Sunday, May 23, 2010

Rose-Pistachio-Saffron Ice Cream

Okay okay, the REAL moment you've all been waiting for: a post of a recipe from my recent travels.
I think I was really inpired by all the Persian food in Damascus. Upon the recommendation from various people, we visited
Bakdash, a famous ice cream parlor deep in the Al Hamidiyeh Souq. It would have been easy to miss, but for the line of Syrians out the door, ordering ice cream cones and pots of custard crusted in pistachios.
What's so big about the ice cream at this place?
One taste and we understood.

All the custard is house-made. Not too sweet, with just a hint of rosewater, and covered in pistachios. Of course, the first thing I did upon my return to Maroc was to hunt down rose water and try to recreate it as best I could, minus an ice cream maker. Here's a recipe that doesn't require one...perfect for summer:

Rose Pistachio Saffron Ice Cream


  1. In a medium thick-bottomed bot, slowly heat the milk to boiling while stirring. Add the vanilla extract and saffron. Continue to cook on low heat, stirring occasionally while doing the next step.
  1. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until smooth and foamy. Very carefully and slowly, pour the egg/sugar mixture into the milk. Make sure to stir it rapidly with a fork or use a whisk while pouring (or you will end up with scrambled eggs in the ice cream!).
  1. Continue heating the mixture on low heat while stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until thickened (it should be foamy and coat the spoon).
  1. Pour the custard mixture into a bowl, and refrigerate until well chilled.
  1. Once cold, stir in the cream, rose water or extract, and chopped pistachios.
  1. Churn in an ice cream maker until finished (or, stick in the freezer and vigorously stir every 30 minutes or so to break up the ice crystals, until it is homogenous and frozen).My Moroccan version

Adventures in Al-Shem, The final installment: Amman, Jordan

I can honestly say that the border crossing experience between Syria and Jordan was the strangest border experience I’ve had, to date. The shenanigans began at the grand taxi station outside of Damascus, with a one-legged jolly fellow who seemed to be the boss of the gare. He bustled around, finding us a taxi, speaking in English that made me wonder if he was a British pirate in a former life. He used phrases like, “Son of a gun!” and “lassie” and “Chicago Bulls, alright!”. By the way, President Obama, he says hello to you.

Over yonder? Israel.

2.5ish hours and we were at the border crossing. Our driver took all our passports (scary) and handed them through the taxi window to various men who would come by an stare us down. It was quite unclear what the purpose of these men dressed in plain clothes was besides to get an eyeful of the Amreekeeuun in the backseat. They’d wander from car to car in the cue, shuffle through passports, hand them back, then sit and have a cigarette on the curb. And then we had to pass through security. Go exchange money into Jordanian dinar. Go back and purchase a visa. Stand in line at immigration behind French diplomats. Get questioned and stamped. Have our laptops searched. Hussle back into the car. 1 hour more and we were in the capitol of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Amman at night.

As one of the Jordanian FBers aptly described “Amman is the only city in Jordan.” It is a metropolis spread over 19 mountains. Fun facts: Amman used to be named Philadelphia until the Ghassanian era. In 1921, King Abdullah I named it the capitol of Transjordan (Modern-day Jordan + Modern-day Israel/Palestine), and ruled from out of one of the train cars at the train station because there was no palace. The city was relatively small until 1948, after an influx of Palestinian refugees. In fact, it is estimated that about 80% of the population are now of refugee descent, from Palestine, Iraq, Kuwait, ect. Basically, pick a conflict in the Middle East. The refugees ended up in Amman.

So, you’d think that Amman is incredibly culturally rich. And I’m sure it is. But unfortunately the purpose of our stay in Amman was for the Middle East/North Africa Region Fulbright Enrichment Seminar, so we were basically cloistered in a nice hotel in a businessy part of town. Any nightlife was at least a taxi ride away, though the neighborhoods were pleasant to walk around.

Some of my favorite Hashemites that we met along the way...

“Enrichment Seminar?” you ask. Basically the purpose was to put half of this region’s FBers in a room for 3 days to talk about our experiences and research and methodology. Topics ranged from painting in Tunisia, to women’s body image in the UAE, to Iraqi refugee services in Jordan, to medical care for Palestinian refugees, to research on aerosols in Israel, to spinning and weaving in Jordan, to the food crisis in Egypt, to obscure literary critique in Oman, to experiences teaching English across all countries. It was fun nerding out and learning about all these themes I have never explored. However, it was defiantly hard to sit in a fluorescent-lit conference room for 3 days after backpacking the region.

The site where Jesus was baptized. Maybe.

The FBers are such a cool bunch and I had an awesome time getting to know these people in a new setting. Highlights include:

-Legit jazz music at Canvas with Jordanians.

-Meeting Fulbright legend Jermaine Jones…and discovering that he is a Badger. Represent!

-taking an excursion to Mt. Nebo and the baptismal site of Jesus on the final day, let by an ornery Jordanian guide who somehow had the thickest Brooklyn accent. I lost it every time he said “Byzantine”.

-Hummus. ‘Nuff said.

-A pina colada. For real. And good conversation with Jordanian FBer Rachel.

-swimming in the Dead Sea! This is fun no matter which bank you’re on.

After every academic topic in the region was fully explored and analyzed, we caught a red-eye flight back to Maroc. We had had a wonderful adventure that opened my eyes and showed me just how diverse this so-called MENA Region is. I don’t think it is even fair to label this as a certain region because my end of the region (Morocco in the far West) is so terrifically different from anything others are experiencing in the Levant (central Midde East where I was traveling, also known as Al-Shem), or in the Arabian peninsula or the Gulf states. Even FBers from other countries commented on how different Morocco is. I for one left feeling so proud of my country, and more in love with the place. Corny? Oh well. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, I guess.

Honestly, being away had made me miss this place dearly. Of course, being back here means that I need to fit myself into a new routine, in order to give each day purpose and to give my overall experience meaning. I’m getting into new, exciting experiences and shenanigans (more on this to come). I realize how much I love the life I’ve built for myself here. I love the tiny community I’ve made. I was even so delighted to see my concierge and his wife again! I was happy to be back at my familiar market. Even the men hissing at me on the street didn’t get on my nerves. For about a minute.

Jazz! Legit Jazz!

Maroc pride at the Dead Sea!

As Sam said, "It's like the birthright trip I never had."

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Adventures in Al-Shem Part 2: Damascus, Syria

Border crossing between Lebanon and Syria can be notoriously difficult, especially for Americans. We were warned to be prepared to spend up to 10 hours at the customs office, while we wait for our passports and papers to be shuffled around and our backgrounds to be thoroughly scrutinized. So, once we answered a few questions and handed over our passports to the Great Beyond past the glass barrier, we settled in for an afternoon of reading, napping, daydreaming, and walking back and forth to the Duty Free Shop (picture a mini mall with cheap alcohol, cartons of cigarettes, and souvenirs).

After Hour 4 of the wait, Anissa and I began to devise a brilliant plan to get across the border, involving fictitious “Lady Problems”, tears, and the Daily Show. Thankfully, however, the security guards said we all had passed, could buy our visas, and could enter Syria. Imagine how anticlimactic it was, however, when we exited the customs building and had to walk along a deserted asphalt road with our luggage in tow, to the taxi stand. We were expecting more pomp and circumstance for having gone through an American Gladiators-esque test of endurance and will. “Congratulations! The Arab Kingdom of Syria deems you sufficiently patient to cope with what lies ahead. Welcome, suckas.”

After wrangling the price of a grand taxi to Damascus, we got a hold of Cait’s friend Jamie on our borrowed Syrian cell phone (thanks, Susannah!), who met up with us in the center of town and took us weary travelers back to his home to chill for a minute. I left to meet up with my old college friend, Lexi, with whom I would spend the next 3 days.

Lexi and her boyfriend Dimitri are stellar. We first met in Arabic class at Uni, and she pursued the language wholeheartedly, ending up in Cairo, then Damascus. I admire her so much for picking up and shipping off, putting one foot in front of the other and trusting the ground ahead. Rollin’ with it, whatever came her way.

Damascus reminds me a lot of Fes, but less touristy and colorful. It has its ancient bits interspersed with cosmopolitan commercial centers, government buildings, and renowned universities. An old medina (the oldest in the world, apparently), distinct from the “Ville Nouvelle” or newer, colonial-style quarter. In contrast to Morocco, I rarely heard any English or French, and the Syrian dialectical Arabic is pretty close to Fusha, making Damascus one of the most popular places for foreigners to study Arabic. (In effect, I found the expat community to be pretty small and tight). Of course, as a crossroads for trade and scholarship, there is some extremely important history in Damascus for all three monotheistic religions, which run up against each other in different facets of the culture (the city is mentioned in the book of Genesis, then was established as the capitol of the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate in the 7th century) Damascus sits on the slope of a mountain, leading down into the oldest parts in the valley. Fun fact: Wikipedia tells me that Damascus is a sister city to Rabat!

The next 3 days in Damashq were a blur of friends and sightseeing and great meals and conversation. Highlights include:
  • -Ancient ruins! Damascus claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It may very well be true, from the looks of it. New markets and high rise buildings have grown like unruly weeds between crumbling ancient ruins.
  • -visiting enormous restored riads deep in the medina. Sam the Historian was like a kid in a candy store. I have to admit, I’m not one for architecture, but I thought it was pretty stunning.
  • -Slipping into a Rental Jelaba and touring the Umayyad Mosque. I wandered into one room, where a bunch of Iranian tourists sat on the floor, listening to a storyteller (called a Hakaweti) sing the tale of the death of Hassan and Hussein, the Prophet’s grandsons, and their mother Fatima. This just blew my mind. I couldn’t understand a word the storyteller was saying, but I knew I was listening to one of the most tragic stories of my life. His voice wavered and cracked as he brought the story up to a crescendo and eventually finished at barely a whisper. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say there was barely a dry eye in the room. Some of the women hunched under their niqabs were wailing and even the men wiped away tears. This story has been told this way for centuries. Just observing this process was moving to me.
  • -Jamie’s friend Mohammed leading us all around his favorite parts of the Old City
  • -Rose Saffron Pistachio Ice Cream at Damascus’ most famous ice cream parlor. Need I say more?**
  • -The dioramas at Azm Palace. Took me back to Milwaukee’s History Museum, complete with creepy mannequins in display cases and funny Engrish placards.
  • -Exploring the spice market in the Christian Quarter by myself for a while. You truly understand a place by getting the feel of its markets.

We celebrated our last night out by having drinks at a western-style pub in the ancient medina (what a trip). Then left the next morning for more border-crossing shenanigans.

**I tried this at home! Watch for the recipe coming soon.