Carnal Memories, and the worst candy I’ve ever eaten

The worst candy I ever ate was in rural Yunnan. It tasted like toilet bowl cleaner, or at least how I imagine toilet bowl cleaner would taste from the chemical smell. After hacking out two halves of hard ‘green tea’ flavor sugar I dug out another piece and found Hallie correcting homework assignments on the couch. “Try this” I said with extended hand. Hallie went around with bags of candy all week, crunching through them as she worked. She extended her hand and unwrapped the candy without taking her eyes up from the papers. She chewed, swallowed, then looked up at me pucker-mouthed. “What was that?! That was disgusting!”.
Hallie and I had a running competition which she would never admit. She was the good Christian choir girl who did drama and went to Dartmouth and somehow was on all the committees without doing any of the work – though her voice was always present in the planning. The year after I left she would go on to be our regional teaching fellow coordinator, then for years after that she would work at a mediocre educational consulting company somewhere on China’s eastern seaboard, a disappointment, though one she never saw.
In Yunnan we were always hungry. It rained and we were beset with a deep, wet winter cold that reached to our bones. We stroked our stomach furnaces with carbs. The skies were cloudy for days – weeks – on end. We watched for breaks in the clouds to run home and hop in a mildly warm shower before our solar-heated water tank chilled once again. Despite living directly across the street from the village power grid, our electricity was constantly out on the second floor, our space heaters moved dangerously close to the couches in the marble-floored downstairs, where we suffocated ourselves in polyester comforters for warmth. Every three days – or five – there was the village bazaar in the dusty space right below our apartment. Usually there was chicken breast; we always bought fresh eggs. But without a refrigerator, and with year round temperatures hovering in the forties to sixties, we couldn’t buy more than a day’s worth of meat to cook on our single electric hot plate. Eggs with rice noodles, eggs with tomatoes, eggs with pears and oats. In the school cafeteria they served up heaping bowls of hot rice noodles with little scoops of picked cabbage and minced meat. I always loaded mine with the cabbage, hot peppers, and ground green Sichuanese peppercorn, as spice is another way to keep the body warm. At the beginning of the year neither of us could finish a bowl of noodles; as winter settled in we were hungry two hours later, snacking on minced meat and salty mung bean moon cakes in our office above the school hall.
Lunch was more noodles, or large bowls of rice with three of four small helpings of vegetables and meat. Mostly it was vegetables, meant to flavor the rice more than provide sustenance.
I packed on ten pounds – insulation. Hallie grew an inner tube around her waist. But still we were hungry. Sweets and dry cookies and ice cream with plastic chocolatey skins and rice rolls and thick flat rice noodles and sticky rice balls we could always find, along with seaweed and tofu and sausages brushed with oil from a stained cococola bottle and grilled nightly by the young and cheerfully obese woman who ran the rice noodle under our apartment restaurant.
On market days we gorged on chicken breast; in retrospect I should have eaten more eggs and beans – despite the bother of soaking beans and boiling them for hours on a hot plate shared with four impatient housemates.
At Teach for China fellow dinners and official lunches and village celebrations – anytime there was free fresh food – we gorged ourselves on meat: chicken and fish and pork, but especially red meat, as if we were bulking up our iron supplies for the meat-free days to come, nervous we’d never see meat again.

The second-worst piece of candy I ever ate was at the wedding of Daniyar and Malika, at the former’s family home in Ozgen. We woke up at the pink fringes of a summer dawn, got out of the house by 6, and bought a few bottles of water for the ride before waiting – and waiting, and waiting – for a local female friend to get ready. She hopped in the car blurry eyed and we started off on the ride south. Somehow my husband didn’t realize or remember that there is almost no food to be found on the entire winding north-south road. We stopped after cresting the mountains at the gas station where the road forks straight to Talas or through thick forests to the Ferghana Valley, held our breath as we used to outhouse, and bought some cherry candies and mint flavored Russian tea cookies. An hour later, as we rounded the bend from high meadow into pine forests, where women by the roadside sell honey redolent with the scent of alpine flowers, we stopped at a restaurant built like a Swiss lodge. My husband thought he had stopped here  once before for a tasty lunch. We ordered kurdak and laghman and a Nescafé that never came. The kurdak was grisly and tasted old; the laghman noodles were soft and slimy in a sauce of oil and overcooked vegetables. We set down our forks and headed down the road, past the actual restaurant my husband had visited on his trip past, and where we stopped on our way back to have fresh grilled fish on a dais hanging over a stream.
By six pm we arrived at Daniyar’s family compound, a series of low houses – parents and cousins and aunts and uncles’ residences – connected through their courtyards. We were ushered in and sat down around low wooden tables on a raised platform. Dinner wouldn’t be ready for another two hours, but we were proffered tea and fizzy dairy drinks and stacks of hard glossy tandoor bread and the ubiquitous plates of gloriously wrapped Russian candy I’ve seen at every wedding in Kyrgyzstan since. We dug into the candy. Our local friend divulged truffle and wafer and cookie alike of their wrappers. I bit into one – and silently crumbled the other half in its wrapping before sliding it under its napkin and softening some bread in my bowl of tea. Dinner could wait.

Yesterday we headed to Daniyar and Malika’s country house for a May 1st barbecue picnic. Again they offered candy. The first piece I ate actually wasn’t awful, – sweet but not sickly, a bit of a crunch instead of that disconcertingly buoyant chocolate shell – and so I tried another. Again I slid it into my napkin.
Later, during dinner, I realized I still eat meat like I’m stocking the winter larder. Full after the first plate of shashlik, I ate on, until my stomach was hard and extended like I was four months pregnant and we avowed we would never eat meat again. This wasn’t entirely my fault: every time my plate was near empty (except for the chunks of charred juicy fat I kept pushing to the side), I’d find another kebab being slid off the skewer and the happily-offended protests of good hosts at my protests against more meat. But still – I’ve realized that my China habits never went away: the tendency to snack on high-starch carbs (instead of sensible things like almonds or a hard-boiled egg) especially when out from home; the desperation with which I face a plate of meat when eating away from my own table. I shed far over ten pounds within a month after departing Yunnan, but the memory of perpetual cold, that fear of not having, still lives on in my gut.


My Pregnant Ramazan

First off, let me just say that being pregnant during Ramazan is fantastic.  Visibly pregnant, that is.  For I can eat and drink whatever/whenever I want wherever I want without receiving the eyes of shame.  In fact, the only glances I’ve encountered so far (while sipping water on a stroll) were those of longing tinged with envy and occasional sympathy.

Approximately 60% of Ankara’s population fasts during Ramazan (and approximately 90% feasts).  Due to the ruling party’s religious politics, even though Turkey is constitutionally a secular state, it’s considered rather rude to eat or drink in public during the entire month.  Unless you’re very old, ill, very young, or [jackpot!] pregnant/breastfeeding. I don’t think a single person in my husband’s entire extended family fasts (they, like me, don’t quite see the “pious” nature of fasting when daytime abstinence is followed by nighttime gluttony buoyed by a month-long obsession with food, nor the practicality of the matter when it means everyone fasting walks around like zombies in the summer heat, and productivity falls to a yearlong low).

Central Asia Ramadan Feast

In Kyrgyzstan some people celebrate…some don’t.  Kyrgyz are generally a pragmatic people, and Ramazan/Ramadan in summer (when fasting can stretch from 3:30 in the morning to 8:30 at night and temperatures can soar above 100F) is just generally not very pragmatic.  But some people still fast, and attending university employees walk around like the living dead and snooze behind closed doors the better part of the day.  The most ironic part of Ramazan in Kygyzstan?  Pre-teen kids out on summer holiday hang around grocery store parking lots all day banging on car windows and doing the “Ramazan chant” clamoring for money (a tradition apparently unique to Bishkek).  Coins clasped, them  scramble inside the air conditioned store to buy whatever sweets they can – and then sit outside eating them in broad daylight, hours before the fast-breaking coming of dusk.

Here in Turkey all the stores have been stocking “Razaman supplies” for the past few weeks – mostly meat and cookies and 25 kg bags of sugar and sweet fizzy sodas.  Not unrelatedly, most people gain weight during Ramazan (because how much can your body digest in those 7 hours of darkness?), and I wouldn’t be surprised if blood sugar levels were also at an all time high from all the desserts consumed (maybe ensuring the sugar crash has more to do with the zombie effect than the heat?).

But anyway, an uneventful holiday for us.  Here the streets are almost empty, first of all because it’s Monday (and everyone who works is at their offices), and second because the people who stay home (housewives and retirees) are also the most likely segment of the population to be fasting, and thus either napping or food-preparing.  I’ll wave my (still not very significant) bulk and merrily munch along.

Börek Günü

On Saturday my younger sister-in-law tried to explain börek günü to me as a group of people going to one person’s house, eating börek, and giving them a hundred lira as a way to save up money.  Like me, you’re probably a bit confused: what does a flaky pastry have to do with savings?  And why are we going to someone’s house to give them money?

peynirli borekFirst of all, börek: börek is a pastry made from layers of filo dough wrapped around or covering various savory fillings such as spinach, spinach and white cheese, mushrooms, potatoes, or minced meat.  It’s baked in the oven and served at breakfast…or lunch…or dinner.

A “börek day” can be described as somewhat of a book club (without the books) and a savings club rolled in one. If there are ten women  in a group, then each month they all gather at one person’s home, eat börek and other foods, sit around drinking tea and gossiping, and each give the host 100 lira.  The next month they gather at someone else’s home and do the same, rotating on until each person has played host (and received 900 lira). It’s really an excuse for a socializing.

IMG_3715So Sunday morning after breakfast my mother-in-law and I went out the door with the younger sister-in-law’s government-issued bus card, met up with my older sister-in-law, took the dolmus to the city center, the metro to Batikent, then switched to the extension metro line, and got off literally at the edge of the city among rolling hills and suburban apartment complexes interspersed with chain grocery stores and clusters of shops.

Suburban living usually means apartment-living in Ankara.  Compared to the city center and older neighborhoods the apartments are larger and the sites are complete with parking lots, playgrounds, and paths meandering among the grass.  But other than that I can’t see much appeal, at least on the north end of town.  Sure, the apartments are more comfortable (for the same price), but it’s a long way to work (45 minutes tot he citycenter by metro) and the surroundings don’t have much to offer.  (On the other side of town, however, we had friends who were renting an older house house – with a garden – in a quiet leafy green site directly behind the mammoth Gordion shopping mall and Çayyolu subways station [a straight 25 minute shot to Kizilay], within walking distance and 10 minute driving distance to shops and restaurants and cafes – so it’s hard for me to see the appeal of suburban apartment living on the far northern side of the city).

slider-borek-ispanakWe arrived around 1:30, were greeted by my cheerful sister-in-law’s husband’s cousin and her three year old daughter who promptly gave me a tour of her bedroom, showed me her mother’s wedding album (twice), and sat me down to make-believe tea with her plastic dishes set.  The other guests slowly, delinquently arrived in couples and small flocks, all relatives – my sister-in-law’s mother-in-law, her other daughters-in-law and daughters and cousins and cousins of cousins and daughters of cousins of cousins.  Relatives, in other words, with too many relations for me to keep track after the first few introductions.  Not only are relative-networks rather wide, but I’ve also realized that a lot of social activities in Turkey are still family-based.

gul borekOnce everybody arrived we sat down to eat – a centerpiece of dried fruit and chocolates, plain and spinach börek, a dried green bean dish, great glass bowls of yogurt and carrot salad, an overly fluffy tiramisu-looking cake, homemade baklava stiff and burnt at the edges, and salad.  Like a number of non-specific-meal gatherings I’ve gone to in Turkey there was a [for me] conspicuous lack of protein and an over-abundance of breads.  There is always a salad, always mixed appetizers, always some baked goods – but rarely meat or beans or eggs.  I’ve noticed that even at home: sometimes my mother-in-law will have pilaf topped with a vegetable dish cooked with olive oil – but no clear source of protein.  When we cook or have barbeques with E’s friends, however, it’s completely the opposite: the meal always centers around the fish we’re grilling or the kofte (meatballs), or steak or other meat.

As the women came in they sat around the living room in a circle and caught up on each other’s lives since the last gathering.  Unlike a book club, however, the women jested – mostly in fun – about how the latecomer’s should be punished.  I suggested they be made to clear the table and do the dishes, but the others were more bent on they paying a 10 lira fine.  This same vein went through their transactions after the meal was complete: one woman acted as a bookkeeper, sitting down to collect all the bills and tally who paid what, and who had paid what last month.  They they got into a huge discussion after discovering that one person not only didn’t show, but also hadn’t given the money to someone else to take on her behalf – and had apparently done this a month or two before as well.  Because they are all relatives, the conversation got even more feisty.  I suppose it’s more akin to a [competitive] bridge club where people play for stakes than book club.

maxresdefaultWhile sitting one kid – a boy of three-and-a-half – was running around, stripping the pillows from the chairs and throwing them on the floor, climbing on top of the sofa, grabbing a puzzle and then, five minutes later, moving to something else.  His grandmother said he was just hyperactive, didn’t get out of the house much due to last week’s cold weather.  But I noticed something else: he wasn’t looking at people.  He wasn’t responding to people, or taking in their reactions to anything he did.  He didn’t seem to understand – or even know that he should understand – how his actions affected others.  For example, I was sitting on a chair, leaning against a pillow, when he decided he needed that pillow, came up (without looking at me), snatched the pillow, and threw it on the floor.  My two-and-a-half year old niece can be yaramaz (mischievous, naughty) – but it’s a whole different breed of the behavior: 90% of the time she knows when she’s done something naughty and she either looks guilty when caught and cries or (more often) flashes this wide “I-know-I’ve-done-something-bad-but-let’s-see-if-I-can-get-away-with-it” smile.  She is acutely aware of other people’s reactions.  This kid wasn’t even aware that he should be aware.

We talked about him after leaving – it seems like he has autism and people in his family are mistaking it for normal troublesome three-year-old behavior.  The contrast was even greater when we met up with my mother-in-law’s youngest brother slick in a pony tail, CAT boots and slim jeans (age 45 – one year older than the sister-in-law present) who lives in the site opposite and came to say hello with his six-year-old son.  The kid seemed shy and quiet, but there was nothing obtrusive.  As we left my mother-in-law told me that he had autism, but his parents had realized that something was off by his first birthday, sent him to treatments and a special preschool, read up on it as much as they could, and ensured that everyone in the family was participating in his education and development.  The doctors said he would be probably be perfectly fine by age 10, and completely able to attend a normal middle school. Quite a contrast to the first, who will, if nothing is done soon, probably grow up to be largely uncontrolled and unable to regulate his own actions and emotions.

On the long (long, long) subway ride back we also talked about when I should leave Ankara after the birth (maybe one month after, in the first week of August), when my mother-in-law can come and the logistics of all that, how we’ll try to find a part-time nanny, and how I’ll be trying to get a contract from the university that allows me to work part-time starting from September.  As I mentioned, I don’t need  to work – but I’d like to for the sake of my psychology and creating a well-balanced life.  My mother-in-law, who chugged along the whole day and had just been commenting on how refreshing it was to get some air, see a few different faces, spend time in adult company, and talk to non-two-year-olds, gave me a one word reply: “Work!”.

To close, here’s a borek recipe, just in case you want to make your own “borek day”.

Living in Bishkek: The Things I Long For

I was walking to Turkish class this morning through half-foot drifts of snow when I started longing for a hot cup of fresh-pressed soybean milk at the end of my journey.  Now this may sound like an odd craving, but soybean milk in china (豆漿, doujiang) is a beautiful thing: sometimes thin and almost bitter for dipping dumplings, sometimes thick and sweet, and almost ubiquitous across China, whether at the 7-11, fresh-pressed from the soymilk stall, or sold from styrofoam boxes from schoolgate vendors.  In Beijing we sipped it in class, warming our hands around the plastic cups.  In Yunnan we drank it with tiny dumplings stuffed with local mushrooms.  In Guangzhou I grabbed a cup, fresh made, of thick and hot creamy soymilk – or mung bean milk, or adzuki (Japanese red) bean milk – along with a guava or two for lunch almost every day. In Urumqi I drank it in the steamy noodle restaurant in the university courtyard complex that served up millet porridge and ‘tofu brain” (doufu naozi”) to warm the winter mornings. Here we have…weak black tea and oversweetened nescafe.

4801045478_126f5cca99_zThinking about Guangzhou guava (and persimmons, and star fruit, and bitter gourds, and papaya and litchi) brought up memories of another thing I miss: the fresh produce stands. Winter in a highland country where people traditionally feast on refined carbs, fat and meat, isn’t exactly an exhilarating time to be cooking. Some of the bazaars (Osh, Orto Sai) carry on okay, but by this time of year it’s mostly potatoes, limp parsnips, onions, and oversized tasteless carrots along with a few wilted herbs. Just two weeks ago I was at a brilliant Saturday bazaar in Ankara, with benches stacked high with fresh cucumbers that still snapped open, bright sprigs of basil and arugula, pyramids of pomegranates and pears, baskets overflowing with tri-colored peppers. Every day I would walk home past several grocers still displaying twenty or thirty varieties of fresh produce under the canopies in front of their shops – everything from sweet cherry tomatoes to persimmons.

7857419248_fddc97af40_zSouthern China was amazing in this aspect, with the giant green bazaars around the Pearl River Delta carrying everything from live fish (and chopped up crocodiles…and frogs…and dogs) to bundles of green produce and endless stacks of fruit year round, to the town bazaars in Yunnan stocked with exotic and everyday local produce – green papayas in chili sauce, black pigeon bean noodles, pink pomegranates, sweet-spicy picked radish, local figs, red and yellow plums, edamame beans from the stalk, fresh-ground flaxseed oil. I think we may need a trip to the [overpriced] Korean counters of the Orto Sai bazaar this weekend… (because now I’m just thinking about foooood)

4806825050_70d14f5b4e_zGoing on with food: different types of noodles, not necessarily made from wheat.  In Jindun, Yunnan (SW China by the Myanmar border) every morning was a choice between two types of rice noodles (round as spaghetti or square and thick) topped with cured beef or pork, picked cabbage so delicious I went back for seconds, and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Southern Yunnan breakfasts were resplendent with Thai influence, with thin broad rice noodles topped with spicy vegetables, cilantro and chicken. And let’s not get started on cold Korean buckwheat noodles in Beijing, or the oatmeal noodles of Inner Mongolia…

Tofu.  I know we have tofu in Bishkek (ironically placed in the dairy section and labeled “tofu cheese” on the rare occasion that it’s actually stocked at the grocery store), but tofu is so much more than the spongy and sour stuff I hated as a kid. There’s soft tofu, sweet tofu breakfast porridge, wood-smoked tofu, chickory wood-smoked tofu dipped in Jiangxi hot sauce, soft tofu for soups, textured tofu skin for stir fries, thin and smooth tofu skin for meat dishes, strips of tofu that are great just heated until they sizzle and topped with a bit of sesame oil and sichuan pepper…. Oh, tofu…

And (going through my flickr account to find photos for this post): absurd and wonderful finds of unintentional cultural clash in China.  Stuffed bears, a British telephone booth and a dutch windmill standing in for a Christmas display in an upscale Urumqi mall? Yep. This adorable Beijing find? Aww…photo 1 4900197978_0c250891cf_m

Switching to the non-edible: meeting with friends who were also colleagues and co-workers once a week at the bubble tea shop in Heqing, or our little group of mixed expats and locals in Urumqi to explore around the city.  Simple having a group of contemporaries who, although quite different from myself, shared some of the same insights and experiences, and always had something to offer.

3441156346_0975b9570b_zHaving endless places to wander, right outside my door.  I’m a city explorer, and I love to be able to go out my front door and have new streets, new neighborhoods to explore.  In the Pacific Northwest this meant biking and weekend walks around cities forever blooming in mist-dappled flowers; in my hometown biking or horseback riding on winding trails across the state park a mere mile away; in Minneapolis taking long walks among the imposing classical buildings of the university lawn and gradually exploring the West Bank/Cedar Riverside with all it’s quirky cafes, yarn shops, and Ethiopian eateries; in Beijing, all the back streets and old neighborhoods still hiding behind the new sky scrapers; in Yunnan, biking up the valley walls and into the mountains; in Guangzhou exploring these secret streets of shadow still preserving Cantonese culture – or just enjoying the immense tropical garden growing in my apartment complex; in Urumqi, biking out to the rural suburbs or meeting new paths across the disappearing Uyghur section of town. Bishkek is a relatively small, car-heavy and new city – there are no truly old neighborhoods and, outside of the mile or two of downtown, most streets aren’t so pedestrian friendly (never mind bike friendly).

Another thing I miss – either blending in (Turkey, the US) or completely standing out (most of China). For racism is real and the fair of skin are not always favored.  Being mistaken for a young Russian in a country that many Kyrgyz view as exclusively their own (or being mistaken for Uyghur in Urumqi) can be quite unpleasant – whether men catcall you on the street (regardless of season or garb), drivers call you a whore for taking your right to use the crosswalk, the one homeless drunk picks you to leer at out of all the people waiting for the ATM (Tuesday), women demand your seat on the bus or budge in line – and then turn to swear at you when you protest (actually happened today with a 17-year-old at the university when I reminded her to not budge in line at the canteen cafeteria and was served with an epithet I shall not repeat), or just walk straight into you on the street. It’s not like being black in the 1960’s – I never feel acutely in danger.  But I do occasionally get the feeling that the people around me view me as a lower sort, simply based on assumptions from my appearance.   In Turkey, as in the US, I pretty much just blend in, and it’s quite easy to go along my daily life without disturbance.  In non-Xinjiang China I was always stared at, and (except for in the big cities) everyone around me was curious about me all the time – which is actually great if you are learning and looking to practice a language, and absolutely fantastic when you are a social-cultural historian who is interested in interviewing everyone anyway (until it gets to be 3 am and you just wish your fellow passengers on the train would let you maybe sleep).

And, to end on a light note: Chinglish.  Because Chinglish can always brighten your day, be it absurd, obscure, or even quite offensive:

I think this is just a reminder that we carry with us all the places we’ve been.  Being homesick when you live abroad – and when you’ve lived in many different locales – doesn’t necessarily mean longing for your original home.  I wouldn’t want to live in Urumqi or Foshan or even most of Yunnan anymore – but there are slivers of them that I’ll always miss (just as I’m sure there are pieces of Kyrgyzstan I’ll appreciate once we’ve moved on)

Teaching my Turkish Mother in Law to Cook Stuffed Chicken

DSC_0073Cooking with a Turkish mother-in-law is a terrifying proposition. Not only are Turkish women master artisans of the kitchen, but there’s not always a lot of variety allowed within dishes in Turkish cooking. Regional variances, sure, but you just put lemon in that soup? You want to eat dairy with fish? (obviously bagels with cream cheese and lox has yet to make its way to the Anatolian heartland, because even my husband still thinks the dairy+fish combination is poisonous).

I’ve also realized that it’s generally the urban young who are more food adventurous. Dozens of trendy bar-cafe-restaurants in the Kizilay-Tunali strip serve up mixed menus of traditional Turkish fare and more exotic imports, from fajitas to tiramisu to fantastic salads using new selections of seasonal produce. But while the tea houses are full of middle aged and older, and restaurants offering age-old favorites like pide, iskender, and doner with sides of green salad and soup are populated by people of all ages, the trendy cafes are still the stronghold of the young. There is incredible variety within Turkish cuisine, from the heavy spices of Hatay (Alexandria) to the thick and creamy dishes of the Black Sea region, to the savory-salty dishes heavy with meat in Central Anatolia to the lemon squeezed fresh fish and light salads of the Aegean. Most families I know cook what they know – either Turkish basics like kofte (meatballs), manti (small meat dumplings) and mercimek corbasi (lentil soup) or hometown classics – and stick to Turkish dishes when eating out, opting for pide, tost, stuffed baked potatoes, iskender, omelets, soup, fish, salads and soups, whether on the street or in the shopping malls. It is the youngest who (like their counterparts in all corners of the world) go for all forms of junk fast food, from Burger Kind blizzards to cheese sticks and chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers. People my age fluctuate – sometimes traditional Turkish, sometimes pizza, sometimes even sushi.

kitchen prep

I think the dichotomy is best embodied by E’s oldest sister (in her mid-forties), who mixes Turkish breakfasts with boxed cereal, and will cook kofte and salad one night, and vegetable-loaded pizza or lasagna the next. (A silly side note: E was shocked to learn that lasagna in origin was Italian, and not Turkish).

So staying in their flat for two weeks, I decided to cook dinner on Monday evening. Turkish food was obviously out – E’s mother can take any ingredient from the bazaar and envision a single-dish savory feast. I grew up eating a mix of everything on offer in Minneapolis – from my stepmother’s East Cpast seafood to butternut squash soup to Tibetan momo to my mother’s health fixes like kale and goat cheese casserole topped with roasted pinenuts. Most American dishes are either boring or hard to make outside of the states. So I went for something accessible and at least mildly interesting: spinach and mushroom stuffed chicken breasts.chicken prep

My mother-in-law had never heard of it before. When I said “stuffed chicken” she thought I meant a whole chicken, with stuffing inside – the way we Americans do Thanksgiving turkey. I showed her a few varieties on pininterest (also a new thing), and we got started, washing and chopping and sauteing and slicing and stuffing and roasting. While the chicken was actually a bit dry (we waited an extra hour for another family member to trudge home through the errant weather), my mother-in-law really enjoyed discovering something new in the kitchen – after 45 years of running a house, something with a completely different combination of texture and taste. Luckily for me she enjoys learning new things just as much as she appreciates my willingness to try everything. The Tuesday leftover sliced stuffed chicken on a bed of greens with beets and red onions and mandarin slices (?!) was, however, a bit too much.

DSC_0074**Apologies for non-Turkish spellings; I’ll still figuring out the Turkish keyboard on my computer.

Exploring Turkish Cuisine: What Exactly is a Kebab?

Originally posted on another blog I run here, but I thought my readers on Mountains and The Sea might need some appetizing weekend inspiration.


Two types of Kebab: Adana (back) and Beyti (front)

In the US we tend to think of a “kebab” as a grilled food on a stick: sizzling sliced of red meat and onions over the charcoals, vegetable kebabs, Hawaiian kebabs with speared pineapples and fish.  In most of Western Europe it’s sliced meat in a pita. But in Turkey you will encounter plenty of things called a kebab that look nothing like what I described above.  The meat may not be skewered; there may not even be a grill; there’s often not a pita.  In fact, some Turkish kebabs, like Tesli Kebabi, come in a baked clay bowl and look more like a stew.  Others, like the simit kebab, are sliced and wrapped in lavash under a dressing of sour yogurt.


Traditional Çöp Şiş


So what exactly is a Turkish kebab?

When you think of a kebab, the image that comes to mind is probably that of  Shish kebabs (Çöp Şiş or şiş kebap in Turkish) or shashlik (mixed meat and vegetables skewered and grilled).  But those are only two variations of kebabs. Kebab itself actually refers to a type of meat preparation – usually.  Continue reading

Vodka Sweets?

From the same store selling Odnoklassniki Vodka comes…vodka-filled chocolates? I guess they’re more customs-friendly if you’re trying to bring home a few more CIS classics – not technically a liquid, and therefore suitable for carry-on?

Two years on and I’m still sometimes amazed at the propensity for hard alcohol in the CIS states.  I still remember the first store I stopped in while taking the bus from Xinjiang to Almaty (Kazakhstan) in July 2013: our coach bus stopped beside two clampboard buildings in the middle of Kazakhstan’s windswept steppe, and I stepped into one looking for a SIM card.  I first thought I’d wrongly stepped into a liquor store, as half the walls were covered in vodka, cognac and cheap hard ale – more than a bottle for every homestead we’d passed in the past hour.  But no – all of Kazakhstan’s grocery stores were similarly devoted to one of the country’s greatest pastimes.

I’ll let you know how the taste test goes if I find any guineapigs willing to shell out $4 and try.

Food Nostalgia: Kawa Manta (Pumpkin Dumplings)

As you can probably understand from the photos below, one of the highlights of living in Urumqi (and just China in general) was the food.  Sure, there were some awful dishes.  But the variety, the color, the texture, the taste, the play on you palate can hardly be matched. pumpkin dumplings

Living in Urumqi (2012-2013) I had access to both Uygur and Chinese cuisines (along with a few random western imports, like the Colorado-ian owned Texas Cafe).  Living on a university campus, I had access to both within a two minute walk of my apartment, and at student prices (it’s probably why I gained ten pounds that year…). And while I’m a bit wheat intolerant, nobody does bread and pasta like the Uyghurs.  There was laghman with endless toppings soft under dripping sauce, raisin-stuffed buns with perfect oven-fresh crusts, chick peas on cold noodles, savory naan with meat mixed in the dough (made perfect when dipped in sour local yogurt), a ready lunch of samsa, light pillowy bread with  paper-thin shell and, of course, manti. The most common manti come stuffed with sheep, and in Uyghur cuisine that’s usually fatty, oil-dripping mutton.  But spring sees manta made with wild grass from the Kyrgyz highlands, and colder weather my personal favorite – kawa manta, pumpkin manta.

There was one restaurant in southern Urumqi, just north of the tourist bazaar, where I would always stop for manti on my trips to the southern end of town.  Grease-stained wallpaper cloaking two mutton-smelling rooms with dingy tables and barely a seat free – because they had some of the best food in town.  The proprietor started to laugh at me after a while – I was that one foreigner (there weren’t man in Urumqi) who could speak a little broken Uyghur, and who would come and just order three pumpkin manti every time. But the manti… it was like a pumpkin pillow of heaven.

Yesterday I had pumpkin manta in Bishkek (from the ‘Manti Yurt’) and it was awful.

img_0896Maybe I should follow the recipe on this Princeton blog and try making my own:

Ingredients: 1½ cup all-purpose flour; 1 cup cold water; 1 tbsp. salt; ½ cup fried mutton fat (or lean meat with 1 tsp. cooking oil); 1 large orange pumpkin; 2 green or red hot peppers; 1 red onion; cumin, salt, and pepper to taste.
Serving: Four, about 40-50 dumplings
1. Dissolve salt into water. In a large mixing bowl, add the saltwater to flour while kneading the dough constantly for about five minutes.
2. Dice fat or meat and vegetables into small cubes, not more than half an inch wide.
3. Combine meat and vegetables into another large bowl. Add cumin, salt, and pepper to taste.
4. Roll the dough into logs about ¾ inch diameter on a cutting board thinly coated with flour.
5. Cut the logs into ½ inch-long pieces. Flatten each piece into 3-inch-wide circles. The center of the pieces should be a bit thicker than its edges. Alternatively, buy ready-made dumpling wraps at an Oriental foods store.
6. Place 1 tbsp. of filling into wrapper. Fold the dough over in a semicircle. Smear the inside edges of the circle with a little water. Close the dumpling by pleating and pinching the edges, meeting at the top. Twist the top of the dough to seal firmly.
7. Steam the dumplings for 20 minutes, best in a multi-level steamer, and serve hot.

If this sounds too complicated, there’s a Trip Advisor video here and here, or if you’re not much of a chef, more Xinjiang foodporn here and (meh pictures) here.


Bishkek Restaurant Review: Cyclon (Italian)

Let’s be honest: Cyclon (on Chuy, halfway between Beta Stores and the Plaza) isn’t really an Italian restaurant. But that’s a good thing.

Cyclon is one of our Bishkek ‘standbys’ (the others are Park Cafe, Old Edgar’s, Obama Bar, Cave Coffee, Coffee Cafe, Mira Kebaba, Furusato and occasionally Beta 2 for breakfast).  The restaurant is best in summer, when you can sit out on the covered terrace and watch the pedestrian traffic go by while catching the evening breeze. In winter it’s less crowded, but the interior is still well-situated.  The menu includes a lot of Italian classics (with names in accurate Italian!) along with a more general continental selection of soups, salads, pastas, meats, pizzas and desserts. There are some strange things on the menu – like Scottish Cock-a-leekie soup (definitely not Italian…), but everything I’ve tried has been good – fresh ingredients, flavorful, neither over nor under cooked, nicely presented.
IMG_0784Though, like a lot of Bishkek restaurants, garnishes are not included. E ordered veal with truffle sauce, and he got exactly that: veal with truffle sauce.

Some of my favorites from Cyclone include: cold gazpacho soup (in summer, with plenty of toppings), mini gnocchi, the tuna salad – actually basically all their salads. Yesterday we split a giant mound of cucumber, tomato and corn salad with pesto that was surprisingly fresh given the season. E swears by the wiener schnitzel and tomato soup,, and his ungarnished veal was not bad.

Some practicalities: 

– The menu is in both Russian and English (with grammatically accurate cute descriptions of all the food and stories behind the different Italian pastas)

– The waitstaff tries to speak English.  If you speak no Russian, they are polite and patient enough that you shouldn’t have a problem.

– Prices are all really reasonable for what you get (good service, attention to detail, carefully-prepared delicious food, good ambiance).  Soups run 100-200 som, salad 100-300, main dishes 200-800.  We usually spend around 1500 som for two (gratuity included), though if you just ordered a soup and salad you could easily have a decent meal for under 500. Things like tea and breadbaskets are also all reasonably priced, and we’ve never found our bill to be off. It’s probably the best value-for-your-money Italian-ish restaurant in the city