Feb 13

Remembering Syria and Syrians – The Storyteller Abu Shady

Storyteller, Abu Shady, Damascus, Syria.

For the second part of a short series in which we’re reflecting on Syria and Syrians before the Civil War, the places we travelled and the people we met, we want to share a piece we did about the storyteller Abu Shady, who we last interviewed for a feature in 2009.

The portrait above is one of the portraits Terence took that day we interviewed him. While we were in Damascus that trip, Terence printed the photo and we took two of the framed images to the café, one for Abu Shady and one for the café owner, Abu Ahmad, who promptly hung his on the wall to the left of the throne where Abu Shady sat to spin his tales. If any readers have visited Al Nawfara and seen Abu Shady or Abu Ahmad since then, we’d love to hear from you.

Abu Shady, Syria’s Last Storyteller

Abu Shady, the last of Syria’s hakawati or traditional storytellers, is looking especially distinguished in his red tarboosh and broad cummerbund when we meet him at Al Nawfara, an atmospheric café in Damascus’ old city and the venue for his nightly storytelling performances.

He is looking like he has lived every one of his 65 years and appears considerably less sprightly than when we met him two years ago. That Abu Shady could be Syria’s last traditional storyteller has been on everyone’s lips here for years, along with worried words about the art dying with him.

“I love being a storyteller more than ever,” Abu Shady assures us. “I still enjoy my profession, of course.” When we last talked to him, he told us he was grooming his son Shady to take over after he passed away. Now? “No,” he shakes his said “I don’t recommend it to my son as a profession. It doesn’t pay enough money! I don’t want my son to take over.”

Ironically, the storyteller’s son is now a storyteller of sorts. The younger Shady specializes in the craft of karakoz, a form of traditional puppetry, and as Abu Shady sips his glass of chai and smokes a cigarette before his performance, his son is in Aleppo at a festival telling stories with his puppets to small children.

Stories have played a vital role in Middle Eastern culture for thousands of years – since history’s most compelling entertainer, the legendary Persian storyteller Scheherazade, set out to captivate King Shahryar night after night with riveting tales, in a bid to halt the beheadings of queens, three thousand of whom had been killed before her.

Transfixed by Scheherazade’s stories, each one more bewitching than the next, the King not only allowed her to live, but one thousand and one entrancing nights later, all the wiser and kinder from her educational tales, the King made Scheherazade his Queen.

Like Abu Shady, who sits with pictures of fictional heroes Antar and Abla — whose epic story takes 300 nights to tell — hanging on the wall behind him, Scheherazade had collected thousands of stories from the myths and legends of history that preceded her.

And like the book of One Thousand and One Nights that tells her tale, Scheherazade herself used a narrative framing technique to engage her listener, where a larger story sets the stage, framing a sequence of shorter stories, or stories within stories, that engage and amuse the audience. Like a television serial or soap opera, it’s a story without an ending and it keeps the audience coming back for more.

“When I started storytelling, it started as a hobby, and gradually it became my job,” Abu Shady tells us. A job he has done every night for the last 30 years, sometimes twice a night, leaving to perform at another restaurant immediately after he finishes at Al Nawfara.

When we last saw Abu Shady perform, in 2007, at a simple chicken restaurant in the old working class neighbourhood of Mirdan, his audience had dwindled to a dozen regulars and it appeared the general public was losing interest in this art.

“Now, all everyone cares about is television, cinema, the Internet… especially the younger generation,” he told us despondently at the time. “They’re not interested in traditional storytelling. It’s a dying art.”

But now, two years later, at Al Nawfara, the café is filling quickly after the sunset prayer. These days, the tiny tables are crammed nightly with people here to see Abu Shady.

There are regulars who come night after night, who sit in chairs lined against the wall, smoking nargileh, the pipes rarely leaving their mouths – except when they repeat in unison the phrases from Abu Shady’s stories like a Greek chorus.

There are also guidebook-clutching tourists, local Damascenes, and Syrians from other parts of the country who have come especially to see Syria’s last traditional hakiwati. Everyone has an inkling that they are experiencing something special — perhaps something that one day soon will no longer be around.

“Abu Shady is very popular again,” Abu Ahmad, the busy, larger-than-life owner of Al Nawfara tells us. “There has been a revival. These days people phone to book tables.”

“Storytelling has always been something special, but now there is renewed interest,” he assures us. “There is a fascination with everything old again. There are serials on TV and films set in Old Damascus.” But still the specter of no one taking over from Abu Shady looms large over the spirit of the café.

“Of course I feel sorry that there is nobody to carry on after me. But it’s not my responsibility to find or train someone,” Abu Shady confides. “It’s only my responsibility to maintain the tradition while I’m alive. Anybody could do it really, anybody with talent — a special talent. Of course I could train someone, but what for? It doesn’t pay anything. It is an art.”

“The art of storytelling is in how I express the things that I say, how I incite people to react,” he continues to explain, “The rhythm, my facial expressions… I need to perform well, to show anger, sadness, love – to make people feel angry, to feel sad, to feel love, and to laugh. And from the stories people get advice and they gain wisdom.”

Abu Shady shows us a ruled notepad with neat lines of handwritten Arabic. “I tell stories in classical Arabic but not everyone understands it, so now I am translating all the stories by hand into the common spoken Arabic,” he explains proudly, albeit somewhat wearily.

“It has taken me six months to write these 30 pages and I’m not finished yet… this is just one story, one long story — dating to before Islam. Nobody has translated these before. I’ll translate as many as I can before I die. I’ll translate them right up until my death,” he says and looks up at us and smiles.

Stories remained popular in an oral form in the Middle East until the 18th century and the Ottomans started to put them to paper, yet the culture has always favoured oral narratives and longer forms, which is why theatre, cinema and television here are heavier on dialogue than they are in Western cultures.

The stories Abu Shady tells at Al Nawfara are indeed like television serials or soap operas — one story can last a whole year. “When I’m telling a story, I try to engage the audience and hold their attention. Especially the foreign tourists, because they don’t always understand Arabic, and this old classical Arabic… not even all the Arabs understand this. I use a little English or German when I can, to grab their attention. I teach them a word of Arabic and get them to repeat it.”

It’s time for tonight’s performance to begin. Abu Shady takes to his small stage and sits on his throne-like chair. He begins with a quiet prayer, a call to God to help him perform tonight. And the regulars who sit against the wall repeat their own thanks to God.

Abu Shady starts telling his tale. While the locals know the story — some having heard it from when they were children — they still enthusiastically repeat phrases, while foreign visitors who don’t understand are equally engrossed.

It’s a story about three men living in Ottoman times who are determining how to deal with a strong man who has arrived in town and is throwing his weight around.

Abu Shady brings his sword crashing down on a metal tray table, causing us all to jump in our chairs, including two young foreign women who sit immediately in front of him. “Mafi mushkala,” he tells them, with a twinkle in his eye, “No problem.”

The girls giggle. The young women are stirring their tea. Abu Shady has a twinkle in his eye again. “You’re stirring it the wrong way,” he tells them, with a sly smile.

Every now and then Abu Shady interrupts his own narrative. Sometimes it seems spontaneous, at other times planned. When the waiter passes in front of him distributing glasses of chai he slams his sword down loudly again. “Tea! Ashtray! Water!” he shouts, as we imagine the strong man might in his tale, and everyone laughs.

At one point, a mobile phone rings and we all look around. Abu Shady stops his story and puts his cell phone to his ear. There’s laughter all around. He speaks in Arabic for a moment before returning the phone to his pocket, then apologises, “Sorry,” he says, “It’s my wife.” The crowd roars again.

Aware that many people have been photographing him, Abu Shady stops to bring his own tiny camera out of his pocket and takes photos of the crowd. Once more, the audience breaks into laughter.

Abu Shady’s performance is much more interactive than when we saw him last. Indeed, now his stories are post-modern, multi-form narratives, and it’s a multimedia extravaganza Abu Shady-style. The old storyteller appears to be buoyed by the resurgence in interest in his dying art.

“I get a thrill out of listening to Abu Shady,” says Saad Kaakarli, a 50-year-old Syrian-American. Kaakarli emigrated to the USA in 1979, living in Detroit and Ohio. A contractor now living in Saudi Arabia, he returns to Damascus regularly and is planning to return to Jebel Qassioun, his birthplace.

“As a child I used to skip school to come and watch the storyteller,” Kaakarli tells us. “Since I returned I really get a kick out of coming to listen to him. This is entertainment! It’s theatre. Abu Shady — I love him. He’s my man!”

The moment Abu Shady finishes his storytelling for the night, people get up from their seats and leave. Abu Ahmad pulls the cord to a curtain on the wall and reveals a flat screen TV.

The televisions flicks on, but by now the café is almost empty. Music videos and football are no competition when Damascus’ last great storyteller is performing.

But the 150-year old Al Nawfara was popular way before television was invented. Owner Abu Ahmad says his family has had the café for 75 years, his grandfather and father ran the place before him and his sons are primed to take over when he too passes.

The first storyteller who worked at Al Nawfara was born in 1885 and died in 1956, and storytelling is now again part of the success of the café, he explains. “But what will happen to the café without a storyteller?” I ask.

“Well,” Abu Ahmad says, “Let’s hope God sends us another.”

A shorter and slightly different version of this story appeared in Gulf Life magazine in 2009.

Feb 12

Remembering Syria and Syrians Before the Civil War

A shepherd outside Homs, Syria.

Last weekend, following a three-day ceasefire agreement reached during the Syria peace talks in Geneva the previous week, the UN evacuated some 700 Syrians from Homs’ old quarter, a rebel-held area besieged by Syrian government forces for some 18 months. A further 300 people were able to leave a few days later.

Sadly, as they fled, their convoys were hit by mortars and fired upon by snipers. Most of those allowed out were the elderly, women and children, however, it’s been reported over a dozen of the men permitted to leave were later detained. Around 3,000 civilians apparently remain, mostly men and boys.

When I look at images like these from the Homs evacuation, I often wonder if the people we met in Homs, and other places in Syria, however briefly, are in those pictures. Are they still there in Homs, did they manage to escape, or are they, sadly, dead? I like to remember what they were like when we met them, when they were happy. It better helps me appreciate the immensity of this tragedy.

We’ve decided to dedicate a series of posts on Grantourismo to remembering Syria and Syrians before the war. This is the first…


The last time we were in Homs was the summer of 2007, although we were in Syria in late 2009 working on stories, mainly in Damascus and Aleppo. We stayed in Homs for a whirlwind couple of days during a road trip around the country updating our Lonely Planet Syria and Lebanon guidebook, a book we researched and wrote in 2004 after reluctantly combining the manuscripts of two previous country guides.

When we returned to do the 2007 update we hid the cover from the Syrians and Lebanese we met. Syria had only just pulled its troops out of Lebanon in 2005 after a 29-year occupation. There had been a strong Syrian military presence in Lebanon when we first visited for a five-day break for New Year’s Eve in 1998. The mood of both countries then was very different to the optimism and confidence we would encounter almost a decade later.

When we arrived in Homs that summer’s afternoon in 2007, we found a lovely city enjoying the sunshine and clear blue skies. I remember the light had that clarity that it does in the countryside, with none of the smog of Damascus, where we’d just been. It didn’t feel like Syria’s third largest city, it felt like a big country town and the people were warm and friendly, and generous with their smiles, like country people are.

Locals were kicking back with their syrupy coffees and glasses of tea in al fresco coffee shops, such as the shady garden café Majmu ar-Rawda as-Siyahi, in the park near the clock tower. It was the place to be after dark when the aromas of rose, apple, strawberry, and grape sheesha wafted through the air.

Syrians were lining up for big glasses of fresh juices from the fruit stands. They were strolling leafy parks arm in arm licking ice creams, and in the early evenings they crowded around mobile vendors to buy hot cobs of corn.

In the Christian quarter, at Blue Stone, a stylish café in a handsome grey stone building that had big windows onto the street – about which I scribbled in my notebook “a perfect spot for people-watching” – every table was taken.

Families were sharing massive pizzas, perfectly-coiffed old ladies with pearl necklaces were nibbling at big bowls of salads, demure young couples (the women with headscarves, the men with slicked back hair) were holding hands discretely, while groups of teenagers in school uniforms at separate tables flirted with eachother openly across the room.

It had been a long hot drive there with a few stops on the way and we were pleased we were able to order drinks: Terence had a cold beer and I had a chilled glass of white wine, something that was rare to do back then, even in Damascus during the day. Things changed for a short time in 2009.

After lunch, we began the task of pounding the pavement and “ticking shit off”, going through every listing in the previous edition of our book to see what was still there and was worth maintaining and noting what was new that we should add to the new book. There had been a lot of renovation in the old quarter and much construction was underway.

The striking black and white Mamluk-style banded stonework that distinguished many of the buildings in the old quarter, along with the courtyard of the Khaled ibn al Walid Mosque, appeared to have been cleaned.

When we stopped at the handsome Mamluk-era residence, Azze Hrawe, which was being restored and to open as a folklore museum, workers invited us in to take a look. In the splendid liwan, a covered lounge area off the beautiful fountain courtyard, craftsman had just finished work on an intricate wooden carving and it was exquisite.

Homs was a city where artisans still practiced their crafts and you could find them in the renovated old stone souq, one of Syria’s most enchanting, working under the vaulted ceilings. Wood carvers, metalworkers, carpenters, tailors, knife-sharpeners, and cobblers sat cross-legged on their workshop floors, happy to have us watch and take photos.

While the market was quiet in the afternoon, when many of the shopkeepers closed for lunch, it hummed later that evening when the whole of Homs seemed to be out shopping.

Hand in hand with the rejuvenation of the city, there was that sense of optimism that we’d also found in Damascus. The hotels were busy with bus groups on their grand tours of Syria’s impressive archaeological sites. In the evening French, German and Italian tourists could be found bartering for mother-of-pearl inlaid backgammon sets, sheesha pipes, gold jewellery, and packets of spices.

Unlike Hama, where I didn’t feel comfortable, Homs, like the rest of Syria, was a city I felt completely relaxed in, and had we have had all the time in the world, we could have stayed longer.

The images that came out of Homs on the weekend and earlier this week of the city and its people, were all the more heartbreaking because we couldn’t recognize them. There were no smiles to be seen.

The people of Homs looked haggard, utterly exhausted, and worn-down by their horrendous situation. The elderly looked frail, and the children, dark circles under their eyes, looked malnourished. Everybody looked stressed.

These are very different Syrians to the ones we used to know. Before the civil war, after we visited on research trips, and before those on holidays, we used to say Syrians seemed to be some of the friendliest and happiest people in the world.

Reports claim that some people in Homs had been surviving on grass and weeds. Others on foodstuffs left there from before that 18 month siege that they had found in the city. Those days of eating pizza, ice cream and sweet corn on summer evenings must be memories so distant they feel like dreams.

Homs itself has been completely destroyed. The elegant cream-brick apartment buildings that lined the broad boulevards aren’t merely pockmarked from bullets as most buildings were in Lebanon after the civil war there.

In Homs, buildings appear to be missing balconies, windows, walls, and even whole floors. Many have collapsed upon each other. I hate to think how many deaths there were, how many lives destroyed when those buildings came crashing down.

The attractive old quarter we fondly remember is in ruins, mosque minarets missing or broken, mountains of rubble piled in places where historic buildings had been, many just restored a few years earlier for the first time in hundreds of years.

I wonder what state the Church of the Girdle of Our Lady is in and if the patriarch managed to escape with their treasured piece of wool they believed to be from a girdle worn by the Virgin Mary. But mostly, I wonder what has become of all the people and where and how they are.

As Terence said in his last Monday Memories post, “The scars so visible at Syria’s historic sites – those that still stand – can never compare to the collective mental scars of the nation and its people.” As impossible as the job of rebuilding seems right now, cities have been rebuilt before, especially in Syria. Remember the Crusades?

Rebuilding lives is the most challenging task for the Syrians who have left now, especially for those who have lost families and friends or had to leave them, as almost every Syrian must have. For the people of Homs who have left, their lives will be on hold until they’re reunited with the loved ones forced to stay behind.

I can’t imagine them smiling much. And yet what I most remember from our 2007 road trip and our other visits to Syria are the warm smiles of people we met, sometimes even fleetingly, like the young man on the donkey above whom we met in the middle of nowhere. But that’s another story…

If you have stories or memories of Syria, please do share them in the comments. For more on the civil war there is comprehensive coverage on Al Jazeera under ‘Syria‘, the BBC under ‘Syria Conflict‘, and under ‘Syria Crisis‘ on the New York Times. Wikipedia has Syria timelines explaining how the situation deteriorated from sporadic uprisings to full blown civil war. Our next post is on Syria’s Last Storyteller Abu Shady.

Feb 03

Monday Memories: Umayyad Mosque in Old Damascus in Syria

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria. March 2007.

The last time we were in Syria, back in 2009, there was a sense of optimism in the air. Or at least the illusion of optimism. New hotels, bars, restaurants, and boutiques had been popping up in the old towns of Damascus and Aleppo, and tourism – thanks to the magnificent castles, atmospheric souks, expansive Roman ruins, and compelling cuisine – was going through the roof.

The last time we visited Syria peace talks were underway with Israel, relations with Lebanon were warming up, and the liberalisation of the state-controlled economy was underway. Everyone we met was positive about the future, even those who didn’t support the regime.

The complexities of what followed in 2011 are for the historians to argue over, but for me every day that I see yet another image of needless death and destruction, while the West sits on its hands, breaks my heart  – particularly as I scroll though images of Syria from our work covering the country over the years.

When I was looking for some Dubai images the other day, I plugged in an old hard drive labelled “Crete, Cyprus, Turkey, UAE, Lebanon, Syria 08”. Those were some of the places we were covering for magazine stories and guide books that year.

We did a huge journey through Syria in 2008, spending six very intensive weeks of research and photography on the road, traversing the length and breadth of the country with a driver. We had travelled to the country a number of times before that road trip, the first time in 1999 and the last trip in late 2009.

Even to this day I don’t think that there are too many Western travel writers who have covered that much territory in Syria, apart from the guidebook writer who wrote the first edition of the guidebook that we were tasked with rewriting and combining with another book, which we would end up updating twice.

After some years covering the Middle East as travel writers, by the end of 2009 we were getting a little restless. The instability in the region was increasingly making it difficult to sell the sort of stories we wanted to write. It was only the Middle Eastern in-flight magazines commissioning us to do features, on everything from the jazz scene in Damascus to street food in Amman.

I can remember when we did a story on the flourishing bar scene in Beirut in 2005, which the editor of the magazine called “Beirut is Buzzing”. By the time the magazine hit the shelves in 2006 Beirut was buzzing with Israeli jet fighters.

While we increasingly wrote more on Europe from 2009 onwards (which we had been covering for years anyway) and we started to cover other parts of the world, including Asia, we hadn’t abandoned the Middle East. In fact we had a book deal with a major publisher on Syria that we were about to finalise when the troubles began.

As I recently scrolled through my selects (images that I think are worthy of publishing), I kept wondering about the people I photographed and where they are now. We have been in contact with some of our friends who were lucky enough financially and politically savvy enough to know when it was time to leave, but there were countless other people with whom we lost contact.

Whenever I look at this photo above, taken at the Umayyad Mosque in Old Damascus, I wonder what happened to the mother and son who dominate the image. They look as if they are in awe at an aspect of the exquisite detail of what was one of the world’s most sumptuous mosques, as if they are visiting the Umayyad for the first time.

I imagine they must have had the same expression on their face when they saw the magnificent minaret – the minaret that is no longer there, thanks to the civil war.

The scars so visible at Syria’s historic sites – those that still stand – can never compare to the collective mental scars of the nation and its people. How can Syria ever rebuild after the war is over? It seems like an almost insurmountable task – a task that, sadly, is hard to imagine even starting any time in the near future.

This photo taken on 26.03.2007 with a backup camera, a Nikon D80, while my main camera at the time a Nikon D2X would have been on my other shoulder with my 17-55mm f2.8DX mounted. One of the reasons for using the D80 was that it was so much smaller than the D2X (Nikon’s huge flagship camera at the time) so I’d often put the D2X (nicknamed the ’soul stealer’) in my camera bag and just walk around with the D80 with a 50mm lens on, making me much less conspicuous.

Details: Nikon D80, 80-200mm f/2.8D Nikkor @ 170mm @ F3.5 @ 1/250th second @ ISO400.

Feb 02

Gaeng Hang Lay Moo Curry – Northern Thai Pork Belly Curry Recipe

Hanglay Mu or Gaeng Hang Lay. A Norther Thai Pork Belly Curry recipe.

Of all the curries in Thailand, this Northern Thai pork belly curry called Gaeng Hang Lay Moo must be the most decadent and moreish of all. It’s a red curry on spice steroids and the extra kick and spice, as well as the richness of the pork belly, make this one of my favourite Thai curries and the one I’ve been cooking this week for our Year of Asian Cookbooks project.

The geographic origin of Gaeng Hang Lay Moo — in its Thai form — is the northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai, beloved by Thais for its laidback atmosphere, arty vibe and fiery food. This, combined with its cooler weather and nearby mountains, has seen Chiang Mai become a popular retreat for well-off Thais and a home for Bangkok creative types seeking a tree-change.

However, it’s the earlier arrival of Indian traders bearing spices that is of interest here. Initially arriving in Chain Mai to trade textiles, their need for the classic Indian spices to satisfy a curry craving saw spices such as turmeric, fennel and cardamom become more commonly used in local Thai cooking.

With the use of these extra spices on top of a classic base red curry mix, there are many parallels with southern Thailand’s Massaman curry. Although the Hang Lay Moo recipe I am using here, by Bangkok-based Thai Chef Ian Kittichai of Issaya Siamese Club, does not contain mace, cinnamon and fenugreek, other dried spices that often appear in southern Massaman curries.

While the spices convey the influence of India and Malaysia, the origins perhaps are closer to the northern Thai border in Myanmar, where a pork curry called wet tha hin lay includes a sour component, just as the Thai version includes tamarind.

While there’s plenty of heat from the chillies in the curry mix, there’s also the added bite of the ginger — not normally an ingredient in Thai curries, where it’s lookalike, galangal, predominantly features.

Like many Thai curries, Gaeng Hang Lay Moo is a dish that was traditionally shared on special occasions due to the expense and time-consuming nature of making the recipe. Today it’s seen everywhere in Chiang Mai, in varying degrees of quality and numerous permutations when it comes to the spices used in the dish.

Like the best of the food from Northern Thailand, this dish packs an initial punch and lures you in after your taste buds have recovered from the first mouthful. Make a big batch, because it’s true that, like a Massaman curry, Gaeng Hang Lay Moo just tastes better on the second day.

Of interest in Chef Kittichai’s dish is the ingredient ma-khwaen or, more commonly, makhwaen. It’s a speciality of Chiang Rai, and is also found in the rest of Northern Thailand and Laos, where we had it in a jaow (dip). Its pods, used fresh and dry, are from a species of prickly ash trees.

Its botanical name, Zanthoxylum limonella, gives a hint that it has citrus notes, and the genus Zanthoxylum is the parent to the several varieties of trees that produce Sichuan pepper. While it doesn’t have that numbing effect so particular to Sichuan pepper, it packs a real peppery punch, cooled with those citrus notes.

In Chef Kittichai’s recipe it’s clearly used dried and you can find it in Bangkok as well as speciality stores outside Thailand that stock Thai, and specifically Northern Thai, ingredients. While you could substitute it for Sichuan pepper, the latter is such a distinct ingredient it may affect the balance of the dish.

During my research I found that there were many far simpler recipes of the dish and out of curiosity I made a couple of versions (the one pictured is one of them) but Chef Kittichai’s is far superior in flavour complexity. Although I do like to cook the pork out a lot more (two hours plus) than what the chef does in his recipe below.

The chef’s recipe only just cooks the pork out, but I found that giving the pork a really good sear and cooking it for at least three hours gave the best result, so that the pork had that fall-apart-with-a-fork quality. Because it’s pork belly, I found the meat still moist and delicious after a good four hours cooking. Really sublime flavours are generated using this method.

Also during my research, I noticed that many Gaeng Hang Lay Moo recipes — even those with an exhaustive list of ingredients — suggest making the curry paste in a food processor without even a passing reference to a mortar and pestle.

I’m not going to carry on about this in every curry or relish recipe this year, but as Chef David Thompson says in his Thai cooking tome Thai Food, making curry pastes in a mortar as pestle is “onerous and messy, but the result is quite superior”. See this post on how to use a mortar and pestle.

If you insist on taking the 120/240 volt route, a good tip from Chef Thompson is to use a blender, not a food processor. The narrow well of a blender is better suited to the paste coming together and the fact it has four blades makes it more efficient than ingredients being flung around in a wide-based food processor.

With the dried spices, if you’re not going to use a mortar and pestle, a coffee grinder or, obviously, a spice grinder, will do the trick.

This Gaeng Hang Lay Moo recipe may appear laborious, but the results are amazing.

Hanglay Mu (Northern Thai Pork Belly Curry)

Recipe based on Chef Ian Kittichai’s recipe from the Issaya Siamese Club Cookbook, used with permission.

To start this dish, you need to prepare chef’s Thai red curry paste first. Below is the second stage, producing the hanglay curry. I’ve modified the final recipe (bringing the curry and the pork together) for simplicity.

Gaeng (Kaeng) Hanglay Curry
20 g dried red finger chilli peppers
10 g turmeric fresh
10 g coriander seeds
10 g cumin seeds
12 g ma-khwaen (Thai prickly ash, optional)
90 ml vegetable oil
40 g ginger (young)
150 g of red curry paste (see recipe here)
1.5 l water
1 g salt
200 ml tamarind juice
20 ml fish sauce
50 g palm sugar
80 g garlic

1. In a dry pan, toast chilli peppers, turmeric, cumin, coriander seeds and ma-khwaen together on low heat for 10 minutes. Once cooled, finely grind in a mortar or use a food processor to blend smooth.
2. In a large, heavy bottomed pot, heat oil and sauté the sliced ginger. Add the red curry paste and cook until the oil separates. Add water and ground spices.
3. Bring to a boil. Add salt, tamarind juice, fish sauce, palm sugar and garlic.
4. Simmer for an hour.
5. Curry can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

Final Hanglay Mu dish preparation 
150 g Hanglay curry (see above)
200 g taro roots, diced,
200 g lotus roots, sliced
500 g pork belly*
50 g young ginger, julienned
5 g coriander sprigs

1. Boil taro roots and lotus roots in a pot of water until cooked (about 10 minutes). Drain and set aside.
2. Sear pork belly in a pan at high heat.
3. Pour curry into the pan until meat is covered and simmer on low heat for half an hour.
3. Add cooked roots to curry.
4. Ladle pork belly curry into serving bowls and garnish with coriander sprigs and young ginger.
5. Serve with steamed jasmine rice on the side.

* Chef gives no directions on how it should be sliced. I like to make cubes so each piece has that transition from the rind through the fatty layers through to the meat.

Issaya Siamese Club
Chuea Phloeng Rd
Sathon, Bangkok, Thailand
+66 2 672 9040

CORRECTION: The recipe in the cookbook calls for ‘200 ml fish sauce’, which would result in a salty, fishy disaster that even a hungry soi dog would reject. This has been amended to a more human friendly 20 ml. Chef Kittichai has confirmed it’s a typo in the book, but adds that fish sauce should always be added ‘to taste’.

This post is the latest in my Year of Asian Cookbooks project. Next up: a 120 year-old Geng Gari Gai aromatic Chiang Mai chicken curry recipe from Northern Thailand from Chef David Thompson of Nahm restaurant in Bangkok.

Feb 01

Travelling Responsibly – How To Shop Ethically and Sustainably

Garment workers leaving their factories, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

One of the easiest ways to travel more responsibly is to shop more sustainably and more ethically. Living in Cambodia, where the recent news has been dominated by garment worker strikes and the deaths and injuries of protestors – young people who slave for long hours making clothes and shoes for a pittance for some of the world’s biggest global brands – has led me to further evaluate how I spend my money.

Below you’ll find my tips on how to shop ethically and sustainably, when you’re away or at home. I’ve been following these for some years, however, I’m now also going to refrain from shopping at fashion brands I used to buy, such as Zara and H&M, until those companies demonstrate that the workers at their Cambodia factories are being paid fair wages that are sufficient to live on.

According to a study by UK-based Labour Behind the Label and the Phnom Penh-based Community Legal Education Centre, workers in Cambodia require a minimum of US$150 a month to cover basic needs. Those working for Zara, H&M, and other global fashion brands with factories in Cambodia, including Gap, Puma, Adidas, Nike, Debenhams, Next, Esprit, and Levi Strauss and others, haven’t been receiving that.

I monitored the news closely in Cambodia throughout December and January when young textile workers like those above were injured, died, or were detained during a brutal police crackdown while protesting for their right to fair payment for their work. Many of the global retailers I mentioned above signed letters condemning the government’s actions and the shootings that resulted in the deaths and injuries.

However, those big, rich, global retail companies came to Cambodia because the labour is cheap, they can make their products more cheaply here than anywhere else, and they can therefore reap far greater profits – off the backs of workers who can barely survive on the meagre wages they are paying them. They need to take greater responsibility here.

But it was a recent encounter with a former garment factory worker who now works in the travel industry that really brought home the situation for me as she described firsthand how she lived for several years. She described how she slaved for fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, working overtime for a measly $5 monthly bonus, to take home a total of just $65 a month.

She told me that she only ever had a day off when she called in sick from exhaustion and she maintained that relentless pace for three years until she finally couldn’t take it anymore and found another job. If you find that story shockingly sad, I also recommend reading these firsthand accounts here on the Phnom Penh Post.

Catch the bus in or out of Phnom Penh early in the morning or in the evening and you can’t help but notice the young workers starting or ending their day at the garment factories on the dusty outskirts of Cambodia’s capital. As we were heading out of town on a day-trip a few months ago we saw the bleary-eyed young women, above, tumble out of trucks, tuk tuks and ox carts, and on our return to the city in the early evening we witnessed them wearily pile back on again.

Cambodians are generally a cheerful lot. We often say they seem to be the happiest people in the world because they are so generous with their smiles and salutations. We’ve met the poorest of the poor in villages outside Siem Reap and Battambang and even after a hard day in the rice fields they have beamed at us as they warmly welcomed us to their simple homes. Yet, the women above weren’t smiling. They looked exhausted and unhappy.

Until the government recently announced a raise of the garment workers’ minimum wage to US$100 a month, they were earning $75 minimum a month, and last year many of the 600,000 or so workers were earning as little as $60 a month or $2 a day. I have a hard time understanding how the workers can survive on so little.

In fact, the study I mentioned above (cited here) found that many garment workers suffer from malnutrition and fainting is common. At the time of writing, there appears to have been no real outcomes from the letters the global brands sent to the prime minister, and the more mass protests are scheduled for early February. Until these retailers can assure consumers that the workers who produce their clothes are earning more than the price of a shirt or pair of jeans each month, I’ll be spending my money elsewhere.

Here are my tips to how to shop ethically and shop sustainably whether you’re at home or away:

1. Buy Ethical Brands
Do some research and read the labels and tags on the clothes you buy to ensure you’re buying products that are ethically made. When we were in Paris, Christelle Bonnivard, who opened ethical boutique Mademoiselle Bambû after being inspired by the gorgeous garments she saw at an Ethical Fashion Show, said she only sells ‘ethical fashion’, that is, clothes, jewellery and accessories made by small independent designers who only use materials whose origins they know. “The products must respect the environment, respect human beings, and be 100% biologique (organic),” Christelle said. “In France we have a strict certification and standards system – the tags should say where the product was made, what it’s made from, and whether it is organic cotton or 100% biologique.” Look for similar information on tags, labels, in shops, on company websites, and online.

2. Support Fair Trade
Fair Trade goods are ethically made products that are produced and sold according to World Fair Trade Organization principles that require that education, training and employment opportunities be provided, that people be paid fairly, and that production be environmentally sustainable. When we were in Bali, for instance, we could have bought souvenirs at the markets, but we had no idea where they came from, whether child labour was used, and whether workers who made them were fairly treated. Instead we went to Ubud’s Threads of Life, which works with traditional weavers in villages too remote to benefit from tourism, helping to feed their families, educate their kids, train them, maintain their traditions, and enable their communities to prosper and grow. By shopping at Fair Trade businesses you’re helping too. To know whether a business is Fair Trade, look for stickers on shop windows and certificates on walls confirming their Fair Trade status.

3. Keep Traditions Alive
Wherever possible, try to seek out traditional crafts or at least contemporary applications of traditional techniques so that you are contributing to keeping traditions alive rather than contributing to their death. I like to give the example of the distinctive candy-striped Catalan textiles, Les Toiles Du Soleil or The Cloth of the Sun, produced in Saint Laurent de Cerdans in the French Pyrénées for over 150 years, which enlivens everything from espadrilles to shop awnings. Once, the entire village was devoted to the textile’s creation by traditional techniques, but as machine manufacturing expanded business declined. Fortunately, thanks to three designers working under the umbrella ‘Made in Céret’, there’s been a resurgence of interest in the fabric.

4. Shop Local and Buy Direct
Make a habit of asking staff in shops where things come from and quiz them about the source if you have any doubts as to the origin. By buying locally made products from local business owners, you know what you’re buying, and by buying direct from the source, from artists, designers and craftspeople, you know you’re directly supporting their work, helping to create demand for local products in a retail climate that increasingly favours cheap, mass-produced trinkets and clothes. Local small business owners tend to re-invest profits into their community, whereas foreign business owners tend to send it home, so shopping locally is much more sustainable as well as helping ensure places maintain their distinctive local character, the kind of character shaped by quirky one-of-a-kind shops like one of my favourites, Giovanna Canela Miranda’s Ave María In San Miguel de Allende, which specializes in quirky, kitsch and cool Mexicana. Everything is made in Mexico, the owner either commissioning Mexican artists or travelling around Mexico to source things directly from artisans and designers.

5. Be Eco-Friendly and Go Organic
When shopping for gifts and mementoes when you travel, look beyond souvenir shops. If you’re settling into a place for a while, buy organic produce at local markets. Wherever possible we always seek out farmers markets and buy local, seasonal, organic produce, which leaves a smaller environmental footprint than imported products that have been flown in or travelled considerable distance. I will always try to buy recycled, handmade and eco-friendly gifts whenever possible, such as these in Venice from Pied à Terre, which sells vibrant velvet slippers with soles made from recycled tyres inspired by those that peasant farmers once made from jute seed bags, bicycle tyres and recycled rags for gondoliers. I also love Dietro Langolo, owned by architects Federica Serena and Sylvia Saltarin who sell eco-friendly fashion, accessories and design objects made from recycled electric cable, silicon, candy wrappers, and fire hoses.

6. Choose Vintage
As we’ve travelled the world over the last decade or so I’ve been noticing vintage shops popping up everywhere, from Melbourne to Vienna, Edinburgh to Berlin. Wherever we go I like to ask locals to point me toward vintage stores and charity shops, which always tend to be located in more interesting inner-city areas. Buying vintage clothes for many is about creating an individual style statement from rare old pieces. I love buying clothes as souvenirs so that whenever I wear them I’m reminded of the place I discovered them. But what also I love about buying vintage when I travel is that if it was rare in the place I bought it, it’s highly unlikely I’m going to see anyone wearing it elsewhere. But most importantly, I’m recycling something old, which is far better than buying disposable fashion. Now, more than ever.

Resources I like:

Labour Behind the Label

Fashion Karma: 7 Steps to Shopping Ethically

Shopping with Ethics: A 5-Step Guide

Shop Ethical: Your Ethical Consumer Guide (Australia)

A Guide to Buying Sustainable, Fair Trade and Cruelty Free Clothing (US)

Shopping Guide to High Street Clothes Shops from Ethical Consumer (UK)

Slavery Footprint

Fashioning Change

Sustainable Table

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