Dubai

Ejo #106 – My Dubai: Frying Pan Adventures

Hey, guess what? It’s been ten years since David and I moved to Dubai. A whole fucking DECADE!!!! Guess what else? After all this time, I still can’t say that I like living here. And yet here I am anyway. Go figure. And (for a bunch of different reasons) we’re actually planning on sticking around – for a while at least. So, even though I can’t say I enjoy life in Dubai, I am making an effort to at least try and actually live in the city I’ve inhabited for ten years. Believe it or not kids, I am trying. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I haven’t written a piece shitting on Dubai for a while. Nearly four years in fact. Sure, I’ll whinge about it every now and again, but that’s normal, right? We all whinge from time to time. Nope, I’ve been making a real, concerted effort to find some kind of peace with the fact that this is where I am now. It makes no sense to keep fighting it.  But that doesn’t mean I need to like it.  I never will.  What it does mean is that, occasionally, I will venture out of the comfort of my home to try something new. Something that might even be a little bit fun.

So when my beautiful friend Zimmy asked me to join her for a Bengali cooking class, of course I said yes! To be honest, I actually had no idea what Bengali food looked like, or even where Bengal was. But hey, I was going to spend some time with my second favourite person in Dubai, cooking up a storm and then eating it. What is not to love about that.

Quick geography and history lesson: Bengal, an area in north-eastern India, was ruled by the Brits until they decided to finally piss off home in 1947. The area was then divided into states belonging to India (the predominantly Hindu, west side) and Pakistan (the Muslim, east side). Fun fact: in 1971 the side belonging to Pakistan gained independence and became Bangladesh (hey, you learn something new in this ejo every damn month!). Our Bengali cooking class featured food from the Indian side of the road. And it was amazing.

Bengal Map

And now you know where Bengal is.

The class, held at Hyatt Place hotel was a collaboration between one of Dubai’s prominent food bloggers, Ishita Saha, author of Ishitaunblogged and co-founder of food and travel portal FoodeMag, and and a local outfit called Frying Pan Adventures. Frying Pan Adventures is actually the reason I was really excited about this event. I’ve been reading about their back-alley, culinary adventures for years. Let me put it this way; if I was visiting Dubai as a tourist today, I would skip the luxury hotels, waterparks and malls and I would hit the streets with Frying Pan Adventures. For me, a city’s heart and soul are hidden away in its unseen alleys, and I really believe that the best way to get to know a place is through those backstreets and through the food you find there. Not the “five star” Michelin pretenders, but real food, eaten by real people, every single day. For me, it’s no contest.

Frying Pan Adventures is the lovechild of several young entrepreneurs, mostly women, who came together over their shared love of food. And can I just say, I am thrilled that they didn’t just take that love and open (yet another) Dubai restaurant! This city already has 20,000 of them. It doesn’t need another one (are you listening Gordon Ramsey)? Here’s the thing though, only half of those restaurants are listed on Tripadvisor or Zomato. The rest are small, backstreet joints with no website, no Facebook page and sometimes not even a menu. And they’re usually doing a roaring trade with those in know. The ladies (and gent) of Frying Pan Adventures have taken their passion, and their knowledge of these backstreet gems, and opened that world up to those of us who would otherwise never get to experience it. Isn’t that just awesome!

I’m yet to actually go on one of their walking tours (the class I attended was a one-off event), but I have booked to do their Middle Eastern Food Pilgrimage next month, featuring food from Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt and Iran. I’m excited. And you know what? I’m excited that I’m excited. This is a new feeling for me. Of course I should have guessed that I would feel more at home amidst the grittiness and realness of Old Dubai, than in the distorted reflections of its skyscrapers.

And so I, and 19 other people, went along to the special Bengali cooking event earlier this month. I ate some yummy Bengali snacks as I watched Ishita prepare and cook a couple of the dishes on the menu, with the help of some volunteers. She made us begun bhaja; seasoned and fried eggplant slices topped with garlic sauce and pomegranate. Yum! We then watched her make shorshe baata maach, which is a fish dish made with incredibly delicious and sassy mustard flavours. Speaking of which, did you know that the single ingredient that is most definitive of Bengali cooking is mustard oil? I don’t think I’d ever tasted it before, but it’s so fragrant and aromatic and flavoursome. I’ll definitely be cooking this easy to make dish myself at home.

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Jhal Muri – street style puffed rice with chilli and spices.  We were served this while watching Ishita work her magic in the kitchen.

 

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Begun Bhaja – such a tasty dish and super duper easy to make.

 

 

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Shorse Baata Maach – usually made with a type of fish called hilsa which was unavailable, so salmon was deliciously substituted. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but I loved it.  Photograph compliments of Zimmy’s partner Arafaat who somehow appears to have climbed into the frying pan to take the shot!

But my absolute favourite dish of the whole day was luchi!!! Luchi, for the unenlightened (as I once tragically was) is a deep-fried flatbread that puffs up while it’s cooking, transforming it into a billowy pillow of delicious, hot, flaky goodness. An orgasm in your mouth. I could literally eat these all day long, and Bengalis do. Luchi is served with breakfast, lunch and dinner. How fucking civilised!!! And yes, in case you were wondering, I do have a thing for fried bread. Don’t judge.  When they went around the group asking people what their favourite Indian dish was, I unequivocally said naan. Coz you can eat it with ALL the other dishes!! Duh!!

 

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Looks like a pappadum, tastes like the freshest, flakiest savoury cronut you’ve ever imagined.

 

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Ishita’s recipe for luchi.  Will try at home.  

After the instructional part of the event was over, we were all taken upstairs to a hotel suite that had been transformed into a typical Bengali home with the help of some soft furnishings, knick-knacks and old photos. It was a really lovely setting and we all sat down to enjoy the rest of the food, which had been prepared by the hotel cooking team and served, family-style, by our hosts from Frying Pan Adventures.

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Assorted fritters and an incredibly moreish relish to dip them in.

 

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Khichudi – a porridge made with rice and lentils.  This is comfort food right here.

 

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Cholar daal.  Someone came around and poured ghee on everyone’s serve.  YES PLEASE!

 

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Kosha Mangsho – slow cooked, tender mutton in it’s own thick onion gravy.

 

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Shukto – vegetable stew.

 

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Baked yoghurt.  This was an updated version of a traditional Bengali dessert, and if I hadn’t already stuffed my face full of everything else I might have been able to manage more than a couple of teaspoons of it.  I really let myself down, and I regret it.

 

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The feast!

 

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The team behind the scenes.  Great work, guys and girls!!  Thank you!

 

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The Frying Pan Adventures chicks rocking their traditional outfits, and some beautiful smiles.

It was such a treat to be part of this culinary adventure and to experience something new in Dubai and on my taste-buds. Nothing will ever change the way I feel about this city. But I can easily admit that there are many things here that are good. Pockets of culture and authenticity and realness, and even joy. If I can find more of those things, then perhaps I can also find a better way to live here.  Perhaps I can find my place. For fuck’s sake, if fried bread can’t do it, nothing can.

Ejo #102 – One Iftar At A Time

David and I have just lived through our 10th Ramadan in Dubai – though it is a bit cheeky to say that we’ve “lived” through it. I don’t believe in any gods, so I have never regularly prayed, let alone five times a day. I’ve never fasted. And you can bet your bottom dollar that my thoughts and actions are as impure during the holy month of Ramadan as they are during the rest of the year.

But Ramadan still does have an impact on me. Personally Ramadan means not eating, drinking or chewing gum in public, and particularly in front of my Muslim colleagues during daylight hours. It means trying to remember not to play loud music, or sing and dance while I’m driving. It means toning down my swearing (which, believe it or not, is already pretty curtailed anyway). And it definitely means avoiding the roads just before sunset. Why? To clear the roads for thousands of exhausted, thirsty, hungry people who haven’t eaten or drunk anything for 14 hours, all driving with the sole purpose of getting home to break their fast. On the other hand, the city is deserted in the hour following sunset.  Because everyone is at home, or at the mosque, eating their Iftar meal.

And that’s actually the biggest part of Ramadan for me. The fact that Dubai’s population also consists of a lot of blue-collar workers who aren’t so well off. That so many hard-working men who contribute so much to the city live in labor accommodations and are not able to eat a very nutritious, or extravagant, meal to break their Ramadan fast. Which is why it’s become an annual tradition to get involved with the amazing work that my friend Roshni does

For those of you who don’t know, Roshni is Project Manager and Co–Founder of Care2Share, a Corporate Social Responsibility initiative run by Medulla under permit from the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department – Dubai, in partnership with the Emirates Red Crescent Society. Basically Care2Share exists to identify and support the needy in the UAE. I feel lucky to have met, and honoured to know, Roshni. She does incredible work all year round for the blue-collar workers in the country, particularly ramping up her efforts during Ramadan.

This year, David and I and several of our wonderful friends got involved and bought hearty, tasty and nutritious meals for 667 blue collar workers. I took a few pictures so that those who purchased an Iftar meal might see the gratitude of a worker and feel a connection to someone that they helped through their generosity. The world feels like a shitty place lately, but kindness and goodness do still exist. If you don’t believe me, just check out the pictures below.

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Ejo #97 – I Am Not A Runner

I am not a runner.  I do not gracefully traverse this earth.  Rather, I lope across it like a teenage elephant.  I am not even built to be a runner, in case you hadn’t noticed.  I am not exactly in possession of a lithe form, designed to cut through the air like a blade.  Rather my big bones and big boobs keep me in pretty close proximity to the ground at all times – no prancing around the running track for me (again, it tends to be more of a loping action).  I am not a runner, and yet, I run.  What the hell is that all about?

Despite not being a runner, I’ve tried to run my whole life.  A couple of times I even got pretty good at it, running 5km comfortably, without stopping.  This might not sound like much to you, but that’s my personal best, right there.  I’m not even going to talk to you about “times”, because who gives a shit how long it takes me to run it.  I’m just flabbergasted and amazed whenever I’m able to do it at all.  Because, don’t forget, I am not a runner.  A few years ago, I tried to rise above my station and started training towards 10km.  I injured myself on the third day and didn’t run for months afterwards.  I now happily accept that 5km is my limit.  And I’m OK with that.

Until recently, I hadn’t run in a very long time.  Last year was not a good year for my body.  I suffered intermittent lower back pain, piriformis syndrome (butt cheek pain) and totally fucked up hip flexors.  My entire pelvic area was a mess.  And on top of that, in January 2017, I had a bit of a skiing mishap and tore a couple of ligaments in my left knee pretty darn good.  It took six months for me just to be able to walk any distance without limping.   Running was completely out of the question.  And by the time all my hard work and physio started paying off, and my knee was in good enough shape to run, it was the middle of summer and the idea of running in 47°C sort of made me want to vomit.  And then, when the weather started cooling down, I was so goddamn unfit from the lack of exercise all year that the idea of running made me want to vomit even more.  I was so unfit, that walking just 100 metres left me short of breath.  I was a disgrace.

So when we got back from our trip to Australia in early December last year, I made the decision to start exercising again.  We are lucky enough to have a 2.7km running track out the back of our apartment building and I was planning on just starting off with some gentle walking.  You know, just ease on into it.  But then I saw an advertisement for the 2018 Dubai Marathon and noticed that they also had a 4km Fun Run event.  I signed up before I even had time to think about it.  And certainly before I had time to change my mind.  The next day, I started running.  It was 5th December 2017.

Ostensibly I had 52 days to train up from zero to four kilometres.  In reality I had a very busy work roster, a four day trip to Bangkok and a sixteen day trip to Japan to work around.  In the two months between signing up and actually running the race, I was only able to do eleven days of an eight week interval training programme.  Not a very auspicious lead up.  But still, I was determined.  And two days before the race I actually ran my first 3km without stopping.  Yay!  I was good to go!

So, on Friday, 26th January 2018 I took part in the Standard Chartered 2018 Dubai Marathon.  I ran the 4km Fun Run, stopping only twice.  Once to ask a distressed looking kid by the side of the road if he was OK (he was fine, just freaking out about losing his headphones), and then again with about a kilometre to go, in order to stretch my lower back for about 15 seconds.  I didn’t want to stop, but I figured that stopping to stretch and being able to finish without an injury would be better than powering through and fucking up my back even more.  I do not need to be an overachiever.  😉

Here are some photos of the day.

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A quiet spot to calm my pre-race nerves.

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Heading towards the starting line.

 

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I was…. so excited when the race buzzer went off.  What better song to play.  The rest of the race was brought to you courtesy of the album “Rising” by the 70s metal band Rainbow.

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Um…. OK.  I hope she didn’t beat me.

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Alrighty, then!

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The face of a non-runner who has just finished a 4km run in 27°C heat.

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Yep, I’ll take one of those please.

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Man, this baby went down a real treat.  Soooooo good.

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Can you tell I’m feeling pretty proud of myself?  🙂