Along with covering figure skating, luge and skiing, the Sochi winter games are providing some outlets with the opportunity to create some confusion about the provenance of some Caucasian culinary specialties.
Take the case of khachapuri, that most Georgian of dishes (or so you'd think). Not according to the Annapolis, Maryland Capital Gazette, which in it's "Foraging for Flavor: A Taste of Sochi" feature, offers up a picture of khachapuri with a headline that reads "Russian cheese bread."
Meanwhile, on the website of clothing maker American Eagle, a travel blog posting about Sochi offers up a sampling of "Russian Delicacies," among them not only khachapuri, but also khinkali, the classic Georgian dumpling. (The original post appears to have been taken down, perhaps due to a Georgian outcry, but a cached version can be found here.)
Of course, considering the history of the region and historic tensions between Russia and Georgia, the confusion over who can claim khachapuri as their own has touched a raw nerve among Georgians. Says a local Kebabistan source in Tbilisi: "I have seen Georgians posting photos of churchela [a confection made out of grape molasses and walnuts], etc. on Facebook with reminders to journalists that these are Georgian foods. Attributing these foods to Sochi or to Russia is being seen in Georgia as just another example of Russia trying to steal things that belong to Georgia, and managing to deceive clueless foreign journalists."
By now, it's not secret that Turkey -- although blessed with a very long coastline and a cuisine heavy on seafood -- is slowly losing its fish stocks. In fact, as one article pointed out a few years back, the mackerel served in the iconic fish sandwiches along Istanbul's Golden Horn is today most likely hails from Norway, having arrived from there as a frozen filet.
So what's causing the fish in Turkey to disappear? Reuter's takes a look in an article today:
Over fishing, illegal netting and pollution threaten the industry. Anchovy production, which accounts for around two-thirds of the annual catch, fell by 28 percent in 2012, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute.
In a bid to replenish stocks, the government has banned fishing in the summer months when fish reproduce and says it is tightening supervision. But it appears too little, too late.
"Twenty years ago, you put your arm in the water you could pull out fish - there were so many," said Osman Korkmaz, a 53-year-old fisherman who has fished the Bosphorus Strait and Marmara Sea for 40 years.
Aylin Ulman, a researcher with the University of British Columbia's Sea Around Us Project, conducted more than 150 interviews with Turkish fishermen from May through July to determine how Turkey's fisheries have changed.
The number of commercial species in Turkey's fishing areas has fallen to just five or six from more than 30 in the 1960s, she said, based on her survey and catch data Turkey provided to the United Nations from 1967 to 2010.
With all the attention focused on the negotiations over Iran's controversial nuclear program, it's easy to miss some of the other important developments in that country, and by that I mean the burger boom that's taking place in Tehran.
Someone who's been on top of that meaty story is the Washington Post's Jason Rezaian, who recently filed a superb report from Tehran about the city's profusion of burger joints. Here's a taste of his article:
Greasy burger joints have been part of Tehran’s fast-food landscape for decades, even in the years just after the 1979 Islamic revolution, when any symbol of U.S. culture was denounced as an example of “Westoxification.” Those eateries were mostly in downtown working-class neighborhoods, serving laborers in need of a blast of calories or students watching their budgets.
Now, though, high-end burger restaurants are suddenly popping up across the city, making the gut-busting American institution — and the quest for the best burger — the latest trend in Tehran dining.
Facebook pages dedicated to local hamburger outlets debate their relative merits, comparing them to McDonald’s, In-N-Out, Burger King and other U.S. chains. That fascination with brands has resulted in such blatant rip-offs as McAli’s, Superstar — conspicuously similar in appearance to Carl’s Jr. — and even a place calling itself Five Guys.
I recently sent Rezaian, who's been based in Tehran since 2009, a few questions to get a bit more of the backstory of this Iranian culinary awakening. Our exchange is below:
One of the culinary trends to take hold in Istanbul over the last few years is the appearance of several restaurants promising "Ottoman palace" cuisine, with menus made up of dishes, based on recipes dug up in archives, that the chefs swear are no different than what the sultans themselves ate.
These claims, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt. Considering Ottoman palace cooks probably didn't leave behind cookbooks for today's chefs to work with, are there really that many researchers out there who are poring over archival material to somehow reconstruct what went into the sultans' favorite dishes? And are there that many chefs with the skills to translate both what the researchers are coming up with and the sultans' notoriously finicky tastes into actual dishes that will appeal to today's palates?
Can neo-Ottoman cuisine, then, be anything more than tarted up traditional Turkish dishes served in dining room with overstuffed chairs and gaudy decor? That's the question doctoral candidate Pinar Tremblay tackles in an interesting piece she wrote for the Al-Monitor website, tying it in with the same questions raised by the rise of Turkey's neo-Ottoman foreign policy. From her article:
Unlike other things, when it comes to fish, size does matter. That's certainly the argument that Fikir Sahibi Damaklar ("Sophisticated Palates," Istanbul's Slow Food chapter) has been making for the last few years, since it started a campaign to save the local population of lufer (bluefish) by asking Istanbulites to make sure they only sell, cook or eat fish that are larger than 24 centimeters, which is the size at which they can start to reproduce.
The campaign has been both successful, with the government responding to it by raising the size limit on bluefish from 14 cm. to 20 cm., and controversial, leading to infighting among commercial fisherman (for more, check out this previous Eurasianet article).
To raise regional awareness about the issue of overfishing, Fikir Sahibi Damaklar is organizing a four-day "Slow Fish" conference that will take place in Istanbul October starting October 17. Culinary Backstreets caught up with Defne Koryurek, who runs the Slow Food Istanbul chapter, to interview her about the conference and her group's efforts to save Istanbul's threatened lufer. From the interview:
How did the idea for the Slow Fish conference come about?
It was Fikir Sahibi Damaklar who decided to do this event, and it is mainly because we've been campaigning for fish, particularly for our beloved lüfer, or bluefish, for the last 4 years.
The Wall Street Journal has a great story about the travails of the makers of Nosh, a beer whose name in means "cheers!" in Kurdish (and, interestingly, "to snack" in Yiddish).
Brewed in Romania to be marketed in Turkey (perhaps with the idea of appealing to Kurdish-minded tipplers), the beer has suddenly found itself locked out of the market after government officials cancelled Nosh's import license. From the WSJ's story:
Company CEO Nurettin Keske said he had already sunk $600,000 into producing almost 40,000 bottles of Kurdish-branded beer in Romania, and imported them to be distributed and sold to Turkish consumers. Although the permissions still existed in writing, Mr. Keske concluded it would have been too risky for him to make sales agreements with distributors.
“A representative from the ministry called me and said that all of the necessary permissions to import Nosh were cancelled. We had to either drink all the beer or dispose of it,” added Mr. Keske who opted to transport the bottles back to Romania on Tuesday after storing them in a depot in Istanbul for over two months.
The Ministry of Agriculture declined to comment on the case, saying that they could not verify whether permissions had been cancelled due to technical reasons. The representative added that it was “unlikely” that the ministry will respond later on the issue, either.
The curious case of Keske Gida comes as Turkey’s government has reached a crucial stage of a peace process aimed at providing greater autonomy and language rights for the country’s 15 million Kurds to end a three decade conflict which has claimed some 40,000 lives.
Some Kurdish businessmen called on the Agriculture Ministry to explain the reason for the alleged cancellation of permission to import, or risk the perception that there was discrimination against Kurdish language.
While the recent lifting of the Russian embargo on Georgian wine was a cause for celebration -- both for Russian consumers, who had to go without their favorite bottles of Saperavi for some seven years, and for Georgian winemakers, who had to make due after losing access to a large market with a less-than-discerning wine palette -- questions are being about just how much of an impact this development will have on the Georgian economy.
From a report in the Financial, a Georgian economic news website:
"We do not expect these developments to have a tangible bearing on Georgia's creditworthiness in the near term," said Standard & Poor's credit analyst Ana Jelenkovic. "But they could lead to improvements in key economic and external indicators over the medium to longer term."
Thanks to sweeping new alcohol regulations passed by their parliament a few months ago, Turkish drinkers have had to come to terms with having greater restrictions on where and during what time they can buy a drink. Now, as part of the new law, they will also have to learn that alcohol is no longer their friend. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
Signs warning about the possible harms of alcohol consumption will be placed on the bottles of alcoholic beverages within 10 months, according to a statement published in the Official Gazette Aug. 11.
The statement about the warning labels to be put on alcoholic beverage packages, which was released by the Tobacco and Alcohol Market Regulatory Authority (TAPDK), specified three graphic warning signs and a written message to be placed on bottles containing alcohol.
Pictures will involve warnings against consumption under the age of 18, before driving and during pregnancy, while the written message will read, “Alcohol is not your friend.”
Georgian wine and produce may again be appearing in Russian stores after Moscow lifted its seven-year long embargo, but the products remain the potential victims of regional politics. Case in point the recent news that a top Russian official has warned that the presence of a United States-funded bio research lab in Georgia could have a "limiting effect" on the import of Georgian wine.
The $150-million lab, the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research, was opened several years ago and is designed to help Georgia do research on infectious diseases. But Russia's "chief sanitary doctor" sees it differently, suggesting that cases of Georgian wine might also come with cases of African Swine Fever and other illnesses. Reports the Civil.ge website:
Just few months after Russia dropped embargo on Georgian wines and mineral waters, its chief sanitary doctor warned that presence of the U.S.-funded bio lab in Tbilisi would have “sharply limiting effect” on bilateral trade ties.
Gennady Onishchenko, head of Russia’s state consumer protection agency RosPotrebNadzor, which ordered ban on import of Georgian products to Russia in 2006, told Interfax news agency on July 20 that the laboratory represents “a powerful offensive potential.”
“Russia deems it to be a direct violation of BWC [Biological Weapons Convention],” Onishchenko was quoted by Interfax.
The other day I wrote about the latest disturbing urban development in Istanbul, the bulldozing of centuries-old vegetable gardens alongside the city's historic Byzantine-era walls. Writing for the Atlantic Cities website, Istanbul-based journalist Jennifer Hattam adds more color to the story:
In the shadows of the 1,500-year-old fortifications ringing Istanbul’s historic core, farmers push wheelbarrows of freshly harvested greens through small vegetable gardens, continuing a centuries-long tradition in the area. This past week, however, the farmers watched in dismay as bulldozers moved into the Yedikule neighborhood, dumping trash-strewn dirt and rubble onto the fertile soil of two of those gardens.
"I don’t know what we’ll do, where we’ll go if our land gets destroyed as well. We don’t have anything else," says one woman who works a nearby plot along with her husband, scraping out a living selling their chard, corn, radishes, purslane, and herbs at Istanbul’s wholesale fruit and vegetable market.
Like many of the people currently farming along the old city walls, the couple are migrants from Turkey’s Black Sea coast, who have followed in the footsteps of the Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians, and Albanians who tended the land before them. The specific gardens currently being razed have been identified on a map dating back to 1786, but historical sources indicate that small-scale agriculture was present in the area not long after the UNESCO-designated city walls were built in the 400s.