Articles by Robyn Eckhardt David Hagerman
Pumpkins are a fixture at autumn farmers markets in Turkey, where they grow so large that they’re often cut with saws and sold in halves or by the slice. Like Americans, Turks love their pumpkin both savory — in soups, stews and as stuffed vegetables — and sweet.
Perhaps the most prized Turkish dessert is kabak tatlisi (literally, “pumpkin sweet”), wedges of pumpkin simmered in a syrup made by using sugar to leach the gourd of its natural juices. Because the recipe doubles or triples easily and the result keeps well for a day or two in the refrigerator, it’s a perfect dessert for holidays that demand do-ahead short-cuts, like Thanksgiving.
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A sweet dessert tamed by nutty toppings
I’ve been a pumpkin lover all my life, yet until recently, kabak tatlisi, which is often served on its own or with kaymak (Turkish clotted cream), left me cold. Then I sampled it in Hatay province in southeast Turkey, where the pumpkin is served drizzled with tahini (that is a Turkish pantry staple) and sprinkled with crushed walnuts. The tahini’s slight bitterness tames the cloying sweetness of the pumpkin and crunchy walnuts complement the pudding-soft texture of the vegetable. The tahini’s oil content lends a rich, satisfying mouth feel, but since it’s made up mostly of vegetable, kabak tatlisi settles lightly in the stomach.
Though Turkish cooks usually make kabak tatlisi in a covered pan on top of the stove, I’ve found that the dish cooks wonderfully — and with less bother — in the oven. It emerges a lovely burnt orange, tinged with brownish bits from the caramelization.
Do not fear the sugar
Be prepared. This recipe calls for what will seem like a lot of sugar. Resist the temptation to cut back. The sugar is there to pull liquid out of the pumpkin. Yes, the result is super-sweet, but kabak tatlisi isn’t meant to be eaten in American pumpkin-pie-sized wedges. Just a few cubes per diner — three or four little bites of caramel-y, tahini-nutty sweetness to end a meal — will do.
Resist also any urge to reduce cooking time by cutting the pumpkin into smaller pieces than this recipe indicates, or it will turn to mush before it caramelizes and the syrup has reduced. Be sure to use unadulterated tahini, without peanuts or peanut butter. Its bitter edge is essential to the success of this dish.
Plan ahead: the pumpkin must “soak” in the sugar for 8 hours (or overnight) before baking.
Caramelized Pumpkin with Tahini and Walnuts (Firinda Kabak Tatlisi)
Note: This recipe can easily be doubled, halved, cut into thirds. The rule of thumb is one part sugar to two parts pumpkin. Do not serve kabak tatlisi hot out of the oven. Room temperature or slightly chilled is best. Make sure your tahini is at room temperature when you serve.
Prep time: Up to 1/2 hour to prep the pumpkin; 8 hours to “soak” the pumpkin
Cook time: 45 minutes
Yield: Serves 8
1 1/2 pounds peeled pumpkin
3/4 pound (1 1/2 cups white sugar)
12 tablespoons pure tahini, at room temperature and whisked to remove any lumps
3/4 cup chopped walnuts
Prepping the pumpkin:
1. Cut the pumpkin into wide (3-inch) wedges and/or large (4-by-4-inch) chunks.
2. Arrange the pumpkin pieces in a baking dish or tray just large enough to hold them closely, but without crowding.
3. Sprinkle the sugar over the pumpkin and cover the dish with plastic wrap.
4. Leave the pumpkin at room temperature for 8 hours or overnight. Turn the pumpkin pieces occasionally – once every few hours, or once before bed and once after you get up — to expose all sides to the sugar.
Baking the pumpkin:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Before baking, turn the pumpkin pieces one last time in what has likely become a mixture of syrup and lumps of wet granulated sugar.
3. Place the baking dish on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 40 minutes, gently turning the pumpkin pieces and basting with the sugar syrup once or twice.
4. Check the pumpkin for doneness by piercing a piece with a sharp knife. There should be no resistance.
5. Baste the pumpkin once more, then raise the heat to 400 F and continue to bake until it shows bits of caramel brown in some spots and the syrup bubbles, about 10 to 15 minutes.
6. Cool the pumpkin in its baking dish.
7. To serve, cut the pumpkin into small cubes or wedges and carefully transfer to bowls or plates. Spoon a bit of syrup over it, if you like, or leave it in the dish. Drizzle 1 1/2 tablespoons of tahini over each serving of pumpkin and sprinkle with walnuts.
Main photo: This prized Turkish dessert, kabak tatlisi, features pumpkin wedges simmered in a sweet sugar-based syrup and topped with tahini and walnuts. Credit: David Hagerman
Bread is to Turkey as rice is to China. Once upon a time most of the country’s commercially sold breads were made in firin, or wood-fired stone oven bakeries. Today urban redevelopment, gentrification and customer preference for the convenience offered by grocery stores and hypermarkets have rendered firin nearly obsolete in many cities and towns in western Turkey. But in the country’s eastern half, from the provinces bordering Syria in the southeast and heading north to the Black Sea coast, firin (the term refers both to the oven and the bakery) remain a source of daily bread and a center of community life.
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You’ll often know a firin by the stack of firewood outside its front door. Ovens are heated directly by fires built inside, or indirectly via fireboxes. In some parts of eastern Turkey, firin feature a tandir in addition to, or instead of, the standard stone oven.
Firin range from pocket sized to expansive. In Van, a city in Turkey’s far east, tiny Kucuk Yildiz (“Little Star”) packs mixing, proofing and shaping areas in two low stories stacked above the wood oven, which sits in the middle of the bakery’s approximately 10-by-12-foot ground floor. Unbaked pide (plain flatbreads) and corek (oily and flaky flatbreads) slide down into the oven, and when the breads are finished they’re stored stacked against the firin’s window.
What comes out of a firin depends on where it’s located. Pide are common to much of eastern Turkey, but they vary greatly in size and shape, from Diyarbakir’s huge puffy trapezoids to Tokat’s thin oblongs. On the Black Sea, corn bread and heavy loaves of koy ekmegi (“village bread”), made with unbleached flour and marked by the chard leaves baked into their base, are mainstays, and in the southeast lavash — for wrapping the ubiquitous kebab — is common.
Many firin switch up their offerings depending on the time of day. Simit and morning breads, like the large envelope-shaped flaky breads called kete in Kars and the gently spiced coiled buns baked in Antakya, may give way at lunchtime to pide and, in the southeast, lahmacun or katikli ekmek (flatbreads with a thin shmear of spicy cheese). As late afternoon approaches, some firin in Sanliurfa turn out sugar-sprinkled flatbreads, while in Adiyaman the sugar is supplemented with soft cheese.
Firin for the community
Firin are not only bakeries, but community ovens as well, to which homemakers and esnaf lokantasi (“tradesmen’s restaurants”) pay a nominal fee (less than U.S. $1) to cook their own foods. In mid-morning, restaurant staffers arrive with pots of stew and trays of meat and vegetables; come late afternoon, sons and daughters ferry in pans of fish fillets seasoned with herbs and kirmizi biber (crushed red pepper), potatoes layered with bell peppers, tomatoes and onions or pans of white beans with bits of meat and tomato. If a firin is located near a butcher a homemaker might call in a order — 10 pirzola (flattened lamb chops), for instance — that the butcher will season and send to the oven.
Finished dishes are set out ready for pickup on the firin’s marble counter or wooden cooling rack, draped with a large pide that will keep the meal hot. That pide will also serve as a potholder for whomever is carrying the dish home.
Some firin deliver — by bike, car, truck and wheelbarrow. During Ramadan, Van’s Kucuk Yildiz packs boxes of corek to send by bus to Istanbul, for migrants who couldn’t imagine a pre-dawn meal without their home city’s beloved breakfast flatbread.
Main photo: Baked goods from eastern Turkey’s firin. Credit: David Hagerman
Most cooks acquainted with Turkish food know of borek, a dish of phyllo-like pastry leaves called yufka brushed with butter or oil, layered with meat or cheese, and baked. In Istanbul and other parts of Turkey yufka, when not made at home, is usually purchased fresh and pliable at weekly markets and from specialists called yufkaci.
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A few years ago while traveling along Turkey’s central Black Sea coast I discovered yufka’s other incarnation, as a thin cracker-crisp round meant to be rehydrated — or not — before being incorporated into borek. On the Black Sea, yufka is also rolled, sliced and dried for islama, a dish of yufka spirals topped with chicken or turkey and crushed walnuts and doused with melted butter and broth. And I found that when it comes to filling their borek, central Black Sea cooks go with the season.
Late one February, at a family-owned restaurant 25 miles inland, I feasted on zilbert boregi, a short stack of yufka sheets encasing sautéed borage. Light and crispy, its filling tasting of artichoke and asparagus with a hint of mushroom, that borek hinted at the spring that was beginning to show itself in the region’s budding fruit trees. Six months later in a town a few hours east, I feasted on borek spilling mushrooms foraged from nearby hills, their meatiness foretelling the coming winter.
A sweet deviation
But my favorite Black Sea borek is one that was made for me by Esen, a rare woman in a male-dominated trade who owns a yufka shop not far from the central Black Sea fishing town of Sinop. A short sturdy woman in her late 30s, Esen toils over her big round gas-fired griddle from the wee hours of the morning until late in the afternoon, turning out katlama (stacked yufka rounds with a slick of butter in between) and layered and rolled sweet and savory borek.
One morning I asked Esen what she intended to do with a big pumpkin sitting on a table near her griddle. She smiled and grabbed the pumpkin by its stem, raised it over her head and threw it on the concrete floor where it split neatly in two. After peeling and grating the vegetable she roughly chopped two handfuls of walnuts and measured out a bit of sugar. Then she laid a leaf of dried yufka on her griddle, brushed it with oil and built a borek.
Sparely sugared, it was a delightful departure from the syrup-soaked Turkish pastries I’d eaten up till then, with crunchy walnuts and crispy pastry contrasting beautifully with softened pumpkin.
Pumpkin and Walnut Borek (Kabak ve Cevizli Boregi)
Dried yufka and a hot griddle make for a crispier, lighter borek. Baking sheets and an oven work just as well and fresh phyllo sheets, fused and left to dry, are a fine substitute for dried yufka. Don’t worry if the dough tears or wrinkles as you’re making the borek; imperfections add to the charm of this rustic dish.
Plan to lay out your yufka or phyllo to dry at least six hours before assembly. Once that’s done the dish comes together quickly because the borek is baked flat, in one big piece.
Serve this dish for breakfast or as an afternoon snack. It also makes a wonderful dessert, served (untraditionally) hot from the oven with a scoop of ice cream.
Serves 6 to 8
10 sheets of phyllo
3 cups grated pumpkin or sweet squash
1½ cups chopped walnuts
4 tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
Canola or other light cooking oil
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1. Lay a single sheet of phyllo flat on a work surface. Using a pastry brush, wet it lightly with water. Lay another sheet of phyllo on top of the wet sheet and then use a rolling pin to fuse the two together. Repeat with the remaining eight sheets of phyllo, fusing them 2-by-2 to make five thick sheets in total. Transfer all to cookie sheets or paper towels and leave uncovered in an airy room to dry for at least six hours or as long as overnight.
2. Once the pastry is dry, place the pumpkin, walnut, sugar and salt in a medium bowl and mix with a fork or your fingers.
3. To assemble the borek, lightly oil a cookie sheet large enough to accommodate the yufka or phyllo (at least 15 by 10 inches). Place one sheet of pastry on the cookie sheet (if the pastry hangs over the sides of the cookie sheet just fold the excess inward) and lightly brush it with butter.
4. Sprinkle one quarter of the filling over the buttered pastry — it will not cover the phyllo completely. Place another pastry sheet on top of the pumpkin-walnut filling, pressing it lightly onto the filling with your palms (don’t worry if it cracks a bit). Butter that pastry sheet too. Top with one quarter of the filling, and repeat until all of the filling and pastry is used up. Brush the top piece of pastry with butter.
5. Bake the borek in a 350 F oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the top is showing splotches of golden brown (if your oven is small reverse the position of the cookie sheet halfway through).
6. While the borek is baking, lightly oil another cookie sheet. Remove the borek from the oven and place the second oiled cookie sheet upside down over its top. Squeezing the two cookie sheets together, flip the borek, carefully remove the first cookie sheet, and return it to the oven to bake another 12 to 15 minutes, or until nicely browned.
7. Cut the borek into 6 or 8 squares and serve hot or at room temperature.
Top photo: Pumpkin and walnut borek from Turkey. Credit: David Hagerman
Five years ago at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, Turk Murat Demirtas ate a meal that changed his life. It wasn’t beef with red peppers or kung pao chicken that moved the Istanbul resident, who was vacationing in the United States at the time, but what came after: a fortune cookie.
“‘What is it?’ I asked my friends. I had never ever seen this product! Then I opened it and read my fortune: ‘Your new business will be successful,'” Demirtas told us recently in the front office at ForFun, his small fortune cookie factory — Turkey’s first — in Istanbul’s chichi Nisantasi district.
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A lawyer specializing in copyright and branding, he saw great potential for the novelty food in his own country, one with a historical affinity for fortune telling. In the Ottoman era soothsayers advised sultans in Topkapi Palace. Today Turks still practice kahve fali, or fortune telling from coffee grounds. After returning home, Demirtas shared his hunch with his American partner (and now fortune cookie fortune translater) Douglas Groesser, a teacher at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, and founded ForFun Fortune Cookie in 2009.
Demirtas’ road from lawyer and dance teacher (infectiously enthusiastic, he moonlights as an instructor of salsa, samba and belly dancing) to fortune cookie maker was anything but smooth. When he tried to purchase equipment from Boston company Sci Technology, whose president invented the world’s first fully automated fortune cookie machine, he was refused.
“They didn’t trust me,” Demirtas says, but then Groesser’s mother stepped in. After a few phone calls on his behalf the company relented.
So he and Groesser spent a week in Boston training to use the machine. “Crazy! It’s very complicated!” Demirtas said. The partners then placed their order and returned to Turkey. There, the government denied their application for a license to manufacture.
It took six months to convince the licensing bureau, whose officials couldn’t comprehend that a food containing paper, such as fortune cookies, would be safe to eat.
A new recipe for Turkish fortune cookies
Local ingredients presented the next obstacle. In addition to white sugar, Sci Technology’s recipe calls for corn flour and cornstarch, ingredients expensive in Turkey that Demirtas had to replace with wheat flour to bring costs under control. The new batter was so sticky that it gummed up the machine. Finally Demirtas and Groesser flew Sci Technology founder Yongsik Lee to Istanbul, where he worked with the duo to tailor the local batter to the machine’s requirements. The unintended result is a better fortune cookie, crisp and delicious compared with America’s spongy, artificial-tasting one.
ForFun’s 2009 launch — the biscuits come in chocolate, strawberry and zade (plain, or vanilla) flavors — brought new challenges. Like Demirtas, most customers had never heard of the fortune cookie. Some popped the entire thing in their mouths, paper fortune and all, which prompted Demirtas to redesign ForFun’s packaging. The box now prominently features the phrase “kir, bak, ye” (crack, look, eat), which is a clever play on kurabiye, the Turkish word for cookie or biscuit.
Demirtas also had not taken into account the Turkish tendency to take a fortune literally. “Turks love fortunes because we know that if you really believe what you read, it will happen,” Demirtas said. But that also meant that his cookies’ fortunes shouldn’t be too cryptic, vague or negative. One customer called ForFun to complain after opening a cookie with a fortune advising “Be careful.” Another, after reading “Just wait,” for three hours refused to leave her table at the restaurant where she had opened her cookie.
Now the cookies contain more propitious snippets. Demirtas’ current stock of fortunes — about 1,000 in total — comprise passages from Buddha, Mevlana and Greek philosophers, phrases suggested by friends and dance students, and simple directives. One of the most popular: “You need to go to the beach.”
Demirtas’ initial impulse was on the money. ForFun, which distributes to grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses (in Laleli, an Istanbul neighborhood with a large Russian population, pharmacists give the cookies away with prescriptions), and fills custom orders, boasts a yearly production of about 500,000 cookies. With customers all over Turkey, Demirtas is thinking about purchasing a second machine to increase production.
But one thing the business isn’t immune to is politics: June and July protests in Istanbul and other Turkish cities buffeted sales. They’re coming back slowly, said Demirtas, who blames continuing concerns among Turks about possible military action in Syria.
Top photo: ForFun fortune cookies in Turkey. Credit: David Hagerman
As summer approaches and temperatures warm, thoughts turn to grilling and eating outside. Here, in celebration of the season of barbecues and picnics, are some images from Asia and Turkey of food prepared over open fires and feasts in the great outdoors.
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» Grill virgins: 5 steps to success for beginners
The hot-sour-salty-sweet flavor combinations that dominate in Bangkok and central Thailand and in the Isaan region bordering Laos in the country’s east, make scant appearance up north. Northern Thai food is instead — in the words of northerners themselves — kem-kon (concentrated, intense) and rot-jat (strongly flavored). In your face: spicy, salty and sometimes bitter.
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Ingredients such as odiferous bplaa raa (literally “rotten fish”), a long-fermented fish condiment that northerners use more often than regular fish sauce, and tua nao, fermented soy beans that are mashed and shaped into disks or small bricks before being dried in the sun, lend the cuisine a jolt of umami and an elusive earthiness. Fresh and dried chilies are ubiquitous. Depth and complexity come from a range of dried spices more often associated with Malay or Indian foods (cloves, cinnamon, coriander seed, nutmeg and cumin); black, white and long peppers; and a regional variety of prickly ash (more commonly known as Sichuan peppercorn). Smokiness comes from the barbecue, ingredients such as green chilies, shallots, tomatoes and garlic are often grilled before they’re added to a dish.
Northerners prefer khao niaow, or sticky rice, over non-glutinous rice. At the table they use one hand to turn knobs of warm rice into small patties by pressing and shaping the grains between their palm and the tips of the fingers. Then they use the rice as Middle Easterners and northern Africans would bread, to carry bits of food and the cooking juices and liquids of stews and soups from plate or bowl to mouth.
Nam priks bask in the hot stuff
The northern Thai cook’s touchstones are dips known as nam prik (“chili water” is the literal translation), small bowls of concentrated flavor that pair beautifully with the fresh herbs (mint, various basils and cilantro among others) and blanched and uncooked vegetables (fresh and leafy greens such as Chinese mustard and various lettuces, and cucumbers, tart cherry tomatoes and winter squash) that are always presented alongside.
These vegetables and dips are usually served as part of a full meal, but in a non-Thai setting they work well as finger foods to go with drinks (and are a relatively virtuous alternative to chips and dips — although pork rinds, a beloved snack in pork-obsessed northern Thailand, often make an appearance). The dips can also be eaten together as a light meal.
Minced Pork and Tomato Dip (Nam Prik Ong)
This mild nam prik has a flavor and texture reminiscent of Bologna-style ragu. Leftovers are wonderful tossed with wide rice noodles and a handful of scallion greens chopped with Thai basil.
Nam prik ong is usually eaten with pork rinds (rice crackers work well, too) and with blanched, rather than raw, vegetables. Chunks of peeled winter squash (kabocha, butternut, etc.) are a must. Try also wedges of round green cabbage, cauliflower, long beans, carrots and Chinese greens like baby bok choy and gai lan (Chinese broccoli), their leaves squeezed dry.
7 dried red chilies
3 shallots, roughly chopped (about 2 ounces)
2 teaspoons Thai or Malaysian shrimp paste
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
5 plump cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 tablespoons ground pork
2 cups roughly chopped tomatoes
½ cup chicken or pork broth
Fish sauce, to taste
1. Toast the chilies in a dry skillet over medium heat until darkened but not burned. Allow to cool and place in a mortar or the bowl of a blender.
2. Add the shallots, garlic and shrimp paste to the chilies and pound or blend to a rough paste (if using blender, add up to 1 tablespoon water to aid processing).
3. Heat a small skillet (preferably non-stick) over medium heat and add the oil. Swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the garlic and sauté until it begins to change color. Add the chile-shallot-shrimp paste mixture and cook, stirring, until the raw smell of the shrimp paste dissipates, about 3 minutes.
4. Add the chopped pork and, breaking it up with a fork, cook just until the pink color disappears.
5. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring, until they begin to break up, about 2 minutes. Add the broth, lower the heat to medium-low, and let the mixture simmer until the broth is nearly evaporated, leaving a paste of medium thickness.
6. Taste and adjust for salt, if necessary, with fish sauce, adding ¼ teaspoon at a time.
7. Transfer the nam prik to a bowl, let cool, and serve at room temperature with a generous platter of vegetables for dipping.
Roasted Eggplant and Green Chili Dip (Dtam makhya)
This dip, though not a nam prik in name, is certainly one in spirit. It’s often eaten with fresh mint and pork rinds. It’s also wonderful shmeared over a warm soft corn tortilla to roll around grilled or roasted pork, mint and cilantro.
2 large long Asian eggplant (about 500 grams)
5-7 long green chilies
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 red shallots, roughly chopped
½ teaspoon Bplaa raa (often available in southeast Asia markets, in jars labeled “pickled mud fish”) or fish sauce
Pinch of sugar
Salt to taste
Fish sauce, to taste
½ teaspoon cooking oil
1. Grill, broil, roast (at about 350 F) or cook the eggplants and chilies directly over a gas flame until soft and browned all over. Let cool, then peel and chop together, by hand or in a food processor, to a very rough puree. Set aside in a mortar.
2. Add garlic, shallots, bplaa raa, and sugar and briefly pound with a pestle to mix. Taste for salt and add fish sauce, if necessary, ½ teaspoon at a time.
3. Heat the oil in a nonstick pan over medium-high heat, then add the eggplant mixture. Cook, stirring constantly, until its color deepens slightly, about 2-3 minutes. Do not let the eggplant brown.
4. Transfer to a bowl and servewarm or at room temperature.
Red-Eye Smoked Fish and Chili Dip (Nam prik dta daeng)
Dta daeng means “red eyes,” which is what you might have after eating this super-spicy dip. Smoked mackerel is a fine substitute for the smoked river fish sold in northern Thai markets; feel free to experiment with hot-smoked salmon or any other smoked fish. Traditionally the smoked fish, shallots and garlic would be grilled, but these days northern Thai cooks are happy to use the microwave. The number of chilies called for results in an authentically fiery dish. Reduce by up to two-thirds for a much milder dip; you could also remove the seeds.
Serve this dip with any combination of fresh Asian long beans (or green beans), sliced cucumber, napa cabbage and Chinese mustard leaves, wing beans, and herbs such as mint, Thai or purple basil, sawtooth herb and Vietnamese mint. Leftovers are great stirred into scrambled eggs.
4 ounces smoked mackerel, bones removed
5 unpeeled shallots
8 unpeeled garlic cloves
25 whole Thai dried red chilies, stemmed
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1 tablespoon Thai or Malaysian shrimp paste
½ teaspoon cooking oil
½ cup water
1. Remove any skin from the fish. Cut the fish into chunks and microwave until its moisture is rendered and it has begun to crisp, about 3-5 minutes depending on the size of the chunks and the fattiness of the fish. Set aside to cool.
2. Place garlic cloves on plate, cover with microwave-safe plastic wrap, and microwave till very soft, 2-3 minutes. Repeat with the shallots, which will take 4-5 minutes. Set aside to cool, then peel.
3. Toast the chilies in a skillet over medium heat until they darken, stirring constantly so they don’t burn. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
4. Pound the fish and chilies in a mortar or chop in a food processor to rough puree. Add the shallots and garlic and pound or process to a paste.
5. Place a (preferably nonstick) skillet over medium heat. Add the oil, heat for a few seconds, and then add the tomatoes and the shrimp paste. Cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add the water and continue to cook, stirring and mashing the tomatoes with the back of your spatula or spoon, until the moisture has almost evaporated, about 3 more minutes.
6. Add the chile-shallot-garlic-fish paste and cook, stirring, until the ammonia smell of the shrimp paste has dissipated and the combination paste has started to darken and take on an oily sheen, 4-5 minutes. There should be no moisture left in the pan.
7. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Serve at room temperature.
Top photo: Nam prik ong, a northern Thai style “dip” made of tomato and ground pork often served with pork rinds (bowl left). Credit: David Hagerman
A little more than 10 years ago, Elisa and Michel Gabrel arrived on Koh Samui from France searching, like most retirement-age foreign arrivals to this island in the Gulf of Thailand, for a piece of paradise. They found it on Koh Samui’s quiet south side, in a wedge of coconut palm-covered property where they built a modest home and settled in to savor island life. But it didn’t take long for the appeal of idleness to fade.
IN KOH SAMUI
Magic Alambic is open daily for tastings from noon to 6 p.m.
» Shots are 50 baht (about $1.62 U.S.) -- 75 baht (about $2.44 U.S.) for 6-year aged rhum.
» Bottles are available for purchase at 650 baht (about $21.17) -- 1,200 baht (about $39.08) for 6-year aged rhum.
Take a taxi or bring a designated driver.
44/5 Moo 3, Ban Thale, Koh Samui. 66-77/419-023. www.rhumdistillerie.com
“We’d visited Samui many times, and loved it. But if you live here you have to do something,” says Elisa, a tanned 61-year-old whose large, expressive eyes are capped by carefully penciled brows and framed by a mane of reddish flyaway hair. “Especially during three months of monsoon. If you only watch TV, believe me — it’s gonna be a hard life.”
Some retirees to Samui (most residents drop the “Koh,” which means “island”) fight boredom with frequent travel around Asia, or by taking up a sport or a hobby. Others open a bar or a café. But Elisa and Michel saw their salvation in liquor; they decided to make rhum agricole, or West Indies-style rum, distilled from pure sugarcane juice. (Ninety-nine percent of the world’s rum is rhum industriel, which is made from molasses, a by-product of sugar production.)
The Gabrel’s choice to make rhum agricole wasn’t entirely without foundation. They had enjoyed it in France, says Elisa, adding, “Rum is in my blood.” Her mother was Vietnamese and her father hailed from Martinique, where most of the world’s rhum agricole is made. Elise, who was born in Vietnam, moved to France with her parents when she was 4 years old.
Engaging the fruit of the land
The couple knew that Thailand, the world’s No. 1 exporter of sugarcane, could be counted on for a steady supply of raw material. And Samui, which is known to Thais as “Coconut Island,” provided further inspiration: The Gabrels decided to not only make natural rhum agricole but also flavor the liquor with coconut, the island’s biggest export, as well as other easily available island fruit. They named their venture Magic Alambic, (an alambic, or alembic, is a still) and became the first foreigners to distill liquor in Thailand.
Michel, who was a stonemason in Paris, had become interested in distilling during the years that the couple owned an orchard in Argent, France, where they decamped after a back injury forced him to quit his trade. Every year after harvest, Michel and Elisa would take plum, cherry and apricot juices to the local distiller, who would turn them into spirits. So, for their enterprise on Samui, they imported a still from Armagnac.
It took two months of experimentation to get the rhum process right. “We had the information from the factory, but it wasn’t enough. You have to distill with your heart, your feelings and your brain,” Elise told me one steamy afternoon, in thickly French-accented English, as we sat in Magic Alambic’s “tasting room,” a thatch-roofed open-air sala steps from her house. During those two months “Michel distilled, and I tasted.” Though she doesn’t drink often, she says, “I know rum.”
Michel passed away earlier this year at 70 years old, but not before witnessing the success of the unlikely enterprise he began with his wife. In the nine years since Michel and Elisa achieved their first drinkable batch of rhum agricole, Magic Alambic has attracted the attention of big names in the spirits world: Jamieson, Johnnie Walker, Pernod-Ricaux and Bacardi. The companies’ distillers come to Samui to taste Magic Alambic’s rhums and talk technique. Elisa’s happy to share. “There’s no secret,” she says. “We have exactly the same process as single malt whiskey.”
Simple hands-on operation for Thai rum
The Magic Alambic facility consists of little more than a cane presser, the single French still, and a small aging room. From January through June Elisa distills twice a day, starting at 4 a.m. She goes through 10 tons of sugarcane in a single season, capturing just 25 to 28 liters of rum from every 300 liters of cane juice. The juice is distilled after fermentation, and at this stage Magic Alambic’s flavored rums — coconut, orange, pineapple and lime — are infused with fruit. “Only fruit,” Elisa says. “No essence!” This ensures a natural taste.
The liquor is then aged in stainless steel (the company cannot obtain a license from Thailand to age liquor in wood) for at least one year at which point most of it is diluted to 40 proof to conform to Thai regulations. But some rhum is held back for further aging of up to six years. In the end, Magic Alambic produces less than 10,000 bottles annually, and it is sold by mail order or at the Samui facility.
Demand would support increased production, but “we don’t want to work more,” says Elisa, who relies on a team of four for help. “And when you distill, if you think about money first you won’t get the good quality.”
In the tasting room she opens bottle after bottle and waves each under the noses of visitors. The rhum smells exactly like its ingredients, the natural sweetness of sugar cane, the voluptuous milkiness of coconut, orange like the juice you’d drink for breakfast, and an oily essence of lime reminiscent of the scent that lingers in the air after a peel is twisted. (Elisa had already sold out of pineapple rhum when I visited). Swirling her rhum agricole in a glass, she shows its long legs and plump tears, similar to those of a fine wine. Then she pours shots. The liquor is slightly sweet and smooth, and goes down without a trace of burn. Elisa attributes its fine flavor to the cane. “We can take credit for the quality of the rum, but not for the taste,” she says. “That’s from the Thai soil.”
The rhums are especially delicious, and dangerously easy-drinking, mixed with Elisa’s homemade take on T’i punch sirop, which swaps brown cane sugar for the usual white and adds cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and lime juice. I ask for a recipe.
“No,” says Elise. “I don’t keep the rhum process a secret. The T’i punch, I do.”
Photo: T’i punch made with Magic Alambic rhum. Credit: David Hagerman
We all know what a beautiful food photograph looks like. Unfortunately, our cameras are clueless. Here are tips for making the most of your equipment to capture the best images of food and the people who grow, produce and prepare it.
Natural light is your friend
It’s free and, in most cases, natural light is the best light for photographing food. When I’m photographing a dish, I start by looking for a source of soft indirect light. (Look at the shadows falling around your subject. If they’re short, the light is indirect.)
Next, determine the direction of the light and make the most of it to create desirable effects. Position the dish at a right angle to the light and you get lots of appetite-rousing texture — the next best thing to attaching a scratch and sniff panel to your photograph. Try positioning a white napkin, a piece of white paper or even the lid of a pan on the side of the dish that’s in shadow and using it to bounce light back toward its source; this will “open up” shadows, or lighten up dark spaces, and create a more even exposure. If you’re photographing a hot dish, position it in front of the light source to highlight rising steam.
Set the stage
Props help tell a story but too many objects in a scene distract the viewer from the main attraction. Remove anything whose color clashes unattractively with the hues of the dish you’re photographing and any object that’s jarringly small or large in relation to the dish.
Imagine choosing a tie or a scarf to complement an outfit and take the same approach with your subject. Look for background colors that complement or bring out key elements in a dish like reds/oranges to highlight chilies and greens to make fresh herbs pop.
Try recruiting someone to hold the dish you want to photograph; colorful aprons and shirts make effortless, interesting backdrops and clue the viewer in to where the dish comes from. Don’t be afraid to include a cook’s (or gardener’s or farmer’s) hands; they help tell a compelling food story.
Find the face
Like people, dishes have a “face” — an angle from which they look best to the camera. Work at a low angle and before you start shooting turn the plate or bowl slowly, watching for perspectives that naturally pull your eye through the dish: a crevice between meat and potatoes for instance, or a “river” of flowing spaghetti.
Play with your food: saw into a thick cut of meat, tear a piece of bread in half or twirl noodles around a fork to create the flow you want.
If nothing works for you, dig in. Sometimes my subject’s best face emerges after I’ve eaten a few bites. At this point I put down my knife and fork (or chopsticks) and grab my camera.
Go beyond food porn
For me the people who grow, produce and cook the food I photograph, and the places in which they work, are as important and as interesting as the food itself. And it’s these types of photographs that usually most interest my viewers.
But photographing cooks in action creates its own set of problems. Most important, before you photograph any person be sure you have their permission. If you’re in a setting in which language is a barrier, permission can be asked with eye contact, a finger pointed at your camera and a nod of the head. In some situations you may need to establish a more formal relationship.
Second, stay out of your subject’s way. He or she has a job to do; yours is to be a fly on the wall. Make sure that you respect personal space and work around your subject; nothing does more to spoil a photo than a chef turning to you with a scowl just as you press the shutter. This may require squeezing yourself into a corner, leaning precariously over a prep table or standing on a chair positioned well out of the way.
Third, watch your background. And before you begin working the shutter do a “hand check”: form right angles with your thumbs and forefingers and position them to create a frame around the scene you want to photograph. Are objects in the background “protruding” from a head or a chest? If your subject is holding a pan or a plate, is one of his or her hands lost in space? If so, adjust your perspective. And if you’re shooting a person full height the general rule of thumb is to either cut them off at the waist or show their entire body, feet included.
Take it over the top
Top shots or overheads are a great way to highlight shapes and forms. The curve of a plate or bowl contrasted with angular utensils draws attention to a dish and makes for an interesting photograph.
It also gives you the option to show an entire place setting or multiple dishes. Throw in a diner’s elbow or forearm clad in an eye-catching fabric and you’ll pull the viewer right to the table.
1. Most point-and-shoot cameras are equipped with a macro function. If you have an SLR but do not have a macro lens try using a close-up filter to help you get closer to your subject. If you’re using a zoom lens on either a point-and-shoot or an SLR keep your focal length greater than 50mm (or equivalent).
2. Don’t use a wide angle lens. It distorts your subject. Plates and pans will be oval, objects will seem farther away than they are. If you’re using a zoom lens, work counter-intuitively: zoom in but step back from the plate.
Photography is about personal style, what draws you to a subject and how to capture that subject is unique to you. The key is to find the best way to focus the viewer’s attention to where you want it by removing distractions from the frame.
Photo credits: David Hagerman