Moldovan Impressions: The Food, Part 2

Last time, I took a look at Moldovan food as it’s served in restaurants. Since Moldovans cook at home a lot more often than they dine in restaurants, let’s also visit the Central Market in Chișinău, where many provisions can be bought.

Chisinau Central Market

Founded in 1825, Piaţa Centrală is located right in the city center, not far from the bus station (a proximity resulting in double the bustling crowds). It’s not as impressive as the markets of Tbilisi or Tashkent, but it does give a good idea of Moldovan cuisine. To complement the pictures, I will also mention some recipes from Sergey Donika’s Moldovan Cuisine. With 493 recipes, this cookbook contains more stuff than I’ll ever cook in my lifetime.

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Azerbaijan Adventures, Part 4

After exploring Baku’s restaurants, now we’re heading to the city’s main market, Taza Bazaar. Much larger than the central markets of Yerevan and Tbilisi, Taza Bazaar is probably the largest of its kind in the Caucasus. Not only will you find a variety of foods, with a strong emphasis on vegetables (in summer, at least!), but a whole section is dedicated to various hardware, and, more opportunely, kitchen utensils. This is a great place to buy a samovar or a special cast-iron pan for your Chicken Tabaka.

The wide variety of climates throughout Azerbaijan allows for a phenomenal variety of fruits. Pineapples and bananas, apples and pears, stone fruits, citrus fruits, berries —  this country has it all.

Not to forget the ubiquitous watermelon. FYI, if a vendor tries to convince you that it costs $40 a piece, even if he seems to be doing very complicated operations on his scale, he’s lying.

Vegetables and herbs are about as diverse. I particularly like this next shot, where you can see all the classic vegetables of a typical Caucasian meal neatly stacked side by side: cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.

Vine leaves to make dolma (lots and lots of them):

For the winter months, you can find nearly the same selection in jars. Every produce under the sun — mushrooms, garlic bulbs, tomatoes, gherkins, olives, cherries, plums, apricots, pineapple, kiwi, walnuts, just to name a few — is neatly lined up in a colorful display.

In the dairy department, this booth gets the gold medal for the largest piling of curious junk. I counted no fewer than 6 vintage refrigerators, despite the fact that most of the merchandise is left outside. And what’s up with all the plastic pails? The large sacks on the left contain cheese, I know that much. Given the size of the space, the variety of dairy products isn’t actually all that impressive: from what I could tell, we’re talking about cream, butter, milk, yogurt, and maybe half a dozen cheeses.

Although you may not see it on display because of the heat (over 100 F that day), there are also several vendors selling smoked fish. Just look for the antiquated freezers next to the stands that seem empty. I don’t remember exactly if the selection was limited to sturgeon, but we ended up tasting only that. Again, because of the heat, and despite the advent of refrigeration, expect it to be tasty but very salty. Luckily, the saltiness can be somewhat tempered by serving the fish with heavy cream and pancakes or potatoes.

Caviar follows a similar pattern. You probably won’t see it on display, as it is kept in refrigerators somewhere else. Ask around, and someone will take you to a small structure away from prying eyes, where the Great Game of Caviar Bargaining can begin. I should dedicate a separate post to the subject (The Art!), so for now I’ll just focus on my Baku experience.

The only thing that takes more time than buying caviar is buying a carpet. Incidentally, depending on their respective amount and size, they can cost about the same. First, we tasted a few “different” kinds. I say different between quotation marks because when the vendor has a tool to open and reseal caviar jars, and tends to carelessly stack lids of various colors on the table, there’s no way to know what’s what. The guy could get hold of a stock of beluga lids and run a pretty lucrative scam — he wouldn’t be B.S.ing his customers more than he already is. And speaking of B.S., the small jars in the picture used to be a standard 4 oz. Now the glass at the bottom is thicker, and the weight of the contents is down to 3.5 oz… except in every other jar, the thickness of that bottom is different!

So basically, don’t listen much to the sellers. Just pick what you like best. From the almost-black color of the eggs, you can tell all the jars in the picture are very salty (the heat, remember?). It’s not bad, but it’s not the best kind either, and it’s not particularly cheap. And believe me, I tried. I haggled, and haggled, and haggled, until my friends got nervous we were going to end up in a fight. My recommendation (as of the summer of 2011, at least) would be to skip the caviar in Baku and pay a visit to the central market in Kiev instead (Kiev happens to be a very convenient stopover if, like me, you have to travel half the globe to get to Azerbaijan): the prices are lower and the quality higher.

Also, FYI, Baku has discovered molecular gastronomy. What this means to the caviar buyer is that there are stores that sell black alginate pearls. The ones I saw were clearly marked as such in the ingredient list (provided you know how to read Azerbaijani or Russian), and the price was obviously way too good to be the real thing, but this could change is some vendor decides to be unscrupulous…

Off to the meat department. Lamb is king, of course. If, like Stalik Khankishiev, you believe it should never be refrigerated, you buy from the booth out front (did I say the temperature was over 100 F?). If, on the other hand, you agree that food safety is not a myth, the word bacteria rings a bell, and maybe you’ve even heard of the “danger zone” between 40 F and 140 F, the butchers in the back will help you.

Here are two interesting cuts! The cut on the left probably looks unfamiliar: it’s the tail of a fat-tailed sheep (kurdyuk in Russian), the preferred fat for any good kebabs east of Chechnya. On the right, the offals, all in one piece, for the proponents of nose-to-tail eating.

The selection goes beyond lamb, though, as Azerbaijan is one of the rare Muslim countries where you can buy pork at the market! It’s also one of the few Muslim countries where you can drink as much as you want as long as you’re sober when you go to the mosque. The latter is even truer of Abkazia, but 1.) it’s not really a country, and 2.) they solved the dilemma by not building mosques.

And of course, with all your fatty tail and liver kebabs, you will want some narsharab, a sauce made of reduced pomegranate juice:

Next time, we’ll be hitting the road again to travel north to the mountain village of Quba!

Armenian Adventures, Part 1

It’s been over a month since I concluded my Georgian Adventures with a look at the stores and markets of Tbilisi. And to start this Armenian Adventures series, I thought I would introduce you to Yerevan’s central market. I also recommend this excellent post about food and wine in Yerevan. Don’t miss the bread-making video!

From the outside, the central market distinguishes itself by the unusual sight of the dancing fruits and vegetables that decorate the roof:

As you’ll see, this visit will get us acquainted with the major ingredients of Armenian cuisine.

Mulberries (tut in Armenian), white and black, are everywhere during summer, to the point where I wonder why anyone would bother buying them at the market when all you have to do is put a plastic tarp under a tree and collect your berries at the end of the day! They produce delicious homemade brandy, too.

Lavash, a large flatbread, is another Armenian staple, and there’s no shortage of it since very few people still make their own. Careful, though — it dries out quickly!

Cheese, together with tomatoes and cucumbers (and lavash!), is a lunch classic. The most common kinds, traditionally made from sheep’s milk, are a sort of brynza and a string cheese:

Just like its Caucasian neighbors, Armenia is a paradise of nuts and dried fruits. You may recognize the churchkhela (mental floss here). The dark sheets hanging next to them are fruit lavash, made from plums or other seasonal fruits.

Spices and honey are well represented too, but I need your help, dear readers! If anyone happens to know Armenian, could you send me the names of the spices on the picture? (I can send you a larger version.)

Finally, no overview of the local cuisine would be complete without mentioning khorovats, the Armenian barbecued food that you’ll be eating in 99% of the restaurants in summer, whether it’s vegetables, fish or meat on a skewer — everything is on a skewer since the traditional grill doesn’t use a grate. There’s even a street, Proshian St., nicknamed “Barbecue Street”. Here are the ground beef kebabs of Artashi Mot, a famous restaurant in the city center.

Expect some kebab and lavash recipes and in the coming weeks!

Note: despite the 3 product placements in the above pictures, this post is not sponsored by Coca-Cola.

Georgian Adventures, Part 9

To conclude this Georgian Adventure series, here’s a look at the stores and markets of the capital city, Tbilisi.

Soviet mosaics are an endangered species in Tbilisi. Here is a rare specimen from the Lagidze Café on Rustaveli Avenue. Lagidze is a popular brand of sodas and syrups created at the turn of the 20th century, here is an interesting article about them. When I got there in 2008, the café was already closed, and the mosaic must certainly be gone by now.

Bread occupies a very important place in Georgian cuisine, whether it’s a cheese-filled khachapuri or a long flat loaf cooked in the toné, a tandoor-like clay oven. Here is a small booth selling bread in the city center:

In my opinion though, the kind of flat bread displayed in the window above is much better when consumed fresh from the oven. I captured the bread making process in the kitchen of a small bakery, the traditional toné replaced with an electric bread oven:

Below is a storefront on Leselitze Street, the main artery of the old town. You can see breads and pastries of all sizes and shapes, sweet or savory, filled with cheese or meat.

Of course all this bread requires heaps of flour, and this is literally what you’ll find at the central market. There’s a whole room dedicated to flour:

I will spare you the produce department since I’ve already shown you so many road-side vendors in other parts of my trip. Here is the meat section:

As you can see, offals are well-represented:

We’ll leave Georgia with my own recipe for a “Lagidze” chocolate cream soda. My version is low in sugar and high in cacao powder — feel free to adjust the proportions to your liking!

Chocolate syrup
Yields 5 servings

6 oz sugar
5 oz water
1 1/2 oz unsweetened cacao powder
1/4 tsp citric acid

  • Place the sugar and water in a saucepan, bring to a boil and cook for another minute, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and mix in the cacao powder and the citric acid. Let cool, transfer to a plastic container and reserve.

Chocolate cream soda
Yields 5 glasses

chocolate syrup
35 oz seltzer water
10 ice cubes
heavy cream, to taste

  • In 12 oz soda glasses, gently stir 4 tbsp chocolate syrup with 7 oz seltzer. Add 2 ice cubes and a dash of heavy cream. Enjoy!

Georgian Adventures, Part 8

In our previous adventures, we entered Abkhazia, an almost-country that already has a language with a funky Cyrillic alphabet, a flag worthy of a banana republic, a dead president (Vladislav Ardzinba, below), and authoritarian-looking billboards:

Not to mention some of the most accomplished Soviet bus stop artwork:

Except for the Russians who don’t need a visa — after all, there would be no Republic of Abkhazia without them — and spend their vacations on the beaches in the Western part of the country, almost all foreign tourists need to stop at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the capital, Sukhum. The town has a nice seashore promenade, a couple buildings packing all the government personnel necessary to masquerade as a nation, and some unexpected attractions such as a monkey nursery with a statue of a baboon and plans to send apes to Mars. In October 2011, Sukhum will host the little known but illustrious World Domino Championship. Beware, domino players of the world: the Abkhaz people sometimes have a propensity for belligerence. On the first day of our stay, we were threatened several times with having our throats slit or being shot in the head.

Gagra constitutes a far more touristy destination, a famous stretch along the seashore hosting dozens of hotels, former Soviet sanatoriums, restaurants and cafés. Here is a vendor offering chebureks (Tatar deep-fried turnovers with a meat filling) at the terrace of a café on the beach:

The Gagra market is definitely worth a visit to get an idea of the flavors used in the local cuisine. Here are the spices. At the bottom left, khmeli-suneli is a traditional Georgian blend of basil, red pepper, dill, coriander, marjoram and saffron, plus sometimes parsley, mint, savory, celery, bay leaf and fenugreek. This one must be slightly different, as it is more yellow than the usual greenish color.


And here’s an assortment of honeys, teas, sauces, juices (mandarin and pomegranate), wines and spirits.

Mandarins and tea are specific to Abkhazia and you don’t really find them in Georgia, except maybe near the border, in Mingrelia. Be wary of the alcoholic beverages, though: Abkhaz wine is vile. I had no problem drinking plain homemade Georgian wine at every meal for two weeks, but this is completely undrinkable. And it gets worse: some of that bad grape juice is distilled into “cognac”, and bottled with heavy-handedly added natural flavors — imagine a cheap brandy mixed with a whole bottle of almond extract.

The cheese department is more in line with the Georgian offering: think sulguni, either plain or smoked.

Lake Ritsa is another popular destination. Since car rentals are non-existent and taxis can be pretty expensive, your best option is to join one of the day excursions advertised everywhere. For a very modest fee, discover tourism à la Russe! A Russian-speaking guide and a one-armed driver in a minibus will show you every notable feature of the Abkhaz hinterland, from the Maiden Tears to the “Farewell, Motherland!” road shoelace, and give you the opportunity to participate in various degustations. Below are honey and cold mead available for tasting. Adding nuts to honey is a traditional local recipe.

The whole journey is quite entertaining, peppered with Abkhaz legends about the places visited and anecdotes about the virile Abkhaz traditions. Here’s the place where we had lunch: now this is what I call a serious shashlyk grill!

Expect a couple Abkhaz recipes in my upcoming posts!