Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Food

Oh, the food in the Middle East. It seems fitting that I dedicate an entire blog post to it. Looking back at my trip, it seems as if I ate vast amounts of food, even though I lost about 7 pounds.

Turkish and Israeli food are quite different, but have at least one thing in common: they are both delicious. The best thing about both is the freshness of the ingredients. Somehow even the most unassuming tomatoes are bursting with flavor (they actually taste red), and cucumbers, so bland in the States, positively sing with green, melony flavor. An Israeli I know bites into both as one might bite into an apple. They are, after all, fruit.

My favorite Turkish meal is breakfast. My Istanbul hotel served breakfast on a rooftop overlooking the Sultanahmet neighborhood, with the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya on one side, and the Sea of Marmara on the other. Laid out on a long table was an overwhelming buffet- copper bowls and jugs filled with three kinds of olives, yogurt, various white and marinated cheeses, fresh cherry tomatoes, bunches of mint and parsley, walnuts and hazelnuts and watermelon and sometimes plums, a mess of dried fruits including apricots, sour cherries, figs and white mulberries, and a full-sized honeycomb, hanging vertically from a wooden trestle.

There were also various egg dishes like menemen (finely scrambled eggs with tomato), plus small pastries sprinkled with sesame and black cumin seeds, and jars of various spices including aleppo and urfa pepper, to sprinkle on top. There were Turkish jams and confitures like pekmez (pomegranate molasses), rose petal jam and pumpkin preserve. And fruit leather, and halva, and even some tiny jewel-like pieces of lokum (Turkish Delight) to tempt those with a sweet-tooth. And Turkish coffee and Turkish tea to drink, served in a tiny tulip shaped glass on a white porcelain dish decorated with red and gold. Iced drinks included sour cherry juice and oriental sherbet, which tasted like spiced sour cherry mixed with lemonade and cardamon.

For my first three days in Istanbul, it was impossible to choose what to eat. I always took too much of everything and ended up skipping lunch and not having anything until 9pm. Finally on day four or so, I settled on melon with feta and walnuts with some veggies and a cup of Turkish tea. And that is what I ate contentedly for breakfast for the next 8 days. My mother settled on oats with hazelnuts, dried white mulberries and hot milk, and my father always had a mixture of dried fruits, bread and nuts. We never deviated.

The other Turkish dishes I love are the cold meze, small dishes (like tapas) of dips and such, usually served as appetizers. In restaurants, they come around with a huge tray of them and you get to pick. All were delicious, but I had three favorites, and I don't remember their turkish names. One was a simple dish of thick strained yogurt and purslane, a lemony succulent. Another was a tapenade made from almonds, olives, and red peppers. And the third was a marinated white fish called levrek (translated as Sea Bass), served in slivers in a simple sauce of olive oil and lemon. I could eat these three things alone for the rest of my life, but they also taste divine layered on a piece of bread.

I didn't eat as much in Tel Aviv as I did in Istanbul, but I was equally impressed by the food. The sandwiches are amazing, especially sabich (grilled eggplant, hard boiled eggs, tehineh and pickle) and shakshukah, which is fried egg and tomato in a pita with all sorts of pickles and veggies and tehineh and other things- I didn't really pay attention to what the guy put in it, but it was incredibly delicious. My friends CAG and AP swear by the coffee, but I had a taste and found it too bitter for me, though the texture was thick and grainy, like Mexican hot chocolate.

I already said that the vegetables were ten times more flavorful than here in the States, but so are the fruits. You can get tubs of giant fresh green and purple figs just about anywhere, along with fragrant lychees which sometimes come in little heart-shaped plastic boxes bearing a red sticker with the brand-name b'reshit ("In the beginning . . .") which must be a reference to all kinds of fruits being thought-up at the creation, i.e., "In the beginning, God created lychees." It is very tempting to remove the label and stick it on something else like an arm, or a laptop ("In the beginning, God created macbooks").

And then there are the freshly squeezed juices and lemonades, preferably had on a sidewalk cafe shaded by potted plants. The empress of all these is the limonana, a refreshing drink made of lemonade, crushed ice, and tons of fresh mint. The perfect thing on a hot day, though one limonana is clearly never enough. Because it is extremely hot all summer long in Tel Aviv (indeed, the coolest parts of the day are 6am and dusk), the city is full of incredibly refreshing things to eat and drink to cool off. Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv's first settlement, which feels like a tiny southern European village, is worth the short walk for the gelato alone (though it's also full of French tourists, who find it "franchement sympa"). My only regret foodwise is that I didn't get around to trying Israeli frozen yogurt, which I'm told is icier than American.

Yesterday was my first day back in North Carolina. I went to the grocery store and bought watermelon, feta, walnuts, lemons, and mint.

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