Sunday, 31 January 2016

Betlehem, West Banksy - will this wall ever fall?

Betlehem, West Bank. Unless you're a hardcore Christian travelling in the footsteps of Jesus, this town doesn't really offer much.

Located next to Jerusalem it does offer a chance to explore one of the most tangible symbols of the Middle Eastern conflict: the wall.

Betlehem is home to Checkpoint 300, the busiest crossing point in and out of the West Bank. Palestinians need a permit to cross the border. There are several types: work permits will allow you to use the checkpoint on weekdays until certain time, some will grant you the permission to attend the Friday prayer in Jerusalem. 

For Israelis and the internationals the border's open 24/7.

The wall separates Israel from the West Bank and its structure varies from one place to another. In some places it's merely chicken wire, in others, such as here, a concrete wall several metres high. 

The wall in itself is not illegal or questionable - any sovereign country is allowed to build a wall around its borders. What makes this problematic though is the way it fails to follow the armistice line of 1949. It extends to the Palestinian territory, at times effectively cutting off Palestinians' access to their own land.

The wall has become the symbol of the politics and occupation practiced by the state of Israel. It's known by several names, apartheid wall being one of them. Back when I was working in Hebron, I had a conversation about it with a black South African colleague, who herself had witnessed the apartheid era.

The situation in Palestine is often compared to that of South Africa of those dark times. Her view, however, was much bleaker. Slowly she shook her head and disbelief. "No. This is worse. Much worse."

The wall is not just the symbol of the occupation, it's also the symbol of Palestinian resistance.

It's become a massive guest book where people all over the world leave their messages of despair and hope. 

Some of the individuals are instantly recognizable. Yes, Banksy was here, too.

* Blasting off my iPod right now: John Farnham: You're the voice*




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Friday, 29 January 2016

Dining and w(h)ining in Helsinki: Spis

While the rest of the planet was practicing the art of self-discipline in the form of dry January or vegan challenge... we didn't. Instead The Cat Blogger and I kicked off another great year of great restaurants at Spis, with the long tasting menu (€77) and accompanying wines (€40). 

Our expectations for the evening were far from modest and quite rightfully so: last year this restaurant was elected the best in the entire country.

Modest is, however, the best word to describe the decor of this tiny (seats less than 20) restaurant. Pale wood, exposed brick walls... just the bare essentials. 

That goes for everything else here as well. Everything is understated, minimalist, simple and fuss-free. Everything we're not, that is. 

This address has housed restaurants of various descriptions for generations, we learned.

We kicked the evening off with interesting French bubbly rosé: FRV100 from Jean-Paul Brunilta (€10 a glass).

Can I just say love their taste in crockery and glassware too? I mean, look at those!

With that, there was first of the kitchen's greetings: semolina porridge. Which had gone through bit of a makeover since my childhood and was deep-fried deliciousness served with lovage mayo.

Another greeting was this delicately presented dish of pickled veggies. 

Vegetables are something that here have been elevated from their ungrateful role as an underpaid sidekick to a speaking part. Meat, for instance only made an appearance in one of the dishes.

First dish celebrated wild mushrooms with deep, earthy flavours. 

The wine list is interesting and consists of artisan producers. They were full of surprises and personality and provided an interesting journey in themselves. 

There was bread, too. Variety of them. Each more glorious than the next. That they (well, of course) make themselves. And butter it was served with is also churned on the premises every morning (well, how else...)

Next up was this beet dish. The real star of this one was that peanubuttery paste and crisp made of sunflower seeds. 

Next dish was a celebration of all things onion.  My cheese-phobia had been taken into consideration...

... but what do you know! The regular serving featured Swedish Västerbotten cheese in a couple of ways and wooed me over to the extent the date had no choice but to share hers with mine. Especially those rich, yet dreamily airy foam balls got me sigh in a way no cheese has ever done. 

The main attraction of the next act was cabbage. Gentle, mellow, very Finnish flavours. To the point my date found it a bit boring.

Puffed pearl barley was a nice addition and something I intend to add into everything I eat from now on. 

There was nothing even remotely boring about the following dish. The scallop had been cooked beautifully and it literally melted in the mouth. It was accompanied by parsnip mousse and crisps with bold and ever so perfectly salty bisque. 

"I want to swim in there", my date sighed. At least that's what I think I heard her say - I myself was too busy dreaming of having this dish served for the next 3 courses, too. 

The palate cleanser featured spruce shoots and got us longingly reminisce Ragu's dessert at last summer's Taste of Helsinki. See, good food really is a great investment that keeps paying off long after the actual meal.

At this point we were served the first and only meat dish that was a tribute to all things Nordic. Slow-cooked reindeer ragu, reindeer tenderloin, fingerling potatos, gravy made by reducing the ragu's cooking liquid and lingonberry dust.

My date doesn't even like reindeer, but couldn't get enough of this one. I on the other hand grew up in Lapland but have never, ever had anything like this before. We couldn't stop praising it to the chef as he paid us a visit and so he sent us home with some of that gravy. I was thinking of taking my vacuum pack to the doctor so I can just enjoy it intravenously. 

Wine pairings were successful throughout the evening, but this Syrah from New Zealand in particular rocked. The pours were reasonable and considering the quality and characters of wine's we had €40 truly is a bargain. 

The pre-dessert (just about the most soul-caressing word of English language...!) was this: a simple looking feast of caramelized pear with whey left over from that butter-making. Deeelicious.

And the actual dessert is this. Potato cake is something the function of which in the pasty family is something I've never understood. It's like an adopted child of a distant and already deceased relative who only get's invited to that cousin's wedding out of sense of duty.

Not this one, though. Oh, no. This baby would be begged to be best man at that wedding. Fudge-like density, chewy and rich, offset nicely by the freshness of seabuckthorn.

Dessert wine was from New Zealand, too. Gorgeous.

Against the asceticism of everything else the way sweets were served off a giant Lego was a hilarious twist.

As the coffee came, we got yet another reason to suffer some serious crockery envy. So, we decided to follow the waiter's suggestion to have some apple brandy from Åland, too. Guaranteed to put some hair in your chest, by the way. 

A great example great service, by the way. When service is smooth, staff knows what they're doing and they do it with such ease and perfect degree of familiarity, the customer enjoys. And is willing to buy more. 

So much so, actually, that we're now planning a trip to Åland, an autonomous island located halfway between Finland and Sweden...!

PS. Interested in more restaurant recommendations in Helsinki? No worries, just see here!




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Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Maqluba, Palestinian national dish - upside down chicken and rice bake

If my Hebrew is a bit, well, rudimentary to say the least, my Arabic is practically non-existent. Though, that never seemed to matter either - as I was working in West Bank the locals would politely listen to my clumsy attempts at communicating with them only to ask how old I was and if I were already married.

The most meaningful dialogue of the entire time I lived in Tunisia I had with a taxi driver on my way home from work. A car that had been driven off the road and rolled over had enticed probably every single taxi driver in the capital to speculate what had happened. Sayaara, the taxi driver said, pointing at the car. Sayaara maqluba. Now, there was a word even I understood and so we kept nodding vigorously in agreement. Sayaara maqluba - upside down car.

That's exactly what maqluba means: upside down, though it is also the name of one of their most beloved dishes that has been adopted in other countries in the region as well. It gets its name from the way it's flipped over onto the serving platter after cooking.

As all the traditional dishes in the world, each family has their own recipe for this. As I was trying to enquire this from the Palestinian family that adopted me in Hebron, the following conversation ensued:

- So, what goes into it?
- Rice, chicken, onion, peppers and eggplant.
- Yes, yes, but how much?
- Exactly as much as you like! was the puzzled answer.

So, feel free to follow that advice... or the slightly more exact instructions based on the one another one of my Palestinian mamas makes. There are countless variations: for veggies you can use just about anything and chicken can be substituted with lamb or skipped altogether. 

Serves 4-6

Maqluba - Palestinian chicken and rice bake:

3 dl rice

oil for frying

1 tsp bokharat spice blend
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tl ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander seeds
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 iso sipuli, ohuelti siivutettuna
1 cauliflower, cut into florets
6 chicken thighs
8 dl chicken stock

salt, pepper

To serve: 3/4 dl toasted pine nuts

Soak rice for half an hour and rise. In the meanwhile prep the rest of the ingredients: peel and slice the onion and chop the cauliflower. Pat the chicken dry.

Heat a couple of tbsp oil in a casserole dish. Sauté cauliflower until it's softened and got a bit of colour on it. Season with salt and pepper and transfer out of the pan.

Add more oil and do the same with onion. Transfer aside.

Add some more oil and this time add the spices. Toss them around for a a while and then add the chicken. Brown on both sides. Season. Add stock and continue to cook, covered,  over medium heat until chicken is done - 30-40 minutes. 

Drain the chicken (reserve the liquid). Place the onions onto the bottom of the dish, followed by chicken and then  cauliflower. Top with layer of rice and slowly pour the chicken stock evenly over that. Cover and continue cooking over gentle heat until all the liquid's been absorbed and the rice is done (another 3--40 minutes). Every now and then check to make sure there's still enough liquid and add more if needed. 

When maqluba is done, transfer it from the stove and leave to rest for 10 minutes. Then flip it carefully onto the serving platter and serve with Turkish yoghurt.




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Monday, 25 January 2016

Women in Hebron - empowering women in West Bank

The distressing situation in Hebron has led to many women taking charge and becoming the breadwinners in the family.

Women in Hebron, a handicraft cooperative based in Old City of Hebron is a prime example of this. 

Founded in 2005 the cooperative also shows, that while Hebron is one of the most conservative cities in the West Bank, it's women are far from being oppressed victims. 

One slogan that is proudly displayed across the products is "men can do something, women can do anything". 

Oh, you Taylor Swifts of the world. Have you got a thing or two to learn about the real girl power...

These are the women behind the cooperative: sisters Leila and Nawal. Ladies of serious substance (and the best source of gossip in the Old City). Their tiny shop functions as an informal meeting point for the many internationals and NGO representatives and volunteers in the city.

It had been five years since we'd last seen, but the moment I walk in, Leila gives me a warm hug. Teapot arrives as if no time has passed and next thing I know, I have plans for the following day, too. "You busy? What time are you free? have you already been to Idna? You have to go to Idna! I'll ring the girls and have them make you maqloobe!"

Oh, yeah - Leila also makes probably the best maqloobe in the whole of West Bank. More on that in the next blog post!

The business has had some grants from consulates operating in West Bank, but making ends meet is a continuous struggle. Especially these days. But these ladies are not ready to give up  - that's just not a word that features in their vocabulary.

Leila is a cheerful example of this. She decided to learn English to better communicate with the internationals. Her husband wasn't keen on the idea to say the least and ripped up her text books. She just taped the ages back together and soldiered on. These days the husband still grunts but there's a look in his eyes that tells he, too, is secretly proud of his missus. 

Nawal tours the world sharing the story behind them and their products: one of hope and persistance. 

One of the classics is the traditional Palestinian dress with its delicate hand-made embroidery. Typically the colour of the embroider has told which part of West Bank the wearer hails from. Red embroidery is typical for Ramallah region, that colourful one for Hebron. 

A couple of years ago Nawal opened a workshop and community centre in the village of Idna, about 20 minutes from Hebron,  where they make these beautiful, thick wool rugs.

The colours of the Palestinian flag are a recurring theme.

The cooperative employs about 5 women full-time and more than hundred part-time. 

They even have a nursery to make sure that nothing stands in the way of these women following their dream. 

Elaborate embroidery decorates their gorgeous products; from cushion covers to place mats and Iphone and tablet cases. 

They're always coming up with new additions to their line and even keffiyef, the traditional Palestinian scarf gets a makeover in their hands. 

Psssst. In case you can't get to Hebron, they also have an online shop! 




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