During a recent trip to the farmer’s market, I came across an edible weed that my mom used to make in Turkey. I immediately recognized it when I saw it at the Greek farmer’s stand and recalled the fact that I actually had seen it in Maria’s blog (Organically Cooked) and actually had learned this weed’s name in English from her post on Amaranth. Actually, I did not even know the name in Turkish either, until after some recent research on the internet. Amaranth was not my favorite food when I was growing up, however it still was exciting to see something that reminded me of home; so I had to buy it. Plus, my taste has changed over the years; hence I appreciate good and healthy food much more. The Greek farmer also had purslane which is also another edible weed that I had not seen while living in the States. Of course, I could not have passed that one up either. A post will be coming up on that one too.
Seeing these edible weeds at the Greek farmer’s stand did not surprise me since Turkish food and Greek food are very similar; in fact there are dishes with almost the same names. In my opinion, both cuisines have their own identity and taste. From my own experience in eating at Greek or Arab restaurants, I am able to distinguish the originality of a particular dish (whether it’s Greek, Arab or Turkish). This is also true for some dishes in Turkey that can vary considerably from one region to another. Spices or condiments or the cooking style contributes greatly to the heterogeneity of the food. I personally love to try a meal with a different variety, because it gives me a different taste and pleasure with each version.
Since I mentioned my shopping at the Greek farmer’s stand, I predict that some of you who are familiar with history of Turkey or Greece may be surprised that I would shop from a Greek farmer (or store) since Greeks and Turks look like they are competitors due to their historical relationship. When I decide to shop from a store or market, the determining factors are: good quality products and excellent customer service. In terms of shopping, there is nothing worse than receiving low quality products and customer service where you reciprocate with your money. For instance, I had two unacceptable experiences pertaining to product quality and customer service at the two biggest and famous stores that sell Middle Eastern food here in Houston (Names of the markets are irrelevant, as the goal of my blog is not to bash markets that I am not happy with). Unfortunately, these markets do not have the mentality of “the customer is the first priority” that you find in most American supermarkets. After these two unpleasant experiences at the two markets, I never set my foot in either of them. It is only fair to expect good quality products (such as not having flies/insects in your bulgur or products that do not survive the expiration date) and a good customer service considering the amount of money and the shopping frequency in these places. Even if they were the only two stores that sell Middle Eastern products in Houston (Thank God that’s not the case), I would still choose not to give even one dime of my money to them. The customer-market relationship should be on a win-win basis rather than win-lose basis.
Before getting off the subject, the first time I shopped at the Greek farmer’s stand, he gave me a complimentary turnip. Albeit, the monetary value of a turnip is not large, it was a nice gesture that made me a loyal customer of his stand. The second time, I was there, while I was trying to choose between two large bunches of fresh mint with the help of his wife (I am assuming), he said “take them both, take them both”. He gave me both mint bunches for the price of one. Again, the monetary value of the mint was not much at all, it was very generous of him. After finishing my shopping and leaving the Greek stand with the two bunches of mint for the price of one and some other vegetables, I started strolling among other produce stands. Right then, I went back to the Greek stand to purchase more produce, thinking that I had no reason to spend my money at another stand when I can find good quality vegetables along with a very friendly farmer. I continue to shop from him regularly. Only in the case when he does not have what I am looking for, do I search other stands. I also took my friends there and told them about this friendly farmer and his produce.
The shopping experiences with the Greek farmer enhanced my belief that no matter what problems our countries had, instead of generalizing, we should make decisions based on one’s personality rather than the whole country or culture. As a matter of fact, the people who have touched my life the most while living in the States (other than my uncle, aunt and her parents), were four Greek ladies.
Although, I try not to deviate from my cooking related stories much in my blog, I prefer not to pass this opportunity to talk about these Greek friends. I will introduce each one of them one by one as briefly as I can, since each one has a special place in my heart.
About 10 years ago when I had just finished college and moved to another state, I was hospitalized for about two weeks for a surgery. At that time, I did not know two of these ladies (Toula and Margarita) who had heard about me and visited me and helped me at the hospital regularly. I hardly knew Thespina; only through our daily routine walks with my aunt and uncle.
I met Joyce at a Greek coffee house (it’s a restaurant and a coffee place) which was very close to the Salvation Army, where I was volunteering the first summer I came to the States. I was not old enough to drive, so my aunt, Barbara would drop me off early in the morning at the coffee house so she could make arrive at her work on time. She would advice me to purchase something at the restaurant every morning since I would wait there for about an hour before the Salvation Army opened its doors. I would purchase coffee and a bagel every morning and wait for the Salvation Army to open. Every morning, I would see the same woman come and drink coffee by herself. She never missed a day. She always was properly dressed and always looking after herself. One day, she approached me and started talking to me and bought me coffee. Then, we talked every morning and I got to know her. Then, I left for college to another state and one of those summers when I got back, I heard from a neighbor that Joyce was diagnosed with a serious illness. During my visit to the hospital, she kind of was surprised and a little sad; maybe she did not want to be seen in a hospital bed struggling with a serious illness. To me, she did not look any different; she was still the same, wonderful person. Thankfully, she managed to prevent the illness from progressing. When I was hospitalized a few years later, she was one of the first to come visit me and see how I am doing. I lost touch with Joyce for many years now. My Christmas cards sent to her came back to me two years in a row and her telephone was no longer working which brings the worst to my mind.
Another Greek lady, Thespina, whom I knew during our daily walks in the evening with my aunt and uncle (yes, we walked a lot; every single day, no matter if there was 3 feet of snow or if it was dark, we walked at least 1 hour each day!) made numerous trips to the hospital; bringing me reading material and helping me take short walks within the hospital to support recovery. The day I left the hospital, Thespina and her husband who enjoyed fishing as a hobby gave us a huge halibut to speed up my recovery through nutrition. It is funny, but every time I eat halibut, I remember them. We still correspond with Thespina.
I had not met Toula. Toula who my uncle and aunt knew only through hi’s and small talks during their walk in the neighborhood, had a young daughter. As soon as she heard about my situation, she informed Margarita and they both came to the hospital together along with Toula’s daughter who was holding a teddy bear to present to me. It was a very nice gesture. Neither of us (myself, my aunt and uncle) had met Margarita. Margarita visited me a few times during my stay at the hospital. She also made a rice and chicken soup for me the day I was discharged from the hospital, so that I would recuperate faster. During this time, my aunt was out of the country, so when I had to visit the doctor’s office for follow ups and still was not allowed to drive, she insisted that my uncle should not take time off from his work and she offered to drive me to doctor’s office herself. This kind of kindness cannot be forgotten. I kept in touch with them. A few months back when Margarita and her husband were in Houston, I had the pleasure to welcome them in my home for dinner after so many years. I was ecstatic to see them. Margarita is also an excellent cook who gives me tips on cooking and baking when I speak to her. Unfortunately, we lost touch with Toula, but I still wonder how she is doing.
There is a saying in Turkish that says “Dost, kara günde belli olur” meaning “A real friend reveals himself/herself in bad days”. Anyone will be with you in good days, but not everyone will be on your side when you are having a tough time. I am not only thankful to these women who barely knew me or my aunt or uncle, I am also thankful for having this experience at such a young age which allowed me to gain a very different perspective on people and life.
This story taught and showed me that no matter what we are taught in history classes in our schools, no matter what we hear from our politicians, no matter what we hear from our friends and relatives, we need to consider people on the individual basis. We should never reach to prejudgment/conclusion or have perception about someone or a country before we really see and learn about them by ourselves. Imagine that if I were to show my reaction to these wonderful Greek women and people based on political tensions that Turkey and Greece might have, or based on our history books (which should be no surprise to anyone that every country likes its version of the history), I would not have met these terrific people and I really believe that it would have been a big loss for me.
Now after this story, let’s talk about amaranth. Amaranth, also called pig-weed is a spinach-like weed that possesses great nutritional benefits. Among many benefits, it contains a large amount of iron and vitamin K. It grows wild in the fields, under trees and along the road all over the world. Amaranth can also be a flower that blooms pinkish/purplish flower which in Turkey we call “Kadife Çiçeği” or “Horozibiği”. This is the non-edible type. The amaranth family is very extensive; the colors of its leaves range from dark green to a purplish color.
I previously had thought amaranth mainly grows in the Mediterranean region; however I have learned from other blogs that it also grows in India, Asia, the Americas and even West Africa. In fact, just recently, I saw it protruding wildly between the side walk and the edge of a building in New Orleans, LA. I have not noticed it grow wild in Houston; maybe I need to pay attention to see it.
In Turkey, the most common way of cooking amaranth is a sautéed or as a stuffing in böreks. Finally, here is the recipe.
1 large bunch amaranth
½ white or yellow onion (chopped)
1 garlic clove (chopped)
½ tsp cumin
½ tsp paprika
½ tsp black pepper
½ tsp red pepper flakes
1 ½ tsp salt
2 1/2 tbsp olive oil
Lemon or lime wedges (optional)
Discard thick stems of amaranth and wash thoroughly. Fill half of a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Place the amaranth and let it boil for 15 minutes. Remove and run under cold water. Squeeze the water out of the amaranth and chop roughly.
Heat olive oil in a large pan. Place the onions and garlic and sauté until the onions are transparent. Add the black pepper, paprika, red pepper flakes, cumin and salt. Give it a stir. Add the already boiled and chopped amaranth and sauté for 5-6 minutes until all the spices and the amaranth leaves are integrated. Based on your preferences, you may squeeze lemon or lime wedges on top of the amaranth before serving. Serve warm with pasta or pilaf.
Note: This can also be used as stuffing in böreks.