“When I hauled the net in…I saw the strange fish and realised it was different from anything I had ever seen before…It lifted its lip and snapped its mouth shut…I told the crew to put it on the wharf and not to damage it… then I went home for my annual holiday. On my return I was told the fish was a coelacanth … a living fossil believed extinct for millions of years…” Captain Hendrik P.Goosen describing how he caught the first ever coelacanth off the Comores on 15th December 1938.

Early Arab sea-farers called the volcanic archipelago kamar ‘islands of the moon’ as the great silver orb suspended over the Indian Ocean guided their dhows to landfall.

The Islamic Republic of the Comores consists of four islands — Grande Comore, Anjouan and Moheli—anchored in the Mozambique Channel, 180 miles off the African mainland. The fourth, Mayotte, is geographically part of the group, but administered by France.

Local house built from woven coconut palm fronds

With a population of nearly 1 million, Comorians are descended from mixed migrations of Arabs, Africans and Malays. 99 per cent follow Islam and reserved, like many islanders, they are mainly subsistence farmers and fishermen.

Moroni, the Comorian capital, is located on the largest island of Grande Comore.  An old ‘Indian Ocean Coast’ style town, its flat-roofed coral stone houses line narrow lanes descending to a harbour packed with wooden pirogues.

View of the Friday Mosque  in Moroni, Grande Comore

A second coelacanth caught in 1985 is exhibited in the National Museum and to protect any remaining fish, an area off  the south of  coast of Grande Comore has been gazetted  a coelacanth reserve.

Inland from Iconi, the Karthala Volcano rises 2361 metres above lush rainforest counting exotic species such as thousand year old cycad palms. The coastal belt is cultivated with extensive coconut plantations, cassava, maize, bananas and ylang-ylang holdings.

The Karthala Volcano on Grande Comore last erupted in 2007 sending lava down to the sea

Grande Comore is one of the world’s biggest producers of ylang-ylang an essential element in many perfumes, but it takes nearly a ton of the flowers to extract just a litre of the precious oil.

Ylang-ylang a star-shaped flower grows on the Cananga tree (Cananga odorata)

Local life is generally low-key except on the occasion of a Grand Mariage when custom dictates the first-born daughter gets a big send off to married life.

As soon as she is born, her family begins building her future home which may take them twenty years and their life savings to complete.

A market in Moroni, capital of the Comoros Islands

The groom reciprocates with money, jewelry and livestock. He also pays for the wedding feast lasting several days when not only relatives, but the entire village of 3-400 people are invited to the festivities.

After recitations from the Qur’an and the signing of the marriage contract everyone joins in traditional dancing which grows ever wilder, but is always performed precisely in step.

Comorian women dancing the wadaha

Their faces painted with sandalwood paste (considered to be alluring) women perform the energetic wadaha which mimes the chores —— milling grain, sweeping, fetching water —in store for the bride.

Men dance the mougodro which has origins in Afro-Malagasy culture and not to be left out,  leaning on canes elders or ‘notables’ dance with great dignity.

Most grand marriages are held during the  May- October dry season which is also the best time to visit the Comores.

Postage stamp featuring the coelacanth found off Grande Comore in 1938
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Thailand is internationally famous for memorable meals. Be they simple dishes in a fishing village. Or elaborate buffets served in tourist hotels.

Tom Yum Kuang spicy hot Thai prawn soup

One meal I remember in particular was on the terrace of the Oriental Hotel overlooking the Chao Phaya river winding through capital Bangkok.

The occasion was Loy Krathong, a Buddhist festival held on the full November moon and drifting downstream were thousands of tiny banana-leaf boats each containing a flower, a coin and a candle, a custom to appease the water spirits.

My companion and I had found it appropriate to start with tom yum kung, a sour and spicy prawn soup, but unfortunately Stefan — who’d just arrived from Frankfurt —caught one of the explosive chilies used in the recipe and coughing violently, was obliged to retire.

Thai duck curry with chunks pineapple, Bangkok

I continued eating alone, wading through crispy spring rolls, roast duck curry, stir-fried vegetables and baskets of rice. Once I went upstairs to check on Stefan whom I found asleep with several bottles of mineral water on his bedside table.

During the night I was disturbed by Stefan calling room service for a hamburger. The time change had been too much for him: slowly I reflected, is the best way to grow accustomed to Thai food.

The Kingdom of Siam was never conquered. Local cooking is an amalgam of different cuisines, a result of ancient trade links with China, India and Portugal until gradually these foreign influences became absorbed into what is a uniquely Thai repertoire.

Several ingredients give Thai food its special taste. Universal is nom pla a pungent sauce made from fermented fish of which one or two drops adds zest to any dish. Phak chi or coriander is another aromatic flavour.

More than a dozen different types of chilies are used in Thai recipes

The dynamic taste of many dishes comes from chillies of which more than a dozen types are used in cooking. The hottest phrik khi nu luang, is the tiny orange-yellow chilli Stefan encountered in his soup.

More subtle flavours come from lemon-grass and freshly grated coconut milk a popular ingredient in curries as well as desserts.

Thais are equally gifted at making food look attractive.

Soup arrives with a delicately carved slice of cucumber floating in the bowl, lotus-shaped carrot buds highlight a dish of rice while fruits such as melons and pineapples are transformed into works of art.

A typical meal includes a large bowl of rice with at least five side dishes —soup, curry and vegetables known as gap kow — meaning ‘with rice.’

Other gap-kow such as spring rolls and beef stir-fry have Chinese origins. There will also be a fish or meat dish, usually pork, plus steamed vegetables and salads.

There is no order to eating. One can eat soup first or last. Etiquette requires you take small portions and although they would not admit it, Thais find the Western custom of piling everything on a single plate distasteful.

Dessert is commonly fresh fruit or a sweet dish based on fruits such as durian or mango basking in creamy coconut sauce.

Thailand’s exotic fruits — spiky durians, hairy rambutans and gigantic jackfruit (some weigh as much as 20 kilos) are sold in Bangkok’s Central Market.

Floating market traders Thailand

Arriving early I was able to browse through the stalls before the shoppers.

I noticed a saffron-robed monk carefully inspecting packets of khanom phin — cookies made from beanflower and shredded coconut. From pyramids of pastel-coloured sweets he chose khanom pui fai or ‘cotton wool cakes’ — someone in the monastery obviously has a sweet tooth, I decided.

Following him into the fish market, I watched him buying a kilo of blue-green prawns from the Gulf of Siam. Moving onto vegetables, he bought coriander, lemon grass, mushrooms and kaffir lime leaves: tom yum kuang was on the luncheon menu!

Outside I decided to have breakfast at one of the busy street stalls catering to people on their way to work. Mussel omelette was my choice, tossed in a pan over a charcoal stove.

Without the disturbance of Stefan choking, I was eating slowly and savouring the scene when the cook banged a bottle on the table.

Passed to me, I found a few drops transformed my simple omelette into a dish of regal status.

I took nom pla when I left Thailand and have found it works miracles in a variety of dishes cooked at home.


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FEZ: jewel in the imperial crown of Morocco

To visit Morocco without seeing the historic capital of Fez is like eating a birthday cake without the icing. Fez is a gem. Some people might even say it is the jewel in the crown of the Kingdom of Morocco.

Tightly packed buildings in the old medina with the zaouia  or shrine of Idriss II or Moulay Idriss II who ruled Morocco from 807 to 828 CE

The city was founded in the ninth century, roughly at the time when Scherazade was spinning tales of the ‘thousand and one nights’ to the Caliph Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad. But it is Fez, not the Iraqi capital, which remains a colourful example of this exotic period in the development of civilisation.

Houses, some more than 400 years old, overlook narrow, meandering lanes in the old medina known as Fez el-Bali

Fez reached its apogee during Merinid rule in the 13th century when it was one of the most advanced centres of learning and urban infrastructure in the ancient world. Its university, incorporated within the Karaouine Mosque (founded in 859) was attended by Pope Sylvester II, a student of Arabic numerals.

The town had hospitals, schools, funduqs (hotels) for travellers and 93 hammams (bath-houses) while local trades and crafts were organised into 150 different unions. Each with its own patron saint.

Cutting leather for handsewn babouche, the classic soft leather slipper worn by both men and women in Morocco

Originally measured against the width of a loaded mule, the streets in its old medina known as Fez el-Bali, are too narrow for motorised traffic. Hence you can wander at will, in perfect safety, among its sprawling souqs or covered bazaars.

Each trade or product still occupies the same quarter allocated to it centuries ago by the mutasib, prefect of Fez.

A boy making chechias, the traditional hat or fez. Aged sixteen, he is already a master of this ancient trade.

There are wax chandlers, knife-grinders, scribes, cabinet-makers, embroiderers, coppersmiths, leather-makers and perfume blenders. Foods are also segregated: fruits here, vegetables there, spices in the attarine or spice market.

A perfume blender, or “nose” in his tiny shop in the depths of Fez el-Bali

Friendly traders invite you to try a bit of this, or a sniff of that. To dip your finger in a tub of honey, to taste a slice of cheese, to try a lump of nougat, to suck a tangerine. Or to sit on a tiny stool and enjoy a mint tea as you bargain the price of a hand-woven carpet.

Souq Sabbighin, the dyers market is little changed in a thousand years

In 1981 Fez el-Bali was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. not only for its splendid architectural heritage and urban planning, but because the entire medina remains a living, breathing museum.

The smell of the medieval tanneries in Fez el-Bali will never leave your nose…


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