Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Pomegranates, Sharing Recipes Long Distance, and An Unwelcome Dinner Guest.

A favourite weekend pastime here is eating out. It's not expensive and we’re lucky because Riyadh has so many different restaurants to choose from.

Shopping for food and cooking’s an adventure too and I’ve become quite addicted to trying new things. I like the way I can buy big bunches of fresh coriander, parsley and mint for only a couple of riyals each. I like the supermarket’s colourful spices arranged in hemp sacks and I like buying ingredients I can't get back in New Zealand, such as pomegranates.

The book of Exodus talks about embroidering blue, purple and scarlet pomegranates onto the hem of a garment, so they’ve clearly been around for some time.  Persephone certainly knew about them.

When walking the bazaars in Istanbul, I saw some beautiful decorative pomegranates, painted in just these kinds of colours. But the pomegranate that I slice in half each morning for my breakfast is far simpler; dark red skin, bright red seeds and delicious juice.
By now I’m also proud of the fact that I can cut and deseed my morning pomegranate without splattering half the juice and seeds across myself. They’re notoriously messy things, but I’ve found a technique that works. (It starts with my bashing the pomegranate with a rolling pin, but that's really another story... or blog.)

A few months ago we were served a plain green salad in a Persian restaurant in Bahrain. It came with a particularly delicious dressing. As we licked our lips, we tried to work out what was in it. It was sweet, dark and viscous. In the end I asked. I left later, clutching a small piece of paper with a handwritten recipe. The secret ingredient seemed to be pomegranate molasses. I'd never heard of it, but back in Riyadh discovered it in our local supermarket and now I can't imagine not having it in my kitchen pantry.  A friend even brought me a jar back from Russia, to avert the potential crisis of supermarkets here running out of stock.

Spot the Russian interloper in my pantry? 

So yes, I’m a fan of anything with pomegranate molasses in it. My Pinterest recipe board (where I save websites with recipes that look and sound particularly delicious) has an ever-growing number of Middle Eastern dishes. After all, what's not to love in a recipe which finishes with the instruction,  “add a splash of pomegranate molasses,” and looks like this…?

Of course it’s not just pomegranates that I’ve discovered. I love za’tar with its blend of herbs, sesame and salt, and predominance of thyme. Sumac has a tangy citric flavor and a distinctive red colour. It looks great on fattoush and salads.

Last time I visited my daughter in London, I scoured the shelves of the middle eastern section of Sainsburys and bought all three for her:  pomegranate molasses, za’tar and sumac.

It's just a start, but she’s an experimenter in the kitchen like me. That and our recent purchase of ‘Ottolenghi: The Cookbook’ with its array of mouthwatering dishes and salads means that our skype calls these days often go something like this… “Have you tried…” followed by, “Yes, and yesterday I made… “

I love my annotated Ottolenghi cookbook....

My husband has been quite sanguine about my kitchen experimentation and mildly obsessive interest in pomegranates. He eats pretty much what's in front of him but there are evenings when I pass him a plate of plain New Zealand lamb chops without a pomegranate seed in sight and look of relief quickly passes across his face.

Sometimes the appeal of eating out takes precedence over cooking at home. We have our favourite places, but one that we visit often, simply because it's close to our compound is a Thai restaurant.

It's nothing to look at:  the décor might best be described as shabby chic - albeit with a lot more shabby than chic. Tired and torn travel posters decorate the walls, there’s a fish tank that holds some rather somnolent fish and a collection of cleaning utensils and buckets propped against a far wall.

One of the red-themed family eating cubicles. 

But the food is always good and the service efficient. Well, usually. 

Last week we’d just finished our plate of chicken fried rice when a Saudi woman from the next door family booth rushed in. “Bad, bad, bad,” she shouted at us, as she stabbed the air wildly. Then she disappeared. We had no idea what she was on about.

One minute later, her son appeared, this time with a plate. It was their fried rice, the same as the dish we’d just finished. There was, however, one minor difference. In the middle of their fried rice was one black, large, fried cockroach.

I remember we were more amused than concerned. Perhaps we’ve all been in the Middle East too long, but it seemed to us that we’d all had an excellent meal, with no cockroaches, and some things are better not known.

We’ll be back there next week.

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