Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Used and Unused Objects In My Kitchen

Used for steaming veggies: my microwave and my new
glass dish -- not Pyrex! Pyrex isn't adequately heatproof.
For this month's collective blogger event  "In My Kitchen," I'm thinking about used and unused gadgets, devices, techniques, ingredients, and about the way I actually cook.

First: how to steam vegetables. I do it mainly in the microwave oven in a heatproof glass baking dish, as shown at right. Five minutes on "high" to crunchy-tender or a bit more time to a softer texture. It works for asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, and others. I know that some people like to do it this way and others don't.

Microwaving also works for lentils, but the last time I did that was a disaster because I didn't add enough water. The lentils nearly caught fire. Then the Pyrex dish exploded when I took it out. When I replaced the exploded dish, I made sure that it was not Pyrex, but another brand that still uses borosilicate, not soda lime, as the heat-proofing chemical.

So be warned! For details about exploding bakeware, check this link: "Consumer Reports Breaks A Lot Of Glass Investigating Shattering Pyrex Bakeware."

Green bean salad -- crunchy-tender beans tossed with
lemon zest and juice, chopped fresh dill, olive oil, and scallions.
Unused: my steamer insert. My metal one wore out.
I purchased this silicone one but I don't think I've used it
more than once. I just use the microwave oven.
Used occasionally: my electric steamer.
Rice and artichokes, for example, don't do well microwaved.
It's on the shelf between the food processor and the mixer.
Used: a stick blender.
Unused: old-fashioned
Another item that I now use all the time is my stick blender (left). I especially like it for making soup. After cooking them, I puree some of the vegetables, and leave others whole for a very thick result. The stick blender is also nice for blended drinks using ice, yogurt or kefir, and fruit.

I stopped using the old kind of blender ages ago. First I replaced it with a food processor, and a few years ago with the stick blender instead. In photo -- a "vintage" blender that was offered on a collectors' website. Mine, of similar vintage, was unused for so long that the mechanism froze up and I threw it away. I know some people still love them, but not me!

A bowl of my favorite cauliflower soup (from an old blog post).
Unused ingredients. The kosher salt and molasses have been on the shelf
for years. I don't know why I bought them originally. The Maggi seasoning
is supposed to be a key ingredient in a Banh Mi sandwich. I didn't find that
it added much -- it's almost pure MSG! 
I'm sure I have other unused devices and ingredients but they are buried somewhere!

In Australia, it's already February, and Bizzy Lizzy the organizer of "In My Kitchen" has already posted her master post. I'm linking to her site, and looking forward to seeing what other bloggers have in their February kitchens. Here's the link: "In My Kitchen February 2017" by BizzyLizzie.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Oranges for Chinese New Year

A beautiful seasonal mandarin that I bought yesterday.
Though I have never celebrated Chinese New Year, I've been enjoying articles about the traditional foods and why Chinese traditions associate each one with prosperity, health, a long life, and a good new year. Dumplings (shaped like an old-style gold ingot), whole fish (for which the word sounds like "wealth"), long noodles (for long life) and more -- they all sound delicious as well as propitious!
The L.A. Times article "Foods for a Chinese New Year Feast" by Christine Zhang, Frank Shyong, and Andrea Roberson particularly attracted my attention for its mouth-watering photos and descriptions.

Evidently, the celebrations consist of incredible banquets, as well as dumpling-making parties. I'm not part of anything like that, but maybe I'll make a few of these dishes for dinner during the celebration week. I'm especially intrigued by the tradition of eating yellow, orange, or gold-colored fruits such as mandarins, oranges, or grapefruits. I've seen two reasons: one is that the color looks like gold, so they are associated with wealth. Also:
"Mandarin oranges are a common fruit during the New Year. The word in Chinese for oranges, ju in the Teochew dialect, is a homophone for ji, the word for auspicious or lucky. Pomelos are another favorite. The Chinese word for pomelo, you zhi, sounds like the word for 'to have' in Chinese, which is you." -- from LA Weekly.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

"Istanbul Passage" by Joseph Kanon

"They made their way to the bridge through the Karaköy market, sidestepping pools of melted ice streaked with fish blood, strands of wilted greens. Cats lurked behind the stalls, waiting for scraps. There was more food near the steps of the bridge, stuffed mussels and braziers with chestnuts. They stopped for a minute on top, catching a breath before they waded into the crowd. ... There were water salesmen with silver canisters strapped to their backs and hamals wheeling carts and a simit peddler with a tray of bread rings balanced on his head." -- Istanbul Passage, Kindle Locations 5193-5199).
The action in Joseph Kanon's suspense novel Istanbul Passage (published 2012) takes place in 1945. Istanbul is a dark and dangerous city, full of repercussions of World War II. The text passage above, near the end of the novel, is an example of the city background that joins with the fast-paced plot to make the book quite readable. I suspect there are a few anachronisms, but that it's mainly historically accurate about the time, the politics, and the city.

Until the end of the war a few months before the events of the story, Istanbul, thanks to Turkish neutrality, had seen constant humanitarian efforts trying to escort shiploads of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe to safety. In reality, during the war many refugees died in attempting to flee, notably one entire ship full of them, the Struma, a ship that was "sent back, then torpedoed in the Black Sea, everyone down with it." (Kindle Location 566).

In the novel, one more shipload of concentration camp survivors is seeking permission to head away from Europe and the Displaced Persons Camps. They were trying to get to Palestine, which would become the state of Israel shortly afterwards, but which was at that time ruled by the British who weren't allowing Jewish refugees to enter.

The central character, Leon, has played a role in these escapes, and in the novel is trying to save one more boat of refugees. He gets mixed up in a more complex plot.  The war had caused every espionage agency to place agents in the city, and in Leon's world, the agents are all active, competing over a particular man who is trying to escape them. Leon becomes tangled in a web of motives he can't understand, facing dangers he can barely identify.

The book is full of colorful descriptions of the old luxury mansions along the Bosphorous, of both elegant and seedy hotels, of modern offices, of retro bazaars and food stalls, and much more. Quite a number of scenes take place at the Pera Palace, which is also the key location in the history I read recently, Charles King's Midnight at the Pera Palace. For example, a funeral for one of the agents:
"The banquet room at the Pera was crowded, spilling over with consulate staff and Turks who hadn’t been to the church and were now lined up at the buffet table, plates in hand. The food was American, chicken and potato salad and cold roast beef, not even a stuffed grape leaf to remind them where they were."(Kindle Locations 1359-1361). 
There's a lot consciousness of the changing ethnic composition of Istanbul -- the confiscation of property from long-term residents who were Jewish, Greek, or Armenian had constantly changed the neighborhoods in Leon's experience such as this:
"He got off near the Koç shipyards in Hasköy and walked the few blocks to Mihai’s office, an old industrial building given to Mossad by its Jewish owner before it could be seized for the wealth tax. During the war, Mossad had worked out of the Hotel Continental, and some of the staff still preferred it for the convenience, but Mihai had moved his unit down to the waterfront. Aliyah Bet, the illegal immigration, was like Noah’s ark, he’d said. It should have a water view." (Kindle Locations 1868-1872). 
 Or this explanation that Leon gives to a less-savvy colleague who asks what is meant by "population exchanges" --
"After the war with Greece. In ’twenty-three. Ethnic Greeks were sent home. Vice versa with Turks there. Whether anybody wanted to go or not. People who’d been here forever. It was a bad time. You go to Izmir, places like that, it’s still an open wound." (Kindle Locations 2329-2331).
The detailed descriptions of the city made me want to read this novel, although the genre of a suspenseful spy story isn't usually my choice of reading. I enjoyed it just the same. In the Author's Note at the end of the book, Kanon offers this explanation which I find helpful:
"The horrors of Străuleşti, the sinking of the Struma, Ira Hirschmann’s heroic work for the War Refugee Board rescuing European Jews, and the tireless efforts of Mossad le Aliyah Bet (Committee for Illegal Immigration) are all matters of historical record and appear here only as background. The events and people in Istanbul Passage are fiction." (Kindle Locations 5640-5643).

Wednesday, January 25, 2017


Sushi with roasted red pepper, eggplant, fried onion, and cucumber.
Eel and cucumber sushi.
From Slurping Turtle, Ann Arbor.

Monday, January 23, 2017

"Topkapi" -- the Film

Melina Mercouri in the film.
The film "Topkapi," (1964) was directed by Jules Dassin, and featured actors Melina Mercouri, Peter Ustinov, and Maximilian Schell. Those were really big names when the film was new -- still not totally forgotten, I hope. I remembered seeing and loving this film at some point, and decided to see it again today (thanks to streaming video).

Dassin delivered a great combination of suspense, humor, exotic locations, and beautiful settings. The acting seems somewhat stylized by today's standards, but it's still fun to watch.

My memory is of both the entertaining plot and the great imagery of colorful Istanbul. I fear that quite a lot of the buildings and street scenes featured in the film have been leveled and modernized to make the new, far bigger city that exists today; in 1964 the population was just over 1,000,000 and it is now over 14,000,000.

Street vendors, porters, carnival workers, and humble house servants are featured in the film, and bring the city to life. Here are some screen shots from the film:

I especially enjoyed one sequence showing lots of street vendors and
street scenes with people carrying loads in the old-fashioned way.
I wonder what's at the site of these old buildings now. 

The plot: to steal a jeweled dagger from the Topkapi Palace. Here: the three thieves wait on the roof until its
dark enough to enter the building. The trick: they must not touch the floor, which has a built-in alarm.
From left, actors Ustinov, Schell, and Gilles Ségal "the human fly." 
The "human fly" descends from ropes to steal the dagger. It's a wonderful movie, perfect for my current interest in Istanbul!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Istanbul: "A Strangeness in My Mind"

Orhan Pamuk's novel A Strangeness in My Mind offers a very simple story about Istanbul residents in a very poor neighborhood from the 1960s until almost the present. An omniscient narrator alternates with short stream-of-consciousness texts by the many characters. Each text begins with the speaker's name, which means the reader is never confused about which one is speaking!

The narratives, in all their simplicity, invoke beautifully ambitious themes. The main character, Mevlut, has "a strangeness" in his mind that leads him to try to understand his own agency in creating his life -- though he's a very simple, poor, and not very successful man. Further the novel tells the overarching story of the unique city: especially the incredible growth of modern Istanbul -- "what makes the city a city is that it lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes." (p. 107).

At the end, the following reflexion by Mevlut:
"Throughout the happy years of his marriage to Rayiha, though, he’d always thought that Istanbul would never change, that all his hard work out on the streets would gain him a place of his own someday, and that he would learn to adapt to the city. All this had happened, to an extent. But ten million other people had joined him in Istanbul over the past forty years, latching on as he had to anything they could find, and the city had emerged transformed. Istanbul’s population had been only three million when Mevlut had first arrived; now, they said there were thirteen million people living there." (p. 556)
Mevlut was born in an Anatolian village, and brought to Istanbul by his father, while his mother and sisters stayed behind. His father's brother was cleverer than his father: while Mevlut and his father remain in the poorest one-room hovel in a shantytown, the uncle and his family move to a much nicer place, though also in a squatters' area. Like millions of migrants into Istanbul, they all have to figure out how to make a living in a desperate and corrupt environment. In Mevlut's case, almost everything he did was related to selling food and to loving the many and varied neighborhoods of his beloved city.

Mevlut's father worked as a street vendor selling yogurt, carrying heavy containers from a wooden yoke across his shoulders. But factory-made yogurt became easily available in markets and groceries, and his father was crushed. Mevlut continues as a street vendor, mainly selling boza, "a traditional Asian beverage made of fermented wheat, with a thick consistency, a pleasant aroma, a dark yellowish color, and a low alcohol content"(p. 18). People liked to have boza delivered at night, and Mevlut loved wandering the streets until near midnight -- "walking around the city at night made him feel as if he were wandering around inside his own head." (p. 579).

On his rounds, Mevlut would call out "“Goooood boozaaaaa.” Customers would invite him into their homes or lower a basket with a container for him to fill:
"Back in 1969, when Mevlut first started working with his father, housewives who preferred to stay indoors would use the basket for purchasing not just boza but their daily yogurt, too, and even various items from the grocer’s boy. As they did not have telephones in their homes, they would tie a little bell to the bottom of the basket to alert the grocer or a passing vendor that they needed something. The vendor would, in turn, ring the bell and rock the basket to signal that the yogurt or the boza had been safely placed inside. Mevlut had always enjoyed watching these baskets make their way back up: some of them would sway in the breeze, bumping into windows, branches, electrical and telephone cables, and the laundry lines stretched between buildings, and the bell would respond to each collision with a pleasant chime. Regular customers would put their account ledger in the basket, too, so that Mevlut could add the day’s yogurt to their tab before sending the basket back up. ... But Istanbul had changed so much over the past twenty-five years that these memories now seemed like fairy tales to Mevlut."(pp. 18-19).
Mevlut also tries selling from push-carts. He offers ice cream for a while; later, chicken with rice and chickpeas, with the help and support of his loyal and much-beloved wife. As the Istanbul authorities and the changing economic conditions make life more and more difficult for street vendors, Mevlut works in restaurants -- food plays an enormous role in the novel. I would love to explore the way that Mevlut deals with his "strangeness," seeking to understand his fears and how his choices create his life or how things might be due to chance, or "Kismet." But I don't think I can do justice to this amazingly marvelous novel with its combination of complex and simple themes.

Here's the most direct statement in the book about the fusion of Mevlut's life and that of the city:
"He didn’t see it as a place that had existed before his arrival and to which he’d come as an outsider. Instead, he liked to imagine that Istanbul was being built while he lived in it and to dream of how much cleaner, more beautiful, and more modern it would be in the future." (p. 318). 
The character Süleyman in A Strangeness in My Mind -- "We went to the Tarator Seafood Restaurant in Sarıyer
and sat in a corner away from the fish tank. Our fried mussels hadn’t arrived yet, and we were already on our second
glass of rakı, all on an empty stomach..."(p. 254). Photo of a seafood restaurant in this location, from my visit there in 2006.

"Among the younger generations there was now a regrettable misconception, fueled by newspapers and TV, that street food was 'dirty.' Milk, yogurt, tomato paste, beef sausage, and canned vegetable companies kept bombarding people with advertisements about how 'hygienic' their products were and how everything they sold was machine processed and 'untouched by human hands...'" (pp. 333-334). Photo of a grocery shop in a residential neighborhood, from my visit.

The New York Times reviewer, with whom I essentially agree, put it like this:
"The primary theme in Mr. Pamuk’s work ... is mental dislocation — life lived between the competing attractions of Western and Eastern values, between secular doubt and religious conviction. That’s true here, too. Mevlut is pulled, at trying moments, toward a deeper engagement with Islam. But 'A Strangeness in My Mind' wears this topic lightly. The book is a hymn to life’s physical and mental chaos, not to the harmonies faith would impose." ("Review: Orhan Pamuk’s ‘A Strangeness in My Mind’" by Dwight Garner, October 20, 2015)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"A Kipper With My Tea"

Alan Davidson (1924-2003) began his career as a diplomat. While serving in various exotic locations in North Africa and Asia, he became interested in fish. First he wrote some essays and eventually three widely respected books about various food fish and how they are prepared in various places. Eventually, he became a leader in the emerging field of culinary history.

This month's selection for my culinary book club was Davidson's selected essays titled A Kipper With My Tea. Two members of our group were friends of Davidson, and remembered his visits to Ann Arbor; on one occasion, he stayed at their home.

The discussion this evening was wide-ranging, not especially limited to the book. All of us had favorites among the essays and also some less-than-favorite choices. We all liked his historical essay on the history of British cookbooks, his discussion of the culinary works of Alexander Dumas, and some of the essays on fish.

I especially liked his essay titled "Hallo, Halo-Halo." Halo-halo is the Filipino version of shave ice, which entered American consciousness because President Obama is fond of the Hawaiian version, which includes the snow-like shaved ice, sweetened condensed milk, syrup, and ice cream. (I just put in that sentence because I want to write "President Obama" one more time.)

In Hawaii: a shave-ice machine shaves the ice block into a sort of 
snow, which the operator forms into a snow-ball. 
Davidson's description of Filipino halo-halo is vivid and also fascinating, because of the ingredients which would be unexpected in an ice-cream confection in America or Europe:
"A symbol of the Filipino joy in eating is the dessert-cum-drink called halo-halo. The name is Tagalog (the official language of the Philippines) for 'mix-mix.' ... Halo-halo was born when ice came to the Philippines, in the 1920s. Its badge is a mound of shaved ice at the top of a tall sundae glass. Below the ice sits a scoop of ice cream. Below that are the cooked fruits: cubes of sweet potato and of saba banana, slivers of jackfruit, red beans, spoonfuls of purple yam jam, cubes of gulaman (agar-agar gelatin) bathed in coconut milk, sugar-palm seeds and chickpeas. ... You can have as many different layers as you please, but you still have an ordinary halo-halo unless you add the three requirements for a 'special:' leche flan (egg-yolk custard, top Filipino dessert), makapuno (the rare kind of coconut which is full of soft meat because of a recessive gene), and a sprinkling of sugar and toasted pinipig (whole-rice flakes)." (p. 213-214)

A terrifying trip

Next month, I'm planning to go on a one-week trip to see and photograph birds, wildlife, and local people along the upper Amazon River in Peru. A few years ago I had read Ann Patchett's book State of Wonder, which takes place mainly along the Amazon River in a similar area but in Brazil. Because I'm going there, I just reread it.

Bad idea! Marina, the protagonist of the novel has a terrifying trip in which she experiences many of my worst travel fears. Reviews praise the details of the nature descriptions in State of Wonder, but a lot of them are unnerving: several types of dangerous snakes, biting insects, invasive parasitic worms, hostile monkeys, many undiagnosable fevers, and more.

In Peru, Marina's destination is a village where there's a medical experiment taking place; she needs to search for a colleague who has died of fever. While trying to find a way to get to the village, Marina attends an opera performance in Manaus -- Orpheus by Gluck. She realizes that she is about to descend into Hell like Orpheus, who went in search of his wife. She's attempting to rescue her colleague or at least find out the details of his death. It's a great premise for fiction, but not a good thing for me to read when preparing to travel.

While flying from Minnesota, Marina lost her checked suitcase full of necessities. She travels to the village on a makeshift pontoon boat piloted by a deaf 12-year old, and on this boat she also loses the replacement suitcase.  Marina has horrific nightmares due to a bad reaction to malaria preventatives -- which I'm about to start taking. In the village she sleeps in a hut shared with the 12-year-old.

Food for the medical research staff consists mainly of canned foods like apricots, corned beef hash, and tuna which are imported on the makeshift pontoon boat. The villagers themselves eat completely repulsive foods. There's no internet, phone service, or even mail pickup or delivery -- the village has virtually no contact with the outside world. Members of a neighboring tribe are very dangerous users of poisoned arrows who attack visitors. Marina suffers from the heat and insects, has little opportunity to bathe, and experiences lots of other problems that I hope will not occur on a Lindblad boat next month.

It's actually a great book full of fascinating ideas about civilization, medicine, and human interactions --  if you don't take it personally. I shouldn't have been reading this!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Useful List of Substitutions

A beautiful cake baked by Alice who is a much better baker than I am!
What baker doesn't sometimes want to substitute one ingredient for another? Maybe your motive is health, a diet fad, or an allergy, but some subs work better than others, as many of us have found out.

Do you want to bake a cake, but you don't have cake flour? You can make your own: use a ratio of "14 tablespoons all-purpose flour whisked with 2 tablespoons cornstarch."

Do you want to use avocado in place of something or other as suggested widely across internet sites? Maybe it will work, maybe be a disaster. In baking, mostly the latter, though I once saw a cooking demo that used avocado in a chocolate mousse and was unexpectedly delicious! (It wasn't a substitution, though, it was a carefully thought-out recipe, which is a little off topic here.)

Useful website "Food 52" is currently featuring a list of substitutions from plausible to impossible: "10 Baking Ingredient Swaps That Won't Fail You (or Your Cake)" by Sarah Jampel. Most useful, it has a list of goals that you should be aware of when you substitute. Will you change the ratio of wet to dry ingredients? Will you alter the fat content in a significant way? Do you need to understand the chemistry? Really helpful!

When I remember to check Food 52, I often find intriguing suggestions. This article also talks about equivalences of various types of sugar. It mentions the frequent use of applesauce as a replacement ingredient. And lists several fermented milk products like buttermilk, for which my mother's chocolate cake substitution, milk with a few drops of lemon juice, is approved!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Chicken with olives and preserved lemon, and a new tablecloth

Winter days call for some new cheery things. Last week, I decided to order a new tablecloth decorated with colorful birds. When it arrived from amazon.com, I decided to invite a few friends to its premiere. We haven't yet identified most of these birds, but we're working on it, and so is one of our guests. We hope these illustrations turn out to be real birds, not just "realistic" as the description said. Update: we've identified most of the birds -- details on Len's Flickr Page here -- click on each photo; bird ids are included in the labels.

A cardinal and a painted bunting are two birds we recognize.
The salad in the photo is green beans, mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes.
The main course was chicken with preserved lemons and green olives,
based on a Moroccan recipe by Paula Wolfert.
We served dinner on glass plates so the birdies showed through.

Dessert: sliced oranges, Murcott tangerines, and satsumas with a hint of
rosewater and cinnamon. Also Moroccan style.

Strange interlude: interpreting the grease marks on the stove:

After I browned the chicken, I noticed that my stovetop (left) was marked with a circle that looked like a famous zen illustration (right). Maybe it was just some grease that spilled. But maybe my stove was saying this: "when the duality of self and reality has been overcome not only is reality forgotten, but so is the self; the circle symbolizes the all-encompassing emptiness that constitutes the ground of all things. Now, in the awareness of unceasing transformation and total interconnectedness in every experience one is freed from all craving and hatred for the other. In this freedom there is a sense of the wholeness and perfection of ordinary things." (source)

Friday, January 13, 2017

"Midnight at the Pera Palace"

Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul covers a wide range of topics. One that I found interesting was the subject of public dining places in Istanbul history. Author Charles King writes:
"Until well into the twentieth century, a home-cooked meal was a rarity. "This mode of dining was almost exclusively the purview of the wealthy, who could afford a permanent kitchen in their villa or mansion, one of more servants to go to the market, and a cook to prepare the food. Average Istanbullus got their food in groups... Given the need for food that was easily prepared and easily served to large groups, simplicity was key. ... That is why so many of the memoirists of everyday life in Istanbul are most wistful when they recall a noted baker, the purveyor of an especially good yogurt, or a well-shaded teahouse. A traveler today can go from a morning simit, ... to a grilled fish or stew at midday, to a sludge-bottomed coffee in the afternoon and still approximate the foodways ... of average Istanbullus of the past." (p. 143-144)

A city full of wonderful culture
and colorful characters.
Poet Nazim Hikmet
on a stamp.
He wrote a poem titled
"Gioconda and Si-Ya-U"
in which Mona Lisa runs off
with a Chinese Revolutionary.
During the first half of the twentieth century the city of Istanbul drastically changed not just once, but several times. A republic replaced the Caliphate, and citizenship replaced traditional communitarian government under Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious law.

Midnight at the Pera Palace brings these changes to life by describing political events, ever-present espionage, several waves of refugees, changing awareness of history, and cultural trends like jazz, avant-garde poetry (especially the poet Nazim Hikmet), folk music, restaurants and clubs, and much more.

Above all, Istanbul changed from a city that looked to Europe and had a very multi-ethnic and multi-cultural population to one that was dominantly Turkish and Muslim, but with a secular government. The invention of Turkish nationalism under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was the backbone of the changes, including negatives (above all, the Armenian genocide) and positives (e.g. the development of rights for women, including the end of polygamy). However, politics is far from the only focus of the book.

The Pera Palace of the book's title began as a luxury hotel in the best neighborhood of Istanbul. Diplomats, foreign journalists, and tourists like Agatha Christie (and fictionally, Hercule Poirot) stayed there. Socially, King relates, it was a center for jazz and other entertainment, western style as well as upcoming Turkish jazz. Spies and other agents met in its public spaces. White Russians fleeing the Revolution stayed there if they could afford it. Subsequently, its Greek owner was displaced as part of the expulsion of much of the native Greek population. Along with much property that belonged to former Greek residents, it was confiscated and turned over to a Muslim. Soon thereafter, its upkeep deteriorated, the location became less prestigious, and its status began to decline.

The historic hotel nevertheless continued to be a center of activity through World War II. In this era, we learn, Istanbul was a critical location because of Turkey's resolute neutrality and strategic location. Notably, early in the war the Pera Palace suffered major destruction from a suitcase bomb planted among the luggage of British diplomats who had just been expelled from Bulgaria. Later, it housed one of the major players in the effort to save Jewish victims of Nazi persecution.

On our visit to Istanbul in 2006, we visited an island that
I think was the temporary home of Trotsky.
I was surprised to discover some of the very famous and accomplished people who spent time in Istanbul -- and sometimes in the Pera Palace -- in these years. Trotsky lived in Istanbul on one step of his exile. A young reporter for the Toronto Star named Ernest Hemingway reported from Istanbul during World War I. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, a member of the Papal delegation there in the 1920s through 40s spent much effort trying to help fleeing European Jews, enabling them to go through Turkey to safety: Roncalli later became Pope John XXIII. Many members of the Joint Distribution Committee and other international rescue organizations were in Istanbul then, also trying to save European Jews: for example, Teddy Kollek, later mayor of Jerusalem. Art historians came to Istanbul among other things to restore the plastered-over Christian mosaics in Santa Sophia.

Mosaic of John the Baptist from Santa Sophia, revealed in restorations allowed by
Mustafa Kemal's secularization. Charles King presents a fascinating discussion of
the meaning of this work of art in the context of the historic building, built and
decorated as a church, later a mosque, and restored as a museum.
Cumhuriyet, a Turkish newspaper that supported Mustafa Kemal's secularism,
sponsored a Miss Turkey contest -- this is Keriman Halis who became first
Miss Turkey, then Miss Universe of 1932. King also describes several Turkish
feminists who participated in the development of women's rights in the new republic.
This richly detailed book has much more than I've been able to indicate, and I enjoyed reading it. Though written recently, it does not make explicit comparisons of historic events to recent events or trends, and in fact barely mentions the modern politics of Istanbul and Turkey in general.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Aromas and Tastes in Shafak's Istanbul

"Jahan trod behind Balaban. At each step the street smells intensified -- traces of jasmine mingling with the tang of the sea and the whiffs of food, briny and garlicky. Tamers learned a lot from their animals and there was one thing Chota [the elephant] had hammered into him: how to sniff better. So he paid more attention to these scents in the breeze, and after a while he caught a hint of perfumed oils from a house nearby." (The Architect's Apprentice, p. 211)
"Balaban's Gypsies, recently back from Thrace, would soon be heading southwards. Jahan decided to visit them before they left. They welcomed him like a long-lost brother. Tamarind sherbets were served, mouth-watering aromas surrounded them -- sour-grape molasses, goat's cheese, spinach pide, roasted meat." (p. 254)
The world of Jahan, title character in Elif Shafek's novel The Architect's Apprentice, was full of aromas and smells both pleasant and unpleasant. On his arrival with Chota the elephant at the Sultan's palace, he smelled a "putrid smell," and caught sight of "three gibbets ... Mounted on each was a severed head, silently rotting away...." Other aromas of death appear throughout the novel, along with more pleasant ones.

After observing the evidence of executions outside the gates of his new home, Jahan entered the area of the palace where he and his elephant were to live. A more experienced trainer, seeing the elephant's poor condition after his sea voyage, applied "some foul-smelling ointment to Chota's lumps, and wrapped his trunk with burlap full of crushed leaves and a fragrant resin that Jahan later on learned was called myrrh." (p. 29-31)

Aromas seemed to come up especially frequently when Jahan visited his Gypsy friends and their leader Balaban (as in the quotes above). At the end of the book one of the unexplained parts of his life becomes clear to him when he follows a special odor and links it to two of the characters that he had trusted, but shouldn't have -- but no details or I'd spoil it for you. And you should read it!

Istanbul as we saw it from a ferry boat during our trip in 2006.
Throughout the novel, foods often reveal the privileges of the palace where Jahan lived with the other animal tamers, and where he worked with the other apprentices of Sinan, the great architect. Food descriptions also indicate the privations during a siege when the elephant was part of the military effort, and illustrate Jahan's experiences in the harem and in brothels, and provide clues to many other circumstances. 

So many examples -- here are just a few:
"Along with her smile [Mihrimah] brought treats for the elephant -- not pears and apples but royal delicacies: figs with clotted cream and violet sherbet, marzipan topped with rose-petal jam or honeyed chestnuts, the last of which, Jahan knew, cost at least four aspers an okka." (p. 43)
"... he entered Mihrimah's mansion on the shores of the Bosphorus... Ordering dish after dish, she urged him to taste everything. Stewed mutton, stuffed vine leaves, prunes in syrup, sugared almonds of various colours. There was something on a tiny plate Jahan had never had before -- caviar." (p. 203)
"The festivities [for the circumcision of two princes] had been going on for days... Confectioners paraded with sugar-sculptures of man-eating sea creatures and birds with feathers of every colour. Up and down the streets, giant frames of flowers were displayed. So many sheep were butchered that the creek behind the slaughterhouses ran crimson. Pageboys scurried about, humping trays of rice dripping with fat from sheep's tails. those who'd had their bellies filled and quenched their thirst with sherbet were treated to zerde [rice sweetened with saffron and honey]. For once, the poor and the rich tucked into the same dishes." (p. 107-108)
"Stubborn and staunch, the count and his soldiers defended their citadel [at Szigetvar]. Days turned into weeks.... For food they had roasted millet, nuts, dried meat and a piece of hard mare's-milk cheese each. The flocks of sheep and goats that they had brought from Istanbul were waiting, ready to be slaughtered. How the enemy withstood the hunger and their diminishing numbers, Jahan could not say." (p. 232)
Perhaps the most dramatic of these descriptions is the one opportunity that the humble Jahan has to actually partake of a banquet given by the Sultan himself:
"Meanwhile the rest of the guests, including Jahan, were led into smaller rooms.... They were served wheat soup with a hunk of dark bread, which was so filling Jahan could have stopped eating there and then. But as soon as the crocks were taken away they were brought vine leaves  stuffed with meat, rice with pine nuts, chicken kebab, chicken with mushrooms, buttered lamb, fried pigeons, roasted partridges, lamb's feet, goose stuffed with apples, brined anchovies, a huge red fish from icy waters up north, borek with shredded meat, egg with onions. They were served hoshaf in bowls and lemonade in pitchers. His appetite now piqued by the delicious smells, Jahan tasted every dish... Then came the desserts: almond baklava, pear baked with ambergris, cherry pudding, ice-crushed sweetened wild strawberries and heaps of honeyed figs." (p. 280)
Oh how I enjoyed this delightful book! 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Magical Istanbul Now and Past: My Jumbled Impressions

The architect Sinan (1489-1588) designed and built some of the most beautiful buildings in the world. He also inspired others, including the famous Blue Mosque, or Sultanahmet mosque, depicted above, which was designed and built by the architect Sedefkâr Mehmed Ağa, a student of Sinan just after Sinan's lifetime, in the style Sinan invented.

Sinan was a featured character in the novel The Architect's Apprentice by Elif Shafak.  I was reading the novel when I saw the above photo of the Blue Mosque.  So my thoughts of Istanbul past and present are very mingled: my enjoyment of this rare and myth-like book... my memories of the fabulous sights I saw during my two trips to Istanbul... and the beautiful collection of photos taken in a rare snowstorm this week.

The snowstorm photos were posted on Facebook here  by Seref Ozen, a dealer in fabulous rugs. We visited his shop near this mosque in 2006, and I became his Facebook friend soon after that. The Istanbul that exists today, like the city in the novel is a magical place, unfortunately also full of problems maybe not that different from the ones in the novel.

Mihrimah's Mosque, designed and built by Sinan, is one of the many buildings discussed in The Architect's Apprentice.
On our 2006 visit, this mosque was closed because of earthquake damage, but we saw this view of the exterior.
Mihrimah was the daughter of Sultan Suliman the Magnificent and wife of the Sultan's official Rüstem Pasha. She plays a major role in the fictitious tale told by Elif Shafak. In the novel, the architect's apprentice, named Jahan, has an ongoing relationship with Mihrimah throughout her life -- entirely invented, and entirely wonderful to read. He's actively involved in the building of a number of Sinan's masterpieces, including the two depicted here. He's also the trainer and caregiver of a very intelligent white elephant, who becomes an endearing character in the tale.

I loved the plot, the human characters, the animal characters, and the descriptions in this novel, which is so charming that the reader doesn't have to stop and think about whether it's true to historical fact -- other than imagining the beautiful sights, aromas, and relationships, in the magical city of Istanbul.

Interior of the Rustem Pasha mosque: also by Sinan.
Photo from our 2006 visit.
I might write another post about the fantastic food writings in this novel, but for now, this is what I'm thinking about.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Escaping the Deep Cold of a Michigan Winter


The University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) is currently running an exhibit of Tibetan book covers, a type of art of which I was previously 100% unaware. Tibetan books consisted of a stack of unbound leaves of paper, which were evidently long and narrow -- none appeared in the exhibit. A book was stored between two decorated pieces of wood, and bound together to keep the entire book intact. Elaborate carved and painted decorations appeared on both sides of each piece of wood; sometimes elaborate designs were made to face the paper, in respect of the texts as well as facing outward. We were very fascinated, and Len took a number of close-ups of the carvings (above).

From the UMMA Website an image of an entire cover: "Shakyamuni, outer face, upper book cover, vol. 1,
Tibet, 14th–15th century, wood with traces of paint and gilding." Size: around 24 inches long.
In the libraries of Tibetan monasteries, each book bound in its covers would be stored in a kind of cubby-hole, and removed when it was to be read. During the cultural revolution, many of the covers were treated as trash and used as chopping blocks in kitchens. The documentation of the exhibit included no information about how these beautiful objects were recovered, restored, and collected by the private MacLean Collection.

This is what the documentation says:
"Protecting Wisdom: Tibetan Book Covers from the MacLean Collection is the first major exhibition to examine the subject of Tibetan book covers. For Tibetan Buddhists, books are a divine presence in which the Buddha lives and reveals himself, and they are venerated and handled with the utmost respect. The exhibition features thirty-three book covers dating from the eleventh to the eighteenth century that represent the glorious iconographic array and non-figural decoration typical of these sacred items. The majority of covers in the exhibition are Tibetan Buddhist, but the exhibition also includes a rare Bon-religion cover and two covers from Mongolia, as well as an important pair of covers produced circa 1411 for the Chinese Ming emperor Yongle. Protecting Wisdom presents a stunning visual display that illuminates a virtually unknown type of art, one that will charm and intrigue both those familiar and unfamiliar with Tibetan art." (source)
The entire exhibit was incredibly intriguing, as I had no previous exposure to this type of Tibetan art. We did not purchase a catalog, which might have more information. My web search didn't turn up much info either, except that the exhibit previously appeared in Dallas.

During the deeply cold weekend, we also tried a small Chinese dumpling restaurant. The dumplings are quite good and varied: we had tried them before as take-out, and like the lamb, beef, and pork fillings. However, the restaurant leaves much to be desired in the aspect of service. Suffice to say, we might get take-out but won't be eating-in there again!
Dumpling presentation: toss them on a plate. Your customers have been
waiting so long they won't care anyway.