commendable; although there were a few cliche bits written to very obviously drive the plot (telling a child to stay put is a good guarantee that they will scoot in a few moments), the filmmakers subverted a few tropes and played a couple of naughty tricks with timelines to spring tactical-level surprises on the viewers. The character development and plot complexity was outstanding too. The natural beauty of the tribal regions of Pakistan is also showcased in all its magnificence, rounding off a very satisfying film.


This sorta-documentary presents a rarely-seen face of Palestinian nationalism: erudite, uncompromising, and secular. Its lead filmmaker and interviewer is the daughter of the focal character, the (recently) late Dr Elias Shoufani, and there is as much family album in here as there is political/historical content. This is just something one gets used to as the documentary progresses.

The interviews take place in unassuming, everyday, home surroundings in an apparently very candid, ex tempore manner, filmed unprocessed and crisp, usually with only ambient background sound. There is a lot of editing, as bits from countless reels of archival footage is played in background exposition montages set to electronic ambient music. An additional artistic element is present in overlays of sometimes cute animated drawings that illustrate moments in the interviews.

Other people in his then-present or past lifetime are also interviewed -- interestingly, with no title cards, bringing the focus to the content rather than to the relationships. Dr Shoufani's interviews themselves span several topics, including sometimes scathing analyses of regional political situations and figures. Much editing is therefore also used to splice together soundbites from different interviews into single-topic sequences. These reveal very interesting composite perspectives (some of them even coming across humorous) and together paint a comprehensive picture of a simple yet multi-faceted man -- one who made many hard choices, and of whose life the world should really know more, especially in these times.


This documentary follows five years of conflict between human heritage and globalized visions of modernity, depicting the struggles of urban conservationists, entrenched residents, and laborers against metro construction, road widening plans, and stingy government bodies in Bangalore.

Our Metropolis started out uncomfortably kids'-show-like with the "time travel" intro, and is a bit dragged-out in some parts (mainly the protests), but it has overall good editing and shooting techniques, and tells some interesting stories. Especially commendable of the filmmakers was their emphasis on being in the thick of the action, and they mostly let the people and events do the talking live. It's a good documentary, and especially relevant to me, both as a resident of EXPO-bound Dubai and as a likely future frequent visitor to Bangalore.


You know it's a road trip film. Which means you have some idea of what's going to happen: misunderstandings, detours, improbable encounters, etc. Even so, Ali F Mostafa's second big feature is one of the best road trip films I've ever seen, as well as the one of the best films I've seen come out of this region, period.

Pay attention to the title sequence, as it includes some exposition details that are later referred to. The trip-bound trio -- a Saudi foil, a straight Syrian, and an Egyptian who straddles the two roles (Fahad Albutairi, Fadi Rifaai, and Shadi Alfons, respectively) -- are all fluently bilingual Arab expats in the UAE, written as novel youth characters in different interesting life stages and situations, and played by fresh but very impressive acting talent.

After the exposition and character establishment sequences are over, and the road trip actually gets underway, the comedic aspect goes through the roof, inducing genuine belly laugh after genuine belly laugh, using well-written and clever jokes that transcend culture and language. Many of bits took me by surprise, and it's not often that this happens. I applaud the writers, as well as the actors for their comedic delivery and timing.

The nice bilingual soundtrack spans a good range of music from classic hits to contemporary, and the cinematography is excellent. The road trip plot also affords opportunities for diverse scenic and interesting locations, of which full advantage was taken. While there were a few morality points, I'm guessing that because the leads were expats traveling through mainly other countries, the film included more bold topics, references, and traits, and was definitely less preachy than City of Life. An excellent supporting and cameo cast -- including some seemingly big names in Arabic celluloid -- ices the cake.

This brilliant comedy, with its themes of friendship and serendipity, is worthy of stocking for repeat watching, and I hope that we'll someday see as bold and as funny a film with a lead Emirati cast and local setting.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

An Emirati feast for National Day

It's been a few years since I began my culinary tour of the world through home-cooked theme meals. December 2nd of 2014, though, would mark the day I did some "adopted home: cooking, as I finally got around to putting together an Emirati meal, in celebration of the UAE's 43rd National Day. With some downloaded Emirati traditional music playing, and with flags and flag-colored balloons decorating my apartment, I welcomed my 9 guests to the most authentic Emirati feast I could muster.

First came procuring the essentials. Samen (ghee, or clarified butter), in the yellow jar, is one of the main fats used for frying, cooking, and garnishing in Emirati cuisine. For desserts and beverages, ma2 al ward (rosewater), here in the bottle, is frequently used. If you're doing anything savory, you almost certainly will be using the Emirati spice mix they call bezar, here in the silver packet with the green label. And last, but not least, I got those two bags containing sufficient quantities of loomi (dried lime), one bag of whole and one bag of powdered. These make a world of difference in giving that distinctive aroma and taste to many Emirati dishes. They are all available in major hypermarkets around here -- definitely in Union Co-op, which visibly markets towards the Emirati demographic.

As a light starter, I made Emirati street and snack mainstay, dango, by soaking 2.5 cups of dried chickpeas overnight with 1.5 tsp soda bicarbonate, and boiling the drained chickpeas with salt and 10 small dried red chilies on low-medium heat for about an hour, until tender. For such a simple dish, it's surprisingly tasty and hearty.

For my other starter, I made the Emirati comfort food they call harees. I had about 650g of lamb on the bone and 2 cups of whole wheat (sold under the name of harees itself) boiled with 6 cups of water and simmered for two hours, until the free water had evaporated. I then added a tablespoon of salt and another cup of water for a further hour of sealed simmering.

After removing the bones, I used a handheld blender to blend it all down to a thick puree, and served it the traditional way: warm, spread into a platter, and garnished with samen. A subtly flavored dish, with a unique texture.

I made two entrees of seafood, the first of which was the Emirati staple called jesheed -- a dish made with the meat of the local baby shark. Probably because it's primarily an Emirati thing, I could only find this in Union Co-op, and you need to buy a whole shark at a time, which they will skin, gut, and partially cut for you.

I boiled about a kilogram of shark meat chunks for about an hour, until they became firm enough to easily debone and shred. While I was doing the deboning and shredding, I fried 4 sliced onions golden in vegetable oil, then adding 2.5 tbsp loomi powder, 1.5 tbsp turmeric, 1.5 tbsp bezar and 4 crushed garlic cloves to fry and let the flavors mingle. I then stirred in 5 chopped tomatoes, followed by the shredded shark meat and a little water, and simmered it all under a lid for about half an hour.

I believe this was my first time eating shark, and I found the texture a bit strange at first. But once I mentally digested the fact that this wasn't regular fish, I came to quite like the mildly spicy, umami-rich taste of this dish.

My second entree was robeyann nashif, a spicy shrimp dish that's popular at Emirati dining tables, and the curry leaves in which might indicate some influence from my own home country.

I again fried 4 sliced onions golden in vegetable oil, then stirring in 2.5 tbsp bezar, 1 tbsp turmeric, 1 tsp ground fennel seeds, 5 crushed garlic cloves, 3 tbsp loomi powder, 1.5 tsp cummin seeds, 15 curry leaves, 1.5 tbsp tomato paste, and 2.5 tbsp grated ginger for a few minutes of frying. Finally, I added the cleaned, shelled large shrimp, and cooked on low heat for about 15 minutes.

Served with store-bought markouk bread (my attempt at making regag failed, due to my lack of a proper gas griddle), this dish, with its sharp, spicy taste, turned out to be an unqualified hit, and not a lick of it remained.

Then came the main course: fogga diyay (diyay being the Emirati pronunciation of dejaj, Arabic for chicken). A fogga, known also as machboos/makboos/kabsa, is basically a dish of rice cooked in a meat stock, flavored with loomi and other spices. The previous night, I prepared its typical accompaniment, daqus (center), by pureeing 4 chopped tomatoes with half a chopped onion, 4 fresh chili peppers, and a tablespoon of hot sauce.

Late in the morning of the lunch, I rubbed in pieces of chicken (mostly drumsticks and thighs) with some salt and a lot of bezar (top), cooking them in samen until they were slightly cooked (right). I then added 6 cups of chicken stock, 3 chopped fresh tomatoes, 8 chopped cloves of garlic, 5 whole loomi, 2 large sticks of cinnamon, and 12 bruised pods of cardamom, simmering covered for about 20 minutes (bottom). Finally, I added some salt and 5 cups of rice that had been soaked and drained. Without stirring, I let this cook, loosely covered, until the stock was absorbed and rice had risen, and then placed a tight lid on it to cook for 15 minutes.

I served it hot with the daqus and some cold yogurt that had been mixed with chopped mint. The chicken was so tender that it was falling apart, and the stock had imparted a wonderfully savory flavor to the rice, all enhanced with the taste of bezar and the aroma of the whole loomi. Next time, though, I would cut the quantity of rice to half, or two-thirds at most. Rice-heavy is apparently how it's done in the khaleej, but it's too much for my tastes.

And finally, for dessert, I prepared a quintessential Emirati pudding called aseeda bobar. While this pudding can be and is made without pumpkin -- which would be just aseeda -- the bobar version is more popular for texture lent it by the pumpkin flesh.

I first steamed 850g of local pumpkin flesh cubes, while roasting 400g of whole wheat flour (top). I then mashed and mixed these together with 350g date syrup (most recipes call for honey, but I used date syrup instead, for that really local taste), a teaspoon of saffron threads, and a teaspoon of ground cardamom (bottom right), moistening as necessary. After cooking for about 10 minutes, I added 3 tbsp of ma2 al ward and half a cup of samen (bottom left), and cooked it for another 10 minutes.

I served generous lukewarm scoops of the resulting fluffy pudding with plenty of brown raisins and almond flakes, and it went down a treat with everyone.

To punctuate the meal, I prepared some core Emirati beverages. First, I made a welcome drink of aseer tazza (right), a blend of 6 cups of orange juice with 1.5 cups of lemon juice, 3 teaspoons of ma2 al ward, and sugar to sweeten.

To help wash down the entrees and prepare for the main, I brewed some chai jerfau, a "tea" made by boiling 8 sticks of cinnamon with a little sugar and 1 tsp saffron in 5 cups of water (bottom).

Finally, to end our authentic Emirati meal, I brewed some gahwa (coffee) local style by boiling half a cup of freshly ground coffee beans in 5 cups of water, and steeping it with 1 tsp saffron, 1 tsp crushed cloves, 4 teaspoons ma2 al ward, and 2 tsp coarsely ground cardamom (bottom). Served in shot quantities, it helped get all the hearty dishes and eclectic tastes of the local cuisine settled in our tummies.

Recipes based on those in "The Complete United Arab Emirates Cookbook" by Celia Ann Brock- Al Ansari (1994)

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Funny Story from Dubomedy

Dubomedy launched a new mixed comedy event series this weekend, at its now regular venue, Fraiche Cafe and Bistro in JLT. Held as it was in the early evening at a cafe, the first event of this "It's a Funny Story!" series had a significant youth demographic in attendance. Also, a nice raised stage.

The evening began with stand-up, as the lineup of comedians narrated humorous tales that may or may not be entirely true. I only got there in time for the last few, but well in time to see sets from some of my favorite Dubai comedians.

And after the interval, several definitely made-up funny stories were created by Dubomedy's Improv Revolution troupe in primarily short-form WLIIA-style improv games, including a couple of fun games I had not previously seen from the troupe. Mainly thanks to the more experienced actors, it was a generally enjoyable and engaging show.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Math, sociology, and a unified theory by Dr Guillermina Jasso

Can social forces be quantified? According to NYU sociology professor Dr Guillermina Jasso, who discussed just such a question at this NYU Abu Dhabi public lecture, not only can they be quantified, they can even be figured into a mathematical "unified theory"of sociology and social psychology that can be used to make real-world predictions. I found this talk consistently fascinating, not in the least because modeling of social forces is of professional interest to me.

Dr Jasso's introduced the leanings and engines of societies, and their permutations, and went on to talk about her "New Unified Theory" in terms of its constituent social forces: justice, status, and power. I don't have nearly as deep a background in sociology, but her descriptions of how these forces could be measured and their dynamics fitted to familiar mathematical functions seemed quite plausible.

Things got even more interesting when it came down to applications. Dr Jossa's portfolio of validated predictions based on her models was impressive, listing several predictions per slide about how the theory could be applied to model outcomes in matters of war, crime, family, marriage, politics, etc. It might be worth keeping an eye on related developments.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Two new books for Dubai poetry fans

A busy season for the local poetry scene gave us book launches by two prolific Dubai-based poets: Frank Dullaghan's third title, The Same Roads Back, and Zeina Hashem Beck's award-winning debut title, To Live in Autumn. Following grand individual launch events, the poets held a joint reading session at DIFC's Bookshop readers' cafe.

After reading out a few of the most characteristic and/or popular poems from their portfolios, Frank and Zeina took questions from and discussed their art with attendees. Topics on the table included the characteristics of "good poetry", free verse vs. metre and rhyme, Zeina's peculiar but apparently effective multilingual composition technique, and some anecdotes and advice on getting published and getting feedback.

Zeina's poems lend themselves well to performance, specifically the creative punctuation and the repetition of words or lines for effect. It makes pleasant reading too, though. Generally more urban in context, the poems refer to colorful personalities, and paint you-had-to-be-there experiences, many of which seem tinged with nostalgia.

Frank's use of metaphorical flourish, combined with everyday language and attention to detail, paints lucid imagery of human and natural scenery, using such phrasing as "quality of light" and "green state of grace". One is easily transported one into the moment, into the perspective of observer or participant. The seemingly mundane is rendered intimate and significant.

The differences between the lived stories of a grey-bearded Irishman and a Lebanese woman who was a college student not long ago are evident in their respective books. There's also some overarching commonality in the use of free verse and vivid descriptions of personal observations. Both books will therefore appeal to fans of this style, while offering differences in content and delivery sufficient to warrant reading both.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Fanny Azzuro piano recital

Keeping to its tradition of organizing quality musical programs, local Alliance Françaises brought a great French pianist to the UAE's audiences for two evenings of recital. Given my schedule for the week, I figured it would be more convenient getting to the Abu Dhabi program at Novotel al Bustan on the island.

AF Abu Dhabi director (and good musician himself) Jean-Yves Carnino introduced the event and the pianist, Fanny Azzuro. The event was held in a ballroom that had been set up with a projector and camera to ensure that everyone got to see her technique live.

Azzuro's recital began strong with Rachmaninov's Variations on a Theme of Corelli -- a dynamic piece that also did well to exhibit her skill -- and continued to impress with other early 20th century works of diverse style and mood, especially Ravel's Mirrors. And with my passion for the genre, I naturally loved Kapustin's jazzy Variations Op 41 at the end.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Horrible Histories Barmy Britain

The Horrible Histories musical comedy theatre show returned to Dubai this weekend with Barmy Britain, a journey through British history. Although it was staged this time in the huge Madinat Theatre, and with more showtime options from which to choose, I nonetheless made a relatively early booking, as the show is immensely popular. I'm not sure how many other adult fans of the TV show were in the audience, as almost everyone else seemed to be accompanying children. Even I was the only one, though, who cares? As a history geek, I could not miss it.

No material from the TV series was used in the hour-long show, as far as I recall from the former, but the two-man cast still had some great sketches scripted and songs composed to bring alive British historical facts and figures, from Boudica to Charles I to Victoria. The HH TV show tradition of contrasting historical contexts with modern culture ad absurdum could be seen in some of the sketches, such as Queen Elizabeth going undercover, and the Dick Turpin story done in the style of a reality TV show. The actors did well for the number of very diverse roles they had to play, pulling quick costume changes between sketches, and delivering a very energetic performance all through.

So while the show was oriented towards a child audience (with a couple of sing-along games and such), I still found most of it engaging at my level, and certainly very educational.

Bahria on The Beach

Just the day before I gave this place a try, I read a breaking post online about a lunch stopover by the ruler of Dubai. That kind of set the bar pretty high, I admit. I was about to tread in the footsteps of royalty.

Bahria certainly has the location going for it: the white sands and azure waters of the beach ahead matching the restaurant decor palette, the towers of JBR in the backdrop, the bustling open mall. The weather being what it is at this time of the year, throngs were thronging, and alfresco was the natural choice. Traffic at JBR is still awful, though -- it took me over 45 minutes to get to The Beach from TECOM. Next time, tram.

The pescetarian Arabesque fusion set sampling menu began with a seafood bisque (bottom right). It was not the typical bisque though, with the curry-like spices making it taste more like a laksa. Cold starters were generally good, especially the calamari salad (top right, right), the beetroot-shrimp salad (bottom left, center) and the dips. Among those the fish tajine (bottom left, right -- actually, strips of fish on hummus, not like the North African tajine) was the best, with the nutty house hummus coming in second (top right, top right). The shrimp fattet (top left) was interesting, but not really to my taste; shrimp with yogurt gave me a weird mouthfeel.

The only cold starter I could not quite take was the provençal (top); it was overpoweringly sour. The hot starters were great overall, though, and I liked the seafood kebbeh (bottom) the most -- perfect texture, inside and outside.

No complaints for the mains. The fish tasted fresh and cooked to perfection, and the sauces provided went very well with. The rice looked like it might be dull to the palate, but it was surprisingly good in its own right.

I had to skedaddle midway through dessert, but the ayesh al saraya I sampled before leaving made a perfectly sweet and creamy end to a generally very good meal.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Dubai Chamber Orchestra autumn concert

The Dubai Chamber Orchestra held this season's concert today at a new venue: the Centre for Musical Arts at Gold and Diamond Park. The performance hall was fairly large, but extra seats had to be brought in to accommodate the turnout. Additional venue bonus: a metro station right next door.

Conductor Barnaby Priest led the orchestra through a three-part program, consisting of Mozart's Overture to Der Schauspieldirektor, Carl Nielsen's Little Suite for Strings, and a beautiful Symphony No 99 by Haydn. A subset of the orchestra also delighted with a special performance of a collaborative artistic piece composed by Priest, featuring the littoral-themed video art and haunting countertenor talent of Janet Bellotto and Rodney Gilchrist, respectively.

Review of Bing Sheng: The Ultimate Master of War

Bing Sheng (2008), a TV dramatization of the life of legendary strategist and Art of War author Sun Tzu, runs the length of the Wu state's power peak period. It gets a little slow at times - specifically when the human drama bits are going on -- but its production values and inclusion of a range of major historical characters make it a great watch.

The latter, in fact, is its main attraction, with the tremendous amount of "fan service" available for Chinese history geeks. It starts with a young Sun Tzu in Qi during the era of the legendary Yan Ying and Sima Rangju, when the Sun and Tian clans were locked in conflict against the Gao and Guo clans.

Simultaneously, the Wu clan is in trouble for standing up for righteousness in the state of Chu. The story then follows how Sun Tzu and Wu Zixu leave their respective states, and eventually end up in the service of ambitious King Helv of the Wu state -- a confluence of military, civil and political factors that leads Wu to dominate the south and gain hegemony.

The achievements of the Sun/Wu partnership for the Wu state, however, results in political over-confidence and jealousy-driven schemes against them, and these serve as the moral lessons expressed in various story arcs in the later part of the the series. Other characters from that period also feature, including wily Prince Fuchai, corrupt minister Bo Pi, legendary swordsmith Ou Yezi and his apprentices Gan Jiang and Mo Ye, Chu figures Fei Wuji and Shen Yinxu, and leaders of ascendant Yue, King Gou Jian and strategist Fan Li.

As usual, though, some additional characters and subplots get thrown in to put some fat on the historical facts. In the case of Bing Sheng, the machinations of a vengeful scion of the Guo clan, which the Sun clan eliminated in Qi, drive much of the first half of the series, giving a face and a name to the Chu enemy. There is also a slightly awkward fictional spy subplot thrown in towards the end, as well as a few liberties taken with having Sun Tzu also serve under Fuchai. The eventual fate of Sun Tzu in the series, however, was actually written well.

The series does well as far as battle scene production and the armory, which is pivotal for a series about the art of war. Probably not very historically accurate, but each nation has its own well-designed style. The strategies used by Sun Tzu are also depicted well; I doubt that there is enough of an historical record to have these considered as actual historical accounts, but they are clearly Art of War in spirit, and Sun Tzu explains them well too. Acting in the series is generally good too, with Zhu Yawen and Zhao Yi doing a superb job portraying the world-weary Sun Wu and the fiery Wu Zixu. But for a few fast-forward scenes, it's a good series with plenty to delight a Chinese history fan.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Sandwich Tea Party

The story goes that John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, preferred to not interrupt his card games (or his paperwork, according to another version) with a sit-down meal, and asked his servants to bring him meat between slices of bread instead. His friends noticed this, and soon began to order "the same as Sandwich", which became The Sandwich. Of course, many bread-n-stuff consumption types previous existed, including stuffed buns, wraps, and folded or open-faced forms. Two slices of loaf bread with something between them, however, has always been the "true" sandwich, and this has even been backed up by a court case (White City Shopping Center, LP v. PR Restaurants, LLC).

Choosing the Nov 13th birthday of the Earl as the occasion to celebrate this format, I made one of my theme meals centered around his namesake: a sandwich tea for a party of 6. Few meals are as aristocratic as the sandwich tea, with the emphasis on delicate, refined preparations that are only fleetingly filling, and often contain little actual nutrition.

The savory menu consisted of four of the most classic tea sandwiches: the quintessential mild cucumber sandwich, the creamy egg sandwich, the sharp cheddar sandwich and the salty salmon sandwich.

I went shopping in the early afternoon to find the freshest fillings and bread. The only advance preparation was the mixing of the chopped dill and chives with lemon juice and zest into seasoned cream cheese, and the mixing of mashed boiled egg with seasoned mayonnaise. And the de-crusting of the bread, of course.

Another little prepping process I did was that of the two layers of sponge cake for the sweet "sandwich". I retained the classic sandwich shape here, by using a square baking tin. The preparation began with 200g caster sugar mixed with 200g butter, to which 200g flour and 2 tbsp baking powder was kneaded in, followed by whipping in 2 tbsp milk and 4 large eggs to get a smooth batter. I divided this in two, baking separately at 180C for two minutes to get two flat sponge cakes.

I assembled the sandwiches in two rounds: cucumber and egg in the first, cheddar and salmon in the second. For each cucumber sandwich, I buttered two bread slices on the inside, lay out freshly-cut thin slices of extra-long, seedless cucumbers to cover a buttered surface, and sprinkled on some finely-chopped mint leaves. I used similarly buttered bread to sandwich a dollop of the egg mixture topped with some loose arugula leaves (I could not find watercress anywhere, so this was the closest available substitute).

For the second round, I sandwiched a thick-cut slice of cheddar (had the cheese guy at the supermarket do it to my specification) with a spoonful of Branston pickle between buttered bread, and a generous amounts of smoked salmon between plain slices of bread that had been spread on the interior surfaces with the cream cheese and herb mixture.

I cut up and arranged the sandwiches, garnishing each plate with a few sprigs of the herbs/leaves saved from the preparation stages of the corresponding sandwiches. While the smoked salmon and the egg were received well, the cheddar elicited especially good feedback, and the cucumber was the surprise hit of the evening. All of it went down well with a few cups of hot Earl Grey tea (Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey and the namesake of this tea, was, for part of his life, a contemporary of Sandwich, which made this choice of tea all the more appropriate).

When we were done and ready for "dessert", I spread clotted cream and raspberry jam over the top of one of the (now cool) sponge cakes, placed the other one on top of that, and sifted icing sugar on top of the upper cake. This "Victoria Sandwich", named after Queen Victoria, was a delightfully indulgent end to a lovely tea party, despite being exceedingly simple to prepare.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Quoz Art Festival and a spot of ISEA

The Quoz Arts Festival returned to the neighborhood this year, with a new branding, a wider audience, and a lot of food. Literally, one lane of Al Serkal Avenue, turned into a food street. A satellite attraction was the upcoming expansion of the Avenue, the construction for which was now looking much closer to completion in the plot next door.

Before taking a look around the galleries, though, I dropped in at the Fridge for the final performance of ISEA 2014: Maziar Ghaderi's Dissolving Self, featuring Vrinda Bhandula's dance performance visually augmented with a live projection behind her, controlled by her movements. It's not the first motion-controlled rendering in the world, but the simple bi-chromatic star field, coalescing, expanding and spining with her was beautiful in execution.

I only had the time to look at a few galleries. One I liked a lot was FN Designs and its exhibition of pop art, especially the long panorama of iconic aspects of Dubai life, pixelated and colored in a style reminiscent of retro computer games.

At Grey Noise, Michael John Welan's Lupus consisted of works in the metaphorical vein typical of the gallery, using different media and/or cultural symbols to wistfully allude to the demise of the Irish wild wolf.

Further afield, Mottahedan Projects' multi-artists exhibition, The Other Side of Visibility, featured a diverse and mostly interesting array of art, with my favorites including the works of Tala Madani (right), Maryam Hoseini (top left) and Habib Farajabadi (bottom left).