27 August 2013

Celebrating Constitution Day in Astana

30 August is Constitution Day, a public holiday here in Kazakhstan.  This is one of the most important of all our holidays here because it celebrates the day, in 1995, when Kazakhstan accepted the new constitution of the Republic.  

The city authorities arrange many different events  around Astana for people to celebrate the day.  This year the events they are taking the form of concerts, art exhibitions and fireworks.  There is also an open public debate/discussion on the constitution the topic being ‘Pride and Honour of Free People are the Main Law’.  The debate sounds quite fascinating and it would be interesting to watch from a sociological point of view but we know that it will be lost on us.  With that in mind we will probably drive up to the Alzhir museum which is holding a special exhibition before returning home and watching the fireworks from our kitchen window.  

We were very lucky to be in Astana for the Constitution Day celebrations in 2011.  2011 marked the 20th anniversary of the founding of Kazakhstan as an independent nation so the celebrations were truly magnificent and included an infantry and a mechanised parade in-front of the Pyramid and the Kazakh Eli monument for review by the President.

Waiting for the parade to start
We had only been in Kazakhstan for a few weeks and did not speak a word of Russian or Kazakh.  The parade was being held just half an hour's walk from our apartment so we decided to go along to enjoy the atmosphere rather than watch on the television.  We were not able to get into any of the stands to view the infantry parade but did manage to get a spot near the head of the mechanised parade.  We waited for some time and watched the final preparations to the lead vehicles.  After an hour or so the parade started to move, led by the chiefs of the Army, Airforce and Navy (I was surprised to learn that Kazakhstan has a navy but of course they do have a shoreline on the Caspian).  Once they had moved past they were followed by a very long  mechanised procession which included tanks (T-72's I think), APC's rocket launchers, howitzers, mortars and missiles (sadly I am not sufficiently educated in this area and could not identify each individual item with any real degree of accuracy) before watching a very impressive aerial display. 

The parade processes past the yet to be completed mosque.
Note how, despite the crowd, no-one steps on the beautiful flower display.
While the display was magnificent perhaps the most lasting impression we had was of the warmth of the crowd, their genuine pride in their country and their willingness to share it both with each-other and with foreigners.  We also noticed that, despite people crowding around to get the very best view not a single person pushed or jostled another and nobody stepped on the beautiful displays in the flower beds.  It was one of the most joyful introductions I have ever had to life in another country. 

The event culminated in a 20 minute aerial display
It was quite something to watch the MiGs fly over the Astana skyline
The logistics and cost involved must have been staggering, but how often does a country turn 20 years old!  We felt very lucky that we were here at just the right time to see it, certainly not something we would have predicted had anyone asked us in 1991.

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Ersatz Expat

22 August 2013

How to Pasteurise Eggs At Home

Eggs are generally safe to eat but there is always a chance that they may be infected with salmonella.  This is a nasty disease to contract at any time but it is particularly dangerous for expectant mothers as it can cross the placenta and infect the baby.  The advice in the UK (where I was living when I had my children) was to avoid all raw egg products while expecting.  That means no eggs sunny side up, no home made mayonnaise and no chocolate mousse.  I like to make mayonnaise and mousse at home, however, and when you are living abroad sometimes you cannot get the ‘safe’ shop bought versions.

It is a pretty annoying restriction as so many tasty products use raw egg, of course it is for everybody to weigh the risk in their own minds.  When I was quite young I remember a friend’s mother loosing a baby due to salmonella so I always played things safe.  These days, if I know an expectant mother is coming over for food I tend not to adjust my meal plans but I do make any raw egg recipes with pasteurised egg as a courtesy.

Pasteurised eggs can be difficult to find and, if you are living somewhere more exotic, downright impossible.  I always thought that you could not pasteurise your own eggs but browsing the web some time ago I cam across a nifty little trick from the culinary arts website which claims to sterilise eggs in the microwave. The procedure is quite simple, I would not rely on this to be 100% safe but if I am making raw egg products and I know an expectant mother will be coming over I always put the eggs through this system first, I then let them know the eggs are home sterilised and they can make their own call.

Sterilise a jar and three whisks or forks.  Separate out two egg yolks and place in the jar, whisk them together with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and two of water.  Discard the whisk and put the jar in the microwave.  Set it away on high until the egg starts to move up the jar + 8 seconds.  Take it out of the microwave and whisk again with a second, clean whisk.  Repeat the procedure and then whisk again with the third, clean whisk.  Your eggs are now ready to use.

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Ersatz Expat

19 August 2013

How to make clove oil - a natural remedy for toothache

One of my teeth has been hurting me pretty badly over the last few days.  I have put off thinking the worst because I had a full check up and clean just two weeks ago when we were in the UK.  I figured it must just be some sensitivity because I had forgotten to buy a sensitive toothpaste.  I collected some from the shop and expected the problem to go away in a day or two...only it didn't.

A quick call to my dentist in the UK confirmed my fears, yes it was likely to be a latent cavity, sheer bad luck on the timing and no, there is nothing I can do to put treatment off for the 12 months until I am in the UK again.  I am a nervous patient at the dentists at the best of times; I had some fairly harrowing experiences with Norwegian and English dentists when I was younger (although that was probably a function of the years (1980/90's) as opposed to the location and my mother's teeth were destroyed for life by a well meaning but desperately incompetent dentist in Nigeria in the 1970's. The net result is that I take years to build up confidence in a dentist.  I was seriously thinking about buying a flight back to my kind, understanding and gentle dentist in the UK but realised that that is truly pathetic.  I need to man up, give a good example to the kids and find a dentist here in Astana.  I have asked some friends,colleagues and checked the listings at the international community website and hope to get some recommendations soon.

In the meantime I am stuck with an increasingly painful tooth.  Because all the family teeth have been in such good condition I have not brought any clove oil with me.  This natural antiseptic can help with toothache by numbing the pain (a useful top up for painkillers) and helping keep the area clean.  It is possible to make it but, of course, it takes time to infuse.

I have put a batch on to make today because I am not sure how long it will take to get an appointment at a good clinic, it won’t be too strong to start with but it will be good to have some in the store cupboard for future use and anything is better than nothing.  In the meantime I am adding a couple of cloves to my hot drinks. 

The process is fairly simple, not dissimilar to making vanilla essence.  Take four to six fresh cloves and grind in a spice mill.  You could use a mortar and pestle if you do not have a mill but this is hard work.

A mini mill makes short work of small quantities of spices.
Take a muslin infusing square and place the cloves inside and tie tightly.  Unfortunately I have none in the house at the moment, I used to cut up and sterilise old baby muslins but the kids have long outgrown the need for these and I have run out, you can also sterilise some clean unworn pop socks, again I had no unworn ones in the house.   At a pinch you could use a clean coffee filter or, as I did this time round, sacrifice a posh teabag.
My posh, silk teabag works well as an ersatz infusing bag.
Filled with ground cloves, the teabag even comes with its own string.
While you are doing this, sterilise a small jar.  Put the bag in the jar and cover with olive oil, cover with foil and  place in a water bath, either on the hob or in the oven (150 degrees) for 45 minutes.  When this has completed close the jar with a sterilised lid and leave to infuse for a week.  It will keep indefinitely and get stronger with time.  When you need to use it dip a cotton bud in the oil and dab the sore gums/teeth.

I will be using the oil pretty much immediately in the hope that the placebo effect will kick in.

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Ersatz Expat

13 August 2013

How to make your own or substitute vanilla extract in baking.

Much like baking powder and speciality baking sugar Vanilla and Almond Extracts are another key baking ingredient that can be difficult to source as an expatriate.   Vanilla Extract is a key ingredient in most cakes and other baking, it is very good at imparting a subtle taste and helps add that certain something to your cakes.  I usually swap it with Almond Extract in my December baking as I find the almond imparts a more ‘Christmassy’ taste.   

The extracts can be a challenge to find abroad – I have not yet come across them in the local supermarkets here in Astana.  In many countries it is possible to buy a Vanilla (Almond) Essence but these are artificial substitutes and do not give the same depth of flavour as the original.  It is like using lemon juice from a bottle instead of squeezing a lemon.  Because I bake so much I must admit to cheating and buying large bottles of extract when I am in the UK and bringing it back with me.  It is one of the few items I do this with.  While I love the challenge of finding ingredients locally I firmly believe that every expat should be allowed a list of items that are absolutely ‘can’t live without’ that they can bring in without feeling guilty.

Extracts are ridiculously simple to make at home – you take vanilla pods (5-7) and split them.  Place them in a clean, sterilised bottle and cover with about 225 millilitres of vodka and just leave it. It will start to be usable within about 3 months and the longer you leave it the more the flavour will develop. When you want to use it strain through a muslin cloth before adding to the mix.  Lemon and almond extracts follow the same principals and are much cheaper to make from scratch because of the price of the raw ingredients.  I like to keep some infusing in the cupboard incase I run out of my shop bought product. If you have a good supply of small bottles you could present some home made essence to friends - the scarcity of this product in many places would make it a much sought after gift.

Split Vanilla pods, place in a bottle (or a tupperware if bottles are
 not available) and leave to infuse in a dark place.

3 months later the extract is ready to use, just
strain through a muslin before adding to the mix.
Unfortunately making your own is not a viable solution if you find you have run out of extract mid way through baking your cake.  Luckily substitutes are available but most will change the taste of the cake.  If you really do not want to change the recipe the alternative with the least impact on flavour is maple syrup.  If you don't mind a change in taste you can have fun experimenting with flavours.  All alternatives are substituted on a 1:1 ratio.

Liqueurs are a good alternative – just about anything will work and you can tailor your liqueur to the flavour of your cake; rum or bourbon is good in a plain cake.  Kaluha would work well with a coffee cake, fruit schnapps would work well in muffins made with the same flavoured fruits.  When we were on holiday in Tenerife years ago I bought a banana liqueur which was fantastic in baking.  Despite the name Madeira cake does not contain any Madeira (the cake is actually a lemon cake and was so named because pieces of the cake would be served with and often dunked in a glass of the liqueur).  Nevertheless Madeira is a wonderful substitute for vanilla extract and works particularly well in Victoria sponge. 

The alcohol disappears in the baking process but if you are concerned and baking for children or those with particular religious sensibilities a strong steeped tea is another good substitute.  I find this works particularly well in chocolate cakes - green tea or Earl Grey giving a beautifully subtle yet distinctive flavour.

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Ersatz Expat