A this blog wrote about in a previous post, apricots hold a particularly important place in Armenian life, both culturally and economically. Writing for the wonderful Mashallah News website, journalist Liana Aghajanian delves deeper into this story, producing a beautiful ode to the apricot. From Aghajanian's piece:
Indeed, there is not an apricot in the world that tastes like the ones found in Armenia. It is more than just a piece of fruit – the weight of a country and a diaspora’s national psyche, with equal parts tragedy and nostalgia, rests on its shoulders.
Scattered across the world by the horrors of a genocide at the turn of the 20th century, the Armenian Diaspora’s feet have always been on the move, planted elsewhere by accident and circumstance, but constantly pulled back by the heavy gravitational force of Armenia. As immigrants in faraway lands struggling with a collective, passed down trauma and relishing in the nostalgic notions of homeland – a place kept neatly framed in scenic oil paintings hung on walls from Beirut to Boston, there is an intense longing for home, a place to feel grounded and whole in again, a place where an apricot can be so delicious, that no other apricot found in any other corner of the world will do.
The feeling can only be described in words that have no direct English translation. One of them is the Portuguese “Saudade”, a deeply melancholic state for the absence of something or someone. The other is a Welsh word, “Hiraeth”, defined by the University of Wales Trinity Saint David as “homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed.”
Forever homesick, Armenians are always searching for that fulfillment of home, for what was lost to be found.
Before Cola Turka, Turkey's domestic answer to Coke, the country's soft drink imagination revolved around gazoz, a vaguely fruit-flavored carbonated beverage. Like wine and its regional variations, almost every Turkish province and large city once had its own favorite brand of locally-made gazoz, said to be imbued with something of its home district's flavor and character. Before "small batch," "artisanal," and "local" became such foodie buzzwords, gazoz was quietly and unassumingly serving as the real real thing.
These days, most of these small gazoz brands have gone the way of the dodo bird, unable to compete with Coca Cola and other big soft drink producers. But, as Culinary Backstreets' Ansel Mullins reports, one cafe in Istanbul is working hard to keep the spirit of gazoz fizzing. From Mullins' writeup:
Avam Kahvesi’s owner, Barış Aydın, came of age in the 1980s drinking the now-defunct Elvan Gazozu, and even experimented with homemade gazoz back then. He believes drinking gazoz is a statement against cultural imperialism, a “provokasyon.” The menu at Avam, which boasts 14 different kinds of gazoz, includes notes on the flavor, origin and history of each producer in Turkish and English. Aroma Meltem Gazozu, for example, was big in the 1970s and is featured in Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence. Barış admits that there are some flavors of gazoz that he doesn’t even like, but he says they all “taste of nostalgia.”
While Europe continues to reel from the ever-widening horsemeat-in-the-food-supply scandal that has gripped the continent for the last several weeks, attention is now also being paid to those places in the world where eating the meat is the norm.
Among those places, of course, is Kazakhstan, the world's number two producer of horsemeat and probably one of the few countries whose national dish -- beshparmak -- is made using horsemeat. The topic of Kazakhs' fondness for horsemeat has frequently entered Borat territory, more the butt of jokes than the subject of serious discussion, but a new article published by Steppe magazine offers what is a refreshingly sober and unsqueamish look at this culinary tradition. From the article, by author Robert Chenciner:
So, what does horsemeat taste like? The extremely lean cuts are rich, dark and deep-red, slightly sweet, redolent of venison but much more tender. Because the horses are steppe reared, in what must be an original source of the term ‘free range’, there is little fat. In the great intestinal sausage the fat tastes like the richest butter.
At the rear of the market in Stepnogorsk, arranged in rows of wooden stalls, was the covered, refrigerated meat section. Through plastic cold doors there were about 40 stalls in a clean and chilly room. Only one sold horsemeat (and beef). The others sold beef, chicken, and mutton.
EurasiaNet's photoessay from the other day about how the supra -- the traditional eating and drinking feast that is a bedrock of social life in Georgia -- is evolving and modernizing is highly recommended reading for anyone who wants to understand how Georgian society itself is changing.
Interested in getting more details about the story and the evolution of the supra, I sent several questions to its author, the Tbilsi-based Molly Corso, an American married to a Georgian. Our exchange is below:
1. What gave you the idea for this story?
I first started wondering about changes to the supra after I read a blog post on changing views toward the funeral feast on ISET.ge, the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University. After I read it, I started noticing that, fairly often, when my husband and I met up with friends, there would be an argument about who should be tamada (the toast master) since no one wanted to be saddled with the role of drinking so much. Sometimes there would be little disputes over whether or not it is necessary to say all of the traditional toasts. I started to wonder if it was something isolated, just among my husband's circle of friends and relations, or if it was a wider trend.
2. Based on your own experience, how would you describe the role of the supra in Georgian life?
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.