by Hardy Griffin
Finally we are waving to the last guests as they drive away from the wedding reception, and the four of us are walking towards the car: Banu, myself, and her mother and father.
“Why don’t you come over to our house,” Baba asks.
I wearily look at him—can he be serious? Isn’t the wedding night tradition basically the same from Mongolia to Oklahoma to this cobblestone street in Istanbul? Both Banu and her mother smile and shrug.
“Don’t worry,” he says, “it won’t take long.” What can I say—he has the car keys.
We walk into their apartment and take off our shoes at the door. Banu and my mother-in-law go into the back of the apartment to change, while Baba goes into the kitchen.
“Here,” he says, handing me a large metal mixing bowl and a table cloth. “Take off your jacket and shirt and put these on the floor in the living room.”
I’m down to my undershirt with the tablecloth spread on the floor and the bowl in the center of it when he comes in, just in a tank top, with a tray of spices and a grocery bag hanging from one hand.
“So,” he says as he sets everything down by the bowl, “you think you’ve married my daughter, eh? Well, think again.” He has a little smile on his face. “Only if you can make raw köfte can you marry my daughter.”
I had come over for dinner some months back and had had raw köfte, and my brother-in-law had, between mouthfuls, basically told me all the ingredients. The trouble was, my mouth was also full and I hadn’t really paid much attention.
“Don’t worry,” Baba says, patting the floor next to him, “I’ll help.”
It turns out it’s not only the meat that is raw—perhaps more incredibly, the recipe rests on raw bulgur. The water released from the chopped onions and garlic, and a bit of tomato water that Baba sprinkles over everything are my only allies as I desperately squeeze and work the bulgur to soften it.
“Are you sweating yet?” Baba asks, adding the tomato and pepper pastes. “You have to sweat or it won’t taste good.”
Once the pastes have been added, it no longer feels like I’m trying to crush fistfuls of sand. Baba stands and goes into the kitchen. The sweat drips off my forehead and into the bulgur.
“Let me tell you the story of raw köfte,” Baba says as he comes back with the raw meat.
It’s another two hours before we sit down to eat. Everyone marvels at how good the raw köfte is. I can’t tell if they’re humoring me or are honestly impressed.
Each köfte is an oblong, reddish-umber hunk with three ridges made from the spaces between my fingers as I squeezed them.
The first time I ate raw köfte, the spice hit me first, followed by the pure rawness. I thought I could taste the waves of Asiatic tribes riding across the steppes, conquering all that lay before them.
Now, however, all of my attention is focused first on the bulgur—is it soft and smooth, has it absorbed the meat and spices or is it still separate and hard? Then comes the surprisingly tender taste of raw meat that has been mashed for just the right length of time. Through this ultimately humble food runs Baba’s story. You can taste how the people on the edge of the Taurus Mountains left everything they owned behind save for whatever they could grab and fled into the hills as invading armies filled the plain. These people didn’t dare light a fire for fear they would be spotted—instead, they worked all the raw supplies they had into tight little balls, cooked not by fire but by the ingenuity of spice and the sweat of those determined to survive.
“This is damat köfte,” Baba says, using the Turkish word for son-in-law. I reach for another one but Banu stops me.
“The bulgur expands in your stomach,” she says. “If you eat too much, it will hurt later.” That I do remember from the first time I had it.
After cleaning up the plates, Banu and I drive back to our new apartment, full through to the next day. We end up hiding at home for the next few days before re-emerging to see the lay of the land.
|Hardy Griffin has published in Words Without Borders, Assisi, the Washington Post, and American Letters & Commentary, and contributed a chapter to Writing Fiction (Bloomsbury, 2003). English and Turkish versions of his story “Baba” were featured in the 2002 Istanbul Biennial. He lives in Istanbul.|