Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Passover over.

The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep;
seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, at the time appointed in the month Abib--for in it thou camest out from Egypt;
and none shall appear before Me empty;

Exodus 23:15

El Al has the reputation of being the safest airline in the world. It also holds the world record for the most passengers transported on an aircraft - a mind blowing 1122 - when during "Operation Solomon" Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in 1991. Imagine all of them cheering and clapping hands as the pilot landed the bird safely! Three hours before departure the El Al counter opened. I had checked in online, but before I could drop my luggage and get a real boarding pass with a real seat number a security check was carried out. Why am I going to Israel, what's my job, do I know anybody there, passport check, what was I doing in the other countries I had previously visited in the middle east? I tell them about my recent stopover in Abu Dhabi. They ask me what I did in Morocco (I always thought that Morocco was in north-west Africa and not in the middle east) and Malaysia (which I would place in south east Asia), do I know anybody there etc. etc. After 20 mins I am told that I may check in now, but am summoned to a second security check at a separate gate close to the departure gate. "Do your shopping, eating and toilet before you report there at 20.30. From there you will be escorted directly to the departure gate." Also, what's the code for my luggage padlock? They write it down on a tag in hebrew. I have a pint and go to the second security check. Me and four other dodgy suspects are waiting. My hand luggage is searched and X-rayed while I am sat behind a wall to wait. After a few more questions I'm escorted to the gate. I had expected worse, that went quite smooth actually... Seat 23H is right behind business class. The aircraft has been koshered for Passover. So is the food. My first of many hummus to come...

Ben Gurion airport comes with free wifi. Since recently Israeli immigration no longer stamps passports but issues a "Stay Permit" on a separate piece of paper which indicates the validity of your visa in order to avoid issues when entering a Muslim country later (some Muslim countries deny entrance when they spot an Israeli stamp in the passport, although in some cases they may still figure out whether you have been to Israel, e.g. if you have an entry stamp of a country that has a land crossing with Israel where else should you have come from?). After passport control I was briefly interrogated another time as to the purpose of my visit to the country. The rest went sababa: luggage off the carousel, x-rayed one more time and off to the train. I am beginning to understand what makes El Al the world's safest airline. Railway stations and most trains in Israel have free wifi as well. I take the train to Beer Sheva, have a great eggy breaky and head to the bus station where I feel like being the only person here who is not in an army uniform carrying a gun. The bus rides through the Negev past prisons and army outposts to Mitspe Ramon.

About 60% of Israel is the Negev desert. 80% of the Negev are fire zones of the army. 40% of the Negev are nature reserves. Wait, what? Right: Some nature reserves are in the middle of the fire zones and have become the most amazing ecosystems. When the Negev transformed from an ocean to the desert that it is today some "Makhtesh" were formed by the erosion. Since it is a very unique geological phenomenon only found in this region and nearby Sinai, Israeli scientists coined the term "Makhtesh" to describe it, which is today used by geologist in the whole world. Makhtesh Ramon is the biggest of them. In the middle of the Makhtesh Ramon I met Assaf who camped here and shot star trails. He insists I wear one of his T-shirts. He's got a point, starting out with a cotton long sleeve shirt was probably not so clever after all, but it was a bit chilly this morning. I join him and his short legged dog Booli through the desert. It gets hot. And steep uphill. We break on top of Ramon's tooth and have a spectacular view. Downhill is not so much fun, even less for Booli. For every step we take he has to take four or five. Assaf insists that I keep the T-shirt as a present as we part in opposite directions on the road as we both try to hitch a ride. The one big rule for successfully hitch hiking is: bring a girl. We are dirty, have loads of luggage and a dog. This won't help. After some unsuccessful attempts Assaf comes over and tells me: "You have to be rude like an Israeli sometimes". He starts to approach some of the visitors who parked their cars at the side of the road and in an instance I'm sorted. My driver is a lady with her kid who after five minutes on the road offers me her couch in the north of Israel when I come by. She drops me off in town and leaves me her digits. Back in the hostel I notice that I am still carrying the Booli's dog food. Another reason to go to Jerusalem and return it to Booli...

Makhtesh Ramon

Makhtesh Ramon
lonely tree in the middle of Makhtesh Ramon
Makhtesh Ramon seen from Ramon's tooth

Assaf & Booli

I knew that traveling in Israel needed some careful planning since all buses, trains and public transportation come to a grinding halt from Friday afternoon until Saturday night due to Shabbat. What I was not aware of is the fact that even stricter rules are applied during Passover. Passover is a festival that celebrates the absence of bread and buses. Also it commemorates that the people of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt and led by Moses to the holy land some 3300 years ago. But mainly it's a no-bread-no-buses feast. Bread is replaced by "Matzah", an unleavened cracker made of just flour and water. When leaving Egypt in a rush there was no time to wait for the dough to rise properly according to history. Baking or selling real bread is forbidden during the eight days of Passover. The weeks before Passover are spent in Jewish homes with rigorous cleaning to remove all the chametz, traces of leavened bread, since not only the consumption but also the keeping and owning is forbidden by Jewish law which requires to remove traces bigger than the size of an olive, but most cleaning goes way beyond this. I suppose the same procedure was applied to the aircraft in which I arrived. In supermarkets all non-kosher food is hidden behind white plastic sheets and cannot be purchased. Now this is the real food porn. You know it's there, you want it, but you can't have it. It is the über-Shabbat. Having good food these days is a challenge of masterchef like dimensions. Imagine an offsite challenge where the masterchef contestants are driven to a small village on the Israeli country side. First they have to find out where they can get food at all. Once they found the only small kiosk in town they have 5 minutes in the "pantry" to shop with 50 shekels. After that it's back to the hostel kitchen to cook up a kosher masterchef worthy meal. Spaghetti with tomato sauce won't win...
hiding the non-kosher food


On the last day of Passover I leave the green backpackers at nine for the road and position myself at a bus stop next to a roundabout. I expect it to be a long day on the road hitchhiking to the next spot. Twenty minutes later I have a ride with a Russian man and his parents, playing some russian disco on the stereo who drive all the way and drop me right at the front door of the kibbutz. Spasiba!

Ein Avdat

Ein Avdat


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Hoi An foods

Tra Que vegetable farm is just outside Hoi An and it was the first stop this morning on the shopping tour of the cooking class I had signed up for. Typical herbs of the Vietnamese cuisine like Asian basil (a.k.a. Vietnamese mint), Vietnamese coriander and sawtooth coriander are grown here using traditional methods, all organic and by hand. Wandering through the fields we smelled and tasted loads of different herbs, you'll be surprised how many different varieties of basil are grown here, one smells fishy actually. We stocked up on fresh herbs and were treated to a herbal refreshment before moving on.
Next stop was the local market where we bought veggies & spices including banana flowers and water spinach, typical for the Vietnamese cuisine and locally sourced.
fresh organic herbs

organic farming, outside Hoi An
if the grass is greener on the other side: water your own grass!


We unloaded the purchased produce after a short drive to the red bridge restaurant and cooking school, which is located on the Hoi An river and got started in the kitchen right away!

Appetizer: Lemongrass Shrimp

Fresh shrimp marinated in a paste of lemongrass, shallots, garlic, chili, salt, pepper and sugar and then grilled on a BBQ. Properly done they are actually wrapped in banana leaves and then grilled. The dipping sauce is very simple yet delicious: 1 teaspoon each of salt, pepper and sugar mixed with the juice of a lime.
grilling lemongrass shrimps

Lemongrass shrimps with a lime, pepper, salt and sugar based dipping sauce

Starter: Grilled Chicken and Banana Flower Salad

Chicken breast is marinated in soy sauce, sugar, pepper and five spices mix and grilled until golden brown. The salad is based on banana flowers, grated green mango, green papaya and carrot, with a bit of chili, spring onions and water spinach stems and tossed in a dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, garlic and sugar, topped with some fresh Vietnamese herbs: Mint, Vietnamese mint, Asian Basil and some fried shallots and roasted sesame seeds.
Grilled chicken and banana flower salad


Probably the best known Vietnamese dish in the west, this rice noodle soup is originally from Hanoi. 
Phở Bo is topped with beef (Bo) and the proper broth should also be a beef broth. To make the broth get a kilo of beef bones and fry them for a few minutes to reduce the fat, add cinnamon, ginger, onion, star anise, cardamom and shallots to the fry then add water and a pinch of salt and sugar and let it simmer for an hour or more, skimming off the fat from the top.

preparing the broth for the Phở

Next we were taught how to make rice noodles: It's basically rice soaked over night mixed with water and a pinch of salt and put in a blender until it's a smooth white batter. A cotton cloth is tight over a pot of steaming water, a spoon of the batter goes on top and after a minute you can lift it off with a bamboo stick and cut into strips about a cm wide.
making rice noodles
Noodles go into the soup bowl, topped with thinly sliced beef filet, cover with the stock and serve with fresh herbs and pickle to taste. In the street food places of Hanoi the herbs are on the table for everyone to help themselves to pimp their Phở with Asian basil, sawtooth coriander, Vietnamese celery, chili, lime, bean sprouts etc. Delicious.
Phở. The best ever.

sizzling fish stew in a clay pot

Main: Clay pot fish with fresh dill

Fish filets marinated in turmeric, salt and pepper for an hour, briefly fried, then simmered in a clay pot with a sauce of garlic, shallots, chili, oil and water. Topped with fresh dill and peanuts and served with rice noodles.
Clay pot fish with fresh dill

P.S.: got the munchies? you can find the recipes here.
P.P.S.: it's a blog post that belongs to my trip from January 2012. I was lazy. I'm catching up.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Hoi An suits

"I'm gay, I know what looks good on you!" the boy said. "But I really don't want a suit" was my reply. In Hoi An every other shop is a tailor. And you can't escape the offers of the salesmen and women running the shops. I wanted to get a copy of a shirt and a pair of shorts I had with me, made of another fabric but in the same cut. The boy walked me to a backstreet close to the central market arguing "...we don't have a fancy shop on one of the main streets, so we can be cheaper". So I started browsing catalogues, touching fabrics, and getting quotes for prices. The clock read 3 pm. "I'm off tomorrow morning 8.30". "No problem, you'll have your suit this evening!". Before I knew it I was standing half naked in the shop getting measured from head to toe. I chose the best fabric they had before the boy gave me a ride on his moped back to my guesthouse: "don't worry, we'll deliver your suit by 7 pm this evening" were his last words. At 7 p.m. sharp the courier delivered the suit. It suited. A two piece suit, made to measure, slim cut, the best fabric I could find: that's US $ 120.


Balloons & Bicycles
Flying the Vietnamese flag

Prayer time
lil' Vietnamese

Night falls over Hoi An

Hoi An, dirty old town

Ho Chi Minh impersonator, Hoi An

Had a shave in this barbershop. I always enjoy the little surprise service at the end of the shave, like when they take out a lighter and burn the hair in your ears in India. This man took out a giant vibrator and started massaging my back with it when he was finished shaving. I was shaking in my seat.

Barberism begins at home.

P.S.: it's a blog post that belongs to my trip from January 2012. I was lazy. I'm catching up.