Several Topics of Note

September 30, 2010

First, although certainly not foremost, is a brief discussion of the distinction between caraway and cumin. On one side of the ring, we have Carum Carvi, heavyweight champion of being referred to as Meridian Fennel, and even Persian Cumin. On the other, we have Cuminum Cyminum, perhaps less noteworthy in title, but all the more deserving of note.

We all know that cumin will come out victorious, simply because it is a superior spice. Apparently most Indo-European populations around the time of spice naming didn’t, however, know this. For that reason, many of our European languages do not distinguish between these two similar-in-appearance-but-not-in-flavor-or-aroma seeds. I learned this the hard way. I acquired (via scrupulous means, I’ll have you know) a bag of what was labeled kim, I was then led to believe by several credible sources that this was cumin. Much to my chagrin, I began cooking something which required cumin and brandished a small handful of the decadent, slightly crescentoid seeds. Upon smelling them, I was rudely-awakened by what smelled rather more like caraway. I thought little of it, and in a disappointed flourish, I cast them into the pan. I figured it was one of the myriad discrepancies between life in Serbia and life in the United States. As it turns out, Serbian, as well as most other Indo-European languages don’t have different names for caraway and cumin; indeed, many aren’t even aware of the distinction! I have been informed by considerably less credible sources that these days, one may use the term kumin to unambiguously refer to cumin… we’ll see if I sound like a complete fool next time I’m at the spice store. But damnit, I could really use some cumin!

The second topic at hand is a relative scarcity of bourbon. As many of you know, bourbon is my drink of choice. How I came up with the most quintessentially American beverage as my drink of choice, I don’t know, but that’s the way it seems to be. As it turns out, there are really only several brands of bourbon that are available at all here. The most prevalent by far is Four Roses. It’s an American brand, and it’s legitimate bourbon, but it’s certainly nothing to write home about (that’s probably the first time I’ve used that phrase and actually meant it). There are also some varieties of Jim Beam, and of course, Jack Daniels (ignoring the fact that it’s not a “true bourbon”). Blanton’s, Eagle Rare, Bulleit, Basil Hayden’s, Rebel Yell, W.L. Weller… all of those, nowhere-to-be-found. I’m waiting for a native to correct me and lead me to some undiscovered wealth of American spirits awaiting in an unassuming liquor store somewhere. Until then, maybe another glass of Four Roses will take away the pain.

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Bike Life in Belgrade

September 15, 2010

Coming from a place like Seattle where every other resident is a hipster toting a fixed-gear, or at the very least, a socially-conscious commuter on a ten-speed, adapting to Belgrade’s lack of bikes is tough.

I have a keen eye for spotting single-speeds, and I can say with certainty that yesterday was the first one I’ve seen after more than two months of being here. Not only that, but it was a helmetless rider with a messenger bag perched atop a fixed-gear. The streets are actually quite bike-friendly around here (aside from the maniac drivers), yet there is no discernible bike culture aside from the occasional student on his way to school by mountain bike or the spandex-clad competition racer.

All that in combination with the fact that I haven’t been on my own fixie for a matter of months really makes me want to get my bike shipped over here and rally the would-be hipsters into acquiring their own counter-culture wheels… I feel like we could start something big.

Besides, it seems like every other Western European city has one, so why not push this thing east?

I end up getting asked what Serbian food is like quite frequently. Rather than repeating the same thing over and over to different people, I thought it prudent to simply write it once in a publicly-visible place, in futile hope that it may stem the barrage of food-related questions. That’s more-or-less a joke, I actually don’t mind.

It would be practically impossible to pull off being a vegetarian, much less a vegan, here. Meat is everywhere in abundance. Not only that, but it’s often accompanied with very few vegetables, lots of cheese, and lots of fried things. To put things in perspective, a famous (or should I say infamous?) Serbian dish called Karađorđeva Šnicla is veal, pounded flat, layered with cheese, rolled into a tube, breaded, then deep-fried; and it’s typically served with french fries. Add that to a menu full of sausage, assorted grilled meat, and Gulaš (with meat, of course), and you’re all but forced into getting a Šopska Salata (cucumber, tomato, onion, and cheese) to even things out.

Street food is a very common source of nutrients around here as well. Pizza, burek, and ćevapi are everywhere. Burek is a generic term for a pastry made of filo dough and filled with meat or cheese, varying wildly in quality depending on the bakery. Ćevapi is quite possibly the most unifying food in the Balkans. It’s present in many different forms and available in roadside stands in all but the tiniest villages. It’s essentially little sticks of ground meat, grilled, inserted into a piece of fried bread with an entire raw onion diced up into it. Add kajmak (look it up, it’s hard to explain) to that and you’ve got a pretty deluxe little calorie injection (did I say little? I meant massive).

That’s all well-and-good, you say… but what about immigrant food? That is where this part of the world is lacking. Coming from a place where my average day includes some combination of Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican, Ethiopian, Malaysian, Indian, El Salvadoran, Palestinian, etc, etc, etc, the fact that aside from Serbian food, a bit of crappy Chinese food is all there is is a little disheartening. I’ve concluded that everywhere else on Earth is at least slightly less bad than China, so you tend to have Chinese food everywhere. There is a small population of Chinese here in Belgrade, and there’s a market out in Novi Beograd run by them (being there is a very weird experience). Out there, some decent Chinese food is available. Also, there’s a Lebanese restaurant in town that is apparently pretty good. I need a hummus fix stat, so I’ll need to check that out ASAP.

I figure the discovery of any new immigrant food will be a noteworthy event and therefore will be documented in this very blog. Stay posted.

No, seriously…

Since I arrived, I’ve noticed a strange “smell”, although it’s more complex than just a smell. It’s a smell that’s present only sometimes, and I’m convinced that it resides in ones respiratory system. It’s almost like a taste present far back in the sinuses, near where they join the throat. It’s hard to define whether it’s a smell or a taste at that point, since the two sort of blur together way back there.

It’s present when I inhale sharply through my nose, and lingers back there for maybe a second or two, but it’s only noticeable when I breath out through my mouth shortly after. It’s also more pronounced if I’m lying on my back.

I discovered the other day that it comes from the bottled water. I had always noticed it subtly and wondered what was responsible for it. I now notice that it’s much more pronounced right after taking a swig of bottled water (it seems to be brand-independent). It also disappears entirely if I stop drinking bottled water for a day.

For now, I’ve attributed it to some chemical or mineral presence in the bottled water. That will have to suffice until I’m able to inspect it more thoroughly.

Anyhow, just an observation. 🙂