Thursday, June 26, 2008

Piyaz


Bevan Christie ran Anatoli (a Turkish restaurant, naturally) from the ground floor of a converted factory in Green Point, Cape Town, long, long before converted factories were the rage. I was taken there by my parents and later, at university, made friends with a waiter who worked there, who in turn introduced me at a tender age to Bevan, who would stand in the open kitchen, arms folded, his silver moustache impeccable, in chefs' whites, and glare at his customers. He looked terrifying.

If I have had a mentor, it has been and continues to be, at a remove, since he is now in Istanbul and I in New York, Bevan. My mother, through feeding me, and through her inherent and unassuming generosity taught me about how to make beautiful food with a strong French background. Bevan taught me, by feeding me, and through his equally unassuming generosity, about a different sort of aesthetic. He gave me War and Peace to read, and Cormac McCarthy. Everything he did was impeccable, and apparently effortless. Hence full of grace. One could frame anything - look at corner of his kitchen, his dining room, a plate of beans, the grapevine through the floor to ceiling windows, and it would be compositionally perfect. Better than a still life, because it was real.

As a twenty-one and two and three-year old I would drive alone to Anatoli on a Sunday night in my awful white Toyota, whose rust had eaten the Cor of Corolla, giving her the name 'Olla. I hated her. I would park her and go inside and walk to the glass-case fronted hot or cold kitchens to be greeted by the reticent Bevan or ebullient Mustafa, his Kurdish partner in most things, and sit at a given table. Some red wine in a carafe might appear. A small dish of almonds. A square of feta. Simple things I had never considered in their own right. The "real" food was very good, too good to be described here, as it would take too long. But so good that it is not matched.

As we became unlikely friends, dinners and lunches and even breakfasts followed in the apartment upstairs, whose 16 foot ceilings and interior garden were as exotic to me then as they would be here, now. A drinks' table beneath the arches of a palm groaned under heavy decanters of jewel-hued liquor. One's drink was served in heavy glass or crystal, or poured from a studded jug. Books, paintings music, and at the back a great round table bearing, for instance, an 11am breakfast that included platters of calves' liver, lamb kofte with goat cheese and spring onions, roasted peppers and anchovy and the coffee made in a percolator of glass orbs and flutes so that alchemy happened before our eyes. The milk was hot. He would cook for all the weekend-dressed waiters who would sit nonchalantly but gratefully around that linen-heavy table enjoying a largesse, presented so matter-of-factly, that few realized, at that impressionable and blase age, would never be surpassed, nor even met.

Sunday night was kebab night at Anatoli. Gone would be the varying, slow, stews and melting chops and stuffed vegetables, and, and...and. Swords would appear in the glass case to which everyone would be guided to choose their main courses, skewering chunks of swordfish with bay leaves, chicken with sumac and chile, hot beef. More importantly, there would be piyaz - white bean salad spiked with onion, whose sauce would soak into the delicious, buttery rice that accompanied the kebabs. And it is something I still crave.

Recently I made it to a point to where I could have been there. I ate them with rice, no more, and was very happy.

You will need, for a bowl for two:

1 can large white beans drained
3 Tbsp tahini
3 Tbsp red wine vinegar (this is my version - I don't know that it's proper)
1 small red onion, sliced fairly thinly. Fairly. Not Very.
Some water
Salt, pepper
Sumac if you have it
A pretty bowl

In a mixing jug/bowl-thing, put the tahini. Add the vinegar. Stir till blended. Now add some cold water. Stir until it is pourable, but not thin. It should be like vichyssoise. Add salt and pepper. The salt must have a presence. It brings out the best in the onion and hides the worst in the vinegar. The beans really suck it up, so don't be shy. Pour this over the beans in the pretty bowl. Add the onions and toss with your hands. If you do it with a spoon you break the beans. Taste. Put in the fridge to chill. It's best after few hours. Sprinkle sumac over the top before eating.

1 cup of basmati
2 1/2 half cups of water
1 Tblsp butter
salt

Toast the basmati for a minute in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add the butter and good pinch of salt. Toast some more. Add the water. It will sizzle and screech. Clap a lid on it, let it boil for a minute and then turn the heat down to the point where it's almost not on at all. Leave it alone. After about 12-15 minutes the rice will have absorbed all the liquid. You can fluff it with a fork. It's ready.

12 comments:

  1. Mmmmmmmm, another delight for a vegetarian, thanks. Anatoli's was very splendid in those days!

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  2. Duh, that was me, not Anonymous!

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  3. Ah, thanks for the clarification: I was beginning to doubt the identity of Anonymous!

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  4. I was coasting along with your recipe until you had to make a distinction between fairly and very. Now I'm lost. ;-)

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  5. You mean rabbits sink ships.

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  6. Printing this out for some reading on my commute...I'll be back to comment, I'm sure, as this sounds quite intriguing just from the first few sentences....

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  7. Marie, I read this post as I made my way home on Friday night. You know, I was sighing with such a longing...Anatoli! Oh, to have known that fascinating chef, to have experienced a meal in his restaurant, to have sat beneath the palm arches....to have nibbled on that square of feta.

    This post read like a poem. These lines...

    "...who would sit nonchalantly but gratefully around that linen-heavy table and enjoy a largess, presented so matter-of-factly, that few realized, at that impressionable and blase age, would never be surpassed, nor even met."

    and

    "One could frame anything - look at corner of his kitchen, his dining room, a plate of beans, the grapevine through the floor to ceiling windows, and it would be compositionally perfect. Better than a still life, because it was real."

    What a tribute to an extraordinary time and place and man.

    I also like the way you've composed your recipe...I would like to try this with sweet vidalia onion.

    Thank you Marie, for recalling and distilling and sharing this magical time in your life...

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  8. Thank you, Miss Ladyslipper...

    Vidalias are yummy.

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  9. Hi - just stumbled across your blog today - what a feast! Was laughing out loud at some of the thigns yo say, then marvelling at the beautiful pics. I'll be back :)

    And Anatoli's is still one of my favourite places in Cae Town.

    From a fellow blogging Saffer ex-pat.

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  10. oh my. bevan and his merry band. a lovely life, I think many people learned to live and love there. thanks for the beautiful post.

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