• Two Stories

Two Stories

Posted by Richard on Monday, June 20, 2011 · Leave a Comment (Edit)
My first meal in Turkey was served with a blush. Landing at Istanbul my buddy Erdem had picked me up and whisked me to the curving harbour, known as “the Golden Horn,” for lunch among the food stalls. We wandered among oh-so-many seductive smells and sounds till we finally surrendered where a young woman, modestly dressed in long sleeves, long skirt and headscarf was working some kind of magic with potatoes and meat. She made a fuss over us as we took seats, and Erdem spoke briefly to her. She gave us a great pile of golden brown chips deep-fried in rich olive oil, sprinkled with coarse salt, cracked pepper and minced parsley. As we snacked on the chips the pretty young woman rolled spiced minced meat into balls, pressed them into flat oval shapes, then dipped them in batter and fried them. “What do you call these.” I asked her as she served us. Erdem translated, and she looked away with a secret smile. “Tell him,” Erdem urged her with a sly grin. Her face reddened as she looked at me and said, “We call them ‘lady’s thighs.’” (Kadin Budu) It can be a challenge to pin down and define Turkish cuisine, as it has so many long threads of contribution. But hospitality and whimsy are two hallmarks never missing.


Turkish history and cuisine have their beginnings in the Ussuri River basin in central Asia. They were a nomadic people, horsemen and breeders of livestock. Much of their food had to be items that could be carried on the march, portable and easy to prepare. Yogurt, cheese and flat breads were staples then as today. Foods that required no cooking were common, too, such as what has come to be known as Steak Tartare, raw minced meat tossed with herbs. Onions and garlic, being portable and tasty, found their way into almost everything.


As Turkic peoples migrated over centuries to what is now called Turkey they acquired other foods along the way. Encountering the Arabs they discovered two pillars of modern Turkish cuisine: rice and sugar. Rice provides an endless variety of pilafs, spiced with cinnamon or saffron, studded with currants or dates, often served alongside grilled or roasted meats such as kebabs or doner. The neighboring Greeks are astonished at the Turkish lust for pilaf and say that Turkish Heaven has no virgins or gardens of earthly delights but, rather, a mountain range of pilafs. The Turks embraced sugar immediately and developed an insatiable sweet tooth. With nomadic frugality and improvisation they mixed grains and beans with dried fruits and plenty sugar and milk to create Asure, known as Noah’s Pudding. Encountering quinces and other local fruits they pounded them with sugar and gelatin to make Loukoum, the rubbery candy known as Turkish Delight. Finding roses they pounded them with sugar to make Rosa Damascena (Rose Petal Jam). Pastries drizzled with sugar syrup include Lady’s Lips and Lady’s Navel and Seraglio Sweets.


Establishing themselves in the eastern Mediterranean the Turks began to carve out a huge, multi-ethnic empire in all directions. One happy result was that foods and preparations began to flow in from all directions. They learned more from the Greeks than any other people. They learned to make dolmas, which in Greece are stuffed vine leaves. But the Turks will stuff any vegetable and call it a dolma. Aubergine stuffed with tomatoes and baked in a bath of olive oil is called Imam Baiyildi (The Priest Swooned). Lahana Dolmasi is cabbage leaves stuffed with rice, lamb and herbs. Sweet peppers are stuffed with rice, artichokes with beans, courgettes with ground lamb then baked in a garlicy yogurt sauce.


The Turks were inspired to make the kinds of small plates that in Spain are called tapas and in Greece mezedes. Turks call them mezes, and here eye appeal is supreme. Salads and dips and spreads and little morsels wrapped in leaves are chosen as much for colour, texture and shape as for taste. They are often taken with raki, the anise flavoured national drop that the abstemious Muslims are pleased to make an exception for. Or you may prefer Turkish coffee. You’ll love it or hate it. It’s so thick and grainy that you don’t really sip it, you just break off a piece and chew. Excellent Turkish black tea is a good alternative. Try it with the whimsical sweet fried dough known as Vizier’s Finger. You’ll find that in Turkey it’s quite nice to be given the finger.


After 40 days and 40 nights afloat in the ark, Noah and his family were running low on food. So they gathered everything that was to hand and mixed it with sugar and called it Asure. They ate it for dinner and washed it down with the last of their beer. Next day they landed on Mount Ararat.

—Turkish legend


The Devil walked on the Earth one day. Where his right foot stepped onions grew. Where his left foot stepped garlic grew. Nevertheless, both are good for food.

—Turkish proverb


He who eats sweets will talk sweet.

—Turkish proverb

Posted by Richard on Monday, June 20, 2011 · Leave a Comment (Edit)
When we think of Spain it’s always bullfights and guitars, Gypsy dancers, romantic men on horseback, Don Quixote. And the vibrant Spanish cuisine! With its iconic ingredients such as fat sweet tomatoes, vividly red sweet peppers and paprika, thickly brewed hot chocolate, snowy potatoes and creamy avocadoes. Without these and a long list of other foods the Spanish kitchen would be bereft. And yet before the voyages of Columbus they were all unknown to Spain.


The conquistadores are infamous for having plundered the New World of its gold and silver. But at the same time they were bringing back things far more important, more lasting and all to the good. They brought back the foods that have come to help define the taste of Spain. Some of them even have their names attached to them. Amédée Frézier was a French soldier in the employ of the Spanish crown. He returned from Chile with one of the ancestors of the modern strawberry, which his countrymen called the “fraise du Chili.” The Spanish word for strawberry is “fresa.”


All over Spain regional favorite dishes are made with these New World crops. While hot chiles are are eschewed my most Spaniards, the Galicians love “tigres rabiosos,” mussels stewed in hot paprika. The Catalans would cry foul if their “anguillas,” baby eels, were not stoked liberally with red pepper flakes. And their famous Romesco Sauce would not exist without tomatoes. People everywhere love “bacalao al pil pil,” salt cod with chile pepper.


Other crops crop up everywhere. In La Mancha the favorite vegetable casserole, “pisto Manchego,” is made from tomatoes and squash. Fried squash blossoms are a delicacy. Beans are New World crops, and one of Spain’s best loved dishes, “fabada,” is a pot of beans with a variety of cured meats. The Christmas turkey is almost as common in Spain as it is in America. There would be no paella without tomatoes and peppers. And Spain just wouldn’t be Spain without chocolate.


Before what is often called the “Columbus Exchange” Spain’s cuisine was based chiefly on three Old World crops: olive, bread and wine. Nowadays we might say that they make up the canvass, and the New World crops the colours in what has become the bright picture of Spanish cookery. Perhaps Andalucia is the best region of Spain to see, and taste, that transformation of a nation’s cuisine by the introduction of New World crops.


Gazpacho Andaluz is the quintessential dish. Often thought of by foreigners as simply a cold tomato soup, it is a window on the Columbus Exchange. Spanish peasants have always been frugal, and would not throw out dry bread or even bread crumbs. For centuries they would combine, in a vessel called a gazpachera, bread crumbs, olive oil, garlic, maybe a dash of wine vinegar and a pinch of salt. Cooked together with a bit of milk it made a hearty breakfast porridge. After Columbus they replaced the milk with crushed tomatoes, dispensed with the cooking and, Ole! Gazpacho was born!


Andalucia is where “tapas” most important in cuisine. Tapas are not things to eat. Tapas are a uniquely Spanish way to eat things. Basically, you eat small portions, usually with your fingers, standing at the bar, and in the kind of conviviality that can only be found in Spain. “Pan con tomate,” tomato bread, combines one part of the canvass and one of the colours of Spain’s cuisine. “Patatas bravas,” a dish of creamy boiled potatoes drenched with a rich tomato sauce dispenses with the canvass altogether and lets you eat pure colour.


Perhaps the best place in all of Spain to enjoy Tapas is Andalucia’s principal city, Sevilla. There are more “tascas,” tapas bars, per capita there than anywhere. Here the colourful art of the tapa could excite the envy of other Spanish painters such as Goya. Some of the best tascas there are along Calle Betis, leading to the Tirana district, the birthplace of Flamenco music and dance.


In Jerez, the source of most of the world’s true sherry wine, tapas are concocted to match the dry and assertive “fino,” the region is so famous for. It’s a perfect foil for “patatas alioli,” sliced potatoes layered with garlic mayonnaise.


In Malaga Province we have the Costa del Sol. There are miles and miles of white sand beaches, and miles and miles of British tourists. And even here the Columbus Exchange is at work. One of the most popular foods along the coast is fish and chips. That couldn’t be done without the Columbus Exchange. Then of course there is tobacco. Big fat cigars are a favorite way to end a meal.


And then there is Cadiz. Just down the estuary from where the Admiral of the Ocean Seas embarked on his first voyage across the Atlantic. Everywhere you look you will see the Columbus Exchange. There is tapioca as a sweet; paprika flavours meats, butter and lard; corn (maize) is made into a pudding; tomatoes or beans or potatoes find there way into virtually every meal of the day. And it didn’t stop with Columbus and the conquistadores. Don’t forget the recent arrival of hamburgers!


Best places in Andalucia to enjoy tapas:


La Albariza at #6 Calle Betis, Sevilla. Upturned wine barrels serve as tables upon which are served Tortilla Espanola, a rich potato omelet taken in small wedges with a cold beer. And chorizo, a pork sausage well spiced with fiery paprika.


Cerveceria Giralda at #1 Calle Mateos Gago, Sevilla. This former Muslim bath house is now a beloved beer hall with good things to eat.


La Canita at Calle Porvera #11 specializes in “montaditos,” a slice of bread with something tasty on it. The something varies with season and whim.


Taberna San Francisco Uno at #1 Plaza San Francisco, Cadiz, is an old stone-built place for wine and a bite.


Antigua Casa de Guardia at #18 Alameda Central, Malaga is on of the oldest establishments in town.


Recipe for Gazpacho Andaluz


Gazpacho Andaluz (Andalucian Gazpacho)

2 Slices white bread, crusts removed

1 Kilo ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, chopped

2 Cloves garlic

6 Tablespoons olive oil

3 Tablespoons sherry vinegar

1 Tablespoon salt

50 CL ice water


Soak the bread in cold water for one hour, then squeeze it dry. Combine all ingredients with 12 CL of the ice water in a mortar with pestle, or in a food processor, and grind together till smooth. Strain through a sieve. Refrigerate 2 hours. Stir in enough of the remaining ice water to obtain a soupy consistency.