Sunday, November 12, 2017


You can’t go anywhere without hearing about Russia in the news these days. And, well, they’ve pretty much been in our news and forethoughts quite a bit over the last 100-150 years, give or take. It’s like we have a frenemy relationship with them. If our countries had Facebook pages, our relationship status would be “It’s complicated.” However, I’ve been a huge fan of Russian literature and Russian classical music for a long time and have played around with learning Russian on Duolingo but have forgotten almost all of the Cyrillic I taught myself.
Russia is named after the medieval Slavic state, Rus. There were actually other states denoting the same name. The Kievan Rus, which was one of the largest of these, were made of these medieval Rus tribes along with Swedish warriors and merchants who relocated to the area. Most other languages base their word for Russia on the root “Rus” although there are a few outliers (Finnish, Estonian – you have some explaining to do). 

As the largest country by area, Russian is one of the few countries that span two continents (Europe and Asia) and 11 time zones. Its European neighbors include Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, and Ukraine. It also includes the exclave Kaliningrad situated between Lithuania and Poland. Its neighbors in Asia include Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, North Korea, and a maritime border with Japan and the US. Russia also touches a number of bodies of water: Baltic Sea, Black Sea, Caspian Sea, Sea of Japan, Sea of Okhotsk, Bearing Sea, East Siberian Sea, Kara Sea, and Barents Sea. Lake Baikal in Siberia is the deepest lake in the world. Although most of the country is known for its harsh winters, parts of its southern reaches can stay quite mild during the winters (which is why I thought Sochi was a weird decision for a Winter Olympics).

Although the Greeks and Romans visited the area since the 8th century BC, the Rus and other Slavic tribes started moving into this area around the 7th century. By the 10th century, the Kievian Rus were one of the most flourishing tribal states throughout Europe. It was around this time when they adopted Orthodox Christianity from the Byzantines. Unfortunately, they fell to the Mongols who were moving onto their turf. The Grand Duchy of Moscow emerged in its place but were still dealing with attacks from the Mongols and Tatars. In 1547, Ivan the Terrible was crowned as the first Tsar (“Caesar”). He was the one responsible for really expanding Russia’s territory. The Romanov Dynasty began in 1613. This was a time of continued uprisings and conflicts; the Cossacks, a semi-military self-governing group, rose to prominence and later aligned themselves with the Tsardom, helping the Russians explore Siberia. By the time Peter the Great (namesake of St. Petersburg) was in power, Russia was seen as a world power. Catherine the Great and Alexander I both greatly expanded Russia’s territories, and in 1820, Russian explorers first landed in Antarctica. Nicholas II, the last tsar, was made famous because his entire family was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918 (the basis of the 1997 movie Anastasia). Russia entered WWI on the side of Serbia. Afterwards, it became a communist state at the influence of Vladimir Lenin. When Josef Stalin took over, he basically killed everyone who didn’t think like him and enacted an extreme form of state atheism. Although Russia tried to befriend Germany during the early part of WWII, Germany still invaded Russia and then it was on. Nikita Khrushchev tried to undo what Stalin put into place and encouraged the Russian Space Program, finally launching the Sputnik I in 1957. Mikhail Gorbachev tried to build on that, but high inflation left the economy in a rough place. In 1991, Russia broke up with itself, and 15 separate states were created. Boris Yeltsin was the first president voted in. The 1990s generally saw a period of corruption, economic instability, and lawlessness. Violent crime and criminal gangs were on the rise. Vladimir Putin became president in 2000 (although he switched positions with Dmitri Medvedev and became the PM in 2008, but then switched back in 2012). In 2014, Putin invaded Crimea and annexed it for Russia. 

Moscow is the largest city and capital of Russia. Located on the European side of the country, it has over 17 million people in its urban area. It has Ostankino Tower (the tallest skyscraper in Europe), and it’s also famous for sites such as the Kremlin (where the seat of government meets), the Red Square, Saint Basil’s Cathedral, and Gorky Park. Today, Moscow is a modern city with many museum, theatres, galleries, sports venues, world-class restaurants and entertainment, a center for commerce, and universities.

Russia has an upper-middle income mixed economy. They’re one of the most expensive countries to visit. And while things have become more stable over the past 15 years or so as far as unemployment rates and the average nominal salary, the middle class is slowly diminishing, feeling the effects of income inequality. Agriculturally, they are a huge producer of grains, meat, fish, and forest products. Science, technology, and space programs are also very much economic drivers in Russia.

Orthodox Christianity has been around Russia since about the 10th century. However, many people in Slavic countries have double beliefs in Orthodox Christianity and one of the indigenous beliefs. During the communist years, a Marxist-Leninist form of forced atheism dominated. There is still a significant number of atheists in Russia (including those who adhere to a spiritualism but not necessarily religious). There are also smaller number of other Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and other religions in Russia.

There are actually about 100 languages spoken in Russia, with Russian being the most widely-spoken and the official language. Tatar and Ukrainian come in second and third. Russian is the second-most used language on the Internet (hi, hackers!), after English. It also serves as an official language on the International Space Station. There are also 35 other languages that are official languages in various regions of the country.

Siberia has always been a fascination for me. It’s so desolate. It’s always been the epitome of harshness. “I will dump you off in Siberia and leave you there.” “It feels like Siberia in this office.” (That second one could go both ways.) And there are some weird things out there. First of all, the people are so super healthy, they go swimming in bikinis and stuff down ice-fishing holes. I guess somehow they’re immune to hypothermia. But, cool. Pretty much the whole area is nothing but permafrost. And with global warming thawing a lot of it out, it’s releasing a lot of previously trapped methane. And that’s no bueno. Oh, and then there’s the Dalkdykan River that runs red. Probably from the blood of their enemies. Or iron deposits or something. Not to mention that some of the oldest human remains have been found in Siberia, even though the remains were unlike any they’ve ever found.  [Cue X-Files theme.]

Up next: art and literature

Monday, November 6, 2017


Well, my birthday came and went. And so did our 13th wedding anniversary. And so did Halloween. Last weekend, we finally took a trip to Cincinnati to visit the famous international grocery store Jungle Jim’s. It was amazing! We ended up with several cheeses, a bunch of candy, ice cream, and some other random stuff I totally needed. I want to go back again, but everyone was right: you’re not getting out of there spending less than $100. 

I had this for breakfast. It goes well with coffee. Especially the middle part of the bread.
But today is for cooking Romanian food. I started out with Cozonac bread. I put 1/3 c + 1 Tbsp of flour in a bowl. Then I brought 300 mL of milk to a boil but only poured 1/3 c + 1 Tbsp of the milk into the flour, stirred and let it cool down. I proofed my yeast with a little warm water and ½ tsp of sugar. Once the flour-milk mixture cooled down, I poured the yeast mixture into it and mixed it all together, covering with a towel and let it rest for 15-20 minutes. While I was waiting on that, I melted 7 Tbsp of butter and then let it cool a little. In a separate bowl, I mixed together 4 egg yolks and ½ tsp of salt, then adding in 1 Tbsp vanilla sugar, zest from ½ a lemon, ½ sugar, ½ Tbsp of rum (I used Bacardi Limón), 1 ½ Tbsp of vegetable oil, and half of the melted butter. I mixed this pretty well, and then poured it into the flour-milk-yeast mixture. At this point I added in the rest of the lukewarm milk from earlier and stirred. I sifted in the remaining 3 2/3 c of flour into the mixture, stirring and kneading it until it comes together and starts to pull itself from the sides of the bowl. I added in the rest of the melted butter and kept stirring and kneading the dough. I covered it and let it rest for another 15-20 minutes. While I was waiting on that, I made my filling. Of the four eggs I had, I reserved 2 of the egg whites and whisked them until they started to become stiff. Then I added in a ½ c of sugar and 1 Tbsp of rum and whisked it all again. I was supposed to whisk it until it became stiff again, but that never really happened, so I folded in my ground walnuts (about ½ c) anyway, hoping it would thicken up (it did a little). I rolled my dough out until it was about a ¼” thick or thinner and until it was about 14” x 23” large. I spread the filling out on top of the dough and used a knife to cut the dough in half (from the long side, creating two squares). Beginning on the side that was cut, I rolled the bread up and creased the edges, placing it in a buttered bread pan. I did the same for the other loaf and let both sit for another 10 minutes while the oven heated up to 375ºF. I put both in the oven and baked it for 45 minutes. When they were done, I took them out and let them cool. The tops of mine got a little darker than I like, but the flavor was great. The inside was so soft. I think I’m going to take my second loaf and make a bread pudding out of it -- maybe a vanilla and cranberry one.

I loved this! I'm going to attempt this again with some slight variations.
For the main meal, I made Cordon bleu snitel, a Romanian version of schnitzel. Not to be confused with the character Schnitzel from the cartoon Chowder. This called for cutting a boneless pork tenderloin into 8 equal parts and pounding it between two pieces of plastic wrap. After I did that for each one, I seasoned it with a little bit of salt and pepper. Then I placed a piece of prosciutto and thinly sliced piece of Swiss cheese on each one. Then I rolled it up, rolled it in flour, then an egg-water mixture, then some breadcrumbs, and fried it in a hot skillet with a little vegetable oil. I turned it to brown on both sides. But even though the breadcrumbs were browned, the pork wasn’t quite cooked all the way through. Maybe my slices were a little too thick. So, I put them on a baking sheet and put them in my oven at 375 for about 20 minutes. Then they were perfect. I really liked this, and it seemed to go over well with the rest of my picky family. I could probably save time and buy those thinly cut pork cutlets next time.

These were actually a bit too small. Next time, I'm going to try baby bellas.
To go with this, I made Ciuperci la cuptor, or baked mushrooms. This is a variation of stuffed mushrooms. I used smaller white mushrooms, washed them and removed the stems. I greased a baking sheet with olive oil and laid the mushrooms out on it. Then I brushed the mushrooms in a mixture of olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic powder. I prepared the filling: I mixed together some breadcrumbs with salt, pepper, garlic powder, olive oil, a little water and placed it in each mushroom. I topped this with some Parmesan cheese and a little bit of fresh dill. I baked this at 400ºF for about 20 minutes. I put a little too much salt in the breading mix, but otherwise, I thought they were a great accompaniment to the snitel. I do realize I didn’t serve any other vegetables with this meal, which I try to do. But that’s ok. I’ll get my veggies in later.

Looks like crap, but it's not. It's actually really good. Would also go well with coffee.
And to finish everything off, I made a dessert this time: Cherry filled Cocoa Truffles. I crushed some animal crackers until it was almost a powder with a few rough pieces in it. In a separate bowl, I beat together the sugar, cocoa, and butter together. I left out the ground walnuts, but wondered later if I should’ve added them in. I warmed up some milk and poured it on the crushed animal crackers, then added in my cocoa mix and stirred everything together. Taking a spoon, I spooned out a little bit of the candy and tried to form a ball. This is when I knew things weren’t going to be easy. Then I put a maraschino cherry on it, wrapping the rest of the cocoa mix around it. It was so loose that it was almost like a thick oatmeal but with finer particles. Definitely not rolling these. I expected them to turn out more like Brazilian brigadeiros. So, I’m wondering if there were some steps missing from my recipe. I ended up plopping it on some wax paper and dousing it in powdered sugar. They looked like a small dog pooped on a plate then covered it in snow. But as they sat there, they set up more, and they tasted pretty tasty!

This was mighty tasty, if I may say so myself. And I just did.
I couldn’t help but wondering while I was whisking the egg whites together who thought this up first. I’m pretty sure it was probably some form of early punishment. “Oh, Roberto, you’ve made such a mess of things: what am I going to do with you? Sit here and whisk these egg whites nonstop until I think of something.” [10 minutes later] “Mom… Am I done yet?” “No, just keep stirring! I'm still thinking.” [3 years later] “Roberto, ok, you can get up now. What is that?” “I kept stirring like you asked. Am I really done this time?” “Yes. But give me that. I’ve got some ideas I want to try with this. But don’t go far – if this turns out well, I’m going to need you again.” And there you have it. True story.

Up next: Russia 

Saturday, November 4, 2017


Romanian music is a mix of modern music of a variety of styles and folk music. And unlike other areas and countries where folk music kind of waned during the 20th century, Romanian folk music didn’t really lose footing and still has quite a following. Several folk musicians have even risen to international fame. Because of its location, Romanian folk music draws influences from both Russian and Western traditions. 

Styles of folk music vary among the different regions. However, there are a few things that bind them all. First of all, the use of the violin is prevalent as far as instrumentation goes. Woodwinds such as pipes/flutes and taragot (related to a clarinet and saxophone) are also commonly played with the violin as well as a variety of drums. In some areas, brass instruments like the trumpet are used. String instruments like guitar, double bass, and cobza (related to a lute) are also commonly played alone and in ensembles. One of my favorite instruments, the accordion, is also sometimes used, as is the bagpipes.

One of the most well known styles of folk music is the doina. There’s a corresponding dance that goes with it. Meaning “shepherd’s lament,” it has its roots in both Romanian music and Middle Eastern music. There are several variations to it.

Folk dancing is also highly based on region. Many of the traditional folk music styles have dances that go along with them. Some of the dances commonly performed in Romania include the Arcan, Sârba, Hora, Calusari, Legényes, and Perinita. Bela Bartok was actually so enamored with Romanian folk dancing that he wrote his own Romanian Folk Dances. There’s actually a Romanian folk dance group out of Canton, Ohio, who performs many of these dances and promotes the culture. I didn’t know there was something like this just in the next state.

As far as popular music goes, I listened to several genres. They draw much of their influences by the rest of Europe and the US. When it comes to pop-techno and electronica, I listened to Tom Boxer (the album I listened to was almost like an homage to Brazil), Morandi (kind of ambient techno mixed with world beat and pop), Akcent (pop + autotune + quasi-trance), Edward Maya (pop-trance), Alexandra Stan (pop mixed with Latin influence), Inna (dance-pop + a little bit of hip-hop + Latin), and Yarabi (dance-pop).

There are a few hip-hop groups I listened to. The first was R.A.C.L.A. and the second was Parazitii. Both had a decent flow and music that had a good beat. And both had enough diversity in their songs, so that each song sounds different from the next one. I also listened to B.U.G. Mafia. They tend to mix in strings and flutes (or something like it) into their music.

I also listened to several rock bands as well: Timpuri Noi (pop-rock), Celelalte Cuvinte (kind of indie rock), Transylvania Phoenix (older folk rock), Mondial (probably more pop than rock), Holograf (indie rock), Bosquito (indie rock), Voltaj (alternative rock), VH2 (softer mainstream rock), and La Familia (ska, punk).

Up next: the food

Thursday, November 2, 2017


Art in Romania is generally divided into two categories: folk art/crafts and classical art. Around Easter time, Romanians decorate hollowed out eggs and paint them with intricate patterns. Red is a common color with other colors. Depending on the region, the patterns and designs have a secret meaning known only to the people of that region. Other places in Eastern Europe also take up this practice. Ceramics are also an art form, and each region is known for a particular style. 

Textile art is a form of functional art. It not only incorporates the dying of fabric, but it also includes other forms of weaving as well as embroidery. Romanian women use these techniques on a variety of items like tablecloths, pillow cases, wall coverings, and clothing. They also weave rugs with folk patterns that include nature scenes and designs.

Masks have links to old folk festivals and are often decorated with feathers, fabric, metallic pieces and beads, straw, and other materials. They’re mostly designed to look like animals. Although glass art has waned a bit, there’s been a growing interest in blown glass art again. (Blown glass art is awesome and should’ve never been left out in the cold like that.) Wood carving is also pretty common as well. Gates and doorways are still pretty common areas to find these elaborate carvings. The actual object is typically something functional, but many of the objects carved into it are of nature: stars, flowers, trees of life, or wolf teeth (the better to eat you, my dear). 

One popular tourist spot is the Merry Cemetery of Sapanta. It’s known for its carved and brightly painted wooden crosses that mark the graves. They’re mainly blue. It’s actually become almost like an outdoor museum and now contains more than 800 of these wooden crosses. It was created by artist Stan Ioan Patras in 1935 when he carved the first epitaph. I’m not one for being buried or for crosses, but these are certainly cool to look at. 

Painting has long been a tradition in Romania, and many of their artists followed the trends from the rest of Europe. Of course, like a moody teenager, the subject matter changed throughout the years. Some painters who have been influential in Romania’s art history include Paul Paun (surrealism, modernism), Alexandra Nechita (cubism), Marcel Janco (art nouveau, dada, art deco, cubism, post-impressionism), Ion Theodorescu-Sion (post-impressionism, divisionism, art nouveau, fauvism), János Mattis-Teutsch (art nouveau, post-impressionism, abstract art), and many others.

by Alexandra Nechita

Romanian literature is primarily written in the Romanian language. The earliest known copy of anything written in Romanian is a letter (known as Neacsu's Letter) written in 1521 (still reading your business almost 500 years later). The Eastern Orthodox Church is huge in Romania, and its influence spread pretty far in their culture and literature. Many of the first books written in Romanian are books published by the church.

During the time Romania was under control by the Ottoman Empire, Greek culture was introduced into their culture as well. The Greeks were well known for their epic poetry, and the Romanians developed their love songs in the style of a few choice Greek poets. Comedy was also utilized as a theme in poetry. Along with poetry, Ienăchiță Văcărescu created the first grammar book for Romanian during the 18th century.

from Ionesco's "The Chairs"

As talk of independence arose, so did nationalism. Literary journals and literary circles began to form, and a push toward all kinds of genres and styles of written works began to be published. After WWI, Romanian writers really started developing the novel, entering them in the Golden Age. A few writers who gained notoriety during this time include Mihail Sadoveanu, Tristan Tzara, and George Bacovia. After WWII, the literary scene still grew, even during the Communist years to an extent. Marin Preda is one novelist who is often considered one of the more important writers after WWII. Poetry and theatre were two genres that still had quite a push. Eugène Ionesco is one of the more prominent playwrights known for his contributions to the Theatre of the Absurd. I think he’s probably most known for his play called “The Chairs.”

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, October 29, 2017


It’s some twist of fate perhaps that I land on Romania at Halloween time. The region of Transylvania, which is located in Romania, is the setting of Bram Stoker’s famous book, “Dracula.” The character is very loosely based on the actual person from history Vlad the Impaler. I actually have never seen any of the 40,000 Dracula movies, but I did read the book years ago, and it was an excellent read.

The name Romania is based on the word romanus, referring to someone from Rome. But why Rome? Well, during the 16th century, travelers from Rome ventured into this area, and since Rome was a major city during this time, it stuck. The country actually went through several name changes, but it eventually landed on Romania. In English, you may find it spelled Rumania and Roumania in older texts; it didn’t become universally spelled with an o until the mid-1970s.

Romania is actually quite a large country in eastern Europe. It’s bordered by Ukraine to the north, Moldova and the Black Sea to the east, Bulgaria to the south, Serbia to the southwest, and Hungary to the northwest. The country is widely mountainous, with the Carpathian Mountains running through the central part of the country. There are several rivers that wind their way through Romania including the famous Danube, which forms the southern border with Bulgaria. The climate can vary from a more moderate climate near the Black Sea to quite cold and snowy in the mountains.

Dating back to 40,000 years ago, the oldest human remains in Europe were found at Pestera cu Oase. Romans started venturing into the area and introduced Latin to those who were already there. During the Middle Ages, there were three main regions here: Transylvania, Wallachia, and Moldavia. For a long time, Transylvania was a part of Hungary. However, much of the Balkans joined together in the fight against the Ottoman Empire. Although they did end up falling under Ottoman rule, these three regions of Romania maintained a certain amount of autonomy. However, by 1600 all three joined together and was ruled by the Wallachian prince Michael the Brave. (At least he has a name you can take home.) By the mid-1800s, they had created the precursor for their flag and began talks of independence. But given the instability of several different conflicts and wars throughout Europe, it was delayed somewhat. After Romania helped out Russia in the war against Turkey, they ended up creating the Kingdom of Romania and actually had a period of stability up until WWI. They tried to remain neutral during WWI, but halfway through, they saw the war encroaching upon them, a cease fire was signed. Romania was hit hard during WWII, with a large number of Jews and Roma (gypsies) included in the Holocaust. After the war, the Communist party cheated the election and “won,” leaving the country under communist rule until 1989. Many changes took place during the 1990s and 2000s as the government tried to stabilize its finances and economy as well as put policy into place for a democratic government.

The capital city is Bucharest, which I used to often confuse with Budapest. Bucharest is located along the Dâmbovita River in the southern part of the country. The city became the capital in 1862 and known for its architecture, nicknamed “Little Paris” by some. As the center for government, finance, education, and the arts, it’s no wonder the metro area around Bucharest has about 2.2 million people (give or take a few). Bucharest has a lower crime rate than most European capital cities, especially for violent crime, but petty crime (mainly pickpocketing) is still pretty common, as in most places. However, it has a pretty high quality of life overall.

I would totally want to do this!
Romania has an upper-middle income economy, based on data from the World Bank. After trying to rebuild itself during the 1990s, it finally developed enough of an industrial base to help pull themselves the other way. And even though they began to show some stability, they couldn’t escape the 2008 economic crisis (although they’ve made significant strides since then). Romania is part of the EU and has relatively low unemployment compared to other EU countries. It has long been on the forefront of science and technology as an economic driver, and tourism is an important factor as well.

Romanian Orthodox Christian Cathedral in Sibiu, Romania
There is no official religion in Romania, although an overwhelming majority of the population practices (or say they adhere to) some form of Christianity. There is a small number of people who practice other religions and an even smaller number of non-religious or atheists. (At least there are some around somewhere.)

Apparently this warns drivers of drunk pedestrians. Lovely.
The Romanian language is the official language in Romania (makes sense). It’s part of the Romance family of languages, along with French, Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish. Hungarian and Vlax Romani are also spoken by a significant number of people. There are also a ton of recognized minority languages in Romania. English and French tend to be the most popular foreign languages learned in schools (I’m still trying to learn those two myself).

Romanian scientists and inventors have contributed much to the world. Some of the inventions and endeavors attributed to Romanians include the first automatic steam espresso machine, modern jet engine, the discovery of insulin, fountain pen, the first self-propelled flying “automobile airplane,” the beginning foundations of cybernetics, among with tons of other inventions. It must be nice to be in a country that embraces science rather than denies its existence.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, October 22, 2017


I typically cook on Sunday, simply because I get paid on Friday and buy my ingredients on Saturday. I usually bypass anything on my cooking Sundays, but this was one of those weekends where I actually had something scheduled on Sunday (I couldn’t miss my grandmother’s 95th birthday!). So, I ended up moving things around and cooking on Saturday, which totally threw me off of what day it was.

So versatile, I'm keeping this recipe as my go-to pita recipe.
As usual, I started with the bread: Markouk Bread. This bread is like a pita bread, something I haven’t made yet. I proofed my yeast by mixing a yeast packet and a tablespoon of sugar in ¼ c of warm water and let it sit for about 10 minutes. Then in a larger bowl, I mixed 3 ½ c of flour. I swear I had enough all-purpose flour, but I only had enough for about 2 cups, and that was topped off with the last bit of spelt flour. So I substituted 1 ½ c of whole wheat flour for the remaining portion along with ½ tsp of salt. Making a well in the center, I poured in 1 c of warm water and the yeast mixture and stirred until it came together as a dough. I dumped it out on my pastry mat and kneaded it a little more, using a little more flour to stop it from being so sticky. Then I poured in just a little bit of vegetable oil and coated the bowl, putting my dough ball inside and rolling it to coat it just a little. Luckily I still had a piece of cheesecloth left over, so I dampened it and placed it over the dough and let it rest for 2 hours. After it rested, I punched down the bread and pulled apart enough dough about the size of a billiards ball and flattened it out with my hand. Then I cooked these in a skillet with a little oil in it, turning when it browns. It puffed up, some more than others. I thought these were great; and actually, I kind of liked it the way I made it with the two different (technically, three) flours. I want to open it and stuff it with something later, but the ones for today were to go with the next dish.

Who doesn't like chicken stew? Apparently my family.
Which brings me to Chicken Threed, the main dish of the day. In seemingly typical Middle Eastern fashion, this meal has a ton of ingredients although I left out a couple. I cut up about 2 lbs of chicken breasts into smaller pieces and boiled it for about 15-20 minutes. In a larger pot, I sautéed my onions in the bottom of the pot, then I added in some minced garlic, ground ginger, tomato paste, diced potatoes, diced eggplant, diced tomatoes, green chilies, sliced limes (in lieu of dried lime), and stirred. I did leave out the baby marrows because I forgot to Google what this even is. After a few minutes, I threw in my chicken pieces, some of the chicken stock from boiling it earlier, a couple of bouillon cubes (I have to use the fake stuff because of the MSG in the others), bell pepper, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, curry powder, garlic powder, ground coriander, cardamom, crushed red pepper, and a little garam masala for good measure even though it wasn’t listed (I thought I still had some Baharat mix in the back of my cabinet but didn’t feel like digging it out). After letting it simmer for 10 minutes, I added in a handful of cilantro leaves and let it simmer for 10 more minutes. The potatoes should be soft at this point. To serve this, I laid out a piece of the Markouk bread and poured this on top of it. I really liked this, but no one else seemed to like it. I’m not even sure why. My husband said it tasted too “flowery” to him – probably the cinnamon and cardamom, but I wasn’t telling him that’s what it was. He’s so weird sometimes.

As a first-time try, this was A+.
Qatari Tabbouleh was my side dish I picked out. I wanted a cold side dish as a contrast, so I thought this would be great. And I don’t think I’ve ever even eaten it, much less made it. It was pretty easy. I bought red bulgur wheat and soaked ½ c of it in water (covering it completely) for 15 minutes. Then I mixed in lemon juice, minced garlic, and some salt and pepper and stirred, letting it rest for about a half hour. I added in some chopped parsley and mint, scallions, and diced tomatoes, and a tad bit of olive oil into it. I threw in a little more lemon juice and a little bit of garlic powder into it as well, and let it chill. I liked this, even though the mint was very noticeable. I thought it had a good flavor, but again, I think I was the only one with that opinion.

This is a keeper. My husband thinks it needs gin. I would agree.
I haven’t done a drink for a while, so I thought I’d give a go at a Lemon-lime mint drink. I squeezed 4 lemons and 3 limes into a pitcher, sifting out the seeds when I was done. Instead of making my own simple syrup, I just used some I bought at the store. I added in 1/3 c of simple syrup to my juices along with some chopped mint leaves. Then I poured the whole thing into my blender plus a bottle of water. I blended it until the mint leaves were about as small as they were going to get and it was a little frothy on top. Pouring this back into my pitcher, I added another 3 ½ bottles of water and stirred. It was still a little too sour for my taste, so I added in ½ c of baker’s sugar to it. My husband thought I should’ve added another ½ c, but I liked it the way it was. This one, however, was something everyone enjoyed. I thought it was quite refreshing.
I thought this was fantastic. And my opinion counts as 4 opinions. Because I'm the mom. 
I’ve finally accepted the fact that there will be some meals not everyone enjoys (there will be no meal quite like the wine venison, though; that one lives in infamy). And even though I enjoyed it, I was in the minority on this one. And that’s ok. I guess. I realize that my tastes typically have a wider range than most people’s tastes are. I have such a wide palate that there’s not a restaurant out there I can’t find something good to eat at – I enjoy upscale cuisine and pub fare all the same.

Up next: Romania

Saturday, October 21, 2017


One of the most common types of folk music in Qatar is that of sea shanties. And in particular, work songs that were created for the pearl divers. These songs were sung only by men which encouraged everyone to keep in a routine while working and to give them something to focus on during the long, tedious days. They would have different songs for the different activities they were doing, each activity with a different rhythm. Group singing was an important part of the job, and each boat had its designated lead singer. In a way, I suppose the lead singer is the one responsible for production?


Women also had their music as well. Most of their traditional songs were also work songs, except theirs were about gathering crops and cooking. Of course, they also developed songs for when the pearl divers came to shore as well. Whenever a ship would come in, they would gather and break into song. (That happens at my work sometimes, too. But it’s usually met with mixed reaction.)

Many of the instruments used in Qatari music are similar to that of nearby countries. Instruments generally fall into three categories: strings (oud, rebaba), percussion (cymbals, tambourines, tabl, tus/tasat, galahs, and a variety of drums including the al-ras), and wind instruments (ney, other types of flutes)

The Qataris have several dances that accompany their music. One dance that is still danced in Qatar is the ardah. This is a men-only dance, where two lines of men face each other. Sometimes a few dancers may don swords, because you know, swords are cool. The actual music behind this is generally just percussion and spoken poetry. The ardah is actually performed across the Persian Gulf states, and there are two types: land ardahs and sea ardahs. But the Qatari ardah is somewhat of a mix of the two styles. Women only have two dances that are performed a couple times per year. The al-moradah dance is generally before Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Dancers find a place off the beaten path and wear their best embroidered clothes. All women, despite where they fall in social class, gather to dance this dance. Although it’s somewhat fell in popularity since the 1950s, it’s sometimes performed at weddings. The other dance, al-ashori, is almost solely performed at weddings.  The lyrics are typically based on nabati poetry and are accompanied by the tabl drum. 

There weren’t too many examples of modern music from Qatar. Popular music is still pretty censored and restricted, I gathered. However, there was one musician, Naser Mestarihi, who has ties to Qatar. This Jordanian-Pakistani musician was born in Qatar and has worked with both a metal band called Asgard Legionnaires along with producing his own rock album. To me, it was definitely a hard rock album, with a few elements of 80s hair bands like Whitesnake, Cinderella, or Def Leppard. Not only do they do hard rock, but they also show a softer, more melodic side to them as well. I actually really liked the music, and they sing in English, so that’s a plus for me as an English speaker. It’s the type you can rock out to in your car with the windows down. 

There is also a small but growing rock band following in the Doha area. Although there aren’t as many bands that are widely known outside of the area, there are several smaller local and amateur bands that entertain locals and expats alike. And for the most part, these bands are made of ex-pats and foreigners living in Qatar. One of the problems is that there aren’t that many places to play a gig, but that’ll chance, I hope. Most of these bands end up doing covers of familiar songs because that’s what tourists know. I found a few bands on YouTube like Yema, The Exiles, Cronkite Satellite, and Sector 9 (a Lebanese band based in Qatar).

Up next: the food

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


Prehistoric rock carvings and rock art have been found in several places around Qatar. Some of these drawing depict humans, animals (like turtles, ostriches, and fish), and boats while others were merely geometric and tribal designs. 

There are a ton of other folk art styles. Weaving and dying fabric is common, especially in a Bedouin fashion. Typically sheep or camel wool is used while the dyes were made from herbs and other natural resources. Embroidery was also a common ornamental feature in clothing. Gold threads imported from India were frequently used. There were several different kinds of stitches used as well as designs like flowers and birds.

A certain amount of art and aesthetics went into their historical architecture as well. Although simply made, geometric shapes and symmetry were important decorative features in homes. Elaborately designed doors are frequently created from wood or metal. Much of their architectural design was created with the heat in mind, and windows were seldom used. Instead, they used other ways of ventilation. However, there were vertical windows that were designed to pull in wind and naturally cool the inside of the building. Colored glass is sometimes used as a decorative feature.

Although calligraphy has long been an art form, painting didn’t really gain popularity until after the oil boom struck. Common themes include Arabic and Islamic culture. In order to cultivate more artists, the government offered scholarships to young artists to study abroad, bringing back what they learned to share through exhibitions. Art museums and galleries were then built to preserve and promote Qatari art. Jassim Zaini is often considered the founder of the modern art movement; other artists of note include Faraj Daham, Wafika Sultan Al-Essa, Yousef Ahmad, Salman Al-Malik, and Hassan Al Mulla.

Historically, poetry has been an important part of literature and has been practiced for many centuries. During the 7th century, Qatari ibn al-Fuja’a was well known for his poetry and often considered a folk hero of sorts. Most poetry during was oral and performed during social events. The most common type of poem is the Nabati poem and passed down from generation to generation. Today, they’re still being read on radio and television. Women were also poets as well, but they mostly wrote laments called ritha, which served as elegies. 

Kaltham Jaber
Modern literature, written in Arabic, didn’t really begin until the 1970s when they gained their independence from Britain. And this is one art form where females have been included pretty much equal to men from the beginning. What is amazing is that the first person to publish a book was a woman: Kaltham Jaber first published her anthology of short stories in 1978.

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, October 15, 2017


It’s a weird word how we spell it in English. It violates that one rule about a q always being followed by a u. And how do you pronounce it? I’ve heard it pronounced as “cutter” for years and even pronounced it that way for a long time. However, I did a little research earlier and found a clip from NPR’s “All Things Considered” about the pronunciation of Qatar and came to the conclusion that it’s most likely pronounced as “kuh-TAR,” rhyming with “guitar.” 

Roman writers were well aware of this peninsula, and Pliny the Elder is credited as the first European to give it the name Catharrei, possibly named after some town. However, Ptolomy was the first to draw a map of the area and label it as Catara. During the 18th century, it was labeled as Katara, and today it was changed to reflect a modern Arabic spelling.

The country of Qatar is a peninsula that juts out into the Persian Gulf in the Middle East. It borders one country by land (Saudi Arabia), two countries by water (Bahrain and United Arab Emirates), and is directly across from the country of Iran. The vast majority of the country consists of low plains and deserts. Summers are very hot and dry while the winters are very mild and slightly wetter, although it’s really not by much. On average, the country gets less than 3” of rain each year. 

People have lived on the peninsula since the Stone Age. The Sasanian Empire moved into the area and Qatar contributed to their economy and trade with their pearl cultivation and creation of purple dye. Christianity was introduced about 400 years before Muhammad sent in his scouts to force them to practice Islam instead. This area was also an important breeding ground for camels and horses. And because of its location along the gulf, Qatari cities have long been an important stop in the trade routes. During the mid-1700s, clans from Kuwait started moving into the area. In turn, Qatari forces took over Bahrain. In retaliation to this, the Egyptians and Ottomans teamed up and hit them from the west side while the Omanis hit from the east. In 1821, a ship with the East India Company attacked the city of Doha because it was tired of their piracy. (Who wouldn’t be?) A few years later in 1825, the House of Thani was established as the ruling house, and they’re still in power today. And like most places, Qatar eventually did submit to Ottoman rule. However, initial support waned, and they stopped paying taxes. When the Ottomans stopped by in a “Where my money at?” moment, things went downhill from there, and battle ensued (more or less). In the end the Qataris gained the status of being an autonomous state. Reeling from losses from WWI, the Ottoman Empire relinquished its holdings to the British. Oil was discovered in 1939 but wasn’t explored until the 1950s. It was also part of the Trucial States, although Bahrain broke off, then Qatar, and what would be the UAE. During the Gulf War, Qatar allowed Canada to hole up there as well as the US and France. They also allowed the US to base its operations there after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In June of this year, several of its neighbors and Egypt cut off ties with Qatar because of its alleged support of extremist groups.

The capital of Qatar is Doha and is also one of its chief ports. It literally means “the big tree.” Although it was established in 1825, it wasn’t officially declared the capital until 1971 when they finally gave the boot to the British. The city played an important part along the trade routes and in the pearling industry. Today, Doha has hosted several pan-Arab and pan-Asian sporting events, international conferences, and will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Doha is the center of government, commerce, culture, and higher education. Al Jazeera Media Network, the second largest media company in the world (second to the BBC), is based on Doha. There are a number of art museums, theatres, and even a film festival based here. 

For a long time, fishing and pearling were the main economic drivers for Qatar until the Japanese came up with cultured pearls during the 1920s, which rained on the Qatari’s parade. However, oil was discovered in the gulf, and although it took a while to fully assess the area for extraction, it changed everything. Qatar is the leading exporter of liquefied natural gas. There’s no income tax and unemployment is super low (like 0.1%). Although they have a high-income economy, they rely quite a bit on foreign workers to get there.

Like much of the region, Islam is the majority religion of Qatar. The majority of the people practice Salafi Islam (part of Wahhabism). There are also sizable followers of both Christianity (mostly Catholic) and Hinduism and a smaller group of Buddhists. The minor religions in Qatar are pretty much only practiced by foreigners.

Arabic is the official language here, but locals speak a Qatari Arabic dialect. They even have their own Qatari sign language as well. English is the most studied/most spoken second language, and in many cases (commerce, for example), it’s used as a lingua franca. Because of its international make up of foreign workers, there are many other languages and cultures (mostly Asian) represented in Qatar.

This area is so hot in the summers that it’s nearly unbearable. As a half-Scottish and half-German woman, I would practically burst into flames if I were to go during summer. Architects have come up with some solutions for creating more shadow areas as well as advanced ventilation and cooling systems. They’re even looking into using more reflective materials on the buildings themselves. Scientists predict that if climate change stays its course, Doha and other areas of Qatar will become inhabitable by the 2070s. That’s roughly 50 years from now. I will be 88 years old. It’s entirely possible I will watch this country disappear. And that scares me.

Up next: art and literature