I said it at the time. “Peter,” I said. “We will now become the people we hate.”
I was referring to those who travel to distant lands, eat local fare, return to the home country and, when dining out with friends, bemoan that the coq au vin, the chicken vindalou, the mutton cooked in sheep’s guts–take your pick–doesn’t come close to what you would get in Paris, Delhi, the steppes of outer Mongolia–take your pick. And even worse than waving your culinary passport of international foods around the table is inserting the name of a specific restaurant into the proclamation with an air of smug nonchalance. “Why, if you should ever find yourself in the Hungarian hinterland, there’s a charming little restaurant in Miskolc called Zslop where the goulash is to die. Ask for Bogdan. And tell him I sent you.” Insufferable.
We were in the Hafiz Mustafa in Istanbul, sitting in the second floor cafe that overlooks the streets leading down to the Bosphorus. Pedestrians, bicycles, cars, trams teem along the narrow, ancient ways. From above, it looks as if the sum of humanity is coursing through the veins and arteries of a city whose streets are far too narrow to hold it all. At certain times of the year, to walk amongst the people of Istanbul is to move with them as one collective mass propelled slowly forward.
But Peter and I, just recently pedestrians ourselves, were now far removed from such corporeal intimacies. We were ensconced in a world of vanilla, chocolate, and cinnamon, where pastry gods turn honey into heaven and serve it on shiny trays with strong coffee.
In the early days of our visits, we ordered just two pieces each of a walnut baklava. By the end of the first week, we were ordering feasts. There are over 30 varieties of baklava at the Hafiz Mustafa and we ate them all. Over time, we became connoisseurs, discerning and particular. We chewed with reflection, noting the elements that gave a variety its distinctive signature, its gustatory perfection. We became, in short, snobs.
Why do I bring this up? Because just the other night I had an unfortunate experience related to the matter. I was out with friends at a place called The Red Fez where, according to their menu, they serve traditional Ottoman cuisine from original recipe. Through the hummus, the baba ganoush, the lentil soup; through the kebabs, chicken, lamb, and fish, I am quiet and eat dutifully. I do not bring up my trip to Istanbul, my rich and varied culinary tour of the Ottoman lands, because I do not want to be that person.
But then comes dessert.
Along with Turkish coffee, we each get a plate of baklava. As I look down at my dessert, I know right away that the soggy cluster of nuts and phyllo situated in the pale goo on my plate will not in any way resemble what I had come to know and love as baklava. But I am not my father’s daughter for nothing. Years of strict training in diplomatic circles taught me the value of not telling the truth. “No one wants to hear how you don’t like the pickled pig, Jennifer,” he would say. “Take little bites and then discreetly spit them into your napkin as you wipe your mouth. Everyone’s happy.” I learned from an early age that the foundation of successful diplomacy—indeed, the very bedrock of friendship—rests upon the solid ground of untruth.
And it all would have gone splendidly at the Red Fez if it hadn’t been for Henry. We are eating dessert and sipping our coffee when Henry declares, “I just love the baklava here. It’s excellent.” Everyone nods. Then Charlotte, who always knows so little about so much, goes so far as to say that the mark of a great restaurant is the quality of its desserts and that this dessert was superb. Oh, really, Charlotte? Superb?
I can be still no longer.
I put my fork down with a flourish and announce, “My friends, I have been to a country whose national dessert is baklava and what we are eating is most certainly not that. It is, excuse me for saying, a mashed up sticky mess of nuts and sugar between soggy layers of phyllo. Baklava,” I proclaim, “should be flaky, with a hint of butter, sweet—but not too sweet—with a note, just a touch, of vanilla, the walnuts coarse, but yielding, the pistachios firm and rich. It should tempt and seduce, leaving one feeling deliriously satisfied and yet hungry for more. That,” I say, “is baklava.”
I should have left it at that, but I press on. “In fact,” I continue, “if you really want to know the transcendent bliss that can come from one bite of a perfectly crafted dessert, if you really want to experience true baklava, you must go to the Hafiz Mustafa in Istanbul. This here,” I say, with a dismissive wave to the plates in front of everyone, “is a mockery.”
I take a sip of coffee. As an afterthought I add, “And when you’re there, ask for Ahmet. Tell him Jennifer from Washington sent you. He’ll know who you mean.”
When I look up, I can tell what they are thinking by the looks on their faces. It is, I recognize, a look I have worn many times myself on my own face. It says, unmistakably: I hate people like that.