Fehmi Ozsut is a true Istanbul original. Owner of a small shop in the waterside that specializes in dairy dishes, Ozsut (the name, fittingly, means "pure milk") has had all kinds of previous lives, including a five-year stint as a security guard at the Waldorf Astoria in Phoenix, Arizona, where he says he wrestled out of control rock stars and even met Ronald Reagan.
Ozsut today, though, spends most of his time with a herd of water buffaloes, who produce the rich, fatty milk he used to make the kaymak (clotted cream) he sells in his shop. Considering the difficulty involved in raising the buffaloes and making kaymak, it's not surprise that Ozsut is likely the last of the water buffalo herders and small-scale kaymak makers left in the Istanbul area.
Ozsut's fascinating story is the subject of a new post on the Culinary Backstreets website, written by Roxanne Darrow. From the piece:
Back when Özsüt’s grandfather started his kaymak business, water buffaloes were raised in the forests around Istanbul. The animals flourished in the shade of those trees, and shepherds didn’t need to buy feed for the animals. Each muhallebici would buy fresh milk from nearby producers to make its yogurt, kaymak and desserts. Now, the few small forests left around Istanbul are for recreation.
In 2002, Özsüt started his own water buffalo farm in Sarıyer, 45 minutes north of Istanbul, because he could no longer buy high-quality milk at a reasonable price. In 2005 he had to move further afield, to Kemerburgaz near the Black Sea, because his buffaloes were destroying the palm trees in the new luxury compounds popping up near his farm. In 2011, he moved to his current location near Tekirdağ, which has rich soil and an abundant water supply but is an hour-and-a-half-long drive west of Istanbul.
Springtime brings with it a plethora of new fruits and vegetables that make but a brief appearance in Istanbul's markets. Writing for CulinaryBackstreets.com, writer Roxanne Darrow takes a look at the spring bounty in the city's bazaars, from the more familiar tart green plums, used in stews or eaten straight, to some less known wild greens that are foraged by market vendors this time of year.
From Darrow's piece:
Spring arrives at the markets in Istanbul with a great deal of color and fanfare. Vendors arrange peas in perfect diagonal rows, displaying their goods to lure you into a multi-kilo purchase. Men furiously carve out artichoke hearts and toss them into lemon-water filled bags, step around massive piles of trimmings and hand you what feels like a new goldfish purchase. Fava beans are ubiquitous in their fuzzy pods, although less appealing because of all the prep work that comes with them. Best to enjoy fava beans in a restaurant, in zeytinyağlı (with olive oil) and yogurt or our favorite, a garlicky mash like the chefs make at Müzedechanga in the Sabancı Museum.
Artichokes, fava beans and peas are not the only superstars of spring produce in İstanbul’s markets – the first fruits of the year are here too. While shopping at the expansive Kadiköy market on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, we saw teens staining their fingers purple with mulberries. We hope each was careful to sift through the “Armani” underwear stands with his clean hand. Kids munched on small tart-sweet green plums as their moms shopped for pajamas. Ripe, dark-orange loquats and lusty wild strawberries gleamed among the sea of tender spring greens. Sold and sold.
These are all expected spring treats, but what about the underdogs?
[UPDATE: As of April 28, Boston's Uyghur food truck is officially in business and rolling on the streets of the city. Check out the truck's website for locations.]
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?
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.