Monday, November 12, 2007

Food Cultures

Drop in blogging for many reasons, none of which are worth mentioning really. In anycase, I had wanted to post bits from Culinary Cultures of the Middle East, so shall do that. It came recommended by Elizabeth and I really enjoyed it even if it did make my stomach grumble and my mouth water!

This from Bert Fragner’s essay in the book, From the Caucuses to the Roof of the World: a culinary adventure:

Apart from the political animosity which pervaded political relations between the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs and the Ottomans there also existed a special network of hegemony within which these two superpowers were rivals and partners at the same time. This means that new commercial and consumer goods bought by the Spaniards from the American continents to the European sphere found their immediate way into the Ottoman Empire, even earlier than to other European regions. Therefore, the ‘Indian chicken’ then recently imported from Mexico, was directly transported from Spain to the Ottomans, who took over its denomination as Hindi or Hindi Tavuq (tawuq Hindi in Syrian Arabic until today). The term for this bird in Austrian German, 'Indian', indicates that Habsburg subjects in central Europe became acquainted with it through Ottoman help! So strong was Ottoman hegemony that, as far away as England, the notion of that crisp and tasty poultry as Turkish must have been more deeply ingrained than any awareness of it as ‘Indian’ (i.e. American) origin; in English – an in English-speaking America – it is called ‘turkey’.

I remember bursting into a fit of giggles in class when I found out that the turkey in Turkish is actually called Hindi. My teacher asked me what was so funny, and before I could answer, started chuckling himself. The mixing and forming of cultures is a strange and fascinating thing. Food, music, dance, vocabularies, stories – these are all so fluid, living, constantly evolving.

As Sami Zubaida asserts in his essay National, Communal and Global Dimensions in Middle Eastern Food Cultures, even though the map of the modern world is one of nation states, these states and their societies are subject global influences outside their control. Plus, geographical areas tend to share certain cultural idioms that predate the formation of these states. It’s interesting to see the commonalities in food across the Middle East, Central Asia all the way to northern India. Though as the essay points out there is a sharp difference between foods of the ex-Ottoman empire and the lands between Anatolia through the Iranian plateau to the Hindu Khush and up to the Tarim Basin are quite untouched by Mediterranean food influences.

Then of course there are Central Asian influences as well. Charles Perry in his essay The Taste for Layered Bread among the Nomadic Turks and the Central Asian Origins of Baklava traces the fascination of the nomadic Turks (from Central Asia who began invading Anatolia in the 11th century) with layered breads, drawing the links between the various types of layered breads among the Uyghurs, Uzbeks, Tartars, Kazakhs etc that eventually led to the filo that is the base for the not only the baklava but even the apple strudel.

Dumplings are interesting as well – virtually present in the cooking of every country it seems. Though I would probably guess that they spread from China (dimsum and jiaozi – I love them!) - Uzbek manty and Turkish mantı (see Elizabeths post on manty here – I have only tried the Turkish variety), momos and pelmeni are only some variants. Btw, apparently samosas have Central Asian origins as well – I never knew.

A while back while talking to TAP I mentioned the one Central Asian country I really wanted to visit was Uzbekistan. “Really,” he asked, “why?” I said I wanted to visit Samarkand and Bukhara oh so much. “Wow,” he replied, “You just named two of my favourite restaurants!” (Oh dear, even as I type this I crave the kebabs in Delhi. Sigh – I am such a foodie!). It’s interesting how we have taken kebabs and polow and made them something quite our own as well, isn’t it?

This Saturday when I went for Turkish class I took a box of soan papdi with me (I know it might not be traditional Diwali sweets or so, but hey, Haldiram packages it!). My teacher eyed it a bit suspiciously when I offered it but took one bite and declared “Oh! It’s pişmaniye!” I just knew you would say that I told him as he happily helped himself to another serving. He replied smiling, “Gerçekten, Türkiye ve Hindistan çok benziyor!” I do agree.


thalassa_mikra said...

You've touched on one of my favourite subject - the intermingling of food cultures from the Persian, Ottoman and Arab world all the way to Northern India.

Though frankly, I would disagree with Charles Perry and go with Nawal Nasrallah who argues that baklawa is of Baghdadi origin, even though its name is Turkish.

That's because:

a) there is absolutely no baklawa equivalent in Central Asia, though the dessert exists in all of Eastern Mediterranean, Iran, Iraq and the Levant.

b) there are any number of desserts of Arab origin that require pastries to be soaked in syrup

c) during the Ottoman time, it became fashionable to call even things of Arab origin by Turkish names. Hence, mahshi, stuffed vegetables, were called by the Turkish name dolma.

That Armchair Philosopher said...

Finally, the explanation for Hindi in Turkish.. As I was saying, I hadn't even thought about the relation between the bird and the country before!

But how popular is Turkey in Turkish cuisine? My impressions of turkey stem from its thanksgiving avatar, and if you look at it from purely a culinary perspective - the cooked bird in the US is no match for any meat cooked in the middle east or regions in that vicinity.

As for the namesake restaurants - hell yeah :D Too bad I won't be able to make it to Samarkand this year, sigh.

Lip smacking post, btw.

Beth said...

Loved this post. And it may explain to me, finally, the puzzling French name for turkey - "dinde" - probably a contraction of "d'Inde." How the hell would one figure that out?

Szerelem said...

Ok - start by cursing blogger which has not let me reply to comments!!

T_M: Actually Perry does give examples of baklava like desserts across Central Asia. I don't have the book with me but the one I remember is Qatlama which is present all the way east even in Xinjiang (and also in Pakistan I think). He also mentions Azeri Pakhlavi as the missing piece of the puzzle. It's quite an interesting thesis. (Actually the book mentions that the biggest debate is whether the baklava is Greek or Turkish and in either country mentioning that its central asian does not go down very well). Haven't read Nasrallah but the book looks good!

TAP: How could you not make the connection between the bird and the country? It's so obvious!
Turkey in Turkish food - hmmm I think lamb and beef are more the staple meats. And I gather you mean ME food is better than meat cooked in the US?

Beth: Thank You! I didn't think of dinde at all. (Blame my rusty and unused French). But it does seem likely that it comes from d'Inde doesn't it?? I would never have figured it out either :D

elizabeth said...

ah, I'm so glad you liked this book. you've left me wanting to go back and read it all over again!

my mentor (who is Turkish) does a very funny lecture in his fall term class, right before Thanksgiving break, on the story of how turkey got to be turkey, riffing off on the subject to touch on all manner of world-historical connections. And did you know that in Gaelic its name translates to the "French bird"?

And armchair philosopher, no, it's not very common in Turkish food, in my experience.

thalassa_mikra said...

Szerelem, I honestly think Perry is overstating his case. Katlama is more like a layered parantha or a lahmacun - it has hardly any resemblance to baklava.

Nuts, dough, sugar syrup and cinnamon is the classic combo in Levantine/Iraqi Arab, and later, Byzantine and Ottoman sweet-making traditions. There's absolutely nothing Central Asian about it.

As for the Azeris, if they have any baklava-like desserts, it is almost certain that they got them from the Persians, as for most of their history they were part of various Persian empires. Except for their Turkic language, the Azeris are culturally heavily Persian-influenced.