Monday, November 15, 2010

Discover the Toum of the Pharaohs on the Red Sea Coast

Intrepid reporters Gary and Lorraine take No Crowds to new heights - this time adding a great recipe to their travel advice.

Most of us have heard of Sharm el-Sheikh, on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula by now—home of exquisite diving and less than successful Middle East peace talks.  Less well known is a former fishing village that sits just across the Red Sea from Sharm, known as Hurghada.  A charmingly run down quasi resort, Hurghada has clearly spent much of the last 30 years catering to those from the northern climes.  From the Air Berlin plane on the runway of the local airport, to the Finnish newlyweds who just got off the charter from Helsinki, to the billboards and shop ads in Russian, German and Arabic—the signs are everywhere.

At a fraction of the cost of Sharm, Hurghada also has some of the most spectacular diving and snorkelling in the world.  The Red Sea is as deep as the Atlantic, and as crystal clear as the Caribbean on a fine day.  The fish that inhabit the plentiful coral reefs are not to be believed.  Simple snorkelers, we saw butterflyfish, trumpetfish, Napoleon fish, tigerfish and others we couldn’t hope to identify, all in riotous colours.  Frankly, our heretofore favourite spot, the reef wall in Providenciales, (in the Turks & Caicos Islands) paled by comparison.  Hurghada is also the center of a growing region that includes el Gouna (20 km to the north), a made-for-tourists town including several resorts built across multiple islands with gorgeous lagoons in place  of swimming pools.  And 20 km south is Sharm el Naga, a bend in the road that has no infrastructure but a glorious beach with arguably the best snorkelling directly off the beach of any place in the world.

But what we want to talk about is a restaurant.  It’s called the Nubian Egyptian, a simple open air collection of tables in the midst of Hurghada’s New Marina, and it’s quite an experience.  Most main dishes are grilled, but that means something different here.  Order the red snapper, for example, and it arrives still cooking on a small charcoal grill the size of a shoebox, carefully placed on your table so you can help yourself as the spirit moves you.  Likewise the lamb kofta and most of the other mains.  Each piece was superbly done—best snapper I have ever eaten anywhere, (including rougets done in butter at our favourite Parisian cafe).  And the piece de resistance was the garlic sauce (toum, in Arabic).  It was close enough to a good garlic aioli to convince you that traders must have taken these recipes on all their Mediterranean trade routes for many years...but oh, the garlic!  

We asked the proprietor for his recipe and he feigned shock—“you ask me for my secrets?”  In the end, he gave us enough clues about garlic, lemons, sea salt and a good mortar and pestle that Lorraine immediately set to work to reverse engineer the sauce when we returned home, with excellent results.  The recipe, my friends, follows below.  I recommend it to you with two warnings:  First, make sure you will be spending the rest of the evening with people who also like garlic and have sampled the sauce, otherwise the outcomes could be unpredictable.  Second, should you make your way to Hurghada, keep in mind that a strange bureaucratic glitch in Egyptian law makes it nearly impossible to import wine, and the local red or white wine (with colourful names like Scheherazade, or Omar Khayyam) is generally undrinkable.  Happily, the rosé is not at all bad, and makes a perfect accompaniment for everything you can find at the Nubian. 


Lorraine’s Knock-Your-Keffiyah-Off Egyptian Toum

Garlic, lemon and olive oil whipped into a pungent creamy sauce and slathered on fish, meat and vegetables is a revered and ancient Mediterranean treat.  France, Spain, Italy, and Greece have all claimed to be the originators of this savoury concoction, calling it aioli, alioli, and ali-oli. I, on the other hand, am sure that along with all that gold, King Tut was smart enough to pack away several man sized jars of toum to ease the transition to the afterlife.  So I’m betting that Egypt can safely claim to be the originator of this sublime sauce.
My attempts at reverse engineering always have two objectives: (1) How can I make this quicker and easier and useful for a week night meal, and (2) How is this dish like something I’ve cooked before, so I can beg, borrow and outright steal from the best with pride?  Therefore thanks for this recipes go to, in no particular order: Julia Child (because before cooking any recipe I check to see what Julia says about it); Cooks Illustrated without whom I would have no idea of why mustard makes it easier to emulsify sauces; and finally, the unnamed chef at the Nubian Egyptian Restaurant on the edge of the Red Sea, because great recipes always conjure up great memories.

Juice from two lemons
3 – 8 medium size garlic cloves (3 cloves = mild, 8 cloves insures your safety from even Twilight vampires for at least 24 hours)
Coarse sea salt
2 eggs yolks plus 1 whole egg  (leave out for an hour to get to room temp)
1 Tbl Dijon or other French style mustard (leave out for a while so it’s at room temp)
2 cups olive oil (vegetable or peanut oil will also work, though olive oil is traditional)

Equipment (here’s how I’ve adapted to make this quick and easy)

1.     Food Processor with steel blade
2.     Garlic press
3.     Mortar and Pestle (some traditions must be maintained)

Pr  Press peeled garlic cloves (3 – 8) through garlic press and add to mortar with 1 tsp coarse sea salt.  Grind until smooth paste.

2.     Add juice of one lemon to garlic paste mixture,  stir and set aside

3.     For the mayonnaise base:
·      Into Food Processor bowl fitted with steel blade: Toss 2 egg yolks plus 1 whole egg, 1 Tbs Dijon mustard, grind of black pepper, and juice of the second lemon.
·      Turn on processor and let run for 15 seconds, then add oil drop by drop for first ¼ cup or so, a thin drizzle for remainder.  (at this point you have a nice home made mayonnaise) – Julia says to be sure and not turn off machine till done.

4.    Remove mayonnaise to a bowl, stir in garlic/lemon paste using wooden spoon; adjust S+P to taste.
     Can be eaten immediately, but sitting in the fridge for 4 hours enhances flavour.  
     Keeps for about 5 days. 
     Photo of Toum from Wikimedia

Friday, November 12, 2010

Some Motherly Advice for the Perfect (Global) Thanksgiving

Dear Sons,

In 1990, when we were living in Frankfurt, I received the phone call that changed our Thanksgiving celebration forever. The call was from my friend, Pat, who had just won a turkey, which was the prize for a 5K road race. What am I going to do with this turkey, she asked? It’s enormous!

We quickly decided that the only thing to do with an enormous turkey was to cook it and invite everyone we knew to a real American Thanksgiving. As we had the much larger apartment, we held the event at our place. I should add that Pat and I knew a heck of a lot of people.

That first Thanksgiving was a “succes fou”. The food may have been traditional but the guests definitely were not. Instead of the Norman Rockwell family pictured above, we had an exotic assortment of international mutts: homesick Americans, international Germans and lots of other nationalities drawn to Frankfurt during that ‘moment’ in the 1990s when the city was vying to become the financial capital of Europe and the American military had an enormous presence. The meal was big fun and completely chaotic. We had invited so many people that we ran out of everything, chairs, knives, plates but no one seemed to mind. That enormous turkey was the talk of the town.

The next year, we did it again. We invited more people. We gave people assignments and extended the menu. We developed traditions. Your father started reading Art Buchwald’s ‘Explaining Thanksgiving to the French’. For some reason that I can’t remember anymore, I started to wear an Austrian dirndl. Our Thanksgiving became like the baseball field in the movie  ‘Field of Dreams’.  We built it and they came. And then we moved to London – and still they came. And they keep coming. But of course, you know all of this. You were there.

This year, you will be holding your own Thanksgiving celebration in California. Of course, I will miss you, but that is not my point. I was going to write-up some recipes for you to use, but I realized - you don’t need them. You are sons of a grand Thanksgiving tradition. You already carry in your heads and your hearts everything you need to know about America’s best holiday. But I’m still your mother and I like to dispense advice so here it is.  For the perfect Thanksgiving, what you need to do is:

Buy a big turkey. Invite everyone you know. Cook. Eat. Next year – repeat!

Good luck,

Monday, November 08, 2010

So Who Has Sisterly Chats Anymore?

Back in October, the New York Times published the article Why Sisterly Chats Make People Happier. It stayed at the top of their ‘most emailed’ list for weeks. I kept meaning to read it. You’ve got to admit. It’s a catchy title.

Today, I read it. If you want to read it too, click here. If you don’t want to take the time, the money shot can be found in the second to last paragraph:

So maybe it’s true that talk is the reason having a sister makes you happier, but it needn’t be talk about emotions. When women told me they talk to their sisters more often, at greater length and about more personal topics, I suspect it’s that first element – more often – that is crucial rather than the last.

But here’s the thing. With the arrival of email, voicemail, SMS, Facebook and Twitter, I communicate a lot but I don’t actually talk to anyone anymore. I know lots of details about their lives but I haven’t actually talked to any of my friends in months, some of them in years. If I am honest with myself, I have lost the habit of calling and being called. Way back when, I thought telephone calls were an intrusion. Now I get kind of excited when the phone rings or conversely, if I call someone and they actually answer.

Which brings me back to the New York Times. If having a sister makes you happier because sisters talk more and more talk makes you happier, then I need to stop writing this post and call my sister. But first I need to check what time it is in Australia.

Friday, November 05, 2010

See America Profonde - Just Like Hannah Montana

I was comparing a trip to North Carolina with an English friend recently. She has a son attending Duke University and is a frequent visitor to the Tarheel State. We were both there during the UK October school break. And what did she describe as the highlight of her visit, besides seeing her son? Going to the North Carolina State Fair. The state fair is an annual exposition that has been running in Raleigh, North Carolina since 1853, with only a few time-outs for the Civil and Second World Wars

Wow, I exclaimed. We were there too. Didn’t you just love it! Such crazy food - deep fat fried ice cream. Weren’t the animals beautiful? I loved the goats, and the cows. Did you go to the pig race? And for the next 20 minutes, we recounted more highlights: the Demolition Derby, the Grand Champion turkey and the record-breaking pumpkins. We agreed. It was extraordinary. We loved it.

In listening to my English friend, I realized that the state fair had given her a real glimpse into ‘America Profonde’ – a view that few foreign visitors get to see. Without irony, she embraced the spirit that enjoys crashing cars, eating ridiculous food and racing pigs. But she also appreciated the young farmers who know a lot about farming and take excellent care of their animals, the bee keepers working hard to maintain healthy hives, the church groups serving up ham biscuits in support of good causes and the local dairies making cheeses the old fashioned way. In short, she found going to a state fair to be a great way to experience what makes America, well, America.

And I like the reaction of one of my daughter’s friends from Singapore when Eloise told her she was going to the North Carolina State Fair.

Oh my God, Eloise, you are just like Hannah Montana!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Secrets of the Panda

On the day after the election-to-end-all-elections, I invite you to forget Washington politics for a moment and contemplate the panda.

The giant pandas are Washington DC’s greatest celebrities. Everyone loves them. On loan from the Chinese government, they feature on the city’s Metro tickets. There are special Panda Hotel Packages. Fedex created a special plane, the fuel efficient Panda Express, to ship their baby back to China in a record 14.5 hours. They are a phenomenon. But that’s the problem. How can you visit the giant pandas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo without having the experience ruined by the crowds?

By accident, we have the answer. Go during the week (and not during the summer) in really, really bad weather. Watch the sky and if the heavens open like Monsoon Mumbai, my advice is to rush to the Panda House at the National Zoo. We were there recently with Eloise in heavy rain and there was no one there. No one! We did see one other hapless British family wandering around but that was it. When the pandas were brought inside at around 2:30 for some biscuits and bamboo, we (and the keepers) were the only humans in sight. And to think that not so long ago, when the pair’s only baby was in residence, you had to reserve a time slot to see them. I’ve been to the National Zoo many times. I’ve seen the pandas many times but never have I come away so delighted and thrilled by the experience.

And for that matter, the rest of the Zoo was great too. The reptiles were repulsive, the birds pretty and the orangutans convivial. It’s not every day that a soaking wet thirteen-year-old and her parents can have a fine time together in a deserted national institution.

Admission to the National Zoo is free but the parking is expensive. If you want to save money, you can travel by either bus or metro but whatever you do, go in terrible weather.

The photo was taken by Eloise Hedges.