Category: Food

American Museum of Natural History: Our Global Kitchen

I’ve been traveling so much, I’ve really lost the thread with New York. I mean, on Wednesday I got on an uptown train instead of a downtown train by accident. I don’t think I’ve ever made that mistake, at least not while I’ve lived here.

So what better way to feel New York-y than to go to the august American Museum of Natural History? You know, the one with all the taxidermy.

I went to the preview for the new exhibit Our Global Kitchen. It opens today, November 17, and runs through August 11, 2013. (I shouldn’t tell you that far-off end date–it’ll make you feel less urgency, and then you’ll wind up missing it. This happens to me all the time.)

In short: You should go. It’s fun, and you’ll learn something. And, since it’s the AMNH, the dioramas and models are great.

I could have stared at this model of the push-pull farming technique all day.

The details: This is a really ambitious exhibit. Where to begin when you want to cover what the whole world eats, three times a day? Oh, and it’ll cover the food-supply chain as well.

As a result, it feels a little compressed, a little rushed–each section of the show could easily be expanded into its own exhibit. Then again, I spend an awful lot of time thinking about global food, and food production, so maybe it’s a perfectly good introduction to the issues and to non-American cuisine–which everyone should get.

Let's just take a look at another one of those models, shall we? (photo courtesy AMNH)

To my taste, the food-industry section, which starts the exhibit, could’ve taken a stronger “It’s time to change this!” stance. And certainly the curators’ comments before the show were more in this vein–the word “unsustainable” came up a lot.

But there’s some progress. This same exhibit 30 years ago would’ve been sponsored by ADM and Cargill, and had a thoroughly gee-whiz-technology-is-great tone. At least now we get the cons of fish farming listed alongside the pros.

And you get square Japanese watermelon! (photo courtesy AMNH)

After all the supply-chain stuff, the rest of the exhibit feels a lot more colorful and fun. There’s a fancy show kitchen, where you can eat actual food, and there’s a mirror where you can stick out your tongue and see how many tastebuds you have. There are buttons to push to smell things, and touchscreens to learn about banana transport. You can post your food pics to Instagram with the tag #CelebrateFood, and they’ll show up on screens in the exhibit.

But the meat of the exhibit is still the actual physical stuff. There’s a whole wall of cookbooks from around the world. There’s a vaguely obscene-looking Mesoamerican popcorn popper, and beautiful molds for Korean rice cakes.

See what I mean about the popcorn popper?

And there’s a vivid diorama of a just-before-Cortes-landed market in Mexico.

Somewhere in there is a basket of grubs! (photo courtesy AMNH)

I also loved the set rooms and meals from different places and times in history: a Roman empress’s breakfast, Kublai Khan’s buffet on the hoof…

In the same room, the juxtaposition of Gandhi’s typical breakfast with Michael Phelps’s is fascinating. It struck me as the stealth message of the exhibit. If Americans learned to eat more foods from elsewhere–more vegetarian staples, more flavor and spices–we might all put a lot less stress on the world’s food systems.

And definitely settle in for the second big video presentation, at the end–all about celebrations and special foods from around the world.

I’m glad such an august institution as the American Museum of Natural History has taken on such a huge and meaningful subject as food. And I hope it sparks some thoughts in people who haven’t thought so much about food yet. There’s a lot more to taste out there…

Sugar Duck! (Or: Best Souvenir Ever)

Our best souvenir of Turkey was not a rug, a set of tea cups or some blue evil-eye charm.

It was the newest member of our happy household, this sweet little guy:

Well, hello there!

We’ve named him Sugar Duck.

This is why:

Hellllooooo!

See, we had dinner at a cheapie restaurant in Edirne where they had the red chili in these nifty flip-top caddies on the table: glass bottom, bright-green flip-top dome.

A couple days later, in Istanbul, we nipped (I was going to say ‘ducked’) into a restaurant-supply place just as it was closing, and they had the exact same form as the Edirne model, but in three colors…and with adorable eyes!

And labeled, in Turkish and English, sugar duck.

As Peter points out, we probably wouldn’t love him half as much if we didn’t know this adorable name. Heck, we probably wouldn’t even have put sugar in him.

Best of all, he’s made in Turkey.

Peter’s first thought was, Oh, we’ll use a better spoon. But then he appreciated just how flawlessly designed the Sugar Duck was. The spoon is his tongue, you see.

Yeth, it ith my tongue. Why are you laughing?

The only down side of our new Turkish pet: We definitely use more sugar than we used to.

Summer Break #4: Greece and Turkey: Best Bites

File all this under Things I Wish I’d Eaten More Of.

1. Fresh mizithra
We drove to the next little town to visit the place that makes the killer sheep’s-milk yogurt, with its nice crusty top.

I’ve read rapturous descriptions of fresh ricotta, but I didn’t really believe it until they fed us the mizithra, scooped fresh out of the vat and still warm.

Happy little clouds

Mizithra is, in this form, basically ricotta. It’s also made from the whey from a sturdier cheese (in this case, feta), so it’s soft and jiggly, not too intense.

Having it warm is like eating little dairy clouds–but not so ethereal. More primal. I think people might love it so much because it reminds them of nursing?

2. Ladotiri
Same bat place, same bat channel. Same ‘Oh, now I understand!’ moment.

Why didn't I eat that last chunk?!

Ladotiri is literally ‘oil cheese.’ It’s a specialty of Lesvos, cured in olive oil. It’s normally kind of rubbery and salty and doesn’t seem particularly interesting.

This stuff, though, fresh–ah-ha. It was nutty, like gruyere. A tiny bit grainy, mostly smooth.

3. Ouzo
OK, actually, this was more of a visual thing than a taste thing. They make a lot of ouzo–most of the ouzo–on Lesvos. It’s great. I don’t drink all that much these days, but I always wish I’d drunk more ouzo so I could look at the bottles.

Ouzo Mini, which may be the best ouzo of Lesvos, is also conveniently the cutest. It has a hip new label:

The modern Mini girl

And Ouzo Matis, another brand with babes on the label…well, they cut right to the chase. We’re not sure if this is new, or we only just noticed, but here’s Peter noticing:

Can you find the boobs in this photo?

What’s he noticing? Va-va-voom!

Waiter, another ice cube, please!

OK, so the photo is not the greatest. But yes, peer dreamily through your ouzo bottle, and you’ll see a girl in a red bikini (or blue, should you choose) on the inside.

3. Obscenely ripe fruit

Waiting for the early train in Soufli, we breakfasted on figs from in front of the stationmaster’s house. You know how everyone leers about figs? How they’re vaguely dirty-looking?

Dirty, dirty, dirty

These weren’t even purple on the outside, and they were the dirtiest figs I’ve ever eaten.

Then, in Turkey, a nice old man gave me a tomato. It was hot from the sun. He smiled and kept walking. I cupped that tomato in my hand the whole rest of our walk–it felt like one of my own organs.

We ate it the next morning for breakfast, gulped over the sink.

Tomato porn

Maybe the best tomato of my life? Almost all goo, perfect acid-sweet balance. No need for salt at all.

Days later, Peter said, “Agh! Why didn’t we save the seeds?!”

4. Hot sausage
No innuendo intended.

We were in Komotini, our first real stop after Eressos. Whole new part of Greece. The town is 50 percent Turkish, complete with a mosque and an Ottoman-era cemetery.

The streets were empty, which was partly due to Ramadan, and partly due to it being 108 degrees. One restaurant in the market was open, and fed us this:

There was a lot more when the plate first came.

We marveled at the sensation of hot chili in our throats. The Greeks aren’t so into spicy-hot, and we hadn’t tasted it for weeks. The sausage was spiced like basturma, which is to say, intensely, with coriander and pepper and more. It was a mix of beef and lamb. It was superb.

5. Turkish ice cream
I love Mado ice cream. To Turks, it’s probably only as exciting as Haagen-Dazs, but to me, it’s the most fantastic ice-cream brand, the height of luxury. It’s all goat’s-milk, and the fruit flavors (which I think are fruit-only, no dairy, but who knows?) are so intense, it feels like the fruit is communicating directly with your brain, bypassing your tongue entirely.

In Edirne, we sat at the Mado cafe and had ridiculous Mado treats. Just for Peter, it seems, they have the ‘Red Fruits Passion’ (or some such) sundae on the menu. Sour cherry, raspberry and strawberry, plus raspberry goo, and some clotted cream for good measure.

Madondurmadondurmadondurmado

I had a nice orange-creamsicle-ish thing with pistachios, but whatever. Need more red fruits, please.

6. Hazelnut meringue
Sorry, no photo. I bought it on the Istanbul ferry, along with my tulip-glass of tea.

I know from flying Turkish Airlines, which is neck-and-neck with Emirates for the best-food-in-coach prize, that Turkey produces like most of the world’s hazelnuts. They call it a miracle nut, and serve it instead of peanuts.

So I grabbed a hazelnut meringue cookie, and it must have been 99% hazelnuts, because it was more like an energy bar than a meringue or any cookie, really. So intense.

But then again, everything tastes more intense when you’re traveling. But then again again, America is the Land of Bland. These tastes will tide me over till my next adventure.

Summer Break #3: Does Turkey Produce the World’s Weirdest Drink?

Want a real mind-bending experience when you travel?

Don’t worry so much about what to eat. Focus on the odd things there are to drink.

That’s where you get into severe mind-warping territory.

Exhibit A: Salgam Suyu

(Sorry–there’s a little cedilla under the s, and also under a c farther down. I’ve taught myself a lot about code in a decade, but never mastered those special characters.)

Salgam suyu is a Turkish purple carrot drink. Apparently it’s fairly common at juice stands in certain parts of Turkey that I haven’t been to.

I think if I encountered it in a juice stand, I’d be pretty giddy and think it was cool.

But I saw it as a packaged product, in a grocery store–and that was even more mind-blowing. It’s like it proved it was a major part of the culture, not just some health nut’s invention.

Looking innocent on the grocery store shelf

“Is that a…carrot? That’s purple?” I said, squinting at the label. I flipped it around to look at the ingredients. Yup, purple carrot.

At the checkout, the lady looked unimpressed with it, like it was a totally normal thing. I guess, for her, it is. Which is the mind-blowing part.

It’s really beautiful stuff:

Looking lurid out on the street

By now, you’re probably wondering about the taste. The label said in capital letters BEST SERVED COLD.

But we had no fridge. We popped it open near the end of a long walk, standing on the top of a windy dyke at the edge of Edirne, with the massive Sinan mosque on the hill above us.

Peter gulped as I read out the ingredients: “Purple carrot, wheat, turnip, salt, red chili, pepper…”

“Huh. All those things really come through,” he said, scrunching up his face. “In that order.”

I took a swig. It was bracing. I wished it were cold. But for electrolyte replacement or whatever, and in lieu of food, it was pretty fantastic.

This product really made me rethink everything I knew about Turkey, Turkish food and Turks in general. Granted, I’m no expert to start with (the only Turkish I know is cok g├╝zel, and I learned that from an Eartha Kitt song), but this made me realize there’s just so much I don’t know, there and nearly everywhere I go.

Like, what is the significance of this drink? Do grownups drink it? Do kids drink it? Does your mom tell you to drink it when you’re sick with something in particular? Do dudes drink it to feel studlier? Does it go with certain foods? Do you drink at night? In the morning? Is it old-fashioned? Or suddenly cool again? Is this a good brand? The only brand? Do people scoff at seeing it packaged at all?

I have no real answers, but I do see the word afrodizyak on the packager’s website. And, according to the ad, it makes you do backflips.

Each dish in every culture has all this resonance, but we barely begin to learn any of it when we travel. We can read up on some of the most famous dishes–it’s bachelor food, it’s court food, it’s imported-from-China-on-the-silk-road food… But a lot is just never even discussed, until someone thinks to ask.

It’s true for food, but it’s doubly true for drinks, because they’re almost always, by definition, a secondary thing.

Drinks also tend to be more personal, like breakfast–we have our routines, and we don’t want to mess them up (just think of your morning coffee).

And, more practically, travelers often shy away from water-based things for health reasons.

But one huge selling point about trying new drinks is: they’re cheap! Even if something’s disgusting and you’ll never put it in your mouth again, you only spent a couple bucks, max, on it. But you will have seen, for a gulp or two, a whole side of a culture you never knew before.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever had to drink in another country?

Summer Break #2: Chicken of the Sea, Greek-Stylie

Peter and I were ambling down the boardwalk in Eressos, on some half-baked errand or other, when we saw…a bloodbath. Flashing knives. Bright-red gore.

At first, I thought Costa was butchering a sheep, right there on a restaurant table.

We got closer and saw that the carcass was, in fact, a tuna.

I’ve seen guys cutting up tunas at Hunts Point fish market in the Bronx, but that was a pretty tidy operation. This was a sloppier affair.

Just working on lunch

Costa had bought the whole fish directly from a random fisherman who’d caught it not far offshore. The guy was someone from another island, Costa said, where they’re experts at catching very big fish. (On Lesvos, they’re masters of sardines.)

He'd used a very, very big hook.

Costa had hired the strolling vendor, a Bangladeshi guy who normally walked along the beach, to help him cut it up. He’d put aside his stack of cheap fedoras and board of sunglasses, and was now up to his wrists in tuna meat. He looked pretty pleased.

An older woman was there collecting the scraps for her cat. “Do I need to cook it first?” she asked.

Costa laughed, in his husky way, through his beard. “No!” he declared, and sliced two chunks off the loins he was slicing up. He thrust them at us, to demonstrate.

When you look up 'raw' in the dictionary, this picture is there.

I’d like to say it was the most transcendant sushi ever, but it was almost too intense. Gamey. It reminded me a little of the whale we ate in Norway a decade ago, like they were from the same murky depths. Serious stuff–it tasted like you could live off one scrap for a week. But a cat would be delighted.

The crime scene

Check out those yellow bits in the photo above. Yup: yellowfin tuna. It never occurred to me that those words, which I’ve read only on can labels, meant something concrete, in real life. Somewhere out there in the sea is a fish with little blue bits on his fins too.

We left Costa to clean up. Remarkably, everyone else at the restaurant was placidly enjoying their lunches, not batting an eye. If they’d been butchering a sheep, of course, the tourists at least would’ve run off screaming. Why are fish so different?

Do they not bleed?

We returned that night. Two kilos of tuna, for our party of 12–we barely made a dent in the full 55 kilos the fish had weighed when hooked.

Grilled. Squeeze of lemon. Salt. Pepper. Cooked all the way through–none of that Asian-seared business.

It was perhaps the most amazing fish I’ve ever eaten. With heat, the gaminess dissipated. The fat oozed through the meat, which flaked.

I saw exactly what all that canned tuna was meant to be. And it sure ain’t chicken.