Friday, January 16, 2009


Well might you ask - what the heck is labneh? That's just what I was asking myself when I spotted this red, white and green tub at Damas Supermarket. The packaging is clear enough - it is "strained yoghurt". But just what does one do with strained yoghurt on a sunny Autumn day in Ottawa? I didn't know, but in the spirit of adventurous culinary inquiry, I decided to buy some and find out.

The ingredients are straightforward - goat's milk, cow's milk, salt and bacterial culture. I tasted it - it was thick and tangy. But what to do with it? I turned to the wise folks at Google for some counsel. This information, on, was what came back: "This is the Lebanese version of cream cheese, a lot tastier and lower in calories. Serve on a plate, sprinkled with olive oil, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers and mint. Or simply spread it like cream cheese on pita bread."

"Labneh is awesome, and this recipe is no exception, and simple enough to make. " proclaimed one of the viewers of this recipe. And, "Being of Lebanese decent, I have had this all of my life." declared another. Fair enough, I thought. But how should I use it?

I had some friends coming over that week, so I decided to prepare a mezze plate with olives, roasted red peppers, pita bread and labneh, (all from Damas, bien sur!) for an appetizer, to be followed by Singapore noodles. Alas, time ran short and, not only did I not get to prepare my mezze plate, but I had to order pizza for dinner. What a fall from grace!

Several weeks later my mother and some of her friends came over. I thought to prepare some herbed cream cheese spread with the labneh. When I inspected it, however, it had developed a florid blue mold on part of it. I pondered what to do. Skim off the mold and go ahead with my recipe? Or would that be putting these esteemed family friends at dire risk of tummy trouble? Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour (what exactly does that phrase mean?) I threw out the labneh and just used regular, unmolded cream cheese (blended with oregano and fresh garlic. It tasted great!)

So that was the end of my labneh experiment. Perhaps I shall buy another tub and do something more productive with it. But at least now I know what labneh is. And now you do too.

Pita bread

Ah, pita bread, gift of the gods - staff of life!

I first encountered pita bread when I was young. My mother would take my sister and me to the Christmas fair at Lansdowne Park, where we would have lunch at the Lebanese Ladies Auxiliary stall. There, we ate hummus, tabouleh, and pita bread - the holy triumvirate of Lebanese cuisine.

In fact, that's all I thought there was to Lebanese food until, after university, I moved to downtown Ottawa and discovered all the shawarma joints that had suddenly mushroomed there in the intervening years. In addition to this savoury grilled meat on a skewer, I learned to love its many accompaniments: garlic sauce, pickled turnip, the bread salad known as fattoush, fried cauliflower & eggplant, falafel...yum!

Of course, I know there is even more to Lebanese food than that which is found in a shawarma shop, but I think this is a great way to become introduced to the healthy and flavourful food of this region. And, in this cuisine, the pita bread is king.

I used to buy pita bread at the grocery store, but now that I live so close to a Middle Eastern grocery, my standards have gone way up. Now, I won't buy pita bread unless it passes the "sniff & poke" test.

First, I poke at the various packets of pita bread. If I find one that is soft, I sniff it. If I can smell fresh baked bread through the plastic bag, then I buy it.

There is rhyme to my reason, of course; after a day or two, pita bread becomes dry and leathery - not at all the stuff that sandwich dreams are made of. But when it is soft it is just right for gobbling down with hummus, guacamole, peanut butter & banana...any way you like.

At Damas Supermarket, some of the pita bread comes from Montreal and some from Ottawa. I would prefer to buy the Ottawa product, but sometimes the Montreal ones are fresher. Of course, it depends on when it was delivered.

My favourite way to eat pita bread? Ah, this concoction comes from the summers of my youth: slather hummus inside a pita bread. Make a green salad of lettuce, cucumbers, green onions and Kraft Zesty Italian salad dressing. Stuff it in the pita pocket and eat it on the steps outside your house, while basking in the sun. Then, take a nap, for you will feel deliciously sleepy...

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009


For me, it all begins with the dates. I love dates. Soft, squishy, brown gems with papery coverings, they are lovingly tucked into boxes in desert lands and shipped around the world, to be munched off as snacks or as a sweet way to end a meal.

When I first wandered into Damas Supermarket, shortly after moving to Carling Avenue, the first thing I encountered was dates. Lots and lots of dates. Syrian dates, Iranian dates, Saudi Arabian dates, Turkish dates...fresh yellow dates, pressed dates, cooking dates, medjool dates, and the always alluring "dattes deglet nour" (what does that name mean?).

Growing up, the only dates I encountered were dry, waxy dates with the pits removed. I know now that these are disparagingly labelled "cooking dates", and are hardly meant for snacking purposes.

No, my first lip smacking date experience came when I was in my twenties and had moved to Rideau Street, another busy street in Ottawa. Near my apartment was an Indian-Pakistani grocery store. I often mooned around it, looking at all the exotic spices and feeling I should know what they were meant for (I am Indian, after all), but not having a clue what to do with them, apart from the jars of mango pickle and tins of chick peas. One thing I could understand, however, was the large box of dates that were sold by the cash register. The shopkeeper offered me a sample, and I was hooked. Squishy, soft, these were dates!

Even then, though, I never knew what varieties dates came in until I stepped into the Damas grocery store in September. There they had all kinds of dates, partly because it was the season for them, and partly because it was Ramadan and dates are a traditional way to break the fast. Dates to break the fast - who knew? On this first foray, wanting to try something new, I bought some fresh red dates on a styrofoam tray. Also, craving cake (I am a sweets fiend) I bought a "Crispy pound cake". I thought "Crispy" was the brand name, but after biting into the stale, dried out cake, I realised that it was actually meant to be...crispy! I was not impressed. The fresh dates also disappointed me. They were astringent and crunchy. Very odd - that's not how dates are supposed to taste.

I didn't return either of the items, but on my next trip to Damas I complained about the fresh dates.

"They taste strange", I said.

"I know," the hijab-clad shopgirl said, sympathetically. "I thought so too, the first time I tried them. But now I'm addicted to them! You get used to the taste. They're like apples!"

Hmm, I wouldn't have said that, but then perhaps it is an acquired taste. I still wanted to taste some proper (dried) dates, so I bought a box of Iranian dates and took them home. The very first bite was ecstasy - soft pillowy darlings, squishy and hyper-sweet. Just right to accompany a bowl of cereal or a cup of mint tea after dinner. At a mere $2.99 a box, they are a taste of the exotic desert here on busy Carling Avenue.

I shall leave you with this pithy thought: everybody remembers their first date - but how many people remember their first apricot? Or their first raisin? Ha ha! That is a hoary old joke - and I mean that - I first saw it in a newspaper when I was ten!

Keep on munching!

The Neighborhood

So what/where exactly is Carling Avenue? Carling Avenue is a major road in Ottawa (that's the capital of Canada, for all you geographically challenged individuals). It's a long road, starting somewhere in Kanata, and ending at Bronson Avenue. It has loads of shops, apartment buildings, hospitals, restaurants, parks, car lots, shopping centres, a movie theatre, and a bunch of other things on it.The part that interests me the most is the area in a 30-minute radius around me.

Here I can walk around the neighborhood, baby in tow, buy a few bags of groceries or a few boxes of takeout, and make it back in time to make something scintillating for dinner. Okay, sometimes the results are not so scintillating, but that's not my fault - in those cases the recipe is clearly at fault. And that brings me to another point - this will be one thing distinguishing my beauteous blog from all those other, lesser blogs. I will not post recipes on this blog. None, nyet, nada. If you want a recipe for one of the mouthwatering items I talk about, go and ask Ms. Google. There are enough food & recipe blogs out there that my own slight culinary expertise will hardly make any contribution to gustatory world literature. But my opinions on other food matters such as how to choose the softest pita bread, sweetest chickoo, or freshest samosa, surely will be!

I shall also confine myself to discussing food items I have found on Carling Avenue. Well... at least, I shall do that most of the time. If I find something really fascinating on Richmond Ave. (a stone's throw from Carling), I shall include it, but primarily I will restrict myself to food finds from Carling.

Buen provechio, dear readers!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Yes, it is yet another food blog

Why does the world need another food blog? It doesn't. But that won't stop me from creating one. Why? Ah, who needs a reason to extol the virtues of the fresh peach, the flaky croissant, or the tender salmon fillet? Moreover, I have recently moved to a new neighborhood here in Ottawa, and it is rife with tantalizing ethnic grocery stores and eateries. My old neighborhood was sterile and boring; the park a manicured green space, the nearest restaurant a, gasp, sports bar! (ick) And so, having this smorgasbord of food at my toesteps (I live in an apartment building) has led me to kind of go nuts, (figuratively speaking of course).

So in this blog you will have the pleasure of sharing with me my food hunting expeditions as, baby in tow (ah yes, I have a little one taking part in all my adventures), I peruse the offerings in the Middle Eastern store, puzzle over mystery greens in the Indian store, and inhale the stale air of the Sri Lankan grocery, all in a bid to discover the tastiest, cheapest, most fun food items on Carling Avenue...