Tok Palong/Sour Spinach (above) is a variant of the leafy green Spinach that we are so familiar with. Resembling more like Baby Spinach, these leaves are sour even when they are uncooked. Absolutely new to me, my taste-buds are totally thrilled with this new discovery. And no, I haven’t seen these Spinach variant in any supermarkets in Dubai. I got them from the vegetable market that we always stop at when we head towards the East Coast of UAE – the Friday Market in Fujairah.One of our favourite drives away from the glitzy sky-scraper donned urban landscpae of Dubai is this Friday Market. Takes about an hour to drive to this market, this is a real charming market – looks real unlike the polished fruits and vegetables showcased in the air-conditioned supermarkets in the city. If there is some countryside that one can refer to in UAE, well it would probably be this – though the rocky terrain may not match up to the visual expectation of a verdant green European countryside or the rural landscape that I’ve grown up seeing in India. But, even barrenness has it’s own charm and has a ruggedness that is beautiful. And this is so evident once you hit out on the highways directing you to Dhaid.
Around the Dibba region in Fujairah, small fruit and vegetable kiosks flock the road sides. Dramatically perched on top of each other, the colourful fruits cry out a loud ‘Buy Me’! So should you? Well, of-course but only after you have haggled a bit and bargained further – for most prices that are thrown at your face are probably at a enormously marked up. But the experience is so different – that it’s worth all of it. UAE may boast of swanky and glitzy shopping malls, particularly Dubai. But choosing fresh, local produce from roadside kiosks in a natural landscape has it’s own charm. Doubting the freshness and getting a small slice of fruit to taste in return (aren’t I really mean?), haggling for prices, suspecting whether they are genuinely sourced from a local farm and ending up meeting and talking to the farmer himself – I can any-day swap my Dubai life for all these. Okay, let me re-phrase this – atleast over the weekends!
We’ve come across many novel ideas while stopping by these kiosks… there are stems or roots of some plant which act as great aphrodisiacs and sell at incredibly high prices. Tempted, yes – many a times. But given into the temptation? No, never. What if I go insane (more than the level that I am already at)? But once we reach the Friday Market, I give into my temptation. Not in terms of buying the aphrodisiac stems but in terms of loading our 4-WD with a week’s supply of fruits and vegetables!
The Friday Market is located on the Dubai-Fujairah highway just before Masafi (not the new highway that has been inaugurated just a few days back which promises to bring Fujairah within an hour’s proximity to Dubai!). It’s open daily till late at night, so I wonder why the market started getting called as the Friday market? A web study on Fujairah writes that decades ago three Emirati farmers would come to the mosque and after Friday prayers they would unload their trucks and sell the produce from their farms at the roadside stalls. So originally catering only on Fridays, now you can walk into the Friday Market on any day of the week, almost at any hour – even during the lazy hot afternoons when you’ll find most of the attendees taking their afternoon siestas. Walk upto any one of them and wait for a while – they are brought back to their trading selves from their slumber – ‘What would you like to buy Madam?’ or ‘You want this watermelon – very nice, Madam’!
Our first call in the Friday Market is to have corn-on-the-cobs, the ones which have been boiled first and then char-grilled. A squeeze of lime and a dash of rocksalt or pepper and the corn-on-the-cobs are ready to be eaten. A small portable electric fan (above) peps up the fire in the char-coal laden make-shift aluminum oven. Ah what indigenous ways to cater to human needs! This reminds me of the corn-on-the-cobs that are sold on the roadside pavements in Kolkata (below). When we are in Kolkata on our summer vacations, corn-on-the-cobs from the lady who sits with her corns on the road pavement in the local market (GD Block market, Saltlake), becomes our daily dietary fiber intake! However, these corns take a bit too long to get prepared there – first the Unun/clay oven needs to fire up adequately, then the corns are set on the char-coals. A cue from the Friday Market that I most probably will lend the next time I am having corn-on-the-cob in Kolkata – pre-boiling the corns and then char-grilling it would save a lot of time and thereby cater to more customers!
The Z-Sisters love Corns. Whether they are on the cobs or they sit pretty in cups. Big Z very often is making her own Cuppa Corn. You may enjoy a post on that… dug from the archive from my earlier blogging days, cutely called Cuppa-Corn Sweet Yellow Moments!
Many years back (around a decade!) when we used to visit the Friday Market, there was no electricity. Today, though it has changed a lot, the essence of the earlier days is still intact. Previously, the fruits and vegetable stalls were manned by local Emirati (Emirati is a person from the Emirates) farmers. But on our recent visits we haven’t seen much of them. Instead, now most of the stalls selling fruits and vegetables are looked after by Bangladeshis. The stalls look more organised, there are small labels jutting out declaring the prices of the products. And local brands selling fresh lime concentrate, date honey, fresh honey, palm syrups etc, seem to be sold in bottles. But the produce is usually fresh and declared to be locally grown. So, back to locavorism.
Locavorism is the buzz right now in UAE. It is definitely one of the hottest food trends in UAE right now. A subject that had been sitting half-written and hidden in one of the folders tugging in the hard-disc of my laptop, until a brilliant post from Chef and Steward on the Top food trends in Dubai & UAE made me start digging the folders. The recently concluded International Fine Food Festival which was held at Meydan also acted as a catalyst. This was one real food festival where one could meet the farmers selling local produce from UAE.
A Locavore is a person interested in eating food that is locally produced, not moved long distances to market… “local” food is food grown within 100 miles of its point of purchase or consumption…
Farmers’ markets play a role in efforts to eat what is local. Preserving food for those seasons when it is not available fresh from a local source is one approach some locavores include in their strategies. Living in a mild climate can make eating locally grown products very different from living where the winter is severe or where no rain falls during certain parts of the year. Those in the movement generally seek to keep use of fossil fuels to a minimum, thereby releasing less carbon dioxide into the air and preventing greater global warming. Keeping energy use down and using food grown in heated greenhouses locally would be in conflict with each other, so there are decisions to be made by those seeking to follow this lifestyle. Many approaches can be developed, and they vary by locale. Such foods as spices, chocolate, or coffee pose a challenge for some, so there are a variety of ways of adhering to the locavore ethic.
Though the Friday Market might not fulfill the criterion of Locavorism to the Tee, it does quite fit in, in it’s own way. If not from the UAE, a majority of produce is brought from the neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman etc. Given the geological soil condition of the UAE, most of it is non-cultivable land. But the area around Dibba-Masafi region seems to be pretty fertile and small patches of fenced green farms erupt once in a while amidst the barren rocky landscape. Engulfed by the high mountains and drenched by the nearby Wadis. Wadis are permanently or intermittently dry riverbeds which get filled up with occasional bursts of rainfall. The high rainfall in this area (!) makes this region a natural oasis and helps in a good production of crops. In-fact, the geology of this region is very unique.
The UAE-Oman mountain zone comprises an unusual suite of oceanic rocks that are rarely found on the continental surfaces of the Earth. These rocks (lavas, oozes and oceanic crustal rocks) are believed to have formed at the site of a mid-oceanic ridge (where the Indian Ocean now lies) more than 70 million years ago. It’s really interesting and you may read more on it here.
Most of the times we buy fresh seasonal fruits, specially mangoes, guavas and watermelons and a whole lot of leafy vegetables – Baby Spinach, Red Spinach, Spinach etc. Mausambis/Sweet lemons are unavailable in most supermarkets in Dubai. Only on a few occasions I’ve found them in the Karama Fruit & Vegetables market. You get them here aplenty. Are they locally sourced? Almost. From Oman. I have grown up having fresh Mausambi Juice every day in the morning during my school days, so I load a whole lot of these into the car trunk along with tender green Coconuts. You might also sip into the cool coconut water with a modern straw as the coconuts are taken out from chillers meant to chill beverages! I am totally sold on the ideas as you must have already found out and a few tender coconuts get into the car trunk as well. At Dhs 5/piece. Only to find the next day at Lulu Hypermarket in Dubai that the same are being sold at Dhs 3.50/piece!
This post was initially intended to be a food post and not a travel post, hence I wouldn’t go into the Afghani and Pakistani stalls selling carpets and rugs – from sizes varying from a doormat to the ones which can probably cover up our entire apartment! Designs – the modern geometric ones to traditional Persian ones don these carpets. So does the Taj Mahal or the Burj Khalifa. Or for that matter the faces of Their Highnesses – the Sheikhs of the ruling families of UAE! Most of the carpets that we use have been bought from the Friday Market, almost a decade back. Those were the days when we would end up buying multiples of the same product – the sudden availability of easy cash for the two of us – the DINKs (Double Earning No Kids)!
I don’t remember that the last few visits to the Friday Market has landed us in any financial debt, apart from the perpetual craving and the occasional lament – We should have crossed the road and dug our fingers into some potentially nostalgic Bengali food in the Bangladeshi Hotel!
This is one trip that we are bound to make every now and then. So hopefully in one of our future trips we shall definitely get the chance to fulfill our wishes. But yes, more on our East coast journey will continue in some future posts as this region still holds an age-old charm that has ceased to exist in most rapidly developing urban areas. The concept has definitely become a fossil in Dubai. Do watch this small video from Gulf News to lure you more. The video is dated 4 years back, but not much has changed since then. It still is a bustling, charming, small hidden gem, contributing in it’s own small way to Locavorism in the UAE.
Sweets are a necessary sign-off for a traditional Bengali meal. The Bengali Chutney slightly differs from the other Indian Chutneys in the sense that they are not eaten as dips with snacks and savouries but as a mini sweet sign-off before the actual desserts. Chutneys have several variations. You end your meal with Chutney. Chutney is a sweet, tangy paste and can be made with every conceivable fruit and even vegetables! For example – Aam/mangoes, Jalpai/Olives, tomatoes, Anarosh/pineapple, Tetul/tamarind, Pépé/papaya and various other type of fruits. Dry fruits like Khejur/dates, Kishmish/raisins may also be added to it the Chutney which is also splashed with Phoron/Mustard seeds cooked slightly in oil or Paanch-Phoron/5 seeds cooked in oil).
Papad/Big chips like flakes made up of Potatos or Dried Dal usually accompanies the Chutney. After the Chutney comes the formal dessert tasting!
Shown below are Khejur aar Tomator Chutney/Tomato-Date Chutney (left) and Paanch-Phoron/Unique Bengali 5 Spice-Mix (right)
Tok Palong Chutney/Sour Spinach Chutney
Category – Dips & Chutneys; Cuisine type – Traditional Bengali, Bangladeshi
Following are the characteristics of all recipes doling out of our little hands, big hearth –
♥ Easy to cook
♥ Regular canned products off the shelf may be used (However, we advocate using fresh products)
♥ Goes well both as a regular or party dish
♥ Children can easily help in making the dish (My two little sous-chéfs are aged 8 and 3 years!)
♥ And lastly, guaranteed to be tasty!
We got a bunch of Tok Palong/Sour Spinach on our recent visit to the Friday Market. Had I come across these leaves on a routine vegetable shopping I would probably have not picked them up only because I do not know how to use them or have never had them before. But my Aunty who’s visiting us from India is cooking up a whole lot of traditional Bengali cooking that even I have not grown up eating. The reason being that though I’ve grown up eating Bengali food, each Bengali household has it’s own spice variations and unique tempering. Cooking style differs between regions within Bengal. Also, it differs within families whose ancestral lineage hails from Bangladesh which before Partition was a part of the Bengal province of the Indian sub-continent.
My Aunt’s ancestors hail from Faridpur district in Bangladesh and I am capturing all these dishes, some of them can be termed as Heritage Dishes that I haven’t even known of when I had gathered everything that I could on a post that is probably one of the most popular posts of mine – Traditional Bengali Cuisine!Generally, Spinach is thought to have originated in ancient Persia (modern Iran and neighboring countries). Arab traders carried spinach into India, and then the plant was introduced into ancient China. Probably, writing on Spinach is the most natural thing to do sitting on an Arab land. These Sour Spinach (Rumex Vesicarious) are a variant of the commonly used Spinach and grows without much effort in many regions in Bangladesh and is readily available in local vegetable markets in Kolkata. The latter fact took me pretty much by surprise as I tasted these for the first time. I learnt from Aunt says that apart from cooking them in Chutneys the leaves can also be put into Dals/Lentil Soups so as to make another variation of the Bengali Toker Dal/Sour Dal that is so popular in Bengal. Also, as many as 150 plants are used as greens by the women in rural Bengal!
A small video (below, 2:39 minutes onwards) reveals that this Tok Palong/Sour Spinach, also known as Khatta Palak in Hindi) is amongst a few unconventional crops which are ignored in conventional industrial agriculture in the subcontinent. These are nutritious and do not require extra care for its growth. Some farmers are trying to conserve them through cultivation while conserving the crop biodiversity.
Spinach by itself has a high nutritional value and is extremely rich in antioxidants, especially when fresh, steamed, or quickly boiled. It’s also a rich source for Iron. You may read all about it here. Also, a favourite with most children, kind courtesy of Popeye the Sailor!
Serves 6-8 persons (maybe less if they happen to be sweet-toothed Bengalis!)
Preparation time – 20 minutes maximum (Boiling the Sour Spinach – 10 minutes; tempering and garnish – 10 minutes)
Tok Palong/Sour Spinach– 200g
Sugar – 1/2 cup (depends upon individual preference. Also see the alternative method of preparation – the healthier option*)
Salt – 1/2 tsp
Turmeric – 1/2 tsp
Mustard Seed – 1/2 tsp
Mustard Oil – 1 tsp
Pomegranate – 1/4 cup, for garnishing (non-traditional addition)
Method of Preparation
– Separate the green leaves from the roots
– Wash the leaves properly and drain the water
– Chop the green leaves into small pieces
– Heat the Oil in a small wok. Add the Mustard Seeds and let them splutter
– Add the green leaves, Sugar, Salt, Turmeric Powder
– Cover the pan with a lid and let it simmer for a while till the leaves become soft and turns into a paste
– Serve it chilled with a bit of Pomegranate garnish
* Alternative Method of Preparation
– You may Boil/Microwave the Tok Palong/Sour Spinach leaves and draining the sour water before. This will require less Sugar. However, the amount of Sugar you want to add depends upon personal preference. Some like their Chutneys to be a bit sour, while others prefer it more sweet.
Is Locavorism same as Organic? The essence of IFFF
Locavorism doesn’t imply going Organic. It simply implies local produce being sold locally which can lead to sustainability. Which leads to the question – how far can UAE adhere to Locavorism when the climatic or the geographic conditions do not help a lot of times? Or, where different nationalities have different ethnic requirements which must necessarily be air-freighted from the respective home countries? Can Salmon be farmed in the UAE waters? Do we stop eating Salmon? Well, the answer is No, we don’t have to take such drastic measures. But yes, Salmons can be flown in and smoked here and make it as much sustainable as possible.
The International Fine Food Festival (IFFF) which was held recently at Meydan provided a platform for many such sustainable concepts. Here, one could meet the local farmers or come in touch with those who are providing an alternative solution to the UAE’s burgeoning sustainable future. Organiliciouz (@Organiliciouz) a local farm run by an Emirati family produces wide range of fresh, locally-grown, organic vegetables to different supermarkets, hypermarket and co-operative societies stores as well as restaurants and markets. They also supply directly to the customer through the farmers’ markets held by Baker and Spice in Souk Al Bahar and the Marina. I’m looking forward to visiting their farms one of these days. Organiliciouz has also started supplying to Down to Earth Organic (@DownToEarthDxb), another organic store in Dubai which till now didn’t sell fresh produce. Barakat (@BarakatME) too has been selling fresh fruits and vegetables and supplying fresh juices to supermarkets and restaurant. A visit to their factory is also in my cards soon. Ripe is another company with an aim to promote healthy eating amongst UAE residents by providing easy access to fresh, organic produce by supporting local farms and promoting local agriculture. All the above are instances where
Meeting the people propelling Organiliciouz, Down To Earth and Barakat, ransacking some gourmet products (@chezcharlesuae, @gourmetpoint), tasting the world’s most expensive honey – the Yemeni Sidr Honey from Balqees Honey (@BalqeesHoney), learning about Scottish Salmons (@salmontini) being smoked all the way here in UAE… a lot of interesting concepts came under one roof at the IFFF… some of them sustainable and encouraging Locavorism.
Starting off with Sour Spinach, travelling to the Friday Market in Fujairah, touching upon hot food trends like Locavorism – all in one post could be a bit overwhelming. But that is the whole essence of being a responsible food blogger. And where do you cut off one subject from the other? Food, travel, local issues – everything seems to be inter linked. Sally’s blog My Custard Pie talks about honest food and fresh ingredients. Francine in her Life in a Food Lane is writing about all the experiences she’s gaining in Slow Food as she travels.
Dubai too has woken up to realise that sustainability is the key to long-term growth. Lot of positive developments are taking place in sustainability – not only agriculture but energy, water, lifestyle and also waste management. A few days back, The World Energy Forum concluded in Dubai where world leaders had gathered with the goal of creating a roadmap towards safe and sustainable energy accessible to all.
The Change Initiative, Dubai’s first sustainable store has just opened its doors with many novel concepts that may inspire people to integrate sustainability into their day-to-day lives. While attending the preview of it’s Café & restaurant, a whole lot of ideas deluged my mind which we could incorporate easily at home. More on that on a future post.
Many of these issues are interlinked and inseparable. But pervades our daily lives. Just like the Chutney and my relationship. It pervades my daily life, boosting my emotions and moods at random. I am left licking my finger for the invisible last drop of Chutney, yearning for more!
Unblogging it all… Ishita
Disclaimer: I hope you enjoy reading the posts with lot of visuals. While you enjoy seeing them please don’t use them. You can see more pictures of my travel and food journey here.
Some of my green posts that you may like reading:
Machan Paradise View in Chitwan, Nepal
Heritance Tea Factory Hotel – Nuwara Eliya, Srilanka
Rafters Retreat in Kitulgala, SrilankaAl Maha Desert Resort, UAE
Down to Earth Organic