Midia dolma: Istanbul-style mussels stuffed with rice and pine nuts

Midia dolma

Living in the melting pot that is New York I thought I knew a little bit about Turkish food. But a recent trip to Istanbul laid bare my almost utter ignorance. Sure, I’d eaten manti and knew my iskender from adana kebap. But these well known dishes merely scratch the surface of a cuisine that is ancient and deep, with strong Central Asian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and European influences as befits a country bordering Asia and Europe. I learned all this thanks to Uğur Ildiz, my highly knowledgeable and friendly guide on a culinary walking tour I participated in. From morning to late afternoon we walked around both the European and Asian sides, stopping every few minutes at a roadside stall, restaurant or shop to sample local delicacies. It was one of the most enjoyable and informative experiences I’ve ever had and I highly recommend it if you’re ever in Istanbul. Be warned though that the pace is brisk and unrelenting. And go with an empty stomach because at the end you’ll be stuffed to the gills!

Gyoza: Japanese pan-fried dumplings

Gyoza

I’m a huge fan of dumplings. From Korean mandoo to Shanghai-style xiao long bao, I like ‘em all. But one of my favorite by far are Japanese gyoza. Usually served as a side dish in ramen-ya or izakaya, these bite-sized, pan-fried dumplings are eternally popular in Japan, although outside Japan they’ve been overshadowed by the sushi and ramen craze that seems to have swept the planet. That’s too bad. Gyoza deserve far more attention than they’ve received. And so to cast a spotlight on them here’s a recipe adapted from one my friend Yukiko Minemura shared with me. Serve the gyoza with a glass or two of ice cold Yebisu beer (Sapporo will also do in a cinch) and you’ll be transported to an izakaya in the alleyways of Shinjuku!

Pintxos Morunos: Spanish cumin and pimenton-spiced pork shoulder skewers

Pintxos Morunos

From Greek soulvaki to Malaysian satay, and Peruvian anticuchos to Japanese yakitori, there is hardly a country or cuisine that doesn’t have its favorite version of grilled meat on a stick. While this method of cooking was no doubt reinvented in different parts of the world, the oldest references to it are found in the Middle East and Mediterranean, hence the near universal use of the word “kebab“–derived from the Persian word “kabap” meaning “fry”–to describe this type of food. (Apparently, Medieval Persian soldiers used to grill meat speared on their swords over open fire.) No surprise then that Spain has its own version known as Pintxos Morunos, a reference to the Moors who colonized the Iberian Peninsula starting in the 700s. (Pintxo or pincho is the Spanish for spine.)

Soy sauce bottle

Soy sauce bottle

If ever there was a universally-recognizable symbol of Japanese cuisine it is surely these cute soy sauce bottles found in sushi restaurants throughout the world. (And for that matter any restaurant serving East Asian food.) But I’d never really thought about them until I read this article in the New York Times on the recent death of Kenji Ekuan, an industrial designer who won the contract from Kikkoman for creating them in the 1950s. The bottles are famous not only for their graceful shape but also the clever dripless spout. Mr. Ekuan went on to design many other things, including some models of the sleek Shinkansen trains. But it is for the soy sauce bottles that he will always be remembered.

Okara meatballs in Japanese curry sauce

Okara meatballs with Japanese curry sauce

It is a bit of a running joke in culinary circles that the Japanese can take any foreign food and change it beyond all recognition. Sometimes the results can be rather disconcerting, as happened to me at a restaurant in Tokyo claiming to specialize in Basque cuisine. The “arroz con setas” (rice with mushroom) was made with Japanese short grain rice and kinoko mushrooms and, for all I know, flavored with dashi! Ingenious, but a million miles from San Sebastian. More often though the results are both clever and extremely tasty, as with mentaiko pasta (明太子パスタ; spicy cod roe pasta) that famous fusion of Japanese and Italian. Similarly, Japanese “curry”–pronounced kare (カレー)–stands as one of the great culinary inventions of that country, on par in my opinion with instant ramen.