Thursday, November 29, 2007

Mandarin Oranges

One really great thing about Turkey is the availability of good, cheap mandarin oranges. To me, mandarin oranges smell like Christmas. Specifically, satsuma mandarins-- the kind with the loose, thick skin that are a bit pithy and really, really sweet.

When I was growing up, we never had satsuma mandarins in the market. They were a rare treat, given to us by the case as our yearly Christmas present from my father's aunt. She died this year, and no one remembered to tell me. I found out in passing this summer. That's one thing I hate about living so far away from home. I wasn't able to be there for either of my grandmothers' funerals, or even to say goodbye, and sometimes people forget to tell you about stuff like your great aunt dying.

Oranges are such a nice, old-fashioned Christmas gift. I remember reading old stories in which the children would wake up excitedly to find oranges and walnuts in their stockings. 'Lame,' I thought. 'What's the big deal about oranges?' But we would sure get excited when our box of mandarins showed up. They were like no oranges I had ever seen, so small and sweet and easy to peel. You could nibble them section by section and not get the juice all over your hands. My brothers and I would compete each year over who could find the smallest orange section. Fights broke out over this. It's amazing what siblings can find to argue about. We all believed that the smallest orange sections were not only the cutest, almost too adorable to eat, but the best tasting, and so we ate them with cannibalistic pleasure. One year, I found the smallest section ever. It wasn't much bigger than my pinkie fingernail. I ate it right away, forgetting to save it to show my brothers. Later, when they were claiming to have found the smallest sections, I kept telling them I had found it, but that I'd eaten it, and naturally they assumed I was lying, and my youngest brother found a section that was very small indeed, and I was forced to concede victory when my mom snapped at us that his was the smallest section ever, and to please shut up already or Santa wouldn't be coming that year.

Produce in Turkey is fresh and good. It's also seasonal, meaning in the winter, especially towards the end of winter, the choices get pretty bleak, and some things, like carrots and onions, look a little worse for wear. In theory, I believe in the goodness of the eating seasonally. In practice, though, carrots, celeriac, and potatoes get a bit old after eating them for weeks on end. Non-seasonal staples are available here, or what most people consider staples: tomatoes, green onions, and cucumbers, for example, but they are either imported or from greenhouses, and so are predictably tasteless.

I think I wouldn't find eating seasonally so objectionable if there were more variety here. I'm spoiled for varieties of produce, coming from Oregon where heirloom fruits and vegetables are all the rage. But, in Istanbul at least, the variety is depressing. One type of tomato that's red and perfectly round and travels well, and the occasional red or yellow cherry tomatoes in the summer. Two types of cucumber, one for pickling and one for salads, again quite uniform. Iceberg lettuce is everywhere, green leaf almost as much, with the occasional romaine. What galls me about the lack of variety is that Turkey has perfect growing climates for almost everything, from hot season crops like peppers and eggplants, to cool season ones like brassicas and salad greens. Citrus grows in the south just as well as apples and pears grow in the north. I often think it's the huge chain markets controlling the availability of things, as I've heard in villages there are really interesting varieties of fresh produce, and people love them. I'm sure Istanbullites would buy different things if they could, but they just aren't offered the choice from the mainstream markets, though there is a slightly wider variety of things at bazaars or from street sellers.

Occasionally, one of the big markets has something interesting. Ginger, for example. Whenever there's ginger, I buy a big load of it and freeze it. Limes are another oddity, which I always buy a few of and make some semblance of Mexican food. BE hates my taste for these occasional treats, as the cashiers never know what it is and won't enter its code without waiting ten minutes for some guy to run off and find it out while every one behind us in line oofs and shuffles and gives us dirty looks for buying weird vegetables and holding everything up. BE sometimes tries to placate them by shrugging with shame as if to say 'She's foreign, what can I do?' Sometimes the cashier does it for him, saying 'Foreigners buy these strange things. I never what to do.' Sometimes people ask how you cook with crazy things like ginger, and I'll try to explain something like gingersnaps or Chinese noodles, and they smile and say 'How very different!' which in Turkish is a polite way of saying, 'How disgusting that sounds!' Last week, Migros had celery (good celery, I was told, not the stringy, dark green kind they occasionally have which I've never bought because it's expensive and looks awful). A few of my friends preparing Thanksgiving dinners were thrilled to bits. They also had butternut squash. This caused a great buzz on both continents, as I heard about the butternut squash from several different people. Things like butternut squash and celery are so rare that word of their appearance hits the foreigner underground and spreads like wildfire.

In Turkey, mandarin oranges aren't precious or rare. You can have pounds and pounds of them pretty cheaply. But to me, they're still special. I can't stop myself from buying more and more, though I still tend to eat them slowly so as not to waste them. There are two big bags in my fridge right now, and when LE wakes up, I intend to buy another bag. I feel like I have to own as many as I can before the season is out. I might even do what my mom does to create instant Christmas house, which is to steep a sachet of mandarin orange peels, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon on the stove, filling the house with a delicious smell.

If I find a very small section in one of my oranges, you can be sure I'll photograph it with the digital camera to tease my brothers with. The youngest, I'm sure, still has a false sense of smugness about having found the smallest section ever.

1 comment:

Emma said...

My 5 year-old niece had a satsuma in her stocking at Christmas and was very bemused by it.

She had to ask her father what it was just in case it was something more exciting masquerading as a satsuma. She didn't seem to understand the explanation that it was just something we did at Christmas. Looks like post-war austerity isn't relevant anymore!