Exactly two years ago today, I was wrapping up three days in Istanbul, and packing for the Greek island of Rhodes. The trip (which also included Athens), was my graduation gift from my parents. Istanbul had been hectic and overwhelming, from the intense traffic and hordes of tourists at every location, to the impossibly intricate floral and geometric patterns adorning every mosque and palace, and the complex melange of spices and flavors in the food. I had loved it, but my travel companion, Amy, was glad to move on to the more laid-back vibe of the Greek isles.
The apartments of the crown prince of the Ottoman Empire,
at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.
Hence, when I saw an ad for the Chicago Turkish Festival on the side of a bus last week, I was inspired to check it out, and try to recapture a bit of my original experience in Istanbul. My resolve to attend was further strengthened, after Mom saw a spot for the Festival on the local news, and sent me a link to their website, where they touted the presence of dondurma, or Turkish ice cream. Although I hadn't been aware of dondurma when I had been in Istanbul, I had seen it featured on an episode of Food Detectives, and my curiosity was piqued. Even though it was Mom's birthday weekend and I was planning on coming home to celebrate, I rearranged my weekend, and invited Lauren to join me in my quest to sample the exotic frozen treat.
The Turkish Festival was held in Daley Plaza, home to the Richard J. Daley civic building, and Picasso's iconic abstract sculpture. I met Lauren there at noon, hoping to grab an ice cream cone and catch the performance of whirling dervishes at 12:30. My careful planning turned out to be for naught, as we soon discovered that the ice cream purveyors had gone on break for a half hour, and the day's performers were substantially behind schedule. So instead, Lauren sampled a demitasse of Turkish coffee, made by boiling the coffee grounds themselves in water, and serving the unfiltered concoction as a whole. We experimented with the practice of using the resulting dredge to read Lauren's fortune, but found the patterns difficult to read, so we opted for the most positive of potential interpretations.
After the coffee, we started to jockey for a decent viewing position for the whirling dervishes, and proceeded to push our way through the crowd while taking in a variety of Turkish folk dances, intermingled with a fashion show of traditional Ottoman styles.
This dance was particularly lackadaisical in style, and appeared to capture some sort of courtship ritual. The older gentleman on the far right reminded me of our family friend, Joe the Plumber.
A traditional Ottoman ensemble that might have graced the frame of one of the Sultan's harem.
At long last, the dervishes took the stage. The dervishes are monks from the Mevlevi Order of the Sufi branch of Islam, who practice a sort of mysticism. They perform a ritual dance, called the Sema, in which they whirl in a circle to achieve a sort of meditative trance that they believe brings them closer to God. Although they did not whirl for very long (and who could blame them?), they were still quite lovely to behold, with their flowing white robes and their unusual headgear.
We weren't sure if it was just a coincidence, but when the dervishes began to spin, the sun came out for the first time all afternoon.
After the performance, Lauren and I made a beeline for the ice cream stand, where the vendors were back from their break. However, word had gotten around that they were back to serving their frozen wares, and the line was extremely long. We were undeterred, since the dondurma was my major reason for coming, and we ended up waiting over a half hour, only to arrive at the front of the line and hear that they were about to go on break again. Crestfallen, we opted to stand there and wait for them to return, but fate smiled upon us and we received the last two cones. Perhaps our reading of the coffee grounds had panned out after all?
To keep the dondurma pliable, the vendor must constantly knead it with a metal rod. Otherwise, the stretchy polymers seize up from the cold, and the mixture can no longer be portioned out. Due to all the physical exertion needed to keep beating it into submission, the vendor was taking regular breaks.
My dondurma cone, partially dipped into ground pistachios for added textural interest. To the right, you can see a little bit of the stretch.
The dondurma gets its unique texture from the addition of mastic gum and salep, the derivative of a variety of orchid native to Turkey, whose roots form a tuber that can be ground into a flour-like consistency. The salep also gives thedondurma its flavor, which is rather hard to describe, other than being vaguely floral and herbaceous all at the same time. Because of these unique additions, the resulting ice cream is stretchy, and almost like chewing-gum in consistency. You cannot consume it by licking it, as that just causes the dondurma to stretch. Instead, you have to bite it off, and chew it. All in all, I rather enjoyed the unique texture, and I found the flavor of the salep to be pleasant, if rather difficult to explain. It was definitely worth the trek to Daley Plaza, and the lengthy wait.
It was also nice to have a little Turkish interlude in my weekend. That's just another great thing about living in the city. Even if you can't take a physical vacation to another locale, you can still experience something new and exotic, right in your own backyard. In Chicago, there's always something to do, as long as you can muster the motivation to get out of the house. It's like the song from Avenue Q (which eerily captures much of my post-college life) --
There is life outside your apartment.
I know it's hard to conceive,
But there's life outside your apartment,
And you're only gonna see it if you leave.
There is cool shit to do,
But it can't come to you!