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Monday, January 25, 2016

A Strangeness in My Mind- A Review

A Strangeness in My Mind

A Strangeness in my Mind, the latest novel from Orhan Pamuk, is another of the author’s many odes to Istanbul. The novel touches on familiar ground for the writer, not the least of which being the city he grew up in. It also addresses the conflict between secular and religious groups in Turkey, as in his earlier novel Snow. It references heavily on the gap between the rich and the poor as in the novel The Museum of Innocence.

Like all of Pamuk’s novels the structure is very postmodern, and the characters regularly address the reader directly. This may be the most overtly religious novel since Snow and while Snow had religion as a central them, the main character was not religious. The main character, Mevlut, who is a boza seller primarily but has a succession of unskilled jobs throughout the novel, is a religious man who worries about problems of a religious nature regularly.

Women’s honor is less of a central theme than in The Museum of Innocence  but Pamuk still touches upon the importance of marriage before sex in Turkish society. Also, the honor of men who feel themselves betrayed either by potential suitors or by their female relatives’ actions can be seen as a major influence on the plot.

This is the first novel from Pamuk that deals with immigration to Istanbul. Mevlut is an immigrant from rural Anatolia and has a firsthand view of life on the outskirts of Istanbul until the sprawl begins to bring the outskirts of Istanbul into the interior. Mevlut’s varied jobs give him a presence in several areas of the city and so the story is not only of immigration but also of local contrast. And by setting the story in the outskirts amongst the immigrants to the capital, Pamuk is able to portray a cross-section of the wider Turkey.

The main character is Mevlut but regularly it feels as though it is Istanbul. Parts of the novel come across almost as a funeral speech for a close friend or of close friends speaking about another who has passed away.

The book itself suffers from a bit of unwieldiness, as it has the size of an epic but not the fluidity of one. The sections sometimes feel more like a travel guide merged with a history book, and then had personal histories inserted at random. In general, this haphazard structure is enjoyable but it does not make it particularly easy to really get deep into the book. While never dull, the book does seem to meander along.  

Pamuk remains one of the few writers who can write a love story without it being dull or cliché. While the novel never drifts into cliché, large parts of the story feel almost pre-ordained. This could be due to overfamiliarity with the author’s work, as there are quite a few surprises embedded in there. But somehow the overall effect of the novel seems like a bit of tighter editing was need. Especially as the last sections of the novel seem much more rushed and glossed over.  

Unlike the author’s best novels Snow and My Name is Red this one does not match the intensely researched and deeply introspective storytelling of those. However it still manages to be a very good novel and could quite possibly be a platform (like The Silent House) for readers new to Pamuk. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Travel Writing- The comfort of dosa

Food is usually linked to memory. This isn’t an original idea and to many people the food that I’ve chosen is barely memorable, just as most people won’t really be able to speak of great cheese sandwiches or fried eggs and not mean a specific meal instead of the entire selection of eggs or sandwiches.

Dosa is a simple meal which can be ready in a matter of minutes. I usually explain it as a savoury crepe made of rice and lentil flour. It is served with sambar (a lentil and tamarind stew) and coconut chutney.

The best dosa I’ve ever had is at Dosa Mahal in Toronto. It was the first time I’d had dosa in almost two years and that was probably why it remained in my mind as a representation of the best. It’s impossible to untangle the experience of food from the taste only. The taste is linked to history. It’s a common enough trope that even children’s movies like Ratatouille can use the idea that a simple dish which evokes memories of childhood will have deeper and almost spiritual resonance than extremely complex and difficult dishes.

Dosa at Dosa Mahal ( Toronto, Canada)

Dosa used to be another food that was linked to specific memories of a time and place. Just as deep fried tofu always reminds me of my last few months in Trinidad and cheese croissants remind me of my first trip to The Netherlands; dosa was inextricably linked to my Christmas in India.

Dosa at Dosa World, (Kochi, India.)

 I say was because my memories of dosa are no longer limited to India. Over the past year those recollections have become mixed with other memories. Now dosa represents meals in Malaysia, Paris and most strongly, in Wembley. It has overtaken almost other meals as my comfort food. Primarily due to it being a relief to find it. Because even in places where finding vegetarian food was close to impossible (like Penang), dosa could be managed to be found as an option.

Dosa at Aachi Chettinad (Wembley, England)

Despite being primarily of Tamil descent, dosa was nothing something I was familiar with growing up. In Trinidad, Indian culture lacks regional differentiation despite the varied backgrounds of people of East Indian descent. I grew up with Trinidadian versions of Indian staples such as puri and paratha but breakfast never involved any kind of Indian roti except sada roti.

I do not miss sada or doubles at all, despite having not had any since I migrated two years ago. Thinking about these foods do not cause me to wish for them. I have rarely been able to think of dosa without wishing it was available in close proximity. Now that it is, I rarely think of it without buying it shortly afterward.

The simplicity of this food allows it to be ready to be eaten very shortly after I’ve decided I want to eat it. It’s another candidate for strengthening my belief that fast food can be good if not bought from chains (depends on the dosa vendor, of course). And by being so strongly linked to time and place, it serves to strengthen the idea that street food is more of a regional marker than high-end food can ever be. 

Dosa at Govinda's (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Travel Writings – Zurich Cuisine

Travel Writings – Zurich Cuisine

Rösti is considered to be the national dish of Switzerland. It’s a dish which has a lot of similarities with hash browns; as it consists of grated potato fried in a frying pan. It is thought to be highly representative of Swiss German culture in particular (which isn’t really surprising as it consists of potatoes).

From my experience with German cuisine thus far, I hadn’t had high hopes for this dish. Traditional German cuisine seems to regard vegetables as an accompaniment to the meat and an accompaniment which needs little attention other than being boiled. I’ve been informed the quality of the meat more than makes up for it, but as I’m vegetarian that’s not really much use to me.

It’s rare that I find a national dish that isn’t comprised of meat or fish, so even with little expectation of it being good, it was still a great opportunity. Luckily I was entirely wrong about the link of Swiss German and German cuisine being a liking for tasteless vegetables. The rösti is quite tasty.

I chose Rösti und Spiegelei which really could be easily mistaken for hash browns and sunny side up eggs from any American diner, if it wasn’t pointed out. This Rösti was superior to hash browns for two main reasons: the potatoes were fried in butter and there was the usage of herbs other than just salt and pepper (parsley and possibly thyme).In general, it would vary with preparation as there’s infinite ways to tweak the recipes and still make correct hash browns (and possibly the same is true for rösti as well).

Another dish I was pointed to as typically Swiss was späztle. It can’t really be that Swiss as I’ve had it in Hungary previously (though they called it galuska) and I doubt the Swiss cuisine is that popular in Hungary as an import. They are short pieces of pasta but solid, about two inches long. The consistency is somewhat like floury noodles or conversely, less floury dumplings. It’s between the both.

I tried Käsespätzle which is späztle mixed with cheese (I think Swiss cheese) and fried onions. The späztle is already chewy and so the mixture with cheese can be a bit hard to manage to chew but it works well with the onions added. I also tried späztle with mushroom sauce. That combination was the best meal I’d had in Switzerland (almost worth the 15CHF price tag, as everything in Switzerland is overpriced).

The cuisine of Zurich seems to be mostly German as would be expected but the tweaks to recipes that seem to be of Italian origin (use of basil and oregano etc.) really allow for the food to be exceptionally flavoured. I can’t comment on the meat but I think it’s very unlikely that it’s not done excellently as it is, after all, German cuisine. What’s nice is that the vegetables and pasta have also managed to be infused with good flavor and aren’t just a forgotten support act.