Saturday, March 31, 2012

the reward of spring

Spring in Istanbul is a most magical time. The hills blush with erguvan and cherry blossoms, and millions of tulips of all hues unfold with a gentle stretch across the city. The bitterness of winter fades from memory as the Bosphorus turns from grey to the deepest blue, and birds mark the sky as they return from their journeys to far-off places. 

moody morning

Winter's paleness dying.

Monday, March 26, 2012

dear portugal,

Obrigada— thank you.

should your stomach groan...

I have always been swayed by the salty rather than the sweet— and my goodness, does Portugal offer some tasty salty snacks! Meet three of my favourites:

Pastéis de bacalhau e ginjinha– that's codfish cakes and a spot of cherry liqueur. Next to preserving and pickling, the next best thing to do with a fish is to make a cake out of it. Ok, I exaggerate— I love fish in all forms of culinary creativity, but there is something so satisfying in a fishcake. The traditional ginjinha is a wonderful touch, something I could thoroughly enjoy on a regular basis.

And now my friends, behold the bifana:

A heap of tender pork steak, dripping flavour into its humble bun, mustard flowing carelessly over the mounds... Oh yes....

Lately I find myself craving bifanas— but in a country where pork is hard to come by without busting your wallet or trekking to some mysterious Armenian butcher shop, all I have are memories and a groaning belly.

Clockwise from the top in this lovely little box of goodies, we have fine examples of rissóis de leitão, rissóis de camarão, and pastéis de bacalhau— that's a pastry with piglet, a fried turnover with shrimp, and the omnipresent codfish cake. Though I intensely loved every crumb of all three snacks, only one them sprouted the roots of an obsession within me: the rissóis de camarão. The dough was delightfully crispy with the creamiest shrimp filling— so sweet and... shrimpy? I found myself casually seeking them out behind every glass counter, even indulging in its lesser airport version.

I must learn to make them...

Sunday, March 25, 2012


I have not felt like sketching much. The pressure of constantly churning out sketches for posting on Urban Sketchers and other websites became too much for me; what used to be a joy felt more and more like a chore— so I stopped. I was afraid I was drawing emptily, drawing without inspiration, drawing what I thought would be liked, rather than capturing what I like, in the way that I like. Add to this anxiety the lousy Istanbul winter we just passed through, and my sketchbooks grew a thin film of dust. I have done a few sketches here and there— quite a few in Vietnam, but I have kept them to myself. I don't know why exactly.

I have received a few emails from readers over the past several months, asking me where the sketches are. All I can say is please bear with me, they will come. I just need something to move. Being around fellow sketchers in Portugal was a great inspiration, and there was something in the light and soil there, something in the birdsong, which revived me.

At the Mina de São Domingos, I picked up my pen, and started to draw.


The Portuguese seem to have an endless variety of delectable treats to accompany your lonely coffee.
This carnival of deliciousness appears to be only limited to the vast imaginations of the chefs— I never knew custard had so many possibilities...

Saturday, March 24, 2012

moorish footprints

The stoic fortress atop the highest hill in Mértola was originally a Moorish construction, but its current form is a reconstruction by Christians— the main tower being completed around 1292. The Alentejo region of Portugal has a Moorish history that is still evident in some of the architectural choices by the Southern Portuguese, notably in the whitewashed squarish houses, trimmed in blue. Every two years, the municipality of Mértola celebrates its Moorish history with a festival of theatre, dance, music, art and food, squeezing people from all over the world into the town's tiny streets.

The Museu de Mértola's Islamic Centre boasts a humble yet intriguing collection of Islamic ceramics, which includes many gorgeous bowls with unusual designs— the first one below almost seemed prehistoric, rather than Moorish or Islamic. I've never seen such detailed and linear abstractions of animals in Islamic ceramics. Please forgive the blurriness of the photos— I was having some technical difficulties...

Mértola's main church was originally a 12th century mosque, later converted into a church during the Christian conquest in 1238. The church still has a mihrab, which faces east, toward Mecca.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

beautiful mértola

So lovely, it doesn't seem real.


Presunto, cheese and olives. Wine. We split a hare and bean stew. Pens.

Dessert. Jovial party of men offer us a spot of whiskey.

Paper tablecloths are a terrible temptation for artists.

Friday, March 16, 2012

comfort food

While quietly creeping through the thin woods and cork trees in search of dippers, the sun fell behind the hills, turning the valley blue. Fingers became cold to the touch, noses and cheeks pink, and bellies began to call out for comfort— for something steamy and delicious.

In a little restaurant in Sertã, I was introduced to maranhos, traditional Portuguese comfort food. A mouth-watering mix of rice, chouriço and lamb, stuffed inside the stomach of a sheep and boiled in broth. It's simplicity and satisfaction with a touch of mint; the perfect way to get some heat into your fingers and toes, to hush that moaning belly.

Might I add that I just love the ever-present red clay olive dishes!

Thursday, March 15, 2012


The little tiled niches depicting biblical imagery which I spied throughout my adventure in Portugal, reminded me of the mini shrines I became so familiar with in Nepal— minus the butter lamps, smears of magenta powder, and smoking incense. I suspect the niches are occasionally graced by a melting candle or two, and perhaps some flowers. This need to build a little space of worship, this common thread between such different religions and cultures which lie nearly halfway across the world from each other, is touching. I find that people are more alike than unlike. We just need to remind ourselves of it more often.