I just got back to a one week visit to Lebanon.  This was my first trip to the middle east,  so exciting in that way.  I planned a fairly long trip, which happened to work out a little cheaper, but the flight was still quite expensive.  I didn’t know when I would be back, so I thought I might as well not just make it a weekend trip.  However,  I also had no tourist agenda.  I was planning to look at a guidebook before I left, but didn’t have time (or interest, really).  So upon arriving my plans included wandering around Beirut a bit,  maybe going to the beach,  drinking at a gay bar (which I take to be an authentic Lebanese experience) and to finish reading my novel.  The fact that it was 95 degrees and humid only added to my well established turtle-being.

I ended up doing a lot more than I thought I would.  What I liked most were my trips into the countryside.  I was taken once to the mountains of Faraya (not too far from Beirut, though in that country nothing is), and also took a but tour to Baalbek.  After two months in London, it was nice to be among arid hills that stood over the coast; it was a bit reminiscent of California actually.  The mountains were also cooler.  I can see why people spend their entire summers there.

Also, it turns out, Lebanon has a lot of history!  Who knew.  I saw ruins of a Umayyad Caliphate fort/town at Anjar and Roman ruins at Baalbek.  They were nice, I suppose, but I still wasn’t too interested in ruins on this trip.  Ruins are funny, because if you look at them one way, you can imagine spaces and people from different times, and they can give you a sense of historical scale.  Looked at another way, they are a pile of rocks.  It was especially funny in Anjar, because everything one meter high or above was reconstructed – but only partially reconstructed to give a ‘sense’ of what it was like.  I wonder how they made those decisions.  They also messed up when they reconstructed the main palace.

Baalbek actually has the largest and most intact roman ruins in the world.  Seeing them was also funny, the same kind of humor I get from certain large sculpture or public art.  This boils down to: ‘look, there’s something big over there.’  Some of it was pretty, like the mostly intact temple of Baachus.  Still, the romans built temples here to establish via architecture and religion the force of their imperial power,  the ‘shock and awe’ of the day.  Christians later tore down parts of the pagan structures to make a church, and muslims later tore this down to build a wall around the whole complex, replete with murder holes.  Not a very inspiring progression for those wanting to laud human civilization, especially given that there is a Palestinian camp down the street.

I don’t really know what to say about Beirut itself.  I didn’t dislike it, but neither did I really like it as much as I thought I would.  First of all, I have to say that I was in an extremely bad mood for most of this trip, so my perception of everything is probably tinted by that.  Anyway, I spent some time walking around the city during day and night, taking pictures, covering a greater distance than I intended usually, because I wasn’t aware of the size of the city.  Beirut is quite small, about 6km by 4km.  I was mostly bouncing between the neighborhoods of Hamra and Gemmayzeh, an area which is about 3km by 1.5 km.  When I mapped this onto London I was very surprised.  I feel like I walk this much everyday just in the course of things.  So I felt its smallness.  There were a lot of US chains in Hamra (caribou coffee, dunkin doughnuts, etc), and being inside one of those, surrounded by Americans, you really might as well be in a US suburb.  There are also a lot of hip bars in both Hamra and Gemmayzeh.  I can see how this would be fun if you lived here.

Anyway, on to one of the main reasons for visiting in the first place, the food!  My favorites:

Labneh: strained yogurt, usually with olive oil.  I can’t believe I’ve never had this before

Za’atar: Sumac, Seasame, and Thyme.  Served inside bread for breakfast, called Manaish.

Kanafeh: dessert, with cheese and sweet pastry.

Arak: anise flavored liquor made with grapes, diluted with water and ice usually.  Served with lunch but makes a good digestivo (ie. you just keep drinking more of it through and after the meal).



riots etc.

We’ve had a few interesting nights here in London, as you may have heard.  My immediate area is pretty quiet, though the Hackney events took place quite nearby to the north (after the initial riots, the police decided to give itself the ability to stop and search people even without reasonable suspicion, ie. the police tactic widely credited for sparking the 1981 riots.  They started doing this and people In Hackney started to riot.  Brilliant!).  There was definitely a tension in the air last night when I went out, mostly from local shopkeepers.  When I came back last night my tube station was closed because it’s in what they call the “affected areas,” so I got off one stop before and tried to take a taxi.  I say ‘tried’, because two drivers I spoke to both refused to go into my area.  I knew there had been some trouble between where I was and where I needed to be (sorry, difficult to explain if you aren’t familiar with the place names), so I went one stop past my station (Mile End, incidentally) and walked.  I’m a wimp, as you know, so I was nervous walking home, because I didn’t know what to expect, and because I needed to take what ended up being a somewhat isolated street.  There was a lot of smoke coming from one building; the building itself wasn’t on fire, but something on the building definitely was.  The streets were also relatively empty, and I heard a lot of police sirens.  But other than that, everything was pretty quiet, as it is tonight.

Obviously if you live in an area where there was a lot of looting and clashes, or if you were a shop owner who was targeted, or if you were in the wrong place in the wrong time, the last few days have been really scary.  The fact that violence seems to be popping up all over the city, somewhat at random, puts people on edge and makes riots seem like wildfire, something that just spreads uncontrollably and without direction.

But at this point I’m a little annoyed at the ‘london is burning’ hysteria which I feel is being played up by a sensationalist media, and also maybe by people on twitter.  After coming back today (around 7pm) , I read from various places on the internet that my local Tesco had been ransacked, that there had been fires and looting on Bethnal Green road, and that police vans had shut the whole street down.  So naturally I decided to go out and see all this for myself.  Lots more shops were closed than usual, some boarded up yes.  But mostly the street was as it always is.  Pubs and corner stores and McDonalds were all open, people coming home from work, kids riding their bikes.  No buildings were burned, there weren’t signs of glass being broken.  Tesco was doing brisk business in nutella and half-rotten vegetables, as usual.  I’m not saying there are not truthful elements to these accounts – they shut down the tube station for a reason.  But let’s just say, I’m not sure the army should be involved.

Having written that, knock on wood that I don’t get caught up in some violence.  In any case, Guzzi is not too worried.  She’s even ready to start a vigilante night watch (or so she claims…)



recent eatings

I’ve been here over a month now, and not gone out too eat too much in that time.  I was reminded of this while reading T’s entertaining-as-always post about all the great places she went in five days when she visited London recently.  Combined with the fact that I’ve hardly done any real touristy things here, this made me feel somewhat lame and incompetent.  But in my defense of myself, from myself, I will say to me and to all of you that there are good reasons for this.  One, of course is budget.  Another is that I’m basically by myself, in a place with a kitchen, so it doesn’t really occur to me to go out to eat.  Finally my neighborhood has a profusion of restaurants, but mostly of the ‘take-away’ variety that people here seem to like.  There is nothing to bad about this, except that most of them seem generic and I have been told are not too good.  For example, I’ve been warned that no one actually goes to get Indian food on Brick Lane anymore, and that it’s just for tourists.  And who wants to be a tourist?!  Oh.

But I have been out a bit.  Here is a rundown:

1. Mien Tay.  In Shoreditch/Hoxton, not to far from where I live, there are a string of vietnamese restaurants.  Mien Tay got some good reviews online, and was crowded, so I decided to try it.  I had, as far as I remember, honey and spice chicken.  It was tasty, with a nice sweet flavor as you might imagine.  They also had Siracha, which Tesco shockingly does not have.  When I was little, I used to be so embarrassed when relatives would come over from India and carry around packets of hot sauce to put on everything.  I thought it was really lame.  But I think I may be reaching that point myself, specifically requiring Siracha at all times.

2. Udaya.  My long lost cousin, who I met for the first time on this trip, told me to go to East Ham for good south Indian food.  Her recommendation was just to step out of the tube station and find any of the million places to have a dosa.  But of course I don’t roll like that, so did some research to find Udaya, a bit off the main strip.  This place specialized in cuisine from Kerala (Keralese).  I had a chicken dish with some puri and these little deep fried fish balls.

Not that I really know what authentic Indian food is, but this was a bit westernized.  For example that sauce you see is ketchup.  Yeah I was surprised too.  The chicken dish actually tasted quite a bit like my mom’s chicken, which I haven’t had in at least 10 years, on account of being vegetarian.  A competent meal, I would say.  The real highlight were the puri, soft and tasty as they were.  What was also new for me was being in the neighborhood itself, because almost everyone there was Indian (or second or third generation).  There are suburbs in San Francisco and L.A like this, but still, there was something strange and interesting and nice about being in that environment.  Oh and I didn’t have a dosa, because I wanted to try something new, but definitely will before I leave, since that’s the true barometer for a south Indian restaurant.

3. Beigel Bake.  Yeah, ok, not exactly haute cuisine, but simply in the necessary-for-existence category.  Bagels (beigals?) have somehow not infiltrated the menu of every cafe here, so you have to search them out a bit.  There are two apparently famous bagel shops on Brick Lane, open 24 hours, this being one of them.  They actually make all sorts of breads and pastries.  But when it comes to the bagels themselves, they only have plain, and you can get it with cream cheese or butter, plus salmon if you like, or with salt beef.  That’s it.  And there’s no toasting; if you want a bagel with cream cheese they have it premade and just toss it to you as you put £1 on the counter.  There’s no place to sit and there’s always a (fast moving) line.  The bagels themselves are good; I approve.  The cream cheese, meanwhile, is great – sweet and tart and dense like cream cheese should be.  Both bagel and cream cheese are dense but also very, I don’t know, bouncy.  Chewy but not overly so, substantial but not too heavy.  Yes, these are the bouncy castles of bagels.

Brick Lane is now filled with a mix of Bangladeshis and drunk, trendy people, but before that the area was (just) Bangladeshi, and before that Jewish, so the bagel shops are a testament to that history.  In fact Bangladeshi immigrants in the 60s and 70s ended up occupying almost the exact same buildings in this area as the  Jewish immigrants had 70 or so years earlier.  Also the main mosque here used to be a synagogue (and some time before that was a church for immigrant French Huguenots).  And outside this synagogue,  “Jewish anarchists threw bacon sandwiches at Orthodox worshipers…and held ‘Yom Kippur Balls’, (pork feasts) on the holy Jewish fasting day of Yom Kippur to annoy conservative rabbis and spread their radical secular message.”  And yes the Jewish immigrants were stigmatized in the same way that Bangladeshi immigrants would be later on.  So moral of the story can’t we all just get along everyone is equal sandwiches not bombs eat bagels!

4. Frizzante.  This is a cafe next to the adorable Hackney City Farms.  These aren’t just community gardens, but also have a fair amount of space for animals of all kinds.  Frizzante uses, at least in part, produce and eggs from the farms, and presumably also meat, though there aren’t that many animals.  I had scrambled eggs with salmon and lemon crème fraiche over a couple slices of toast.  Sound pretty humble, no?

But OMFG this was some of the best food I’ve had in months.  The eggs were really light in color and fluffy, and went beautifully with the salmon and the tart creaminess of the crème fraiche.  The bread added texture, but also was really good in its own right.  The green garnish was also delicious and familiar tasting but I couldn’t quite place it.  When I saw it I thought cilantro, but it tasted different, almost like sprouts.  I asked after, because they have an open kitchen, and found out it was celery cress.  Perfect addition.  The only bad thing about this meal was that the cappuccino I was drinking had a lot of chocolate sprinkled on it, which I’m only mentioning because that’s something they do here in the UK.  But anyway, I will definitely revisit this cafe before I go.  Truth once again that the quality of ingredients matter much more than cooking (not to say the chefs here were not great).

But I should have some British food while I’m here right?…

5. The Marksman.  This pub is almost right across from Hackney City Farms, coincidentally.  There are of course a lot of pubs that offer traditional pub food, and many others that have menus that are a bit more elaborate.  I’m not sure the Marksman qualifies as a ‘Gastropub’.  In fact I’m increasingly unsure on what does.  But anyway, I decided to take myself out.  There was an option for a two or three course menu, so I chose two.  First I had a goat cheese souffle with roasted figs and rocket.  While not as good as the baked goat cheese at Elf Cafe that I had before I left, you really can’t go wrong with a big piece of toasty goat cheese.  The real innovation was the roasted figs and fig juice, which was great.  There needed to be more of that.  The dish also made me realize that rocket is arugula.  I’m slow at some things.

For the main course I had the above: “slow roasted pork belly with mushroom mash and garlic confit.”

I need to back up a little in order to explain this choice.  Several months ago, I decided to stop being vegetarian.  I had been vegetarian for ten years, though for most of that time I was the kind of “vegetarian” who also eats sushi (and at other times vegan).  The reason I decided to stop is because of Los Angeles, basically.  LA is a really great food town, and I wanted to try more things that I was able to try as a vegetarian.  So I’ve been slowly incorporating meat into my diet.

Backing up a bit further, I should note that vegetarians actually take a fair amount of harassment/teasing from non-vegetarians.  Most people who enjoy meat seem to have a particular figure lodged into their psyche: the haranguing, ethical vegan.  Maybe they met someone like this in college, or maybe it’s just an idea they have, or maybe any discussion of food politics sounds to some like lecturing.  In any case, people feel the need to preemptively respond to this figure whenever they meet an actual vegan/vegetarian, who, if they are older than 20 or so, usually aren’t too interested in evangelizing about the joys of vegetables.  For some people this preemptive response comes in the form of exaggerating their love of meat.  Even so, after ten years of not eating meat, I was very curious to know what the fuss was all about.

So I did have high expectations. Apart from hearing friends talk, very seriously, how they could never become vegetarian due to this or that meat-centered dining experience, I also inundate myself with food tv, where not cooking meat is a faux pas, and shoving fistfuls of it into your mouth counts as entertainment.  Clearly there was something to this ‘meat’ thing.  The weird thing is, since I started eating meat, and haven’t really been able to figure out why it’s so loved.  For example, I was really curious about bacon, because I hadn’t had any pork growing up, and people seem to love bacon so much (see the above link).  So I’ve tried it, several times in fact.  And, I mean, yeah it’s ok, I guess.  Good with eggs.  But for the most part, I don’t really understand the point of meat – it doesn’t add (or subtract) from the dishes I eat.  Now, I’m sure this is me and not something about the meat.  I just have lost the taste for it, so it doesn’t seem so essential.  I even have difficulty telling different meats apart, so clearly I’m not a person to judge.  Rather, I’ve been trying to have a really good meat experience, something that would make me get it.

So, when looking at the menu of The Marksman, I just thought, ‘no more fucking around, vijay.’  Sort of.  Anyway, I got the pork belly.  It was a very intellectual eating experience.  With each bite I was trying to imagine myself as someone who really loves meat.  It seems that texture is very important?  The pork belly had a very crisp outside and was soft and tender on the inside, and I could see the appeal of that.  The taste was quite concentrated, which is something you obviously don’t get with tofu.  It’s something I get with quality vegetables, but maybe if you’re used to eating meat, vegetables have a less intense flavor (as my friend R helpfully pointed out to me a couple months ago (if you ask most people why like meat, they say something along the lines of ‘because it’s good’, which is not helpful).  And then the dish certainly felt substantial.  In fact I sort of expected to die near the end of eating it.  So I did sort of get it.  That being said, the part of the dish I liked most were the mashed potatoes.

So anyway, those have been my eating out experiences.  I hope to have a few more, especially when my family comes to visit.  If you have any advice on eating meat, please let me know.

from the US with a thirst for knowledge

I’m one stop away from the Mile End tube station, so this song is often in my head. I think it’s nicer now

Ducks of the Week: “Waterfowl Collection”

As mentioned, it was hot and sunny-ish for like a week!  Even Guzzi was taking it easy:

Oh wait – Guzzi always takes it easy.  Well anyway, I decided to spend an afternoon roaming through Regent’s park.  Quite lovely.  Gardens and a zoo (which I didn’t go to) and…a  special area called ‘waterfowl collection’!  I couldn’t even get that near Harmony on her special island.  She sends her children, Plum and little John-John, to a £10,000 a year preschool, which is a bit much, I think.

And now, it’s raining again.

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artists and athletes of to-morrow

Yesterday I went with my roommate Neil to the Hackney Wicked festival.  It was in a neighborhood called Hackney Wick (hence the title), which is an area to the east of victoria park that mostly consists in warehouses and factories, now disused, many of which have apparently become art studios.  You know how it is.  The festival was basically a big open studios event covering several of these warehouses, plus music and food and some events along the way.   I liked one of these warehouses that was called “The Peanut Factor,” because it is a peanut factory, still.  It has been quite warm of late (ie. 80 degrees!  no rain!  only 40%-60% cloud cover!), so it was nice sunday to be out and about.

As for the art itself…well, you know, open studios.  And Sally the open studios duck would like you to reserve judgment.

Weren’t expecting that, were you?  Hm, well, there were some interesting things as well, especially in the photography and video department.  As these things go, it was more of an excuse for people to drink in the sun and have a good time.  Good times also meant a Coracle Regatta, which involves racing impractically shaped boats across a canal.  Coracles come from the celts, and maybe they were better at rowing them than the woman who, in attempting to secure third place, fell into the canal.  This is quite unhealthy, I beleive.

Hackney Wick is right next to be what used to be a stretch of basically unused land.  Perhaps it had an industrial use some time ago.  Anyway this stretch of land is now quite in use: it’s the 2012 olympic park.  Before I came here, the Olympics were not really on my radar.  I remember when London outbid Paris for the games, and seeing people cheering somewhat irrationally.  I never quite understood why a city, especially a major metropolis like London, would want an Olympic games, unless there was already a stadium that could be used.  London, however, is building the entire Olympic site – stadium, track, swimming area, Olympic village, etc.

What I realized when I came here is that this is very much the focal point of London right now.  Not spatially; more that the city’s energy, if you will, is sort of oriented toward the event (‘temperature’ seems to be the idiom here, though not commonly used).  There is a kind of nervous tension around the games.  The games, or really the park itself, seems to represent something about contemporary London.

The site is in East London, an area that in 60 years has been: a bombed out working class neighborhood,  a gateway  for immigrants, a forgotten, post-industrial economically-depressed zone (which it still is), cheap housing for middle class artists and the like, and now, all those, plus the sites of banks and major corporations.  The body in charge of this latest change is the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODL), whose motto is likewise representative of the unwitting honesty of developers: Demolish. Dig. Design.

The Olympic site itself is attached to what will be the largest shopping center in Europe.   I still don’t really understand how a site that will be used for four weeks, then be closed for a full year after the Olympics while the city decides what to do with it could be a catalyst for urban “regeneration,” but apparently it is.  The power of synchronized swimming, I suppose.

The park is under construction and completely gated off, which fairly tight security.  What’s interesting to me, is that the same condition – unused, industrial space – that allows for the profusion of artists and architects working and making ‘pop up‘ projects in this area is what makes the place also ideal for more upscale development, which has already begun.  I suppose that’s obvious, and yet maybe not obvious enough, since the area’s ‘edgy’ , artsy reputation has been specifically encouraged by developers as a way to increase the value and cachet of the area (they don’t hide this in any way).

A few weeks ago I saw author Iain Sinclair speak.  Sinclair is seemingly quite popular right now,  which is befitting for a calmly manic chronicler of east london and anti-Olympic polemicist (perhaps of dubious credibility).  This is most manifest in his latest work, Ghost Milk, which I’m now reading.  His writing at parts is a little too reminiscent of the excesses of beat-gen writing, but at least he has nothing to be optimistic about.  And he evokes the way the stadium, in many ways, is dredging up London’s buried industrial history:

You could not nominate, in all of a London, more challenging ground for a landscape blitz, a ticking-clock assault on the devastated residue of industrial history: insecticide and fertilizer works, paint factories, distillers of gin, gas mantel manufactures, bone grinders, importers of fish-mush, seething dunes of radian maggots.  Waste: dumped, buried.  Disturbed. Distributed…

The Olympic Park was a newsreel of the fall of Berlin run backwards…what remains in these ravished topographies is a category of war-zone architecture: concrete bunkers, electrified fences, unexplained posts, burnt-out warehouses, stripped woodland, fouled water.  Grand Project development is accidental  archeology.  A séance with future ruins.

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