Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Is that really basturma? When you're hungry and out to sea, it's close enough!

We just got back from a Caribbean cruise. We had great fun despite a choppy sea,  a midnight fire alarm and an island tour of a place called Hell that seemed to have been appropriately named.

Bresaola
So what was the fun part? We enjoyed the shows and long strolls on the deck. Robyn luxuriated in the spa, while I nestled into our private balcony with a good book.
And, of course, we ate like mad.
Everybody eats too much on a cruise, and there’s no point denying it much less making excuses. Good food well-prepared is one of a cruise ship’s main attractions.
Fortunately, it is a well-established fact that nothing you eat on a cruise counts against normal dietary restrictions. I actually checked that with unimpeachable scientific sources before we left.
At least, I meant to.
Our ship, the Emerald Princess, had a menu as diverse as its multinational crew. We enjoyed an array of meats and seafood cooked in almost every ethnic style, from Asian to Latin to down-home American.
The notable exception was anything Middle Eastern, except a few Greek olives and a dollop of hummus on flatbread served with our wine.
We were resigned to this familiar-food drought until near the end of our journey, when we explored the late-night buffet for some cheese and fruit to cap the evening. That’s when my jaw (but luckily not my plate) dropped.

Just to the left of the Havarti, I spotted a platter of basturma!
Well, obviously it couldn’t be basturma but it sure looked real. I put a few slices on my plate and carried it back to the table where Robyn was waiting.
“Is this really what it looks like?” I asked.
Her answer was a conditional “no.” The condition was that I had to hurry back to get more because it was really good and it was just that close to the real thing: thinly sliced and supremely tender.

Even the basic seasoning was right. Nothing was missing except basturma’s thick, pungent coating of chaimen spices.

When I returned to the buffet, I spotted the label above the platter: bresaola. Any semi-sophisticated foodie would recognize that immediately. Of course, I had no clue. I did have my iPhone, but it would have cost as much as a year’s supply of basturma to get the answer at the high-seas Wi-Fi rates.

So I waited until we docked the next morning to Google-up the answer. Bresaola is Italian air-dried, salted beef fillet. Count it among the many basturma variations that have turned up wherever the peoples of the Near and Middle East have traveled, settled or conquered.

Thinking about this made me curious about where basturma came from. The short answer is that, like just about everything else on a Near Eastern table, you could wrestle up a powerful appetite while arguing about who had the idea first.

In Armenian Food: Fact, Fiction & Folklore, Irina Petrosian and David Underwood offer two common tales of basturma’s origin.

In the first, Turkic warriors from Central Asia put slabs of beef under their saddles, allowing the pressure and the horse’s perspiration to cure the meat. That’s not very appetizing, but the authors say the story is favored by many food writers because it makes basturma sound exotic.

Greeks, however, say basturma evolved from a Byzantine salt-curing method called pastron that originated in what later became the city of Kayseri. Under Ottoman rule, the Greek pastron became Turkish pastirma.

“Armenian claims to basturma are based on the fact that they were known as the most skillful basturma-makers in the Middle East,” the authors write. “In Kayseri, the Mecca of basturma, Armenians had a monopoly on the basturma business. An Armenian family name, Basturmajian, is living proof of historical meat-processing skills.”

I can’t testify to any of this, as I have no meat-processing skill. But I do have considerable basturma-eating skill, and you can trust me on this: If you’re ever in a ship in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, head for the bresaola.

You won’t be disappointed.

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