24 November 2013


Christmas is one of those times of the year when thoughts turn to family and tradition.  Expatriates are not always able to return home to their families but it is possible to bring many traditions with you when you travel.  Food is possibly one of the most evocative traditions we can export, the smell, the taste immediately bring us back to a particular time and place. 

Before I lived in England I had never heard of or tasted mincemeat.  This Christmas sweetmeat is a heady concoction of dried fruits, sugar and spices steeped in alcohol and fat.  It  is traditionally used as a filling in small bite sized pies and the taste is pure ‘Christmas’ for me, so much so that I can eat it straight from the jar.

Most English recipe books will have their own version of the mixture but there is no need to be exact about the ingredients.  I usually mix equal amounts of raisins, currants, sultanas, candied peel, chopped fresh apple and suet (shredded beef fat) with a part and a half of soft brown sugar.  I then add some lemon and orange zest and squeeze the juice from the fruit into the mix.  I then stir in a generous helping of ground nutmeg, cinnamon, mace and cloves.  If I am not expecting children to eat the mix I might add some chopped walnuts or almonds.
The dry ingredients for mincemeat are best left overnight.
The mix is best left overnight to infuse.  Instead of cooking up on the stove I use Delia Smith’s trick of putting the mix in a low oven for a few hours, towards the end I put some jars in the oven to sterilise.  The result looks revolting, the suet melts and the whole mix swims in fat.  While the mincemeat cools I add some brandy, cognac or other suitable alcohol (mead gives a lovely taste if you can get it) before decanting into the jars. 

The cooked mix looks revolting, the suet melts and coats all the other ingredients.

It can be kept for many months and the flavours improve the longer it is left but it is possible to use it almost immediately. 

I like to make a range of mince pies – the traditional shortcrust ones work very well but there are -endless variations - little half moons of filled puff pastry are very appetising as are filo pastry parcels.  Last year I made mini mincemeat Danish pastries which were very popular.  

Mincemeat Danish Pastries - yummy.
Click on the picture for more posts on the challenges of the expat kitchen.

Ersatz Expat

10 November 2013

A photo tour of Astana

Before we came to live here Astana was just a name on a map – a remote capital under the achingly beautiful blue sky in the middle of the endless Central Asian Steppe.  Remote Astana may be but it is also vibrant, modern and beautiful.

As part of the Piri-Piri Lexicon 'show me around your neighbourhood' world tour I am writing about our daily life in Astana.  
Show me your neighbourhood around the world

Astana  is the second coldest capital in the world – the temperature drops below freezing in November and the city is frozen until March.  Temperatures of between -20 and -32 Celsius are common and it is not unknown for the temperature to drop below -45.  Add the windchill factor from the fierce, ceaseless northern winds and the actual temperature is enough to freeze the car exhaust fumes as the cars drive.

The City freezes in November and remains frozen for five months. 
The cold temperatures mean there is no freeze thaw cycle so the
snow remains clean and beautiful.  The winter skies are often clear and blue. 
Astana is, however a dichotomy, a city of opposites.  While our winters may be brutal we bask in a beautifully warm summer.  Once the temperature warms up the flower beds bloom in a profusion of colours and walks in the park become heady with their scent.  Fountains are all over the place, providing a cooling respite from a walk through the city. 
Beautiful, fragrant flower beds are laid out in tengrist (ancient religious) patterns.
Getting around can be a challenge, particularly in the winter when the temperature drops.  Public Buses are frequent and warm but the wait can be cold.  Most people prefer to hitch-hike with a gypsy cab - a great way to practice Russian and Kazakh skills.  We bit the bullet and bought our own car which makes life much easier.
Any car can become a cab - just stick your hand out and wait for someone
to stop.  Rides cost about $2.
Our children go to British Independent school Haileybury Astana here in Kazakhstan and there are several other international schools including an American School and a Turkish School.  Local schools are found throughout the city and pupils are educated from the age of 7.  The Schools tend to be large, low buildings designed around functionality for the extreme weather.  Local schools will close if the weather gets too bad - this is to make sure that children (who often walk to school) are not out in very cold weather.  The temperature at which children must stay at home varies depending on age. 

Shopping in Astana can be has high end or as low end as you wish - all the prestigious malls have supermarkets and they make for an easy one stop shop, particularly for dry ingredients.  Supermarkets, however high end, are not, however, the best place to find fresh ingredients, particularly vegetables.  When I need to buy fresh produce  I tend to visit one of the covered bazaars in the old (right bank) part of town.  My particular favourite place is Artyum a five floor emporium.  The ground floor has a good selection of stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, dried fruit, pulses and spices.  The shops on the upper floors sell everything from household equipment to sporting goods, coats to lingerie and dogfood to furniture.  

Stall holders in Artyum display their wares.
Produce is always artfully displayed.
Astana is being built before our eyes – go away for a month and construction will have started on a new building. The right bank of the River Ishim comprises the original town but the left bank is the bustling centre of the new metropolis.  Wide boulevards are lined with prestigious apartment complexes and statement architecture. 

New buildings spring up every few months –
the ‘Death Star’ is to be the new National Library.  
The skyline of part of the left bank of Astana – cranes are a constant presence
in the city as something is always being built.  Most buildings are commercial
on the lower floors with apartment accommodation above.
Most of the accommodation is comprised of apartments in large square buildings built around a central courtyard containing playgrounds, sports facilities and small convenience stores (although skyscrapers such as the ones in the background in the photograph above are becoming more popular. Each lobby has a concierge responsible for ensuring services to the apartments are managed and to deal with maintenance and cleaning of the common parts.  A good concierge can be a useful friend and ally - ours pays all our bills for us and keeps our plants when we are on holiday.

Typical apartment buildings as seen from the Baiterek.
School 66, a local high school, is seen in the mid distance.
The playgrounds in the apartment buildings are popular during the summer when children will stay up to play as late as 10 or 11 at night. Most of the parks in the city will have bouncy castles, plagrounds and small electric scooters for hire.  
A typical summer entertainment complex in a park -
electric cars are very popular and can be hired for five
minutes at a time.
Even in the winter intrepid children can be seen climbing and swinging on the equipment or building a small ice slide but the cold is too intense to stay out for very long.  For this reason covered playgrounds are very common and the malls will give over a large amount of space to indoor entertainment complexes.  One mall has a climbing wall and arcade, the Khan Shatyr has an animatronic dinosaur park, a monorail and a log flume not to mention dodgems and many smaller rides.  It also has an indoor beach complete with water slides and a beach volleyball court.  

Astana's indoor beach at the top of the Khan Shatyr
we can relax by the beach even in a -40 blizzard.
The climbing wall is a popular attraction at one of the malls.

Astana is a very young city with a high birth rate - almost
all malls will have a toddler friendly soft play where children
can let off steam over the winter.
If you get bored of using the treadmill in the winter the Khan
Shatyr has an indoor running track along the edge where
willing victims can excercise in full view of the shoppers.
N.B. we have never yet seen anyone brave enough to use it.
The main boulevard on the left bank runs from West to East.  The centre of the boulevard is a pedestrianized garden walkway allowing people to promenade from the Khan Shatyr (a Norman Foster designed gigantic tent containing a shopping centre, amusement park, beach complex and restaurants) all the way down to the Ak Orda – the Kazakh White House.  Along the way  you walk past the new Astana Opera House,  Government ministries in the shape of salt and pepper pots, a concert hall built in the shape of a Dombyra (the national instrument), or a tulip depending on who you talk to and various spectacular skyscrapers.  

Norman Foster’s giant tent the Khan Shatyr (the tent of the King) dominates the
western end of the city.  The tent houses a shopping centre, restaurant court,
supermarket, theme park, cinema and beach with swimming pools and waterslides.  
Pedestrians relax in the gardens leading to the Ak Orda (the Palace of the President). 
The golden pepper pots are government ministries.  
Designed by Manfredo Nicoletti in the shape of a Dombyra or a tulip
the beautiful concert hall on the banks of the river is one of
Astana's many cultural venues.
In the centre of the boulevard pedestrians find themselves at the Baiterek monument.  The structure is an allegory of a Kazakh myth – representing a tree in which a magic bird lays an egg to protect it from a voracious dragon.  The white ‘tree’ is topped by a huge golden egg which contains a viewing platform giving unparalleled 360 degree views of the growing city.  The bar/restaurant serves drinks and snacks and is the perfect place to relax and watch the sun set over Astana and the Steppe beyond.

The Baiterek – the monument in the centre of the left bank. The photograph shows
the Baiterek lit up for the Nauruz (Persian New Year) celebrations.  
The Baiterek is surrounded by tree lined gardens and dominates
the centre of the Left Bank.
From the observation deck it is possible to spot almost all of Astana’s statement buildings. The government complexes are a short walk away, further away towards the airport the sporting complexes stand out on the edge of the city – the football stadium with the roof that can be closed for the winter, the ice palace and the velodrome built in the shape of a bicycle helmet.  Closer in to the centre of the city is the Triumph of Astana a modern (and vast) take on the Moscow Seven Sisters, Mega, the shopping centre shaped like a doughnut, the flying saucer that houses the circus, the sombrero that houses the palace of children and the building shaped like a pot within which there is a restaurant and music hall. 

The ‘flying saucer’ houses the Astana circus – a popular place
for families to go and enjoy their weekends.  More apartment buildings
are seen behind.
From the Baiterek  it is also possible to see over to the other side of the river.  In another large and very beautiful park is another Norman Foster creation,  the Pyramid Palace of Peace and Reconciliation where Kazakhstan hosts a triennial meeting of the leaders of world religions down to the Kazakh Eli national monument and the Academy of Music that everyone calls ‘the Dog Bowl’ because it is, well, shaped exactly like a dog’s bowl. 
Norman Foster’s Pyramid of Peace and Reconciliation dominates the park
across the river from the Ak Orda.  The Pyramid houses an art gallery,
library, café, museum, souvenir shop, conference centre and concert hall.  
This giant ‘dog bowl’ houses the National Music Academy.
I love visiting the Baiterek because it allows me to enjoy the whole city.  When my feet are firmly on the ground, however, I love nothing better than to walk along the river Ishim.  In the summer wide boulevards are the favourite haunts of courting couples, fitness fanatics, skateboarding children, proud parents pushing prams and just about everyone in between.  The river is calm and heavily managed, people fish or swim along the edges while pleasure boats take tours down the centre, there is even a rowing club. 

The wide embankments are the perfect for promenading
the river gives a different perspective on Astana.
In the winter, however, the river freezes solid very early on and is used as another pleasure park.  Ice rinks will be set up at various points and the city builds vertiginous and very fast ice slides down the embankments.  Snow mobiles power up the centre of the river’s course while cross country skiers enjoy their exercise.  Come February there is an ice rally – the sinuous and slippery course testing the skills of even the best drivers.  
The river becomes an ice playground in the winter time.
I hope you have enjoyed the tour of Astana.  If you enjoyed it you can read more entries in the series here.

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

Ersatz Expat

5 November 2013

How to make passata

Passata is a staple ingredient in many recipes my family like to eat.  I use it in most tomato based recipes such as Bolognese, Lasagne and to add flavour to many stews.

Passata is very easy to find in most European and British supermarkets but it can be difficult to source elsewhere.  Luckily it is a simple, quick recipe and, for those who grow their own, a particularly effective way to preserve tomatoes over the winter, much like my favourite sun dried tomatoes, this passata gives a taste of summer even in the middle of winter.  In Kazakhstan we can buy tomatoes year round but they do get more expensive over the winter.  I have seen jars of 'tomato juice' in the supermarkets that look like passata but it is so easy that I often make my own by preference.

Because supplies are easy to come by here I make it in small batches but if I find a batch of particularly high quality tomatoes or if I am living somewhere they become unavailable I will process every tomato I can lay my hands on to see me through to the next crop.

To make the passata heat some olive oil in a pan with a bruised clove of garlic.  Quarter the tomatoes and leave them in the pan on a medium heat for 12-15 minutes shaking intermittently.  The tomatoes will start to break down during the cooking process and release their juice.  I understand that most Italian kitchens will have a special mouli or tomato mill to process the passata, this saves time but is not necessary.  I put the mix in the blender and then pass it through a sieve - it is possible to skip the blender and just sieve the mix but it is much quicker to use the blender.

Transfer the passata into sterilised jars then seal - I find these keep for about a month.  If I want to keep the mix for any longer I freeze it - some in large freezer bags for tomato based recipes and some in smaller baby food size pots to add to stews for extra flavouring.

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

Ersatz Expat