Insane in the Bahrain

February 22, 2009

Once again, we have struck out:  we failed to find any Bahraini restaurants in NYC (You will hear about our adventure searching for Bahamian food once Noquar gets around to posting the story.  For now I’ve decided to go ahead and get this one up).  Granted, we didn’t give the consulate a call this time (admittedly, this is simply sheer absentmindedness and laziness), but we did ask the proprietor of a Middle Eastern grocery store in Brooklyn if he knew of any Bahraini restaurants here, to which he replied, “Bahrain?!  Those people are too rich.  They don’t need to leave their country.” Fair enough.

So twice in a row now we have had to cook food from the country at hand.  As much as I judge the success of this mission on finding authentic cuisine cooked by natives, I have to think we have also succeeded when we manage to find all the ingredients needed to cook a meal that would be found on a table half way around the world.  And this is what has happened for Bahrain.

map

Bahrain is a tiny island nation in the Persian Gulf.  It’s one million+ residents live on a total of 253 sq miles, which covers thirty-three islands.  In fact, according to one source, the entire archipelago has less total land than the nearby King Fahd International Airport in Saudi Arabia. That just seems like one big airport to me.

A few minutes of googling was all it took to figure out that the most well-known dish of Bahrain is machbous (or machboos, depending on how the Arabic spelling has been translated), which is a meat and rice stew.  Kind of like a biryani, but more saucy.  A bit more web surfing and I had come up with a menu for the evening. Now all we needed were the ingredients.

Bahraini cuisine uses many of the same spices that are used throughout the Middle East and South Asia. Because I often cook Indian food, I have quite a stock pile of spices on hand. There were a few, however, that required a visit to the local Middle Eastern grocery store.

One stop at the Oriental Pastry and Grocery at 170 Atlantic Ave in Brooklyn was all we needed to find every ingredient necessary for our dishes, including rosewater, bahrat (a Middle Eastern spice mix) and dried lemons, as well as a number of bonus items like delicious, sticky, sweet pastries. The store has only a narrow aisle down the middle that is not piled high with essentials: bulk items like rice and wheat, packaged goods, olives, and whole and ground spices. Far off in a dim corner in the back of the store is the pastry counter — if you ever pay a visit (and you definitely should) don’t miss it! The prices were right on and the staff very helpful. I highly recommend you stop by the next time you are on Atlantic Ave near Clinton Ave, even if just for one of the cheese filled sweets. Yumm…

baba

baba ghanoush

Anyway, back at home we made a Bahraini baba ghanoush that we nibbled on with some pita as we prepared the main dishes: the machbous and a fish curry that I found here, which turned out to be no more than OK (I am of the opinion that the recipe wasn’t written very well). The machbous, I’m proud to say, was quite delicious.

fish_curry

fish curry

I cobbled the machbous recipe together from a few that I found online, here and here. It takes a little while, but the results are worth the wait.   We served it with dates and finished it all off with the fabulous pastries and an attempt at Bahraini coffee (we basically just added a dash of rosewater and green cardamom).

dates

Irani dates

Here is my machbous recipe.  Try it and let me know what you think!

2 lb lamb (I used the kind already prepared for stew)
1 tbs bahrat
1 1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cumin powder
3 tbs olive oil
2 large onions, finely chopped
5 black cardamom pods
2 dried black lemons or limes, with hole punched in each
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp black pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 quarter-sized slices ginger, minced
4 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
2 tsp salt
4 cups water
2 cups basmati rice, washed in 3-4 changes water
3 tbs rosewater
2 tbs lemon juice

1. Mix together the bahrat, turmeric, and cumin. Spread all over lamb. Set aside.

2. Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Cook the onions until golden brown

3. Add the cardamom, dried lemons, cinnamon, and pepper. Stir well and cook for 3 minutes.

4. Add the garlic, ginger, tomatoes, and salt. Stir well and cook for 3 minutes.

5. Cover the pot and cook for one hour.

6. Add the water and rice. Cook until water is absorbed, about 30 minutes.

7. Add the rosewater and lemon juice. Cook a few more minutes then serve.

Enjoy, but be careful not to bite into one of the dried lemons!  You’ll be in for a sour surprise.

machbous

machbous


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End of A’s

January 28, 2009

001

Well folks, we have terminated the first letter of the alphabet in our global gastronomical armageddon, and the last A may just have been the best.  After traipsing from borough to borough (plus Elizabeth, New Jersey) for our first 11 countries, we needed look no farther for Azerbaijan than Cafe Sim-sim, 312 Ditmas Ave. in our own neighborhood of Kensington, Brooklyn.

As our core trio would once again be joined by friends, I thought it was best to call ahead to make reservations.  After a good 25  attempts on which a woman’s pleasantly recorded voice told me that my call could not be completed, I came to the conclusion that the listed phone number for this place was defunct, so I decided to head over there to make sure this place actually still existed.

Mirrored ceiling...so you can watch yourself sprawled out drunk and fat

Mirrored ceiling...so you can watch yourself splayed out drunk and fat

From the outside, Cafe Sim-sim could be mistaken for a gentleman’s club, package lounge, or some other such unseemly establishment, and walking through the door doesn’t entirely dispel that impression.  The walls are all mirrored, as is the ceiling.  The decor, along with the dim lighting, almost begs for a silver pole or two and a good deal of vinyl-upholstered seating.

I entered to the disorienting whirring of a CD skipping over a PA system and an older fellow with his back turned to me hunched over one of the tables. Despite his being no more than five feet from the door, he seemed completely oblivious to my presence (which was making a considerable amount of incidental noise I should add) not to mention the grating sound of the  CD.  I stood behind him for a good 15 seconds thinking that maybe he just needed to finish up what he was doing before he turned his attention to me.  When it became clear that he genuinely had no idea that anyone else was in the room, I ventured a hesitant “hello?”

He turned and looked at me as if my standing in front of him made little to no sense.  He looked at me long enough without saying a word that I started to laugh out of simple bewilderment.  I finally pulled myself together enough to start explaining why I might have walked in the front door of what I assumed to be his restaurant.  Before I got three words out, he pointed toward the back of the dining room where I saw a short, round, mustached man with missing teeth who, upon hearing my request of a reservation for six, demanded that I pay him a forty dollar deposit to hold the table.  When I protested that such arrangements are fairly unusual and, besides, I didn’t have forty dollars, he interrupted me saying, “No problem, no problem.  How much you have? You give me what you have.”  We finally both agreed that it would be a bit silly for me to give him the $3.58  I had in my wallet, and he gave me the reservation on nothing more than my simple promise to actually show up.

When I returned a couple of hours later with the Nomad, Noquar, and the rest of our crew in tow, certain aspects of my previous encounter started to make a lot more sense.  The older gentleman who had so baffled me earlier was, in fact, the evening’s (unfortunately camera-shy) entertainment and appeared to speak no English.  As we were being seated, he was rather beautifully singing in what I assume to have been Russian over a blaring pre-recorded backing track, which would suggest some degree of deafness on his part, since there was no other possible reason for it to be that loud.

vodka_eggplant1

As soon as we had shed our heavy coats and were seated, our waitress came to take our drink order.  We wanted alcohol and we wanted it to be Azerbaijani.  It quickly became clear that the closest thing we were going to get was vodka.  We asked what amount would be appropriate for the six of us and were encouraged to order 750 grams.  We didn’t really know what that meant as none of us were particularly familiar with liquor measured in grams.  What we got was a full liter bottle of Tanqueray Sterling which we wasted no time laying into.

When it came time to order food we once again relied on our server, who was really wonderful.  She tried earnestly, but with varying degrees of success, to answer all our questions about the food, and when her English vocabulary limited her descriptions she emphatically entreated us to just trust her judgment, which we happily agreed to.

beansOur first round of dishes was comprised of soft, fresh homemade bread with eggplant spread and kidney fish_taters4bean salad, which closely resembled a lot of Turkish starters I’ve had, a basic green salad with tomato, onions, and vinaigrette, as well as a whole smoked trout meatpies6alongside boiled potatoes.  These were promptly followed by a plate of kutab, which are moist, perfectly textured lamb-stuffed pancakes, and a nourishing bowl of borscht, which got passed around the table.

We were duly impressed by these first few bites, but they paled when compared with what was to come.

As should be expected with Turkic fare, we were again dealing with the ubiquitous shish kebab.  However, I, personally, was unprepared for how revelatory the introduction of fish into the whole kebab genre proved to be.  On our server’s recommendation, we ordered the sturgeon, or as it visits me in my dreams, huge flavorful juicy nuggets of perfectly-seared white meatiness.  As good as the assorted meat plate was that followed (and it was rock solid), it was always going to be like Usher trying to outdance JT.

sturgen1

meatFor flavor and tenderness, the lamb kebab rivaled the best kebab meat I’ve had anywhere, including the Armenian kebab that captured our hearts a few weeks ago.  The chicken was close, but not quite moist enough to meet the dizzying standards of the Armenian version, and the beef, while certainly as flavorful as the other meats, had had much of its tenderness grilled out of it.  The kofta, meanwhile, was kofta.  To be honest, I’ve never actually had kofta that really distinguished itself but am certainly open to suggestions. We ended things with a round of excellent lemon tea and a trio of overly sweet fruit cakes, cake4which were superfluous anyway, as we were all pretty stuffed at that point.

I have left few meals drunker, happier, flusher in pocket, or more raring for a bar brawl.  Cafe Sim-sim, you are a marvel.

prettyvodka