28 April 2013

The Khan Shatyr - Astana's Giant Tent

The very cold winter temperatures mean that large indoor spaces are a vitally important part of life here in Astana and as such we have a number of very large shopping centers. 

We have 5 large malls within walking distance of our house.  Each of them come complete with a supermarket, a food court, café’s, a cinema and a range of clothes, shoe and toy shops.  Most also have indoor play areas for children and one even has a climbing wall.

Astana Khan Shatyr
Khan Shatyr
The Khan Shatyr is the most recently built of all the malls and possibly the most iconic.  It is at the western end of Nurzhol boulevard.  Designed by Norman Foster, it opened in 2010.  A large tent, designed as a modern interpretation of a yurt, it stands at 150m high and covers a ground area of 100,000 sq meters. Various websites boast that it is the largest tensile structure in the world.  I am not quite sure as I thought that honour went to the London Milennium Dome.  In any even the Khan Shatyr is huge, impressive and much more beautiful than the London counterpart.

Khan Shatyr Model
Khan Shatyr - future model
The Khan Shatyr is the center of what will be a large complex including office space and residential buildings.  The first thing you see when you enter the building is a large model showing the mall and its surrounding buildings.  Only two of the towers have been completed so far and they are connected to the shopping center by a covered walkway.  We did look into whether or not to rent a flat in one of these buildings, thinking that it would be very convenient to be able to walk, undercover, to the supermarket in the winter.  The flats looked spectacular but were rather small and expensive for the space. I am not too keen on the supermarket in the Khan Shatyr in any event.

Long drop fairground ride
As you walk into the immense open space at the center of the mall you come face to face with a large long drop style fairground ride   This open space plays regular host to events such as fashion shows or 'Miss Khan Shatyr' competitions.  There are more fairground rides, games machines and soft play areas on the upper levels including a log flume and a monorail.  It is somewhat reminiscent of Brighton Palace pier.  Children love to ride around the perimeter of the mall, looking at the people enjoying their weekend and waving to all and sundry.

Busy soft play under the tent.
4th Floor Khan Shatyr
Monorail in the Khan Shatyr
Aside from wandering around and enjoying the cutting edge architecture the real reason to come to the Khan Shatyr is the sky beach.  The top floor is dedicated to a spa and swimming pool complex.  The swimming pools are surrounded by sand flown in from the Maldives.  Here you can enjoy flume rides, swim, play volleyball or just relax with a smoothie from the bar even when the temperatures have dropped to -50 degrees outside but sadly it is an expensive place to visit.  Discount websites such as chocolife.me sometimes have vouchers on sale for cut price entry but without these you are looking at a cost of about 8,000 tenge (nearly £40) per person so we usually only ever go when friends or family come to Astana.  There is a gym attached to the spa with a running track around the perimeter of the tent.  It certainly looks spectacular but I have never seen anyone brave enough to run around under the beady eye of people enjoying their burgers or fairground rides.

Khan Shatyr Sky Beach
Swim on the beach - even when it is freezing
Enjoy the beach in the middle of the steppe. 
Astana Khan Shatyr
Running track - for the very brave and figure unconscious
The walls of each floor are covered in artificial plants giving a welcome splash of green in the middle of winter.  This is the place to come if you want to pick up imported clothes from stores such as Gap, Zara, Massimo Dutti etc but I tend to find that the other malls have better supermarkets and food courts.  The parking is also somewhat chaotic and it is expensive (500 tenge/£2) to park underground.   I actually enjoy seeing the Khan Shatyr from the outside far more than spending time inside.  It is a spectacular addition to Astana's beautiful and rather unconventional skyline and looks it's best at sundown when the sunset bathes it in orange.

Khan Shatyr Sunset
Spectacular sunsets - even when snapped from a telephone
Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat

Posted as part of the Show Your World series hosted by Girl Gone London

23 April 2013

Spring in Astana - Don't remove your coat!

Our two intermediate seasons do not last long, a month at most, and we are almost at the end of our spring.

Astana, Spring, Baiterek
Crowds enjoying the warm sunshine
All the ice has now melted but our temperatures are still fluctuating.  Two weeks ago we enjoyed a spell of beautiful weather with temperatures soaring up to 28 degrees.  Last week temperatures dipped below freezing and we had snow.  Today the temperature was up to 18 degrees, the sky was blue and the sun warm and people were enjoying the sunshine in the city gardens.

Ice free Ishim
It is now warm enough  for me to be able to start my regular runs once more.  I like to run along the Ishim embankment because it is safe, clean and I can gauge my distance very easily.  It is also a lovely place to walk the dog and I have been enjoying somewhat longer excursions with her.  Many other people enjoy the river and the embankment is home to skateboarders, cyclists, roller skaters, families and joggers while the river is home to an active rowing club.  The pleasure boats have not yet started their tours but it will not be long.
Ishim, Astana, Pyramid and Ak Orda
Ishim embankment with a view to the Pyramid and Ak Orda
I have never quite managed to get used to the English habit of eschewing coats and warmer clothing (even in winter it is not uncommon to see English people wearing only a light jacket and no hat, scarf or gloves) but we do not bother with coats when the weather gets warm.  This can lead to some amusing interactions with our neighbours or even strangers on the street as people here tend to wear coats and warmer clothing until well into May.

I have noticed that familiarity with a danger or hazard does not breed contempt but rather serves to create a real respect and sometimes dread.  Before we moved to Nigeria when I was a child I expected that the local people would not be at all afraid of snakes (they terrify me) and would be able to deal with them easily.  As it turns out, because people know just how dangerous a snake and a snake bite can be, they are often terrified to the point of paralysis.  My mother, who knew no fear, was often called by friends and neighbours to dispatch snakes and was regularly seen cycling through the camp, hoe in hand, to do the deed.

As in Nigeria for snakes in Astana for the cold.  Children are swathed, head to foot, in a sweltering array of clothes even when the weather is fine and warm.  Two weeks ago I arrived to collect the children from school, our daughter was playing outside under a blue sky and a warm sun of 25 degrees wearing her winter coat and a jumper.  The poor child was boiling but the supervisors were very concerned for her health when I removed the coat - it is April and therefore, so the thinking goes, a coat is necessary even in the warmest sunshine.  It is not uncommon for strangers to stop me on the street to tell me that I should put more clothes on the children.

A mother and child enjoying the sun on the embankment
 - well wrapped up in the 20 degree temperatures.
I was amazed, last year, to watch the trees burst into leaf.  They seemed to become green overnight and all at once.  A few days ago a weekend walk in the park revealed a scattering of small shoots on the trees and, when I looked out of the window this evening I noticed a corona of green on the trees in the park.

spring leaves
Leaves budding on the trees
Astana spring
Trees bud overnight
Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat

16 April 2013

How to help your children cope with tragedies they see on the news

Paris, Beirut, Metrojet, MH17, MS804 – the Boston Bomb… Expats can find it difficult to see or hear of problems affecting a family member far away and be unable to help.  I speak from personal experience when I say it is even worse for children. 

I boarded when my parents moved to Nigeria shortly after I turned 11.  The potential dangers were highlighted when my mother and I were caught in an armed robbery and again a when the airports were closed due to an attempted coup. This was before the days of easy communication so whenever I was at school I was obsessed with hearing as many news bulletins as possible.  I wanted to be sure that nothing was happening to my family.  These feelings intensified during our posting to Turkey in the 1990’s.  We lived in Diyarbekir in the east of the country and it was at the height of the problems with the PKK.  Bombings, kidnap threats and worse were commonplace and we went everywhere with bodyguards.   I would scour the newspapers daily and could not sleep until I had heard the late news on the radio. More recently, when our children, who were very young  and had just moved abroad with us for the first time, heard about the London riots in 2011 they did not settle until they had spoken to all our family in the UK. 

When bad things happen it is important to make sure that children understand the context of the event, the repercussions and that their loved ones are safe.  Of course, if family are potentially involved it is essential to find a way to reassure children as soon as possible.  In these days of mass media and internet lack of information is not a problem - rather there is a danger of information overload.

As soon as something happens tell your children before they see potentially distressing and worrying information in the media.  In 2014 we were living in Malaysia when flight MH17 was shot down, children at their school lost parents and the whole community was hit very badly.  In such circumstances it was vital to ensure that the children knew exactly what was going on so that they did not hear from rumours.  I would advise parents in similar circumstances to give their children  a fair and honest account and, if they want to watch the news make sure that you are with them to put it into context.  Younger children may well not understand the concept of a ‘news loop’ and worry that events are repeating themselves so make sure that they understand that there is a single incident.  Very small children will need a lot of physical reassurance, and older children may want to speak to relatives to reassure themselves that everything is ok.  

Schools have become increasingly sophisticated at supporting expat children through such crises.   My house parents lacked sympathy, they were exasperated by my need to keep up to date with information and my worry for my family.  I know from personal experience (Mr EE and I were living in schools in the UK as boarding house parents during the 9/11 tragedy and the London tube bombings) and from speaking to people whose children have boarded in recent years that things are very different now.  Nevertheless if you are living abroad but have children in boarding school it is worth speaking with the house parents to ensure that they know how best to support your children if necessary.  

Click on the picture for more posts on the challenges of expat life.

Ersatz Expat

This article has, sadly, been updated far too many times since it was originally published in 2013.

15 April 2013

How to find an address in Astana

I have found that there is very little that cannot be bought in Astana as long as you know where to look.  Next week our children’s school celebrates International World Book Day, the day is designed to promote a love of reading in children and is hugely popular with kids, not so much for the parents who have to find or make a literary themed costume. 

I have always made costumes for the children but just as I finished this year’s creations I found the address details of a theatrical costume shop in the city so I decided to have a look for future reference.  Of course, in order to visit the shop I had to find it first.  This is sometimes easier said than done as addresses in Astana are not always where they should be. It is not uncommon for a building to have an address on one road but an entrance on another. 

I thought that I would be lucky as they had a map on their website, this should have raised a warning as these maps are notoriously inaccurate.  Nevertheless, filled with confidence a friend and I hopped in the car and drove over to Imanov Street in the old city. She had the address and a map printed from the website and directed me to park in front of where it should be, we got out of the car to find ourselves parked in front of a hospital.  As there was no hospital marked on our map we thought we might not be quite where we needed to be.  Undaunted we decided to walk around the block to see what we could find.  Although we had parked on one of the main streets in the old town as soon as we walked into a side street we could have been in a village and we found ourselves walking along an unmade road lined with small, somewhat tumbledown houses. 

It was clear that there were no costume shops in the vicinity so we went back to the hospital to ask directions.  Some old men were sitting outside were happy to speak with us.  Where were we from?  Did we like Kazakhstan?  They wanted to practice their English and were very impressed that my friend could speak Kazakh but 10 minutes later and it became clear that they could not help us.  We looked down the road and saw a bank so went in to ask the Okhrana (security staff) for directions.  We were given a vague wave of the hand in the opposite direction down Imanov to that indicated on the map but since that had been wrong we decided to try this suggestion.  It turned out that we were right – the vague suggestion was a better bet than the map and we eventually found the shop down a side street.  A simple error meant that map on the website had placed south on the top instead or north.

This is not an unusual experience in Astana, addresses are usually unclear and map skills do not seem routinely to be taught in school.  It is not helped by the fact that streets sometimes have two names, one Kazakh and one Russian and the name on the map is not always the name in common usage.  When we first arrived I asked someone where I could find Keruen (our closest mall).  I took out our map and pointed to our house expecting that she would then be able to give us directions.  This was overly optimistic on my part as she waved vaguely in the direction of the Ak Orda (the President’s Palace).  We had walked there the day before and seen no sight of a large mall. It turned out that the mall is midway along Nurzhol Boulevard between the Ak Orda and Khan Shatyr, nowhere near where she pointed.

At the time we thought this might have been a one off, a fluke, but since then people have sent us on the wrong road out of town when we have asked for directions to other cities and taxis (on a flat fare) have taken us the most illogical routs from A to B. Before we bought our car we walked 4km up and then down the entire length of a road looking for a bar where we had agreed to meet a friend; it was not there, we could not find it.  Feeling rather stupid we called them and they were in the bar, yes we were on the correct road, it was close to a crossroads with another street.  We looked again at every building within one block of that crossroads, no bar.  An hour later feeling very cold (-20) and rather fed up we gave up on the rendezvous and went elsewhere.  The next day our friend checked with another acquaintance and shamefacedly admitted to us they had given us the wrong road name.

On one particularly memorable occasion I had to give our electrician a lift to the electric mart to pick up some cabling and fuses for our home.  I needed directions to the shop not having been there before.  When I left I was going to drive the fastest route back, there was a little bit of traffic but nothing that would have added more than 10 minutes to the 20 minute drive.  The electrician was horrified by this and suggested that I could not possibly drive back that way – he knew a short cut.  I was a little dubious as I thought I knew the quickest way possible to get home but decided to go with the ‘local knowledge’.  Every time we hit a small amount of traffic he directed me on another short cut.  This short cut became wilder and wilder as the journey continued and I was directed on increasingly elaborate manoeuvres:  U turns, the wrong way down one way streets and illegal left turns.  The 20 minute journey ended up taking 2 hours but when we arrived he was beaming – was I not pleased that we had avoided all the traffic!

I do wonder if he was testing my driving skills.  On the way to the shop he was surprised to see I was driving a stick shift.  Most cars here, even 4x4’s are automatics and it took us some time to track down a proper, mechanical car.  These cars tend to be used for hunting expeditions where the 4x4 capability can become necessary and it is vanishingly rare to see a woman drive one.  He was intrigued at this ‘could I drive it properly?’ ‘did I not want an automatic?’ and I had him roaring with laughter when I pointed out that I wanted to be the boss not the car.  He admitted that he could only drive an automatic and I really do think he may have wanted to see whether I was as good as my boast.

It is all rather good fun and we have learned to leave extra ‘searching’ time when we am going somewhere for the first visit, this means we can keep our sense of perspective and not get too frustrated.  In this instance the expedition was worth the effort, the costumes in the shop were very good quality and very reasonably priced to hire.  Next time the children need to dress up I will be saving my eyesight and time and just pop down there instead.  

Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat

10 April 2013

How make sure fruit and vegetables are safe

One of the real challenges of expat life is finding food to cook your own home recipes.  What is on sale in the shops is often not quite like what you are used to having at home.  One thing that rarely changes, however, is fruit and vegetables.  Fresh produce is normally available in one form or another in most postings.  Sadly, however, such produce is not always safe to eat and can be infected nasties such as E.Coli and other things.  Almost every expat will, therefore, as a matter of course, have their own preferred cleaning and sterilising method.

 My years in the tropics have left me with a sterilising tic.  Whenever we were outside of Northern Europe my mother would soak all fruit and vegetables in Milton baby bottle solution before we could think about eating it.  It has since become something of a habit with me that everything is cleaned, sterilised and then peeled before use. 

Following an e-coli scare for European and American grown produce I even sterilise our vegetables in more mainstream postings, this has the combined benefit (for people who are concerned about such things) of removing any remaining pesticide residue from the produce.   I have been very lucky that the available selection of fruit and vegetables in all four of my recent postings has been very diverse but nevertheless I sterilise everything (especially organic produce) very very carefully.

Milton is probably the best baby cold water steriliser to use on fruit and vegetables as it does not need to be rinsed off.  If you cannot get Milton most solutions can be used but many require the vegetables to be rinsed in clean water after sterilising (check the instructions on your chosen tablets).  An alternative is a mix of vinegar in water (approximately 20% Vinegar solution but you may wish to make it stronger in the event you are in an area with a high contamination risk).  In some countries it is possible to buy a proprietary vegetable wash solution that can either be diluted for soaking large quantities or applied directly to single items.

Whether or not sterilising is necessary depends, to a great extent on the water used to irrigate the crops.  If the water is safe to drink and the vegetables irrigated with potable water a good wash a scrub to remove all soil is probably enough.   I have a friend who uses soap to clean her vegetables but if I am ever in any doubt at all, I get out my Milton tablets.

I have a sliding scale of vegetables.  Salad, cucumber, tomatoes, watermelons and the like take up a lot of water and I am very careful of them.  Even if I sterilise them to deal with the risk of external infection I will only eat them where I know that they have been irrigated with potable water and I always peel cucumbers.  If in doubt I would eschew the ones from the shops and grow my own.  I am slightly less concerned with cooked vegetables where local water is potable.  As long as they will be boiled or roasted for at least 15 minutes, all the soil is washed from the surface and they are peeled I am mostly happy for them to be left untreated.   Where they are grown in non potable water or I am only going to blanche them I always insist on sterilising.

In Nigeria the water was very dangerous.  It had to be boiled for 15 minutes and then filtered before it was safe to drink and all fruit and veg was sterilised for at least 60 minutes before rinsing in clean water.  In Venezuela the water was not as bad in the cities but we took a lot of care with the fruit and vegetables, sterilising them for 20 minutes.  In Turkey too, because we were a long way from the main cities we took a lot of care with the greens and, after a particularly nasty experience that I had after eating some untreated cucumber at a picnic, only ever ate the salads that we grew ourselves, our location was famous for its watermelons but the water used to grow them was so dirty that we did not ever eat one.  

In Astana the water from the tap was potable with just a filter and no need to boil so my guess is that washing in filtered water would render most vegetables safe, certainly that is about all that most of my friends did.  I did not bother sterilising anything that was to be cooked, letting a good wash and peel do the job.  Fruit was always sterilised and rinsed but I did let the children then eat their apples unpeeled.  I treated salad and anything else eaten raw  just ahead of eating by soaking in Milton in my salad spinner, draining and then rinsing in clean, filtered water.

In Malaysia  I sterilised everything that was to be eaten fresh and all cooked vegetables that were not to be peeled.  Although the tap water was meant to be safe and potable I never used it, preferring to use the water from the dispenser instead.  In KSA most (well pretty much all) of the fresh produce is imported and I treat it pretty much as I would in Astana with the exception of the water, I don't trust the tap water at all and don't use it for any preparation.

Click on the picture for more posts on the challenges of expat cooking.

Ersatz Expat

Linked to the Practical Mondays Blog Linky

7 April 2013

Shopping in Kazakh Bazaars

A little earlier I wrote a post about shopping in Kazakh supermarkets.  We can get most of the items we want from those supermarkets but I tend to find that certain things are better bought from the bazaars.  
When we first arrived I was surprised to find that the quality of fruit and vegetable in the supermarkets is fairly low and that the prices are expensive.  I asked our housekeeper where she did her shopping and she directed me to go to the bazaars. 

There are a few to choose from, the best are the Centralni (which is on the way out of town not in the Centre as one would expect) although that suffered a fire recently, Eusasia which is more like a mall with a lot of small independent shops and Artyum, a cross between a bazaar and a shopping mall, which is my favorite place to go.  Artyum is not anything like a bazaar of one’s imagination.  It holds no echoes of the Moroccan Souks, the Istanbul Grand Bazaar or even the bazaars we used to visit in Diyarbakir.  It is a large, square, concrete edifice close to the centre of the old town.  The first time I went there I prepared for disappointment but this changed as soon as we walked inside. 

Bazaar Astana
Ground floor of Artyum Bazaar
The ground floor has three corridors of small shops which are lined with food stalls.  There is a meat market with the meat displayed underneath pictures of the animal of origin.  I do not buy meat there, however, as I am never certain how long it has been since butchering and it does not always look or smell fresh.  The small shops sell all sorts of dried and packaged goods, from cereal to instant noodles, juice to sweets.  The real benefit to shopping here, however, lies in the stalls that line the rows outside the shops.  These sell fresh fruit and vegetables throughout the year.  While the supermarkets seem to carry old, poor quality specimens the stalls always have a good selection of high quality produce.  The stall holders are very friendly and will usually allow you to choose your own so you can be sure of avoiding the rotten pieces.  They go to a lot of trouble to display their wares in interesting patterns and spray them regularly with water to keep them looking fresh and tasty. 

Artyum Vegetables Astana
Friendly stall holders display their wares
It always surprises me when some expatriates complain about the poor variety of fresh ‘greens’ in the winter months as, other than salad I have never found them difficult to buy. Herbs can be difficult to source and expensive to buy in winter but I have followed the suggestion of my housekeeper and buy them at the end of summer when they are plentiful and cheap and then store them in the freezer. Artyum is a good place to practice Russian, the stall holders will happily give you the proper Russian or Kazakh name for any of the vegetables if you ask.  One stall holder I go to regularly even tested me each visit to see if I could remember what she had taught me the last time.

Astana Vegetables
The stalls are beautifully set out
Interspersed between the stalls selling fresh produce you can find stalls with dried fruit, spices and pulses.  I usually pick up some dried chickpeas to make hummus and some dried fruit for a family snack.  Kazakhstan has brought the concept of dried fruit to a whole new level.  Of course we can buy the usual raisins and sultanas, dried apple and apricots but we can also buy dried pineapple, peach and kiwi. 

As you reach the back of Artyum there is a ‘gardening center  of sorts.  Plants from the florists are expensive but some really beautiful plants can be bought here for about 1/3 of the price.  A lot of the gardening stalls sell seeds and I think I will buy some kitchen herbs and possibly some cut and come again salad to sow next winter.

PLants in Artyum
Artyum's Garden Centre
The second floor (Kazakhstan follows the American rather than the European floor numbering tradition) has a range of shops selling homeware, small pets and pet supplies and shoes, there is also a wide range of shops that sell Kazakh souvenirs.  These range from decorative (!) plates and rather tasteless statues of horses and the Baiterek to the distinctive Kazakh felt work.  We bought our vacuum cleaner here and the place is such a warren that every visit turns up something new.  I was over the moon on my last visit to find a shop selling hide chews for dogs.  Our poor girl has been putting up with carrots instead of chews since we arrived here.  She is very fond of carrots which do just as good a job of cleaning her teeth but I know she does not find them as satisfying.

Kazakh Souvenirs
Souvenirs of Kazakhstan
The third floor is full of fashion shops selling clothes for men, women and children.  You can get evening gowns, lingerie, suits and sports ware.  In the winter it is possible to buy Shubas (fur coats) for half or even one third the price of the shops in the major malls and some of the shops sell the beautiful fur hats that most women here wear over the winter.  The debate on fur rages heavily in Europe and America but here in Kazakhstan it is seen as the most practical material to cope with the cold as it is both warm and windproof.
The upper floors carry a range of furniture, craft shops and beauty salons.  The furniture in Artyum is mostly Chinese imports and does not always appeal to western tastes.  Furniture is expensive here in Astana and the bazaars are about the only place to get any at prices I would consider approaching reasonable. 

Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat

3 April 2013

Baking Banana Bread

I love bananas.  One of the real treats living in Nigeria was the abundance of the fruit – we could just walk into the garden and pick them straight from the ‘trees’, although you had to keep a careful eye out for snakes.  The bananas in Nigeria were nothing like the big tasteless ones you tend to get in Europe, they were small, soft and oh so sweet.  We were even able to get red bananas which were sweeter still, and plantain which is not at all nice raw but is beautiful fried. 

One of the things that surprised me when we moved to Kazakhstan was the easy availability of bananas, we get them year round and although they are a little pricey the cost is not prohibitive.  I am not sure where they come from but they are reasonably tasty.  They do perish rather quickly so you can have to
eat them fast or leave a few to go black and then bake banana bread. The break is very easy to make - so much so that I tend to use it as my stand by for unexpected visitors and the children have learned that if they leave some bananas in the bowl they will get cake.  It is also a cake with ingredients that are easily sourced just about everywhere, even in the most obscure postings.

My banana bread is based on a heavily edited version of Nigella Lawson’s recipe from How to Be a Domestic Goddess. I leave out the nuts (I worry about young children eating nuts) and add chocolate chips.   I take 110g of raisins and soak them in Tokaji overnight, if I don’t have time or, more likely, forget to do this the day before I just boil them up on the hob.  Most recipes call for rum, brandy or bourbon but the mellow taste of Tokaji works extremely well with the banana bread.  It is, in fact, my sweet cooking wine of choice but it can be difficult to find.  In a pinch I will use Madeira or Sherry.  

Raisins in Tokaji
Raisins in Tokaij
In one bowl I combine approximately 175g of flour, 2 teaspoons of baking powder and ½ of baking soda. 
In another bowl I mix 125g of melted butter and 150g of sugar.  Add 4 mashed, over-ripe bananas to the butter mix followed by two eggs, the raisins (and any left-over Tokaji, don’t waste it) and vanilla extract.  I then add the dry ingredients to the wet; I find if I add a little at a time I only need to use a wooden spoon to mix. Once that is done I add the chocolate chunks about 75g, I like really dark, bitter chocolate because I think it combines well with the bananas, if I can't find proper cooking chocolate I just use my own

Banana Bread
Ready for the Oven
The cake goes in a low oven (about 170 degrees) until a tester (a knife in my case) comes out clean, this is usually about 1 hour but it might take a little longer.  I know that I should not eat the cake mix but who can resist it? The mashed bananas make this particular mix deliciously satisfying.

Banana Bread
Banana Bread
Click on the picture for more posts on the challenges of expat cooking.

Ersatz Expat

1 April 2013

Easter for Expats

Easter or Paas is a big celebration in our family, in many ways we prefer it to Christmas.  It is a much gentler celebration and less commercialised although I noticed that in recent years the Netherlands has gone ‘Easter Twig’ crazy and this seems to be catching on in the UK as well. 

While we were in the UK we would always go to my Husband’s family for Easter weekend.  They have a smallholding in the North of England where they grow their own beef and lamb.  The children enjoy spending time with their grandparents and cousins and ‘helping’ feed the animals.  They particularly love seeing the new born calves and lambs.  England is usually very beautiful at Eastertide with daffodils and crocuses covering the fields.

Lamb, of course, is the traditional English Easter dish but I am not so keen on it so, in deference to me, the family would usually celebrate with a beef roast.  After returning from the Easter Sunday church service the children get to eat just a little bit of their Easter Egg and then we enjoy lunch as a family.  Often my Sister in Law and her children will visit as well so the dining table gets wonderfully crowded and my Mother in Law very busy.

The North of England has a peculiar Easter Tradition which the family call Jarping Eggs.  Before Easter the eggs are hard boiled in water that has coffee grounds or onion skins in.  This colours the eggs a deep red/brown.  The family each select an egg and, taking turns, hold them by the rounded end and bang the pointed ends together.  The winner is the person whose egg smashes the shell of the other.  This is actually quite a common tradition around the world but it reaches new heights in County Durham where the world championships are held.  We have never gone to see the championship, just enjoying a gentle competition between members of the family.  Easter Lunch is such a large affair that we usually have a high tea instead of supper and this is the perfect time to jarp as the eggs can then be used on sandwiches. 

Eggs for Jarping
Jarping Eggs coloured with Onion
Here in Astana we have not been able to go to an Easter service but we try to talk to the children about the background of the day so that they keep the roots of the celebration in mind.  We cannot get Easter Eggs but as have always tried to limit the number of Easter Eggs the children get (or we are stuck with eggs on the sideboard for weeks) it is not a big loss.  I can take or leave the large eggs that have become de-rigeur in the UK although I do miss Cadbury Creme Eggs, a deliciously disgusting confection of 'chocolate' and fondant.  I still prefer the Dutch Easter Eggs which are small, single bite eggs, often with different flavours and I try to bring some of these back with me.  My mother would always have these in a huge bowl on the coffee table but our children are too young and our dog too greedy to make this a realistic possibility, I keep them locked away and bring the bowl out only when an adult is around to supervise consumption.  I make some coloured eggs to jarp and then steal the contents to turn into egg mayonnaise or, if I am feeling particularly active I will make Gevulde Eieren by halving the egg, removing the yolk and mixing it up with mayonnaise and mustard before returning it to the white, these are delicious sprinkled with paprika.  A family meal and a walk with the dog complete our somewhat ersatz Easter tradition.

I have fallen completely in love with the UK traditional Easter food of Hot Cross Buns.  They are current buns marked with a paste cross to signify the time of year.  They are easily found in all British supermarkets but almost impossible to get elsewhere so they have to be made from scratch.  They are not difficult but they are time-consuming. 

Hot Cross Buns in the Oven
Hot cross buns in the oven

Hot Cross Buns Baked and Glazed
Freshly Baked and Glazed
I like to use Nigella Lawson’s recipe but I find that she is a little parsimonious on the spice and fruit.  I double the fruit (this year I added candied peel and dried cranberries to the mix).  I like to use Dutch koekkruiden (spice mix) in place of the spices recommended in the recipe.  This can be bought from every supermarket in the Netherlands but again is impossible to find elsewhere.  I make it by mixing Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Allspice, Ground Cloves, Ground Nutmeg, Ground Ginger, ground Cardamom and ground Star Anise, if I can get it I add some Mace.  I tend not to mix the spice in any set quantities – the smell tells me if I am on the right track.  I use two tea spoons of this mix in place of the spices Nigella recommends.  I usually try to let everyone in the family stir the mix and I like to make 11 in a batch – one for each of the apostles (less Judas).

Orthodox Easter is not a Public Holiday but is celebrated by the Orthodox Christians in Astana.  It is not for some weeks and when that comes round we will probably have friends round to enjoy a second ‘Easter’ lunch.

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Ersatz Expat

Click on the picture for more posts on the challenges of expat life.

Ersatz Expat