Middle Eastern Hospitality

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One of the most beautiful sides of attending a UWC is the opportunity to explore and “taste” different culture, as well as share your own. Last night, Belce (Turkey), Jessica (Lebanon/Slovakia), Louise (Uganda), Sarah (USA) and me went out for Turkish dinner at Istanbul Express, a Turkish restaurant in East TST. It was absolutely lovely. We were greeted with warm smiles by the owner, the chef as well as all the staff and seated on a table with traditional Turkish lambs hanging over us. It felt like having a tiny piece of homeland in Hong Kong. Everything was so familiar, the Turkish traditional music playing in the background, the tables, the tulip decoration, the oriental flair.

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All of us had quite a hard time deciding on the dishes we wanted to eat, as the choice was too big and I felt like I had to eat everything. In the end all of us ordered a variety of grilled meet, shish and kebabs. On the side we had Ayran, a Turkish traditional drink made from yogurt, served in beautiful little metal cups. The place also has three incredible sauces (garlic, garlic chilli, and mint yoghurt) tableside that we could have drowned the entire plate in.

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Everyone was incredibly sweet and friendly and just after finishing our meals, our table grew bigger, as the chef, the owner and his family joined us. We were served endless amounts of Turkish tea and while we only ordered two deserts, baklava and sütlac (Turkish rice pudding), we were surprised with a huge mixed desert platter and cake.

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It was very interesting to hear the stories of the chef, the owner and staff who had come to Hong Kong at different times, one having arrived years ago, one only having been here for 6 months and the other for only 40 days!! And surprisingly almost all of them spoke fluent Chinese and had a Chinese wife! We talked about life in Hong Kong, studying at Li Po Chun and Turkish culture, sipping on our teas and enjoying the delicious and incredibly sweet deserts. Our tummies were happier as ever and just when we thought we could not eat anymore, we were surprised with a beautifully arranged fruit platter and – of course – more tea!

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Time passed quickly and there was not a single second where we stopped smiling or laughing and when it was time to leave all of us were hesitant. The owner was incredibly sweet. He did not charge us for neither the tea, nor the desert and invited us to come over anytime, whether that be a birthday party (he said he will make us a big cake), or just when we miss Turkish food.

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After lots of hugs and countless goodbye hand-waves, we walked back to the MTR, radiating happiness. Belce and Louise returned to the school, while Jessica, Sarah and me decided to go to SoHo and walk around a little bit. We took the ferry to Central, enjoyed the night breeze and just when we were about to walk down the escalator to indulge in SoHo’s wonderful atmosphere, I spotted a tiny street with a few lights and took a photo of it. Just a few seconds later I noticed a sign saying “Habibi Café” and as I always call Jessica “habibi”, the an arabic expression for someone beloved, I called her and pointed out the café with a huge smile.

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We decided to go down and look if the owner was Lebanese. The Café was adorable, decorated with oriental lights and warm colors. We stepped in and the staff greeted is with a friendly smile and an apology as the café was about to close. They were clearly Middle Eastern and all of us got excited. Jessica started speaking Arabic and within seconds it felt as if we knew the staff from before. Just like the Turkish people in the other restaurant they were incredibly sweet and friendly and even though the cafe should close a few minutes later we were offered seats and engaged in a lovely conversation about our journeys to Hong Kong. I went to the bathroom and when I came back Sarah and Jessica gave me big smiles and told me Chef Adil had Sahlep.

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One of my absolutely favorite drinks! (Anyone who knows me from Germany can write a book about how much I enjoy Chai Latte and anything similar). Sahlep, or Sahlab, is a very popular drink in the Middle East. It is a hot thickened milky drink, served with a dusting of cinnamon and nuts on top. It is made from Salep powder, a nutritious starchy flour derived from the tuberous root of a certain species of Orchids. Throughout the Middle East, Mediterranean, Europe and Asia drinks made using Salep were enjoyed for centuries and touted as an aphrodisiac (a botanical Viagra) and a restorative for the young and old. London’s industrial era served many a labourer Saloop (flour derived from British Isle Orchids ) in the early morning hours, a hearty drink flavoured with orange blossom and rose-water to kick-start a long and hard-working day!

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We could not stop smiling and thanking the owner for that delicious late night treat. We were not allowed to pay. Manager Mohmed, who graduated from hotel school in Egpyt, and came to work in the Café one year ago, said it was his gift to us and we could pay the next time we go. And yes, we are surely coming back, because Habibi Café is absolutely lovely and cozy. The kitchen is open, so guests can see their food being prepared by Chef Adil who moved to Hong Kong in 2007 after 23 years of experience in restaurants and hotels in Cairo. He prepares piping hot pita bread, the ever-popular schawarma, and kababs, either for eating in or taking out. Yummy. The menu offer many choices of hot and cold mezzes, and main courses like chicken shishtawouk or beef kabab served with cous cous and veggies – all the delicious treats that we had missed for so long!

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We returned to the college thinking about our gratitude for this wonderful evening that had truly been shaped by Middle Eastern hospitality. In the Middle East, it is very common to treat guests, as the hosts happiness is defined by the happiness of his guests. Why? Hospitality is an ancient virtue, that stems from a long hard struggle to survive in hostile environments where human contact was treasured, where the infrequent traveler was the sole source of news and information and where safety hinged directly upon the size and strength of one’s family, tribe and clan. Out of that struggle evolved an elaborate code that governed the Arab’s most important social relationships—those with his family and those with his guests. Hospitality is not limited to the way a guest is received in one’s home. It includes making his trip easy and helping him, through one’s contacts, accomplish his mission if he has one. In the mountain villages of Lebanon the passer-by was expected to help himself in the vineyards and orchards to whatever he could eat. A noted Lebanese author who traveled extensively in Lebanon on muleback some 40 years ago, relates how he was not only entertained royally by friends of friends wherever he stopped, but was also loaded with provisions for the road and supplied with letters to other friends at his next stop where he was sure to find just as hearty a welcome. Today, of course, this is impractical, but in Beirut shopkeepers will still walk with you several blocks to help you find your destination.

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I cannot wait to explore more of the Middle East in the near future, as I feel very connected to its culture. But for now, Hong Kong is calling!