Anatolian Festival 2009 Opening Ceremony

Anatolian Festival 2009 Opening Ceremony

Anatolian Festival 2009 Opening Ceremony – Photo Album

Turkish delights served at Anatolian Cultures & Food Festival

The event at the Orange County Fairgrounds draws about 30,000 for a mix of Middle Eastern history and food, such as the stretchy ice cream.

The guy in the fez was having loads of fun. He’d scoop up some ice cream with a long steel paddle, raise it high in the air — and turn the paddle upside down. Amazingly, the ice cream would stay stuck to it.

He’d fill a cone and then impishly sweep the paddle upward, lifting the cone right out of the astonished customer’s hand. Sometimes he’d work his paddle in the freezing compartment and haul up a couple of quarts of ice cream in a single stretchy mass.

This is dondurma, the Turkish “sticky” ice cream, which is thickened with ingredients such as cornstarch or ground sahlep root. If you go to Maras, Turkey’s dondurma capital, the locals will lose no time in telling you how an American ice cream chain once tried opening in Turkey but had to give up, because the Turks weren’t interested in ice cream that changes its shape when it melts.

The ice cream man was just one attraction at the Anatolian Cultures & Food Festival, which drew about 30,000 people to the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa from April 2 to 5. It was a project of the Pacifica Institute, a cultural outreach organization founded by Southland Turks.

Anatolia is the politically neutral name for the region of modern Turkey. The event’s founders were mindful to include all the non-Turkish and non-Muslim groups that have lived in the area as well, including Greeks, Armenians and less well-known Christian denominations such as the Assyrians.

Most Americans would draw a blank if you asked them about Anatolia. They are probably aware that the Greeks and Turks eventually ruled the region, but not that Anatolia was a major player in the ancient Middle East. So the event reveled in parading Anatolia’s eventful past: the first city (Catal Hoyuk, ca. 7000 BC), the first international peace treaty (Egyptians and Hittites, 1258 BC) and so on, through the achievements of the Urartians, Phrygians, Lydians et al down to the present day. Extras in exotic costumes from these periods gamely stood around all day welcoming visitors to the event.

The 15-acre fairground site was filled with colossal, nearly full-scale reproductions of a number of famous structures, such as the Greek amphitheater at Aspendos and the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross on the island of Akhtamar. They were amazingly realistic, because the sets were imprinted with close-up photography of every inch of architectural detail. The result was almost like visiting Turkey without the jet lag.

About a quarter of the festival area was a giant food court with 27 stalls. Fewer than half of them sold familiar Middle Eastern items like baklava, shawarma (called doner kebab in Turkish), boreks, kebabs and lahmajoun. The rest had other offerings.

Take gozleme. It’s a sort of Turkish quesadilla, except that the filling can be spinach or ground meat instead of cheese. Pide is basically a pizza-like product in the lahmajoun style, but it’s folded over so that it looks like a Turkish slipper. Mercimek kofte are vegetarian “meatballs” of lentils and bulgur. They’re rather peppery, so they’re served with a leaf of romaine to cool off your mouth.

Karniyarik (“split belly”) is a Japanese eggplant split and stuffed with ground meat and tomatoes. Cooks in this area tend to stew vegetables low and slow in olive oil, giving them a particularly mellow taste and texture, very notable in this dish. (Somebody really ought to come up with a sexier name than “vegetables with oil” for this class of food.)

The eastern Mediterranean is known for its sweet tooth, so there were a number of pudding, pastry and sweetmeat stalls. Some booths were operated by local restaurants such as Spinner’s (Fountain Valley) and Sevan Garden (downtown L.A.), while others were the work of enthusiastic amateur cooks. One was run by Masal, a restaurant in Brooklyn.

In the cooking theater at one corner of the grounds, a Turkish chef enticed a young woman from the audience to help him make kisir, the Turkish cousin of tabbouleh (less parsley, tomato paste instead of tomato chunks and a good dose of hot pepper). He set her to separating the grains of bulgur wheat between her hands, playfully warning her it was important to do it “Elazig style” (palms horizontal), not “Adiyaman style” (vertical), referring — to the audience’s genial amusement — to two cities most Americans have never heard of.

Many visitors left the festival carrying sacks of pastries, pomegranate vinegar and other goodies, and probably with the lonely flute of the Whirling Dervishes, the stirring sounds of an Ottoman marching band, and the haunting melodies of the Syriac Girls’ Choir still in their ears.

Pacifica says the sets are going into storage here, and there is likely to be another Anatolian Culture & Food Festival next year, perhaps in Los Angeles.