Saturday, July 31, 2010

Ramadan....Coming Soon to a Nation Near You

So we are approximately 10 days out from the holy month of Ramadan in the UAE.  The ninth month on the Islamic calendar is approaching and that means some lifestyle changes on the horizon.  Contrary to popular belief the rules of Ramadan are applied whether you are Muslim or not, so observing the occasion in an Islamic nation can be quite interesting for a foreigner.

Let's start with the basic tenets - you can't eat or drink from sun-up to sun-down, period.  Whether you are fasting or not, you cannot be even seen eating or drinking during this time - including your car.  Thinking about enjoying that latte on your way to work?  Think again.  Unless you are prepared for your coffee to cost 2500dhs I'd advise against it.  There are some who even consider the act of swallowing your own saliva to be breaking the fast, yet spitting is doubly punishable during Ramadan.

Other obligations are as follows:
  • Curb undesirable emotions such as anger, greed, envy, lust, and refrain from gossip.
  • Keep thoughts and actions pure and use the time of fasting for spiritual contemplation.
  • Be charitable and help those in need.
  • Visit friends and family members.
  • Increased modesty - namely woman are encouraged not to wear makeup and cover their knees and shoulders
  • No chewing gum or smoking
  • No loud music or even TV watching
  • No sex during daylight hours
For the most part it isn't all draconian, although enforcement is strict.  Most of the city is in high spirits greeting each other with a "Ramadan Kareem" whenever they get the chance.

When the sunsets, the real celebrations begin.  The fast is broken by a meal called Iftar an evening meal just after sunset, traditionally a light snack of dates and water.  That said, this has not been my experience in the UAE.  Iftar meals are absolute feasts with a roasted lamb stuffed with rice taking center stage.  With a wealth of side dishes both hot and cold, most iftar displays are plentiful.  Then later in the evening it is customary to have Suhoor - the meal in the morning just before sunrise.  The irony is that with all the fasting and feasting most people gain weight during the Ramadan fast if you can believe it!
This what breaking the fast looks like at Bab al Shams resort.

One of the little known facts about this month is that the government requires that all businesses restrict their day by 2 hours, whether employees are Muslim or not.  So the whole town pretty much lets out at 3pm, which is a welcome change - desert heat plus lack of food equals a well deserved nap!

I hope you've enjoyed Ramadan 101!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Spain: Full of "Magical" Animals

I'll begin with a famous scene in the Simpson's 1995 called "Lisa the Vegetarian"...
Homer: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Lisa, honey, are you saying you're never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?
Lisa: No.
Homer: Ham?
Lisa: No.
Homer: Pork chops?
Lisa: Dad! Those all come from the same animal!
Homer: [Chuckles] Yeah, right Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.

Homer needs to take a trip to Spain where nearly every restaurant is a temple to this magical animal!

Secondly an admission - yes we are those people who take pictures of food.  We've got to eat, so we try to make it interesting!  Here are some tasty treats from Spain!

 If any one dish deserves the Gold Medal this trip it is gazpacho!  Matt and I are pretty much equally obsessed, and we managed to eat a bowl for breakfast, lunch, and dinner everyday (nope not kidding).  Good and guilt free?  This stuff is magic.

I've been told that wine isn't a food group.  I beg to differ.  With so little time and so many reds to try we settled on this delicious Granche from the Finca Loranque winery outside Toledo.
Yum.  It may be an Italian dessert but we didn't have any complaints regarding the Spanish version.  This is tiramisu is built in a martini glass starting with the amber Amaretto gel, a espresso mousse, and a cream top.
This is actually round two, Matt found this lady making homemade hand cut potato chips fried in olive oil and topped with sea salt, the day before.  By the end of the trip they were on speaking terms.
Tapas.  The best chorizo I've ever tasted!
Looks a little gross now, but this is like a blue cheese smashed and mixed with the fresh apple cider featured in the last post and was just great on fresh bread.
Leg of pork (with hoof) - both a carving station and an apron hanger?
Ah, a real treat!  This liqueur is made from the berries of the Madrono tree (symbol of Madrid with the bear).  Although not really tasty raw they made a sweet berry tasting liqueur which is served in an edible shot glass!  It is the bottom of an ice cream cone sliced off and dipped in chocolate and then filled. Oh yeah.
A typical delicious lunch: stuffed olives, manchego cheese, serrano ham, and potatoes ali-oli (a garlic cream sauce).
You can't leave Madrid without trying the famous chocolate con churros!  Fried dough (which Matt astutely mentioned looks like the stuff that used to come out of his play-dough machine) dipped in hot melted chocolate.
Yikes!  I had no idea this is what Monk fish looked like until I was introduced in the San Miguel market. 
Matt's choice of dessert in the mercado a cup of meringue and a patriotic cupcake.
Maybe not everyone's cup of tea but this steak tartare at la Gastroteca de Santiago was served with fresh capers and citrus sauce and was awesome.
Matt enjoyed the Piegon, he just hoped it wasn't from New York City.

My fish dish came with a little surprise.  That little guy in the shell is razor clam.  First time I tried that.
Ok! I admit it on our last night there we went to an Italian restaurant and went (gasp) vegetarian!  We couldn't take anymore pork...and that margarita pizza hit the spot, as did the complimentary limoncello.

Me Encanta Madrid!

Ole ole ole ole ole ole ole ole!  We picked the perfect time to visit Madrid!  On the way back from the US for the fantastic Malikowski-Gaucker wedding, Matt and I decided to make the most of our prospective connections.  We had narrowed it down to Madrid or Amsterdam...and chose Madrid.  Turns out that we are just as good at predicting as that darn octopus!

We arrived the day after they won the World Cup and the city was in very high spirits!  This feisty city was a fantastic place to visit.  Prior to our arrival I had heard that Madrid could be a little too 'corporate' or that it was stuffy due to it being the financial center of Spain.  We must have visited two different cities, because Matt and I found Madrid to be full of life, a tremendous amount of energy and always looking for a reason to celebrate (winning the World Cup didn't hurt).

The people were some of the friendliest we've met anywhere!  We also loved practicing our Spanish.  Between my recalling old Sesame Street lessons and working at Chili's in high school combined with Matt's zany ability to recall conversations between his Spanish speaking friends and their parents - we understood about every 3rd word, which was great because surprisingly no one really speaks English.

We had four hot, sunny days, which were mercifully a 'dry heat' - side note, Dubai is NOT a dry heat why does everyone think this? - to explore the city and we made the most of every minute!

 Champions of the World!  The ketchup and mustard was everywhere!

We started our tour of Madrid on segways.  I was skeptical at first, but I am now a total convert.  It was SO much fun.  If you haven't done it you must!  Here were are speeding through the Plaza Mayor at 12mph. 

Out of nowhere the Temple Debod appears in the Parque de la Montana.  Its an actual Egyptian temple from 2200BC that was gifted to the Spanish for their archeologists' help in staving the temple as the waters of Lake Nasser almost destroyed it before the Aswan Dam was build in 1968.

Matt decides halfway through our segway tour to try to bench press our guide Alex in the Retiro.  Told you they were fun people!

Can't you just feel the fun?

It front of the gorgeous Palacio de Cristal in the Retiro park.  It was used as a winter garden for flowers, but now houses temporary exhibits from the Reina Sofia.

Dinner at the famous Restaurante Sorbino de Botin the Guinness Book of World Record's oldest restaurant in the world established in 1725.  We tried the famous dish of the house - suckling pig.

While we were at dinner a university group of strolling musicians came into the restaurant.  Little did we know it was a special ocassion.  The older gentlemen who was at a table next to us with about 20 people was the founding member of this group nearly 40 years ago and the were quite popular around town.  When the current members found out he was in town for a wedding (he lives in Puerto Rico now) they suprised him at the restaurant and "the Maestro" didn't waste any time getting into the performance and we had front row seats (literally we were backed into a corner and couldn't move if we tried).  This guy is great!
We shut down the restaurant with this fantastic family and heard all their old stories, how the maestro met his wife and even played with the grandkids, it was truly very special.
On a side note, it may take the grand-kids some time to appreciate the music of their grandfather.  When ever the group asked for requested they would yell "Waca Waca!" begging the group to play Shakira's World Cup anthem. 

Sorry Germany I am going to have the relinquish your claim to the pork-loving throne.  I have NEVER seen as much pork as I did in Spain.  They LOVE their pig.  Interestingly, I was told the reason they eat so much pork, is that back in the day when they were constantly warring with the Moors it was the only livestock they wouldn't plunder because Muslims can't eat pork.  Clever.

I love me some Dali.  The Centro de Arte Reina Sofia has an amazing collection.  We spent a few hours dissecting these!

The passion, the emotion, the skill...flamenco is so moving!  I was completely mesmerized by the performances.  The Corral de la Moreria is one of the most famous flamenco houses in Madrid.

Who does it better?

Like I said, I was inspired...
The symbol of the city of Madrid in the Plaza de la Puerta del Sol.  The Madroño tree (which sounds like Madrid) is not native to Madrid.  And it is not a strawberry tree.  The berries of the Madroño tree are red like strawberries.  However they are very sweet and are really not good eaten raw.  Unless like us you find out they make an amazing liqueur out of them!

Matt is trying to master the traditional pouring technique for Pachu an Asturain (area in northern Spain) apple cider.  The trick is to hold the bottle as high as you can and the glass as low as you can and attempt to have the stream just hit the side of the glass as you pour about 2 oz.  Once aerated it must be consumed in about 5 minutes before the sediment forms and the bubbles are lost.  Trust me it's worth working for!
Known locally as "Fat Spider Man" (can't see why?) this guy hangs out in the Plaza Mayor and is a total riot.

On our last day we headed to La Castille-Mancha region to try the local wines.  They make some awesome wines with granche and tempranillo grapes, not to mention some great Spanish olive oils.

The barrel room in one of the regions family run wineries.
A fantastic view of Toledo!  The walled medieval city is just 1 hour South of Madrid and it is truly a time warp.

The modern ceiling decor of the Catedral Almudena.
Standing on the balcony of the Almudena, a perfect place to see the entire Palacio Real.  It has over 2,000 rooms!  And the current King decided he doesn't want to live in it - go figure.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Extreme Makeover: Blog Edition

We've got a new look!  You may have noticed some changes here at the Hello, Dubai blog in the past week or so.  We've decided a small reinvention was in order and so with a new template site that reflects Dubai's maritime history and a new url we are ready to go.  

We are thrilled to announce that we are now accessible at:

We hope it's easy enough to remember, and don't worry the original address will still work too, but we had a few friends who thought we said 2 guys, and well...

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy 4th of July! (Don't act like you don't love this song)

In honor of 4th July in Dubai (a workday for us, boooooo) I made Matt listen to my requisite July 4th song.  Must be played once a year on this date - that's an order.  Go ahead sing along, no one's watching.

We were able to get our red, white and blue on this weekend at the American Business Council's annual picnic, complete with hot dogs and fireworks.  I hope everyone is enjoying there day!  Light a sparkler for us!

Where There's Smoke, There's Fire

This is a public service announcement to remind all our loved ones to take fire alarms seriously!

Matt and I were lounging on the couch watching Toy Story 3 (don't ask, don't tell) and enjoying a relaxing Saturday evening when the utterly piercing sound of the building's fire alarm cut through everything.  Haven't never heard our fire alarm before we paused momentarily and then went to grab our shoes.  Just as we had made it quickly to the closet the alarm stopped.

We figured that it was a quick test or a glitch of some kind and just as we were ready to hit the couch again the alarm came through with it's skull-splitting sound.  Being on the 28th floor we weren't looking forward to the trek, but truly it's better to be safe than sorry.  So we went bounding down the stairs until we turned down the stairwell at the 11th floor and were hit with a wall of smoke and noxious fumes that smelled like burning plastic.

My heart rate immediately doubled as I realized that this indeed was not a drill.  We pushed on for another flight of stairs with our shirts over our nose and mouth to filter the air until it was clear that the situation was getting worse.  Matt quickly remembered that our building had two sets of stairs on either side of each floor and suggested we make a run for clearer air.  After quickly checking the wood door with his hand, he instructed me to run as fast as I could to the other side of the hall.  We opened the door and smoke hung in the hallway, and we noticed that the circuit breakers cabinets were open and smoking.  In a few seconds we were in the opposite stairwell and the air was clear - whew!  We ran down the next 9 flights two at a time until we hit the parking garage and were home free.

There was a lot of confusion on the ground and within minutes the police, rescue, ambulance and fire departments had arrived.  The smell of smoke and burning plastic hung in the air outside, and at 110 degrees is was a tough to be stuck out there (considering I had hopped off the couch in knit pajama pants).  Matt and I looked on for awhile until we decided to kill some time but walking to the local grocery store and stocking up.

2 hours later we were allowed back into the building with 2 conditions.  The residents of floor 10 could  not re-enter there apartments and we had to take the stairs.  For anyone whose counting - I know I was - that's a total of 54 flights of stairs equaling 1008 steps!  A small price to pay to be safe, but who knew how hard safety was on the calves?

Thankfully no one was hurt.  They are still looking for the cause of the fire... 

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Hershey's - The Great American Chocolate Bar

Hershey's chocolate, Hershey's chocolate,
Hershey's Chocolate World,
Wherever you go, near or far,You're always near a Hershey Bar.
Hershey's chocolate, real milk chocolate,
Hershey's -- the great American chocolate bar.
If you don't know the song, then you have so much catching up to do! Maybe I was brainwashed as a child but this song can make me smile ear-to-ear on demand. Growing up just 1 hour from Hershey, PA meant that not only did I live in a Hershey's house, but that a summer pilgrimage to the amusement park and Chocolate World was every Pennsylvanian's God-given right. 

I've had Godiva, Galler, Teuscher, and Vosges - but none of them will ever hold a place in my heart like Hershey's.   So you can imagine my sheer joy when I found out that a Hershey's Chocolate World store would be opening next door at the Dubai Mall!  As I secured us tickets for the opening, visions of Mr. Goodbar, Krackel and Reese's Cups filled my head.  We arrived just in time to see my buddy Mr. Reese's - it'd been too long.

Oh, and of course see the ribbon cutting by our own American Consul General and his kids. 

Once we were granted access we tore through the store like, well "like a kid in a candy shop". I squealed when I found the first Peppermint Patty that I'd seen in Dubai and stopped dead in my tracks when I found the Twizzler's Black Licorice! (Yeah, yeah I know 99% of you think it's gross - that's just fine by me. My mother-in-law and I are happy to buy your share).

We pranced around the store while snacking on our new found treats when we were offered the chance to have our picture on our own chocolate bar - didn't have to think twice! Check out this baby, with the Matt and Katie calorie free guarantee.
We shouldn't have filled our tummies so early however. As we went to leave the lovely land of chocolate (Matt was wrestling with a 7 year old for a PayDay) we were given the ultimate reward. I had dreamed of this moment so many times as a kid and now it was upon me. We were gifted the Largest Chocolate Bar in the WORLD! 5 lbs of Hershey's chocolate and it was mine, all mine! Matt couldn't contain his excitement so he offered this display of joy in front of our Emirati friends.

So, who’s coming over for dessert?

And we made it into Ahlan magazine!