Monday, March 17, 2008

The Floating Book Club

Thanks so much for all your kind comments!! After the Easter holidays I plan to get into things, full swing, starting with some much overdue pictures of my almost fully decorated loft.

But for now, there's one more thing I'd like to share with you. I've gone on and started a new blog. I'm not abandoning this space, never fear, and it's not another blog of wall-to-wall writing; it's actually a book club.

I've always wanted to start a book club or at least be a part of one, but then these days, who the heck has the time? So, I've gone a bit Off-the-Hook if you will, and I would dearly love for you all to join me in this mission.

Spread the word, too - the more the merrier!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

It's been...

... too long. Far, far too long.

I'm not going to give excuses or explain myself or wax philosophical, let's just say that I've really needed it, this time away. As always, everything shall be revealed in due time.

I haven't written anything new or planned a grand comeback, not in any way, so I'm at a loss... for now, though. And, thanks to those of you who messaged me, have been in contact, or just come here to still keep reading. You mean the world to me.

Before I get back onto a regular schedule, to again commence on this journey that isn't yet over, here's some new, unrelated-to-this-blog material, but something funny anyway. I wrote it for a job application, but I'll get to that a little later.

I'm not leaving for long this time, in fact, I'll be back before you know it.


My Strangest Food Experience

Molokhia, pronounced “Mo-lu-heea”, is a leafy green indigenous to the Middle East, and main ingredient of the dish with the same name. Molokhia is a rarity, in the Americas that is, and we were about to try it for the very first time.

“We” are myself and James, or, the self-acclaimed foodie and classically trained chef. James and I are in Jordan on the invitation of our best friend Raj, and today we are going to his family’s house for dinner. It is a special occasion in this country, having guests in one’s home, and so the whole nine yards of delicacy have been stretched.

Arabic hospitality is magnificent to behold. Extra leaves to the mahogany dining table are brought out, along with extra chairs to seat family related to family, related to family. Far more foodstuffs have been provided than anyone could comfortably manage, and the true guest shows proper courtesy by never saying No. To even think of doing otherwise is the gravest of insults, after all, food is love and acceptance. Food is the celebration of life.

Today’s celebration was roast lamb, roast steaks, fish from the Red Sea and scores of barbecue chickens with various herbs and spices. There was bulgur pie, three salads, seven dips, minted yoghurt & babaganouj; oceans of hummus and Everests of pita to mop it up with, bowls of fresh almonds in their fuzzy green shells, to be dipped in salt, and chickpeas harvested just that morning. For something sweet, we were surrounded with dishes of pastries made with the Arabian holy trinity of dessert ingredients: Phyllo, pistachios and honey.

Food was coming at us from all directions, spooned onto our plates by doting aunts, and brothers-in-law carving the choicest cuts of meat. Flying pitas gracefully landed next to our place settings while little cousins kept the glasses full. Raj’s father, generous host, explained every single creation on the table to James and I, and made sure we tasted all of them.

That is, all but one.

In the middle of this smorgasbord was a large porcelain bowl, filled with what looked like a thick, dark green soup. I noticed that everyone was helping themselves to this, yet no one made a move to offer any to James and I, explain what it was, or even suggest it. Raj was sitting next to me so I nudged him and quietly asked, “What’s that?”

While Raj is superbly gifted with flamboyance and a keen sense of fashion, tact is not his greatest asset. He looked at the bowl of green stuff, inhaled dramatically while clutching his hand to his heart and then loudly exclaimed, “Molokhia! Oh, my favourite! This is the one thing at home that I can never have, so Mummy always makes it for me when I’m home!”

Naturally, this outburst achieved the effect I’d been hoping to avoid: Every single person at the table looked up, and stared at me and James. Then, oddly enough, everyone shifted their stares to the Molokhia, grunted, and looked down again.

I know when I’m being mocked. So does James, and he asked Raj, who was by now pouring a generous amount of green over a plate of rice with pine nuts, “And what exactly is Molokhia?”

Raj shrugged. “I don’t know, this herby stuff. It’s not really your thing.”

Not really our thing? Did he know who he was talking to? I was about to retort when Raj’s mother, who had been watching the entire scene, nodded and said, “You Europeans do not like this. We do not expect you to eat it.”

James and I were agog. Were these people aware of who we were? Did they know that I was a Kensington Market junkie, or that I’d celebrated the end of my university career with 20-year old Stilton, Port & Sevruga? Or that James had spent the better part of last year crafting the eighth wonder of the culinary world, Susur Lee’s signature salad? The vinaigrette alone was a three-day process.

We adore food, we adore trying new things, and we’re no neo-phobic wilting blossoms. Simultaneously, James and I held out our plates. We were going to try Molokhia, and we were going to love it.

Raj’s mother listed off the constructional elements of Molokhia as her aunt twice-removed, Fateena, ladled up our servings. “Chicken stock, a little tomato paste, a little onion…”

I studied the Molokhia carefully as Fateena gave it a stir.

“…some coriander, lemon juice…”

It smelled delicious, but something about it was really unnerving me.

“…salt, pepper. Then, a lot of Molokhia leaves. Lots and lots, or…”

I was starting to notice that the ladle didn’t cut through the soup, but that the soup itself acted as an independent entity, following the ladle around in the bowl. I’d never seen anything at a dinner table behave that way.

“…it won’t become like this. You see, the leaves have a special quality, they are… oh, what is that word again…”

As Fateena reached out to my plate, the Molokhia didn’t exactly pour out smoothly from the ladle, so much as fall out with a noisy plop.

“….ah! Mucilaginous.”

Whoa. “I’m sorry?”

Raj’s mother smiled. “Mucilaginous. Thickening property. This is what makes Molokhia special.”

Well, then. I don’t know about Mucilaginous making anything special, but that definitely explained the soup’s autonomous personality. There’s nothing quite like realizing you’ve gone too far when you’re already both feet off the cliff, but it was too late to turn back now. All eyes were on me and James (who was prodding his portion suspiciously with a fork), so I mustered up all my courage, scooped up a huge spoonful and went to town.

Once the Molokhia was in my mouth I quickly assessed the taste, and it was actually quite remarkable. Something like an overdone, minted spinach stew with just a hint of lemon. Very passable. I was starting to wonder what I’d been so silly about. Then, I made the mistake of swishing it over my tongue.

The root of the word Mucilaginous is Mucus, known the world over as the gloppy stuff we constantly hork up when we’re sick. Pseudo mucus is used to great effect in Hollywood, be it grotesquely dripping from the monster’s teeth in Alien, or enslaving Neo in the kiddy pool capsule via The Matrix. However you want to describe it, mucus is thick, it is slimy, and it has no place in my mouth.

Mucilaginous Molokhia. Ugh. Its texture was dense and coagulated, goopy, like having a mouthful of raw egg whites and phlegm. James seemed to be faring no better as everyone continued their observations of us, now in a somewhat bemused manner. I was stuck. It obviously couldn’t come out, but I just didn’t know how to make it go down.

The situation was getting desperate. I forced a gigantic smile on my face and, under the table, pinched my thigh as hard as I could to take my mind off gagging. Then, I swallowed.

Let me tell you that I’ve tried some strange things in my life. I’ve had chicken feet, alligator, ostrich steaks, parsley juice, jellyfish hor d’oeuvres and lamb intestine from a spit built into a home fireplace, but not one of these things could equal the oddity that was Molokhia. In one slick motion it went down my throat, and made itself right at home in my stomach.

I was momentarily triumphant, until I saw the rest of the Middle Eastern Jell-o Jiggler trembling on my plate, beckoning to be devoured. The hardest part was over, though; if I’d done it once, I could do it again. Actually I had no choice but to do it again… and again and again.

After some improvising, I found that there were plenty of ways to make the journey easier. There was washing it down with water, for one. Spreading it along the rim of the plate was great too, gave me just that much less to get through. And, one part Molokhia to four parts rice actually made it tolerable. Of course it was goop-laced rice, but it still helped.

After a good 20 minutes or so I ran across the finish line, and sent the last bite to its reckoning. Spoon down, I was at last victorious. I love Arabic food, but this one definitely wasn’t a repeat.

James finished not long after I did, smearing his last bite, I noticed, over a slice of eggplant. Task accomplished, he looked at me and rolled his eyes, right before Raj’s mother looked at us and piped up, “Well! You’ve both finished? So, what did you think?”

Like a pair of trained monkeys James and I both responded at the exact same time, “It was lovely. Very interesting.”

She motioned towards the bowl. “Would you like some more?”

We looked at the Molokhia and said, perhaps a little too quickly, “No, thank you.”

Smiling coyly Raj’s mother replied, “Ah. We knew you would not like this.”

Defeated by a bowl of phlegm. A worthy opponent. It appeared that I wasn’t the culinary superhero I thought I was, not on Arabic turf, but at least I’d tried the stuff and even finished a whole serving. The experience was always mine.

The final concensus of Molokhia: Taste, wonderful. Texture, not so much.

The meal was winding down, or it was for James and I. Molokhia or not we were still the distinguished guests, and as such had been pampered, served first, and made to eat third, fourth and fifth portions of it all. So it was that we remained in our seats, ungraciously struggling to breathe, and slowly sipping water in the vain attempt of trying to look as normal as possible.

James’ knee suddenly prodded mine, and when I looked at him he very discreetly motioned around the table. I looked around; it seemed as if everyone but us was now having a full dish of Molokhia. Whispering back to James I said, “So?”

He replied, very quietly, “What does it look like they’re eating?”

I looked around again. About a dozen people sat around me, deep bowls in front of them, mopping up Molokhia with torn pieces of pita bread. Thin, white pita bread. Thin, white pita bread that was now oozing green slime, an effect that made it look for all the world like snotty tissues.

I giggled.