Exotic Spices And Herbs

When I was growing up it was impossible for my mother to get me to help her with cooking. My mind was definitely not on preparing meals. I was interested in travel and would think of distant lands and exotic shores far away from Central Europe.

It was not until I went to visit my aunt who lived in Hungary that my interest in spices and herbs started to develop. The month I spent with her was an eye opening experience. She took me to markets where they sold traditional Hungarian spices including the famed “sweet and spicy paprika” used in Hungarian fish soup, goulash and a host of other recipes. I also discovered beautiful lavender honey, superb fruits and the spiciest green peppers ever!

I returned home a changed person. My travel dreams continued but this time I also dreamt of various spices coming from distance places as well.

During my first trip to Lyon in France last December, after purchasing a “Persian Cuisine” cookbook by Neda Afrashi and “Jerusalem” written by a duet of chefs, one Palestinian and one Jewish, I decided to look for spices in order to prepare some of the recipes in these two cook books.

My friend Veronique told me that the best place was the original Bahadourian grocery store, a teeming bazaar of exotic products, established in the neighbourhood of La Guillotière.

At the Bahadourian store...

At the Bahadourian store…

Initially, the Bahadourian family members were wealthy farmers from central Anatolia that had to leave during an exodus in 1915. After living in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, they eventually settled in France and started from scratch this family-run business in 1929.

Spices galore at the Bahadourian

Spices galore at the Bahadourian

The original 40-sqm shop became over the years a 600-sqm “Ali Baba cavern” full of exotic spices, aromatic herbs, condiments and products rarely found in traditional grocery shops. The smell of saffron, star anise, cumin and hundreds of other products make the visit a unique experience enhanced by the friendliness and availability of the staff eager to help and advise their clients.  Below the shops, the caves have been turned into a real treasure trove where items are carefully stored and products bought in bulk are packaged into small containers/boxes for retail sales.

I eventually bought sumac and saffron that I cannot easily find in Beijing. I also got Espelette pepper, a variety of chili pepper cultivated in the southwest city of Espelette in France and classified AOC. Interestingly, Pere Armand David who discovered the Milu deer for western science was born in this town. The plant, originally from Mexico, is recognized for its perfect balance between spiciness and aroma and I had wanted to use it as a valuable alternative to black pepper and pepper from Sichuan and Hunan provinces for a long time.

Sumac and Piment d'Espelette

Sumac and Piment d’Espelette

Needless to say that these spices are put to good use these days in Beijing and below are two recipes from the cook books I bought in Lyon that I am most happy to share with you!

SPINACH SALAD WITH DATES AND ALMONDS  

From “Jerusalem” by chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Spinach Salad with Dates and Almonds from the 'Jerusalem' cookbook.

Spinach Salad with Dates and Almonds from the “Jerusalem” cookbook.

The original recipe uses Pita bread but I replaced it with bread croutons.

Ingredients for 4 people:

1/2 red onion, sliced thinly

1 Tbsp of white wine vinegar (apple cider vinegar is an alternative option)

2 bunches of spinach

100 g of dates cut lengthwise in 4 pieces

30 g of butter

1 Tbsp of olive oil

2 pita bread cut in small pieces

75 g of almonds (chopped not too finely)

2 tsp of sumac

1/2 tsp of chili flakes

For the dressing:

2 Tbsp of lemon

2 Tbsp of olive oil

Salt and pepper for seasoning

Method:

1. Slice the red onion in small pieces and mix it with the vinegar, dates and a pinch of salt. Let is marinate for 20 minutes and drain the remaining vinegar (if any).

REMARK: As I do not like onion raw, I have it sautéed quickly in a frying pan and let it cool down before mixing it by hand with the other ingredients.

2. Rinse and dry the spinach carefully.

3. Put the butter and olive oil in a frying pan and cook the chopped almond and sliced pita bread (or bread croutons) for 5/6 minutes for the bread to be golden and crispy.

4. Get if off the fire and immediately add sumac, chili flakes and salt and mix it well with bread and almond. Let it cool down.

5. Once cooled, put all ingredients in a salad bowl, add the dressing and toss.

STEAMED FISH FILET “QALIEH MAHI” 

From “Persian Cuisine” by Neda Afrashi

Steamed Fish Filet from the "Persian Cuisine" cookbook

Steamed Fish Filet from the “Persian Cuisine” cookbook

According to Neda Afrashi, Qalieh Mahi is one of the very few Persian fish recipes where the fish is not simply fried and it is why I tried this recipe first.

Ingredients for 4 people:

800 g of fish filets (sea bass or similar fishes)

½ onion, sliced thinly

1 head of garlic

1 Tbsp of tamarind paste

¾ of a liter of water (75 cl)

1 Tbsp of olive oil

2 Tbsp of flour

1 tsp of curcuma (turmeric)

1 pinch of sugar

1 to 2 tsp of spicy paprika

1 cup of fresh coriander

1 to 2 Tbsp of fenugreek

Salt and pepper for seasoning

Method:

1. Salt the fish filets.

2. Chop finely the coriander leaves (stems removed).

3. Dilute the tamarind paste in 0,75 liter of warm water.

4. Slice onion and garlic and have it sautéed in a large pan with 1 Tbsp of olive oil. Add the flour and let it cook for 2/3 minutes while stirring to avoid burning it.

5. Add the curcuma, sugar and paprika and mix it all together.

6. Add the chopped coriander leaves and fenugreek and keep it on low fire for a few minutes until you smell the herbs aroma.

7. Place the fish filets on top (of the onion and herbs), season and add the water perfumed with tamarind (3/4 of a liter). Bring to a boil quickly and then cover the pan and let it simmer on low fire for 30 minutes without turning the fish filets.

8. Serve immediately with your favourite rice.

REMARK:  1 or 2 dried green lemon sliced in halves can be added after the fish filets are placed in the pan.

Enjoy!

Lyon: The “World Capital Of Gastronomy”

Last year, just before Christmas, I went to Lyon to visit friends. It was actually my first visit and I was amazed to discover such a multi-faceted city. Many years ago, when I lived in Switzerland, I often drove between the UK and Lausanne but never managed more than a fleeting drive through the city so I was very excited to finally have a chance to discover the old Lugdunum. As early as in the first century, Lyon was named “Colonia copia augusta” or “place of noble abundance”. Over the centuries, benefitting from its geographical position at the merging of rich agricultural regions, the city developed a wealth of high quality supplies. Beef from Charollais, lamb from Auvergne, poultry from Bresse. Milk and butter from Dauphine. Carp from the Dombes, pike from Ain and trout from the Alps. Truffles from Ventoux and mushrooms from Valmorey. The list goes on to include fruits and vegetables from the nearby Rhone Valley and stunning wines from Dijon in the north to Avignon in the south.

Former Hotel Dieu hospital with the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere in the backgroundFormer Hotel Dieu hospital with the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere in the background

In the 1930’s, the Prince of Gastronomes, Curnonsky, named the city the “World Capital of Gastronomy”. One must say that the food here is fantastic, be it in the many small family-style restaurants called “bouchon Lyonnais” or in the Michelin star-rated restaurants in the city and its surroundings. Bouchons have sometime only two or three tables serving typical Lyonnaise food specialities such as black pudding with roasted apples, hearty pâtés, pig’s trotters, breaded tripe smothered in sauce gribiche and others. These small restaurants were initially established in the 19th century by house cooks that used to work for Lyon’s affluent families. They started treating the “canuts”, weaving workers in the silk factories that made the city so famous and prosperous, to popular and straightforward meals. The dish called “la cervelle de canut” (canut’s brain!), made from curd cheese mixed with garlic and herbs is a testimony to their humble origin.

They proved to be great cooks and developed a host of new recipes made from the bounty of the local farmer’s markets and the catches from streams and fields and were called “Mère” or mother. La Mère Filloux was famous for her quenelle of pike with crayfish butter; la Mère Pompon for duck with orange sauce; la Mère Guy for eel stew (matelote d’anguille); la Mère Brazier for “Langouste Belle Aurore”, a whole lobster drenched in brandy and cream. La Mère Brazier, otherwise known as Eugenie, a country girl from the hillocks outside Bresse ended up becoming the first woman in France to win three Michelin stars in the 1930’s. Her bouchon eventually lost its luster in the 90’s but Chef Mathieu Viannay has been reviving it successfully for a few years: “Artichauts et foie gras”, “Poularde de bresse demi-deuil” or “Paris-Brest et Pralin” are back on the menu as they were during its heydays. With two Michelin stars, it is nowadays the highest rated restaurant in the city.

Lunch-time in the bouchon we went to was like the underground at peak hours. A constant flow of people coming and going; the owner yelling at the kitchen to deliver food quicker; the bartender working hard at pouring local wines (like Beaujolais or Côtes du Rhône) from a traditional 46 centilitre jug, preparing “petit noir” (anywhere else called espresso) and collecting payments; waiters resetting tables as quickly as possible to accommodate the many people standing at the door and waiting patiently for their seats.

Café des Fédérations

Café des Fédérations

Some proprietors, such as le Père Chauvin, the former owner of the Café des Fédérations, are known to be very temperamental. It is being said that on some days in the morning when he opened his bouchon he used to put out a sign indicating that the place was already fully booked for lunch so that he might decide who was or wasn’t worthy of dining in his bouchon on that particular day! On that day, we selected quenelle of pike with crayfish butter and saucisson with boiled potatoes, two traditional dishes showcasing honest cooking with local top quality ingredients. Lemon tart with meringue made a perfect ending to the meal. We were told that we had to leave by 13:00 pm to allow for a second tabling of guests and we obliged!

Pique quenelle with crayfish sauce, a traditional "bouchon" dish

Pique quenelle with crayfish sauce, a traditional “bouchon” dish

Afterwards we wandered through the narrow cobbled streets and “traboules” in the old part of the city. The word ‘traboules’ is a corruption of the Latin ‘trans-ambulare’, or ‘to pass through’. The earliest date from the 4th century and were built to allow more direct access to the town’s fresh water source than the winding streets and alleyways in the old town provided. There may be as many as 400 traboules in Lyon (but not all of them are accessible) mostly in the Vieux Lyon and the Croix-Rousse, the old silk weaving quarters.

Traboule

Traboule

Most people tend to believe that the Silk Road ended in Venice, but it actually extended to Lyon where the silk industry was very prosperous for centuries. Although the silk industry as such is something of the past in the city, it must be noted that Hermes is still producing their famed silk ties in the Lyon area. Traboules were used by the silk-weavers to ferry their goods quickly from workshops located at the top of the Croix-Rousse hill to the merchants down in the city and to the docks along the Rhone and Saone rivers.

The Passage Thiaffait, built in the beginning of the 19th century on the slopes of the Croix-Rousse with an entry by a portico, is a curved traboule, which ends with a staircase leading to the hill. It is part of a UNESCO listed World Heritage site. Following its renovation completed in 2001, the Passage Thiaffait now hosts studios and workshops, an area named “The Village of Creators”.

Village des créateurs

Village des créateurs

We could not be in Lyon and not visit one of Paul Bocuse’s restaurants. Interestingly, he began his career at La Mere Brazier in 1946 before becoming a worldwide star with his three Michelin-star restaurant located 30 minutes north of Lyon at Collonges-au-Mont d’Or. In addition to a solid budget, one needs to book weeks ahead to get a table which we had not done. We therefore went to “L’Ouest Express Part-Dieu”, a much simpler operation with outdoor terrace located next to the biggest shopping mall in Europe (La Part-Dieu) serving salads, snacks and desserts. Our crepes made ‘a la minute’ and served with homemade fruit compote were excellent. Over the past 20 years, Bocuse has actually opened four new successful brasseries in Lyon, each in one cardinal point, North, East, South and West. Very large, they are normally quite busy and attract mostly visitors eager to experience a Bocuse restaurant at a fraction of the three Michelin stars price (although a meal there is not inexpensive). At age 88, Paul Bocuse has no appetite for slowing down. His latest endeavor in the city was the opening of a restaurant-school in November 2013 in his hotel-school, ‘Le Royal’, overlooking Place Bellecour in the heart of Lyon!

The statue of Louis the 14th, King of France, set on Place Bellecour at the heart of LyonThe statue of Louis the 14th, King of France, set on Place Bellecour at the heart of Lyon

The following day, we went to Fourvière, the hill immediately west of the old part of town, rising abruptly from the river Saone, where original Roman settlements were excavated. Fourviere has been a popular place of pilgrimage since the roman time and there was already a small shrine dedicated to the Vierge Marie built in 1170. Nowadays, perched on top of the hill, the Catholic Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière looms impressively over the city. It is dedicated to the Lady of Immaculate Conception, who is believed to have saved the city of Lyon from a cholera epidemic in 1643 and again in 1823.

One Church in the old city lit during the Festival of Light (December 8)

One Church in the old city lit during the Festival of Light (December 8)

The basilica is associated with the famous Fete des Lumieres/Festival of Lights that now attract 2 to 3 million visitors over a 4-day period each year. Indeed, in 1852, the festivities planned for the unveiling of the golden statue of Marie had to be postponed to December 8 due to bad weather. On that particular day, although the statue was in place, planned fireworks could not take place due to heavy rain. Spontaneously, the people of Lyon thanked the Virgin Mary for saving the city by lighting small candles in their windows. This marked the origin of the illuminations of December 8.

Following the basilica visit, our friends, Veronique and Olivier, told us that they had booked a table in a small restaurant nearby. Incidentally, it was one of the best in the city, called Tetedoie !!! The one Michelin star restaurant, established on the site of a former hospital called l’Antiquaille, is set in a contemporary building offering a 180-degree view over the city at its feet, with the Alps in the far away distance. The design is stylish and sleek, yet warm and comfortable. The first section of the dining room hosts large tables and the second section has a more intimate setting. Romantic tables (for two) are by the large floor to ceiling window and the place was fully booked on that evening (we learnt that Olivier had made the booking several days ahead).

Chef Christian Tetedoie presenting the city of Lyon from his restaurant roof top

Chef Christian Tetedoie presenting the city of Lyon from his restaurant roof top

The chef, Christian Tetedoie, offers creative dishes inspired by the seasons and the freshest products available on the market. The ‘a la carte menu’ therefore changes regularly as well as the set menus. One of those normally showcases traditional Lyon dishes with a modern twist such as the pike cake with marinated and crispy fennel accompanied with flamed crayfish and sauce Nantua (inspired by the traditional quenelle of pike with crayfish butter). Although he remains attached to local traditions, chef Tetedoie is adventurous and goes off the beaten track with creative encounters such as the goose liver and dark chocolate terrine, the bold combination of lobster and head of veal or the surprising risotto with squid and sea urchin cappuccino we discovered on that special evening.

Goose liver creation by Chef Tetedoie

Goose liver creation by Chef Tetedoie

This beautiful dinner marked the end to my first visit to Lyon. I hope to be able to return one day for the festival of lights. It seems absolutely stunning and has inspired many other cities in the world so it must be worth the trip despite the huge number of visitors crowding the street during this period.

For more information on Lyon, these links will be worth checking out:

  1. www.sacred-destinations.com/france/lyon-notre-dame-de-fourviere
  2. http://www.en.lyon-france.com/Discover-Lyon/Quarters/Fourviere-hill
  3. www.en.lyon-france.com/en/Guided-Tours-Excursions/Unforgettable/Maison-des-Canuts-and-Traboules
  4. http://www.en.lyon-france.com/en/Guided-Tours-Excursions/Unforgettable
  5. http://www.alifewortheating.com/france/paul-bocuse

Pasta With Kale Pesto

Pasta With Kale Pesto

Pasta With Kale Pesto

I recently prepared a new recipe with Kale that worked very well. Basically it incorporates kale in a pesto recipe, which makes it an interesting option to a more standard kale salad.

Pesto ingredients for 4 people:

4 cups of packed torn kale leaves, stems removed

1 cup of fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup of toasted walnuts

2 to 4 cloves of garlic (based on personal taste)

1 Tbs of lemon

1 Tsp of salt

1/3 cup of olive oil

1/2 cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Pepper for seasoning

Pasta

One can select one’s favorite pasta (I prefer penne or fusilli for this dish).

Method

1. Boil water and start preparing pasta.

2. Rinse and dry the kale (hard stems removed) and the basil leaves.

2. Put kale, basil, and salt in a food processor. Pulse until the leaves are finely chopped.

3. Add half of the oil, lemon juice, walnuts, garlic and process again.

4. Add the rest of the oil, the grated Parmesan cheese and pepper. Process quickly to mix it well.

5. Toss with your favorite pasta, add some freshly grated Parmesan on top and serve immediately.

Enjoy!

My First Train Ride In China (April 1984)

BJ railway station

Beijing Railway Station

After about 10 days in Beijing, I decided to go to Shanghai to meet people from the Shanghai Museum of Natural History that was established in 1956 in the former Shanghai Cotton Exchange Building, a distinctively European structure built in 1923 just behind the Bund.

On a sunny afternoon, I walked from the Beijing Hotel to the Beijing train station, a 30-minute walk. It is actually one of the 10 large-scale structures specially built to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in 1959 with the likes of the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China and the Workers Stadium.

The Stalinist architecture did not surprise me as similar buildings were numerous in Slovakia at the time. It was obviously very different from the old and cute railway station at Qianmen, built in 1901 in western style, whose structure is still in place on the south-east corner of Tiananmen Square.

The new station was the largest and most modern passenger rail terminal in China at the time of construction with international links to capitals of “friendly” states including Moscow, Ulan Bator and Pyongyang. I went to the ticketing office and was told that foreigners had to buy tickets in a specially designated waiting room with a separate office reserved for them.

It was very business-like and their only question was to confirm my nationality (by this time, I had already learnt that everything was focusing on one’s nationality and not one’s name). I could get soft sleeper or hard sleeper and I selected the cheaper option. Hard sleeper. Unbeknown to me, it was a big mistake as it was in crowded carriages with three bunks on top of each other and no compartments. And I got a bunk on top so I would have to climb all the way up and down ……

SH Museum 2

 Shanghai Museum of Natural History, 260 East Yan’An Road

The next day, I told my “guide” that I was going to leave for Shanghai two days later with no date booked yet for my return (even if I knew when I would return, return tickets could only be purchased in the place of departure as no round trip tickets were available). He was in shock, as Dr. Cui Yueli, the Minister of Health, wanted to enroll me in the Institute of Nationalities to learn Chinese. I would not hear of it as Shanghai was definitely calling!

I had informed Dr. Cao Keqing, a paleontologist specializing in Milu fossils at the museum, of my arrival and I eventually went with my “guide” to the station to catch the night train. He helped me with my two large suitcases and one green bag that I bought in Agra, India in 1979. It was sturdy and could carry all my books, binoculars, large tape recorder, clear tapes and many films, slides of the Pere David’s deer from Woburn Deer Park and many documents.

We went to the station by taxi. I was loaded with heavy luggage and my “guide” was resourceful. He got a large bamboo pole, put one suitcase on each side of the pole, and carried the load on his shoulder in the same way as street vendors carry their load of fruits or spices around. We managed to carry the large bag together while I was also carrying a large and heavy camera bag and we eventually made it to the right platform where I boarded the train in a timely manner.

He helped me settle in, while my fellow passengers were surprised at the number of luggages I was carrying. I seriously started doubting my decision to travel alone by train as I could not see myself disembarking in Shanghai. At 9 pm sharp, the train left for an 18-hour ride to the tune of the “The East Is Red” (Dōngfāng Hóng), a song whose lyrics were attributed to a farmer from northern Shaanxi while the melody was derived from a folk song. It idealized Chairman Mao’s image and, during the early days of “new” China, the song was actually played through PA systems in every city and village at dawn and at dusk all over the country!

The people who were in the carriage were very kind and basically everybody sat together on the lowest bunks so even the person who bought that bunk could not lie down because the mid and the top level occupants were ‘occupying the space’ (so to speak). I quickly realized that I was not prepared whatsoever for the trip. I thought that the trains were more or less of the same category as the ones in Europe with separate compartments, curtains, windows that could open, the possibility to buy snacks and drinks and so on. I was dreaming and the wake up call was hard.

First of all, open space prevails in hard sleeper carriages, so everybody is together with no privacy whatsoever. Just before the curfew (at 10 pm), when the lights went off, it was time for me to climb to the top bunk. It felt as if everybody in the carriage was watching me and I tried hard to do it as sportily and elegantly as I possibly could. Once I was up there, I waved to people around me so they could mind their own affairs.

At 6:00 AM the following morning, the blasting of music came from a loudspeaker just over my head to wake all passengers up. People had taken with them wet towels to refresh and I was the only one not doing so. I still wonder what they must have thought of this foreign lady who did not seem to care to keep herself clean!

All passengers were eating breakfast (that they had brought from home) and again I was not in tune with the group. I was still “dreaming” and basically expecting to go to the restaurant carriage. People in the carriage kindly offered me to share their simple fare but I politely declined as they had so little to eat.

We managed to talk together through different languages, mostly Russian, French and “Chin-glish”. Being the only foreigner in hard sleepers, people from other carriages were coming to check on the ‘blond’ and ask me questions on where I came from, what I was doing in China etc., etc., etc. I felt a bit like in a zoo, me inside the cage, and them coming to discover a new species.

At our next stop, people told me to go and walk on the platform to stretch a bit and that I should not worry about my luggage, it would be safe. And safe it was. Later I learned that I could have left my wallet on the bunk and it too would have been safe and left untouched. Alas, it is no longer true today!

We finally arrived in Shanghai, and to my great relief, Dr. Cao and one of his assistants, Miss Sun, were waiting for me. I was “safe” and suddenly I was not feeling hungry anymore. Adrenaline was flowing through my veins, as the excitement was so great to be in the city I had heard and read so much about. I eagerly awaited to see the Bund and the Huang Pu River and walk around the city nicknamed “Paris of the Orient”.

Most importantly, I wanted to discover the Shanghai Museum of Natural History that had incorporated the collections of previous museums including the Musée Heude, the first museum of natural history in China set up in 1868 by a Jesuit Missionary called Pierre-Marie Heude and where the well known naturalist and explorer Arthur de Carle Sowerby, author of a “Guide to the Shanghai Museum” in 1936, conducted research work.

Bund 1980's

The Bund

Dr. Cao and Miss Sun took me to the Park Hotel. Interestingly, when the front desk staff learnt that I was born in Slovakia, he told me that the hotel’s architect was called Ladislav Hudec, a native of Banská Bystrica in today’s Slovakia. I later learnt that he had been active in Shanghai from 1918 to 1945 and responsible for some of the city’s most notable structures. The Park Hotel, built in 1934, was his masterpiece and remained the tallest building in Shanghai until the mid 80’s. What an amazing coincidence to stay there on my first trip to Shanghai! From my small suite I enjoyed a bird eye’s view over the Renmin Park (People’s Park) which used to be in the 1930’s  the Shanghai Race Course and where the City Hall and the Shanghai Art Museum are now built.

SH Museum entrance

The entrance of Shanghai Museum of Natural History

I would eventually stay three months to do research on the Milu and to travel in Jiangsu province before returning to Beijing to prepare for the arrival of the first batch of Milu. It eventually took place one year later on the 25th of August 1985 but this is another story …