Wednesday, August 26, 2009
The long automotive battle between my brother and I has finally come to a conclusion with the death of his Honda last week. Despite the many problems with both of our cars, documented here, we fought a hard battle for over thirteen years, both automobiles and their owners refusing to give up the ghost. Recent transmission issues had me worried, but the magical brown beast seemingly fixed itself and trod onward.
Your winner is pictured here savoring the accolades, as well as another day spent on the road rather than in the junkyard. Notice the one remaining hubcap.
Can the Camry, currently sporting just under 220,000 miles, defeat yet another of Colin's rides? Only time will tell (the answer is hell no). Let the games begin!
Monday, August 17, 2009
The soul of a country can be seen inside the food they serve. The joy and the beauty of the Italian people flows through their pasta. The peasant power of China is seen in their rice. The on-the-go mentality of Americans is ever present in our pre-packaged, frozen cuisine and numerous fast food chains. I learned on my recent jaunt to Turkey that their food also reflects the complexity of their culture and history as a nation on the doorstep between Oriental and Western cultures. Sometimes, though, we have a primal need to bury our soul out of sight. Thus the invention of alcoholic beverages. Turkey has these too, in full measure, and I was so kind as to sample the various varieties so I could report back on them to you, dear reader.
First things first, though, a man must eat, and in my journey from Istanbul to Efes there was no shortage of options likely to turn that man into one of Pavlov's drooling beasts. Fortunately, I was prepared, having spent several years being taught the advanced art of Tongue Fu by Shaolin monks.
Tidal waves of saliva began to flow at each meal with the meze, a series of side items and finger foods that can play the role of appetizer or the main course. Meze made up the majority of the meal in Istanbul, but when we traveled in Anatolian Turkey mezes were lighter and a course composed of a spiceful, brothy soup was often inserted. You can see a selection of meze in the picture accompanying this article. The eggplant and tomato dish on the far right was my personal favorite from that meal.
Yogurt, sometimes served with dill, but not with fruit as we often see in the United States, is a constant at every meal, whether used as a sauce or meze. Fresh fruits and vegetables are standard as well, and you can absolutely count on an attack by some killer tomatoes. The honeydew, plums, and apricots are amongst the juiciest I have ever consumed, melting in your mouth like the perfect M&M.
One of my favorite items often served as meze is dolma. Dolma translated into English means "stuffed" and can come in many different forms. The objects being filled to bulging with tastiness by the taxidermist/chef include peppers, eggplants, and grape leaves. Inside you will find a savory combination of rice, tomato, meat, and spices.
When time came for the main course I often had to struggle with the urge to give up and call it a meal. By summoning up my mental fortitude I was able to soldier on and thus can report back to you on what I found.
There are some items in Turkey with which Americans would be somewhat familiar. Kebabs, for example, have found their way onto the menu of many a restaurant here. The Turkish versions I saw differed slightly - they were not served upon a skewer (as in shish kebab) - probably because of the bad experiences the Ottomans had with a man named Vlad the Impaler. Nor were they diced into chunks of meat and vegetable. Turkish kebabs consisted of a piece of tenderloin or lamb stuffed with cheese and vegetables. Some were topped with a sauce, others served plain.
Of the foods I sampled the kebabs were amongst the best, but were unable to reach Olympic medal status. Which flavors did manage to medal in the gustatory battle?
Bronze: Pide. No food does a better job of illustrating the combination of Eastern and Western influences in Turkish cuisine. Pide is the local form of pita, but lacking the pocket we normally associate with the bread. Instead, pide is made into the Turkish version of pizza, with various meats, cheeses, and vegetables (almost always includes tomatoes) used as toppings. The pide is chopped up into small finger food-sized portions. Similar to pide is lahmacun, an oval-shaped pide dough topped with finely chopped meats and herbs. Lahmacun melts in your mouth like the butter made from the udders of the Gods, assuming you are Polytheistic enough to enjoy such a concept.
Silver: Manti. Manti is a Turkish pasta that consists of folded triangles of dough filled with minced meat, often with minced onions and parsley. Manti is typically served hot topped with garlic yogurt and melted butter or warmed olive oil, and a range of spices such as oregano, dried mint, ground sumac, and red pepper powder. The version I sampled in Cappadocia involved a ring of yogurt topped dumplings encircling a castle of minced meat and onions. This dish alone was almost good enough to justify the long flight to Turkey.
Gold: Yurek Kavurma. I had many great meals during my seven days in Istanbul and Anatolia, but the best may have been the very first. My stepmother prepared a very typical Turkish repast with yogurt, dolma, as well as fresh cheese and bread.
Nalan had a special treat in store for what happened to be my birthday luncheon (although I was so jet-lagged I kept forgetting what day it was). The piece de resistance happened to be a very simple looking preparation of steak, tomatoes, onions, and peppers. The pieces of steak were actually beef hearts, a fact Nalan withheld until after we had eaten, probably for fear the timid Americans (Dad and I) would be scared to give them a try. They tasted as good as any filet and I miss them already as much as the desert misses the rain. The desert is better off. The dry sands don't know the taste of what they are missing.
These fine meals would not have been complete without beverages to wash them down and there are a variety of great choices in the gullet lubrication department as well. Hot tea, or chai as it is called in Turkish, is always offered, an omnipresent sign of your host's hospitality. Coffee comes in the regular American style or a Turkish version strong enough to give an oxen pause before taking on the challenge of a cup. If you are looking for something unique try the ayran, a salty, frothy yogurt-based beverage that goes well with pide.
Sometimes after a hard day of touring you need to imbibe something with a little more punch. Dad recommends a glass of Yakut, a red wine produced in Anatolia, where certain areas boast a climate not dissimilar to the wine-growing regions of Northern California. The potential for growth in Turkish wine is intriguing as it is currently imported into the US in only small quantities.
Being a lover of the beer myself I present to you Efes, the official beer of the Turks. This tasty pilsner is named after the city of Ephesus (called Efes nowadays), which you may know from the Bible chapter of Ephesians. These are a series of letters the Apostle Paul wrote to those fools he was religious pen-pals with in Ephesus, dropping some seriously heavy spiritual shit on them.
If you aren't a pilsner fan you are in luck, the beer market has opened up tremendously in recent years and there is now another option, known as Gusta. Gusta is a wheat beer and it tastes exactly like Blue Moon, and I mean exactly. Not trying to instigate a lawsuit here, just sayin'. There aren't a lot of other choices in the hops and barley department there so you better like one of the two - fortunately I was down with the Efes.
On times such as your birthday, for example, you might be looking for something with a little more poof and proof behind it. Worry not, for the Turks have created a drink just for you. Raki. An anise-based liquor similar to ouzo or pernod, raki can have quite an effect on your vocal cords, resulting in a state of mind known as raki talk, endless blabber about nothing. Fortunately for me I do that sober and thus I avoided that effect.
Raki can also result in some strange escapades. According to recent studies raki makes it 300 times more likely that you will jump into the Bosphorus, the body of water separating Asian and European Istanbul. The same research indicates that it is seven times harder for people to pull your drunk ass back onto a boat lacking a ladder when you have consumed raki and weigh over 200 pounds. Sometimes you have to drink in the name of science.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Saturday, August 8, 2009
Apparently, size does matter. Istanbul, Turkey is currently listed as the third largest city in the world and having recently returned from a trip there to see my father, his Turkish wife Nalan, and her son/my stepbrother Coskucan any doubt I had in the accuracy of my Rand-McNally Atlas has been swept away. No place I have visited in the United States, even New York, can measure up to the immense population (three times larger than Chicago!) residing there or the sheer geographic extent of the city. One day during my visit we drove fifty minutes of mostly highway driving, and were still seemingly nowhere near the outskirts of the monstrous metropolis.
There is more to the city of Istanbul than idle comparisons to Ron Jeremy. Sitting with one foot in Europe and another in Asia, Istanbul boasts a unique culture combining exotic and ancient aspects of the Orient with many of the modern values of Europe. From the moment of landing at Ataturk International Airport, I was overwhelmed by sensory input.
All of your senses are required to appreciate the foreign masses and structures before you. So many things to see, touch, smell, and taste. You need to use all of these (and perhaps ESP as well to avoid getting hit by a taxi) and I encourage you to do so if you ever find yourselves in Istanbul.
In my opinion, however, the best way to experience the place is through your ears. So take a Q-tip and clean out the wax from your aural canal, sit back, and listen to the city talk. Soon you will hear the pieces fall into place and you may unravel its unusual mysteries.
One of the most unusual sounds to strike my Western ears was the call of the muezzin. Suddenly gone were the church bells of my Southern youth, replaced by his hypnotic chanting voice. The main religion of Turkey is Islam and the muezzin reminds everyone of that fact five times a day, when he calls devout Muslims to prayer over a PA system and subsequently sings selected verses from the Koran.
Mosques dominate the skyline of Istanbul, which according to They Might Be Giants, was once known as Constantinople (the song, which is actually a cover of a tune from the 1950s, fails to mention that before the reign of emperor Constantine the city was called Byzantium). The typical mosque is designed in an architectural style that would have given Sigmund Freud enough material for a new book. The structure's domes are shaped like breasts with a small nipple-like steeple protruding from the center. Rising above the domes are minarets (usually there are four except in the case of Istanbul's famous Blue Mosque which has six) whose phallic towers seem to symbolize the male sex organ and therefore the dominance of man over woman in Islamic culture.
Don't be fooled though, as prevalent as the mosques are Istanbul is a very cosmopolitan city. Many of my Turkish relatives and their friends are either Atheists or lapsed Muslims. The fundamentalism many Americans associate with Islam was completely absent in my experiences there. Alcohol was legal and enjoyed by nearly everyone I encountered. Fun fact: my stepbrother Coskucan kindly informed me that the first motion pictures produced in Turkey were porno flicks.
Give Em the Horn
The sounds of honking fills the ears when moving around Istanbul. Cars, taxis, buses, and pedestrians fill the streets of the city and fight for each meter of available space. The traffic moves in a seemingly chaotic pattern and streets created long before the existence of automobiles meander up and down the hills of the town, which are often as steep as those in San Francisco.
Don't rent a car here without first making sure the brakes are in perfect condition. If you have a heart condition or drive defensively just take a taxi or the train. Actually, if you have a heart condition taking the taxi is not for you either as the drivers bob and weave in and out of the lanes like the young butterfly Cassius Clay deftly avoiding the punches of Sonny Liston. The driver's left hand is constantly on the horn and he uses it without any remorse against any other vehicles or pedestrians who dare intrude into his path. Pedestrians better be aware of where they are at all times during their real life game of Frogger or else they will quickly become like the star of the song by the great band Cattle Decapitation - a "Pedeadstrian."
Fireworks Exploding in the Night
My first night in town happened to fall on my birthday and my Turkish family was kind enough to take me out on a private cruise of the Bosporus, the waterway that divides European Istanbul from Asian Istanbul. As we floated around in the night, I couldn't help but notice the recurring sound and sight of fireworks in the night sky. Had I landed on Turkish Independence Day or perhaps some obscure Muslim holiday of which I was not aware? Were these explosions just the local version of rednecks having a good time? Not at all. In fact, I shortly learned that something more sinister was going on - little boys were losing part of their penis.
When a lad reaches the age of nine in Turkey the time has come to face the foreskin executioner's blade. The rite of circumcision is somewhat similar to a Bar Mitzvah. Like that Jewish ceremony but with more penis chopping, circumcision is treated as a coming of age ritual in which the child is dressed up in a uniform similar to your high school marching band's and piled with presents and attention to make up for the fact that he is about to say goodbye to his foreskin for the final time. Originally the ritual was linked with Islam, but nowadays it has become more of a cultural thing. My stepbrother, who was not raised as a Muslim, winced as he told me he had also undergone the ordeal. The fireworks acknowledge that the deed is done and the boy has moved on to the next stage of manhood.
I want to use this space to personally thank my parents for having this procedure done on me when I was too young to realize what was happening.
The Cat's Meow
The pussies that used to congregate in the harems of Topkapi Palace now roam the streets in gangs. Purring, meowing, and screeching their way through the city, cats own the back alleys of Istanbul. Existing in numbers that almost boggle the mind, felines are an ubiquitous sight as you wander from shop to shop. The section of the town where my family resides is nicknamed "The Republic of Cats." So densely packed are they in the area that fights over territory or ladies are bound to occur and I was wakened from sleep on multiple occasions by the screeching of their battles.
The Siren's Call of the Carpet Merchant
Finally, a warning for other Americans set to visit Istanbul. You may have left the land of Wall Street behind, but capitalism is alive and well in Turkey. If you doubt my word, merely walk around the tourist district in the vicinity of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque for a couple of hours while wearing your "I am a Tourist!" uniform (don't forget the camera). Plan on being accosted several times by the men my brother has so accurately referred to as the used car salesmen of Turkey - the carpet merchants.
These fellows all have a relative from the United States they will be glad to tell you about as they show you to their store, where they have very fine merchandise and a special price just for you. Follow along and you will see. Who knows, perhaps you will find a carpet that really ties the room together.
Are these salesman roaming the tourist district searching for naive prey to plunder or aggressive but fair businessmen doing their utmost to bring in customers? Probably the honesty of the individual may vary as in most businesses, but I chose to avoid finding out since my rug remains unmiturated upon.
People of Mirth
Of all the sounds that I recall from my time in Istanbul the one that will stay with me longest is laughter. I will forever remember the friendliness of my Turkish relatives, some of whom I was meeting for the very first time, as well as my immediate acceptance among their friends. Their smiles and laughs will linger long after my memories of the mosques and palaces I visited fade away in the distances of my mind.
Next month: Turkish cuisine and booze