Friday, February 29, 2008

Istanbul Foods

After writing about Elif Shafak's novel The Bastard of Istanbul earlier today, I looked over some of my photos of the extremely vivid food stalls in the spice market of Istanbul.

A Dialog of the Delicious

“I do not speak the Turkish language, unfortunately, but I guess I speak the Turkish cuisine.” So says Armanoush, a young woman from an Armenian-American background, to her Turkish hostesses in Istanbul. (p. 156)

Armanoush is a character in The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak, a work of fiction that is full of references to Turkish, Armenian-American, and straight-up American food. Chapter titles include “Cinnamon,” “Garbanzo Beans,” “Sugar,” “Vanilla,” “Pistachios,” “Almonds,” “Dried Apricots,” “Pomegranate Seeds,” and many more food-centered names for the 18 chapters. Each food plays a role in its chapter, and often appears again as the story continues.

It's a complex book. Shafak, who has lived in Turkey, the US, and Europe, uses the commonality of foods among Armenians in the USA and Turks to emphasize the irony of the unfortunate relationship between the two communities. (Shafak was prosecuted in Turkey for using the word “genocide” about the persecution of Turkish-Armenians after World War I, but charges were dropped in this high-profile event.)

Two families are at the center of the book, one in San Francisco, one in Istanbul. They are linked by a couple who live in Arizona: Rose, an American from Kentucky, and Mustapha, the estranged son of the Turkish-Muslim family in Istanbul. Rose’s daughter by her first husband cements this link.

In the second chapter, Rose sees Mustapha for the first time: in a grocery store. Rose, whose daughter at the time is an infant, is thinking of buying “hamburgers, … fried eggs and maple-syrup-soaked pancakes and hot dogs with onions and mutton barbecue;” she wants "apple cider, ... hot spicy chili or smoked bacon…or… garbanzo beans.” A few minutes later, she meets Mustapha, in the canned goods aisle -- he is deciding among several brands of garbanzo beans. And so they get together.

Rose’s first husband was the son of the Armenian Catholic family in San Francisco, so her daughter’s childhood was divided between her mother in Arizona and her father in San Francisco. The daughter even has two names, American Amy and Armenian Armanoush.

The two men – Rose’s husbands – are the only significant male characters, though rather sketchily presented. The two households each consist of 3 or 4 generations of women: women who cook all the time. Further, when the Armenian family pressures Amy/Armanoush to go on a date with a desirable young man, the American food at the date restaurant is also emblematic: she “decided to go for the sesame-crusted ahi tuna tartare with foie gras yakiniku,” while her date tries “a prime rib-eye with hot mustard cream sauce on a bed of passion fruit vinaigrette and jicama.” (p107-108)

Here’s a list of dishes served by the Armenian-American family: "In multihued clay bowls of different sizes were many of his favorite dishes: fassoulye pilaki, kadin budu kofte, karniyarik, newly made churek, ... bastirma ... his favorite dish... burma." (p.51)

Eventually, Amy/Armanoush goes to Turkey to seek her paternal grandmother’s background and secrets. She stays with her stepfather’s all-female house, where she’s served many of these same dishes from her Armenian family. Both families cook and love the same foods, despite several generations of separation in vastly different cultural settings. She even discovers that both Armenian and Turkish parents peel oranges and serve them to adult children who have stayed up late at night. (pp. 115 and 185)

I've been able to identify some of the dishes mentioned in the book. Others I've found hard to identify. Binnur of Binnur's Turkish Cookbook and some of my printed Turkish cookbooks give recipes for some. They all sound delicious: perfect food for thought and dialog, as well as to eat. (Update: with Binnur's help, I've written a post with links to several recipes.)

The author uses the carefully set-up nexus between the people of Istanbul and the Armenian Americans to create a multi-way dialog about controversial issues in Turkish-Armenian history. Also, in Amy/Armanoush’s favorite Internet chat room militant Armenians discuss the Armenian genocide and modern Armenian and Turkish attitudes. These dialogs are really the center of the book, but I’m concentrating here on the way the book uses food to underscore the complex relationship.

At the end a dessert called ashura -- also spelled asura, and called Noah's Pudding because of its complex symbolic meaning in Turkish life -- plays a very important role in the final chapters of the book and their unexpected events and revelations. There’s even a recipe for it -- the ingredient list for ashura corresponds to the chapter titles: garbanzo beans, wheat, white rice, ... dried apricots, orange peels, rosewater, cinnamon, almonds, pomegranate seeds (p. 272-273). I won't spoil the ending with further details.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


At the Botanical Gardens: this is the pod where cocoa beans grow. The cocoa plant is unusual because the pods grow out of the trunk of the tree. I read that the early explorers brought back sketches showing this oddity, along with cocoa pods and beans. Botanists making drawings for publication "corrected" the pictures to show the pods growing "normally."

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Wine and Global Warming

I just read an important and unexpected article: "Meltdown in your wineglass? A conference in Barcelona looks at the effects of global climate change on the world of wine" by Corie Brown in the Los Angeles Times.

I had heard that new, more northern wine-growing regions might become more capable of producing good wine in larger quantities. Who knows if California or New Zealand (where I took the photos, respectively) will still be producing wine of the same quality and type.

This article goes much further than earlier things I've read. Wine flavors, natural acidity, depth of color, alcohol content, and the types of grapes practical for a given region would all alter as the climate changes. Warmer weather, less rain, and other factors would change many things. And "as rising levels of carbon dioxide encourage out-of-control vegetative growth, the green, herbaceous flavors consumers deplore may well increase."

"Several speakers suggested that rising alcohol levels will have to be controlled most likely by using methods such as reverse osmosis," the article explained. "To capture natural acids and aromas, harvests will be staggered, with some grapes harvested under-ripe to produce lots that can be blended with fuller-flavored lots from riper grapes. Together, the lots may produce a balanced wine."

The article concludes: "throughout the world's wine-growing regions, average temperatures, particularly at night, are rising, and rainfall patterns are increasingly unpredictable. As a result, the grapevine's growth cycle has escalated so that 'bud break,' the start of the annual cycle, occurs as much as a month earlier than it did 50 years ago.

"'It's a disturbance in the balance we call terroir,' Schultz [a climatologist with Germany's Geisenheim Research Institute], told the group. 'The wine industry has tremendous adaptive capacity. But it must agree there is an issue and develop clear strategies for dealing with it.'"

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Against Bottled Water

Attacks on using commercially bottled water are all over the news recently, as I noted a few days ago in Water, Water Everywhere.

In London at his weekly news conference Mayor Ken Livingstone said: "People should be encouraged to ask and feel confident they can ask in restaurants for tap water, rather than have to pay through the nose for bottled water." Several other British politicians have made similar statements. Here in Ann Arbor last summer, the city council voted a resolution against the sale of bottled water at city events. San Francisco has a similar ban. Noises of the same sort rumble from New York City.

"Why is everybody suddenly jumping onto this particular bandwagon?" my friend in London asked me in an email exchange.

I actually don't know, but I find myself thinking: it's easy to pick on bottled water instead of facing the deeper problems of excess CO2 in the atmosphere. There's no political capital expended in attacking bottled water: almost anything else asks people to make real sacrifices. Driving less. Figuring out whether one food or another has an elephant-sized carbon footprint. Even turning out the lights or using creepy florescent light bulbs. Reflecting such ideas in the tax structure. Nuts, let's just go after Fiji Water.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Unadulterated Milk

Today's Times Food Section offers a contrast to the big industrial dairies that are pressuring to use a milk-like substance in place of the real thing (as I wrote yesterday in Adulterated Milk). Writes Marian Burros today: "More and more people across the country are being treated to the same aha experience as they find a burgeoning variety of fresh dairy products made in small batches on little farms and in small creameries. And it’s worth the extra money." (see: "The Dairies Are Half-Pint, but the Flavor Isn’t")

Burros continues:

"Chalk it up to a lucky confluence of events. Most small dairy farmers cannot keep afloat selling milk to large processors at commodity prices, so those who are trying to survive are looking for alternatives. At the same time there is an increasingly sophisticated public that appreciates the difference between mass-produced dumbed-down food and the handiwork of a small dairy that has learned to produce exceptional butter or yogurt or ice cream by doing it the way it was done before World War II, when there was a creamery in every town."

Besides the high price, I suspect that an unnamed problem is that these farmers are limited by industry-sponsored regulations about what they can put on their labels. For example, they may be raising their cows without artificial hormones, but in some states, they can't use this as a selling point.

Locally in Ann Arbor, Zingerman's Creamery is an example of this movement, though not mentioned in the Times article.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Adulterated Milk

Critics of greedy sellers of adulterated food have always held a special place beneath contempt for those who mess with milk. After all, it's one of the most basic and pure foods, and one of the oldest: I've illustrated that with two photos from the Israel Museum, showing butter churns from the earliest Biblical days. The churn hung from two ropes, and was shaken back and forth on its tethers or carried on a woman's head, as in the statuette.

A land flowing with milk and honey -- what could more totally represent our idea of real, natural food. I'm not fanatic, but I was shocked to read the following. As usual, our corrupt government is willing to do anything for an organized -- and equally corrupt -- industry.

From an article in the online Gourmet magazine -- with links left in:

"Bowing to the interests of corporate cheese and ice cream manufacturers, the folks at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) appear poised to change the definition of the popular white liquid. Last week they extended the public comment period on a regulation that will allow processors to use a substance called 'ultrafiltered milk' and list it as simply 'milk' on ingredient lists.

"The proposed changes have sparked outrage from farmers’ organizations, who point out, rightly, that there is a vast difference between real milk and the ultrafiltered stuff—also called milk protein concentrates. As the name implies, ultrafiltered milk has been passed through a fine membrane that retains large molecules such as protein and fat, while allowing smaller molecules like water, lactose, and little things called vitamins and minerals to wash away.

"The concentrated fat and protein is cheaper to transport than milk, which explains why manufacturers like it so much. Under current rules, they are free to use the product ... but they must list it as 'ultrafiltered milk' or 'milk protein concentrates' on the ingredient label.

"But ... the industry ... claims that it is 'impractical to comply with the labeling requirements' due to 'economic and logistical burdens.' To add one extra word to their labels? Give me a break.

"You’d think they’d have come up with something better than that. But then, with the FDA firmly in the corporate camp, they don’t need to. Profits will probably trump the rights of consumers to know what’s in their cheese." --
See: Barry Estabrook "Politics of the Plate: Milking It for All It’s Worth."

I feel strongly that the current administration has given free rein to the worst of our society. What else will they do while they are such lame, lame ducks? The farmers' industry website linked above says: "A 2001 investigation by the federal government’s General Accounting Office (GAO) reported ultra-filtered milk is not nutritionally equivalent to fluid milk." As usual, the bureaucrats aren't even accepting the results of their own scientists when it's more convenient for their clients to deny them. I linked to the government website and registered my objection.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

American Indian Food

The American Indian museum is on the National Mall across from the Capitol, among all the many branches of the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art. Its collection of American Indian artifacts is outstanding, but its restaurant, the Mitsitam Native Foods Café, upstages the museum, as far as I'm concerned. It follows the pattern of self-serve restaurants in the many museums on the Mall: a number of specialized stations. Instead of salads, grilled foods, full meals, and sandwiches this cafeteria has stations representing the Plains Indians, the Southwest Indians, South and Central America, the Pacific Northwest, and the Eastern Forests.

The museum itself represents both the distant past and the present -- Indian life before and after European intrusion. Similarly, the Mitsitam Café offers foods of modern Native Americans and traditional New World foods. Hamburgers and fry bread are examples of foods that modern Southwestern Indians enjoy today, though their ancestors may have eaten differently. Some people are quite worried about the introduction of fat and white flour into their diet, but that's a completely different issue. Perhaps some of the Indians who participate in designing the presentations of their ancient and modern arts and crafts will eventually deal with this issue as well.

For lunch last Friday, I selected a wild rice and cranberry salad and a baked apple with maple and cranberry topping. I was tempted by many other dishes: frog legs, corn and bean salads, tamales, chocolate soup, duck, venison stew, and many frankly modern desserts. While the apple and the carrot shreds in my salad were old-world foods that were introduced by Europeans, I think that the chefs of the restaurant have combined various traditions to make a very enjoyable experience. I'm impressed at the quality of food that's made, especially since they serve large numbers of customers. (In fact, the crowds on weekends and the small portion sizes are a problem for some other people -- not everyone is as fond of this place as I am.)

From the website of the museum:
"'Mitsitam' means 'Let’s eat!'in the Native language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples. The museum’s Mitsitam Native Foods Café enhances the museum experience by providing visitors the opportunity to enjoy the indigenous cuisines of the Americas and to explore the history of Native foods. The café features Native foods found throughout the Western Hemisphere... . Each food station depicts regional lifeways related to cooking techniques, ingredients, and flavors found in both traditional and contemporary dishes." (See the website: National Museum of the American Indian)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Hong Kong, 2000

Peiking Duck:

Scenes from a fishing village at the far side of the territory:

Fruit and vegetables at Stanley Market:

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Water, Water Everywhere

I'm becoming more and more conscious of waste and misuse of our precious resources. So why should I be different from everyone else? Whole Foods is phasing out plastic bags -- I'm already trying to use my own bags. I try to follow all the recycling rules. I'm reconsidering light bulbs, I try not to drive too much, I'd like to be more responsible.

And the experts I read have recently been talking about the following resource question:

Why should anyone in a modern, first-world city drink bottled water?

Tap water is safe -- maybe safer than from a PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottle into whose contents this chemical is leaking. And the cost of the manufacturing, transportation (instead of through pipes), and disposal (mostly not recycled efficiently) of bottles is incredible. Here are a few shocking statistics from an article I just read today -- one of many:
It takes 162g of oil and seven litres of water (including power plant cooling water) just to manufacture a one-litre bottle, creating over 100g of greenhouse gas emissions (10 balloons full of CO2) per empty bottle. Extrapolate this for the developed world (2.4m tonnes of plastic are used to bottle water each year) and it represents serious oil use for what is essentially a single-use object. To make the 29bn plastic bottles used annually in the US, the world's biggest consumer of bottled water, requires more than 17m barrels of oil a year, enough to fuel more than a million cars for a year. (See It's just water, right? in the Guardian Online.)

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Other End of the Mediterranean

An Israeli friend told us that at the Diana Restaurant in Nazereth we could find hommus that was "poetic." In our view, though, it had strong competition from the other 18 mezze plates served before the meal. All of the food was delicious. The man who prepared the minced meat was a real showman.
We took the above photo in a restaurant in a Druze village near Mount Carmel, where we spent one Saturday afternoon with Eschel and Michol. These pictures date from our 5 month stay in Israel in 1997 -- before we had a digital camera. We just replaced our old scanner with a new one, and so I decided to try it out and scan some of these old photos.

Alicante, Spain, 1996

"It must be Mediterranean food," I always said in my kitchen in Alicante, "because I can see it from here." Above, you can see a meal I prepared, with food from a wonderful covered market up the coast from our high-rise apartment.

Our friends later took us to a very amusing restaurant, which was sort of pretend medieval. The food was served on trenchers. Smoked meat was cut down from the rafters when you ordered it. The host teased everyone constantly, and even the business cards were a joke.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Ancient Mesopotamian Cooking

Five thousand years ago record keepers in the early civilization of Mesopotamia invented cuneiform writing on clay tablets. In the hands of modern scholars, half a million of these tablets have revealed the lives, customs, literature, arts, technology, folklore, military history, political life, mythology, and religion for thousands of years of this civilization.

Among the half-million tablets, many record foodstuffs, but only three so far seem to have recorded actual recipes. Cuneiform expert Jean Bottero in The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia (Chicago, 2004) shares his wealth of knowledge from decoding the recipes on the three tablets, from interpreting many other cuneiform tablets, and from archeology digs. Along with details from the recipe tablets, he describes the dining habits, feasts, and cooking apparatus of ancient Babylonia.

Bottero says that no one will ever reconstruct "from such a distance in time and space, the authentic flavor and quality of the scores of ingredients that were used in these culinary creations. We can never recover the taste ... of this rich and appetizing cuisine, whose refinement and brilliance we can only imagine." (p. 125)

And yet... he gives us a vivid picture of banquets, kitchens, and the content of the clay stew pots from nearly 4000 years ago.

So what did an ancient Mesopotamian eat for dinner? The three recipe tablets concentrate on cooking of meat and vegetable stews. Some describe how to serve meat in pastry: "you take the platter prepared with a lining of crust, and you place the cooked birds on it carefully ... You cover the serving dish with its pastry 'cover' and bring it to the table." (p. 72)

Most recipes start with a combination of fat and water, used to begin braising venison, kid, gazelle, lamb, mutton, or small birds. Some recipes specify particular organs (such as gizzard, spleen, or intestines). Some say to cut the meat in small pieces. Some also call for kisimmu -- a type of cheese. Cooks used prepared cakes of pounded seeds or crumbs of baked bread or cake to thicken the sauces.

Many herbs and vegetables in these stews are startlingly familiar -- garlic, leeks, onions, cumin, and coriander. An onion-like plant called samidu, an herb called dodder (now considered a weed), and some unidentifiable herbs also appear in the recipes. Crushed or mashed vegetables appear to have flavored and thickened the stew -- not at all strange to a modern cook. Cooking might be a multi-stage process, starting with boiling the meat, then cleaning it (I guess an analog to washing the scum off of the veal bones in a modern stock), then cooking with more ingredients, and finally "before the broth cools ... you rub the meat with garlic, add greens and vinegar. The broth may be eaten at a later time." (p. 72). To accompany the stews, diners at feasts or official meals ate green salads with vinegar and various sorts of leavened and unleavened bread or cakes.

Cooking took place on an all-purpose hearth over an open fire or on grills, skewers, or racks. This reminds me of my Webber grill, but the author warns me not to think this way. Bread and other food might be cooked directly in the ashes: poets praised the smoky taste. Some recipes also mention an indirect type of cooking stove. (p. 46-47) More fascinating are descriptions of banquets for thousands of inhabitants of a city, where large numbers of whole animals were slaughtered and needed preparation. A modern home cook can't begin to imagine the techniques for such an event.

"Let us not forget that our recipes belong to a refined cuisine, for guests of a certain social caliber, and that we know nothing about the routine of ordinary meals without fanfare among simple folk," writes Bottero (p. 73). His description of these ancient foods, kitchens, and events are indeed fascinating.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Mae's Pantry

Today my pantry is featured by Lydia at The Perfect Pantry in her post: Other People's Pantries #1

I'm flattered to be included, as I love reading all about Lydia's pantry in her regular blog entries.

To learn more about my hobby of Mona Lisa collecting see: Jocondologie