Friday, October 31, 2014

When in Romania, Eat

Romania has an unfortunate association with foreboding castles, vampire legends, and the Numa Numa song. Okay, the latter one can at least be technically ascribed to Moldova, but the whole Dracula thing still gives off undeserved creepy vibes. That is why I chose Halloween as the perfect day to have a party of six and celebrate the non-scary side of the country through its food, with some downloaded Romanian folk music to set the mood.

First up, an essential soup for a Romanian meal: ciorba de perisoare, a pork meatball soup cooked in a sour beef and vegetable broth.

I added two each of chopped peeled and chopped medium parsnips and large carrots (one of the parsnips can also be replaced with a parsley root, if available), a sliced onion, a chopped bunch of Dutch parsley, and about 300g of stewing beef to 6 cups of boiling water (I used 5 cups of water and one of sauerkraut juice). Once the boil resumed, I let it simmer covered for about half an hour, using the time to make the meatballs.

I made the meatballs by mashing 300g of lean pork mince with about a cup of breadcrumbs, a chopped onion, 2 tbsp uncooked rice and a dash of warm water, adding a little salt and pepper. Bringing the soup back to a boil, I hand-molded small meatballs of the mash and lowered them into the soup one by one. After the boil resumed, I once again let it simmer for about half an hour, before stirring in 3 tbsp tomato paste.

I seasoned it with a little salt, adjusted the sourness with a little vinegar (one can use just vinegar for the sourness if one does not have sauerkraut juice), and garnished with a little chopped parsley before serving with sour cream on the side.

I started the dish by draining off the juices from about 750g sauerkraut (using some for my sour meatball soup), washing the sauerkraut, and then draining and squeezing it of any running juice. I then stirred it in a hot pan with 50g of melted butter until thoroughly coated, adding 2 tsp black pepper and 1.5 cups tomato sauce before bringing to boil.

I then simmered it for nearly an hour, stirring every now and then, and adding a couple pinches of salt, a tablespoon of paprika, and half a cup of white wine, before the last 15 minutes of simmering time. This dish, verza calita, went really well with the starch, especially moderated with a little sour cream.

I also made mititei, a sort of kebab or "skinless sausage". 800g ground beef mashed in with 2 tbsp each of olive oil and water, 4 chopped and crushed garlic cloves, a half teaspoon each of thyme, red pepper and paprika, and 2 tsp each of salt and ground black pepper. I also added a little breadcrumb and uncooked rice to help bind the mash and absorb excess moisture, respectively. I formed these into sausage shapes on a greased pan, and baked at 180C for about 20 minutes.

For the starch, I made mamaliga, a sort of polenta. It's a simple one to prepare: I gradually added a cup of coarse yellow cornmeal to boiling water into which I had melted 2 tbsp butter and added 2 tsp salt. I let it cook for about 45 minutes, whisking often, until I got a thick cornmeal slurry, into which I stirred half a bunch each of finely chopped dill and chives, and 2 tbsp feta cheese.

I may have let it sit warm for too long, so it lost a little more moisture than I would have liked. In any case, it had a rich, herbaceous taste, and the grainy, mashed-potato-like texture made it a good base for the other main dishes.

I served the mititei, mamaliga, and verza calita with a dollop of sour cream and roasted chilli pepper. A most excellent combination of tastes, textures and colors.

And for dessert, I made cozonac, a Romanian Easter cake. This was a bit more complex.

I first needed to get the yeast culture (top left) done, by stirring a mixture of 4 tbsp milk and a packet of yeast into 1.5 tbsp flour that had been whisked in hot milk, also 4 tbsp.

After allowing the culture to sit and bubble, I mixed it with 2 tbsp warm milk, 2 egg yolks, half a cup of caster sugar, 60g raisins, zest of a lemon, and 225g flour, kneading with some butter to get a standing dough. Finally, I added a tablespoon each of rum, vanilla extract, and vegetable oil, kneading again, and letting it rise for about an hour.

Finally, I brushed on the yolk of an egg, sprinkled on a handful of crushed walnuts, and baked at 180C for about 45 minutes.

It did not rise as much as I would have liked, but it was baked through properly, and served after cooling, was a delicious finale to our Romanian meal.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Empire of Miss Understanding

Clockwise from top left: Soans and Isis; Fernandez and Isis; Isis; Weber and Soans

An ensemble of local musical/lyrical talent, collaborating as "The Royal Court", joined cellist Isis M on her return to the Courtyard Playhouse today (and yesterday) for a unique performance entitled The Empire of Miss Understanding.

The show's pop-surreal theme graphic art -- also printed on the performers' clothes -- matched the abstract and metaphorical leanings of the lyrics and Maria Papadaki's video backdrop, in a setting that was subtly scenographed by Filipa Santos. After a couple of her solos, Isis was accompanied by Keigan Soans, Adam Weber, and Caroline Fernandez in several permutations, the latter adding vintage vocals and contemporary spoken word to her cello instrumental background, sometimes with a guitar layer.

The result was an intriguing spectacle of alt music and video art, unpretentious and often captivating. Vocals were good throughout, but in terms of lyrics, I especially liked the second half. The arrangement made excellent use of the range of the cello and the loop pedal, both as a solo instrument, and in combination with the other instruments and vocals.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Bombay quickie

I stepped out of the plane into a Mumbai airport far sexier than I remember. Parts of it are a tad too multi-colorful for my tastes (maybe just for Diwali?), but it's definitely swanky enough to impress for a major global air hub. One unexpected advantage of night-time flying into India during Diwali week is seeing fireworks from above, as they went off all over the city.

The ride to Vashi was long, but keeping my eyes fixed skywards got me a constant view of more fireworks. I arrived late (by Vashi standards) in the night, but I had a little time for a classic dum biryani and Haywards 5000 at a seedy old Sector 17 haunt, along with a local nightcap.

I spent pretty much all of the next day with my aunt and uncle in Vashi, catching up on the last few years over wholesome home-cooked treats, including delicious kanda poha (top center) and idli (left).

We took a circuitous walk down to and around the old holding pond, hitting a chai stall on the way back.

Late in the night, I made my first trip to Navi Mumbai's CBD Belapur area to sample some local nightlife. Rockville was the only live music place I could find in the neighborhood. I can't say I was blown away by the musicians; they were individually decent, but they could do with more some practice together to get the duo thing working in harmony. Anyway, the place had some awesome spicy russet potato wedges.

The next morning, I joined the rest of the wedding party on a trip to Pune for the reception, enjoying the smooth ride on the express road, and taking in the view of the rolling hills of inland Maharashtra. The hotel was also close to the river, so I took a walk across and about in the evening before the wedding, enjoying a hot vada pav and chai at a dhaba while a light evening rain fell around.

I slept early that night because I had to meet one of my MBA roommates the next morning, at the famous and consequently busy Wadeshwar vegetarian restaurant on FC Road. While catching up on events since our last meeting, we indulged in some delicious, fresh, and atypical (at least for me) breakfast items like buttery set dosa (top right) and aappe (bottom right). While the schedule of my short Pune trip did not allow a full Maharashtrian meal, I was able to get at least one dish in from the cuisine: kothimbir wadi (bottom left), a sort of coriander fritter with a great herbaceous bite to it. It's fine, though; I guess I can always just cook the cuisine up myself if needed.

After finally making it back to Mumbai later, I quickly checked into the surprisingly nice Hotel Airlines International before meeting a friend and heading to Mathuradas Mills Compound, where I would spend most of the rest of the evening. We started with a place I would visit just for the name: Sweetish House Mafia. There, we had a bite of sweet-salty melt-in-the-mouth Nutella with Sea Salt, their signature cookie.

Sipping at the Barking Deer next was my first ever microbrewery visit. Not so micro though -- it was actually quite large inside. We were also in 1+1 happy hours, so we each had one pint each of the mild light and strong dark specials, settling on those after sampling out of shot glasses.

Dinner followed at the nearby Jai Hind, a popular seafood spot. We were the first customers for dinner service, to boot. As a starter, we each had bombil -- also known as Bombay Duck -- rolled around prawns and fried (top right). The bombil has a lot of bones in the flesh, but these are small enough to be ignored. I can't say the taste was particularly distinctive (I should probably have it by itself, and cooked simpler to decide on that) but I liked the texture. For the main course, we enjoyed a delicious -- and extremely spicy -- helping of pomfret (top left) cooked "pulimunchi" (with tamarind and chilli).

I enjoyed the Comedy Store show at the Blue Frog much more than I thought I would. I guess I have been keeping tabs on developments in India more than I estimated. I even got the references to Savita Bhabhi (and there was more than one). Some bits went over my head all the same, especially if they were not in English or very simple Hindi. Others, though, I found quite relatable e.g. Atul Khatri's bit about "Worli creep" vis-a-vis Dubai's "Jumeirah creep". There may really be a common big city experience that transcends countries. Khatri (bottom left), by the way, was great, and emcee Anirban Dasgupta (top left) was pretty good too, as was that 10-minute-set Marathi guy (bottom right) they had on after the break (his name escapes me, though).

To end the night on a sweet note, we went to Marine Drive and had a little dessert at Bachelorr's (sic), a Chowpatty institution famous for ice creams, shakes and fresh fruity concoctions. Competing with dozens of parked car occupants to place orders, we got ours in, with me enjoying a small but scrumptious serving of their special kaju draksh: a perfect creamy scoop shot through with raisins and nuts.

I rarely took the trains much when I was in Navi Mumbai, having relied on the buses that had to pass through Vashi on their way to various destinations across the bridge. This was, however, the best way to get back to the hotel at the time. Ticket purchase also seems to have been automated with vending machines, which I'm sure was a welcome development.

After breakfast with my parents the next day, I went back to my hotel room to do a little homework for the evening plan, then popping over to Bandra Kurla Complex to join another friend for a quick lunch at Cafe Infinito. Our main of "Big Bloody Burger" was alright, but what really made the meal were the courses before: arugula poached pear salad (top left) and chorizo honey ravioli (bottom left). A lovely local Sula Dindori Shiraz (top right) complemented the meal well, especially the chorizo.

Half an hour later, I reached the Kala Ghoda arts district in South Mumbai. It was a Monday, so the National Gallery of Modern Art was closed. Jehangir Art Gallery (bottom center) was still open, though, so I got a good look at some collections of works by Indian artists: the "hairy" mythology paintings of CD Mistry, the finely textured abstracts of Abdul Salam, and the excellent colors, lighting, and detail in outdoor scenes and palace/temple courtyards by Kailas R Jadhav. I also caught the last day of Aspi H Patel's Architecture Beyond Platitude architectural photography exhibition in the Terrace Gallery.

I then spent almost an hour at Delhi Art Gallery, and I don't think that was enough. Captivating early Bengal oil (sometimes also gold) paintings were the mainstay of the Indian Divine exhibition, consisting of modern art depictions of Hindu and Christian mythological scenes and icons. The application of modern art techniques to classical themes and motifs produced a beautiful result, including some abstract neo-tantric and expressionist pieces. A few iron and bronze sculptures also made appearances in this 5-storey space.

And finally, a stop at the renowned Kalaghoda Cafe. No jazz on a day like this, of course, but what a dinner. The crispy cafe special sandwich was perfect, with just a dash of their whole mustard sauce. Their dense-yet-fluffy dark chocolate cake was one of the best I have tasted. I loved how wholesome their ingredients and condiments were, in addition to their reasonable prices and great service.

On my way back, I took a walk through the bustling and heritage-rich path from KG to CST, enjoying the Diwali lighting and checking out the myriad items street vendors had on display.

And last, but not least, my Indian debut in stand-up, at the Big Mic comedy open mic held at the venue and art space known as The Hive. The place is tucked away in by-lane Khar, and the performance room, part of which was under a staircase, was packed -- it doesn't get much more underground than this.

The event began with a show by local improv artists (top right). It was mainly WLIIA-style short games, but I would love to see their scene work someday. Several stand-up comedians (bottom left) then took stage for (with one exception) 4-minute sets. Some of them had really great material, and I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere that reminded me of open mics in the US. The emcee, Aakash Mehta (bottom right), was great entertainment in particular.

As for my set, I had by now accumulated quite a bit of India-specific material I could finally use, and I'm happy to say that it seemed to have been generally received enthusiastically; it was the first time for me to use any of it, though, so it was a bit shaky on delivery. I had a great time at the event overall, and it was a lovely end to my tiny Mumbai trip.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Will Mars brings the dark side to Dubai

Dubai Laughing's stand-up comedy club show at 1UP Champions Bar drew in an adventurous bunch of attendees for its second weekly event, this time featuring an international tour stop by English comedian Will Mars. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe star performed his highly-regarded festival show, "As Good As My Audience", to headline the Wednesday night comedy event.

The five local comedians opening the event kept the momentum up from a brilliant bi-cultural icebreaker by Luke Haecker (top right) to a risky closing bit by Osman Rohail (bottom centre) -- the latter of which incidentally segued well into what Mars had in store for us later. The audience was so receptive that the feedback-prone sound system was the only source of disruption. Rodger Talty's calm-yet-assertive emceeing (top left) welded it all together nicely.

The humor in Will Mars' set sits nicely in the cleft between his soft-spoken, affable demeanor, and his edgy, Machiavellian material. Eschewing extreme expressions and gesticulations, he narrated lurid tales and caustic observations with nonchalance, sometimes drawing them out to dangerous lengths. The punchlines, as a result, caught us off-guard, and were worth the waits.It was commendable of him to have engineered a set (sometimes requiring a bit of explanation, which he did provide) that was taken in so enthusiastically by such a diverse, first-time audience, only a minority of whom were from his homeland. And I don't know as to what extent he had been briefed on the speech laws here, but he spent quite a while teasing us with speculation of how much trouble he might get into if he pulled out all the stops. Plowing through and then analyzing the extent of and probable penalties for instances of fait accompli only added to the hilarity of his act.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Music Diversity at NYUAD

After a long time, I attended a NYU Abu Dhabi music event tonight. These have always been "different", and this one was, well, no different.

In this special performance, five specialist musicians from very diverse schools and cultures shared the stage: (left to right) American-based Peruvian computer musician Jaime Oliver, Ghanian traditional percussionist Gideon Alorwoyie, Indian traditional instrumental and vocal percussionist Akshay Anantapadmanabhan, British saxophonist Barak Schmool, and French computer-assisted composer/mixer Gérard Assayag. 

Each performed solos -- occasionally leading collaboration acts -- in turn, before a closing performance as an eclectic quintet.

As someone who works with computers, I was fascinated at a technical level by Mr Oliver's setup, which created electronic sounds based on the movements and shapes he made with his hands. Mr Anantapadmanabhan's traditional Indian percussion (top) was also very impressive, especially his vocal percussion.

And being both a jazz fan and a general performing arts fan, I thoroughly enjoyed the moves and chords in Mr School's act (bottom), in which he played saxophone to a backing track while synchronized video slides of him casually dancing to elements of the track were projected overhead.

Whatever the individual tastes for their styles of music, though, I understood, from overheard reviews on the way out, that many fellow attendees thought the final collaborative quintet performance was amazing -- an assessment with which I heartily agreed.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Hitting the sacks at Raw Coffee Company

A cafe in a coffee warehouse? You'd have to get on a ship to Colombia to get any closer to the source. That's what Raw Coffee Company does with the front of its Al Quoz space, from where it also distributes its signature brand of fresh, organic, ethically-traded coffee.

Tucked into a narrow lane leading into one of the warehouse compounds at 4A/7A near Noor Islamic Bank metro station, it takes a little effort to find, especially for those unfamiliar with the community; a sign at the outer end of said lane would be great. Art fans might have come across it, though, since a few galleries dot the area around it. Inside is a bustling cafe right up against stored sacks of raw coffee and a working roastery, which infuse the air with a rich aroma. Definitely a great ambiance.

The experience here is centered on the die-hard coffee lover, with the edible portion of the menu limited to a few varieties of cake and cupcake (but good ones, I should add). The coffee menu is also fairly simple: Arabica, available in the standard range of concentrations and milk options from a sharp ristretto (top left) to a creamy latte (bottom right), along with hot chocolate for kids, and a cold brew option (top center). For those who want to be a bit more involved, there's also the list of six brewing options from which to choose, the mild and delicious Chemex (right) among them.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Mind Your Hashtags at The Space Abu Dhabi

This weekend, I paid a quick visit to the twofour54 building in Abu Dhabi City's Al Muntazah, taking the opportunity of the opening night of Henosis' month-long multi-artist exhibition, Mind Your Hashtags, to check out this space called, well, The Space.

Unlike its Dubai counterparts (at least the ones to which I've been), The Space is one long, continuous hall. The configuration at the time of my visit had a long table running almost all of its length, with a cluster of privacy seats at one end, and a work table and cinema at the other. A window cafe sits in the middle, and  few walls have shelves to hold assorted books and magazines.

Mind Your Hashtags, featuring the works of numerous expat artists from around the world, consists mainly of the 2D, although there were a few video and object pieces, such as this interesting one by Deislava Dare (top left). Some particularly striking variations on technique and/or medium could be seen, like those of Nissa Riyas (bottom left) and Sarah Amer (right).

I especially liked the drawing pieces on display, appreciating some sharp and artistically distinctive samples of work by (clockwise from top left) Michael Turda, Haafiza Sayed, and Sumanta Dahda.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Roaring rhythms with The Swing Revue and Lindy Hop

I went down to Jazz Pizza Express this Wednesday to watch Dubai's latest manifestation of the vintage invasion: The Swing Revue. The 5-piece swing band and the vocalist together played several hits from the Age of Swing, as well as swing-paced covers of jazz standards by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald. The band -- playing trumpet, drum, piano, double bass, and guitar -- had a great swing rhythm, and its members also did well as backup singers during the call-and-response sequences. Their rendition of the rebel anthem "Momma Don't Allow" was especially fun.

In addition, the space just off stage left was cleared for use by the Dubai-based enthusiasts of swing dancing, Lindy Hop Dubai, who drop in an hour early for dance lessons before the weekly gig. Between two and three couples would hit the floor at a time, swinging and jiving to the live music. The band would also occasionally step down and play right next to them, adding to the swing-era atmosphere of the place.

Congratulations also to the venue, Pizza Express JLT, for being declared the best-run in the Pizza Express restaurant family.