I once had the displeasure of eating, or trying to find a place to eat, with some very unadventurous people when it comes to eating. This was after my trip to the Netherlands and Turkey in 2008. These were not friends of mine, but friends of someone I knew in the USA’s San Francisco Bay Area. I almost, but not quite however, had the prejudiced assumption that since we were living in the San Francisco Bay Area, where there are many ethnicities, nationalities and cultures, and it is considered one of the top restaurant cities in the United States, that people were fairly adventurous about new foods to try. But I wasn’t quite that presumptuous. An aspect of diversity is that ‘diversity’ means ‘diverse’–there are people who don’t eat much, who don’t go out to eat much, who only like certain foods, who only eats to digest but not for pleasure, etc. Hmmmm……. who was I with that night? I was with people who couldn’t get US American ideas out of their brains when it came to descriptions. Add to this, my not having words able to translate something or an experience or a person to them, etc. We need to practice new languages on new terms.
So I asked if anyone wanted to eat at a Turkish restaurant since I craved köfte. I got cringing faces and “ewww! what’s that?” I explained that they were lamb meatballs, sort of.” Oh please, we’re not going out for meatballs? I might as well eat Chef Boy-ar-dee! ” said one person. No I know what I was dealing with. A poverty of thought and palate.
When I visited the Netherlands and Turkey in 2008, I had the privilege of my hosts taking me to a great restaurant while in Ankara, where the bulk of my stay was while in Turkey (the other being Dersim (or Tunceli as it is called today in the mainstream and on maps) and two days in Istanbul).
Üstünel Köftecisi is a wonderful place, not gourmet or anything, just homey and tasteful, its front doors hidden by tall green. When inside and you order food at the tastefully strong and deep-textured wooden tables and chairs with nice clean table cloth, I wasn’t prepared for what pleasantly followed.
The presentation!! Two waiters carrying a huge piece of clean bright sheet of plastic, come and spread it onto the table in front of myself and my two hosts, like a second tablecloth. Then the waiters disappear and soon one of them appears with a huge tray of vegetables. Bright green. Lettuce leaves, different other leaves of texture and aroma. Very bright, busting out in colors, and bright red cherry tomatoes and deep red/pink radishes and beautiful parsley. Froom the tray, the vegetables are laid onto the plastic (there are no plates) in a neatly arranged circle with the middle left open. The colors and pattern are symetrical but not stiffly angled or monotonous.
The second waiter brings another sheet of plastic with huge onions. I mean HUGE. They are wrapped in aluminum foil and hot. You can smell the wonderful fragrance! There are other vegetables that are hot. Then the little tasteful silver Ottoman Turkish receptacles of yogurt with finely chopped cucumber and spices.
The meat and tender rice come last. The rice is tender and has a fragrance of a subtle spice that I don’t know and my hosts could not explain to me. The meats came piping hot, along with pattican (paht-tee-john: eggplant). I ordered myh favorite by then: köfte. These came wrapped in aluminum foil, the waiters bringing them with nicely foldd damp towels with nice Turkish pattern colors. Lastly, one of the waiters brings three different kinds of olives in nice silver cups, ayran, cola, tea.
The term ‘meatballs’ does not begin to describe what köfte is. They are finger-sized minced lamb meat patties, hand-mixed with chopped onions, perhaps with cumin and parsley chopped, and other spices. Sometimes they are put on skewers and are kebabs. In any case, I devoured them! The hosts like this restaurant too.
You can find this in Persian restaurants, Kurdish, Arabic, Assyrian, and Armenian and Greek restaurants as well. However, each has their own versions of it. To add, like any other foods (or music or anything else for that matter), the regions and socio-economic class and other influences change it within a nation or culture or ethnic group. In other words, it is a shared history. Sometimes it was irritating to hear arguments about who originated a food–where a food was first made and who has ownership rights.
Upon tasting the food, the tastes are powerful. No, not from the spices or salt or sugar. You can taste everything powerfully, distinctly. I found this to be everywhere I went in Turkey and quite a bit in Holland as well. When I returned to San Francisco, I found that it was not my imagination.
Whenever my Kurdish, Turkish, Assyrian, or Armenian friends in the San Francisco Bay area, who were from those respective areas, would take me to eat at a restaurant in the US, they used to say that food tastes dead in the US. Now I had to confirm what they’ve said. I have even heard the same from people I know from Central and South America. In the US, we are accustomed to the flatness. So we want sugar and salt and that is what replaces the taste of the foods.
When you think about it, the chemicals that bombard food in the US, and the processing and the drugging of animals and the pumping into the soil of chemicals to grow foods faster and make them bigger, etc. suck the food tastes out of them. There is a dullness. That is why when sometimes I eat with some US American friends at a very good Japanese restaurant, they complain of things not having any taste. There needs to be more sugar and or salt or the sauce needs to be stronger. The tastebuds are weak.
But for the moment in the Ankara restaurant, I enjoy the sensual delights of eating! On my tongue, it was Mmmmmmmmmmmm!!!