Sweet and swift

Sweet and swift

I was recently faced with two totally unrelated questions. The first question was timely for the calendar: My daughter asked me a good place to dine for the Valentine’s Day in the Anatolian side of Istanbul. Of all the choices I suggested, her reply was swift: Was it up to a romantic lover’s date caliber? Finally she stopped asking and agreed on one choice; it was an Italian place, family style cozy and tiny, warm and intimate, serving soul satisfying indulgent food. The second question came from the U.S.: They were asking some trivia or background information on a street snack, very popular in Damascus in winter months, called tamari ka’ak. A quick survey revealed that it was a carb-loaded sweet with dates and sometimes bananas, again soul satisfying, at almost no cost. Now these two questions are strangely combined in my mind, may be they both contain a shared comforting indulgent taste, or maybe it’s just the banana that was the odd connection.

First question brought me to my own younger years; there must be something in the family style Italian restaurants that make them suitable for a first date. When I was a teenager growing up in Ankara, the ultimate dating venue for all of us was an Italian restaurant called Pizza Pino. The boys were satisfied with their salami-laden pizzas, while we girls were not that diet-conscious those days, so we were happy to have an ice-cream treat at the end of the day. After all, we were all the so-called “before HFCS-High Fructose Corn Syrup generation”, still skinny kids, getting our sugar intake moderately and naturally. The highlight of the menu was always the odd dessert named Maiden’s Dream; a built up of two scoops of vanilla ice-cream (note that there were always the two of them), a whole banana placed in a toweresque manner in between them, topped with a meringue capping, the ice cream balls framed with curls of Chantilly cream and the whole thing drizzled with some sort of sauce, probably chocolate. Actually it was a banana split, but plated not horizontally but in an erect manner. The boys took immense pleasure ordering that to their dates, some girls giggled, some pretended not to notice the explicit connection. But it was the best dessert of the house; with bananas, meringue, ice cream and chocolate, what could go wrong? Beyond its dramatic stature, it was very tasty.

Second question brought me back to the streets of Damascus, where I had a chance of visiting briefly in the past. I could not collect memory of that particular sweet delight but it has all the crucial elements to satisfy a sweet tooth. Tamari Ka’ak is a street snack, made to the order in a matter of seconds, cheap and fulfilling. It can roughly be described as a crepe with a pancake filling drizzled with date syrup and tahini and wrapped into a roll. The large thin crepe-like dough is liberally doused with date molasses, placed on top with another thicker and smaller dough, pretty much like pancake, smaller in diameter but thicker, and then drizzled with more date syrup and tahini, sprinkled with sesame seeds and powdered sugar; tightly wrapped into a roll, cut into slices to nibble easily with fingers and handed to the customer. It is definitely a carb bomb, which must be the key for its popularity in winter months. Other than being very tasty, it bears two crucial qualities a street food has to have, it is very quick and very cheap.

Date (Tamr in Arabic) based sweets in the Middle East have strong roots; date filled cookies and sweets has always been popular. Ka-ak is a complicated word, and can mean several different things in different regions, being sort of a generic name given to cakes, biscuits, cookies and the like. It can be sweet or savory, stuffed or plain, or shaped into rings, rounds, and fingers or in ovals. As a word it might have its roots in ancient Sumerian “gug” or the Akkadian “kuku,” but whatever the origin is ka’ak stands for a satisfying snack, never made at home, but bought readily made by ka’ak maker. Coming back to tamari ka’ak, some more elaborate versions have a sliced banana as a filling, or a drizzle of chocolate, sometimes even both, making the sweet snack even more appealing.

Apparently, that final addition of banana lead me to build the connection of my remote past sitting shyly in front of a plate of Maiden’s Dream. So banana was the key link here. Peeled swiftly in a second, it is the quickest comfort fruit ever. Bananas with tahini and date syrup is a sweet and swift satisfaction in Damascus, with ice cream and Chantilly it was our first step to world of adulthood in Ankara. Have a banana this Valentine’s day. It is simple, sweet and swift!

Fork of the Week

Chocolates are almost obligatory for Valentine’s Day. Vanilin Chocolate is a new small boutique chocolatier, recently moved to Kuzguncuk in Istanbul from its birth-town Kayseri. Their chocolates are handmade with the best ingredients; the gift boxes are very chic, their Kuzguncuk venue very Parisienne serving chocolate-rich desserts, but if you’re on a diet just go for the chocolate-flavored tea and give your sweetheart a treat of chocolate cologne, perfect gift for boys and girls alike. https://www.vanilinchocolate.com/sayfa/kuzguncuk-cafe

Cork of the Week

Two special edition new coffee capsules, named after two historically connected cities Venice and Istanbul, have been launched recently, but will be available only very shortly till mid-March. Though I have personal tendency towards loving everything connected to Venice, I fell in love with the Istanbul edition; Café Istanbul is a blend of Yemeni and Indonesian Arabica beans and monsooned robusta beans from India, it is peppery spicy and intense, just as the city itself. Caffè Venezia on the other hand is milder with intensity level at 7, opposed to 10 of Istanbul edition, fruity and floral, as elegant as the women of Venice that Casanova seduced. Both are ideal to use in cocktails, warm or cold, a drizzle of banana syrup and rom, a sprinkle of cinnamon and a topping of frothy cream will do the trick. Available online at www.buynespresso.com

Aylin Öney Tan, Food, cuisine