Travel is a wonderful gift that curiosity has given the world. Sometimes, I sit back in awe that we have the ability to reach far distances in ever shorter amounts of time. Humans have curiosity, and this curiosity leads to innovation. It is so fascinating to see how the world has evolved and how we play our parts on earth.
I was recently in Istanbul. To be honest and to make a painful confession- I hated history classes in high school. My teachers were boring and I couldn’t grasp the sequences of events. Experiencing Italy first hand, my memory is jogged and I can sort of visualize the cities like Florence as it was in the Renaissance. Travel has helped me learn history the right way. Being in Istanbul helped me put more pieces together in the world history puzzle. Not only that, it helped me understand the reality of Italy and the rest of the developing world. That is, the rest of the world is developing and Italy is in a stubborn slump. This post is not traditional in the sense that I won’t list every site you must visit, every restaurant I reveled in and the tours I left inspired from. I will leave that for the next post- this one is to sort of digest what the hell just happened.
I was quite charmed by the culinary culture here. As I mentioned in my last post, I found some familiarity in the food culture having been blessed with Persian roots. I realize how lucky I am as an American to come from a multi-cultural background and how perhaps that led to having an open-minded palate.
Tea is a huge deal in Istanbul, I noticed. Locals can drink upwards to 20 cups of the stuff! Take a water taxi for 2 lira and a tea on the ride for one more. Have a few teas at breakfast and few more after lunch. Eat a sugar rich baklava and a couple of teas. Next thing you know, you’ve wrecked your nerves and your teeth!
As I kept making comparisons between Persian and Turkish food, it was apparent that the Greeks also share some common culinary themes. I started to think about saffron and pistachios and then it hit me- thanks to the Ottomans, Istanbul was a sort of gateway to enriching the culinary world.
The Spanish tout their saffron as being best. Tuscany also cultivates the stuff. Sicily brags that its Pistachios are the best and Piedmont gave birth to Nutella thanks to its hefty supply of precious hazelnuts. Moreover, Europe claims its stake in wine production.
If you go back in time, you will see these foods are not native to Spain, Tuscany or Sicily. Interestingly enough, the hazelnut has 9,000 years of history tracing back to an island of Scotland but somehow ended up in Piedmont’s Nutella and the nut is now produced mostly in Turkey. Sicily for example was invaded by Arab conquerors who then influenced the regions dialects and culinary identity which heavily include Pistachio. Go even further back, you will learn that the Ottomans loved and encouraged a free market and used Istanbul as a gateway for food and spice trading. Go even further back and you will realize that what we now know as sorbet and Italian gelato, actually was born in the East. Interestingly enough you will find the first archeological evidence of wine grapes came from ancient Persia. Now Europe is given the crown of fame and is named “the old world” for wines and food.
Something about being in Istanbul put some pieces together in the food puzzle. It helped me understand how my palate was influenced from my own history and how really, not much has changed in the way we move food around. There was a free market in ancient times, trading foods and spices across borders. Thanks to these moments in history, we can experience lovely regional foods in Italy like Risotto alla Milanese (with Saffron), Pistachio Gelato and Eggplant Caponata from Sicily. Currently, there are controversial trade agreements like NAFTA exchanging just about everything imaginable under the sun. Unfortunately, “free trade” usually involves dumping surplus GM corn and soy on culinary rich cultures from which we exploit (I mean, import) their flavorful and nutrient dense staples like exotic fruits and various fresh vegetables. Check your tomato and mango origins the next time you’re in a US supermarket. The question that begs to be asked is- is the free market as we know now enriching global cuisine as the ancient free market exchange of spices did? Is the current system of free trade eroding regional cuisine and food cultures around the globe? And as a result, compromising our health?
While we consider these important questions, here are the pictures you’ve all been waiting for. Blogs are more and more becoming mini- resource guides. I’d like to think there is still space for them to express our reflections on our experiences in the world. In any case- enjoy!
Now I’m curious about Greece and it’s culinary roots. Stay tuned!
In search of food origins,
The Curious Appetite
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