Awafi! – Bon appétit! (part 1)

Mira’s blog —

Still thinking about Montreal: Diana’s family was particularly wonderful in taking us under their wing, and making sure everyone knew of the event. Most impressive though was the totally awesome Iraqi dinner. I haven’t enjoyed such a feast in years.

My mother’s Baghdad was a world in microcosm where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side by side and ate much the same kind of food. However, each group followed its own traditions and prescribed ways of preparing certain dishes. I have a small collection of some of the recipes, handed down through the centuries, which have survived among Iraq’s Jews wherever they are today, thus ensuring that while the community is no more, its spirit lives on at the table.
Mother used to say: ‘ Don’t forget, getting a meal ready in the old days was a big operation; all food had to be bought from the market daily and then prepared. The vegetables still had mud on them, beans had to be shelled, meat cleaned and koshered, chickens emptied and koshered, fish scaled and gutted etc. Ice was brought in every day but unlike today’s fridges they could not really keep food fresh for longer than 24 hours.’
Many of the dishes were prepared in advance and benefited from being served an hour or more later. The daddy of them all was baked chicken with rice, otherwise known as t’beet (from tybeyet, overnight) when it was eaten for the Sabbath lunch. It was prepared on the Friday and cooked on cooling embers overnight. (The same dish cooked by faster means at other times was known as tannouri (from tannour, oven).
In Part 2 tomorrow I’ll tell you how to cook it.

It ain’t necessarily so

Mira’s blog:

The audience at Montreal was an encouraging mixed bunch, not just community members; Donna Lach and Anne Moffat did us proud. They made an announcement in the papers and the turnout was vastly superior to the number of bookings.

For me it was very moving, and I did so wish that my late mother could have known of the excitement she has caused. One elegant lady who made herself known, reminded me that our parents were great friends and we children had fun being of the same age and still in primary school.

At the show I casually informed the man I was dedicating a book to that my family knew an older man by the same surname in our Cyprus years. He turned out to be the son. His father Ezra was the first health food person to enter our lives nearly 60 years ago. He had worked out that the healthiest persons must have been living in biblical times, for example Methuselah lived over 900 years (as the song said “but who calls that livin’ when no gal’ll give in to no man what’s 900 years!”).

So Ezra sought out only organic foods, although they were not known as such then. And only foods that were mentioned in the Bible — that is to say, no New World foods, such as tomatoes and potatoes. For water, he would seek out the nearest spring and bring back containerfulls to last him a week. No wonder he made such an impression and passed into our family folklore. Among Mother’s possessions I found two small jars of a spice mixture carefully marked with his name. She must have saved them for over 50 years. I might put them on E-Bay.

And then there were relations and friends I had not seen in very many years who gave us a very warm welcome. With Tony some even formed a Manchester brigade!

And it was all possible only because Diana and Avner were so hospitable.

Vive le Québec libre!

Just back from Canada, and a fantastic time in Montreal (first visit). What great people, what a fine city. And we were so lucky with the weather — it only rained one day.

Our event, in Westmount public library, was 100% over-subscribed. A fantastic success (but so very sorry for those who were disappointed and had to stand outside in the corridor). The slideshow was the highlight,  a much-improved version of the small sample you can see here on the right and on the website.  There were many interesting questions about the book and old Baghdad. The books we shipped over for the talk all sold out, so now we are making arrangements privately to have a further small supply available. Watch This Space for details, or if you don’t want to wait for a copy please get it from Amazon (how to, on the right). 

Westmount is a lovely leafy suburb, and the library, built in the days of Queen Victoria, has undergone a massive facelift: a triumph of modernisation while maintaining the best of the old, such as the room in which we held our soirée, and the delightful greenhouse in the grounds.

As for Montreal itself, we liked: the broad streets with their trees and flower beds; the sense of space inside the department stores; the politeness and helpfulness we encountered everywhere; the life-size moose cut-outs lining Sherbrooke Street (they were just being installed, complete with a little name-plate that was still blank, prompting Tony to say they had to be Anonymoose); the Musée des Beaux Arts where they had two great shows: Cuba and Yves Saint Laurent (whose death we read about on our return home).  We disliked: the two taxes that are added to every marked price, putting it up by 15%;  the cost of wine in restaurants; the way pedestrian crossings at traffic lights are not always consistent. Some have a brilliant idea, a pictogram giving a countdown from 15 seconds to zero so you know how quickly you have to walk; at others you just have to wait until the traffic stops on red. As visitors we found this confusing. Not to mention how, to someone with a wonky hip, 15 seconds to cross a boulevard seems a bit ungenerous.

On the traffic front it appears Montrealers are quite well disciplined and patient, though it’s not what our friend David, who lives in the city, thinks. (He should try living in Italy or France!) Peculiar fact: vehicles in Quebec don’t have to have a licence plate at the front. This means cars look as their designers mean them to look — but I’m surprised the police have agreed to it. 

Following my architectural bent, it was gratifying to see buildings uncluttered with neon advertising slogans (banned, with one exception for a flour mill by the docks which escaped under the excuse of being an historic monument. A monument with neon? Go figure). The downtown skyline is quite restrained by North American standards, and of course the historic Vielle Ville just wows US visitors who think it is soooo European. It is, in a North American kinda way.  

But it’s underground, not overground, where Montreal shines. Did I read there are 33 kilometres of subterranean shopping walks and malls? They are stunning, all interlinked with the Metro, and perfectly clean and ventilated (air-conditioned, obviously; great carbon-footprinting). And absolutely essential in a place where cruel winters mean you poke your head out at your peril in January, February and March. It’s perishingly cold for much longer than that, too, with record snowfalls this winter. Ironically, says David, this is due to global warming.  Previously, the thermometer has stayed well below zero Celsius, too cold for snow.  By warming a few degrees it has brought prolonged periods of the white stuff.

Lastly, we were fascinated by Quebecers’ language skills, quaint in both accent and vocabulary.  With three million inhabitants Montreal is, I just read, the third largest French-speaking city in the world (after Paris and, surprisingly, Kinshasa). Their French is ‘old French’, with an accent that’s totally impenetrable. I think it comes from eating too much poutine, that quintessential Canadian comfort food guaranteed to give you a heart attack and two inches on the waistline (Wikipedia:  a dish consisting of French fries topped with fresh cheese curds, covered with brown BBQ chicken gravy and sometimes other additional ingredients.) In Quebec French it’s pronounced putsɪn which gives you a clue to the rest of our problems, as we live in ‘old France’ itself, where the language has considerably moved on from Louis IV’s day. Hey, even down here in Provence where the accent is as thick as crème brûlée we can communicate perfectly well with the natives; there, it really does sound  foreign.

We enjoyed some rich moments, due partly to their knack of unnecessarily complicating matters. Where the French have WiFi (pron. ‘weefee’, and not to be confused with ‘wifey’) they have ‘Zone Internet gratuit’. A fridge is a réfrigerateur – not particularly surprising maybe, but over here it’s a ‘frigo‘. A bus-only lane  (marked ‘Sauf Bus’ in France) is ‘Sauf Les Autobus’ etc. You get it. I thought my judgement about driving conditions could be called into question, and there must be a massive road accident problem, when I saw car repair shops on every street corner… and then I realised a Dépanneur was a convenience store. A dépanneur here is someone who gets you out of trouble when your car’s broken down and is en panne.

But if the
poutine doesn’t get you, Colonel Sanders will.  Fancy a little PFK, anyone? You got it: Poulet Frit Kentucky.

Bon appétit!