Dubai Food, Glorious Food, Memories, Outdoors

Savouring Arabic sweets at Al Samadi

“Two overjoyed kids in a candy store!” that’s what we transformed into as we pushed open the glass door of Al Samadi sweet shop in Deira. Surrounded by trays full of sweet treats in all hues, oozing appetizing aromas, it was overwhelming to make an appropriate choice to begin our sugary adventure. So, we hopped from one end of the store to the other, curiously absorbing each colourful detail of the Middle eastern delicacies on display, asking the patient Filipina shop attendant for their names, toppings and ingredients. This conversation opened a window to the several unique Arabic desserts I had never heard of, let alone tasted.

Now here I have to confess that I have never been a big fan of baklava and kunafa, the most common Arabic desserts laid out in iftar meals and in Middle eastern restaurant menus. But I have enjoyed eating milk based puddings — Umm Ali and Mahalabia. That is why we started our culinary trip at Al Samadi — with the familiar bowl of Mahalabia — only this one was covered generously with sliced pistachios, slivers of almonds, topped with cream and cherry and looked more like the pastry version of Mahalabia.

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Creamy and crunchy, we savoured each spoonful of the milk dessert made by boiling corn starch mixed with flavoured milk. Interestingly the dessert gets its name from a seventh century Arab general called Al Muhallab ibn Abi Sufra . The general was served the milk pudding by his Persian cook and he liked it so much that he named it after himself. It is today a popular dessert in all the Middle Eastern countries. My first memory of eating Mahalabia was in a street shop in Cairo, a much simpler version topped only with powdered cardamom and pistachios.

The bowl of Mahalabia was accompanied by a cream filled Ghraybeh. These melt in the mouth Middle eastern butter cookies are a staple all year around, but at Al Samadi, the shortbread came with a rich filling of cream, making it a mix of crumbly and sweet squishy when eaten. Well-known in the middle east Ghraybeh has a string of variant pronunciations and diverse ingredients — in Iran it is called qurabiye and is made with almond flour, sugar, egg whites, margarine and pistachios. In Morocco it is made with semolina and goes by the name Ghoriba. It is also an equally popular tea time snack and dessert in Syria, Palestine, Turkey and Greece. This Lebanese version was filled with cream, unique to the country called kashta or ashta. Made by boiling milk with a tinge of rose or orange blossom, kashta is a local delicacy and used as a filling for many other desserts. At al Samadi most of the sweets, specially made for Ramadan, were filled with kashta.

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Here they look appetizing as toppings on kunafas and inside qatayefs (the d-shaped folded desserts in the picture). Qatayefs, I discovered, are specially made during Ramadan in many Arab countries. They can have various fillings — including unsalted cheese or an assortment of nuts, are usually fried and coated with sugar syrup or drizzled with powdered sugar.

The kunafa, of course, is more well-known and comes in several shapes and colours. A historic sweet delicacy from the Levant region it is made with  phyllo pastry dough and also with semolina. Layered with cheese, cream and nuts kunafas are soaked in sugar syrup. At Al Samadi there were trays full of kunafas, pictured above is the popular bird’s nest (also called osh al bulbul) kunafa filled with ashta and topped with nuts. For this a stringy version of the kunafa dough is used. And for that bright orange colour confectioners add food dye in the kunafas.

In this sweet paradise the most delicious of all desserts turned out to be the mafruka.

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Very similar to the kunafa the mafruka is a Lebanese dessert made with crushed pistachio dough, clotted cream and semolina. It was buttery soft, moist and heavenly.

A visit to an arabic sweet shop is incomplete without tasting the baklava. So iconic is the baklava to the Middle East that its origin and invention is widely debated and claimed by several nations in the region.

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The crunchy sweet treat is made by layering phyllo pastry dough and chopped nuts, drenched in a sticky sugar syrup. It is typically prepared in large trays and then sliced into different shapes. For the baklava lover Al Samadi has quite a wide range — one of their most popular is the bukaj baklava — it looks like a purse or a parcel (bukaj in Arabic) and is stuffed with pistachios, pine nuts or cashews. The Borma baklava is cylindrical in shape and is made with stringy kunafa dough and nuts. Cashews crushed inside phyllo dough shaped as fingers are called Asabi and chopped pistachios sandwiched between layers of kunafa dough become Basma.

There is quite a staggering variety of Arabic desserts at Al Samadi. There is enough to try one sweet every day of the month, spoken like a true dessert fan. Originally established in Lebanon in 1872 the store today has branches in Ukraine, UK and in the UAE. We hope to come back soon for more luscious times.

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Books, Memories

A glimpse of the Hit Girl, Asha Parekh

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Her kohl lined doe eyes and sugary voice were an integral part of my growing up years. In the 80s and 90s there was often an Asha Parekh starrer on the telly. She was the dancing girl in Caravan matching steps with Jeetendra, the sad widow with soulful eyes in Kati Patang and the enchanting Japanese girl dressed in a floral kimono singing Sayonara Sayonara in Love in Tokyo. A string of continuous successes at the box office had earned her the title Jubilee Girl. The year 2017 saw the release of her biography aptly titled Hit Girl written by noted film critic Khaled Mohammad.

At the author’s meet of Sharjah International Book Fair 2017 I got a chance to listen to that familiar voice recalling anecdotes from movies about movie stars I had grown up admiring. So, it seems superstar Rajesh Khanna was an introvert and took some time to open up with his co stars on film sets. And that he had a sweet tooth and the first question he would ask on the sets was, ‘what’s the dessert for lunch today?’ That Raj Kapoor was a spontaneous actor who would be laughing on the sets one minute and could enact an emotional scene where he could break out in tears the next minute.
Asha Parekh was introduced in Bollywood in 1959 at the age of 16 in Dil Deke Dekho opposite the legendary Shammi Kapoor. “During the shooting of Dil Deke Dekho Shammiji’s wife Geeta Bali took an instant liking to me. She would lift me on her shoulders and tell Shammiji, whom I used to call Chacha ‘let’s adopt her’,” she reminisced fondly.
Seated at the centre of the stage, dressed in an aqua green saree with that infamous twinkle in her eyes she was a picture of grace and elegance at 75. The talk moderated by Manju Ramanan, editor, Filmfare ME and Ajay Mago, publisher of Om books touched upon some significant chapters of her life that also feature in the book — including her relationship with director Nasir Hussain, her tryst with depression and her role as Censor Board head.
“I was not destined to get married.” Over the years she had become very close to director Nasir Hussain, with whom she delivered many superhits. But as Hussain was a married man, Asha did not want to be a homebreaker. The only child of her parents, their deaths brought immense loneliness into her life, which eventually manifested into depression. She took medication and is now over with that phase, Asha revealed. Today she spends time with her girl gang of yesteryear stars — Waheeda Rehman, Helen and Shammi.  “We go out for lunches and dinners, and try to meet often. Live for today, don’t think about the past and be happy is my motto now.”

I went back with fond memories of having met the hit girl who like her reel life avatars was beautiful and honest.

Memories, Outdoors

HER – an exhibition by Matilde Gattoni

Gulf Photo Plus, Al Quoz, is showcasing an exhibition of photographs titled HER by award winning photo journalist Matilde Gattoni till Oct 31. Photographer Matilde Gattoni’s career has spanned 15 years in which she has travelled to over 35 countries and four continents. She has encountered and photographed thousands of women from all over the world — from war refugees in Kenya, Lebanon, Syria to Tsunami survivors in Indonesia to women accused as witches in India. Matilde shares that even though the stories of these women are disparate they all are symbols of courage and resilience. Shunned by their countries the women are the backbone of their families.

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Rabiah, a Syrian immigrant was photographed by Matilde in Lebanon in 2012. Then only aged 15 she had left school and a life of fear to escape to a new country. Syrian women at that time had lived in constant fear of being killed and kidnapped. “I wake up crying and screaming,” she had said, remembering her constant nightmares.

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Forty four year old Bhudni Tudu cannot cope with what happened to her. “I don’t have any hope for the future. I want to kill myself,” she said. A resident of Birbans, Jharkhand, India, Bhudni was accused of witchcraft by her family and forced to flee the village.

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Matilde captured this young lady enjoying a splash in the sea in Indonesia, where the Tsunami had made most residents fearful of venturing into the sea.

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Matilde’s exhibition featuring many such women is a tribute to their bravery in times of insurmountable challenges during wars, natural calamities and prejudices.

Memories, Outdoors, Travel fun

Dubai Butterfly Garden

I am seated on a wooden bench surrounded by bright flowers and green creepers, the chirping of birds in the backdrop is music to my ears. In this natural paradise flutters in a blue butterfly. Her wings, the colour of the sky, settle on a piece of sticky banana slice kept amidst a pot full of white chrysanthemums. All around me several colourful butterflies sit pretty on flowers and creepers. I experienced this blissful atmosphere right here in Dubai at the Butterfly Garden. Opened in March 2015 it is located adjacent to the Miracle Garden. This indoor air conditioned park is spread across four domes and is open all through the year.
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Around 20,000 pupae are imported from Costa Rica, Philippines and Colombia every week. These pupae are then introduced into the garden. The life cycle of a butterfly is only for around two weeks that means the new pupae need to be introduced to keep butterflies numbers in motion.
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Although you are not allowed to touch the butterflies the park authorities do not object if the bugs willing come and sit on you.
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One of the butterfly garden domes also has a few varieties of caged birds.
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Yet another attraction at the park is a gallery with butterflies in frames. Here is one that creates the face of Sheikh Mohammed.
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Art, Glorious Food, JLT, Memories, Outdoors

Cafe Ceramique

The whole idea of sipping tea while creating your own work of art is so charming that it’s easy to fall for it. At Cafe Ceramique in Town Centre, Jumeirah, you get to choose from a wall full of ceramic pieces and a menu listed with sandwiches, burgers and desserts. You also get a variety of paint brushes and assorted colours to unleash the Picasso in you. After much deliberation we picked a car shaped piggy bank among mugs, tiles and figurines displayed on the shelf.

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Messy fingers and work in progress

The cafe glazes the art work and heats in a kiln. The creation is ready to be picked up in about a week’s time.
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And oh yes, their desserts are delicious too, but the artwork is what everyone heads here for.

Memories, Outdoors

A talk on Baniyas Square

Think of Deira and most Dubai residents will utter one word — congested. Along with its serious dearth of parking space it is also a locality that lacks the chic and urbane look of the rest of Dubai. But therein lies its real charm. Although renovations and restorations have reshaped Deira there still exists a slice of the past in many of its alleys. Each visit to the spice souk along the Deira creek with all its trappings of an old bazaar has been memorable. Last week I got an opportunity to know more about Deira from a local resident who had witnessed the transformation of the area over the years. As part of the Artists-in-Residence programme, photographer and culture writer at the culturist, Hind Mezaina, conducted an informal talk at the Baniyas Square in Deira. The square, which was earlier called Al Nasr Square, houses some of the old iconic buildings of Deira on either sides. While on one side is the Phoenicia Hotel http://phoeniciahoteldubai.net/index.html that boasts of a popular Ethiopian restaurant the other side has the Deira Tower and the Dubai Tower. A recently renovated old fountain surrounded by a patch of green is at the centre of the square. Thanks to the metro station the Baniyas Square is easily accessible and adds to a constant flow of people. That evening a bunch of young boys played football even as tourists and residents idled on the park benches. deira2 deira Hind, who is part Emirati and part Egyptian, grew up in neighbouring Port Saeed. Before it became Nasr Square, Hind shared that the area, was known as Cinema Square after an old cinema in the area. The Cinema Square was a bustling and sought after trade centre for old residents. She often accompanied her mother on shopping trips to the area. “We would buy our spices, school uniforms and many other essentials here before ending our outing with a meal of shawarmas. Jashanmal, the first departmental store in the UAE, opened here as well.” The square was also the hangout of the engineers and workers who dredged the Dubai Creek in 1963, which allowed bigger ships to get in and out, says a newspaper report. Today Hind visits the area to enjoy a meal at Phoenicia and to hangout with friends at the Garage Club.

Glorious Food, JLT, Memories, Travel fun

Cafe Aroma

Enroute the churches on Oud Metha Road is the leafy Cafe Aroma. We have been here a couple of times and have always come back feeling refreshed. More than the food it’s the cafe’s ambience that impresses. Formerly called Aroma Garden Cafe like its name suggests it gives visitors the joy of sipping tea amidst a lot of greenery. There are creepers all along the walls of the cafe and around each table are several pots of assorted indoor plants. As the cafe also serves shisha, it has a separate seating area for smokers, at the entrance of which stands a lovely landscaped fountain garden. cafe

We ordered a chicken pizza, a Fattoush salad accompanied with bread and hummous with of course pots of tea

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Sharing some pics of the interiors.

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Glorious Food, JLT, Memories, Outdoors, Travel fun

Abra ride & Spice Souk

A flock of seagulls and dark clouds accompanied us along the abra ride one evening at Dubai creek. A friend was visiting and we were on a customary souk tour. For me an abra ride is always a refreshing experience, one I never get tired of. Most tourists too seem to enjoy boarding the wooden dhow, sharing space with scores of daily travellers and most of all soaking in the sights of old Dubai, that seems so remote as compared to the high rises and glitzy malls they just stepped out of. The cool breeze and the twinkling lights from other dhows added a dash of old world magic to the short boat ride that took us from Bur Dubai to Deira in less than 10 minutes . abra The first souk we visited after alighting from the abra ride was Deira’s spice souk on Baniyas Road. The covered souk has lanes of tiny shops with Iranian traders selling sacks of colourful spices. Yellow hues of turmeric merged with the stark brown cinnamon sticks and dried buds of pink roses vied for our attention along with sacks of fiery red chilies. 20150117_181521 We bought a few spices, among them was a packet of dried lavender that can be fermented to make tea. Beyond the spice souk is the glittering gold souk. Not big fans of gold we still ogled at rows of chunky necklaces and bangles. Back home with stacks of memories and packets of spices, a mud oudh burner and chocolates that looked like little pebbles, the first packet we opened was the lavender tea and we were not disappointed. lavender tea

JLT, Memories, Outdoors

Parachuting Championship

Grey skies, cool breeze and a holiday — meant a perfect day for a picnic. Instead we headed to watch some adventure in the air. At Skydive Dubai the international parachuting championship brings parachute professionals and amateurs from world over for a spot of fun in the skies. We watched a spellbinding canopy formation awe struck at their timing and dare devilry.

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Taking place along the Dubai Marina the 5th Dubai International Parachuting Championship is on till Dec 7 and has free entry.

Memories, Sharjah, Travel fun, Uncategorized

Trip to Khor Fakkan

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No, these are not pics from holiday spots in Maldives or Seychelles but from very own neighbouring Sharjah. Like you I too was surprised when I first caught a glimpse of the pristine Khor Fakkan beach. Clear blue waters, a white sandy beach along a lush green park with rugged mountains in the backdrop — what more could a holiday seeker ask for? Pack a picnic hamper and enjoy this view or fly high with para sailing here. Khor Fakkan, which means, Creek of Two Jaws, is just a two hour drive from Dubai.