Our neighborhood's early 1950s favorite New York City's childhood Greek, Turkish, Armenian, Sicilian, and Lebanese delicatessen shared one another's music, foods, and decorations, even though the customers had different languages. You may also enjoy the YouTube musical dance video, Emel Tascioglu Fidayda Ankara, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gUE6BYrSutg
The food and music links that brought them together was similar foods, stringed instruments, and family camaraderie. What they also had in common was the foods of both the Eastern and Western Mediterranean areas, from the Spanish rice and seafood to the Eastern Mediterranean stuffed grape leaves. The link? Sicilian rice balls that contained a hint of raisins, cinnamon, and pine nuts, in common with the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea areas that included trays of foods basted with home-made yogurt.
The mainspring of my school friend’s life focused on the red brick Mediterranean grocery and sundries store in the mid-1950s. Everything she ate, wore, and owned came from it. A store like this could be found in almost any large city.
The smell of green peppers hung on a string across the ceiling along with platters of Greek spanakopita (spinach and cheese pastries) and the dry, chipped Armenian style beef called bastoorma.
The scent accompanied that of onions frying in olive oil, filling the dark, wooden interior with an earthiness. Pickled watermelon and strips of fried eggplant lay on the counter top soon to be wrapped and stored in the cooler. The Greek deli featured foods also familiar in Turkey and Armenia. The music, Konyali, shared music from both Greece and the west coast of Turkey.
My delight had been to be sent to the store’s fragrance cellar where Armenian and Greek versions of bread were baked. There's Armenian akmak (cracker bread) or Turkish ekmek (soft bread). The Greek or Cretan pita is flat but leavened, and round and crusty inside. When you bite a hole, the bread opens up into a pocket. Today, you can find online the recipe for Turkish breakfast buns. See Binnur's Turkish Cookbook for the recipe in English.
Another treat is to stuff flat, lightly toasted pocket bread it with healthy greens, tomatoes, feta, and olive-oil drenched sardine balls stewed in tomato sauce with raisins, vinegar, pine nuts, cinnamon, cloves, and saffron. It reminds me of the sweet and sour fennel and fish (sardine balls) feast from that island off the coast of Sicily.
My school friend used to stuff this bread with hot cubes of roast lamb. She would put chunks of peppers and onions in the sandwich and dust the stuffed sandwich with spices such as lemon pepper and thyme, rosemary, sage, and cumin.
The roast lamb had been soaked in vinegar and sugar to make it taste sweet and sour. Over open flames on a charcoal broiler, family members roasted the skewered cubes. Lunch crowds would walk into the store each day to take out the big pocket toasted flat bread full of spice-tendered, marinated lamb cubes.
The cellar had a delicious smell of cinnamon and walnuts. A whiff of pastry from the big ovens, the tang of lemon, the scent of pistachio nuts and saffron or orange blossom water and honey cleared your head.
The immaculately clean dark cellar counter tops smelled of lemon and cold-pressed olive oil. Strains of shared Greek-Turkish-Armenian music wailed delightfully around the corridors of the cellar from an old phonograph. You didn't only listen. You stood up and danced or snapped your fingers to the nuances of wooden spoons clacking in rhythm like castanets.
My school friend never used canned foods. Everything came in bulk, in big barrels, boxes, or jars.
Hand-made coffee grinders turned the beans to the thick, sweet Turkish coffee powder served, when customized to each diner’s order, mixed with sugar, cinnamon, and orange blossom water.
A small, long handled bronze-colored pot heated over a single burner soon brought the coffee to a temperature just below the boiling point. When foam appeared on top, a server poured the syrupy-thick, sweet coffee into tiny china demitasse cups and placed them around each table.
Night after night Greek and Armenian men would drop in for a bit of gossip or to settle the world's business affairs. Young and old came often with sleeping infants in their laps, not only men, like in the old countries, but with their wives and extended family members, neighbors, and friends.
A large platter of food arrived. Then the nuances of minor-key music pulled many into a dance, a stroll down memory lane, or laughter. Moods, textures, and tones in that store helped to settle local problems. The scent of freshly baking cinnamon, dried fruit, and walnut bread opened a welcoming door, a center of life for the neighborhood.
A Silk Roads Feast for You
Try these recipes for variety. It makes no difference what your ethnicity is. The vegan and vegetarian-style foods can be adapted for anyone's holiday events.
Regardless of your ethnicity, you can find these vegan and vegetarian spring holiday recipes appealing with their exotic spices, ground pistachio nuts, rice, vegetables, and fruit combinations. Examples might include flax seed meal, ground nuts, carrots, and potatoes.
Here are some Persian gluten-free vegan recipes for your seasonal meals or for any ethnic group, Seasonal snacks and vegan meals or plant-based foods of the Silk Road. The idea is to serve a vegan or vegetarian entree for whatever early spring seasonal holiday you celebrate between the beginning March and the end of April.
For this gluten-free recipe, you can find the zatar and sumac spices in any Middle Eastern or Mediterranean-style grocery. (Looking for a paperback time-travel novel similar to this type of ambiance? Check out this novel set in the medieval Caucasus in the time-travel adventure novel, Adventures in my beloved, medieval Alania and beyond.)
Persian vegan meal (served with pomegranate punch)
Serves a dozen people.
2 large onions, diced
4 stalks celery, diced
2 red bell peppers
4 shredded carrots
8 Idaho potatoes
4 tablespoons of ground, milled flax seed and 3 tablespoons of water
1/2 cup of shelled pistachio nuts, ground
A pinch each of the following spices and herbs: black pepper, thyme, celery seed, oregano, sumac, garlic, onion, turmeric, curry, cumin, parsley, saffron, and zatar.
Preheat oven to 375°F and grease a 9x13 pan or two 8-inch pans with sesame seed oil.
Garbanzo/Chick Pea Patties
2 cups cooked or canned (drained and rinsed) chickpeas/garbanzos
1 clove of peeled garlic
1 tablespoon of tahini paste or ground sesame seeds to a paste consistency in a blender or food processor. You can blend chick peas with a little water or a little olive oil, grape seed oil, or sesame seed oil to form a paste consistency or use raw tahini paste/sauce. Or make your own tahini paste by liquefying sesame seeds to a paste consistency in your blender with some water, lemon juice, and/or oil.
1/4 teaspoon of black pepper, celery seed, or any other spice you prefer
1/2 teaspoon red cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon of honey (optional)
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
1/2 teaspoon of ground coriander
1 teaspoon of cumin
1/3 cup of chopped fresh dill or cilantro
2 cups of healthy oil for frying such as olive oil, macademia nut oil, grapeseed oil, rice bran oil, or sesame seed oil.
1/2 cup of sesame seeds
2 tablespoons of ground, milled flax seed and 3 tablespoons of water
Garnish: chopped parsley, cilantro, basil, and mint or plain nonfat yogurt.
Some people are very seriously allergic to fava beans. Use chick peas/garbanzos instead. It's best to put a label in plain sight of ingredients in each dish of food served so people will know what they're eating in case of allergies to particular ingredients. If the people can't see or read the signs, please tell them what's in the food.
Combine all ingredients except the garnishes in your blender or food processor. Pulse until you have a soft patty. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes or overnight. In a deep wok, skillet, or frying pan, heat up a cup or two of oil over medium heat.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Spread the sesame seeds on a plate. Place a bowl of warm water next to your cooking area to wet your hands. Separate the dough into lumps the size of walnuts. Flatten each lump of dough in your palms into a patty the size of a burger.
Fry the patties for three minutes on each side, or until golden brown. Add more oil when necessary. You may have to use 2 cups of oil for all the dough. Each patty should be covered with oil. When light brown on each side, remove the patties and drain on paper towels.
Arrange each of the patties on a serving dish. Garnish with parsley, basil, mint, and serve with sesame seed crackers, flat breads, rice cakes, or other types of crackers and offer some yogurt or kefir to compliment any dry cracker or flat bread.
You also could if desired, add baking soda leavening to this recipe. Leave out the baking soda if you're on a low-salt diet or don't want to use baking soda in your ingredients.
Persian styles may serve brown, white, or saffron-spiced rice as a side dish with this vegan feast. TryPersian saffron rice with chelow (golden crust). The rise in this presentation would have a golden crust on the outside and softer rice inside.
Chelow with saffron
To make this saffron rice dish, cook 3 cups of washed, long-grain Basmati brown rice in 8 cups of water. Add 1 cup of nonfat plain yogurt to the cooked rice. Dissolve 1/2 teaspoon of ground saffron threads in 2 tablespoons of hot water. Mix the saffron into the cooked rice.
If you want a crust on top of your rice, (the chelow) then whisk 3/4 cup of nonfat yogurt with 1/4 cup of oil, 1 tablespoon of saffron, 2 tablespoons of ground flax seeds with a little water, and a few tablespoons of the cooked rice and spread this on the bottom of a pan. Then put the rice on top of it and bake the rice until the rice and yogurt mixture on the bottom of the pan forms a crust.
If you're not making a vegan meal, two beaten eggs or egg whites can be mixed into the chelow/rice crust mixture before baking on the bottom of the pan. This forms a thicker golden crust. Add saffron and water mixture (dissolved saffron) to this crust mixture before baking. Bake the rice until a golden crust forms on the bottom of the pan. Then turn the rice mixture upside down so that the golden crust is on top. Cut into squares.
If you don't want a rice crust, substitute six layers of spinach or collards (stems removed) fitted into the bottom of the pan. But the rice crust is more aesthetic than the baked lettuce.
Variations include rice and cardamom (kermani polow with saffron and pistachios) in the Persian, Azeri, and Caucasus Mountains tradition. As condiments, you'd add a tablespoon of organic rose petals and a cup of fresh, chopped dill. Chopped almonds may be substituted for pistachio nuts.
Rice dishes may also be mixed ice with 4 cardomom pods, crushed, and 1/4 teaspoon of saffron threads dissolved in 2 tablespoons of water to add to cooked rice. The rice can be cooked in vegetable stock. Use brown basmati long-grain rice because it has more nutrition than white rice.
Serve fresh fruit for dessert such as dark cherries and blueberries, strawberries, or apples baked in pomegranate juice. Silk Road meals may traditionally eat carrot palov with cumin.
To make Silk Road Palov with Cumin, use short grain rice. In a nonstick pot or wok, heat a tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Add a handful of almonds and currents. Stir fry the almonds and currents in the wok and set aside after draining off any oil on paper towels. But save the oil in the wok, skillet, or frying pan.
Add a pinch of cumin and cook for a few seconds, until you smell the perfumed aroma. Use a cover if the cumin seeds start to pop at at you. Add a handful of chopped onions and fry for 10 minutes or more until golden brown.
Add a cup of chopped or shredded carrots along with 1/2 seeded red bell pepper. You can also add a pinch of cayenne or chopped, seeded serrano chili.
Add two cups clean, washed, long-grain brown Basmati rice. Stir fry for a few minutes. Then add a pinch of turmeric and some water to cover the rice. You can substitute 1/2 teaspoon of saffron dissolved in 2 tablespoons of hot water for the turmeric or use both.
Add 2 cups chopped fresh cilantro just as the rice is about to finish cooking.
About 3 cups of water may be needed to soften the rice enough for cooking until chewy. Simmer the rice for 30 minutes. To keep the cilantro fresh and crisp add it only as the rice is done. Add to the cooked rice a handful each of chopped almonds, currents, and any other chopped green vegetable you prefer such as parsley or spinach along with the cilantro.
Serve with fresh sliced or chopped tomatoes and sliced cucumbers. If desired, add 1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon of ground cloves, and 2 pinches of ground cardamom. This variation also is known as Chahar Masala. Enjoy a Silk Road meal. On the side serve pomegranate punch.
Pomegranate Punch with Rose Petal Extract (Water)
To make Silk Road pomegranate punch, mix a quart of pomegranate juice with your favorite spices such as cinnamon, cloves, cardamon, and lemon-tasting tart sumac spice. For a slightly peppery zest, you can add a pinch of ginger.
Or serve a punch made of pomegranate juice and a teaspoon of chopped crystallized ginger topped with a pinch of almond meal. Also you can mix rose petal water with pomegranate juice, about 1/4 cup of rose petal extract to a quart of pomegranate juice.
The pomegranate juice also may be mixed half and half with dark red cherry juice topped with a sprig of mint. Or you can mix dark purple grape juice with pomegranate juice. Another version is to mix a quart of pomegranate juice with 1/4 cup of lime or lemon juice and float dehydrated nectarines on top.
If you're looking for Persian-style and Silk Road area recipes, try the book, Silk Road Cooking, A Vegetarian Journey, by Najmieh Batmanglij, 2004. (Mage Publishers, Washington, DC).This wonderfully illustrated cookbook is chock-full of vegetarian recipes in the Silk Road adventure style of cooking. Excellent for ovo-lacto vegetarians.
Try the stir-fried celery roots or the chickpea vegetable fritters, and the Armenian bulgur and pomegranate stuffed with grapevine leaves in this book of recipes. You mix lentils with bulgur wheat, pitted prunes, spices, mint, parsley, and pomegranate paste with lime juice and chili flakes in the sauce. It's on page 84, under the "salads" chapter. It's great.
When you're allowed to eat fermented items again, try the yogurt and cucumber cold soup with walnuts and rose petals on page 100 of Batmanglij's book. Enjoy. I highly recommend Batmanglij's cookbook, especially for the numerous vegetarian and vegan recipes.