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The pomegranate connection

June 22, 2014

Iranian and Azerbaijani cookbook reviews - www.mycustardpie.comCould you ever write convincingly about a country you have never visited? A while ago, on Open Book* an author (whose name evades me) confessed that he’d written extensively about China without ever having set a single foot over its borders. For years, as someone who spends most of their life reading in one way or another, I would have been agreeing with him but now know that nothing can prepare you for the reality of travel.

Through books, I thought I was doing quite a good job of getting to know the food and food culture of the wider region where I live. I’d visited Turkey and eaten Persian food cooked by Iranians, read about the influence of the Ottoman empire, been to India, munched my way through banquets of delicious Pakistani food, but never seen a connection. Until I visited Georgia. It was as though the missing culinary jigsaw piece had been found down the back of the sofa.

“An Azerbaijani cook book? How soon can you send it?” I nearly bit the publisher’s hand off as they offered me a review copy. My hunger was not just for the recipes but how this country fitted into the rich culinary landscape of the Caucasus and the legacy of centuries of marauding invaders. A new title on Iranian cooking also seemed like

The Azerbaijani Kitchen – a cookbook by Tahir Amiraslanov and Leyla Rahmanova

Azerbaijan (‘Land of Fire’) is known as one of the cradles of the ancient world and, like Georgia, situated at the crossroads between Western Asia and Eastern Europe. With over 100 recipes covering pilafs and kebabs, stuffed vegetables, grains, dough and noodles, fermented milk dishes, drinks and sauces as well as the usual meat and fish, this is a wide-reaching introduction to Azerbaijani cuisine. In the introduction, however, Abulfas Garayev (Minister of Culture and Tourism) says this is only a limited sample and there are many regional variations. He also mentions that health-giving and curative benefits are claimed for many of the dishes (ending with the exultation “And may your candle always be alight!”).

What I liked

This book is beautifully produced and while written in English, also gives many of the Azerbaijani translations. The head notes of the recipe give the context of the dish and the instructions are clearly laid out.  Some of the images are better than others but all look appetising and the typography and graphics give it a lovely feel. I had wondered about the differences between Georgian cuisine and Azerbaijani food. There are a lot of shared combinations of ingredients especially  walnuts, pomegranates and cherries plus a reliance on copious amounts of fresh herbs, however the population is mainly Muslim so there are no pork dishes (in contrast to the Georgian’s passion for it). Rice is prevalent rather than bread and with a coastline on the Caspian sea the Azerbaijanis love their fish. Pickles don’t feature at all, but they have in common the tradition of putting everything out on the table at once for everyone to share.

What I’d like to cook

In common with Persian cooking (see below), the cooking of rice is a serious thing. Steamed rice pilaf sounds simple but it has many detailed steps and includes a gazmakh. This is a disc of dough made of flour, oil, sour cream, yoghurt and a little sugar. It’s rolled out and placed at the base of the saucepan, under the rice. A lamb and herb recipe where the meat is stewed in sour grape juice and infused with a large amount of coriander, dill and dock leaves (or spinach) and served with the steamed rice sounds fresh and vibrant.

I can’t ever resist a stuffed vegetable recipe and Uch Baji or Three Sisters is on my list; the three are aubergines, peppers and tomatoes stuffed with lamb, onions, herbs and turmeric then served with garlic yoghurt.

Adding eggs to a meat or vegetable dish so that it is covered with an omelette-like blanket is called chyghyrtma. Clay pot cooking is also explained with a lamb stew containing chestnuts, chickpeas and prunes. The stew or piti is simmered for a long time in earthenware and served as two courses, a liquid as a soup, eaten with flatbread, followed the other portion of the dish.

Ordubad Kyuftosi is a meatloaf of generous proportion for feasts or large family gatherings. The recipe comes from the city of Ordubad and is a multi-layered explosion of flavours by the sound of it – a lamb and rice mixture, wrapped around chicken breasts studded with sour plums or cherries. It’s served sprinkled with dill, doused in its cooking liquor and accompanied by hard boiled quails eggs, chickpeas, salad and sumac. What a show stopper!

Any new cookbook that arrives in our house is seized upon by the teens and KP and given a good once over. I suspect the chapter on offal (ichalat) could consist of way more than four recipes – fried mutton offal (jyzbyz), calf’s foot soup (khash), minced lamb’s liver (ezme) and sheep offal hotpot (saj ichi). The introduction alludes to the thrifty nature of Azarbaijanis and their aim to utilize every part of the animals they eat (just as it should be).  Sadly, I’m the only offal eater in our house so this chapter may remain untested for quite some time (and did not receive the best welcome by the discerning trio).


A beautiful and thorough introduction to a cuisine that most people like me, I suspect, will not know anything about, let alone have tried. It invites you to go on a journey of discovery through the vibrant recipes packed with herbs and fruits, as well as knowing a bit more about the history and culture of this intriguing country. (which is top of my list to visit next).


From a Persian Kitchen – fresh discoveries in Iranian cooking  by Jila Dana-Haeri

This is a follow up to Jila Dana-Haeri’s first book New Persian Cooking: a fresh approach to the classic cuisine of Iran and the earlier work is referred to often in its pages. Where the first book was an interpretation of well-known Persian dishes that are cooked all over the country, this volume sets out to highlight the variety and diversity of dishes from North to South, and juxtapose sweet and sour with spicy and aromatic.

It is a book that took a while to grow on me. Although the author thanks the photographer profusely for “the wonderful photography which has brought these dishes to life”,  I thought the close up pics really didn’t do it justice. There didn’t seem to be a food stylist on hand either. The pictures of the author’s garden were far more enticing than the food and this just doesn’t cut the mustard these days.

What I liked

After a shaky start and going back to the book many times, I kept noticing the little snippets that combined to make a patchwork quilt of information which really brought the book alive. For instance, ‘In Iran they say that if the rice becomes sticky, you know the cook is a novice.’ I like the way the author draws on the entire culture from poetry, to gardens and carpets, to the impact of geography and history, and even how people sit down to eat. She also mentions Iran’s rich tradition of wine making which, although forbidden today, stretches back over thousands of years and references pepper Persian literature and fables. Iran’s abiding legacy to the wine world is the grape Shiraz (or Syrah) – its rich spiciness is a good match with a wide range of Persian food.

There is no doubt that this book took a long time to write and research; it’s meticulous in its detail, from the recipes to the glossary. The chapters are arranged in cooking styles: Aashes, aabgushts and eshkenehs –  soups from thick and rich to thin ones containing egg; khoreshes – stews with thick sauces served with plain rice; khorak – meat, fish and vegetables cooked in various way but with little or no sauce; rice – the hallmark of Persian cuisine; appetisers; side dishes; and finally shirini – sweet things. This final chapter is packed full of all sorts of intriguing recipes from marzipan berries to cucumber jam.

I was surprised to see no mention of the Unani tradition of classifying and pairing ingredients into to sardi (cool) or garmi (hot). This was covered extensively in my other Iranian cookbook Pomegranates and Roses which is a good counterpoint to this book.

What I’d like to cook

Aabgusht-e meeveh is an exciting-sounding soup with a huge list of fruits and flavourings. Lamb is seared then simmered with onion, turmeric and dried limes (these are used a lot in Gulf cookery), split peas and fruits such as apple, quince, sour cherries, plums, apricots and prunes are added at later stages along with saffron. All the khoreshes appeal – I like that kind of slow cooked comfort food – especially chicken and Seville orange khoresh.

Roast chicken stuffed with mixed nuts, orange and lemon juliennes is based on a traditional recipe from the Azerbaijan province in the North-West. It differs quite considerably from the roast chicken recipe in the book reviewed above, which has walnuts, pomegranate and plum sauces and cherry fruit leather,  although both are united in their sweet and sour aspects. (It’s interesting that a recipe for lamb soup is very similar to the one for Azerbaijani piti).

Date halva (halva khormaee) is very similar to something I was served here in Dubai as a Ramadan speciality and comes from Bushehr on the other side of the Persian Gulf. The Suhan-e asali, little piles of almonds coated in caramelised honey, flavoured with rosewater and topped with pistachio would make a great topping for some of the traditional ice creams in the book, including cardamom, and melon.


This book rewards indepth reading and long perusal and is a fantastic resource and reference for Iranian food from all regions. It will compliment other books you have on Persian cooking and is a good read as well as meticulous in instruction. It’s just a shame that the photographs don’t do the dishes justice – although there are many other lovely images in the book, just not of food, in the main.

Review From a Persian Kitchen -

More details

The Azerbaijani Kitchen by Tahir Amiraslanov and Leyla Rahmanov is published by Saqi books. From a Persian Kitchen by Jila Dana-Haeri is published by I.B.Taurus. Both offer an interesting range of non-fiction books about this region – well worth a browse.

Both books were sent to me as review copies – my opinions are my own – they will certainly remain on my shelves and contribute many jigsaw pieces to learning about a big swathe of countries and culture not too far from the shores of the U.A.E.

Map of the Caucasus, Turkey and Iran

*Open Book is a collection of programmes on BBC Radio 4 about books. Books and Authors is hosted by Mariella Frostrop. I download the podcasts and listen (via iPhone) on my early morning dog walk.

Have you cooked or eaten Iranian or Azerbaijani food? Have you visited either country? Would you cook these sort of dishes?

The death of an innocent in Kathmandu

June 20, 2014

A Hindu festival in Kathmandu - mycustardpie.comAfter a lunch of momos in central Kathmandu, we wandered through the throngs of protesters on motorbikes (another story), past painted holy men and women begging to be paid for taking their picture, to Durbar Square and into the Hanuman Dhoka. After meandering through corridors and rooms of the Tribhuvan museum of costumes and artefacts of former kings, we found a large open courtyard (Nasal Chowk) where something was definitely ‘going on’.  Soon we realised it was some sort of celebration with crowds of Nepalese families dressed in their most flamboyant robes, picnicking and lounging around a raised platform. Very old men wearing saucer-shaped hats, sand-coloured jackets and white swathes of cloth, reclined in plastic chairs, occasionally chatting on their mobile phones. In one corner of the square, the body of an animal lay discarded on the ground – this should have given us a clue.

We strolled around, taking pictures of the architecture and peeped into another small courtyard where a water buffalo was gently chewing away while more holy men gathered and chatted. Back out in the sunlit expanse, a band of musicians started to bang drums, strike cymbals and blow discordant horns. People crowded onto the dias and the buffalo, draped with garlands, was led out and disappeared into the throng. The crowd got more are more frenzied, the noise of the band more strident, reaching a final crescendo of shouting.

We realised, quite suddenly, that we had witnessed an animal sacrifice.

The crowd on the platform started to move. One by one, from young children to old men, they knelt quickly in front of a small sort of canopied altar to touch a holy man which also contained the animal’s head, thrusting their own heads near to the petal strewn beast before leaving to make way for the next worshipper.

It transpired that we’d stumbled upon a Hindu celebration that happens only once every 100 years. After much merriment and celebration, the crowd, led by very frail holy men who shuffled along blessing people in their wake, finally dispersed.

It’s easy to criticise rituals and customs which are different to our own. Undoubtedly the last few moments of the animal’s life was pretty bewildering and stressful. In ‘developed’ countries, we systematically keep animals for food in bewildering and stressful conditions as a matter of course. However, upon reading the guide book, I realised that this killing was modest in scale of some festivals in Nepal where thousands of animals (chickens, goats and buffalo) are ritually slaughtered and the streets run with blood.  We felt privileged to just happen upon this event, a fascinating insight into how religion influences daily life, but were glad we hadn’t unintentionally blundered into a different one.

My friends and I were whisked off from the frenetic square in horse-drawn carriages to the tranquil Garden of Dreams, almost surreal by contrast.

Our visit to Nepal was in May 2012, but I was reminded of this when an email from Compassion in World Farming altered me to the festival of ‘Gadhimai’ which takes place every five years in the Bara District of Nepal, south of Kathmandu. It’s set to happen again this November, and sees tens of thousands of buffalo corralled into a gigantic pen where 200 slaughtermen behead them, one by one, with swords (often taking several attempts to finish the job). As well as the appalling suffering to these animals and the waste of life, The Nepalese Government provides significant funding, which makes this festival possible on this scale. In 2009 the Government paid over £32,000 for animals to be sacrificed which is almost 50 times the minimum Nepalese annual wage.

You may have other views about this, but I’ve added my name to a petition to the Nepalese government and support with Surya Upadhya (Chairman) who has issued this statement, “The Nepalese Hindu Forum UK completely opposes animal sacrifice as Hinduism does not sanction the killing of living beings… There should not be any place for this inhumane, barbaric sacrifice of innocent animals in the name of any religion.”

A Hindu festival in Kathmandu -

A Hindu festival in Kathmandu -

A Hindu festival in Kathmandu -

A Hindu festival in Kathmandu -

A Hindu festival in Kathmandu -

Durbar square - Kathmandu - My Custard Pie-17

Durbar square - Kathmandu - My Custard Pie-11

Durbar square - Kathmandu - My Custard Pie-3

Durbar square in Kathmandu - mycustardpie.comI’d be very interested to hear your view on this.

Salt, sharp and citrus – lemons preserve us.

June 17, 2014

How to make preserved lemons - My Custard PieDo yourself a favour and make some preserved lemons today. By writing this I’m joining the throngs of posts dedicated to stuffing lemons with salt and bunging them in jars to luxuriate into a yielding, candied mass, but you’ll thank me for it – I promise.

I think the world is divided into people who like telling people what to do and those who couldn’t care less what others do if it doesn’t have any impact on them. I’m most firmly in the last camp proving that my exultation to follow the few simple steps below is heartfelt.

In a few weeks time you’ll have an ingredient to transform stews, partner with fish and lamb to a level you didn’t dream possible and make salads so lip-smacking that teenagers will demand more (this happened – no joke).

There are versions of this, usually called Moroccan, which add spices such as cinnamon sticks, dried chillies, coriander seeds, bay leaves and cloves. In my quest for citrus-imbued heaven I prefer the clean, sharp flavour of the unadulterated lemon and salt combination.

Jars of preserved lemons make wonderful gifts. Don’t be tempted to dip into them for at least a month but then they can sit in your fridge for about a year (although once hooked I’d be amazed if you manage to keep them this long). I’m going to suggest some recipes and uses – but you’ll have to wait until I’m back from my annual UK travels.

Do try to find organic, unwaxed lemons if you can. As this is impossible here in Dubai, I give them a good scrub in some soapy water and then rinse well.

How to make preserved lemons - My Custard Pie

Preserved lemons

  • Servings: 4-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Preserved lemons


  • 8 lemons
  • 4 heaped tablespoons sea salt

Makes 1 x 500g jar (easily doubled)


  1. First clean your jar – use the Kilner-style/Mason type. Remove the rubber seal and put it through the hot cycle of the dishwasher; or wash in hot soapy water and then dry them in a low oven (140 C) for about 10 minutes. Be careful of the metal bits as they get really hot. Replace the seals once cool enough to handle.
  2. Wash the lemons (as above) if necessary. Cut a lemon almost in half, from the point to the stalk without severing it completely. Repeat on the opposite side so that the lemon is almost in quarters lengthways but joined at the stalk end. Repeat with 3 more lemons.
  3. Put a tablespoon of salt into the cut insides of each lemon and pack them into the jar. You can wedge a cocktail stick into the neck of the jar to keep them wedged down if you like.
  4. Close the jar and leave for a couple of days until juice has started to run from the lemons. Squeeze the remaining lemons and pour the juice into the jar so the fruit is completely covered. Leave in a cool, dark place for at least one month. The lemons will become soft and slightly brown. Once you open the jar store in the fridge for up to a year.
  5. To use, remove the pulp from the lemon and slice or dice the rind and add to a variety of dishes. The salty juice can be used as a condiment too.

Let’s rendezvous in September and chat about what we’re going to do with these beauties. Sneak preview: mashed potato, olives, chicken, fish, tagines, salads and even a cocktail.


Can Google apps help you to cook, travel, blog or live better?

June 8, 2014

Chef Osama demonstrates how Google apps can help in the kitchen - on mycustardpie.comMy feeling towards Google veers from awe and amazement, to fear it’s starting to take over the everything. Perhaps one day we’ll be locked in our houses by Google-controlled entry keys and our only interface with the world will be via Google!* However…

…as my job and this blog requires me to be knowledgeable about latest developments (and I have a strong inner geek streak), last month I said ‘yes’ to an invite and shot up in the lift to the penthouse suite on the 69th floor of the JW Marriot Marquis for Google House highly intrigued, but not sure what to expect.

After a heart-warming video about a farmer in Africa (see below), and a few more Google apps downloaded on my phone, we were led from room to room to see how Google could enhance our everyday lives.

Google House - My Custard Pie-7

In the kitchen

We were greeted by popular Dubai One TV Chef Osama Atyab who demonstrated how various features could help out in the heart of the home. If you’ve got a smart phone, tablet or computer and an internet connection in the kitchen you can:

  • Watch video content from advice, tips, tutorials to cooking channels on YouTube.
  • Join a live video conversation with one or more (up to 10) of your friends or foodies through Google+ Hangouts. You could invite anyone into your kitchen from asking your Mum how to boil an egg, having a virtual cooking lesson, or enjoying a joint meal with a group anywhere in the world.
  • Reading a recipe on your tablet or phone is nothing new but if your hands are coated in dough, or you need to ask something about the recipe then Voice Search on Google allows you to find nutritional info, recipes, and measurements hands free.  For instance, I just asked ‘how many ounces in a kilogram?’ and a very nice lady answered ‘35.273 ounces in a kilogram’. Try it and see.
  • Getting low on ingredients? You can add a reminder in Google Now to buy something and add a local supermarket to trigger the reminder e.g.  say “Remind me to buy milk when I’m near Waitrose”

A few of my favourite links

If this has got you interested here are a few places to start:

  • Sorted Food – Set up and run by a bunch of (young, male, good-looking) mates this is now Europe’s largest cooking community on YouTube. Very clear instructive videos that aren’t boring.
  • Caroline Mili Artiss – who I’ve met a couple of times and she’s absolutely lovely as well as a great cook. She was one of the first TV chef’s to be discovered on YouTube in the UK and so popular she’s found success on TV in the USA, Asia and UK.
  • River Cottage Food Tube – Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall and the River Cottage cookery school crew take you into the Dorset countryside and into their kitchen.
  • Chef Dennis Littley offers advice to food bloggers on using Google + and holds regular Hangouts from discussions to cooking demos.
  • …and you can hang out with me on Google + here.

Going somewhere?

Many functions have been added to Google maps so you can plan your journey by car, public transport or on foot, including time, distance and current areas of traffic congestion. Street view is expanding to include the inside of some major landmarks – soon to include the Burj Khalifa (although whether street view will extend throughout Dubai is debatable).

It does mean that in most areas of the world you can check out your location in detail before you travel (for instance, find out if the place you booked is close to the sea), plan your journey there and even experience some of the major sights if you can’t get there in person. You could set up a travel blog without leaving your armchair (joke….sort of).

Google Now organises your information so you can plan your route, check the weather and currency conversion rates, find restaurants in the local area and monitor your flight schedules.

Google Translate is getting really interesting; currently with 80 languages and 5112 language pairs, the app for Android (ios coming soon) is the linguistically challenged gourmet traveler’s friend. You can take a picture of an item on the menu and it will translate for you. On the up side, you’ll never order sheep’s head by accident ever again; on the down this takes the fun out of adventurous travel and the potential for funny stories.   The voice activation on the app (on all platforms) means you can translate on the go – and listen to the pronunciation in some languages.

Tools for bloggers (and fashionistas)

This section was demonstrated in the bedroom with a girl trying on outfits, asking a friend’s opinion via Google Hangouts then looking at Google Trends to make sure the eye-make up style she was wearing was the very latest fashion.  Google Trends is something I’m going to be paying much more attention to in the future. Type in key words to see their ranking worldwide or in a Geographic area. Great for SEO and generating blog topics or headlines for your blog articles.

The Auto Awesome feature on Google + could be very handy for making beautiful images for your blog or to share on your social channels (generated on your computer or Android device).  It’s a bit like magic;  Google automatically detects images that are likely to look good as a GIF (short moving image animation). Here’s a video to explain how it’s done.  Wide-screen panoramas and mini-movies are also possible.

Look Mum, no hands

An image is doing the rounds of three teenagers walking around completely absorbed in their smart phones. I venture that it’s not just teenagers who are guilty; definitely a culprit myself and have even seen Mums with toddlers standing at the side of busy roads staring at their mini-screens.  Google Glass is the solution and I got the chance to try it out.

Connected by Bluetooth to your phone, it enables you to perform a wide variety of functions through voice commands and swiping the side (arm) of the glasses. Not quite as exciting as I’d expected (not ‘augmented reality’ …yet) however surprisingly easy to use. The text hovers slightly above your sight-line so you can take a video, get directions to a destination, dictate and send a text etc. etc. The sunglasses style was really unobtrusive. “You should get a Chanel version for Dubai” I suggested, which went down a storm.  My polite commands (please and thank you Glass) caused much amusement. Is there a British English version?

It’s easy to see these catching on very quickly as we all strive to multi-multi-task. Dubai Police are adopting them (very easy to film an offender quickly and unobtrusively) – but wouldn’t they be incredibly distracting while driving (and how would you detect that someone was wearing them?).

Information exchange?

Google cultural institute -

Omar studies via Google Cultural Institute

In the teen’s bedroom of the Google house, the very useful collaborative tool Google Docs was highlighted.  To quote Google “Allows to create rich documents with images, tables, equations, drawings, links and more. Share lists, track projects, analyse data and track results. You can also create beautiful presentations with our presentation editor which supports embedded videos, animations and dynamic slide transitions.” I’ve used it successfully on many joint projects but with this description I’m sure that I’m not using it to maximum potential.

Google Cultural Institute allows you to visit museums, artefacts, arts and galleries from various parts of the globe. Google is busy compiling curricula, on YouTube, from around the world via teachers and education institutions to provide an extensive, accessible bank of knowledge.

A step away from reality?

I’ll admit that these last two initiatives had me in a quandary.  The obvious benefits are to give access to this wealth of information to people who would otherwise not be able to experience or view it. While laudable, will students who see a virtual version of a place, e.g. The Louvre, still have the same compulsion to visit it reality? Having been recently moved to tears in a Museum (in Georgia) through an exhibition which was more than the sum of its parts, and marveled at the precision and beauty of a gold cup fashioned before they invented the wheel, we must never allow virtual reality to take over the real-life experience.  Education should be for all, and while these education initiatives could potentially reach children excluded by politics, gender or economics, it also places the control of information within a central powerful entity.

The future according to Google

These Google products are truly innovative – Google is committed to providing the best, relevant information to users, in most cases. However, Google doesn’t share everything; it is difficult to share on Google + through other apps or channels; my WordPress dashboard used to be full of search terms people used to find my blog, but Google, while giving access to this plethora of amazing free tools (plus others like Google Analytics), now limits that information.

As I came back down to ground level in the elevator, Google House left me with many thoughts. The extraordinary pace of innovation, the central role it now plays in our lives and a fairly mind-boggling future.

Do these Google apps fill you with excitement of the wonderful possibilities? Or fear that civil liberties are in danger and this is all sounding like ‘Big Brother’? Or (like me) a bit of both?

* This is not as mad as it sounds as  Google acquired Nest Labs earlier this year and its appliance that controlled the temperature of a home based on user habits – such as when they get up or arrive home from work – or how hot or cold it was outside. While it is the first foray into people’s homes,  a spokesperson for Google said that could increase in the near future. Source: The National. AlsoApple announced Home Automation this week which turns of lights, sets thermostats and locks doors.

Get more out of Google apps for cooking, blogging, travel & life -

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Wash your cares away – in a hammam

June 3, 2014
The hammam at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski in Istanbul. Review by

Image © Ciragan Palace

Lying supine on a heated marble slab, feeling a bit vulnerable because I’m topless, a delicious wave of water is poured over my body. Until this moment I would never have imagined that something so simple could feel so divine. Through a steamy veil, I gaze at a ceiling of carved marble stars; tiny lamps and vessels adorn marble arches; huge pestle-shaped sinks are filled with a roar by copper taps, overflowing onto the white marble floor. Water flows in luxurious abundance that you appreciate especially when you’ve lived in a desert country. New age Arabic music thrums in the background as my charming masseuse Aisha, clad in bikini and a short wrap, applies a scrubbing mitt with sweeping pressure.

I’d glimpsed the steamy depths of hammams in Damascus, doorways mistily illuminated in the dark narrow streets and yearned to enter the intriguing domes of the Sulphur baths in Tbilisi but didn’t have time to visit either. On this, my second trip to Istanbul, I was determined to try the original Turkish Bath invented by the Ottomans (and distinct from the Romans and Greeks). Trip Advisor reviews of the top ones recommended in Lonely Planet were pretty terrifying; they ranged from perfunctory, production line massage, to crowded rooms of nakedness, to filthy, festering water and even more unsavoury shenanigans. A friend with impeccable taste who lives in “Da Bul” recommended hammams in the Ritz Carlton and Ciragan Palace Kempinski and as I was staying at the latter this sealed the deal.

Hammam Ciragan Palace - review of hammam My Custard Pie

The infinity pool by the Bosphorus

The cost was pretty eye watering for 50 minutes even compared with the top spas of Dubai but use of the gym and wet areas including an indoor and outdoor pool (the latter infinity to the Bosphorus) are included even for non-residents so I guess you could make an afternoon of it. Some relaxing heat in the sauna and steam, followed by vigorous jets of the jacuzzi (its aqua beauty slightly flawed by a few missing tiles) went a long way to lengthening the distance of my shoulders from my ears. My friend and I were welcomed into the hammam and submitted ourselves to the directions of the two masseuses who proceeded to wash, scrub and oil us.

Lying prone I felt a light warmth of scented airiness coat my body; I opened an eye to see a white duvet-sized blanket of tiny bubbles wafting high over Sarah which fell to envelop her in a soft, soapy cloud. The oil used for a shoulder, face and head massage reminded me of the smell of orange Spangle sweets and I submitted to dexterous kneading and stroking.  Sitting up to have my hair washed and conditioned, rinsed with water poured from a copper jug, I felt like Medieval royalty. The warm ritual was finished with basins of slightly cooler water poured over from head to toe, invigorating but completely acceptable for someone as acclimatised to Middle East temperatures as I am. Wrapped in a thick robe while sipping tea, in a coma of relaxed bliss, I didn’t regret the extravagance for a millisecond and could gladly witness the interior of an authentic 17th Century hammam fully clothed. A white-knuckle-ride taxi drive to the airport a couple of hours later had me longing to return as soon as possible.

Details of the Ciragan Palace spa here. You can choose from the Pasha Treatment; 40 min 130 EU, Sehrazat Treatment (which I experienced); 55 min 165 EU or the VIP Treatment; 80 min 500 EU (prices correct at date of article). Reviews of other hammams in Istanbul here, here and here.

Where to find a hammam in Dubai

‘Morrocan Bath’, a treatment of steam room followed by a scrub, is very popular in Dubai. Many advertise as hammams but I’m not sure if any are authentic. Al Asalla Spa at Dubai Ladies Club, The Jebel Ali Hotel Spa, the Talise Ottoman Spa at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray and the Oriental Hammam at One & Only Royal Mirage all claim to offer hammams in Dubai but I have yet to try them (they are much cheaper than in Istanbul).

Have you experienced a Turkish bath or hammam? What’s the most pampering experience you’ve ever had?

How to shoot your food

May 25, 2014

How to shoot your food - www.mycustardpie.comThat person with a camera permanently glued to their face, that woman wobbling on a chair on her tip toes to take an overhead shot of a bagel, that shopper who comes back from the market and lays all her veg out on a bit of old sacking, that Mum who asks her teen to wait one minute while she clicks her sandwich with an iPhone.  Guilty as charged – I am that person.

Having been asked a few times about the equipment I use and the courses, workshops and help I’ve used to help improve my food photography, while I am certainly no expert, this post is about some of the steps on my journey. Starting out with a point and click, to having food shots featured in magazines…. so some of this has worked. However, it IS a journey and I’m still climbing up the first footpath with mountain peaks ahead in the distant mist.

Before food blogging (BFB) did I see everything as a potential still life and have the urge to capture it? Well yes and no. There’s a wooden blanket box in my house packed full of photos going back over decades including some ‘artistic’ shots of some onion seed heads taken with my first camera when I was about 14. There’s always some sort of creative thread running through my life whether writing, painting, drawing, photography or cooking (yes chopping an onion does count as creative in my book – I have very Zen-like thoughts while doing it). A very dear Aunt of mine always took masses of photos at family events although hated being in front of the lens; in her eighties, she still carries on (using a manual Olympus SLR and film) and at some point I started to emulate her.

When I started blogging, it was very much about the writing side but like many before me, I soon found that my adored Sony Cybershot on food mode was not helping me tell the whole story. I wanted food pics that made people feel hungry at the very least, and at best make them feel like reaching in and taking a huge bite.

In my teens I used to puzzle over a pocket manual of photography to try to work out aperture, ISO and all those good things, now there is a simply massive wealth of great stuff out there. I’ve just put together a food photography and styling page with all the resources I recommend online and offline, here in Dubai and beyond. (image)

These are the major stepping-stones on my  own personal journey; if you are just starting out or wanting to take better pics (of food or otherwise) this might give some inspiration. Also, photographic equipment is still an expensive investment and advise online can be very confusing.  I’m finally beginning to know why some things work well and why not when they don’t (still with me?!):

Learn to use your camera

I was terrified of my brand new DSLR for at least six months and then the wonderful Zahra Jewanjee (hosting a course at Dubai Ladies Club) taught me how to make friends with it and how to use every last little button and feature. I’m a ‘read the manual’ person but with something as complex as a camera this isn’t enough. This course is the best thing I ever did and would recommend finding one in your area as soon as you first buy a camera.

Food photography workshops

Spending time with people who take food pics for a living has given me a few ‘ah hah’ moments. They do certain things instinctively which defies explanation on the page. By watching how other people work I’ve started to be more confident in my own style. My inspiration came from:

Béatrice Peltre at Food Blogger Connect 2011;  lovely Ellen Silverman (she shot Gwyneth Paltrow’s book) at Food Blogger Connect 2012 and in Dubai; brilliant David Griffen (also at Food Blogger Connect 2012) who is totally down to earth yet takes heavenly pics; a smart phone workshop at Gulf Photo Plus with Matt Armendariz who is super friendly and practical; and through my three collaborations with Meeta K Wolff – a whirlwind of energy and inspiration. Members of Fooderati Arabia have also been super supportive (thanks especially to Arva, Sarah and Sukaina). By watching how other people work I’ve started to be more confident in my own style. If you get the chance to hang out with a pro food photographer, seize the opportunity.


Photography has become much more accessible but is still not without expense. This is what’s in my camera bag and elsewhere that I’ve acquired on the way:

Camera bag

Carrying your kit around safely is important; when choosing a camera bag I’d recommend something that has room for your bits and pieces so you don’t have to juggle carrying a handbag. I bought this from Grand Stores Digital at Mall of the Emirates in Dubai. It has padded sections inside so I can carry my camera and two additional lenses. It’s not the most stylish accessory ever so this one from Ona is on my wish list.  For more inspiration visit Kelly Moore and Jill E in the US and Cosy Cameras in the UK.


I always over-spec when I buy something new, but think I got the balance just right with my Nikon D5000 DSLR (the newest version the D5300 is double in megapixels, has wifi and GPS). It’s more compact than its big brother the D90 with most of the same features. I must admit to using the hi-definition video camera that’s built in very rarely. As a versatile camera for all sorts of situations it’s been fantastic. I did a lot of agonizing about Nikon vs Canon before buying; Canon does seems to be the most popular choice of food bloggers and many professionals but there are many fans of both brands. You could drive yourself crazy reading all the comparison charts. One advantage is if you buy another Nikon (unless it’s a full frame) you can always use your old lenses.

Don’t feel pressured into buying a DSLR though. The options for taking great pictures increase every day. I was at a talk this week about the Nokia Lumia 1020 smart phone which has a 41 megapixel camera sensor – perfect for taking images in dark restaurants unobtrusively and making videos. Your final choice should be based on what you are going to use your camera for most.

Pics above taken on iphone.


The Nikkor AFS DX 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6G VR lens that came with the camera is fine but I wanted something that gave me a shallower depth of field (that lovely blurred background look).  I bought a Nikkor AF 50mm f/1.8D which is great used on a tripod but doesn’t have a motor in the body of the lens (and there isn’t one in my camera) so manual focus is necessary (a dot in within the viewing panel shows when you are in focus). Last year I invested in a Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.4G which is a dream and helps me achieve pinpoint focal points and soft blurry backgrounds.

My Nikkor AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8G Lens was bought in a happy accident. I dropped my camera in the middle of a farmyard while in the UK and the ring chipped on my kit lens (I bought a new bayonet mount ring and had it repaired in Dubai). The 35 mm is very reasonably priced and I’ve come to love it especially for travel and walking. It’s very light to carry and the wide-angle is fantastic for the English countryside. Both the 50mm and 35mm are fixed or prime lenses. They don’t zoom so if you want to get a close up you have to walk nearer to the subject (and vice versa).

My most recent and (most expensive purchase) is a Nikkor AF-S DX 18-200 mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II which I bought to give me more flexibility when out and about - I must say I’m still getting used to it.

For UV filter, colour balance and to protect the lens I bought a Hoya filter for each of my lenses and keep them attached permanently.

Food photography - My Custard Pie-4Making Nice in the Mid-West author Mandi wrote this really informative post about Prime lenses and focal length.


A reflector can be anything that reflects light and are used to fill in areas that look too dark in a food shot. I bought this early on and now know I should have got one with a white side instead of the gold side. The handle is great for angling reflected light onto the area you want. I also use white or black (to absorb light) foam core and white card.


Using something to reflect the light and a tripod are the two things that transformed my shots. Buy the sturdiest one you can was Zara’s advice and my Benro tripod kit has served me well but now I’d like something more substantial. A Manfr​otto 055 X​PROB tripod legs with a 322R​C2 ball​head and accessory arm, so I can do overhead shots more easily, is on my wish list.

Food styling

Some people can use many food props with abandon. Meeta and my new, super-talented friend Rowena from Apron and Sneakers are excellent at this.  When I try to do this it looks too contrived and ‘less is more’ suits me best; Smitten Kitchen did a whole cook book without props after all. Getting the food to look it’s absolute best is paramount and tips learned from wonderful, kind, creative Fiona Archibold here in Dubai, and charming Emily Jonzen at Food Blogger Connect have stood me in good stead. I only use tips that will keep the food edible; I don’t cook for photographs, I cook for my family. Here are a few:

  • Keep an array of fresh herbs in a plastic container lined with damp kitchen roll
  • Have a water spray on hand, especially to invigorate leafy greens (which I should have used on that pear above!!)
  • Only dress a salad at the very last minute – paint it on the leaves with a brush
  • Arrange spaghetti from a height, let it coil down onto the plate
  • Oil is your friend – brush on oil to light-catching surfaces to make it look appetizing

Emily Jonzen - taken by Sarka BabickaProps

I love kitchen shops so an excuse to buy all sorts of things from market stalls to kitchen equipment stores “it’ll be good for food photography” was easy. However, I’ve made a decision, as my blog is about food cooked in my home, I’m going to use the surfaces available like my dining table and the kitchen surfaces. I use what’s in my cupboards and don’t go out and buy things specially for a shoot. Never, say never but…. In the meantime, I’ve accrued a fair assortment of stuff for that purpose including a pile of napkins and tea towels which I buy in the sales. Dishes tend to be on the small side – it’s easier to shoot and to make things look generous. Having said that if you are propping with cutlery, this needs to be in proportion.  Car boot sales and markets in the UK have been the best hunting ground for cutlery.

Natural props are my favourite and I like using the ingredients pertinent to the dish. I always remember the advice from my Prue Leith book about ‘simple with elaborate’ and ‘keep it relevant’.

Hunting grounds are everywhere but in Dubai: Daiso, Crate and Barrel (sale), Tavola, Lakeland, Pottery Barn (sale), Little Luxuries (Town Centre Mall) and of course Dragon Mart (if you can stand to lose hours of your life!). Elsewhere I love Tavistock Pannier Market and wish I’d taken an extra bag for the flea market in Tbilisi, Georgia.

If KP reads this he’ll realise exactly what Is in all the cupboards – gulp!

Lightroom (and Photoshop)

I wish I’d bought Lightroom along with my camera. It’s a fantastic tool for organising your pics as well as brilliant post-processing. If you can use your camera (see above) you can use Lightroom. I was given Photoshop but it’s not intuitive. I have to Google all the time as I forget how to do things. The beauty of Lightroom is that it also works with Photoshop as it’s Adobe. You can edit in Lightroom then open the image in Photoshop (for instance for adding text to an image) but save a copy back into Lightroom.  This gives it the edge over Apple’s Aperture for me. (Adobe CS2 suite is available for free download from Adobe – thanks to Gavin on Twitter for this).

Hard drives

Backing up your work, especially your images, is a chore ….but vital. A photographer I know downloads the images from her camera (via Lightroom) onto two external hard drives. When they are full, she labels them and keeps them in a safe; it’s her valuable work after all. Another friend never reuses a memory card and keeps them. I use external hard drives – Seagate are very affordable although you have to format them for Mac which is a bit fiddly.


As an avid reader, I confess to very few books on photography. I bought Nikon D5000 from Snapshots to Great Shots by Jeff Revell along with my camera. A lot of it went over my head; my advice would be to take a really good beginner course (as above). Food photography – from snapshots to great shots by Nicole S Young is very practical and has some detailed instructions about editing in Photoshop too (I also follow her blog here) although aimed more at professional photography. It has many example called ‘poring over the picture’ where she tells you how an effect was achieved. Her style is precise and detailed. Plate to Pixel by Helene Dujardin (of Tartelette blog fame) was much anticipated. It covers the basics of your camera, natural light, artificial light, composition, set up, styling and a bit of post-production. There are some beautifully inspiring pics with lots of showing step by step set up pics or before and after. I find the writing style a bit wordy but it’s a useful resource.


To now I’ve shot with natural light only. Yes it would be handy to have a soft box or some Lowel Ego lights …. but for now that can wait.

So that’s a bit about my photography journey – how about you?

What does photography mean to you? Who is your favourite food photographer? Would you read a food blog without pictures? Have you any advice about getting started or improving your photography?

For more links and resources visit my food photography page:Food photography tips and links -

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Where to shop for local, organic veg in Dubai

May 17, 2014

Local, organic veg - www.mycustardpie.comSmelling the delicious aroma of a freshly picked green pepper, sampling a plum tomato that only a few hours ago was on the vine, swapping food tips with other shoppers (what do you do with kohlrabi?), tasting yet another spoonful of amazing raw honey from Yemen, sitting on a rustic bench eating a homemade chicken sausage and egg roll washed down with freshly pressed pomegranate juice, swapping foodie gossip under the palms trees….

My favourite start to the weekend, every single Friday, is the Farmers’ Market on the Terrace next to Emirates Towers where I do my weekly shop for organic, local veg direct from the farmers and much more besides. But you knew that didn’t you. The hotter weather is creeping up, the market has ended for the season and I’m dreading being catapulted back into the dispiriting aisles of the supermarkets contemplating limp, tasteless veg, picked weeks ago and flown in from miles away. But luckily there are some alternatives which may keep us going until the most fallow months; tomatoes and potatoes plus free range eggs from local farms are available in abundance right now which is why I have indexed them for the price comparison. Here’s my view about what’s available….

The Farm House – Al Manzil Souk

The Farm House Dubai - Local, organic veg -

This little shop has the feel of a rustic farm shop and is supplied by the farms who sell at the Farmers Market. If you have been to the market you’ll recognise owner Robert as the man who squeezes the pomegranates. The shop also stocks other local and unusual produce such as rock salt and camel milk soap. You can buy local eggs, chicken, organic milk (from Organiliciouz), local honey and dried goods. It’s the most locally focussed of all shops and apart from occasional fruit from the region, only sells local, organic produce. Prices for some things are similar to buying at the market – some slightly higher as you’d expect.

Price check: (week commencing Sunday 11th May 2014): Tomatoes = 10 AED per kg,  free-range eggs , potatoes = 10 AED per kg – all local and organic.

Where to find it: At Souk Al Manzil. Easy to park in the underground car park by the Al Manzil Hotel entrance, Downtown, Dubai.

Greenheart – Al Barsha

Greenheart - My Custard Pie-4

I remember the excitement of visiting Eleanor Kinanes’s first shop when it opened and the awful disappointment when it closed so suddenly. Greenheart is now a much larger business with close relationships with local farms and a thriving wholesale operation. The farm shop is close to the Miracle Garden and opens three days a week – or you can order online from a range of local and imported organic fruit and vegetables or a local veg box. This is the box scheme I’ve used the most and found the produce the freshest as they pick it that morning. Greenheart holds a small market at Comptoir 101 on Jumeirah Beach Road on Saturday mornings at present.  Eleanor is passionate about what she does and very knowledgeable about water conservation – check the website for more details and to book a farm visit.

Price check (week commencing Sunday 11th May 2014): Tomatoes = 18 AED per kg (or 32 AED for 2kg),  free-range eggs = 18AED for 6, potatoes = 18 AED per kg – all local and organic.

Where to find it: Driving on Umm Suqeim street towards Arabian Ranches take the turn off to Arjan, follow the road round and take a left at roundabout.

Ripe – Umm Suqeim

While Baker and Spice established the Farmers’ Market and built a community,  Eleanor’s passion to work with farmers has brought many different new varieties into the market (often better suited to the hot climate), Ripe’s energy and marketing put veg box delivery on the map in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. They run a number of markets in the UAE although the veg is eclipsed by craft stalls, fast food stands and even a petting zoo at Safa Park. The Ripe shop in Umm Suqeim is calm, bright and pretty and not just about veg. A favourite of the ‘yummy mummy’ crowd it also sells things like cosmetics, ‘Superfoods’, tea, coffee and dairy products (not all organic) as well as a mixture of local and imported fruit and veg. I think you can take away a cup of Raw coffee there too. Ripe has a coding system on their website which shows clearly whether something is organic or local (although not its country of origin) – however at their markets, in their veg boxes and at their shop this is not always apparent so ask before you buy.

Price check (week commencing Sunday 11th May 2014): Tomatoes = 18 AED per kg,  free-range eggs = 15 AED for 6 , potatoes = 15 AED per kg – all local and organic.

Where to find it: Take the last right hand turn from Al Manara street heading towards Sheikh Zayed road. Ripe on the left in the group of shops by the large orange mosque

Other places to buy local, organic veg

Al Shuwib organic farms – you can phone your order direct to this farm (they attend the Farmers’ Market when in season) and they will deliver. 03 732 4114 Facebook

Organic Foods and Cafe – the pioneer and first major supplier of organic foods in Dubai which now has three branches here plus you can order online. It does a thriving business but owner Nils Accad came out quite vociferously in the media against local, organic veg. However, now some local, organic vegetables are now stocked – probably due to customer demand. Price check: (week commencing Sunday 11th May 2014): Tomatoes = 23.50 AED per kg (local potatoes or eggs were not in stock).

Go Organic me – They have been around for a while but recently launched a new website and online ordering. They work with local farms and supply veg boxes of different types including a weekly juicing box. They mix local and imported but all produce is organic. Founder Meenaxy Vashishtha is driven by personal conviction about organic produce. Price check: (week commencing Sunday 11th May 2014): Tomatoes = 27 AED per kg,  free-range eggs = 15 AED for 6 , potatoes = 22 AED per kg – I think these are local (no details on website for individual items).

Bio Organic – an attractive new store in Tecom which offers an alternative to OF&C. Local, organic produce is stocked but this is not their core business and most is shipped in from Europe and beyond. Price check: (week commencing Sunday 11th May 2014): Potatoes – 22 per kg (local tomatoes or eggs were not in stock).

Blue planet, green people – the Jumeirah Lakes Towers location means I have never visited this shop although I know they have been selling local, organic veg for a few years and ran a market at one point. You can order from their website and they provide veg boxes too. Price check: (week commencing Sunday 11th May 2014): Tomatoes = 20 AED per kg,  free-range eggs = 24 AED for 12 , potatoes = 24 AED per kg.

Union Coop also stocks some local organic produce if you get there early in the morning.

Do you shop with the seasons? Are you missing the Farmers’ Market? Have I missed anyone off this list? What do you do when the growing season comes to an end?

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