Monday, April 30, 2012

Bastani, Faloodeh, And The Legend of Mashti Malone

By Heidi Noroozy

“Once in a time and a place little known lived an old farmer named Mashti Malone. And though he worked his poor hands to the bone, nothing would grow in his land except stone…”

Every time I hear this little ditty, I get a craving for ice cream. Not just any ice cream but Persian bastani. And not just bastani but makhloot, the reigning queen of Iranian street food.

Makhloot pairs two refreshing frozen desserts in a single bowl. Bastani is saffron-flavored ice cream, scented with rosewater and studded with pistachios. Sometimes it also contains little squares of frozen cream, creating a colorful (and fragrant) concoction of yellow, green, and white.

The other half of makhloot is faloodeh, a rose-water sherbet made with delicate vermicelli noodles. Faloodeh is served in one of two ways: ba limoo (with a splash of lemon or lime juice), or ba albaloo (with a drop or two of sour cherry syrup). Either way, the dessert has an amazing mouth feel. The sherbet part melts instantly on your tongue, leaving al dente noodles behind.

In Iran, you buy makhloot from tiny sidewalk shops. Often the only choices are saffron bastani and faloodeh (which you can also buy separately). Other shops serve a variety of ice cream flavors as well. The dessert is scooped into small, plastic dishes and passed through the window. You then go on your merry way slurping bastani and faloodeh as you go. Or you find a sidewalk bench for the fascinating entertainment of people watching (one of my favorite pastimes anywhere in the world).

Sometimes, the bastani/faloodeh combination is punched up with additional ingredients: bits of fruit jello, banana slices, chocolate chunks, chopped nuts, and whipped cream. The result is a kind of Persian sundae.

If you happen to visit Shiraz, here’s a tip: go to the Aramgah-e Sa’adi (tomb of the famous poet, Sa’adi) and ask someone to direct you to the nearby faloodeh shop. I don’t remember the street or the name of the shop, and it is the kind of place you’d easily miss if you blinked while passing it on the street. It occupies a tiny space in a gray building behind the walled garden that surrounds Sa’adi’s tomb. But the faloodeh is the best this side of paradise.

You don’t have to go to Iran to enjoy a dish of excellent makhloot. Just head for Los Angeles, home to a wonderful little ice cream shop called Mashti Malone. Remember that snippet of bad poetry I quoted above? Yes, that Mashti Malone.

But first a bit of history: The Mashti Malone ice cream shop is owned by Mashti and Mehdi Shirvani, two brothers from the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad. In 1980, Mashti bought an ice cream shop called Mugsy Malone on the corner of La Brea and Sunset in Hollywood. Because he had little money left over for a brand new sign, he simply replaced “Mugsy” with “Mashti,” and a legend was born.

Photo by Steve Lambert
A few years later, a group of filmmakers were shooting nearby and, inspired by the ice cream shop’s unusual name, penned a tongue-in-cheek poem titled “The Legend of Mashti Malone.” The first two lines are above, and you can read the full poem here

The Shirvani brothers make delicious faloodeh, but their real talent lies in the bastani. In addition to the traditional saffron and rosewater flavor, they also sell more exotic varieties such as Ginger Rosewater, Orange Blossom, and Lavender.

My favorite combo is traditional saffron bastani and faloodeh with a splash of sour cherry syrup. The bastani’s creamy texture is the perfect foil for the faloodeh’s aching sweetness, creating an unforgettable blend.

What is your favorite street food? What local specialties have you encountered in your travels?

Friday, April 27, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: Long Island—the Real and Imaginary Settings for My Mysteries

Our guest this week is Marilyn Levinson, who writes mysteries and novels for kids. Her debut mystery, A MURDERER AMONG US, was awarded a Best Indie of 2011 by Suspense Magazine. She has since written a sequel entitled MURDER IN THE AIR. Her latest release, GIVING UP THE GHOST, is a mystery about an English teacher who discovers she's sharing a cottage with a sexy, heart-throb ghost. You can read an interview with Cameron, the ghost, at: The Unpredictable Muse. Marilyn lives on Long Island with her husband, Bernie, and their cat, Sammy. You can visit Marilyn at
I love to travel and see new sights. Every year, my husband and I take a trip abroad. I am a former Spanish teacher, and in my younger days I’ve spent summers studying in Mexico City and Valencia, Spain. Right now I’m writing a children’s book that takes place on the Cote d’Azur. But when it comes to writing mysteries, my setting is always Long Island, where I’ve lived most of my life.

Long Island means Nassau and Suffolk to most people, but officially it also includes Brooklyn, and Queens. I’ve lived in all four counties. I was born in Brooklyn and lived there until my family moved to western Nassau County when I was fourteen. After attending college university in Upstate NY, I lived in Queens until I married. After that, each move has taken me further and further east on Long Island. I sometimes wonder if my husband and I will end up living out on Montauk by the time we’re in our eighties. 

Various Indian tribes once inhabited Long Island. Hauppauge, Quogue, Nissequogue, and Patchogue are just a few of our towns and locales with Indian names. European settlements date back to the 1600’s. For centuries, farming was a major occupation, and many farms remain in eastern Suffolk. More recently, that area has become famous for its many vineyards and wineries.

In the early twentieth century, wealthy New Yorkers built mansions amid acres of land, many of them facing the Long Island Sound and Connecticut. And so the famous Gold Coast came into existence. The Hamptons and Fire Island have gained larger than life stature. And there’s no ignoring the famous old whaling villages of Cold Spring Harbor and Sag Harbor. But don’t believe for one moment that everyone who lives on Long Island has money. There are many lower income communities here as well. In my mysteries, I make use of them all.

My characters in these books visit well-known places like The North Fork or the Hamptons, but I created the towns and villages where they live. Chrissom Harbor is the name of the village in GIVING UP THE GHOST. Of course it’s not on a map of Long Island, but I imagine CH situated in the northern part of central Suffolk County—somewhere in the vicinity of Rocky Point, Shoreham, and Wading River. It’s an old fishing village, with a wonderful small, protected harbor that attracts many summer boating people. Though upscale housing communities are being built in the area, Main Street is lined with old shops and tackle stores that need to enter the twenty-first century. High bluffs overlook the Long Island Sound, with wooden staircases leading to the beach below.

Cameron Leeds, my heart-throb ghost in GIVING UP THE GHOST, supposedly fell to his death from the bluff beyond his cottage. After Gabbie moves into his cottage, he convinces her to find out who murdered him. Gabbie discovers everyone in CH knows everyone else’s business, including her own. Though many people are happy Cam is dead, no one’s willing to give her any leads. Until she asks too many questions, and the murderer tries to shut her up for good.
A MURDERER AMONG US and MURDER IN THE AIR take place in an upscale, over-55 gated community I named Twin Lakes. There are many senior communities on Long Island, but none are built around two long lakes named after two Indian tribes.

In my series featuring Lexie Driscoll, who leads a Golden Age of Mystery book club, the setting varies from book to book. In MURDER A LA CHRISTIE, Lexie finds herself living in Old Cadfield, a wealthy community in Nassau County. While I had no specific village in mind, I drew from many beautiful villages with some of the loveliest homes in America. And I did have one particularly beautiful mansion and its gardens in mind as the setting for a spectacular fundraiser that Lexie attends. More importantly, Old Cadfield is meant to be a modern day setting similar to Agatha Christie’s manor houses and villages where people think they know one another, yet  everyone harbors a secret. Lexie, a free spirit whose home was burned down by her second husband with him inside, doesn’t feel comfortable living in Old Cadfield. She finds herself at odds with her best friend and college roommate who defends Old Cadfield’s residents, even though one of them might have committed murder.

Because Long Island has so many interesting and varied facets, I plan to set future mysteries here for years to come.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Architecture of Tusheti, Georgia

By Edith McClintock

Tower fortress in Upper Omalo
It’s not hard to guess that Tusheti, like most of Georgia, was subject to constant invasion over most of its history. Or that Christianity and paganism happily coexist. Its architecture paints a clear story, from the ancient fortress towers that blend harmoniously with the mountain landscape, to the mix of Christian churches and pagan stone structures. Add in the biodiversity and unique mountain culture and it’s a truly enchanted place to visit, although not easy to reach.

Located on the northern slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, bordered by Chechnya and Dagestan, Tusheti is today a complex of protected areas and villages inhabited by the Tush people. Traditionally, the Tush are sheepherders and nomads, spending the summer months in the highlands and moving to lowland villages in winter.

Dartlo village. During Soviet times many of
the fortresses were ruined, with some rebuilt in 2003,
including the towers pictured here. 
I arrived in Tusheti last summer by way of the Alvano pass from the Kakheti region (which you might remember from my blog on Georgian wines). It’s the highest drivable pass in the Caucasus and although there were a few terrifying moments careening around mountain roads with nothing below us but open air, it was most memorable for its spectacular views of craggy green mountains, pine and beech forests, and plunging, watery ravines.

I stayed for nearly a week, visiting some friends working with the park for the summer in the Lower Omalo village. Nestled in a valley surrounded by snowcapped mountains and a few minefields (which unbeknownst to me were being removed while I wandered the hills, worried only about the vicious sheep dogs), the village is only a short hike to Upper Omalo and its dramatic tower fortresses that form much of the mystery and unique beauty of Tusheti.

Historical Tower Fortresses

A  sheep herding/cheese making hut.
Most of the tower fortresses of Tusheti were constructed between the 1500s up until the 1800s, usually on high, rocky hills with fortress walls. The towers are usually between three and six stories, with an entrance door on the first floor and an opening at the top. During a raid on a Tush village, the people abandoned their villages and used the towers as temporary shelters.

The Tushetians also built fortress houses that could shelter large, extended families. The fortress houses had a ground floor for cattle and women’s activities, a middle area for families, and a top area for men’s bedrooms and a watchtower for shooting guns. In the center of the rooms was a hearth, which divided the room into male and female sections. Most of the towers were built without mortar, using shale, and have a pitched roof made out of float slates.

Balconies in Shenako village.
There are nearly fifty villages in Tusheti, some occupied and many not, but not all of them have fortresses or are accessible by car. The best way, in my view, to experience the full impact of the landscape is to take day or even overnight hikes between the villages. And if you’re lucky, like we were, you may even be invited in for a supra (feast) and some chacha (their grape moonshine) along the way. In which case you might want to hitchhike back, which is safe and easy in Tusheti. A local police chief even gave us a ride one day.

Ancient Tushetian Villages

Villages in Tusheti were usually settled on the southern slope of the mountain, with a suitable vantage point for defense, near drinking water and arable land, and protected from landslides and avalanches. When deciding on a place to live, Tushetians would dig a hole in the selected spot and spend the night waiting for a dream to give them a sign. Late in autumn when the snow began to fall and the danger of enemy attack lessened, the Tush people moved to lower grounds to spend the winter. In spring, the Tush returned to fortified villages to protect their lands from invasion. Each settlement had its own unique fortifications and character and even today, the Tushetians differentiate these two types of settlements.

Farming area near Shenako village
Villages Today

At the end of the 19th century, a cash economy was introduced to Tusheti, ending the traditional tribal and family system, and with it the tower architecture of the region. Instead, lowland style home construction became popular for individual families, dominated by houses with open, wooden balconies. The village of Shenako (see photo) is a great example.

In the early 1930s, Tushetians began migrating even lower, to the Kakheti region of Georgia during the winter months when the roads were impassable, forming two large villages, Zemo Alvani and Kvemo Alvani. Forced migration in the 1950s during Soviet rule also caused many villages in Tusheti to be abandoned completely. Although only a few villages are still populated, most Tushetians return each summer, often to attend religious celebrations. The summer of 2011, when I was there, the park held a celebration in mid-summer, with horse racing, and games, and traditional dance.

Christianity and Paganism

Church in Shenako village
Religious buildings connecting Christianity and paganism are also an inseparable part of Tusheti villages. Each village in Tusheti has an area for rituals called a Khati. The whole complex is often made up of several buildings, including a church, pilgrims’ huts, and even an alehouse. Some Khatis, such as the one in Shenako, are adorned with deer and Caucasian goat horns and white stones.

The religious areas are also separated by sex, with separate spaces for male and female worship and rituals. In Upper Omalo, there is a sign warning women not to enter one area, which I nearly did accidentally when taking an “alternative” path down the hill from the fortress (I think I’ll remind myself of those unknown minefields when tempted to stray off designated paths in the future).

Khati stone shrine
Another day, while hiking through the picturesque village of Shenako on our way to its church, I was asked to take a different path than my friends, who were both male—because I was still of childbearing age (otherwise known as menstruating age and therefore unclean—a near universal taboo, from what little I’ve seen of the world, but that is a discussion for a future blog).

Hopefully I’ve convinced you to visit the beautiful and magical Tusheti. And if so, you can visit the park website here for lodging and transportation information. Just stay clear of the sheep dogs, but no worries about the minefields—they’re gone, thanks to a lovely NGO called the Halo Trust.

For more, visit my author website and/or personal blog, A Wandering Tale. Even better, order a copy of Monkey Love & Murder on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or the Book Depository (free shipping nearly anywhere in the world).

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Architecture and My Favorite Places

Jenny Carless is filling in for Supriya this week. Jenny is  a nonfiction writer, amateur wildlife photographer, and novelist-in-training who blogged with us in January about her passion for safaris in Kenya.

I hadn’t really noticed, until I sat down to write this post, how much I associate the places I love—and those on my list to visit—with their architecture.

When I think of Paris, for example, I picture Sacré Coeur, perched atop Montmartre. I first saw the basilica from somewhere far across the city, through misty skies as day evaporated into night. The pale monolith seemed to glow, and from then on, I’ve always thought of Sacré Coeur as a sort of ethereal guardian, keeping watch over the city. 

Sacre Coeur
Photo by Tonchino
For many people, I suspect, mention London’s architecture, and the Big Ben clock tower or St. Paul’s Cathedral comes to mind. Of course, today, people’s first association might be “the Gherkin” (formally, 30 St. Mary Axe) or the London Eye—two more recent iconic additions to the cityscape.

"The Gherkin"
Photo by Aurelien Guichard
I tend to think of several less well known structures around the city. When I lived in Notting Hill (West London) and worked in the World Trade Center (East London), I had one of the best commutes ever: My route included Marble Arch, Buckingham Palace, Admiralty Arch, and Tower Bridge, not to mention Hyde Park and Green Park. This wonderful drive across is still etched in my mind as a very fond memory.

When we think Egypt, our most common images are the pyramids and the Great Sphinx. San Francisco? The Golden Gate Bridge and the Transamerica Pyramid. Thoughts of Sydney, Australia bring to mind the Harbor Bridge and the Sydney OperaHouse.

The chicken or the egg?

Am I drawn to a place because its architecture appeals to me, or does the architecture appeal to me because it somehow reflects a culture I’m already drawn to?

Certainly we recognize that architecture is often symbolic of a culture or a particular time. For example, would the Eiffel Tower, with its giant lattice girders representing the age of modern engineering and science, have been built at any other time? Likewise, the fantastical creations of Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona (and elsewhere) are icons of a particular time, place, and political movement.

Antoni Gaudi's Casa Batllo
Photo by Massimo Catarinella
The Centre Georges Pompidou represents, according to its website, “a constraint-free architecture in the spirit of the 1960s.” In the late 1970s, when the building had been open just a year or two, its ultra-modern appearance, smack in the heart of one of Paris’s oldest areas, the Marais, caused something of a scandal. Today, it hardly seems shocking.

So what will people centuries or millennia from now think about some of our modern buildings (assuming some still stand)? What will their impressions be of Burj Al Arab (the famous “sailboat building”) in Dubai, for example?

Burj al Arab
Photo by Tintoni Thomas
What about the Kansas City Public Library’s nifty “hardcover” façades? Although, with the proliferation of ebooks, future observers may not even understand what those book spines are!

Kansas City Public Library
Photo by Jonathan Moreau
Nature’s Architecture

I can’t sign off without mentioning the forms we see in nature—nature’s architecture, I suppose you could say. Natural forms are equally enticing to me, and I think we all associate places with their natural architecture as much, if not more, than their human-made counterparts. Just think of some of the best-known natural wonders: Mount Everest, Victoria Falls, or the Grand Canyon. 

In addition to its beauty or grandeur, the natural architecture of a place is an essential element to its character. I visited Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia, Kenya for the first time last October. There, Mount Kenya (the country’s tallest mountain and Africa’s second tallest, after Kilimanjaro) is an inescapable presence. All Kenyans are immensely proud of Mount Kenya, and many Kenyans believe that it is God’s throne, or resting place, on earth. We turned to the mountain first thing every morning, to see what colors the sunrise would paint it, and we watched it fade into the dusk every evening.

Mount Kenya
Photo by Jenny Carless
Which touches you more—human-made architecture or nature’s architecture? What are some of your favorite examples?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Rose By Any Other Name… Federation Square, Melbourne

By Alli Sinclair
Apart from food, sport, and the arts, Melbourne has an obsession of combining historic buildings with contemporary. It’s not unusual to sashay down the streets and come across heritage-listed buildings snuggled up to modern-day masterpieces. Sure, there are plenty of other cities that have buildings much, much older, but there’s something in the daring combination that catches one’s eye.

I’ll admit, I am biased when it comes to Melbourne’s cityscape. Especially since one of my ancestors, John Pigdon, was responsible for some of the city’s most stunning architecture in the late 1800s, including Parliament House, Victoria, and St. Jude’s Church of England. He was also the Lord Mayor of Melbourne for a time, but that’s a whole other post.

When I worked in the city, one of my favourite places to hang out was Federation Square (or Fed Square as it’s often referred to). Sitting atop a maze of railway tunnels and perched on the banks of the Yarra River, Fed Square is a stark contrast to the grand magnificence of Flinders Street Station across the road. Love it or hate it, Federation Square gets people talking. 

When the government tore down the buildings that were causing an eyesore on the site where Federation Square now sits, they embarked on a project to create a public meeting space to better serve the people of the city. In 1997, the Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett, held an architectural design competition that attracted 177 entries from around the world. The short-listed entries were put on display for the public and the winners, Lab Architecture Studio from London, in conjunction with local architects Bates Smart, wooed judges with their unique concept.

By 2002, the square was officially opened and became home to multicultural television station SBS. Housed within the walls and spread throughout a myriad of quadrangles and open spaces, Federation Square houses over a dozen bars and restaurants; the Australian Centre for Moving Image (that also offers a chance for visitors to create their own movies); and plenty of free entertainment held in the square itself, from dancing, to rock concerts, to hosting the FIFA World Cup on the big screen at three in the morning. Some of my favourite places though, are the galleries associated with the National Gallery of Victoria. There’s no better place to while away a few hours on a rainy afternoon. 

Part of the design that appealed to the judges was the labyrinth cooling system. During summer, the cool evening air is pumped into the combed space of the walls, and during the day, heat is pumped via the labyrinth and out through the vents. This system can make a difference of 12°C from the outside temperature. In winter, the process is reversed. Compare to traditional air-conditioning systems, the labyrinth uses one-tenth less energy and carbon dioxide.

After the unveiling, the architects who worked on the project were out of work within six months and received hate mail from locals and scathing criticism from their peers. In 2009, Fed Square was voted the fifth ugliest building in the world by Virtual Tourist, a popular travel network. Yet there’s no shortage of visitors, with Federation Square the second most visitor tourist attraction in Victoria, falling just behind the Queen Victoria market.

With 8.4 million visitors to Fed Square annually, Federation Square does exactly what it was built to do—become a memorable space for people of the city and world to meet.

I know exactly which side of the fence I’m on with this debate, but I’m keen to know what you think. Do you think Federation Square is worthy of making it to the world’s ugliest building list?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Si-O-Se Pol—Bridge Over Multicultural Waters

Arcade on the Si-o-Se Pol Bridge
Photo by Siasard
By Heidi Noroozy

I’m a sucker for bridges. It gives me a rush to stand in the middle of a river, high and dry above the rushing stream, and contemplate all the places the river has been, from its source in the mountains to its mouth at the sea. I like to imagine the human stories that play out along its banks and think about the ingenious ways people have devised for crossing from one side to the other.

The Iranian city of Esfahan has a bridge that I’m sure was built just for dreamers like me. The Si-o-Se Pol Bridge spans the Zayandeh Rud River and connects Esfahan’s famous Chahar Bagh Boulevard with the Armenian neighborhood of New Julfa. This bridge is not only one of the oldest in Esfahan (built between 1591 and 1597 on the order of Shah Abbas the Great) but also the largest anywhere in Iran (45 feet wide and 175 yards long).

The Si-o-Se Pol is also known as the Allah Verdi Khan Bridge, the name of the provincial governor who oversaw its construction. Born a Christian in Georgia, Allah Verdi Khan Undiladze was captured during one of Shah Abbas’s Caucasus campaigns. He worked his way up to the position of commander in the Persian ghulam army, a special branch consisting of Christian captives. Later, Abbas appointed Allah Verdi Khan governor of Pars Province in southern Iran, and he eventually became the second most powerful man in the empire, after the shah. How’s that for a rags-to-riches story?

The bridge’s double-decker structure is built from the yellow brick and limestone masonry that is typical of Esfahan architecture. On a clear day, the color turns a burnished gold under the region’s relentless desert sun. The upper level holds the roadway, now limited to pedestrian traffic, and is flanked by two vaulted arcades. In the old days, when the bridge was a major thoroughfare crowded with carriages, farmers driving stock to market, and carts laden high with merchandise for the bazaar, these side corridors served as pedestrian zones where people on foot could escape the danger of being trampled. Today, they are quiet spaces where you can walk and admire the lovely arched ceilings and high brick walls.

Photo by Shahab Maghami

The lower level rests on piers, separated by 33 arched sluices where the river can flow past. These sluices lend the bridge its name, for Si-o-Se Pol means the Bridge of 33 Arches in Farsi. The piers, in turn, are supported on piles driven deep into the riverbed. The builders created these piles by digging shafts down to the stable bedrock, lining the shafts with earthenware pipes, and filling the pipes with stones and mud. Apparently, such pile construction was cutting-edge technology in the late 16th century.

This bottom deck also contains a teahouse with tables and chairs set up along a narrow passage under the southern end of the bridge and also on an outside ledge near the shore. Between the tables, flights of stone steps lead to private chambers, where a family or group of friends can enjoy their tea out of public view.

My favorite features of the Si-o-Se Pol Bridge, though, are the alcoves set at intervals along the upper deck. They form little balconies overlooking the river, where you can sit and admire the view. See why I think this bridge was built for dreamers like me? I did sit in one of these alcoves once, contemplating the river, the distant mountains—and murder. (I am, after all, a crime writer.) It was where I came up with an idea for the novel I was writing at the time, in which a young woman is pushed from the Si-o-Se Pol Bridge and drowns in the river below.

Sipping tea under the bridge
I’ve also sipped tea in one of the teahouse’s little stone rooms. After dark one evening during Ramadan, my husband, his sister, and I sat on the red-carpeted floor, leaning against large cushions that lined the walls, and enjoyed little glasses of steaming tea. The river was calm that night, and we listened to it lapping gently against the stone piers, punctuated by the occasional crash of breaking glass.

Breaking glass? Curious, I crawled to the window of our stone chamber and peered down into the teahouse kitchen, which stood just above the water line. A man stood there tossing old water pipes (known as gheylians) out the door, where the glass portions shattered on the stone foundation over which the river flowed. (Note to self: Never go wading barefoot in the Zayandeh Rud—at least nowhere near the Si-o-Se Pol Bridge.)

The Si-o-Se Pol may not be the prettiest bridge in Esfahan. That honor goes to the Khadjou Bridge, which was built fifty years later. But I have to love a bridge whose history is rooted in three countries and two religions: Persia, Armenia, and Georgia and Islam and Christianity. Even better, it’s a bridge whose designers wanted people to take a moment from their busy day and notice the wonders of the natural world.

To get a close-up look at the Si-o-Se Pol Bridge, check out this video by Amin Eftekhari: