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?
Like a tsunami that arrives without any warning, the confection known as "trilece" -- a sponge cake soaked in a creamy milk bath -- has taken Istanbul's dessert scene by storm over the last few years. From ritzy uptown patisseries to humble old city kofte joints, the dessert seems to be everywhere.
But where did it come from? That's the difficult question Culinary Backstreets tries to answer in a story posted today. Trilece (pronounced "tree-leche"), as the name implies, is connected to the famous Latin American tres leches cake. But the one that has taken over Istanbul hails from the Balkans, creating something of a mystery about how a cake with South American roots worked its way through the Balkans and into the pastry shops of Istanbul. From Culinary Backstreets' story:
We’ve been following the movement of trileçe all over the city and it is spreading fast. Just in the past couple of years, it has made its debut in sweetshops, from modern Etiler all the way down to the historic Grand Bazaar. There are wholesalers of this cake supplying restaurants all over town. Tuğra Restaurant, at the Çırağan Palace Kempinski hotel on the Bosphorus, includes it on the menu as a signature dish. But even more significantly, trileçe has breached the seemingly impenetrable bulwark against fads, working its way into even Köfteci Arnavut, a third-generation, exceedingly old-school meatball shop where the menu has not changed since 1947.
Today marks the start of Nowruz (or "new day"), the Persian New Year celebration, a 13-day holiday which involves some very deep and specific culinary traditions. NPR's "The Salt" blog takes a look at the most important one, the setting of the traditional haftseen table:
Nowruz begins at the stroke of the vernal equinox, when the sun crosses the equator. Today (March 20), spring will come at 12:57 p.m. EDT. At that precise moment, millions of families of Iranian descent will gather around a ceremonial table known as the haftseen. (Think colorful, elaborate Day Of The Dead-type altars meet a mashup of Easter and Passover traditions.) Young and old hold hands and count down to the New Year together and cheer Eide Shoma Mobarak, or Happy New Year!
The haftseen table is a relatively recent addition to Nowruz – a folksy tradition with murky beginnings. "We do not even find this spread mentioned in the chronicles of travelers to Iran up to the modern times," says Ahmad Sadri, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Lake Forest College and an expert on ancient Persia.
Haftseen "seems to have come into vogue only in the last century, owing to publicity in the media," according to Columbia University's extensive entry in its Encyclopedia Iranica.
And yet, "its essential items perfectly afford reasonable explanation as the reflections of the pastoral and sedentary conditions of ancient Iranians and of their beliefs."
In every home, the haftseen table is decorated with seven items – since seven is considered a lucky number. Each item begins with the letter sin (s) in Persian, and each item is a symbol of spring and renewal, including:
Seeb (apple), representing beauty
Seer (garlic), representing good health
Carlo Catani, an activist with the Slow Food movement, was at a wine show in Italy two years ago tasting some bottles from Georgia when an idea struck him: what if he were able to convince Italian winemakers to make wine using the traditional Georgian method of fermenting it in large clay vessels known as kvevri?
The initial idea was something of a joke, says Catani, who works on promoting wine culture in his native region of Romagna. But the more he thought about it, the more intrigued he was about the idea. “We talked to some producers in our region, and 15 of them agreed to try doing it. Our goal was to help spread Georgian wine culture, but another goal was to get the producers to collaborate among themselves, which was something they usually didn’t do. This was the only way they could make this kind of wine in a good way,” Catani says.
And so was born what is still an ongoing experiment – to make Italian wine with a Georgian accent (or is it Georgian wine with an Italian accent)?
The experiment is not so far fetched, Catani says. Turns out making wine in clay vessels was once done in Italy – in Roman times, that is. “The Romans stopped using this method more or less after the Barbarian invasion. After that they started using wooden barrels,” he explains. “So we more or less have some 1,500 years of a gap in using kvevris. The Georgians have been using kvevris from the beginning, from when wine grapes were domesticated until now. So they have good knowledge in how to use this.”
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:
Yerevan-based Marianna Grigoryan finished 2013 off with what might be Eurasianet's wildest story of the year: an article about one Armenian supermarket that is offering up an entire smoked crocodile as an item for the traditional New Year's feast.
Here's a taste of her great article:
Situated on a bed of lettuce and lemons on a counter in SAS supermarket’s meat department, the 12-kilogram, 90-centimeter-long crocodile, imported from the United States, weighs in at the staggering price of 380,000 drams, or $940; roughly twice the amount of the average monthly salary.
“Who can afford such luxury?” fumed 48-year-old Yerevan dressmaker Silva Alexanian. “Once the markets used to be full with people before New Year’s nowadays; now they are empty. People have either left the country, or cannot afford celebrating New Year’s. Most of them hope for the money their relatives working abroad send them.”
With roughly one-third of Armenia’s approximate population of 3 million people now officially living in poverty, for some, the crocodile symbolizes all that has gone wrong economically with this South Caucasus country since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Migration has increased by 12 percent this year, while remittances increased fivefold in the first six months of the year to $1.2 billion, according to official data.
Grigoryan's smoked crocodile tale was so intriguing that I followed up with to get more details about the story and some of the economic and sociological background to it. Our exchange is below:
I recently had the opportunity to travel to the area around eastern Turkey's Erzincan, for a story about local dairy making traditions in the home village of Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of the very successful Chobani yogurt brand. That story, from which the photos in the above slideshow were taken, can be found here.
A recent New Yorker profile of Ulukaya, who went from shepherd boy in the mountains near Erzincan to prosperous entrepreneur in the United States, can be found here.
What does kvevri, the Georgian method of making wine inside large clay vessels buried in the ground, have in common with the traditional Chinese use of the abacus and an Indian style of singing and dancing known as sankirtana? Until recently nothing. But on December 4 all three (plus several other traditions from around the world) were added to UNESCO's list of "Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding."
From UNESCO's description of the kvevri (or "qvevri," as it is sometimes spelled) tradition (which also includes a slideshow worth looking at):
Qvevri wine-making is practised throughout Georgia, particularly in village communities where unique varieties of grapes are grown. The Qvevri is an egg-shaped earthenware vessel used for making, ageing and storing the wine. Knowledge and experience of Qvevri manufacture and wine-making are passed down by families, neighbours, friends and relatives, all of whom join in communal harvesting and wine-making activities....Wine plays a vital role in everyday life and in the celebration of secular and religious events and rituals. Wine cellars are still considered the holiest place in the family home. The tradition of Qvevri wine-making defines the lifestyle of local communities and forms an inseparable part of their cultural identity and inheritance, with wine and vines frequently evoked in Georgian oral traditions and songs.
Fast food entrepreneur Kadir Nurman recently died in Germany, leaving this world with what may be one of the finest titles ever bestowed on any man: "Inventor of the doner kebab."
Nurman, born in Istanbul, was part of the wave of Turkish migrants who came to Germany as "guest workers" in the 1960's and 70's. Settling in West Berlin, he set a food stall selling sandwiches of grilled meat sliced off a vertical spit and, as they say, the rest is history. Or is it? As the Guardian points out in an article written in the wake of Nurman's death, attributing the "invention" of doner to him might be a bit misleading. From the Guardian:
The doner – or shawarma or gyros, as it's also known –differs from other familiar kebabby preparations, such as shish, by being layered up on a spit and grilled vertically. This in itself wasn't particularly novel; 18th-century Ottoman travel books talk of meat being cooked this way, while in the kebab's spiritual home of Bursa, the vertically grilled Iskender is perhaps Turkey's finest mouthful.
Nurman's supposed innovation came in sticking the shaved pieces of meat into a flatbread with the saladings, making kebabs a moveable feast for busy Berliners. Until then, in theory, they had been shoved on a plate. While few seem convinced by Nurman's claim to have invented what is essentially a sandwich, in 2011 a slightly mysterious Berlin-based organisation called the Association of Turkish Doner Manufacturers made it official, and so it passed into history.
After centuries of being looked down on as wine’s poor moonshine cousin, Georgian chacha is finally getting the chance to unveil its smoother, more urbane self.
Created by distilling the waste left over from making wine, chacha is better known for its powerful punch and “medicinal” value than its taste – making it an odd choice to showcase at the rebirth of the Mtatsminda restaurant, a former icon of Tbilisi culinary life that reopened this summer for the first time in nearly two decades.
But its legacy as a purely Georgian beverage tempted a team of consulting drinkmasters from the United Kingdom, brought in by the GMT Group to create a tableau of Georgian cocktails for Mtatsminda’s new Funicular Lounge.
A grappa-like drink made from the grape skins and pulp left over from wine production, chacha normally clocks in at around 60 proof and is consumed neat, in 100 ml shots to fight off colds and/or catch a fast buzz by Georgians of nearly every age, sex, and economic class. Those who are too young to drink it are, in western Georgia at least, forced to rub it on their arms and legs to fight off the sting of mosquitos in the summer.
The clear, sweet smelling liquor is so popular the Saakashvili administration decided to build a tower in its honor in a bid to attract tourists to Batumi. That, and use its waste material to feed cows in hopes of producing more milk.
The GMT Group spent $20 million and six years to renovate the crumbling Mtatsminda restaurant and funicular station, originally commissioned by Lavrentiy Beria in the 1930s, when he was the head of the Communist Party in the Caucasus before he moved on to lead the NKVD, the Soviet secret police.