A warm place

Imagine this…

Beige buildings.
Sandy deserts.
Date Palm trees.
More Date Palms.
Cloudless skies.
Bright sun.
Forty degree C.
Wide, straight, well-marked highways.
Panameras, Range Rovers and many Land Cruisers in the city.
Wandering camels, a little further away.
Concrete and glass tall buildings.
Low-roofed, two-story houses with stone-paved alleys.
Was that smell wafting in the evening air that of a Shwarma?
Pita bread with Tandoori Chicken, Hummous with a fresh Olives and a bowl of freshly chopped Tabouleh!

We are somewhere in the Middle East.

Contrast this view with…

Green trees.
More greener trees.
Trees with dew drops dripping down.
A casual drizzle.
Fresh smell of earth.
Crying Crickets.
Colourful blooms.
Group of cyclists whizzing past.
Bright blue skies.
Floating clouds.
Twelve degree C.
Winding, narrow roads.
Wooden houses.
Fragrance of a wild flower, that seems so familiar but completely unknown.

Far away from home…
This is French countryside.

When I stopped for a short break and a bite, en route Giverny from Chartres, a Shwarma was the last thing that came to mind. There it stood. Le Vallon de Chérisy. Cherisy is a village of Eure et Loir, in a green, the quiet of the countryside Drouaise, borders of Yvelines, on the borders of the Eure Valley, 5 minutes from Dreux.

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rum baba

The service was quite personal and the food was good. The dessert – Rum Baba with Pineapple and Vanilla Ice Cream – was indeed a delight.

The place for the night stay was still about 30 miles away. But what is a 30 mile journey for the E350?

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Delicious Memories

Rice with a heavenly fragrance of unknown spices and herbs; garnished with semi-fried onions (ah, that charred taste…), brown-roasted cashewnuts and succulent raisins. A spicy chicken-thigh, hidden inside the rice with the masala. Hard-boiled egg, partially dipped in the centre of the rice as no biriyani is complete without the egg. A deep-fried papad; a piece of fresh lemon pickle and a bowl of raita.

Masala Chai is served after the biriyani but we kids often sadly let go the offer. Not because we have lesser appreciation for the nice hot spicy tea made with cream and sugar but the heavy lunch does not allow us from imbibing the luxury drink. We never ever said no to the Gulab Jamun that followed.

Such was the dear memories of Chicken Biryanis prepared and served back home when most of the people were taller and wiser than me. Visiting relatives and a festive season were inevitably linked with the dish. Happy memories, still refusing to fade away after many years of constant petting and caring, adamantly and comfortably clings to mind just as the four-year old child awaken from the bed with much reluctance, perches on her Dad’s arms, refusing to budge.

As a kid, Biriyani was a complete mystery dish.

Why it takes so much time to prepare the Biryani with so much of cleaning and chopping?

What are the secret ingredients that went into the dish other than rice, onion and chicken?

How did they manage to get that unique aroma rising in the air filling not just the kitchen or the entire house, but the whole neighbourhood?

In spite of serving the dish with just a raita and a papad and may be a lemon pickle, how it tasted so great?

After many summers… and festive seasons.

Did some research on Biryanis in an attempt to recreate that delicious memories one more time at home. Hyderabadi Dum Chicken Biriyani [Note: Long-grained rice (usually basmati) flavored with spices such as saffron, layered with lamb, chicken, fish, or vegetables cooked in a thick gravy. The dish is then covered, its lid sealed on and cooked on a low flame.] was chosen to be the star.

Surprisingly simple to make in just three steps.

1. Cook rice.
2. Prepare chicken.
3. Garnish.
4. Assemble and serve.

Some tricky in-between operations ensure that the biriyani could come out as close as the memories of yester-years. The magical taste was all about those in-between operations.

So this is not about any dish, let alone Biryani, but about the reliving of those wonderful years amidst noisy cousins and loving, kind relatives and parents, back home. Come with me, dear readers, on that exciting journey.

Deciding the rice was the first part. Long-grained Basmati or Wayanadan Kaeema. Kaeema was chosen.

Then the cook gets up early on a Friday, sacrificing the prerogative of a get-up-as-you-like week-end day and drives to the supermarket for the freshest chicken and herbs. The summer sun is already up and the temperature is a cool 35 deg C already. Herbs are just waiting in their racks… Cilantro & Mint for the Biriyani. Parsley for baked fish and Dill for Chicken Kofta, later. Some Chives for French Omelette. Now to the meat section: thighs of Chicken, bone-in. Fresh not Frozen. The recipe called for some chopped pineapple. Cashew nuts and black raisins (kish-mish) for garnishing. Saffron for mixing with creamy milk diluted with warm to add that wonderful golden-yellow colour to some rice.

Fresh eggs. Papad, a rice flour and urad dal wafer, served deep-fried. There is lime pickle and then yogurt for raita (Cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, green chili chopped and sliced served in yogurt seasoned with salt and Sumac).

Almost all spices are available at home so did not had to purchase.

Always the responsibility of the daughter to check and ensure all items required by the recipe is available: in the shelf, cabinet or refrigerator. Hope she had done a great job.

  1. Rice washed and soaked for 20 minutes.
  2. Chicken thighs marinated in chili powder, turmeric powder with some sea-salt.
  3. Chopping board. Onions, ginger and garlic. Indian garlic preferred though not-so-good looking as their Chinese friends. But more potent and difficult to handle.
  4. Mix rice in ghee in a pan on medium heat while water boils.
  5. Bay leaf, cinnamon stick, clove, star anise goes in with a couple drops of pineapple flavouring and rose water.
  6. Boil rice using lightly salted water in the ratio 1: 1.5, till rice absorbs all water. Remove from flame while the rice is almost cooked al-dante. Let it cook bit more on the colander/sieve.
  7. Sauté onions, for the chicken. Add all the spices and fry till the raw smell is gone. Add chicken and cover and cook.
  8. Fry onions for the garnish. Roast cashew nuts and raisins in ghee.
  9. Chop fresh mint and coriander leaves.

Take a deeper breath now and rest a while. The cooked food gets some time to settle. You will be amazed at the magical flavours that had filled the kitchen as you re-enter.

Pre-heat over to about 345F. Assemble the biryani in a glass bowl.

Chicken, rice, chicken, rice, chicken, rice. Garnish with 1/4 of a pineapple chopped small, fried onions, cashew nuts, raisins and finally coriander leaves. Cover bowl with an aluminium foil and bake for 10-15 minutes.

Some lessons learned:
1. The flame needs to be adjusted often as the food is being cooked through various stages.
2. Get only the best ingredients for the dish.
3. Thighs with bone-in is most suitable for this biryani.
4. The mistake made by choosing white onions instead of red onions proved to be a near disaster.
5. Prefer small garlic compared to large, perfectly-white ones.
6. Use pineapple flavour (essence) sparingly as it could easily overpower other subtle flavours.
7. Use not more than 1/4 of a medium pineapple.
8. After all is said and done, getting the rice cooked to that perfect point seemed to be the hardest part.

Smile-maker

Ixora was never considered by anyone a great flower. It seem to come up from nowhere and carry-on without much demand unlike other flowering plants in the garden that needs nurturing and even a bit of pampering. One of the attractions in the home garden is Ixora. Bright orange, yellow and faded red, the clusters are always there challenging the concept of seasons. Occasional visit of the gardener makes no difference to the plant. The maid waters it as she waters other plants. Kids sometime pluck its flowers and drink the nectar. They play with the garlands made by adding each single flower in tandem. A humble flower that brings so much memories of the good times of childhood. It never fails to bring a smile, every time.

Harissa

Roses are red.
Fragrant, too.
Roses can touch your heart.
They convey deep feelings.
Sometimes even make you cry.
So is Harissa (həˈrēsə).

The words Harissa dances and flows in the mouth quite effortlessly.
It brings many cherished images to the mind.

But what is Harissa?
Harissa is a fiery hot condiment and seasoning from North Africa and the Middle East. It is a paste of dried red chilis, garlic, and olive oil, with other spices such as ground red pepper, caraway, cumin, caraway, coriander, fennel and mint. It is most closely associated with Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco. Makes Tabasco and Sriracha take a distant second and third places when it comes to a chili sauce contest.

[Recipe for Harissa cannot be more simpler than this…

About 50gm dried red chilies
2 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon dried mint leaves
Salt
Olive oil

Mix all together].

But the fiery red sauce is not for the faint-hearted.
Not even for the moderately-brave.
It takes a real courageously-daring one to even attempt to even think about making Harissa paste at home.

Therefore
I decided to make the recipe at home amidst all the usual naysayers.
“Can’t be done”.
“Not for Indian cuisine”.
“You need special ingredients… secret ones… how will you find them”.
“Why bother yourself when you can just add chili powder?”.
“We got SriRacha in the fridge”.
“Since when did you started experimenting with North African cuisine”.
So on.

First things first.
How many types of chilis are there in the market?
A few.
Wrong.
Many many.
Wanted to learn all about them before deciding which one to buy.
World of chili was so exciting that the first learning was that it might take longer than a weekend to learn.

So decided to choose
a dark, long one,
a reddish-brownish medium one and
a cute, round one.
(The intended ones were Pasilla, Guajillo & Cascabel. Must learn which is which).
Also used four different types of chili powders: Cayenne, Paprika, Red chili and Kashmiri chili.

Soaking the chilis in hot water was easy.
But the deseeding and destemming part took a toll as a not-so-easy burning sensation on the face.
Food-grade gloves and medical-grade face mask were used.
Not to mention industrial-grade eye-glasses.

While the chilis were soaking, garlic was de-skinned and crushed.
Coriander, cumin, fennel, caraway seeds were ground using pestle and mortar.
The four-chili paste was prepared.
Dried mint leaves kept aside.

From now on, it must be a breeze. So I thought.
Soaked chilies, drained well, went to the food processor.

Warning: The first buzz will fill the kitchen with the volatile component of the chili oleoresin that one must expect and take precautions.
From mildly uncomfortable runny nose and eyes to uncontrollable sneezing could occur.
So please be forewarned.
(Note: Harissa preparation will make onion slicing chore feel like a seventh heaven).

Having survived that grinding to paste stage, spices and mint were added and mixed.
Some balsamic vinegar was added to the paste. Lemon juice, if you so prefer.
Finally, the food processor was run at very slow speed while a stream of Olive oil was mixed in the emulsification process. The processor was stopped once the mixture achieved the desired consistency.

Due to the watery-eyed environment, many photo opportunities were missed.
But the few that were taken can be found here.

In short, the home-made sauce was a real unforgettable experience in the kitchen.
But if you ask em if I would repeat the experience, I would not reply without a bit of hesitancy.

While the runny-nose tells me no, the beyond-the-words taste of Harissa in fish and chicken urges me “you must”.

Poached Eggs in Spicy Tomato

Poached Eggs in Spicy Tomatoes or Shakshouka

Scrambled eggs in tomatoes is quite common for breakfast or dinner.
Mostly with dry chapatis or khubooz.

A recipe got from a friend recently took the dish to a completely different dimension.
A bit of ground Cumin and a few Chilies made the difference.
The recipe originally included the delightful Harissa* paste.
Since the home had a stock of Cayenne Pepper, Sweet Paprika, Red Chili and Kashmiri Chili, thought of replacing Harissa with the chili powders.

(Harissa: a hot, spicy condiment made from mixing dried chilies soaked in hot water and roasted- or sun-dried tomato paste, widely used staple in North African and Middle Eastern cooking).

Chopped onions were sautéed on medium heat with minced garlic in Olive oil.
Diced green bell pepper is added.
Once softened, all the spices were added ensuring that the raw taste is gone with frying.
Care was taken not to burn the delicate spices.

Chopped, ripe tomatoes were then added.
Season with sea-salt flakes and crushed black pepper.
Pan was covered on medium heat and cooked for 10-15 minutes.
The contents must be stirred a few times to avoid burning in spite of seeing enough water in the pan.

Small indentations (actually they are “wells”) are made as the number of eggs.
Eggs are cracked raw into these wells.
Cooking for another 10 minutes would just see the eggs settle from being runny to semi-solid.
Garnish with fresh Cilantro and the dish is ready to be enjoyed.

The next week-end project?
Shakshouka with the best-ever home-made Harissa paste.

Baking a Bread

One day, quite recently…
Me: “I am going to bake a bread”
Family: “Bake a – WHAT?”

The entire household was practically paused for well over a few minutes.
In total disbelief.

“Why bother making something you can easily get for BHD 0.100?”*
“Bread? One can NEVER bake a bread at home!”
“Baking a bread needs special equipment. Forget it!”
“Hmmmm…. you’ve found another way to waste money, time and effort…
But
The above comments could not dissuade the baker from chasing, and later achieving, his dream.

*BHD 1 = USD 2.57 appx.

Let me take you back to another day, many many years ago…

The idea of baking a bread at home was toyed since childhood.
The inspiration was the small local bakery near the place of domicile.

Around mid-afternoon, the heavenly aroma of the nearby baker baking his loaves will find its way to our home. Giving the baker a few more minutes to finish his work, a fresh loaf will be at home soon. The family gathers around, being a Sunday, marvelling the freshness and softness of the bread. Baker refuses to slice the bread as he maintains it is too early to slice a bread straight from the oven. There were many times when the bread was enjoyed without being sliced. The experience was always worthy of repeating a million times. That is when the idea of baking bread at home was born.

During those years, my Mother used to cook many dishes. Most of them could be categorised as nothing short of “complicated”. List of ingredients, the processes included in preparation and cooking, adjustment of heat by adding or removing firewood from the stove (those were pre-LPG days) were some reasons for the complexity. Delicious sweets which require hours on fire were made only during festive seasons: Easter or Christmas. Whole family chips in and the house maids also join to support but the main cook was always Mother.

Yet another day, couple of years back…

The childhood idea was put to action quite recently. May be a couple of years back when the first bread was baked in-house. Only few super markets carried bread flour. The recipe said bread flour specifically. Some of them mentioned using all-purpose flour but the fear of failure in first attempt prompted the would-be baker to travel to the edge of the world to find the perfect bread flour. He found it in a super market in the Amwaj Island.

Other ingredients were a fairly easy to come through: yeast, egg, milk, honey, salt. The 10-year old Italian-made oven with an external temperature gauge were the major components towards the first bake. Stove-top cooking was for every day but the oven was rarely used.

All the ingredients were mixed with yeast added in to the traditional well in the centre. The mixture was far from promising. Sticky, without any form or shape.

Baking a bread is all about proving. First the yeast has to prove itself. Then the dough. Then the dough in loaf-tin, again. But the real proof is in the pudding which is the proof of the baker himself. Yeast was over-energetic. It was excited to thrive in the 114 degree Fahrenheit water mixed with honey. In less than 10 minutes, the yeast-proofing was done.

Slowly, the dough began to transform itself as if by a magic spell. The mix was then kneaded by hand. Five or ten minutes, I do not remember. But the kneading stopped only when the dough felt pliable and soft. Time for the dough to prove itself. Well oiled glass bowl, the recipe did not specify which oil, was used to store the dough “for an hour or until it doubles in size in a warm, dark place”.

Slowly lifted the tea-towel that covered the dough-bowl. Could not believe own eyes. The dough had proved itself!

Followed the recipe to the t and inflated the dough after a bit of hesitation. Baker is still not confident. Is it not the first attempt to bake a bread? Pardoned.

Left the dough in a loaf tin this time in the warm dark place to prove again. The dough took the challenge well and overflew the standard bread tin thus ensuring the classic champagne-cork shape.

Meanwhile, in another part of the kitchen…
Pre-heating the oven was meticulously done. Temperature was monitored to the degree. The risen-dough went straight into the oven. Half-way into the baking process, the rich, heavenly aroma of the bread began to fill the apartment. The crust was light brown. There was no way to test the doneness of bread without opening the oven door. Door was open, crust was knocked for that reassuring hollow “thud” sound.

A home-made bread was born.

Family, who were nearby since the aroma started filling the air, now gathered around the bread.

Some suggested butter. Others jam. How about chicken curry? Plain bread taste as good, came in another revelation. Olive oil and salt. Creativity is beginning to cross boundaries now.

Five minutes later, I thanked the heavens for the family leaving the loaf tin alone.

A question came up… when are you going to bake the next bread?

Soon, the baker said, and smiled to himself.

A few weeks back, a Challah was baked.

Blade

A Blade of Grass

Metaphorical-
Philosophical-
Full of life.

Dew drop,
rested overnight,
silently melts away.

Sharp enough,
to split the rays,
into a million colours.

Danced
to the wings
of a dragonfly.

Day is done.
Shakes
and gone.

Metaphorical;
Philosophical;
Full of life.

Blue Crabs

Anticipation grows in the shores of Hidd fishing port, north-east of Bahrain.
But the air is kept light with smiles and laughs.
Amazing to see how the human spirits could soar so high on a long, hot summer day.
Weather-beaten faces perfectly blending with the day’s hard work.

And then someone sees the boat approaching from the seas.
Somehow they know it was a good catch indeed.
Blue Swimming Crabs are wild caught from seas around Bahrain by using traps.

A boat carries 6 to 8 crates of freshly netted Blue Crabs.
After a quick rinse, the crates are brought ashore.
Experienced eyes picks few bad ones and promptly removes them.
Dilip and his team effortlessly moves in sync as a well-rehearsed drill.

Rest are chilled with crushed iced, ready to be transported to the factory in refrigerated trucks.
The cluster portion of the crab with claw and legs untrimmed is the final product that carries a shelf-life of up to 2 years.

Extremely Useful Emptinesses

“We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.”
– Lao Tzu

The Potter, a man in his forties,
sat there on the wooden, tall stool
by a table
with a shapeless lump of clay.
Smiling.

He had a few kids and their parents as his audience.
Wide-eyed kids.
I’ve-seen-it-all-eyed parents.
Deep inside,
the parents wanted to mould the clay as much as their kids.

But
being elder to the kids, they appeared to show more restraint
and even scolded the kids for their impatience.
Potter smiled.

While his fingers and palm
moved around the wet clay,
and the people thought of how relaxed the man was,
his legs were tirelessly working.

Pushing the heavy flywheel
under the table
that held the platform
that rotated
the clay…

I wondered
how many kids must have seen the hard work
of the legs
that is needed for a clay pot?

Potter continued to smile.
Perhaps he could listen to everyone’s thoughts…

Casual Skewers

Grilling must be the most healthiest way to cook meat.

Most fun comes from the charcoal grill outdoors.
Once in a while, it can be emulated indoors.
Family love it. Friends love it.
Above all, the chef loves it.

It all begins with pre-soaking the bamboo skewers in water.
And the grill pan scrubbed and washed with no soap.
Then comes the marinade.
Finally, the preparation of meats.

Tandoor-prawns.
Tandoori Masala could be brought from the store.
But only a few would dare to make their own Tandoori mix from scratch.
And that’s what happened.

Chicken thighs were chosen over breast.
A sharpest boning knife made the job of separating the meat from the bone enjoyable.
In grilling, the marinade is most crucial for the taste.
In this case, both the prawns and the chicken were marinated for between 4-5 hours in the refrigerator.

Mildly flavoured meat (could be sea-food) threaded in soaked bamboo skewers.
Seasoned cast-iron grill pan heated to over 420 deg F on a stove-top.
Quote If it does not sizzle, then you are not grilling unquote.
Thrill of the sizzle awaits.

Time spent on seasoning the grill pan paid off well.
No sticking.
No panic.
Grilling was never been so easy.

There is a secret
to grilling: oil.
Sparingly use oil to smear the grilling pan surface,
occasionally.

Another secret…
is to let the meat char a little.
This must be done extra-carefully
as the chances of meat getting dry is high.

Prawns were the most tricky.
So much easier to turn them into rubber-washers (from the chef’s own experience)
than to get them just-succulent-right.
But for someone who got an innate ability to cook, all comes naturally.

Skewers were all arranged in the plate.
The sight was indeed impressive.
In our house, the food does not last till plating process.
Skewers were all emptied in a blink.

Grilling indoors is tiring.
But when you see the food vanish at the speed of lightning,
that magic itself is enough to make you go through the hardships again,
and again.

Cooking is rewarding.

John Dory, Baked.

What’s for dinner?
As in whats|for|dinn|er|
Typical question on a weekend.
Mostly the dinner is cooked by me at home during the weekend.
Therefore it is not surprising that the family awaits dinnertime, on a weekend.
(Ed: Well, that may seem like a tall statement but then you have not tasted my cooking, have you?).
Apart from cooking being a passion, the time spend in creating a dish based solely on a recipe distracts one from most other complexities of life. Someone’s passion could well be another’s chore.

First question.
Meat? Lamb? Chicken? Fish?
Answer: Fish.
Which fish?
Silence.
Yes, the family sometimes think too.

White-meat fishes are often mild in their flavour.
Sole is a good example.
Local favourite Hamour-e Khaldar-e Qahvei (or simply, Hamour: the Brown-spotted Reef Cod) is another.
But John Dory is what got caught in the net.
So the choice of fish was settled.
A Dory doesn’t have a strong fishy smell.

Note: Some photographs follow the write-up.

Next question…
Grilling? Poaching? Baking? Pan-fry?
Grilling would be harsh on a Dory.
Poaching would be too subtle.
Pan-fry would be good to try.
Finally, settled for Baking.

Now for the recipe.
Salt & Pepper Fish was the first choice.
The simplicity of the recipe was in fact a deterrent to me.
Less room to play around.

Looked for more options.
Did not have to go far.
Limón!
Lemon always gave that great tasting result with white-meat fishes.
Added Lemon and fresh, flat-leaf Parsley to the list.

Accompaniment to Dory?
Mashed Potatoes was the unanimous favourite of the family.
A silence fell when the discussion moved on to the greens.
Vegetables, I mean.
No movement.
No enthusiasm.
Quite understandable.
Had to choose it myself.
Mangetouts.
How about some Mushrooms?
Yesss….
Some movement there.
People love mushrooms for their own reasons.

Thus the dinner menu was agreed upon.

John Dory baked with Lemon and Parsley in extra virgin Olive oil
seasoned with sea-salt and ground black pepper.
Sautéed Mushrooms and Mangetouts
served with mildly creamed silk-smooth Mashed Potatoes.

Little extra virgin Olive oil. Lemon juice. Sea-salt and ground black Pepper. Sprinkle once-chopped fresh flat-leaf Parsley. Bake for 20 minutes in an oven heated to 170C. Check for flaking with a fork.

Combined taste of slightly salty Mashed Potatoes and Dory was exquisite. Sautéed Mangetouts were so crunchy that the dining room reverberated with the sound. Mushrooms with a dash of dark soy-sauce added a different dimension to its flavour. A fillet of Dory was pan-fried indeed.

Dinner was served.
Few minutes into the ritual,
some asked for more potatoes.
Others, Dory.
Mushrooms disappeared in no time.
Only a few Mangetouts were left in their bowl.

All the dinner plates got emptied quick.
What else an ordinary cook like me could possibly ask for?

National Museum

Located in the waterfront near the Marina Club, Diplomatic Area, National Museum is one of the popular monuments with visitors. A few hundred meters away resides the newly built National Theatre. Exhibitions and cultural talks see the National Museum as its venue attracting the art lovers of Bahrain and from neighbouring countries. The entrance leads to a vast hall almost covered with the sharp aerial photograph of Bahrain.

National Museum
National Museum

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National Theatre
National Theatre

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National Museum, left
National Museum, left

A complete detailed visit could easily take about half-a-day. Exhibits are meticulously labelled in Arabic and English.

Geometric Patterns in Islamic Art

Visual Islamic Art excludes the depiction of realistic human and animal figures. Geometric patterns that transform one to another world often become the focus of attraction. Precise reasons for geometric pattern becoming so central in Islamic decoration remain intriguing to many minds. Predominance of aniconism within monotheistic Abrahamic religions could well be a clue towards an understanding of the prominence of such patterns.

While geometric patterns that are simple and pleasing to the viewer dominate Islamic art, calligraphy and the minimum usage of foliage patterns of the arabesque (Islamic biomorphic patterns are usually called arabesques) can be seen within private spaces of homes and palaces.

The need to defend the unique status of God’s position as the ultimate power holder against idols, which were seen as threat to the uniqueness, led to the spread of the practice of aniconic art.

Geometric patterns make up one of the major nonfigural types of decoration in Islamic art; other two being Calligraphy and subtle vegetal patterns. The extreme complexity of geometric patterns within Islamic art is generated from such simple forms as the circle and the square. These simple patterns are combined, duplicated, interlaced and arranged in intricate patterns extending almost infinitely.

Reiteration of Qur’an implies that the divine nature of God is experienced through the divine word. Therefore, the absence of icons within a mosque is justified. However, the words of Qur’an is often extensively depicted on the walls and ceilings of mosques, palaces and homes giving rise to the rich traditions of Islamic calligraphy as an elevated form of architectural decoration.

Calligraphy manages to combine a geometric discipline with a dynamic rhythm. In the Islamic world it takes the place of iconography, being widely used in the decorative schemes of buildings. Seen below is a benign wording written in Arabic.

Vegetal ‘arabesque’ compositions are as common in Islamic decoration as geometric patterns. Similar to the geometric patterns, these are found across a wide range of mediums from illustrations in books to plaster work both interior and exterior and even in carpets and textiles. Leaves and climbers are the closest one can find in this kind of art form as the depiction of any creation with a soul is forbidden.

The basic shapes, or “repeat units,” from which the more complicated patterns are constructed are: circles and interlaced circles; squares or four-sided polygons; the ubiquitous star pattern, ultimately derived from squares and triangles inscribed in a circle; and multisided polygons. It is clear, however, that the complex patterns found on many objects include a number of different shapes and arrangements, allowing them to fit into more than one category.  The basic shapes are then repeated in many ways – the process known as tessellation – to create complex patterns that are so simple at its core. A tesselation is a decoration of a two-dimensional plane using the repetition of a geometric shape with no overlaps and no gaps; generally it can be extended infinitely in all directions.

ade

Muqarnas (system of niches and projected ‘stalactites’, used as a transitional and decorative device in architecture), Mishkah (niche for a lamp), Lazo or Band-i-rumi (interlaced geometrical pattern) are some of the unique characteristics within Islamic art.

Other than stone, brick, wood and paper, stucco or plaster was widely used in Islamic Art. Plaster, a singularly useful material that lent itself to moulding and carving in a variety of ways, became a staple of Islamic architecture. Perhaps because of its plasticity as a medium it was less frequently used for purely geometric designs, and was more often used in vegetal-arabesque arrangements.

Stained or coloured glasses are used to create a heavenly experience within homes, palaces or places of worship. Designs the permit sunlight in the morning hours to enter the room from outside while providing a beautiful window view to an observer from outside during night time was mesmerising. The glass comes in four basic colours: red, blue, green and yellow. Movement of coloured patterns with the sun from dawn to dusk creates a dynamic ambience within the living space. Glasses are also used to decorate ceiling lanterns or wall lamps.

That the intricacies of infinite geometric patterns starts from a simple straight line, a point and a circle is perhaps the most unbelievable fact in the entire gamut of this marvellous form of art.

 

Pièce de Résistance

Geographically, the beautiful island of Bahrain may be small. But the cultural and artistic events happening within its confines hosted by the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities – BACA – and other organisations, are many.

BACA itself organises several events throughout the year. Festivals and Annual Activities includes Bahrain Annual Fine Arts Exhibition, where space, colours, imagination and boundaries merge; Bahrain Summer, the journey of musical to theatrical; Ta’a Al Shabab, a month-long event involving youth in culture; Bahrain International Music Festival, an expression of musical talent from home and abroad; Spring of Culture, an opportunity to exchange ideas and experiences and learn about the intellectual underpinnings of different nations and Heritage Festival, taking the people from now to then.

Though the various events fall in the same time of the year, the themes keep changing. This year’s Food is Culture event had Bahrain National Museum as the venue. Confluence of the minds of Chefs and Artists was the theme. MyRefractions visited one such event during the month of January 2017.

Meeting with Chef Brian and Chef Pierre was the highlight. The chocolate palm tree was the pièce de résistance of the evening.

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Date palms represented Middle-Eastern culture around the world. A drive through the palm-laned road leading towards the magnificent Ritz-Carlton hotel in itself is a memorable experience. Imagine a date palm that snaps at your touch, made with the most delicious, just-sweet, nutty, creamy and melt-in-mouth dark chocolate with real Dates. That was the experience presented by the Executive Chef Brian of re Asian Cuisine and Head Chef at Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant “CUT” both at the Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain whose culinary inspiration began in his grandmother’s kitchen, and Pierre, professional Pastry Chef at Wolfgang Puck’s “CUT” restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain, whose love of pastries comes as an artistic medium which fuels his passionate creations and the Artist Somaya Abdulghani who is specialised in photography, collage and mixed media, seeking to promote Islam’s enlightening nature by creating rhythmic and organic patterns that combine forms of Islamic art.

In a higher conceptual level, one would find it hard to separate the space of cooking and that of art.

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The passionate audience had a casual enjoyable time interacting with the Chefs and the Artist. They also relished the chocolate palm tree and made it vanish into thin air within minutes much to the delight of the Chefs and the Artist who created it.

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The event brought to surface the complexities within the intermingling of the two seemingly different worlds… and a treat for the palate and the mind of the discerning intellect.

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Farmers’ Market

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Highway leading to Budaiya, the venue of Farmers’ Market 2017, got slower from almost a mile away. Typical of any event. Almost all the vehicles carried families with children. After finding a parking nearby, the place was a short walk away. It was a sunny and pleasant Saturday in January. Mild breeze among the many date palms lining the tiled walkways carried smell of vegetables. The botanical gardens in Budaiya, maintained by the Agriculture Ministry, hosted the Farmers’ Market as it did for past several years. Photographs were shot randomly while walking around the market…

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A mild climate conducive of growing vegetables in Bahrain starts from October typically. However, the summer lingered on till late November in 2016 and the weather turned mild towards mid- to end-December. Christmas really felt like that in Brisbane; warm. Farmers’ Market in Bahrain usually started in early December and lasts till the first few months of the following year. All Saturdays of the month, from 8 AM till 12 noon, Budaiya gets some extra action.

Breakfast Corner (actually it is an open space) visit was top on the list. Not that we three were hungry. The idea of tasting some authentic Bahraini food always appealed to us. Fresh vegetables were so appealing that from the moment we saw the first stall, the shutter was relentlessly moving up and down (or was it sideways? Should have paid more attention during the many photography workshops attended.) Tomatoes, Cauliflowers, Pumpkins, Chillies, Zucchinis, Cucumbers, all those leafy vegetables – that the family doctor always reminded to consume more, Beetroots, Bell Peppers, to name more than a few. Mint led the list of herbs. Those on sale were so fresh and untouched so unlike what is sold by the regular stores that it seemed to have made just for decoration and not for cooking.

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Flowering plants were on sale. Hyacinths and Pansies were more popular. Geraniums were rare. Bougainvilleas scattered themselves among others. As we walked forward, the air began to smell of waffles. Waffles would have been a complete misfit in such an atmosphere. We followed the waffles that led us to a stall where several people – women and children mostly – patiently waited for their turn to collect their favourite snack: pan-baked bread. Thin, crunchy, mildly sweet made up of batter.

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The best part of the Farmers’ Market was not the display of the local produce. It is about the people and the smile on their face. Met several families that included expatriates and the local ones. Business was casual with occasional bargaining (well, no one ever bargained in a super market) and tasting of the fresh produces.

Stall owners found time to chat about their farms in different parts of Bahrain. 17 years of stay made it almost possible to locate many. Children played as the sun rose while other wide-eyed ones kept wondering about the many colours of vegetables. From red, green, yellow and purple that is grown in their own Bahrain.

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Ghriyba Marocaine aux Amandes

Weekends are cooking days. Sometimes the daughter joins in but mostly it is alone.
Bahrain feels like the best-of-Europe with it’s mild weather. While sunny and bright in the day time, the temperature stays at around 12-14 deg C. The weather was never lovelier before than today.

Rib-eye Steak with Mushroom Sauce served with Mashed Potatoes and crisp, sautéed Mangetouts for the lunch.
Thai Green Seafood curry with Jasmine Rice for dinner.
[Ed: Those posts are for another day].
But the highlight of the day was Moroccan Almond Cookies or Ghriba.
The sweet from Marrakesh took everyone by storm.

Most of the dishes tried at home were tried before in a restaurant or at a baker’s.
Ghriba was an exception. Came to learn about the sweet from a beautiful blog in WordPress https://thetaste0flife.wordpress.com/

Ghriba is something unlike any of the sweets.
It does not use any flour (wheat or rice, eg.)
Sites those talked about Ghriba mentioned the Moroccan Mint Tea that goes well with the sweet.
[Ed: Forgotten to make mint tea, by the way].

Almonds eggs caster sugar lemon zest lemon juice almond extract orange blossom water.
The taste was much beyond the realms of any sweet tried so far.

Started off with zesting the lemon after keeping the oven to heat-up to the required temperature of 350F (180C).
Prepared the baking tray with parchment paper and kept aside.

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Almond flour and sugar were then blended in a food-processor briefly.
Baking powder, vanilla extract, almond flavour, salt, lemon juice and lemon zest were whisked in.

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Egg yolks were then added to the above mixed using fingers taking care not to knead towards bread consistency. However, as the four eggs were added, the dough was bit like a bread dough.

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Added less caster sugar though the recipe asked 125 gm as the cookies are going to be rolled on icing sugar before baking.

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Baked at 350 deg F just till cooked… a cookie unlike any cookie. Inside the oven, the cookies began to crack about 12 minutes into the baking process.

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The oven was switched off soon after the cookies started to crack.
Rest of the baking happened in the subsiding heat and for about 18 minutes.

Final note:
Mildly crunchy outside and soft,chewy inside, the Ghriba was loved instantly at first bite. There sure is a lot of room for excelling and the pursuit of excellence makes the baking process more challenging and therefore enjoyable.

Reviews say that the cookies can be stored in airtight containers for 2-3 weeks. May not be applicable at our place. Confluence of flavours will take several hours was a maxim seldom listened to by the end users. Thus, the cookies finished fast. But their taste remains.