Sunday, October 28, 2012

Karnays and Zurnas, Samsas, Tripe Soup and Pizza along the Silk Road - Part 3

See Part 1 or Part 2 of this report here.

The last day of the festival brought a big drop in the temperature and a lot smaller crowds.  I was planning on trying the Uzbek palov but when I got a look at the skimpy amount of meat each plate was getting, I decided to pass and went for a plate from the Azerbaijan courtyard with chicken kabobs, beef and lamb meatballs, rice, salad and pita.  I had wanted one of those ribs.

I found a seat in the Kyrgyzstan courtyard to catch a little of the musical group that was performing.  I hadn’t paid any attention to the entertainment schedule in planning my visits and I had extraordinary bad luck in catching only parts of performances.  I finished my meal and took a picture as a number started.  At least one of the performers was playing an instrument that sounded rather like a kazoo but otherwise there wasn’t much going on in this picture.  The woman on the end on the right had been playing a large violin like instrument in the previous number; it’s on the chair next to her in this picture.

After the performance I went back to the Uzbek area to try some soup.  I had been planning on having some and the cooler weather made the timing right.  There were four to choose from including yogurt and lentil soups but the one I wanted was the tripe soup.  It was easily the most adventurous offering from any booth.  I tasted a sample and I was sold so I had them ladle up a bowl for me.  They offered to add a garlic and lemon sauce as an extra; I thought the soup tasted fine as it was but said I’d take a little of the garnish.  They they offered a plate of lemon wedges.  Just to be polite, I took one.  I was a little slow on the uptake - I came to realize shortly that those condiments would have really helped to cut the richness of the soup.  It was very heavy and filling, much more so than I expected.  The sign said it included hooves and tripe and garlic; I think I got maybe one small piece of very tender tripe.  The meat was a relevation; I assumed it was cow's foot and stomach and I’d never had cows foot before.  It was tender, reminding me of cachete or cabeza, and tasted more like lamb that beef. 

I wrote down the name of the soup - kelle paça çorbasi - and when I got home looked it up.  If I got the name right and the Google translations are correct, its a Turkish soup made with sheep’s head and/or trotters, as best I can decipher. Whether it was tripe or heads and feet, ovine or bovine, it still was the most adventurous offering at the festival that I saw and I’d gladly order it again.

 The PA system was heralding an award winning performing group taking the stage in the Turkish courtyard so I headed over that way.  Up until now the Caykur Turkish tea stand had not been very busy but with a nip in the air, at least by Houston standards, there was a steady line of customers and they were passing out the free cups of hot tea right and left, as fast as they could pour them.  

I settled down at another table to sip my tea, almost ready to doze off from the rich soup.  Before I finished the tea and after only two numbers, the performing troupe started filing off the stage.  What the?  But they assembled in front of the stage and the PA announced they would be performing a dance in a circle and inviting members of the audience to join in.  I snapped a picture from back in the crowd and was ready to call it a day.

It was a very successful festival as far as I was concerned.  I had avoided lingering around any of the arts, crafts or travel booths, etc., since I didn’t have any money to spend, but there was a lot more to the festival than I’ve reported on here, including lots more performances.  I understand the organizers were hoping for an attendance of 50,000 as a benchmark, to evaluate whether it would be worth bringing the festival back for another year.  I hope they achieved that.  I wonder how many attended the first year of the Greek Fest?  Given a couple of years to grow, this could easily be one of the premier festivals of the fall season.

The festival has uploaded a number of videos to YouTube and there are also quite a few uploaded by individuals.  I haven’t watched them all but from what I have seen, there’s a lot more of the performances and glimpses of the other vendors and very little about the food, so if you’re interested in more of that aspect of the festival, check them out.  It’s fascinating to see how much media attention the festival attracted in non-English speaking, non-Houston based media.

Silk Road Festival website

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Karnays and Zurnas, Samsas, Tripe Soup and Pizza along the Silk Road - Part 2

See Part 1 of this report here.

I didn’t get to the Festival on Saturday as early as I had planned as something came up at home that had to be dealt with.  I had a small lunch at home to tide me over so I wasn’t very hungry.  Saturday was a much busier day; the parking lot was a lot fuller, the walk to the gate much longer, the lines at the stalls longer, too.  There were a few stalls open that had not be in operation in Friday, among them a Firehouse Pizza stall in the Azerbaijan courtyard, for those who were gastronomically completely at sea along the Silk Road.  There was a little bit of a break in the weather but not much and it was still stifling on the festival grounds.

I headed straight for Turkey and started the day with the manti pictured in part 1 of this report.  The lamahcun I had on Friday had been the equivalent of an 8 or 9" pizza and quite filling; the Manti proved to be quite filling too - that was full fat yogurt and the garlic sauce was very oily as you can see in the picture.  The dried herbs out of a big shaker bottle might just as well have been confetti, unfortunately.

I strolled through all the courtyards again, to refresh my memory of what was available specifically looking for the stall that featured Vegetable Delights.  I had been happy to see the stall specializing in salads in Turkey and also this one, which was in the Uzbek courtyard.  Uzbekistan had a very nice line-up of stalls; besides the vegetable one, there was one featuring Pplov (rice pilaf), which is the signature dish of both Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, where it is known as plov.  There were also samsas, Uzbek meat pies, and a soup stall, offering four soups that looked tempting.

At the vegetable stall, they had stuffed eggplant, stuffed red and yellow bell peppers and stuffed artichoke hearts.  The artichoke was the best of the three, and huge. That was the biggest artichoke heart I think I’ve ever seen.  The choke that came out of must have been the size of a grapefruit, and mine wasn’t the largest one in the tray.

The samsa needs no explanation.  This was a simple ground beef mixture in phyllo dough with sesame seeds.  In Uzbekistan, the filling might have been lamb or horse meat.

I drooled over the palov and resolved that I would stick to snacks on Saturday and devote Sunday to trying some of the full plate offerings, possibly getting several to go.  The meat in this was mutton, I think.  The tray next to it held what was probably a vegetarian version of Palov although the sign identifying it was missing.

 As I was munching on the samsa, a couple of men started blowing on their karnays on the entertainment stage.  These long brass instruments could probably be heard all over the festival grounds as they pointed them off in all directions and moved them around in what I think is somewhat ceremonial fashion.  They were joined by a rhythm section consisting at first of the man on the frame drum called a doyra (think oversized tambourine minus the zils) in the center of the picture and the man on the pot drum at the right rear.  Later another frame drummer entered the picture.

As the number built in intensity, they demonstrated some versatility in the use of the karnay incluiding one of the players keeping one aloft by balancing it on his jaw.  They were joined by the man playing the Zurna, a reeded, clarinet-like instrument.  The ensemble was completed when a woman in a very elaborate costume came onstage and fronted the band as both singer and dancer.  It was a very lively, driving and catchy number, by far the most captivating musical number I saw at the festival.  I hadn’t heard an announcement but if the festival was running on schedule, this should have been the group just identified as ‘Uzbek Local Music Group.’  I didn’t know we had a local Uzbek community but maybe that’s not the way that should be read. 

Throughout the festival there was a crew on hand with professional video equipment including a camera mounted on a crane so they could see over crowds.  They may have been from Ebru-Tv, one of the sponsors of the festival.  Anyway, there were also many other individuals with less sophisticated video cameras and I’m sure some videos are going to show up on YouTube.

I liked this performance so much I wanted to see a re-run so I planned my visit on Sunday when the scheduled said they would be performing again but, alas, they were no where to be seen.

See Part 3 of this report here.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Andy's Hawg Wild Bar-B-Que

2826 Dedman, Pasadena

Driving up to Andy’s for the first time invoked a sense of deja vu, reminding me of the first time I went to the old Burn’s BBQ on the north side, driving up a narrow residential street in a working class neighborhood, wondering if I got the directions right - Could this possibly be the right way to a destination barbeque joint?  But then the big red sign loomed up next to a tree and I caught a glimpse of the low-slung building, the parking lot wedging spaces into every corner of the property that must have grown to meet the need, and the feeling changed to one of eager anticipation.

Some of the reviews on Yelp speak highly of the brisket here but when I go to a place with ‘hawg’ in the name, with a beaming pig on the sign and pig statuettes scattered around the dining room with slogans painted on them like ‘Try Me Tennessee Style,’ I’m ordering the pork, specifically the pulled pork.  Even more specifically, the Tennessee Pulled Pork sandwich which comes dressed with cole slaw.  Actually, I thought that was Memphis style but whatever.

There aren’t many places in Houston that even serve pulled pork and there are some that have no idea what it is; there are even fewer that specialize in it but Andy’s does and that’s what I came to try.

Does that sandwich looked over-sauced?  My first thought when it was delivered to my table was to wonder if I dare try to pick it up even once.  The second thing I did was pull the napkin dispenser over to be right at my fingertips.  Much to my surprise I made it almost all the way thru before it became too messy to handle but the sandwich didn’t need that much sauce in addition to the creamy cole slaw.  The sauce was too bold for my taste; I do not like bold barbeque sauces that add more flavor to the sandwich than the meat itself.

There must have been close to 8 ounces of meat on that large bun.  The meat was tender and juicy and just a tad smoky - smokiness does not seem to be that big a factor in Tennessee style barbeque.  The crisp red onions and sturdy bun provided a welcome balance to all the juiciness.

There’s a good selection of sides including red skinned potato salad, baked potato salad, mashed potatoes, fried okra, green beans and turnip greens in addition to, of course, cole slaw (if you want yours on the side, order just the Pulled Pork sandwich instead of the Tennessee Pulled Pork sandwich). 

I tried the beans.  These are more of a pork and beans concoction that the typical pintos you’d get at a Texas barbeque joint but they had a nice peppery bite and were very good.

The main dining room appears to just be an enclosed deck; there is a slightly more refined, smaller dining room also plus several concrete tables well shaded under trees in one corner of the parking lot.  Though you’re only two blocks off busy Spencer Highway and maybe half a mile from the Beltway, it’s a very quiet neighborhood and I imagine al fresco dining would be quite pleasant if the weather’s nice. 

There’s no big screen TV blaring constant news or soaps or sports, no TV at all, in fact.  The sound track was country, appropriately enough, but not the pop/rock/schmaltz country of today, nor alt country nor outlaw country and not honky tonk either.  Well, actually, I couldn’t identify the genre and I’m not sure I recognized a single song or artist that came on, but it sounded like the sounds of life in a small Tennessee town and it suited the setting perfectly.  For ambiance, Andy’s gets an A +.

Andy's Hawg Wild Bar-B-Que

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Karnays and Zurnas, Samsas, Tripe Soup and Pizza along the Silk Road - Part 1

This blog has been in a comatose state for a couple of months now.  Partly that’s because there has been an unusual run of unexpected big expenses involving the maintenance of Villa del Bob and it’s inhabitants this year.  The budget for dining out has been tight and  I have felt less like taking a chance on something unfamiliar than I usually do.  It’s also because I got an induction cooking unit and am once again finding cooking fun.  Just one new toy in the kitchen, and a couple of shiny new pots to use with it, and my whole attitude has changed and I frequently decide to stay in and cook rather than go out

I’ve also been lacking the inspiration to write.  I’m not a professional writer (like you had to be told that) and I don’t have an editor (like you had to be told that) to demand that I produce something and I haven’t been able to get myself motivated to compose something about what few interesting dining out experiences I have had.

But Houston’s first ever Silk Road Festival caught my attention.  It offered the chance to experience the culture, music and cuisine of six countries - Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.  Of those only Turkey is represented on Houston’s dining scene   Plus it was being held in my neck of the woods, at the Stafford Centre.

I bought a four day pass and managed to make it out three of the four days.  Thursday and Friday were school days and there were scads of school buses and hordes of middle school students.  I skipped Thursday and went on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Although a couple of vendors told me one of their items was ‘home-made,’ the overwhelming majority of the food served was professionally prepared.  Several Turkish restaurants had a presence, among them the relatively new Nazif Grill and DNR Grill.  Café Pita, our Bosnian restaurant, operated stalls in both the Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan areas but as far as I could tell they were serving dishes from their restaurant menu including the popular cevapi.  But Turkish Kitchen in Sugar Land was omnipresent, operating food stands in all six countries and in the case of Uzbekistan, which was my favorite new cuisine discovery, all the food offered was prepared by Turkish Kitchen.  The restaurant is located on 59 right at Highway 6 and I’ve been to it just once.

I’ve eaten at several of our Turkish restaurants but am by no means an expert on the cuisine.  All I know about the other cuisines is what I’ve read online in the last couple of weeks so this is intended to be mostly a pictorial with minimal explanation or commentary.

The festival was arranged in an arc around a central courtyard accessed through a Grand Entrance.  From there you could pass to each of the countries.  You could also go directly from country to country in an arc but the only signs indicating what country you were in were at the entrance off the main courtyard.  Sometimes none of the stalls had identifying signs either so you had to consult a map.  I got lost often and frequently had to consult the map to figure out which country I was in.

This panorama just outside the Grand Entrance and others like it along the walls of the courtyards within were popular spots for taking pictures.

I started in Turkey, having failed to notice the entrance to Turkmenistan just inside the main entrance.  By far the most popular food at the festival were the skewers or kabobs offered at several stalls.  Lines at those were always long and slow moving - the skewers were being cooked on grills out behind the stalls and they were always running behind, it seems.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the wait surpassed 45 minutes in some cases but I don’t know as I don’t like standing in line waiting for food and so sampled none of the kabobs.

 Another very popular food item was the lahmacun.  This is usually translated as Turkish pizza on restaurant menus as it was here.  It consisted of  spicy meat on a soft, moist and pliable bread (pide), garnished with shredded red cabbage and lettuce.  Given the circumstance and the lack of a knife to cut it, I ate this folded over as an over-sized Turkish taco (or New York style pizza) as did many others.  It was among the best things I was to have all weekend.

Another item from the same stall (operated by Turkish Kitchen) was the Manti, translated as Turkish Raviole but more like tortellini - meat stuffed small dumplings in a yogurt and garlic sauce.  This was apparently so popular that by Saturday, Turkish Kitchen had signs on all their stalls throughout the festival that bags of these, frozen, were available for sale.


One of the other stalls in Turkey (Turkish Kitchen) offered a choice of several salads and there was another booth devoted to sweets. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth and though I was tempted I tried no sweets all weekend but on the first day I also had the Salatsie Rus (Russian salad) and, from the Turkish Kitchen booth in Turkenistan, the Kalem Boreki - cheese and parsley wrapped in a flaky dough and deep fried.

While I was making the rounds I walked into the Kazakhstan courtyard just as a performing troupe was winding up their number and milling around on the stage.  I snapped a couple of quick pictures, checked out the food booths so I could plot the rest of the weekend’s eating experiences and moved on.  I looked back to realize the group had assembled in a formation at the front of the stage to pose for all the assembled photographers but I couldn’t get back in time to take a better picture.  There were lots of performances scheduled on the various stages but it wasn’t continuous, at least during the day, and I was never able to catch an entire show.

The biggest negative at the festival was the lack of shade and with the temp at least in the upper 80s on Friday and little wind it was very hot.  There were umbrellas shading all the tables but people of all ages were seeking refuge in the archways separating the various courtyards which were at least twenty feet deep and had alcoves off to the side with some placards with information about the country or the trade route.  Although I hadn’t stayed as long as I had intended I called it a day.

See Part 2 of this report here.