The Guardian has posted a very nicely produced video segment (here) that explores the food traditions of southeast Turkey's Urfa and makes the case for the ancient city being the inspiration for the way we eat today. It's not a farfetched claim: the area around Urfa is considered by archeologists and other researchers to be one of the first regions where hunter gatherers made the shift to farming and domesticating livestock, giving rise to the consumption of dairy products, bread and other foods that are "processed" (in the ancient sense of the word).
That said, considering the city's locals are today best known in Turkey for eating copious amount of grilled liver, sometimes even for breakfast, it's clear that the Urfa diet took off in a different direction from the rest of the world's somewhere along the way.
For those in Istanbul who want to get a taste of Urfa-style kebabs and don't have time to make it down to the source, Istanbul Eats has a review of a superb grill house in the city's Aksaray neighborhood, home to dozens of restaurants opened up by migrants from Urfa and other parts of southeast Turkey.
Do French merlots or German rieslings have Turkish ancestors? That's the intriguing proposition raised by a Swiss botanist, who, using DNA analysis, is arguing that many of the wine grapes used today in western Europe and other parts of the world descend from wild grape varieties domesticated by Stone Age farmers in what is now Turkey. Reports AFP:
Today Turkey is home to archaeological sites as well as vineyards of ancient grape varieties like Bogazkere and Okuzgozu, which drew the curiosity of the Swiss botanist and grape DNA sleuth Jose Vouillamoz, for the clues they may offer to the origin of European wine.
Together with the biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern, Vouillamoz has spent nearly a decade studying the world's cultivated and wild vines.
"We wanted to collect samples from wild and cultivated grape vines from the Near East -- that means southeastern Anatolia, Armenia and Georgia -- to see in which place the wild grape was, genetically speaking, linked the closest to the cultivated variety."
"It turned out to be southeastern Anatolia," the Asian part of modern Turkey, said Vouillamoz, speaking at the EWBC wine conference in the Turkish city of Izmir this month. "We propose the hypothesis that it is most likely the first place of grape vine domestication."
McGovern's lab at the University of Pennsylvania Museum also provided archaeological evidence of wine's Anatolian roots after analysing residues of liquid recovered from vessels thousands of years old.
Author of "Uncorking the Past" and "Ancient Wine", McGovern used a sensitive chemical technique to look for significant amounts of tartaric acid -- for which grapes are the only source in the Middle East.
Istanbul is often billed as the city where “East meets West,” but to many it is a place where those geographies pass each other on the way in and out of town. Afghans, Iranians, sub-Saharan Africans, Bosnians, Bulgarians, Armenians, Filipinos and many other nationalities end up in Istanbul struggling to get by or move on. Though not always understood and much less frequently welcomed, the migrant communities of Istanbul represent significant cultural diversity and could make a much greater contribution to the city’s cosmopolitan culture, if embraced.
In Kurtuluş where the streets start sloping down toward Dolapdere, there are enough African migrants to make up an entire soccer league. In Kumkapı, call center windows are plastered with tiny flags and by-the-minute rates for phone calls to dozens of countries. Follow your nose through these neighborhoods and you may find a big lunch of injera and dibs taking place in one of the many makeshift community centers tucked into the middle floors of a building. Though struggling, these communities survive and the simple act of cooking the food of their homeland, day by day, helps to hold them together. One migrant cook told us that cooking helps you to “forget where you are.”
Doner, at least the authentic variety, is by definition an artisanal creation. When made as it's supposed to be made, an usta ("master" in Turkish) selects cuts of meat to marinate and then stack into a towering cylinder shape. As it roasts on its vertical spit, the usta then creates each doner sandwich to order, slowly slicing off strips of meat one juicy strip at a time.
As it migrated west, though, this original slow food has morphed into a mostly soulless variant of fast food. As anyone who has visited London or New York can attest, in those cities doner usually comes from a factory molded piece of mystery meat that is as far from handmade as is the vinyl dashboard of an automobile. No wonder the English refer to doner as "elephant leg," a dish usually downed in the wee hours of the morning in a boozy, post binge-drinking haze.
Two British food writers, creators of a roving food stall called the Kebab Kitchen, are now trying to introduce their fellow countryman to what real doner should taste like. Reports the Independent:
The spinning "elephant leg" of juicy meat looks familiar to anyone who has ever walked through a British town centre in the wee hours, but these are no ordinary doners. These are West Country lamb or chicken doners, served with red cabbage pickled in pomegranate molasses, onions steeped in sumac, crunchy tomato salsa, smoked garlic yoghurt and roasted habanero chilli sauce. And they are delicious.
Oenophiles tend to classify wines into either coming from the "old world" -- France, Spain, Italy and other European countries that have traditionally produced wine -- and the "new world," which includes upstarts such as the United States and Australia. Soon, though, we might need to come up with a new classification: the "ancient world," which would cover bottles coming from what's often described as wine's birthplace, Transcaucasia, a region that includes Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and parts of Iran and Turkey.
While history and archeological finds may back up the region's "birthplace of wine" claim, the quality of the wine produced there -- at least in decades past -- mostly made a mockery of it. That is beginning to change, though. Georgian wines have, in recent years, made great strides in quality and have started earning international attention and acclaim. Wines produced from indigenous grapes grown in vineyards in eastern Turkey have also started to show promise.
Now an ambitious entrepreneur wants to revive Armenia's historic, but mostly dormant, winemaking tradition. Zorah, an Armenian boutique winery that just released its first vintage, was founded some ten years ago by Zorik Gharibian, an Armenian who grew up in Iran and Italy, where he now works in the fashion industry. Enlisting the help of a pair of Italian wine experts, Gharibian is making red wine using the indigenous areni grape and traditional methods, such as letting part of the wine's fermentation take place in large clay jars that are buried underground (Georgians use a similar technique).
Perfectly timed to coincide with the arrival of the Persian New Year celebration Nowruz (also called Nevruz in other parts of the region), the cooking and travel magazine Saveur has published a great article by chef Annisa Helou about a recent trip she took to Iran. From the article:
Iranian cooking is legendary in the realm of Middle Eastern food, and many dishes across that part of the world can trace their roots to Persian precedents: For example, take Morocco's fragrant tagines, relatives of Iran's khoresht stews, or the sweet-tart savory dishes whose distinctive flavor is achieved by cooking meat with fresh or dried fruit, which originated in Persia during ancient times. Persians brought their cuisine to the Indian subcontinent in the Middle Ages, and to this day the Persian and Hindi names for many dishes are nearly identical. (Persia is what the country was long known as in the west; in 1935, the Shah asked the international community to use the country's native name, Iran.)
The Persian Empire, which spanned with some interruptions from 550 BC to AD 651, was the greatest of the early civilizations; there were well-built roads from one end of the empire to the other, and caravansaries, or roadside inns, at regular intervals to provide shelter and food to travelers. Herodotus, the Greek historian, wrote that he was seduced by Persian food, and King Croesus of Lydia, an ancient land that is now part of Turkey, advised Cyrus the Great to lure troublesome tribes with "the good things on which the Persians live." Between the middle of the eighth century to the mid 13th century, the Abbasid Caliphate, an Arab-Muslim dynasty that encompassed swaths of the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Spain and Portugal, hired Persian chefs to cook for the heads of state. As Islam tightened its hold on the region, Arabs adopted and adapted Persian cuisine.
In an effort to place their national cuisine on the world stage, a group of chefs in Kazakhstan is making a run for the Guinness Book of World Records. Their entry? A massive batch of beshparmak, a Central Asian dish traditionally made out of horse meat cooked with noodles and potatoes. According to the Tengri News website, in honor of this Friday's Kazakh Independence Day, the chefs recently cooked enough beshparmak (or beshbarmak, as it is also called) to feed more than 1,000 people, serving the what must have been a mountainous pile from a four-meter diameter plate.
Granted, a horse meat and noodle dish may not ignite the world's appetite for Kazakh food, but in Kazakhstan (as well as Kyrgyzstan) beshparmak is an essential and well-loved part of weddings and other celebrations where, washed down with vodka, it is frequently served to groups that number in the hundreds. To learn a bit more about the dish and its place in Central Asian food culture, I turned to Talant Sultanov, Vice President for Finance at the American
University of Central Asia in Bishkek and a great promoter of Kyrgyz culture (as a student, he helped turn the campus of Columbia University on to the joys of drinking fermented mare's milk (kumis)). Here's our email exchange on the subject of beshparmak:
What's the best way to describe beshbarmak?
Beshbarmak is a traditional dish in Kyrgyzstan that is made of meat (lamb, or horse), pasta, and potatoes. Depending on the region the dish is served in, the meat and noodles are served in chunks or very-finely cut. The name of the dish is translated as “five fingers”. There are a couple of theories for the name: 1) traditionally beshbarmak is eaten with the hands, using the five fingers; 2) an alternative theory is that the best beshbarmak is the one where the meat used for it has fat the height of five-fingers.
Cheap, plentiful and easy to obtain, dung has long been the home cook's best friend when it comes to heating up an oven. Of course, modernization and the social stigma of cooking and heating with animal excrement have helped push dung back outdoors in many places. But, in Central Asia at least, economic realities are forcing some people to give the original sustainable fuel source a second look. From a new RFE/RL report:
Soaring fuel prices; electricity rationing; early snow -- it's enough to send people scurrying for alternative ways to heat their homes and cook their meals.
In some parts of Central Asia, however, "alternative" doesn't necessarily mean clean burning or eco-friendly. In Uzbekistan, cheap is the operative word, and that means things can get downright, well, earthy.
"Coal is fuel for rich people only," says Eshmurod-Aka, a resident of Uzbekistan's Qashqadaryo province. "Animal manure is only fuel we use now."
Sadirokhun Sophiyev, a resident of the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon, explains that "these hardships have prompted us to find rather unorthodox, alternative ways" to keep the heat going and the stove cooking.
The burning of animal dung for fuel is an age-old practice that had largely faded away. But in the current environment households with livestock once again find themselves slapping manure on barn walls, part of a drying process that will result in dried cakes that can be used for heating.
Veteran Turkey correspondent Andrew Finkel is also a noted food lover and a superb writer on culinary matters. In a column in today's International Herald Tribune, Finkel takes a wide ranging look at the history of Turkish kebab and its role in today's globalized culture. From his column:
Can any one cuisine call the kebab its own? Was the meat skewer born somewhere — or everywhere, of the primal urge to put flesh to fire?
This year commemorates the 50th year that Turks were first recruited to work in Germany. Many believe that these gastarbeiter managed to wriggle a way into their hosts’ affection by presenting to them an alternative to wurst. A cylinder of meat spinning on an upright spit in front of a vertical open fire — the famous döner kebab — became Germans’ entrée into the culture of their new neighbors. Or so they thought. But no less an authority than The Economist claims that the kebab is an example of cultural reflux: a bit of ethnicity cultivated in Germany and transplanted back to Turkey, where it then thrived.
This argument is pooh-poohed by someone who should know: Beyti Güler, the Horatio Alger of grilled meat and probably the only man alive to have a kebab named in his honor. After spending his boyhood peddling fruit from a barrow in the abattoir district on the outskirts of Istanbul, Güler was to turn his family’s kitchen into the landmark restaurant that bears his (first) name. He opened his first grill house in 1945, but he was soon forced to move it to a barn of a place in order to cope with the throngs who queued up for the house specialty: lamb and beef döner kebab cooked in front of a wall of oak charcoal. In 1983, Beyti’s moved to even grander premises near the airport.
Los Angeles is home to one of the world's largest Armenian diaspora communities and, as would be expected, Armenian food is starting to make its way into the local culinary culture. In a very informative blog post, the LA Weekly takes a look at how LA locals are looking at Armenian food and at some local Armenian hotspots, such as Zankou Chicken and Raffi's Place. The article can be found here.