Of Sweetness That Travels : Dubai

Halva??’ remarked my friend, wondering if it referred to the same thing as the one he was used to eating in India. I answered in affirmative. This would be any food lover’s eureka moment. I had mine when I travelled to Turkey. And ever since, I have been enamoured of the idea of how sweets have travelled across kingdoms and civilizations over centuries. Like this instance. This wasn’t India. This was, however, a moment when three Indians were sitting at a Persian restaurant in Dubai and wondering how ‘halva‘ made it to this menu.

As I sit down to finally share the ‘sweet’ moments of my Middle east trip, I take a second to wonder what makes sweets so special? What is it that makes the Cadbury advertisement in India say ‘Kuch Meetha Ho Jaye‘ (‘Lets have something sweet’) before an auspicious occasion? Why is it that festivals, across peoples, regions, religions, whether they be Christmas, Eid, Diwali or even the Chinese Mooncake festival, are marked by the preparation and consumption of sweets? Why is it that a humanity which subsists itself on salt (salary, the word is understood to have come from ‘salt money’), finds the expression of its utmost happiness in sugar? How is it that sweets such as Halua/Halwa/Helwa, Zlabia/Zlebia/Jalebi and Baklava/Paklava have made their way across nations, each nation adding its own identity to the sweet, a modicum of saffron added here, a bit of pistachios sprinkled there, sometimes just a nuance added to the preparation while sometimes altering the sweet altogether? Among all this, what does prevail, is the inherent sweetness, cutting across barriers of societies, in some ways akin to the goodness of people, which has kept civilizations in co-existence over millennia. No wonder, sweets end up representing the good.

As I continued to explore the rich associations of these foods tendered sweet by human interactions over ages, my travels took me to the middle east. Here I just share a glimpse of some of those wonderful sweets that made me admire the food culture of Dubai & the middle east in general. If you like sweets, there’s little doubt that you’ll like what you see next. If you don’t, I hope the pictures that follow help you reconsider :)

Ligamat

This I believe, is similar to (or exactly same as) what the Greeks call Loukumades. This was being prepared at a desert excursion we went to. The very first bite of these delectably honeyed fried dough balls is enough to ensure you do not stop at the first one. Very frankly, I cannot remember the count of how many I ate.

Ligamat

Ligamat

Basbousa

A cake made with what we call reva or semolina. Made soft & gooey with the addition of syrups, it’s a must taste on a middle east trip. And if the usual one is too sweet for you, try the ones with date fillings or the ones with coconut sprinklings.

Basbousa with Dates

Basbousa with Dates

Baklava!

For me, this is the king of all sweets middle eastern. It’s crunchy, it’s full of nuts and yet it’s soft. One of those sweets, which’ll simply melt in your mouth as soon as you eat them. Do NOT eat the local ones you may find in your cities. Come to a middle eastern town to enjoy the fresh ones prepared every day. They come in varieties Syrian, Lebanese, Turkish, Greek, Iranian and with fillings of all the nuts you can imagine, pistachio, almonds, walnuts. Diamond shaped, square cut, rectangular, rolled over, round, you’ll have your hands full if you like baklava.

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Some more..

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And some more…

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A sweet start to the day

I know one can’t really call them sweets, in the strict sense of the word. But they are worth craving for. The pancakes with Maple Syrup at the Arabian Tea House Cafe in the Bastakiya quarter (which otherwise also, if a wonderful place to visit) are a vegetarian’s delight. Yes, they are eggless and don’t seem to go wrong anywhere.

Pancakes at the Arabian Tea House Cafe

Pancakes at the Arabian Tea House Cafe

And finally, a bit of these as well..

The Cheesecake Factory in the Dubai mall is a dessert lover’s paradise. They willingly let you have a look at their menu, which goes on and on with descriptions of the most sinful desserts. Wonder if anybody has ever been able to resist having these desserts..

The Red Velvet cake at Cheesecake Factory

The Red Velvet cake at Cheesecake Factory

The Oreo Cookie Cheesecake topped with Oreo cookie mousse and chocolate icing. Descriptions and views such as these fill your senses at the Cheesecake Factory :)

The Oreo Cheesecake at Cheesecake Factory

The Oreo Cheesecake at Cheesecake Factory

Suggested Eating : All the above and the Kunafa, Mammoul, Ummali that I could not have :)

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Have you too been to the Middle East? Did you too like any of these or other foods? Is there a history associated with any of them?

Turkish Delight!

The Bosphorus Bridge

‘Shahrukh Khan!’, exclaims the man, sporting a smile, at the sweet shop at the Ataturk Airport. As he tries to sing a Hindustani song and even though you know it’s the same age-old trick to garner every Indian’s attention, you still can’t avoid but smile back at him. Even here they watch bollywood, you think. Little do you know that during the next one week, you’ll end up humming Turkish music yourself, eating more Turkish food than you’d have eaten on a normal day back at home, drinking more Cappadocian wine than you’d have in Sula and perhaps praising more folks than you’d have abused on a regular day in Mumbai.
Indeed, Turkish delight is more than just Baklava and Lokum.

Roman ruins at Ephesus

The Roman ruins at Ephesus

You don’t know where to begin. Like the several generations of Byzantines or Greeks before you, you too land up in Istanbul, the mystical cosmopolitan city that is the bridge between the east and the west, both geographically and culturally. How else do you explain the presence of oodles of salad in the same plate as a pottery kebap? Or that of Turkish rock and Tarkan’s pop music CD’s in the same shelf as the famous Sufi music ones? As you roam around more of Istanbul and Turkey, you realise it’s a tad similar to your own India, with a pot-pourri of cultures, music, food and architecture. And to your amusement, they literally sound similar as well. Chai, duniya , zameen, sabun are just few of the several words common between Hindi and Turkish.

Pigeon Valley - Goreme

Pigeon Valley – Goreme

Someone’s told you that the one place to go to in Turkey apart from Istanbul has to be Cappadocia. Well.. terrifically right and terribly wrong! It is indeed one of the best landscapes in Turkey with weird rock formations, and even weirder (but amazing) cave hotels to live in and a wonderful opportunity to take a hot air balloon flight at the most competitive prices in the world (a bigger price to pay for it is waking up at 5 in the morning to make it to the take off location, but totally worth it). But your next stop, Fethiye makes you realise what you’d have missed had you followed the earlier advice and stopped at Cappadocia. With a visit to the Oludeniz lagoon, that can make even the waters of Thailand look colourless, you are sure to return back with a golden (if not black!) tan. And the simple, yet tasteful Gozleme (Turkish handmade pastry), which will keep coming back to you wherever you are in Turkey, but you’ll find them really good here.

The beautiful lagoon at Oludeniz

The beautiful lagoon at Oludeniz

And then, you take another scenic bus to the west, to Selcuk and Kusadasi and Ephesus(or Efes), all in the same neighbourhood but drastically different. One of them, a cute, small town, with even cuter and smaller cafes, the second, a happening beach town and the third, an excavated ancient city with majestic ruins of the Greek and Roman times ( and a beer named after itself!). Each of these, a captivating experience in its own way.

A lazy morning in Kusadasi
A lazy morning in Kusadasi
And a lonely one..
And a lonely one..

The library of Celsus at Ephesus

The library of Celsus at Ephesus

And by this time, you have fallen in love with Turkey!

You still end up asking WHY? The answer lies in the loads of pottery kebaps (they’ll bring steaming hot Turkish stew – vegetables, chicken, etc. in a pot, and crack it open right in front of you) or doners that you or your friends have gobbled up in the last one week, the Gozlemes that have so reminded you of the aloo and paneer parathas back home, the bottles of Ayran that have been gulped down every day (and no, it’s not alcohol.. just a refreshingly richer version of India’s chhaas), the Raki – the aniseed flavoured drink that changes its colour the moment you mix chilled water in it and the baklava( a honey or syrup sweetened pastry filled with nuts), halva, lokum (confectionary with small cubes dusted with sugar or coconut), sekarpara, kemalpasa (something like a gulabjamun), name it and you have it sweets – that taste as awesome as they sound :), the Turkish Maras icecream that just doesn’t melt – and comes with its own fanfare of bells, sounds and mischief – it’s a task to get it from the ice cream seller ( Try it, and you’ll know why I say this)- but deliciously worth the effort :). To your delight, even the buses you travel in serve you free cold drinks, snacks, coffee and even ice cream (in our bus, the man came back for another serving and we happily obliged).

The answer lies in the sizzling Turkish music (sometimes live) that has accompanied each of your drinks, your breakfasts, lunches and dinners. It lies in the amazing scenery that you have witnessed alongside all your bus journeys. But most pleasantly, it lies in the amiability of the people you met along the way, in the conversations with little kids who are as gripped by Fenerbahçe’s football as by their fathers’ booming hotels, in the honesty and the warmth that greets you everywhere you go in the countryside, the help that’s coming your way even before you have asked for it. It makes you believe that for once, you did the right thing by not taking a direct taxi but three different buses to reach your village cave hotel from a small town airport. Only then you realise how the helpfulness of the countryfolk makes the phrase ‘language barrier’ lose all its meaning here. Quite frankly, it seems difficult to get lost in turkey. You’ll always find someone to tell you the right way :).

If you ever go to Turkey – remember to learn one word before you go- ‘Teşekkür Ederim’.
It’s Turkish for Thank You. You may end up using it far too many times.
Because, Turkish Delight is indeed more than just Baklava and Lokum!