A Taste of Home

A Taste of Home

Like most other teenagers at the NYU Abu Dhabi, I soon found myself grumbling about the dining hall’s limited options and the market place’s unreasonable timings.

Gone was the incredible enthusiasm that had consumed me on Candidate Weekend as I shamelessly sent images of my pretty smoked salmon and iceberg lettuce filled salad plate to literally everyone I held dear. (Yes I am that person who unapologetically whips out her camera in simple aesthetic appreciation of a filling, nutritious lunch).

But as grateful as I am for the variety of salads offered at the dining hall, there are only so many leaves a girl (especially an Indian girl raised on tandoored everything) can consume. And no, dal tadka is not my poison of choice.

Electra Street’s food reviewing assignment fell neatly into my lap, just as I was helping myself to more raw sushi from the marketplace.

I spent the rest of the week in a zomato.com induced haze, repeatedly searching for “Indian,” “Healthy,” “Budget friendly,” and “Veggie” options in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

When I found Bite Rite, which prided itself on being a healthy Indian restaurant, I pored over the menu for the better part of an hour. That was perhaps time I should have spent studying something in my actual syllabus, but it turned out to be as rewarding as most of my prescribed reading.

I salivated as I read the 14-page long menu (which has the calorie content of each dish printed next to it, so you know whether you’re making a healthy choice or not), skipping over the salads section completely to the curries and the flatbreads offered. They claimed to have real Indian Chapattis and the mélange of masala-coated ,healthy cooked vegetables that my taste buds have been aching for since the beginning of the semester.

Picture by Riva Razdan.

Picture by Riva Razdan.

It also bore testament to how little we knew about the city, how much we were lacking in forethought before this excursion on Eid and how badly we wanted to eat a home cooked meal.

Fortunately enough, a kind taxi driver directed us to the actual Bite Rite opposite the Abu Dhabi bus station, where we found ourselves 30 dirhams later.

We walked into the café feeling like complete fools for having spent half our money earmarked for the week’s activities on cab fare all over Abu Dhabi due to rash spontaneity, but we walked out of there with the biggest smiles on our faces and the happy glow that only manifests after consuming a satisfying repast.

With every spoon of Goan fish curry soaked rice, I found myself closer to my grandmother and her tangy, coconutty cooking. My muscles and my taste buds rejoiced as I chewed each bite of the whole-wheat chapatti with potatoes and masala coated capsicum, the spiciness of which was perfectly balanced by the cooling cucumber raita.

Picture by Riva Razdan.

Picture by Riva Razdan.

My Syrian companion ordered a healthy version of a Spaghetti Arabiatta while the Indian one almost had a spiritual relationship with his generous portion of paalak paneer (tofu and spinach cooked with spices).

The kicker was this – the entire meal worked out to 30 dirhams per person.

We left, arms groaning with the weight of packed chapattis for the week, with the promise of returning as soon as possible and the name ‘Bite Rite’ like a magical incantation on our lips.

Restaurant Review: IKEA Canteen, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi

Restaurant Review: IKEA Canteen, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi

A while ago, I wrote an article on Art and Home. Consider this piece a follow-up.

Few cities I have visited can pride themselves in having as cosmopolitan a cuisine as Abu Dhabi does. The city’s 1500+ cafés, restaurants, bars, and canteens serve a greater variety of food than I could ever hope to sample. But for all its sumptuous food outlets, Abu Dhabi can feel like a food desert for Scandinavians who yearn for a taste of home. That said, one oasis on Yas Island cooks up the food we so crave: more or less authentic Swedish meatballs.


Swedish meatballs may not look appetizing, but I cherished every bite, including the thirteenth ball the server gave me by mistake. (Photo: Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen)

Save for McDonald’s perfectly geometric hamburger patties, no meat comes in as uniform a serving as IKEA’s 100% horse-meat-free balls doused in a supposedly Scandinavian gravy and served with a generous ladle of mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam. It should scare me that the meatballs I ate in Abu Dhabi this Wednesday tasted and looked exactly like the ones I would buy whenever my family made our biannual pilgrimage to the IKEA outlet near Odense, Denmark. Assuming a truck driver drove directly from the factory in Källby which produces every meatball IKEA sells and took no detours, he would have to drive over 7,000 kilometers to reach the canteen on Yas Island. One would think the time it takes for the meatballs to arrive in Abu Dhabi would make them unpalatable and stale. With that fear in mind, I suppressed my cravings for Scandinavian food for four protracted months. When I caved last December, I realized that far from rendering the meat inedible, the voyage from Sweden to the U.A.E. does the balls well, tenderizing them like a steak under a cowboy’s saddle. Of course, four months of deprivation may have lowered my standards for what I accept as authentic Scandinavian food, or perhaps the Indian server gave me a particularly good dozen on that first visit. Whatever the reason I fell enamored with the canteen on Yas Island; I have made monthly trips to the blue and yellow colossus next to Yas Mall since December.

When I sneaked around the corner that lets shoppers dodge the upstairs labyrinth and headed to the canteen this Wednesday, I had gone almost fifty days without an IKEA fix. Needless to say, my cravings showed. I usually order one dozen of meatballs and a cup of coffee; that Wednesday, I ate a serving of roasted turkey on top of my usual order, and I finished the meal with two cups of coffee and a cinnamon roll, a veritable food orgy for 51 dirhams.


IKEA also serves food that does not come in perfect spheres. Here, roasted turkey with bread dumplings, carrots, Brussel sprouts, and lingonberry jam. (Photo: Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen)

I cannot review the meatballs in a way that does justice to readers who do not know what it feels like to crave food not for the taste of it, but for the memories it contains. I can only say that if IKEA stopped serving heaven by the dozen, I would have no qualms turning vegetarian overnight. Though the taste always struck me as somewhere in the uncomfortable realm between mealy and meaty, I cling to IKEA’s meatballs, because Danes in Abu Dhabi do not have any other food to hang on to. (No, Danish pastries are not Danish; the French call them Viennoiserie (literally “things from Vienna”) for a reason.) For want of something better to cherish, or something actually from Denmark, I cling to the Swedish meatballs whenever I want to reconnect with the country I left behind. Although Danes mostly eat their meatballs in a clear soup dish that most people despise, IKEA meatballs come closer to an accurate representation of Danish cuisine, whether we like it or not.

If some medium told me four years ago that I would revere Swedish meatballs the way I do today, I would likely have laughed and brushed it off. Impossible. Faced with the choice between a spoonful of cod liver oil or a dozen meatballs, my younger self would have swallowed the liver oil to get through the torment as fast as he could. The 2013 horse meat scandal did not help open my mind to the wonders that IKEA serves in its canteens, either. I remember counting myself lucky, in retrospect, that I chose driving home hungry over eating at the canteen when my family and I visited the Odense outlet a year before the news broke.

What changed my mind? I wish I could attribute my conversion to something other than sheer deprivation, but I cannot. The pride which convinced me that I could go for a full semester before tasting Scandinavian food again proved misplaced. When I got over the shame of succumbing to eating the meatballs I once loathed, I grasped what I had gained by coming back to IKEA: a way to vicariously connect with my home. IKEA represents a synecdoche of Scandinavia and everything it stands for. The free flow of coffee for IKEA Family Card holders confirms that no other region in the world drinks as much coffee as the place I come from; the absence of waitstaff hints at the “minimalist” customer service Scandinavian restaurants offer; the wooden benches stir memories of the picnic-centered culture I know.

IKEA’s canteen will never win a Michelin star, or even a half-decent review on Zomato. For all but the most deprived Scandinavian expatriates, it remains an option to avoid. But for the few who learn how to cherish mediocre food that harkens back to “home” and much better meals, IKEA and its meatballs hold the countries we left behind within them.


Okay, Enough, Good-bye: A Film Review

Okay, Enough, Good-bye: A Film Review

A middle-aged Lebanese man is helping to dye his elderly mother’s hair when, suddenly, the lights of the house shut off all at once, leaving them in darkness. Later, after the man yells at a neighborhood boy named Walid for playing in their yard, Walid sneaks back into the yard to retrieve his ball and, on his way out, deliberately tips over one of the mother’s giant flower pots and smashes it. When the man leaves his Ethiopian maid in the car to go get them both sandwiches, he returns only to find that the maid has disappeared. These moments, which capture the essence of daily life, are woven through Ok, Enough, Goodbye (Tayeb, Khalas, Yalla),the assured debut feature of longtime collaborators Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia.

Attieh and Garcia self-produced the film for about two thousand dollars. Attieh, a native of Tripoli, Lebanon (where the film was shot), and Garcia, a native of Texas, USA, shot the film by themselves, with virtually no crew and no script, only a general sense of what they wanted to capture on film. The cast of the film is composed of all non-actors, some of them Attieh’s own family members, who nevertheless have terrific screen presence. In fact, despite its miniscule budget, and the further restrictions created by the lack of a crew, the film succeeds in telling a simple story, and telling it well. Some of that success can certainly be attributed to its semi-documentary style, which helps the characters’ tragicomic lives seem realistic—and helps establish a connection with the movie’s audience

At the start of the film, the man who lives with his mother goes through the motions of daily life with a permanent look of ennui on his plump, grizzled face. His relationship with his mother is the very definition of tragicomic, as are other aspects of his life – his pastry shop has no customers, his love life is nonexistent, and the lights in his house turn off seemingly at random. He and his mother bicker constantly, until one day she leaves for Beirut without telling him, and he is forced to adjust to life without her – and perhaps, even, to finish growing up.

The man begins to search for companionship in the most unlikely places, but he soon proves unable to establish a relationship with any of the people he encounters – not with Walid, nor with a prostitute who sends him amorous text messages, nor with an Ethiopian maid who speaks no Arabic and, worse, won’t accept any of his offerings of food. The main character never manages to leave his state of arrested development, and his attempts to communicate with other people are funny precisely because they are so painfully awkward. Attieh and Garcia are merciless in their characterization of this man, which gives the film a wonderful sense of humor, but at the same time leaves him – and us – feeling a bit hopeless.

Tripoli itself is given the same merciless treatment: a series of documentary-like interludes (with Arabic voiceover provided by Attieh) talk about different parts of the city and reveal it as a lonely and empty place.  Ok, Enough, Goodbye’s location in Tripoli, Lebanon deeply informs its story. In a Q & A session she gave after the screening of the film at NYUAD, Attieh stated that she and Garcia wanted to comment on aspects of Lebanese society that had made an impression on them, ranging from people’s harmless and enduring need to show affection with food, to the common phenomenon in Lebanon of unmarried adult children still living with their parents, to the appalling exploitation of foreign maids in Lebanon. According to Attieh, the very different perspectives that she and Garcia brought to Lebanese society (Attieh as an insider and Garcia as an outsider) created the mixture of observations that they were able to translate into the tragicomic lives of the film’s characters.

In the Q & A session, Attieh also commented on the technical details of the production itself: working as a crew of two, she and Garcia had to do everything by themselves, so in one sense, making the film was quite stressful. On the other hand, though, because they had no one to answer to, they had absolute creative control over every step of the production. They used their own camera, borrowed a tripod and sound equipment from friends, and worked well within their incredibly small budget. Despite all these restrictions, Attieh and Garcia created a funny, melancholy portrait of a city and the wandering, forlorn people who inhabit it.

As for what it is next for the dynamic duo? During the summer of 2012, Attieh and Garcia shot their second feature in Texas, thereby reversing the roles of insider/outsider that they had taken in Ok, Enough, Goodbye. With the help of five of their friends as crew, they were able to halve the production time to twenty-one days instead of forty. The film is currently in post-production.

Attieh claims that she and Garcia keep saying “never again” to the prospect of making more films the way they made their first one – that is, without a script, without pre-production, with very little crew, very little money, and a whole lot of stress. However, they have obviously found a system that works for them, and that seems to be their preferred style of filmmaking. Indeed, what I find most interesting about Ok, Enough, Goodbye is not the film itself – although it certainly was a pleasure to watch – but rather the success it has achieved despite its low budget and unorthodox production. (The film won the “Best New Director from the Arab World” award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2010.) Attieh and Garcia are wonderful examples of how to subvert the conventional system of filmmaking and still succeed.