Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The first of many

Susan & I are hosting our first dinner party in Timor-Leste tonight. We're keeping it small as a trial run so if any of our good friends here are reading this - we promise to host you soon!

Will post a recap, recipes, and photos soon.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

We're Back: Frozen Goodies

Once again, apologies for the delays between posts. Susan has been busy for the last couple of months starting up her new job, finishing her Oxford thesis, traveling to the US and then to England, and finally finishing her last term at Oxford. I’ve taken on the cooking duties and was supposed to keep up the blogging, but there have been too many distractions (okay, mostly scuba-diving!) The good news is that I have been exploring the local markets, experimenting with Asian flavors, and concocting new delicious recipes. Thus, I have lots to share!

As in real-life, it’s always best to start with dessert. Here in the sweltering tropics, frozen desserts are almost better than air-conditioning. Right now, I’ve got a liter of chocolate custard cooling in the refrigerator ready to be frozen into a gelato (at the adamant insistence of my lovely and chocoholic wife). However, for pure ice-cold refreshment nothing beats a fresh fruit sorbet.

For this treat, you need to have two kitchen gadgets: 1) an ice cream maker and 2) a fine-mesh sieve.

Ice cream makers have come a long way since the cumbersome, hand-cranked, ice and rock-salt versions of my youth. Today, most of these gadgets come with a bowl that you pre-chill in your freezer and a separate electric motorized churner that fits onto the bowl once you’ve added the ingredients. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on this, a mid-range version from Target (for our US readership) or other discount store will work fine. Our ice cream maker is a modernized hand-crank version gifted to us by a good friend and fellow foodie that works great for us considering the lack of reliable power in most of our duty stations. Most ice cream makers require you to freeze the bowl portion of the machine before adding the ingredients. The bowl should be as cold as possible to ensure the ingredients freeze properly. If possible, freeze the bowl overnight and only remove from freezer when you are ready to add your ingredients. For best results, your freezer should not be overpacked which prevents the cold air from circulating (a good rule, even when not making ice cream).

The fine-mesh sieve will be used to strain out solids from the infused syrup. The holes in a normal colander or pasta strainer will be too large to filter out lime pulp and basil leaves.

Juicing limes can be a time and labor-intensive exercise. To make things easier, make sure your limes are room temperature. To loosen up the juices before cutting, use your hand to firmly press the limes against a hard surface and roll it around. Slice the limes in half cross-wise. Hand-squeezing works but generally does not extract all the juice from the limes and will wear out your grip. We use a hand-held lemon squeezer we picked up at Sur la Table last time we were in San Francisco (this might be Susan’s favorite kitchen tool!).

The recipe also calls for grated lime-rind. Citrus rind, or zest, can provide intense flavors from the essential oils contained in the peel. However, the white pith immediately underneath the rind is very bitter. Therefore, I prefer to use a made-for-purpose rind peeler – you’ll recognize this as a hand-held device with 3 or 4 small horizontal holes. However, you’ll be fine using the medium sized holes on a standard grater – just be careful not to scrape too much of the white pith.

Okay, I bet you’re ready for the recipe!

Lime-Basil Sorbet
(Adapted from Cooking Light)
2 cups sugar (caster or super-fine is best, but granulated will work fine)
2 cups fresh lime juice, divided (the recipe says about 15 limes, but I used almost twice this number – depends on the size and juice content of limes)
¾ cup packed basil leaves, coarsely chopped
2 cups water, divided
1 tbl grated lime rind

Combine sugar and 1 cup lime juice with 2 tbsp water. Cook for 2 minutes or until sugar melts, stirring constantly. Stir in basil and cook for 30 seconds. Remove from heat and pour into glass bowl. Add remaining 1 cup lime juice, water, and rind. Cover and chill in refrigerator until very cool. Sieve mixture, discard solids. Freeze/churn in ice-cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. Cover and freeze for 1 hour or until firm. If not using right away, scrape mixture with a wooden or plastic spoon (to avoid damaging ice cream maker) into plastic container, cover and freeze. Remove frozen sorbet from freezer and allow to soften before serving. Serve with grated lime rind and fresh basil leaves.

The balanced sweet-tart flavor of this sorbet allows its use as a palate-cleansing intermezzo served between classic summertime grilled dishes like a BBQ prawn starter and a grilled chicken main dish. Of course, it also works as dessert especially following a spicy Asian dish like a Thai green curry.

Once again, please excuse our absence and keep checking this site for updates. We'll be sharing lots of great stories about food, travel, and our many adventures in Timor-Leste and around the world. Upcoming topics include fish-on-a-stick and browsing a shopping mall food-court Thai-style.

Friday, April 30, 2010


Dili, Timor-Leste -

(Apologies for the long absence. On 14 April, Susan left our home in Scarborough, South Africa bound for Jakarta, Indonesia for a training session. I followed on a few days later travelling from South Africa to Dubai to Thailand to Indonesia where I was reunited with Susan. The next day we flew to our new home in Dili, Timor-Leste where we have been busy setting up for the past week.)

After reading accounts of the devastating violence reaped upon this small island nation between 1999 and 2006, we were not prepared for the tropical beauty that we have discovered over the week since our arrival. We were lucky to find a small house set high on the hills above the capital city of Dili.

From our front porch, we have sweeping views over the bay and across the strait to the high peaks of the volcanic island of Atauro. Behind us rise green hills, rich with banana trees, papaya trees, coconut palms, and other lush tropical vegetation. Golden beaches fringe the placid blue ocean as small cargo ships sail over the horizon.

The city of Dili is small but bustling during the day. Centered around a small harbor, the city stretches along the coast from the airport in the west past a small harbor near the center of town and east towards beautiful beaches and the iconic Jesus de Christo statue. Most of the international embassies, restaurants, and hotels are scattered along the beach west of the harbor.

We have rented a small motorcycle that we are using to explore the streets and neighborhoods. We’re looking forward to adventuring through the rest of the island as soon as we can find a small 4x4 and/or a couple of 250cc motorcycles.

Our shipment from Kabul is due to be delivered to us early next week (it’s been held up by Customs paperwork). It’s been a frustrating wait since our diving equipment is in there! The fringing reefs found along the north coast of Timor are considered to be amongst the best in the world. Timor shares the same seas as the much more famous dive sites found in Papua New Guinea, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Malaysian islands. As Timor has never been developed, it has not yet suffered from urban runoff, overfishing, or other adverse impacts. Fortunately, there is a nascent conservation movement to ensure the reefs are protected as a future tourist attraction and revenue source. Chris has been researching the local dive shops and is planning to start his Dive Master certification course next week.

It is hot and humid but we are quickly adapting. Despite not having A/C installed in our house yet, we are able to sleep at night with the windows open and a fan blowing softly. We are lucky to be up in the hills as the temperature is significantly cooler than in the middle of town. The higher elevations also seems to discourage the mosquitoes! It is apparently the end of the “wet” season although there is still some lingering rain in the afternoons. It will get steadily drier and cooler over the next six months before the wet weather and higher temps return in October.

We’re still finding our way around the markets and our kitchen is not yet fully equipped so we have been relying on the local restaurants for most of our meals. There is actually a good variety of options in Dili including the expected Indo-Asian influences such as Indonesian, Thai, Burmese, Japanese, and Chinese but also Portuguese, Italian, and even Turkish food. Fresh fish is available on most menus but interestingly the Timorese are not considered good fishermen and it is not a staple of local diets. Apparently, the lack of natural harbors prevented the Timorese from being a major sea-faring culture despite being an island nation. Instead, pork and chicken seem to be the most popular meats with eggs providing an additional important protein source.

Naturally, the local markets are bursting with tropical fruits such as papayas, bananas, rambotans, melons and other as-yet unidentified fruits. We have also found sweet potatoes and yams, heirloom tomatoes(!), avocados(!), peppers, carrots, ginger, Japanese eggplant. Leafy vegetables and salad greens are harder to find – a head of red cabbage was found in an international market priced over $10! The international markets also stock imported foods at a steep mark-up but we have found prices similar to those in Kabul. Even once we get our kitchen set up, we do not expect to be cooking the hearty rich meals we enjoyed in Afghanistan – the heat and humidity do not promote big appetites! Last night we prepared a simple meal of antipastos including tomatoes in oil and vinegar, fresh bread with cheese, homemade guacamole, and a plate of pickles, olives, and pickled onions. We think this may become a common style of dinner, but never fear, we will continue to explore new recipes and share more food experiences from our new-found paradise.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

TIME Magazine: Kabul Nightlife: Thriving in Between Suicide Bombs

Leading story on an Afghan news service I still subscribe to - complete with quotes from two of our closest friends in Kabul, including the architect Chris recruited to work with him.

By Tim McGirk
Nightlife may seem like a luxury no one can afford in Kabul. The Afghan capital is hit by suicide bombers with depressing regularity, and on some nights expatriates receive word from their embassies that a suicide team is plotting to attack a "foreign guest house" — and these are the truly chilling words — "in your neighborhood." On those occasions, you sleep with your clothes on and shoes beside the bed, after having mapped out an escape route over the wall into your (hopefully friendly) neighbor's garden.
But on most nights, Kabul's expatriates go out and partake in the manic craziness of the city's bar and restaurant scene in houses reminiscent of America's Prohibition-era speakeasies, behind 20-ft.-tall blast walls and an outer perimeter of armed Afghan security guards. "It's like dancing at the edge of a volcano," explains Anne Seidel, a German architect working for the U.N. in Kabul. The expatriates are a boisterous crowd of young and usually single diplomats, aid workers, journalists, spies and mercenaries — or, as they like to call themselves, "contractors." Most of them earn $100,000 salaries and have money to burn. They tend to be adventurous, but the security constraints of their jobs often leave them cloistered in claustrophobic boredom — following suicide attacks, most foreigners are confined to their fort-like compounds.
When the dust settles, Kabul has hordes of war-zone entrepreneurs who are only too happy to help lighten the wallets of expatriates while providing opportunities to blow off steam. And that has given the Afghan capital a greater variety of restaurants than Delhi, Karachi or Tehran, cities 10 times its size. Kabul offers Thai cuisine as well as Turkish, Balkan, Italian, French and Persian, plus several steakhouses, a martini bar with a DJ and a Mexican cantina with high-stakes poker games. The city boasts dozens of Chinese restaurants, but a few were shut down several years ago when authorities realized that the owners were offering the services of hookers along with the Kung Pao chicken. Tiger prawns, pork loins and French wines are flown in from Dubai. The T-bone steaks come frozen from Australia.
It takes a special entrepreneurial mentality to look at a city under sporadic siege by jihadists and see a golden opportunity for supplying exotic food and illegal booze. Some restaurateurs have even migrated to Kabul from past wars in the Balkans or East Timor; they missed the wartime camaraderie — and the whopping profits. Some provide echoes of Bertolt Brecht's archetypal war profiteer, the indomitable Mother Courage, who drove a cart through an artillery barrage to make a profit off the sale of 50 stale loaves of bread. A female Thai restaurant owner says she gives a dagger to each of her waitresses to scare off kidnappers in the bazaar — do-it-yourself security at its best.
And then there is Peter Juvenal, owner of the Gandamak Lodge, who is in a category all his own. A former British soldier turned intrepid BBC cameraman, Juvenal's fascination with Afghanistan dates back to the 1980s, when he accompanied the mujahedin fighters trekking over the Hindu Kush to fight the Soviets. His years at the BBC have given Juvenal a keen sense of history and drama: his lodge takes its name from a hilltop where Afghans massacred retreating British soldiers in 1842. After the Taliban fled Kabul, Juvenal put down his camera and opened the first Gandamak Lodge in a house that, he says, belonged to one of Osama bin Laden's wives. (Soon after the Taliban's fall, a British journalist wrote about liberating an oversize pair of boxer shorts off a clothesline at this house that may or may not have belonged to bin Laden.)
Juvenal is a military buff, and a second, bigger Gandamak is decorated with 19th century maps and prints as well as rows of antique muskets. The grub is decent, but you're really paying for its British Raj ambience. The Gandamak attracts a more refined class of "contractors" — retired brigadiers and spooks — and NATO officers, along with those few remaining journalists who still have expense accounts.
Gandamak's closest competitor is probably L'Atmosphère, a garden restaurant founded by yet another canny journalist, this one from French radio. It may lack the Gandamak's historical whimsy, but it makes up for that with its airiness, especially on warm spring evenings, as well as cool bar music, a tasty magret de canard and the best wine list this side of the Hindu Kush.
The trouble with most of these places is that, because they serve liquor, which is illegal, the armed Afghan guards at the gate won't allow the patrons' Afghan compatriots to come inside, since good Muslims aren't supposed to drink. That leaves just a few nice restaurants where foreigners can dine with their Afghan friends, like Sufi's, with its superb, sizzling Afghan kebabs and fresh pomegranate juice, and the daytime Flower Street Café, run by a Californian-Afghan, Timur Nusratty. Flower Street Café, with its Mexican chicken wrap and fresh spinach salads, wouldn't be out of place in Berkeley, Calif., if it weren't for the Apache helicopters that occasionally pass overhead, casting ominous shadows across the lawn. Even in Kabul's finest restaurants, guests are seldom allowed to forget that there's a war going on.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Gearing up for a Garden!

You may recall our experiment with gardening in Kabul - a rather successful experiment I might add, thanks in large part to the help of friends.  Well, as we gear up for our next move, from Cape Town to Dili, Timor Leste via Bangkok and Jakarta respectively, we have done a little research on how to grow vegetables in a tropical environment.  I was delighted to hear that if you choose the right variety, you can even grow tomatoes and lettuce.  Seems all is not lost to sustain our love for lettuce and other leafy ingredients such as arugula/rocket and especially tomatoes!  If you are a gardener and have some advice for us, please share it here in the form of a comment.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Baking with a Baboon

How many sticks of incense does it take to rid your house of the smell of a baboon raid - no idea!  We've gone through an entire packet, and it still smells of our furry friends in here!!

Seems our kitchen escapades was not yet over with the Taleboons in Scarborough - after an early morning jiggle at the door I was sitting next to, William (large scary male) hovered around and finally made his break-in through a latched window when Chris and I thought the coast was clear to go to a local bistro for lunch - our lunch however was not to be when ten minutes into our drive the security company called with the dreaded "Your alarm is sounding", then, wait for it "the baboons are in your house".  A quick u-turn and the panic ensues.  Did they damage my computer that hosts my dissertation (which I have foolishly not backed up since last night, I mean, how many times can you back a paper up!?).  What does the kitchen look like, and the list goes on.

In the end, we survived fairly well - yes, the house STINKS like unbathed baboon, egg everywhere, and the odd sniff of their, well, droppings...but apart from a rather bent-out-of-shape pair of reading glasses, my monitor was only knocked over, the hundreds of pages of research they strew all over the place, is mostly reorganized (with some of the most 'used' piece of paper freshly re-printed) and the egg and flour was wiped up.  What I am immensely thankful for (this is not about materialism, rather sentiment) is that my antique Afghan rugs and hand-blown Herati glass was not harmed.  Paw prints on the top of the fridge, and yes, even poo on my laptop I can deal with...

Now, what was that webpage again?  That's right, www.paintball.co.za ...

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A different kind of warzone...in my KITCHEN!

The first one must have snuck past me while I was in the next room because I did not notice him until he was chomping away on fruit on the kitchen counter.  At what seemed almost my size (a slight exaggeration, the male Chacma baboon can weigh almost 40kg (almost 90lbs)), the large male baboon with the collar on it is a frightening sight to encounter in your kitchen unexpectedly.  Despite my screams and hand gestures, he leisurely continued to eat over-ripe bananas I was saving for a banana bread, and loading up on fruit from the bowl. I managed to scream down to the car some 42 steps down, where Chris was grabbing some pottery we had purchased on our weekend getaway on the west coast.  The baboon must have heard the male voice approach because he grabbed two armloads full of eggs, mangoes and more bananas and came right face to face with Chris on the landing.  With my sister who is visiting close on his heels, they did an abrupt about-turn and dashed down the stairs, baboon in tow.  While the beast had his feast on the neighbor's patio, I tried to compose myself and started closing doors.

For those who do not know, we have a lovely home in the Conservation Village of Scarborough on the south western most point of the African continent.  Quaint in that there are only approximately 300 houses, it is home to artists, conservationists, and many like-minded folk.  It is also, however, home to a few troops of the Chacma baboon who have figured out that raiding people's kitchens is a lot easier than finding its own natural food - hence, the war between primate and home owner ensues....

Unfortunately for me today, when Chris and sis finally left for the store, I was left behind to work on my dissertation - only to spot the same male, this time with seven family members in tow - head up the deck stairs once more.  I thought SURELY with my sitting RIGHT HERE, yelling and gesturing, banging on the windows they wouldn't....well, they did.  The male nonchalantly opens the door, lets the family in, and they start raiding the kitchen with little guys all over the counter, in the food bowl, while the large male expertly opens the refrigerator and stretches from the counter into the belly of the white food receptacle it knows all too well. All the while I am frantically screaming and trying not to stand in the way of the open door, trying to coax the little ones out.  With no further recourse, and NO interest to confront one of the most dangerous animals out there head on, I had no choice but to fire up the garden hose at full blast (they apparently are known for disliking water) - and into the house I blast.  The little ones left in a hurry, unfortunately pooping and peeing as they went along, but the big guy stayed put, simply moving out of the line of fire of the hose.  I stood at a safe distance, shooting from around a door frame with one foot outside the door to the backyard - he would move, I would readjust, aim and keep firing, finally I blew him out of the kitchen, over the landing into the living room where he came crashing down onto my stereo system and then he went out the door onto the deck where he looked back and snarled at me.

Furious and terrified I looked out the window as they took aim at my neighbors deck staring at my house, hovering. I had left the hose on in the backyard and managed to blast a few little ones on the neighbors' roof before Scarborough Security could come and call the baboon monitors to move them up into the hillside.

It appears that I have swapped the turbaned evil for the hairy ones for the time being, either way - the foodie has a warzone in her kitchen that needs cleaning...more soon on our amazing trip up the west coast with a visit at the winery of the year and fabulous crayfish on the beach - for now, the smell of wet baboon mixed with wet Afghan kilim is driving me crazy...

B.A.D. B.A.B.O.O.N!

Photo Credit: P. u. griseipes, male - Kruger National Park