Saturday, September 30, 2006
Backtrack: July in Dalmatia
Being close to water, I had to go fishing. Dejan and I had picked up some cheap salt water fishing rods in the Chinese Market in Budapest, and I finally understand why people pay more than twenty bucks for fishing rods. I'm essentially a fly fisherman, but I was raised near the Atlantic ocean, so when I get near salt water, I am fishing for meat. It makes up for all those trout I release. Besides, trout don't taste nearly as good as sea fish.Truth is, we actually did catch enough fish to eat. Most Croatian fishermen go after the big species or schooling fish fish that bring in big money at market, so you rarely saw small harbor fish for sale. The harbors and rocky beach coves, however, were teeming with fish. Using the mighty Fish Base fish identification database (one of the only actually useful things existing on the internet) I was able to identify many of these fish as varieties of sea perch, wrasse, gilthead sea bream, and, well, other little fish that tasted good. Just look at those gigantic speckled beauties! I am essentially a trout fisherman, so size, or lack of any size at all, doesn't really bother me. Dejan cooked up the catch into a fisherman's stew, which we had with pasta.Dejan losing consciousness after eating half a roasted sheep. We had ordered lamb, but the animal that came to our table had definately been lying about its age. Still, meat is meat, and if we hadn't eaten it, we would be liable to the accusation that we were speading vegan tendancies. So we ate it. We had to. Without a full stomache, we wouldn't be able to drink as much travarica as we wanted. Travarica is the local home-brew: plum brandy infused with various island herbs and often flavored with heavy doses of carob. Travarica is a pretty potent drink. It does wonders for digital photography...
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Burgers Yok. No Burgers.
Given that Istanbul is a virtual paradise of ground-meat delights, I had been hoping to find a decent hamburger. I get burger cravings regularly, and living in Europe this is simply a recipe for disappointment. Europe doesn't do burgers very well. I can't even make a decent burger at home. Most ground meat in Hungary is ground pork - which is what goes into the Magyar Burgers that are sold at nasty micro-wave snack stands around Hungary. Ground beef is a rare find, and usually from the most lean cuts. A good burger should have at least 25% fat in it, so I sometimes resort to hand-chopping some fatty soup meat into my burgers. Then I have to hand chop the meat since Hungarian beef is tough and coarsely ground. Worth the trouble? Most Europeans define a hamburger as something bought at McDonald's, and while everybody claims to hate Micky D's all the McDonald's in Europe are packed to the gills with long lines at the counter. Some burgers become strange five-star chef's fusion creations, with a hint of Thai, a whiff of Provence, artisanal cheese, but it still ain't no Hamburger Mary's. A big, juicy cheeseburger of the type that used to nourish me and my bro at Louie's Charcoal Pit or the Allston Grille has eluded me all over this continent. Heck, I used to have breakfast at the White Manna in Hackensack back when I worked on Hackensack city garbage trucks. And so I was excited when I saw this sign at the Amusement park near Besiktas Stadium... But it was all a sham. No burgers, only köfte. Up at Taxim Square, you could always find something called sosli hamburger - the saucy burger.I couldn't bring myself to try them. That's right, I'll happily munch lamb heads or whole dried fish any time of the day, but mass-produced shiny orange hamburgers dripping with yellow sauce kept warm under heat lamps all day... I just couldn't. I kept approaching the burger stand, thinking go ahead... it might be a Turkish version of White Castle... just think of what you'd be missing... but I couldn't. I have failed. The best available alternative would be a pleskavica: Pleskavica is probably Europe's only viable hamburger substitute. Originally the Yugoslav national burger - pleskavica and accordion music seem to be the only thing that Serbs and Bosnians can agree on - they are usually made from the same beef and lamb combination that goes into cevapcici (seen in the foreground.) Unlike a hamburger, the ground meat is heavily worked by hand into a dense paste before grilling (the secret to a good burger is just the opposite: the burger patty should be handled as little as possible before smacking it down on the grill.) Pleskavica was brought to Istanbul by waves of Bosnian refugees in the 1990s. It is served, however, on a plate with salad and pilav. And the one pictured here isn't gigantic. Serbian pleskavica are the size of hubcaps, literally. Three bucks in a downtown Belgrade restauarant gets you a slab of meat the size of a grilled laptop computer. Slap it inside a flat lepenje bread, spread on some cream kaymak, ajvar pepper sauce andchoppedd onions on it and you have the Balkan equivalent of the House Burger Special. The Castro Bistro in Budapest has excellent pleskavica, which will do until I can get myself back to Belgrade. But still, pleskavica is not a burger. And if I can't have a burger, I'll have to live with some kind of köfte, preferably like this:
Pideli köfte from the Çiçek Köfte chain: miniature köfte burgers on a bed of soft pide bread in a tomato salça sauce with a side of yoghurt. Of course, I can always run down to the original Çiçek Köfte joint in Karaköy, located on the second floor above a pharmacy in the hardware market:The straightforward köfte lunch at 2 Euros a plate. Pepper salça, mashed potato, pilav, bread. One of the best lunch buys in the entire universe. Çiçek Köfte is possibly one of my top five köfte restaurants. Like any good restaurant, the staff remains constant and is proud of their work. I first ate at Çiçek in 1991 and the same waiters are still there fifteen years later. Real professionals. Amazingly smart service. When I want a burger it is reassuring to have it prepared somebody who spends decades grilling meats. This isn't fast food, although in terms of minutes, it is.But still... it's not a burger.
Monday, September 25, 2006
The Gross Post: Lamb Heads. And Leeches, Don't Forget the Leeches.
Fluffy, sweet natured, frisky and innocent. I wish I had a whole lot of baby lambs all lined up in a row...
And their heads taste so good, too! Crack their little skulls, scoop out those tasty brains! Roast those babies up! Given that thousands of lambs are slaughtered every morning to feed Istanbul's lamb-hungry masses, it is no wonder that there are quite a few leftover parts after the legs and ribs are spoken for. One of the most sought after tidbits is the head. You might not think of lamb head as a fast food, but there are some people - many of them in Anatolia - who might dispute this with you. This is the lamb head man at the end of our street in Karaköy. He did a booming business with the banking crowd at lunchtime. Strip the lamb meat from the heads, mix it with chopped onion, parsley and pepper, chop in some hard boiled eggs (I never quite understood that part) and drop it into a french loaf. Presto! The ultimate businessman's lunch. Of course, if you prefer a sit down meal you can always drop by your neighborhood tandir joint. Roast lamb heads served with freeshly baked Anatolian pide breads. Now that I have you attention and we have broken through the "ewww... gross!" barrier for the day, I feel it is the time to introduce one of the more interesting aspects of Istanbul's medical economy, and one which has its origin in Ottoman times. The leech sellers at the pet market in Eminönu. What? Leeches? Yes, leeches. Leeches are a part of traditional medicine all over the world, and scientists (you know... scientists...) now say that leeches actually do have a very beneficient effect when they suck your blood. Apparently, leech saliva contains a peptide called hirudin, which is a highly effective anticoagulant, and for this reason leeches have come back into clinical practice in the last 25 years. In the Istanbul market they are advertised for their effectiveness in treating eczema and rheumatism. Let's get a closer look, then, at Our NewFriend, The Leech.
Friday, September 22, 2006
Towards an Ethnohistorical Hermaneutic of Pastrami
But the origina of Romanian pastrama lie in the heritage of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Wallachia and Moldavia for hundreds of rather productive years, at least as far as Wallachia and Moldavia go. The Turks brought pastirma with them - slabs of beef covered in spice paste and then air dried in high mountain curing houses. The pastirma is wholesaled in huge meter long slabs.The paste today contains a lot of cumin and hot paprika, so the meat becomes quite spicy. Pastirma didn't taste anything like I had expected - understandable when you remember that my taste buds were trained on the grease-and-black-pepper pastrami of the Bronx. This was pastirma from Anatolia. It was a truly mediterranean combination of sour, salty, spicy, and savory. Kind of like what stuffed olives would taste like if olives had legs and said moooooo.
Pastirma is eaten as part of a meze course - appetizers that precede a meal or are simply set out to substitute for a cooked meal, especially when drinking raki. Subsequently, pastirma is not cheap. A kilo goes for about EURO 20, making it one of the most expensive of meze. But then, meze is how you inpress people, isn't it? And at Namli Pastirmaci in the market behind the Egyptian Spice market in Istanbul, impressing people comes easy. How about a bit of salad to go? Cold stuffed peppers?Or maybe some fish meze? Marinated anchovies? Smoked bonito? Octopus salad? Mussels?
Backtrack to Romania...
These are essentially resonator fiddles - a metal membrane takes the string vibrations from the brige of the fiddle to the trumpet bell attachted to the body. The result is a screaming, loud tone, great for playing in one direction in a noisy environment. At dances or fairs, groups of three or more fiddlers will play while swinging their fiddles around for doppler effects. Just up from Bratca, we stayed at a bungalow camp in Negreni. It was late so dinner was kolbasz grilled on sticks over a fire. Aron mastered the finer points of fly fishing... Aron was in pizza heaven. About 20% of Romanians under thirty have worked abroad, mostly in Italy, and mostly in construction and restaurants. One thing they have brought back to Romania is the ability to make a pizza that doesn't resemble a red frisbee that has partially melted on wonderbread (ahhh... Hungary...) As a result, many Romanian towns can rival the Bronx when it comes to pizza.Romania was the tail end of my Atkins phase, and of course, Romania is a very Atkins friendly land. Mici also called mititiei, Romania's answer to köfte, albeit a rather abrupt and garbled answer. Beef neck and mutton ground and grilled, served everywhere with mild, bright yellow mustard and bread. The lunch of the nation.
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Budapest for Ramadan!
Personally, I like the image of a davul drummer blasting away on the box. During Ramadan drummers (davular) and musicians alert everybody to the fact that "it's chow time!" There were huge Ramadan feast shacks being built in Fatih as we were leaving, in expectation of the late night chow hounds coming to celebrate "the fast."During our last day shopping in Istanbul - ("shopping" means buying little bracelets for US 30 cents) we met a shop keeper who specialized in Uzbek Suzani textiles. This particular guy spoke fluent Romanian... he had studied a couple of years in Bucharest. Turks beat the Dutch in multilingualism. We were able to happily converse in the Wallachian form of Swamp Latin for while, but we didn't buy anything. Fumie is Hungary's #1 Suzani collector and expert, so pretty soon she was in the midst of.... cosplay We had to leave today, so Fumie picked up a few pieces of sliced smoked bonito, aka palamut:And some dried red mullet eggs encased in wax, the same stuff the Italians worship as bottarga... pretty damn cheap. My last meal in Istanbul.... inegol kofte at our favorite place near Tunel:On the plane home, we took a nice take-out order of burek... why deal with crap Malev sandwiches? If anybody isinterested, the skinheads in Bpest seem quiet tonite. We'll keep you updated. And we will continue to torture Transylvanians...