Monday, January 28, 2008

A Cure for Homesickness - Part 1

crunchy taco
This entry is the first on an ongoing series I plan to write on how we try to cope with recurring bouts of homesickness. Though life here flows at an unhurried and peaceful pace (for which I am unceasingly grateful), we periodically go through these brief spells. Often in these cases I find that food not only brings joy and comfort, it also, if only for a brief period of time, transports one to a place deep in our hearts and minds.

I made tacos a few weeks ago, something we all once used to enjoy but rarely bothered to make at home. The origin of the taco is from Mexico, and it can be best described as the most celebrated and beloved of all Mexican street food. The best place to buy a taco in the United States is at a Taqueria, which are small restaurants that serve informal and authentic Mexican food. But no matter how tempting they were, we never ventured into them due to the fact that traditional Mexican cuisine uses a lot of pork and it’s by products. Therefore we mainly patronized local westernized chains.

A taco is simply a filled flat bread, called a tortilla. It can be made out of wheat flour or corn, the latter being more popular in the United States. It is a Spanish word and means “light snack”. In Mexico it is mainly a popular early morning or late evening treat, since the heavy meal of the day is eaten in the afternoon. It all started many years ago when farmer’s wives would bring their husbands their mid-day meals out into the fields. For practical purposes they would wrap the day’s main dish in the tortillas, thus alleviating the use of cutlery. Urbanization carried this to the cities where it has gained the status it holds today.

the spread Due to the large Mexican immigrant population, the taco has also gained much popularity in North America as well. In the states which border Mexico and therefore have a much larger Hispanic community, it is widely preferred over the common hamburger. It is also sometimes folded and deep fried to give it a crunchy texture, though this is mainly an American invention. Most common fillings are grilled chopped beef, ground beef or grilled chicken. Toppings include but are not limited to, shredded lettuce, grated cheese, chopped tomatoes, onions, cilantro, sliced olives, sour cream, limes wedges (to squeeze on top) and a variety of both spicy and mild sauces called salsa. Some popular types of salsas are salsa fresca (fresh salsa), salsa verde (green salsa made with tomatillo's), salsa roja (red salsa made with dried chilies) and guacamole (the popular avocado dip). Hence, one can customize their taco according to taste.

taco box I had used a boxed taco dinner kit (won't win any points on Iron Chef!), which contained the ubiquitous folded and fried corn tortillas, seasoning for the ground beef and a packet of salsa. The results were fine, though I personally prefer tacos made out of soft tortillas and grilled beef. But, it certainly did what I had hoped it would do, delight the children and make us blissfully nostalgic.

So the old proverb and cliché is true; “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy”. And so we all await patiently for the arrival of summer, when we can go back for an all too brief visit to the country…

The following is a recipe for salsa fresca (fresh sauce), also known as salsa cruda (raw sauce) or pico de gallo (rooster's beak).

Salsa Fresca


2 large tomatoes, finely diced
1 large onion, finely diced
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
1 small green chili, seeded and finely diced (hotness of chili can be decided according to taste)
Juice of 1 lime
¼ teaspoon salt


Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Can be used as an accompaniment for a variety of meat & seafood. Enjoy!

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Big Chill

muddy car Winter had eluded us, until now. It typically begins to rain and the weather tends to cool off by early December. Yet by the end of the year it was still mild and dry. However, cold temperatures are now here with full force. The thermostat is hovering around 50 F /10 C during the days and dips to 43/7 at night, which is considerably cold for Doha. To top it off, the past few days it had also began to rain, bringing with it as expected much chaos and confusion. We have witnessed a profusion of accidents, several more than the average one accident a week I usually see. Since there are no rain gutters, huge muddy puddles abound everywhere, some as big as mini lakes in which our cars slosh about, giving them a mud bath. So now our cars are splattered and crusted with mud. Needless to say, no point in getting them washed while it is raining, but the lines at the car wash will be maddeningly long and frustrating during a respite from the rain. Patience here is truly a virtue.

Mother of all heatersThere has been a lull in the rain for the past few days, but the temperatures are still quite low. There is no central heating system here (no central air conditioning in most homes for that matter), so we are relying on sweaters, socks and most importantly, space heaters to keep us warm. Our home is very open with high ceilings; therefore keeping it warm is quite an ordeal. In the main living room where we generally spend most of our time, we have 2 large heaters on at all times. Taking last year’s example of all heaters being sold out in the entire city at the onset of winter, this year we had stockpiled them when we first saw them, way back in October. Storing up on items is not an uncommon phenomenon in this country. Many items, both perishable and non perishable, run out fairly quickly so people tend to hoard things when they see them. I will write more about these shortages in later postings as well, but the latest item that I find to be missing from all grocery stores which I have visited is Philadelphia brand cream cheese. I had wanted to make cheesecake a few days ago, but my plans must be put on the back burner, so to speak, until I can locate it.

We have also caved in and bought a clothes dryer. We never thought we would need one since during the warm/hot months (which of course are most of the year) clothes tend to dry on drying racks very quickly, sometimes in a matter of a few hours. But these days they stay damp for several days, and often start to give off a horrible musty odor. The kids are happy though, now they don’t have to wear ‘crunchy’ clothes. Imagine the joy an appliance can bring!

But alas, we will only enjoy this cool weather for a short time. It will start to turn warmer in a few weeks, and by the end of March or early April it will become hot. By end of April it will become unbearably hot, so much so, that we only go out when it is absolutely necessary. We will try to take advantage of this pleasant weather as much as we can, then get ready for another 6-7 months of self imposed hibernation.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Selamat Tahun Baru

Petronas Towers

Which means Happy New Year in the Malay language. We recently returned from a hectic 8 day trip to Malaysia, and are now recovering from various bouts of illnesses, and slowly yet reluctantly adjusting to our regular schedules. Though we had left Qatar many times, these trips were mainly for visiting family members. This was our first ‘real’ vacation. One of the reasons we had moved here was to be able to travel extensively. Here get much more holidays and breaks and many of the destinations we want to visit are close by. Of course we can also now afford to travel more frequently as well.

Malaysia has something to offer for everyone, adults and children alike. Theme parks, world class shopping (both designer goods and ‘knock offs’), beach and mountain resorts, tea plantations, even casino’s. Add to this the lush tropical greenery, warm hospitability of its people and some of the best food in the world. In the short 50 years since it regained its independence (it was also once a British colony), it has evolved itself from mainly a palm and rubber growing former colony into a world class economy, rivaling that many developed nations. It is also considered one of the leading tourist destinations in Asia.

Though we had first thought of going to Penang and other cities, Kuala Lumpur and its vicinities had enough activities to keep us busy for the duration of our trip. We did however make a few day trips to nearby destinations, such as the Genting Highlands and Malacca. Now back home, we are recovering from our trip, at our own pace.