It was a bright Ladakhi afternoon and she was boiling Maggi when I first entered ‘Rangdum Hotel’, called ‘hotel’, even though it hardly seemed to have any guest rooms. It was lunch time, but one probably didn’t need a taste of the noodles to say that they were disappointing, a look at the pan was enough. They were soggy and unappetising, somehow devoid of all the life that a sunny summer day in Ladakh embodies. When she spoke, Read More
This is a superb vantage point. I stand here and look around. All I can see is several cragged peaks, of huge snowy mountains, lined one after the other. A placid lake lies at their feet. Clouds move in and out, sometimes just hanging around half way through to their height, in suspended animation. Snow smattered across the gradient of adjoining mountains melts, then solidifies again to form saucer like silvery platforms of ice between them. Had this been a larger mountain system, this would have been a glacier. There’s little I can hear, no animals, no birds at this height. I open my eyes. I stand facing the Mumbai skyline. The blaring horns of vehicles and massive drum beats of a festival celebration regain focus. All this while, I have been here, closing my eyes, trying to recede into a picture of the Himalayas that I’ve witnessed so often. I run away from Mumbai almost once every year to these mountains. Only recently did I realise that they aren’t just a place high in the northern altitudes where I seek to hide. They’re somewhere around, high and north yes, but closer, in my head. I seek refuge in them each time I want to run away. In a still moment of time, I’m there, glaring at their height, their magnificence, thinking nothing but recalling a memory of another still moment when I witnessed them, right there, in Kashmir, in Ladakh, in Nepal, in Himachal. And only yesterday, when I realised about this ‘recession’ of my head, did I wonder if travel is more than just a visit to a place one wanted to tick off the bucket list.
Has it ever happened to you that a good time spent at an awesome location kept coming back to mind long after you returned? The lost feeling of running around in the alleys of a European town, a drink with friends at a tucked away cafe, a serendipitous discovery of a lake in the mountains while you mistakenly went astray, the sounds of street-side music that you enjoyed only because you sat down to listen to it since you had all the time in the world, the clap-claps of horses walking on mountain soil or cobbled-stone streets, the wafts of kebab or olive oil or the simple mixture of sugar with butter reminiscent of a sweet you had where you travelled, the terrible songs of the nineties with Sonu Nigam singing for T-Series reminding you of a country side local bus you took in India, or the music of a Rajasthani instrument heard in a movie reminding you of the time in desert, the taste of a paratha dripping in ghee reminding you of a detour in the Parathe wali gali of Delhi, and the list goes on.
I live in Mumbai and as awesome as its history is, the city has turned ugly at the hands of people like me and another 20 million who live here. It’s ugly to the extent that we rarely realise that the same cobbled stone streets that line several of those lovely European towns also line Mumbai’s streets. But each time I hear the sound of a trolley being pulled over these streets, I am reminded of Prague. It was In Prague’s charming old town square that a friend and I dragged our trolley bags several times from one hostel to another for lack of prior bookings. And as tiresome as it was then, it’s just become a wonderful memory now, reminding me of all the enjoyable times we had in Prague. As horrible as these Mumbai streets are, now I usually don’t mind dragging my trolley bags around here once in a while.
And so, I come back to the point that travel isn’t merely a tick mark on the bucket list. It’s an intense thought, a powerful one. Like those very few but profound childhood memories that seem to come back to us in flashbacks; like those instances from our past when we won over our own troubles, or the echo of a hearty laughter with friends or family several years back. Each of them has, upto an extent, the power of influencing our actions or shaping our lives. Travel is just that. Merely, a thought. As simple as that and as complex as that.
At this point, I quote a few lines of a Sufi song
Main ta koi khayal, (I am just a thought,
Main deedar, deedar main wich, I am the vision, the vision is in me,
hun milisaan naal, Now I can be met through
Khayal de, Only a thought
Main taan, koi khayal. I am just a ‘thought’)
What reminds you of your travels? Sights? Sounds? Memories? Church-bells? Perfume smells? Share them in the comments here :)
‘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 :)
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.
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.
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.
And some more…
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.
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 Oreo Cookie Cheesecake topped with Oreo cookie mousse and chocolate icing. Descriptions and views such as these fill your senses at the 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?