Thursday, June 19, 2008

Much Ado About Mangoes

Box of mangoes
Mango frenzy has started here with great exuberance. Much to our delight, grocery stores and markets are now brimming with the heady, intoxicating and sinfully sweet fruits. They are, justifiably so, considered the king of fruit and are a class of their own. Some may tell you their flavor and texture resembles a ripe peach or a papaya; don’t believe them.

Though many countries are now mango (maanjo in Arabic) producers and exporters, the best varieties come from the Indian subcontinent, namely from India and Pakistan. The skins are thin and their flesh smooth and fibreless. Once you taste them, I assure you, you will not go back.

Until last year the Central American varieties were the only ones available in the United States. Since beggars can’t be choosers, we had also once gleefully purchased and consumed them without much complaint.

Now however, the US has begun to import mangoes from India as well. Apparently our current (and thankfully soon to be former) President enjoyed them immensely on his 2006 trip to India, and thus recommended their import. They don’t come cheap however, $30-$40 for a 3 kilo or about 7 pound box.

Here in Qatar we are spoiled. We can buy mangoes from all over the world year round - Indonesia, Sudan and Australia come to mind. But we usually wait for the summer to purchase the varieties from India and Pakistan. We start to see them arrive in May, and they continue to linger until August. The peak season is in July, when the quality is best, along with abundant varieties and the lowest prices.

My favorite mango is from Pakistan called the Sindhri. Its origin is from the Sindh province in the southern part of the country. They are a large variety, about 1 pound apiece. When fully ripe their skin turns a brilliant cadmium yellow. They are extremely aromatic and fragrant with a thin translucent skin and a firm, smooth, fibreless flesh. Just 1 can easily suffice as lunch.

Thought these sweet-smelling fruits are now available in copious supply in every grocery, market and corner store, I have my own source from where I purchase them.

I have a tailor (another perk to living in Doha) to whom I occasionally frequent, who is from Pakistan. A few weeks ago I spotted a few empty mango boxes in the corner of his store. It’s my side business he told me, I will be receiving a new shipment any day now. So a few days later K (who usually detests trips to the tailors) and I went to get a box.

cut mangoes
They were fresh picked, straight from the orchards in Pakistan. A 10 kilo/22 pound box cost 65 riyals. Elsewhere Sindhri's are selling for 10 riyals a kilo. But we were not there for the price; the quality is far superior from the store bought ones.

There are many recipes for mango-based foods and drinks. Mango ice cream, fresh juice and shakes are very popular here, along with the yogurt based drink called mango lassi. I personally prefer to eat then just as they are.

The best way to eat them is to first roll up your sleeves, or better yet put on an apron, and hold the peeled fruit in your hands. Stand in front of the kitchen sink and proceed to devour the fruit down to the pit, allowing the luscious ambrosial juices to dribble down your chin, hands, wrists and even elbows. Licking is optional, but highly recommended.

We will miss the peak season due to our trip back home, but for now I am content that my kitchen is filled with their sweet and captivating perfume.

Mango Lassi

Recipe courtesy of the Food Network

9 fluid ounces (255 milliliters) plain yogurt
4 1/2 fluid ounces (130 milliliters) milk
4 1/2 fluid ounces (130 milliliters) canned mango pulp or 7 ounces (200 grams) from 3 fresh mangoes, stoned and sliced
4 teaspoons sugar, or to taste

Put all the ingredients into a blender and blend for 2 minutes, then pour into individual glasses, and serve. The lassi can be kept refrigerated for up to 24 hours.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Arabic 101

qatar guest center

Something that I had been looking forward to for quite some time has finally come to fruition. A few weeks ago I received a call from the Qatar Guest Center, a non profit organization for the propagation of Islam, the Arabic language and culture. Both Muslims and non Muslims are welcome to join or take the many classes that are offered.

I had called a few months ago inquiring about language classes, and at the time they were not offering them for women. Now that A is in pre-school, I can afford to spend a few hours for self melioration.

Classes in Arabic will start in a few days, I was told. If interested I should come by on such and such date and take a test to see what my level is.

Like the vast majority of Muslims of non-Arab origin (only 15-18 % of Muslims are of Arab origin, out of an estimated 1.84 billion Muslims worldwide) I had learned to read and write Arabic as a child, but never learned to speak. So it has since been a dream of mine to learn spoken Arabic, mainly in hopes of understanding the Quran when I read it. The Quran however is written in a more complex form of Arabic but speakers of the language do procure the essence of it.

The evening before the test K and I went to look for the center. The wonderful folks at a web forum called Qatar Living gave me directions on how to get there. We found it without much difficulty, only to be told that this is the men’s section, the women’s section has recently moved to a new location.

Now before I proceed I must tell you that finding addresses here or giving someone directions is an art form of its own. Forget Mapquest. Often the streets are unnamed, but even if they are no one bothers to know or refer to them.

Turn left at such and such roundabout, after going 2 kilometers you will find a Masjid (grocery store, laundry, palm tree, whatever), make a right turn. You will then see some construction on the left hand side (directions here almost always involve construction), turn left. After this much distance the blank (fill this with destination) will be on your right hand side. And so on and so forth. Having said this however, today’s landmarks may be gone tomorrow, victims of ongoing construction. It is just short of a miracle if you get there without getting lost the first time.

The gentleman at the men’s center told K that the women’s building is near the Immigration Center. Where near the Immigration Center? He tossed his hand in the air meaning of course, ‘near the Immigration Center'. You can not miss it; it is a villa with a white board. Ok, we knew where the Immigration Center was, it is not far from where we live so we headed that way. After wasting ½ an hour mindlessly meandering through every street and alley, we gave up and came back home.

The next morning I called in the hopes of getting better directions. A man picked up. I asked him where the women’s center was. Ok, make right at Immigration Center and left. It is there. Make right where, before or after? You know Dasman center (a department store)? It is next to it. We saw Dasman center in our fruitless expedition the night before, it was not there. Where near Dasman center I dared to ask. By this time the voice on the other side was becoming agitated. No no, not next to it across form it. Umm… can you please give me the number for the women’s center?

A woman (surprise) picked up, who did not know much English. She passed the phone to someone else who then passed the phone to yet another person. Yes we are near a small Masjid near a housing compound. I am of course recapitulating the condensed version of the conversation.

Equipped with this much information, I headed out on my quest. After 15 minutes of blindly driving around, I saw the compound. So, the mosque must be nearby, I thought. It was, one block over on the next street surrounded by construction. Once again I proceeded to drive through every single street and alley. Eureka!

But having said all this, I also want to add that most people who work at the Qatar Guest Center are volunteering their precious time for the betterment of people like myself.

Classes began a week ago, w'ana sa'id jiddan.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Andak Djaaj?

Spit roasted chicken
These days the answer to the aforementioned question, which means do you have chicken is almost always ma’afi, khalaas - no more, finished. Of course, as you may have guessed, we are going through a chicken shortage these days. On rare occasions if I do happen to stumble upon a rare sighting on one of my sojourns, I go into the hoarding mode.

Similar to the egg deficiency this is also due to the recent bird flu epidemic. This is particularly agonizing in a country which, after cheese, loves chicken. Think chicken shwarma, chicken kebob, chicken kefta, chicken samoosa, chicken shish tawouk, chicken sandweesh, chicken puffs, chicken hariss, chicken escallop, chicken fatayer, chicken shorba, chicken beryani…I can continue, but you get my drift.

Prices for chicken have increased tremendously since my arrival as well. When I first arrived a whole chicken had cost 12 riyals, now it is 19 riyals. They sell chickens per piece here, not by the pound or kilo. They are also much smaller then what I am generally used to, so if I am making something that everyone loves, (southern style fried chicken comes to mind), I may use 2 or more.

We have however found a few solutions for this. First of all we have started to eat frozen chicken. I have begun to buy copious amounts of frozen boneless chicken breasts. So we now eat a lot of stir fries. But that’s as far as I will go, since I detest frozen whole chicken. I must admit I am also spoiled. I don’t want to defrost it, remove the skin and cut it into pieces myself. I usually get this done when I purchase fresh ones. This service is efficient, courteous and always free 'Madam chicken ready'.

A friend of mine has found her own solution. She hits the stores as soon as they open, 7:30 am, (it still bewilders me why everything starts so early here) and buys as many as she can lay her hands on and will also be able to squeeze into her freezer.

Now those who know me know I am definitely NOT a morning person. In college I would never register for a class which started earlier then 10:00 am, no matter how wonderfully enlightening and fulfilling it may have been. Even then I would drag my sorry body out of bed at 9:45 am whilst cursing myself continuously. Thank God I lived on campus and my first class was right down the hill. Some of you might be thinking I was too busy partying all night, but alas, not so. I was a CS major and spent many a night, often going into the wee hours of morning, spending quality time with my computer.

But K, who is a morning person, will often go out on weekend mornings and hunt down a few. Occasionally he will go to the wholesale market where one can purchase live chickens and have them ‘prepared’ on spot. Besides chicken, the wholesale market is also a great place to buy eggs, other types of meat, seafood and a large array of seasonal and extremely fresh fruits and vegetables.

Yet I suppose everyone is doing the same and everyone’s freezers are full to the brim with chickens. So, you might ask, what shortage? Maybe this is all an evil marketing ploy…

The following is a recipe for brined roasted chicken. Brining makes the meat well seasoned and juicier. I usually put it on a rotisserie since my oven came equipped with one, but the conventional method works just as well.

Roast Chicken

1 large or 2 Qatar sized chickens – about 3 lbs total
1 gallon water – or enough to cover the chicken in large vessel
1/4 cup salt
1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon crushed black pepper
1 lemon

Put water in a large bowl and add salt, sugar (if using) and garlic. Cut the lemon into half and squeeze juice into liquid. Add rind as well, and mix well. Make sure all the salt has dissolved. Water should be salty, but not painfully so. If it is too salty add more water. Put chicken into this mixture, turn it over a few times, cover and leave in refrigerator overnight.

Preheat oven to 425 F / 220 C degrees. Remove chicken from brine and shake off all water. Pat dry. Place chicken on roasting pan and place in oven. Bake for 50-60 minutes until golden and juices are clear.

Let the chicken rest for a few minutes before carving.