rosy chai

 Keeping with the characteristics of cities, some have very strong audio identities. Bombay (or Mumbai, if you prefer) is loud. When I was living there a couple of years ago, I was mostly accustomed to the constant honking (often used as an alternative to a signal when cars are about to make a turn), the bottleneck traffic, the general noise. There were some nights, however, when I would bury my head under my pillow, an unsuccessful attempt to escape the nearly-abusive noise.

Buried beneath all of that honking, however, were some very pleasant sounds, my favourite being "Chai, chai?" No matter how scratchy or loud the voice, those words repeated over and over again by a chai wallah sounded melodic, thoughtful, precise, a relief compared to the storm of other sounds in the city. A chai wallah is one who sells tea. Sometimes a man walks around with a large kettle. Other times he has a bike with two heavy thermoses balancing on the back. Sometimes he has his own piece of real estate, a street corner where you'll see him again and again.
I am and have always been a coffee drinker, but India turned me into a tea drinker as well, and a rather devout one. In India, chai simply means tea. Although a lot of us associate chai with tea that is just as milky as it is sweet, the word itself refers to tea in general. 

While working in Bombay, every afternoon at 4pm a young man would bring me and my coworkers a cup of masala chai. My first few days of drinking what tasted mostly like sugar and a little bit like spices, I missed the seriousness of a strong cup of coffee. However, it didn't take long until I would look forward to the clock striking 4pm. Who needs a cup of coffee and a piece of cake when an afternoon chai hits both boxes: sugar and caffeine? 

Bombay can be so loud in the day that it is hard to imagine it otherwise, but there are a few hours every night when the city quiets and the streets are empty. During the heat of the day, the street dogs sit in the shade and don't seem to do much more than pant, but at night they roll across intersections and chase each other through streets that are so empty it is hard to recognize them. 

One night I was out late with friends after visiting a couple of art shows and feasting on grilled meat at Bademiya and drinking beer in the hole in the wall across the street. We decided to go wander around and we found the city this shade of quiet. We sat on the steps of the Asiatic Society of Bombay and although it felt like most of the city was sleeping, a chai wallah biked by. "Chai, chai?" he asked. That's the thing about chai, which perhaps differentiates it from coffee, the timing always seems right to have a cup.   

A few months later I was in the very south of the country, in Kerala. Up in the Western Ghats, the altitude is the secret ingredient that makes the tea there so good. I visited a tea plantation for the first time and was dazzled by how green the gardens were of black tea. For a beverage that I have known all my life, it was quite something to see it grow, to see how its decorated the rolling hills of the region. 

The nice thing about making masala chai tea at home is that you can adjust the spices to your liking. Aren't crazy about fennel? Leave it out. Addicted to ginger? Add as much as you dare. It is incredibly easy to make and doesn't take much more effort than bringing water to a boil and putting a tea bag in a mug. Okay, I admit that it does take a little bit more that that, but not much. What is important is that you boil the water and milk together. Unlike adding cold milk to a hot cup of tea, the milk in masala chai is also warm and has fully absorbed the flavours of the spices. 

I've recently been on a rose water quick. I'm still getting acquainted with this ingredient, but I've realized that it makes a cup of masala chai even cozier. It also adds a certain brightness that is always needed as February turns to March. Rose water is an acquired taste and it you aren't sure that it is your taste, then just add a splash to try.  

In the last chapter of Laurie Colwin's  More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen she writes: "It always seems to me that cooking is like love. You don't have to be particularly beautiful or very glamorous, or even very exciting to fall in love. You just have to be interested in it. It's the same thing with food. You do not have to be a genius. You don't have to come from a long culinary tradition. You just have to go to a restaurant and eat a hamburger and say, 'This particular hamburger tastes swell.' And then you have to say, 'Could you please tell me what you did?' (209)" This to me sounds just about right. 

I don't like when cooking is treated like a competitive sport. I also don't like when it is heroicized. Sure it feels wonderful to be complemented on a meal that you've made, but it also feels wonderful to be able to complement someone else on a meal that they've made. In other words, it is about sharing and you'll probably want to make an extra cup or three of rosy masala chai as it is exactly the kind of beverage that is worth sharing.

Masala Chai with Rose Water

makes 1 cup - double and triple as needed


3/4 cup water
1/4 cup milk
2 tsp loose black tea - either Assam or Ceylon or a mix of both
2 green cardamom pods
3 peppercorns (I used red)
1/4 tsp fennel seeds
1 small cinnamon stick
4 small, thinly sliced pieces of ginger
2 cloves
1/2 a star anise
2 tsp rose water
brown sugar or honey to taste

In a small saucepan bring the water, milk and all spices to a boil. Once the mixture boils, remove from heat and add tea. Let seep for 2-3 minutes. Add rose water and give it a good stir. Pour the mixture through a strainer into a cup and add brown sugar or honey to taste.



table with a view: marrakech II

Are we too dependent on vision? Years ago I saw an exhibition at the Canadian Centre of Architecture in Montreal that asked this question, one I haven't forgotten. Vision is often the golden sense. It is standardized in a way in which scent and touch are not. How we prioritize vision is even reflected in language. Do you see my point? 

The 2005 exhibition Sense of the City questioned the dominance of vision in experiencing urban space. I remember walking through the galleries, slipping on headphones to hear the recorded oral clutter of the Paris metro at rush hour, opening glass bottles to smell the essence of freshly baked bread, in one bottle, and then ripe garbage in another. The exhibition certainly left an impression on me and I think it is because I heard it, felt it and smelled it, instead of having only looked at it. Regrettably, however, I did not taste it.

As I was walking to the metro this morning, the air was still crisp, but it also smelled sweet. It smelled malty. This is no coincidence. Munich drinks a lot of beer and, therefore, brews a lot of beer. No matter how scarce space is in the city, the local breweries certainly don't have any shortage. They are dotted throughout the city and at certain times, you smell them long before you see them.

If Munich smells malty, when I was in Marrakech in late December the city smelled like a blend between juicy citrus, grilled meat and fresh mint. As much of a feast for the eyes Marrakech may be, it is even more so for your nose and your mouth. 

Nowhere is the smells of citrus, grilled meat and fresh mint stronger than at Marrakech's heart and soul: Jemaa el Fna. This UNESCO World Heritage site was by far my favourite place to eat and it is where we went for dinner no less than five nights out of the seven that we spent in the city. 

Before arriving in Marrakech, I had heard mixed things about the food in the city's main square. Like with most reviews, some said it was worth it and others said it wasn't. I now side with the former. There is no denying that Jemaa el Fna is the Moroccan version of Venice's Piazza San Marco and has higher prices to prove, but the atmosphere is simply incomparable. 

The food was pretty great too. Not surprisingly, the simpler the better: soft cornbread perfect for scooping up a soupy tomato salsa, fleshy olives, merguez sausages, couscous with good olive oil. They weren't my favourite, but I still had fun eating snails in saffron broth. 

The definite underdog of the Jemaa el Fna is the stand selling a vegetarian rift on a burger. It sounds so wrong, but it was surprisingly delicious and satisfying: bread stuffed with chunks of boiled potato and egg, la vache qui rit, a generous glug of olive oil and then just some salt and pepper. That's it. It is is something that feels too silly to make at home, but if I find myself one day back in Marrakech, it will be the first food stand at Jemaa el Fna that I'll visit.   

Often reduced to a supporting role, the olives and the sesame seed bread seemed to always be the part of the meal, regardless of if on the street, in a restaurant, for breakfast and with dinner.

There are lots of other little details that I want to remember - carrots in orange blossom water, honey pastries with candied orange peel, chicken tagine with preserved lmeons and olives, couscous with golden raisins, fresh avocado juice, saffron tea, buttery crepes, bitter lemon juice, red cabbage salad with argan oil and dried apricots, mint tea with verveine, purple cactus fruit, a date and orange blossom shake. 

Beyond the edible, I want to remember the heat of the neighbourhood bakeries and that all of the historic descriptions for the city monuments are written in first person. "I am the remaining part of the old city wall." "I was built in year x to then be destroyed in year y." 

It makes me want to write a recipe from the perspective of an ingredient. Keeping with the topic of citrus, let's say from the view of an orange. "Peel me and remove as much of my pith. Slice me thinly and then top me with cinnamon."  

All of my senses were working hard in Marrakech and, like that exhibition Sense of the City, I think that my memory of the city is stronger because of it.

But let's return to vision for a second. What about that table with the view? It was at Kasbah Bab Ourika, where we stopped one day for lunch. It gave us excellent vin gris, tasty olive oil, and that view of the Atlas Mountains. Even up in the mountains it smelled like citrus, grilled meat and fresh mint, and I think that I enjoyed the view even more because of the background smells.


marrakech + winter fruit salad

I tend to be someone who likes to try the new. I wouldn't go as far to say that I prefer it to the old; rather, I like to hop and skip between them. One Friday night at a favourite restaurant where I can recite the menu from heart, and then the next at a restaurant where I've never been, with a menu that I've never seen. Regarding this topic, I very much appreciate the article "Familiarity Breeds Content" by Frank Bruni, former restaurant critic of the New York Times. Restaurant criticism focuses on the newly opened, and so the article is a good reminder to not forget the veterans in the restaurant industry.

That said, I do not stick to this method when it comes to travel. There are just so many countries, so many cities that I want to introduce myself to. I want to hear how their languages sound first thing in the morning and see what kind of street food they eat very late at night. In fact, there are so many places I want to travel to I feel anxious about going back to the same place twice. This does not apply when the destination is a car ride away or only a one hour flight, but when time differences and layovers and expensive plane tickets come into the picture, then I always want to go somewhere that I haven't already been. 

Just over a month ago I was in Marrakech and the city was bursting with citrus. The oranges were heavy and their juices were sweet. At first, however, I wasn't sure about going. I had already been to Morocco. Never mind that it was already a good seven years ago and I was only in the North - Tangier, Fez and Meknes - I had been there. I had, so to say, crossed it off the list. But boy, am I ever glad that I decided to go back! I had never been to Marrakech and when I was in the country before it was at the end of summer. In other words, I had never been there during citrus season. 

It was worth it and then some to abandon my anxiety about traveling to the same country twice. Marrakech feels worlds apart from Fez and, even more so, than Tangier. Sure, they all have bustling markets and leather babouche for sale, but their geographies and histories make them feel more like cousins rather than siblings. You can recognize the family resemblance, but there is just as much that distinguishes them as there is that relates them. 

I'll be back with more pictures from my week of feasting on citrus, sesame seed bread, views of the Atlas mountains and Berber rugs, but for now I want to encourage you to brighten and sweeten your February. "How?" you ask. Well, with lots of citrus, of course, plump medjool dates, sweet orange blossom water, and fresh mint. 

Since being back in Munich, I've been preserving lemons, adding splashes of rose water to chai tea, eating oranges with cinnamon, and watering my two mint plants with extra devotion. I've also been making fruit salad more often than usual. I can't remember when I first started adding dried fruit to fresh fruit salads. It was definitely some years ago, but it just tasted so right that I have been doing it, without question, ever since. 

The measurements here don't really matter. What is important, is that you mix fresh fruit with dried fruit. I've been on a date kick recently, but dried apricots are also excellent, as are dried plums. The cinnamon adds a nice warming quality to the salad, and the orange blossom water some extra sweetness. The fresh mint makes it slightly more exciting that your average fruit salad. All and all, it is certain to brighten up February. You can, of course, make this in the summertime as well. Just use whatever fruit is juiciest. 

The fruit here is what I had on hand, but feel free to also add grapefruit, pomelo, kumquats, persimmon, passion fruit, et cetera, et cetera.   

Winter Fruit Salad

serves 2-3


1 yellow kiwi
1 large apple
3 medjool dates
1 tbsp honey
1 large orange
1 blood orange
1 small pomegranate
pinch of cinnamon
a handful of fresh mint, roughly chopped
1 tbsp orange blossom water

Peel the orange and blood orange and thinly slice them both. Place the slices in a bowl. If your cutting board gathers any juices, add those juices too. Chop the kiwi, the apple, and then pit and chop the medjool dates. Add them to the bowl and then add the pomegranate seeds.

Roughly chop the mint and then add it, the honey, pinch of cinnamon and orange blossom water. Toss well. Let sit for an hour in the fridge for the flavours to mingle and then serve.  



postcards from amsterdam

I am filling the shortest month of the year with tulips - short stems, long stems, scalloped petals, and striped ones. As much as I like the flowers themselves, these illustrated postcards that I picked up in Amsterdam in December, despite their black and brown palette, seem just as bright. 

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