Mezze Party / The Middle East, Too, Is Made Up of People

P R O L O G U E : It’s a strange and interesting thing to be a first generation American. It’s a sad and lonely and bittersweet thing at times, too. You may find yourself born and raised in, say, Los Angeles, and, naturally, very, very American; but let’s say you don’t have an accent in public but maybe you have a bit of one at home, speaking in the same rhythmic tones of your parents’ language, say, Arabic, and sometimes even bits of Turkman, and cursing always in their language, but not even the cool hip words kids use these days, but the softer words your parents used because, after all, you’re only children and it was a different time then. You may have unconsciously or consciously developed your own ways to fit in at school or work or parties, maybe omitting your last name or Muslim identity from conversation, or maybe secretly spending years diligently working on your enunciation, you know, those years reading aloud to yourself in your room to hear the words come out as Hollywood as possible. And, you see, you grew up in a house with parents from, in my case, the Middle East, specifically Iraq -- the Iraq that people always have an opinion about at dinners, the Iraq we’ve been intermittently at war with since I was in first grade -- with a different language, different foods, different rules than the rest of your friends. And even if you mainly answered back in English, you still inherited all the sounds and rhythm and feeling of the language, the pain and beauty of the language, too. It’s as if you have two feet firmly planted in American soil, because, hey, that’s what you know, and yet there is one emotional ghost-leg dangling, reaching, searching for some distant place you may never see in your own lifetime but contributes so heavily to your makeup. My dad always says “Don’t visit Iraq -- you’ll think me and your mother are liars.” And you know, Iraq has unfortunately been put through so much destruction, haramat, as it is, of course, a country that has the inherent misfortune of rich soil. For now, it seems it is no longer allowed to be the prosperous country of my parents’ youth; and it is this Iraq, their Iraq, the Iraq of the fifties, sixties, even seventies, where my heart searches for belonging. It’s a sad and lonely and bittersweet thing at times, too, this business of being first generation. [END PROLOGUE.]

It was a Thursday morning, and a very early morning, at that. It was a five o’clock in the morning kind of early morning when Mousa Kraish found me via Instagram, of all places, and sent me that enthusiastic and confusing but lovely email. We met up hours later for coffee at the Intelligentsia on Sunset to have our first conversation about Bedouin, his soon-to-be Mid East inspired cafe. It all happened in a blur, and it took about twenty minutes before I could make out something about my possible role in it all, a mezze dinner, and complete creative control. Wait what? The next minute we are in front of the building that in months will be Bedouin.

Mousa is Palestinian American. This comes as a relief in a way that’s hard to explain; maybe because I don’t have an Arab community in Los Angeles and am thirsty for that kind of understanding, a secret comfort in an unspoken familiarity. At least, finally, someone to consider the important questions: Palestinian Kadayif is nothing like Iraqi Kadayif, and why, exactly, is that? Why do we call it the same thing if the only thing it has in common is that it’s a dessert? Okay maybe the sugar and walnut filling. But sometimes Iraqi Kadyif has cream. Does the Palestinian one ever have cream? And sometimes it has cheese, but why, then, don’t Iraqis call the cheese one kanafeh like everyone else? These are the thoughts that keep me up at night.

A little over a week later I find myself hosting a small mezze and wine gathering at Mousa’s place in Angelino Heights. More specifically his beautiful backyard, on the deck that he built. Most everything for this mezze is made from scratch and with so much care. Some might say unnecessarily so, but when most of the guests are not entirely familiar with the complexities of the region, heart matters. In Los Angeles, there is limited exposure to Middle Eastern food, especially from Arab countries. Just hummus and kebabs. Sometimes falafel and tabouleh. Oh and the misrepresentative grape leaf dolmas, slimy and from a can. And pretty exclusively Armenian, Lebanese, or Iranian style dishes. There are no, say, Iraqi or Palestinian or Syrian restaurants in Los Angeles, at least not to my knowledge, each with its own unique styles and flavors and textures. What ends up happening in this city is that, in order to expose those who are maybe unfamiliar or even afraid, everything sits comfortably and romantically under the umbrella of “Middle Eastern” or “Mediterranean,” generalizing the region, which is problematic because we already politically generalize the region. Many people don’t think of the Middle East as vast and complex, with varying ethnicities, languages, dialects, religions, cultures, histories, cuisines; they think of the Middle East as one big blob of hummus and falafel and camels and war. It’s a little annoying, actually. With that said, my Iraqi mother’s hummus is going to have a different taste and texture and secret – of course there are always secrets! -- than what most Angelinos are familiar with, especially on the Eastside.

Mezze means something to the effect of “tastings.” It’s the tapas of the Middle East. For this mezze I wanted to focus primarily on ingredients and flavors and textures from Iraq, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey; and yet, without being too unfamiliar, while also being representative of the farmers-market-part-time-vegetarian-health-conscious culture of Los Angeles. 

Cardamom, saffron, za’atar, sumac, nigella seeds, olive oil, pomegranate, dates, cumin, garlic, garlic, garlic, mint, dill, lebneh, lemon, lemon, lemon, sea salt, tahini, parsley.

Many of the mezze dishes of the evening are meant to be dipped with warm pita. The hummus was prepared with the utmost attention and care since it is usually so critically judged, even by amateurs. They were the Rancho Gordo heirloom chickpeas, soaked for hours, and cooked until the perfect texture. Time was spent pealing all the skins. All the skins. The ingredients were organic and fresh. And that heirloom garlic with the purplish hue, the spicy one I picked up from Cookbook in Echo Park, now that has to be some of the best garlic around – it ended up in almost everything that night. To test my patience I waited until the bell peppers were blackened before peeling them for the muhammara, a Syrian dip made from roasted peppers, walnuts, and pomegranate molasses. A bowl of the thick and creamy lebneh, topped with olive oil and za’atar. A smaller one of just the olive oil and za’atar with Maldon salt to dip. The jajeek dip, too: lebneh, cucumbers, garlic, mint. All the pickled things we call tourshi. The classic: beet and turnip tourshi; the thin, crispy dill cucumber tourshi; and even the garlic I pickled in apple cider vinegar two years ago. Olives, olives, olives. A feta sampler, even. Grilled halloumi cheese, my favorite. The organic, grass-fed beef koftas with parsley, onions, spices, and drizzled with a lemony tahini sauce. The filo dough boreks stuffed with diced golden and purple beets, beet greens, and Bulgarian feta, and served with lebneh. The roasted cauliflower salad made of green, yellow, and purple cauliflower, shaved almonds, golden raisins, garlic, lemon, Maldon salt, and black pepper. And an Ottolenghi-inspired spicy purple beet dip that made the table POP! with added color. All with endless pita and red wine. 

Dessert was a simple three ingredient Palestinian semolina cake called harissa, topped with shaved almonds and then soaked in a cardamom-cinnamon-infused simple syrup. Semolina cakes vary across the Middle East and Mediterranean. Iraqis, par example, bake the almond into the cake, giving it a grainier texture. This was served with Mousa’s special Palestinian fresh sage tea, pronounced in his own dialect as shai instead of chai, which I personally never heard before. Overall: a success.

Iraqi Watermelon Rind Preserves; OR: Breakfast at Ada Kahvalti

I met Terry for the first time at Selin's cooking class in Kadiköy a month earlier. We exchanged numbers and stayed in touch during my nearly two months in Istanbul. Terry is beautiful and interesting and adventurous. She grew up in Istanbul; her family even had a summer house on one of the Princess Islands. When she was very young her parents decided to move the family to Mexico City on what I like to imagine was a whim. This sudden desire for exciting transformations must be a family thing, as I happen to find Terry during another major life transition, which I fully appreciate because I happen to be in the throws of one myself.

Terry is responsible for introducing me to the wonderful Turkish breakfast at Ada Kahvalti, on Büyükada, the largest of the Princes' Islands. (Büyük means big. Ada means island. When I put these things together I am very pleased with myself.) 

Four of the nine islands, interchangeably and collectively called the Princess, Princes', or Prences Islands, are the prime weekend vacation spots for the Istanbulu. These islands feel like remnants of another time, seemingly isolated and notably charming. There are no cars on the islands. People walk, bike, or take horse-drawn carriages called phaeton. Ada Kahvalti, a ten minute walk from the ferry, is in the front yard of a home, on a tree-lined street with other such homes. I walk up and down Akdemir Sokak (sokak means street) many times before I finally find the hanging sign hidden behind the bougainvillea.  

The Ada Kahvalti breakfast is not on the table all at once. It wouldn’t fit. The owner brings anything she chooses in rounds. Small dishes arranged beautifully on the table. One with green olives, another with black olives and a delicate lemon wedge. The deep-red muhammara, a roasted red pepper walnut dip and staple in many Middle Eastern countries, is slightly tangy and topped with a few crumbled walnuts. A plate of fresh cherry tomatoes, chopped with parsley arrives, with just a hint of olive oil and lemon, followed by sliced cucumbers with those wonderful little curly green peppers native to the region that I have yet to find in the states; clearly handpicked and locally-sourced.  There is a selection of cheeses from various parts of the country, including the subtly tangy çökelek, a crumbly whey cheese, here with red and green peppers, that makes me appreciate the limited time I have in this city. Quartered medium-boiled farm eggs topped with chopped parsley and what tastes like paprika. An assortment of fresh breads and pastries including sliced baguette, simit, and pogača. A requested addition of the quintessential menemen, eggs lightly scrambled atop a steamy tomato pepper stew, here with slices of sujuk, a spiced semi-cured meat. I prefer my eggs pouched, not scrambled, in the stew, the way my father taught me, and so am pleased when the deep yellow yolk is still clearly visible. Of course, there is my personal favorite Turkish breakfast must-have, the bal kaymak, a type of thick clotted cream sitting in a pool of honey. And, of course, the uniquely flavored and textured homemade preserves, of which I can’t seem to get enough: one is rose with lemon and bergamot; the other, watermelon rind. 

Yes, watermelon rind preserves. Terry and I struggle to place the flavor, and when we ask the owner she gives us an adorably sassy smile. 

At thirty, I’ve surely tasted so many peculiar flavors that it must be rare to be so startled, and by something that looks and feels like a basic marmalade. Yet, here I am, confronted with a taste unlike anything I’ve ever had before. This sparks one of those trite deeply personal inspirations: there is so much life out there

Back in the states, lovingly perusing my copy of Nawal Nasrallah’s Delights from the Garden of Eden, I come across an Iraqi version of the Watermelon Rind Preserves. Apparently this is a THING. And, upon questioning, my parents are fully aware, having failed to mention this to their children. "There's some in the fridge. It's your father's favorite." 

Iraqi Watermelon Rind Preserves

adapted from Nawal Nasrallah

ingredients:

2 lbs watermelon rind (1 large watermelon)
     (removed of the red flesh and firm green outer peel!)
     (cut rind into strips about 1” x 2”)
3 cups sugar
½ cup honey
juice and zest of half a lemon
4 cardamom pods, whole

directions:

1. Place strips of watermelon rind in an appropriately sized pot, cover with cold water.
2. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer, about 30 minutes.  Drain and keep about 3 cups of liquid. Set aside.
3. In a heavy lidded pot: dissolve sugar in the watermelon rind liquid.
4. Add honey, lemon zest, and cardamom. Bring to a boil.
5. Add drained rind. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer, about 30 minutes.
6. Set aside, cover, and let cool overnight. 
7. Next day: boil again over medium until thick, about 30 minutes.
8. Add lemon juice, a few minutes. It’s done when it keeps a thick and chunky texture.
9. Cool completely. Refrigerate. Keeps a long time.
10. Serve with geymar/kaymak/clotted cream!

Istanbul's Famous Pando Kaymak

It was that last week before I left Istanbul, the city of my heart, and very early in the morning, when I dragged Şule across the Bosphorus to Beşiktaş  to the culinary institution that is Pando Kaymak

Growing up, my parents would constantly reminisce about that unparalleled clotted cream, that dream served with honey and bread, the one made from water buffalo milk, and always with stars in their eyes. This was back home in Iraq, back before the wars, back before Saddam, back when Iraq was allowed to thrive. The Iraq of their memory was a great country, secular, with an excellent education system, an investment in locally grown foods, and a booming capital city.  

In Iraq this dream that mildly resembles clotted cream is called "geymar," in Iran it's called "sarshir," and in Turkey it's called "kaymak." It is usually made from cow's milk. But the absolute best one is made from water buffalo milk. 

Water buffalos are moody creatures and raising them is an art, something almost poetic. These animals seem to produce milk only for those farmers with an almost familial relationship, developed over years of trust. It's not something you can mass produce. This is why water buffalo farms are rare. 

So when I finally make it to Istanbul, the city my father studied in his sophomore year at university, I, naturally, search for any place that serves kaymak made from water buffalo milk

Most people visit Istanbul for the views, the history, the "East meets West." I'm in Istanbul for the water buffalo kaymak. 

And then I find it. 

A now 92-year-old adorable man named Pando who, with his wife Yuana, spend three days perfecting each batch of water buffalo kaymak. 

This man is known as an institution by the Istanbullu. His name is actually Pandelli Şestakof, but everyone calls him Pando. And his shop is actually called Kaymakli Kahvalti Burada, but everyone calls it Pando Kaymak. I love that. 

When Şule and I arrive I am obviously very excited. We have a seat and I immediately spot Pando, recognizing him from photographs online. I distractedly order from the young woman working there, keeping my eyes on the adorable man who runs the place. There is no menu, which I love, so we simply order kahvalti, breakfast, with extra kaymak. The people seated around us outside are just casually eating breakfast, so Pando probably can see that I am a little too excited to be having breakfast. He comes over to our table to see how we are doing and Şule translates the conversation. I ask her to tell him that I came all the way from Los Angeles to have his famous kaymak. This prompts him to sit with us. He motions the server to bring him çay, bardak not finjan cup preference, which I love, and he proceeds to have a conversation with us for most of our breakfast. 

Pando's breakfast looks like this: a plate of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, feta, and the best black olives, maybe, in the world; fried eggs and sucuk; a basket of baguettes; and, of course, the kaymak in a pool of honey sitting on a small piece of honey comb, which seems to be standard for good kaymak in this city. All the ingredients are of the best quality, deliberately selected, and from various regions in Turkey. 

The only way I can describe how Pando's water buffalo kaymak is the best kaymak I have ever had in my life, so smooth going down, and why I understand my parents' life long obsession with water buffalo kaymak, is to compare it to something like whiskey. You can enjoy a decent, affordable whiskey but maybe it's nothing special, it's not exciting. But it's not a cheap, disgusting whiskey that you use for cocktails only either. That's the cow's milk kaymak. But then there's the really delicious, expensive whiskeys that you only bring out for special occasions, too afraid to waste even a single drop, and never, ever do you make a cocktail with it. That's what Pando's kaymak is, except you have to eat it right then, you can't save it. This forces you to live in the present moment and realize that in life you can't keep saving up all the good things for later. 

At some point Pando gestures to take my picture with him using his own camera.  I love that. And later when I hug him goodbye I also ask for a picture of us using my phone.

This morning I found out that Pando is being evicted from his shop, the place his father established in 1895. No, that's not a typo. 1895. He makes the best kaymak in Istanbul, maybe in the world. And he's being evicted to make way for a büfe, or a "fast food snack shop," because: capitalism. So, please, if you know anyone in Istanbul, tell them to organize a flash-mob dine-in and prove that Pando is worth keeping.

The article mentions a photo taken with a tourist: 

"Yuana, his wife and business partner, laughed cynically and moved on to a story about pretty young tourists posing for pictures with Pando that morning. Pando chuckled and waved her off. They’ve now seen it all, it would seem."

...and I like to think that overly-excited tourist was me.

Address: Köyiçi Meydanı Sokak, Beşiktaş
Telephone: +90 212 258 2616

Karaköy Pier Impromptu Çaycısı

A Wednesday evening in Istanbul. Walking the hip alleys of Karaköy, enjoying a coffee and some conversation at Karabatak cafe. On my way back to the ferry -- which is a regular form of transportation for me now -- I stumbled upon a sort of impromptu Çaycısı (chai cafe) with fresh seafood along the Bosphorus at Karaköy pier, near the fish market, just west of the Galata Bridge. This is definitely a thing

Istanbul is so alive all the time, even the middle of the week. 

The energy here is palpable. And the air, though often humid in the summer, makes me feel truly awake, as if I have been sleeping my whole life until now. Perhaps I will move here and drink çay by the sea every day. In the Turkish alphabet "ç" makes the sound "ch," thus çay is pronounced chai. Practice the Turkish alphabet before coming to Istanbul: it helps a lot. I say this because you will definitely want to come to Istanbul. For instance, all the food served anywhere in this city, from fancy restaurant to street food, is incredibly delicious. The quality of ingredients is exceptional and you will taste it immediately. 

Here at the pier, street vendors are selling fresh fish sandwiches with herbs, ground chili pepper, fresh tomatoes, peppers, onions, and lemon juice called balık ekmek for no more than 5 Turkish Lira (TR), only about $2.50.  Do not worry, those fishermen you see along the pier are hobbyists, the fish is sourced from cleaner waters than the Bosphorus.  A three-man operation is handing out çay for free. Be sure to say teşekkürler and tip these men: reward kindness. When I ask to take their picture they pose instantly, no questions asked. In fact, most people here are glad to have their photos taken. Remember: this is a great way to make friends. 

Turkish Breakfast Variations

Merhaba from Kadiköy, Istanbul on the Asian side! Took a ferry from the airport to get to Şule's place. There is something lovely about that. And now I have an alarm system outside of my phone: a man beautifully singing Qu'ranic prayers from the mosque nearby. Five times a day, in case I take a nap or two. 

The morning after I arrived, my host, Şule, prepared the lovely Turkish-style breakfast for me, as shown above, and we have been having this each morning in variations. It's actually very similar to the Iraqi breakfasts I grew up with -- my Turkman father, with a serious De Niro face, who casually creates nonsensical rhymes for certain words, would call it a "cheese meeze" breakfast. Şule güzelim, my beauty, was sure to pick up the fresh simit, a circular sesame encrusted bread from heaven, from her simitçi or simit man. Oh I am certain I can eat simit with feta, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, and çay every morning for the rest of my life. Omelet optional.

When I asked Şule what she wanted from Los Angeles she said bagels, plain bagels from Western Bagel. Next time she comes to visit me, I will ask for the simit. 

It is very natural for me now: çay (tea) with meals, Türk kahvesi (Turkish coffee) after meals. Somehow I thought this would be a difficult transition for me, but the çay  is enough caffeine to get me through breakfast, considering my dependencies. And the Türk kahvesi is strong enough to get me through... a few hours. Until my next cup. Today, while walking along the Marmara Sea, with the parks and beaches filled with picnics and laughter and volleyball, we stopped at a random cafe for a Türk kahvesi break. It's quite nice to be walking for awhile and suddenly a cafe appears so that you can rest your old lady bones and have a nice cup of coffee. 

It is clear that breakfast is my favorite meal here. And it's nice to have someone to share it with. Afiyet olsun!

Turkish Breakfast  | #01

ingredients: 

simit, preferably fresh from the simitçi 
tomatoes, with olive oil
cucumbers, with olive oil
feta, with olive oil 
olives, green and black 
omelet of choice, mine: feta, dill, scallions
çay

directions:

Lounge at the table while eating all these things in the way that feels most natural to you. When you are done, enjoy some Türk kahvesi and maybe a small sweet.