Monday, March 31, 2008

All Juiced Up

a variety of juices
Summer has arrived early in Qatar. In reality we should still call it spring since we have a long way to go until June 21, which is considered the official first day of summer. But tell this to the thermometer in my car. The temperature often surpasses 100 F /38 C, in a few weeks it will exceed 120 F /49 C. This year is assumed to be much hotter than previous ones. Fortunately, we will be escaping this heat for 2 months when we go back home for a visit.

So how does one survive this scalding weather? Most of us will now voluntarily stay inside, and most activities will be indoor based. People will flock to bowling alleys, movie theatres, restaurants, and most importantly, to malls in greater numbers then usual. The evenings however are still cooler; it is perfect for alfresco dining in the courtyards of numerous restaurants, or picnicking along the much loved shoreline called the Cornish. In a few weeks however, even this simple pleasure will become a rarity.

In this heat, as all of us know, one needs to continuously hydrate and replenish lost fluids throughout the day. Supermarkets will commence to stock capacious arrays of drinks from all over the world. The expat community is exceptionally large and diverse, and all palates and tastes need to be pleased.

pomegranate drink mixFruit juices are enormously popular in this part of the world, and they come in an extensive selection. They come freshly squeezed and in bottles, cartons, cans, and in powdered and liquid mixes. The flavors are representative of the world. Fresh Tropicana orange juice from the United States, lemon barley water from the United Kingdom, lychee and durian from Thailand, tamarind from the Philippines, mango and coconut from India, pomegranate from Lebanon, apricot (called qamar el deen) from Egypt … I can go on and on.

mango milk A great assortment of other drinks besides juice is also available. Tang, which is now obsolete in the United States, is hugely popular here and is greatly enjoyed by my children as well. A combination of milk and juice (appropriately called juice-milk) is also well liked, especially among children. Flavored milk comes in a m̩lange of flavors. Along with the more common chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, we also see coffee, mango, guava, chikoo, banana and biscuit flavors. Soft drinks and sports drinks such as Gatorade are also available, but with such great choices of other products, why bother with these? Having said all this, I however, personally prefer the ultimate drink of all Рgood old water.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Weekend Project


Despite the fact there is an extremely large expat community here and our social life is steadily improving, there are some weekends in which we feel lethargic, and are quite frankly, downright bored. These are the times when my children need to be coaxed out of their doldrums, so I sometimes come up with projects to break the monotony and engage them in something enticing. Most often, our activities revolve around the kitchen.

Last weekend we decided to make cheesecake. Often the cheesecakes we get in bakeries here are excessively sweet and eggy, or are of the no-bake variety. Neither of these appeals to us, nor do they hold a candle to the ones we used to purchase back home, namely the exquisitely sublime ones from my favorite bakery, The Prolific Oven.

Philadelphia cream cheese In one of my earlier posts I had lamented on the unavailability of Philadelphia brand cream cheese. Admitting there are many other brands available, for a good cheesecake I believe only Philadelphia will suffice. On a recent visit to the grocery store I saw row upon row of them in the cheese section. Cheese is a fundamental part of the Arab diet; therefore the cheese sections are amazingly well stocked. I will write more about this in a later post, since cheese is an integral part of my diet as well. Upon spotting them I decided to purchase a few packages before they became extinct again. At 11 riyals for an 8 oz. package they did not come cheap, thus hastening my desire to use them without much delay, before they had passed their prime.

I also bought a crate of eggs, since after cheese they are the second most important ingredient. Prior to the Philadelphia scarcity, we went through a long period of an egg shortage. Due to the recent bird flu scare, the import of eggs had ceased from a few countries (Qatar imports most consumer items). This brought an increase in the price of eggs, if one was fortunate enough to find them. The price of baked goods also increased. We basically lived without eggs for almost a month. This deficiency ended a few months ago, yet the prices remain unchanged. We now actually have an abundance of eggs, so much so that I no longer can find packs of six that I once bought, only crates of 30 are available. Sometimes the eggs come with chicken poop still clinging to them, thus forcing me wash each and every one prior to storage. Just an interesting bit of information for you all who live in quality controlled sterilized environments!

Back to the cake making. Both N and A like to help in the kitchen. They crushed the cookies for the crust. They break the eggs (clean ones of course), measure the sugar and other ingredients, and gleefully assist in mixing all ingredients together. H, who does not have much interest in the kitchen activities, is blissfully content he will have something delectable to eat after all this madness. He is however, my ally in the massive clean up operation afterwards.

digestive biscuitsWhen using a western recipe here, namely American ones, one often needs to be creative and find suitable alternates. Since graham crackers are not readily available, I substituted them with the classic British biscuits called digestives, which are similar in taste and texture. Eggs come in one size only, which are medium – ish. I therefore used 4 instead of the 3 large ones called by the recipe. Due to the addition of alcohol, availability of most liquid forms of vanilla is scarce; hence I used the more commonly available vanilla sugar. Also, I have a gas oven with the temperature dial in Centigrade (something very foreign to me), so I keep a conversion chart to Fahrenheit nearby. After burning a few things I also found out that gas ovens have a temperament of their own and get hot at a much faster speed. On my upcoming visit back home an oven thermometer is high on the shopping list.

The following is a recipe for the cheesecake my children and I made together. I hope you enjoy making and eating it as much as we did.

Boredom Beating Cheesecake

1-3/4 cups crushed digestive biscuits (or graham crackers)
1/4 cup melted butter
1-1/4 cups sugar
3 packages (8 oz. each) Philadelphia brand cream cheese, softened
1 cup sour cream
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tsp. vanilla sugar (or extract)
4 medium or 3 large eggs

Preheat oven to 173° C (or350° F). Mix biscuit crumbs, butter and 1/4 cup of the sugar. Press firmly onto bottom and 2 inches up side of a 9 inch springform pan.

Beat cream cheese and the remaining 1 cup sugar in large bowl until well blended. Add sour cream, vanilla and lemon zest; mix well. Add eggs, one at a time, just until blended. Pour this into prepared crust.

Bake 1 hour to 1 hour 10 min. or until center is almost set. Turn oven off. Open oven door slightly. Let cheesecake set in oven 1 hour. Remove cheesecake from oven; cool completely. Refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight. Loosen cheesecake from rim of pan and remove rim. Store any leftover cheesecake in refrigerator.

Recipe courtesy of Kraft, with a few of my own substitutions

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Empty Nest

School bag and shoesOkay, I admit the title is a bit dramatic. My nest will not be empty, thank God, for many years to come. I actually would like my children to remain living with me for a long time, even when they grow up. But I know this is wishful thinking. One day I will have to cut the apron strings and let them move on, to pursue their goals and dreams, and have lives and families of their own. But, eventually I would like all of us to live close by, so we can see each other at least a few times a week.

I have enrolled my youngest child in preschool. Now before I go any farther I want to bring up the subject of schooling here. Enrolling children in good schools has become increasingly difficult. The choices one has for good English schools are limited. A great number of families are moving to Doha, thus causing the demand to spiral upwards at an astounding rate. Some companies, namely the in the oil and gas industry, go the distance of reserving seats in good schools for their employees children prior to their arrival.

Waiting lists in schools are excessively long, some have exceeded their capacity. I have heard of a few families who have received employment offers, who ultimately have decided not to come, since their children were not accepted in the schools of their choice. Due to limited space availability, our two elder children go to two different schools, which is not uncommon here. The waiting list for both schools, especially the better school is extremely long, even for siblings. We have begun to give up the hope that they will eventually attend the same school.

Schools have also become increasingly expensive. Tuition, like everything else, is on the rise. After only one year tuition has increased up to 50% in many schools. A few employers pay 100% of their employee’s children tuition, but the majority either pays partial, or none at all. Though Qatar has a public school system, which is free for all residents, they are mainly Arabic.

This applies for preschools & nurseries as well. There are several preschools, but only a handful which will be a good fit for each individual child. Most are also full with long waiting lists and are quite costly. Tuition can start from 1,200 riyals a month to up to 4,000 riyals. Now I am one who would rather pay more for a child’s well being then less, but QR 4,000 for macaroni art and finger paint? I would rather save that amount for their college tuition.

After touring a few nurseries, I did like one enough to sign him up. His number on the waiting list? 30. One of my friends who owns one of the nicer nurseries generously offered to make room for him. The only downside was that it was far from our home and would have taken me about 40-50 minutes round trip just to drop him there. Add 40-50 minutes more to pick him up. Plus I have to pick 2 other kids up from their respective schools as well. Schlepping around town with 3 kids in Doha traffic is not my idea of fun. So I politely, yet reluctantly declined.

But I did want him to go to a nursery; more for socialization then anything else. I then spotted some signs near my home for one that had recently opened. It was only 3 minutes away from my home, so I decided to check it out. It turned out to be an Arabic nursery, but the owner spoke English well. I toured the facilities; they were clean and well equipped. The children were happy, well taken care of, and most importantly loved. I spoke to the owner and she assured me that she will step in when needed. So, I took a chance and enrolled him. He now goes 3-4 days a week for about 3 hours and is adjusting well. On his first day a delightful 4 year old decided to take him under her wing. She speaks to him in Arabic, he replies in English. They get along fine.

Learning Arabic is a high priority for me while I am here, both for myself and my children. The 2 older children study it as a language in school, plus I have a tutor who comes to teach them (A refuses to sit with them). I will also start classes in September, since I was waiting for A to start school. He has already picked up a few words and he understands many more, mainly simple sentences. In a few months he will be teaching us inshaAllah.

Monday, March 10, 2008

How to Cook a Camel

Camel recipe Just something I thought you might find interesting!


Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Al Shama'al fi'd Doha

Windy tree Dust storms, called shama’al in Arabic, are not an uncommon occurrence here. Every few months or so we endure through them. Although they can occur any time of year, they are more prevalent in the hot summer months. The past week, we were witness to one of the largest and fiercest storms this area has seen in years. The winds traveling at 70-75 km/h affected not only Qatar, but bought life to a standstill in many parts of Kuwait as well. Driving here is challenging as it is, but during these storms, which brings blinding winds and causes visibility to become drastically low, it becomes extremely dangerous. Yet there is also a certain beauty to them, especially when encountered in the vast open and unpopulated landscape. The billowing golden sand gracefully sweeps across the black tarmac of the roads, resembling waves of the ocean. It is surreal, and paradoxically serene.

The storm comes when least expected, suddenly creeping up on us and unleashing its fury. Doors and windows start shaking and knocking. Winds will start howling, wreaking havoc and bringing with it swirls upon swirls of sand and grit, enveloping everything within its reach. It affects us more since we live in a relatively less populated area on the outskirts of Doha, where there is an abundance of open land.

Dust in home There will be a layer of dust over every single item inside the home. It even manages to find its way inside closed closets and cupboards. Keeping the house clean is a nightmare; I have to sweep the floor every few hours, especially around the windows and doors. In order to prevent dust from coming in, I have dust blockers on the doors and even stuff newspapers into the cracks and crevices, but to no avail. The dust, as fine as talcum powder, manages to seep in through even the thinnest cracks. The children will sometimes wear socks and skate on it. At times like these, I wish I had a full time, live-in maid, but only at times like these. I still cannot wrap my western brain around the fact that someone who I don’t know and am not related to will be living with me 24 hours a day, seven days a week - yet.