In what will be a first for New England and perhaps even the rest of the United States, Boston is about to get its very own Uyghur food truck. Although the truck won't have an onboard noodle maker turning out plates of lagman, the truck -- which is scheduled to hit the streets in the coming days -- will be serving Uyghur style kebabs, sold on skewers or inside wraps.
The truck, Uyghur Kitchen, is the brainchild of Payzulla Polat, a professional musician currently studying music production and engineering at Boston's Berklee School of Music and who originally hails from the Uyghur city of Urumqi. I recently reached out to Polat, who is busy with the various last-minute details that need attention before his truck is ready to roll, to find out more about his groundbreaking project. Our conversation is below:
How did you get the idea for a Uyghur food truck?
When I was a student in Los Angeles back in 2008, most days I got lunch from the food truck next to my school. They served really delicious doner kebabs and they were really cheap compared to regular restaurants. After eating there several times, I became a big food truck fan, and always pictured myself opening a Uyghur food truck in the future. It's the perfect idea for Uyghur kebabs as they're easy to make and easy to eat on the go. Other big reasons for starting a food truck are the relatively low investment costs for a new business and the movable location, which will make it accessible to more people.
Besides your truck, are there any other places in Boston to get Uyghur food?
Right now there are no restaurants in the New England area where you can find Uyghur food. I constantly hear about people looking for Uyghur food in the area, especially in Boston, but they haven't found any yet.
Do you feel like Boston’s food scene is ready to support the arrival of Uyghur food?
Although the rules of conflict forbid the targeting of civilians, that hasn't stopped Russia and Ukraine from punishing each other's populations with a very cruel method: cutting off access to beloved chocolate and candy brands.
Moscow fired the first shot in this confectionary war, placing a ban last summer on chocolates, candies and cookies made by Roshen, a Ukrainian company that is one of Europe's largest manufacturers of sweets and whose products have a large and devoted following in Russia. As the New York Times explained last October: "Roshen was doing so well in Russia partly because it introduced a Russian Classic line of chocolates, reviving 18 Soviet brands like the Seagull bar, a plain milk chocolate slab with a Socialist Realist style beach scene on the wrapper."
"Alternative" tourism is all the rage these days. Rio has its favela tours and New York its organized outings to the outer boroughs in search of obscure ethnic cuisines. And what about Istanbul? Well, perhaps the city should start thinking about offering excursions that allow visitors to take in what is becoming Istanbul's newest claim to fame: it's profusion of environmentally, aesthetically and legally dubious megaprojects.
Several recent articles and online projects are certainly making virtual tours of Istanbul's megaprojects -- grand construction schemes that are very much at the heart of the recent corruption scandals that rocked Turkey -- possible. A new article from the Istanbul-based Cornucopia magazine offers an introduction to Istanbul's "ten most gruesome development projects," from the new bridge across the Bosphorus to plans for a mall to be built on the spot where the city's most iconic movie theater now stands. The Megaprojeleristanbul.com site, meanwhile, offers an interactive map that gives a detailed look (in Turkish only) at many more of the big projects being built across Istanbul. Networks of Dispossession, another site, goes a bit more high-concept, with spider web-like maps that attempt to trace the relationship between all the different companies involved in Istanbul's megaprojects.
When Turkey's parliament last summer passed a new law that curtailed when and where alcohol can be sold and also placed new limits on booze advertising, wine and beer manufacturers expressed concern about how these new restrictions might impact their bottom line.
Almost a year later, it would appear that this concern was justified. As the Hurriyet Daily News reports, the recent decision by Efes, Turkey's largest beer maker, to shut down one of its breweries, is highlighting wider difficulties facing Turkey's liquor industry. From the HDN's article:
Players in the sector, especially wine producers, are feeling the pressure of tough regulations as alcohol fights to survive in a tough environment.
Anadolu Efes, which has faced setbacks in its main markets in Turkey and Russia due to legal regulations, announced April 2 that it had decided to shut down its Lüleburgaz factory in the northwestern province of Kırklareli, four months after closing two breweries in Russia.
The beer market in Turkey shrank by 12 percent in 2013 after Turkey banned alcohol advertising and tightened restrictions on its sale. Price hikes in the market stemming from the rise in Special Consumption Tax (ÖTV) caused a further retreat in the company’s revenues. Beer makes up 90 percent of alcoholic beverage consumption in Turkey, which fell to just over 1 billion liters in 2013 from 1.12 billion liters in 2012.
Selim Ellialtı, the owner of wine producer Suvla, said the sector’s morale had long been hurt by the government’s strict regulations.
By now, Turks have grown accustomed to being cast in the role of bit players in the one-man show, starring Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that Turkish politics have become. This was perhaps best illustrated during the recent municipal election campaign, where the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) rallies starred Erdogan rather than the local candidate, who, almost like an afterthought, was usually brought on stage after the PM's long speech to quietly wave at the crowd while standing in his leader's shadow.
Having successfully worked through the drama of the corruption allegations against him and his inner circle to emerge victorious in Sunday's vote, Erdogan is now facing something of a Hamlet moment: namely, to run or not to run in the August election for President?
After the AKP's strong win in the 2011 parliamentary elections, it was assumed that since his party's bylaws would keep him from running for a fourth term as PM, Erdogan's next move would be into the presidential palace, albeit after pushing through a new constitution that would grant the President increased powers. But since the AKP's efforts at constitutional reform and at creating a more powerful presidency have faltered, the new thinking has been that Erdogan is likely to push the AKP to scrap its term limit bylaws, which would allow him to remain PM and for the current President, Abdullah Gul, to run for reelection in August.
Keme, aka the "Mesopotamian Truffle," is a vaguely potato-like fungi that grows this time of year in the arid lands of southeastern Turkey and which local chefs have for centuries been using in seasonal dishes, especially kebab.
Turkish scientists have ascribed all kinds of miracle powers to the humble keme, but its strange magic can mostly be witnessed by the effect it has on kebab lovers, who eagerly await its short-lived appearance every spring. A good example is a recent dispatch from the Turkish city of Gaziantep by the EatingAsia blog's Robyn Eckhardt, who was lucky enough to score some skewers of keme at one of the city's most celebrated kebab spots. From her report:
This being spring, Şirvan is featuring seasonal keme mantari (desert "truffles", big knobby fungi that grow beneath the ground) on its kebap menu, making the most of the fungi by mincing them together with lamb and lamb fat (the basis of any good kebab is plenty of fat minced into the meat) and then skewering logs of the mince between chunks of truffle. Few Antep kebapci serve keme, and Şirvan's go fast. We score the last two skewers of the day, and feel lucky. The keme are deeply earthy but not overpowering, and the chewiness of the whole specimens is a fine complement to the tender, melting meat-and-mushroom mince.
Those who are in Istanbul and want to try keme without going to Gaziantep can head over to Ciya, on the city's Asian side, which is serving the seasonal speciality (along with several other hard to find ones) for the next few weeks.
Sunday's local elections in Turkey might have yielded results, but they offered very little in the way of resolution for a deeply divided Turkey -- far from it, in fact. Considering that the opposition is challenging the vote's final tally in several spots, most importantly in Ankara, and that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees his party's strong showing in the polls as an affirmation of his divisive brand of politics, Turkey, with presidential elections coming up this summer and parliamentary ones in the beginning of 2015, is looking at a near future filled with more polarization and further domestic upheaval.
Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) won an estimated 45 percent of the total vote and held on (unless recounts prove otherwise) to Istanbul and Ankara, set the tone for the upcoming long election season with a victory speech that promised vengeance for those who targeted his party before the election with leaks of recordings that linked the PM and his inner circle with high-level corruption. "From now on, we’ll walk into their dens. They will pay for this," Erdogan said in a speech that was dismissive of the entire opposition in general.
Turkey watchers in Washington were afforded a rare sighting a few months back: the first ever appearance in the city by the head of the Republican People's Party (CHP), the main Turkish opposition party.
The visit by the party leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a mild-mannered former bureaucrat, was dismissed by many as ineffective (to be fair, it's hard to be noticed when your adversary is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan). But the underlying point of the trip was worth noting -- after years of wandering in the political wilderness, mostly through its own doing, and of being dismissed at home and abroad as utterly hopeless, the CHP was again trying to make itself relevant.
Checking in with Washington was a welcome move, but, of course, becoming politically relevant in Turkey requires, well, succeeding in Turkey. In that sense, Sunday's local elections will provide a crucial test for the CHP's efforts to revitalize the party and present itself as a credible alternative to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Failure by the CHP to score some solid victories at the polls -- holding on to Izmir, winning either Ankara or Istanbul and boosting its share of the national vote -- will put into question not only its future viability as an opposition party, but will also have profound implications for the future of democratic politics in Turkey.
Turkish politics have entered a surreal vortex where every day produces evermore shocking developments in such a dizzying rate that yesterday's mind-blowing news is quickly forgotten.
Today is a perfect example: it started with with the unsettling sounds of a Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking at an election rally with a voice so strained that he sounded like he had just inhaled a balloonful of helium, moved on to the truly shocking news of the posting online of a recording of a high-level national security meeting where a possible false flag operation to allow Turkey to invade Syria was discussed, and then ended with the announcement that access to YouTube (where the recording was posted) had just been blocked by the government. In other words, just another day in today's Turkey.
Despite its citizens going to the polls in the wake of military coups, economic crashes and other crises, Turkey has managed to develop a strong record of running free and fair elections since the country ended one-party rule in 1950. But with local polls being held on Sunday in the midst of a particularly heated and deeply polarized political fight between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition, there are growing questions about whether this vote will end Turkey's streak of untainted elections.
Over the last few weeks and months, the amount of rumors and questions surrounding the sanctity of Sunday's elections has been quickly increasing (a good example can be found here). The reason for this is clear: the AKP and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after a decade of easy electoral victories are suddenly finding themselves fighting the most intense and complex political battle they have yet to face and have staked their legitimacy to winning big at the ballot box. Failing to score a decisive victory on Sunday, by losing in Istanbul or Ankara or by failing to win more than 40 percent of the national vote, is a scenario that Erdogan -- based on the level of invective he is using against his opponents -- is clearly not wiling to consider.