A Brazilian Volksfest

By Rob Packer

Oktoberfest in Blumenau

I’ve dedicated about a third of my life to the German language and lived in Germany for a year, but have never been to the country’s most famous festival, Oktoberfest in Munich (from Berlin we used to sneer at the strange ways of those Bavarians). This all means that I didn’t have much of a point of reference this weekend at the world’s second-largest Oktoberfest in Blumenau, Brazil. It was quite the disorienting experience.

Frohes Fest!

A Blumenau department store.

Brazil began encouraging migrants to settle its southern states in the second half of the 19th century, above all attracting Germans and Italians and there are dialects holding out here that are now extinct in Europe (here and herein Wikipedia). In Santa Catarina, German settlement was concentrated around Joinville and cutely named Blumenau, the valley of flowers. Today Germans and Italians make up most of Blumenau’s population, the city centre is a pastiche of Central European architecture, and it has proudly hosted the Americas’ largest “Germanic festival” since 1984—a highly successful tourism project after a serious flood.

Mitteleuropa in Brasilien.

I’ve already been to a (delicious) more-German-than-Germany restaurant in Curitiba, where I realized that my limit for non-stop Blasmusik (sometimes in Portuguese) is probably around the three-hour mark. Read more of this post

Bosnian Coffee

By Rob Packer

One of the first things I noticed arriving in Bosnia & Herzegovina—Mostar is in Herzegovina—is that the coffee’s different. In Split, for example, people seem to spend all afternoon sipping espressos at cafés on the Riva (the waterfront), so much so that I started to wonder if half-days are the norm in Croatia. Bosnians drink espresso too, but far more interesting was my first cup of bosanska kafa (kava is the Croatian word I was told later in the day), which I was offered while I checked my email. When it arrived, it was something I didn’t think was even possible: Turkish coffee with milk[1].

Bosanska kafa (Bosnian coffee). Also known as Turkish coffee, Greek coffee, Cypriot coffee and many other names.

This kind of culinary innovations based on immigration, colonization and invasion fascinate me Read more of this post

The Central Asian Tea Line

By Rob Packer

I’ve had a strange hot drink experience in Central Asia. It’s been the first time in almost ten years that I’ve gone more than one or two days without coffee: I now have been coffee-free for eleven weeks, apart from one afternoon cup of Nescafe in Balykchy that ended in a sleepless night. The reason is that good coffee is hard to find and normally means instant, and by the time I worked out that there was coffee in the kitchen at work, I’d gone so far that any of the acute headaches I normally got from not having coffee had been lost in a fog of jetlag. It could also have been the tea.

This is a land of tea and in each republic it makes a strong case for being the national drink. If only because, it’s really the only drink; apart from the blunder with a cup of coffee and a small bottle of the water at the beginning of the week, it was the only liquid I drank. There was one day at work when all the tea had been used up and there was no bread (another Central Asian necessity): I thought we were about to see a fight or a tantrum. The tea addiction in Central Asia is so strong that in Samarkand, a Bangladeshi tourist and I started to wonder if people didn’t end up with liver or kidney problems from not drinking water.

Central Asia is also split by a food dividing line, like the point where grits become acceptable in the US or the Röstigraben of Switzerland. In Central Asia, the general rule is that on the north of the Tian Shan people drink black tea, to the south tea is green. The divide is surprisingly strong and I’ve seen people in Bishkek refuse green tea and someone in Balykchy order a pot of green tea like it was contraband. I’m much less loyal in my tea habits and will drink black or green depending on my mood, hunger levels and the weather. In Uzbekistan, where the Tea Line runs between Tashkent and Samarkand, my fickle ways were considered so strange in Samarkand that, although I was asked “green or black?” each time I was offered a pot at the excellent Antica near Guri Emir Mausoleum, I was given green without fail: my first pot had been green, so I was a green tea drinker. Why complain when the cultural experience is much more interesting?

I’m probably taking some Central Asian tea habits away with me. I love how tea in Central Asia is served in a small bowl, and I’ve already written about how I’m a big fan of adding jam to any kind of tea (apricot and raspberry are favourites). One habit I’m not sure that people in Europe will react all that well to is the reuse of teabags. I think this is related to samovar culture where strong tea from a pot is mixed with warm water from the samovar and the way that teabags are dipped into hot water, rather than hot water being poured onto the teabag. It was a shock to walk into the kitchen at work the first time and see a plate of used teabags in the middle, but the simple answer is that it’s just not used up after one dip.

Although I’ve fully embraced Central Asian tea culture, despite my fickle ways, I’m not sure how my Central Asian habits will work out in Colombia: famous for its coffee, less for its tea.

The Big Softies

By Rob Packer

I’m not normally one to pass up the chance to try something new, especially something related to food and drink. If I didn’t do this, I’d have never learnt to love the durian and wouldn’t have the occasional craving for congee with thousand-year eggs. And every time I go to my local supermarket in Kyrgyzstan, I’m impressed by the number of fridges full of drinks I’ve never seen before. So today, I decided to go on an adventure and see what I could find. The results were not pretty.

IMG_2944

The contents of your supermarket drink cabinet: bozo, tan, bio-kvas, dyushes and kvas

First up, Bozo. Rather than meaning a bozo, this is a wheat-based fermented drink and a bottle of it has been sitting in my fridge taunting me for a couple of weeks now. When I’m looking through the fridge, this bottle of chocolaty swamp water leers at me and I pick it up every now and again wondering just how thick the sediment at the bottom is. One of the first things I did was to shake the bottle to loosen the sediment: this is not what you do with bozo. It’s fermented and will spray the walls of your kitchen. The smell was sour, salty and doughy and the taste was a mixture of slightly sour milk and rye bread. This one was a maybe.

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Bozo, rich in carbohydrates and vitamins

Shakedown

Never, ever do this with a bottle of bozo!

Bozo in the glass

Bozo in the glass. All bubbly.

The next drink is something I don’t know the name of and can barely describe. The label says it’s called Tan, the Russian description is of a “refreshing soft drink” and the ingredients say it’s been fermented. The closest thing I could find on Wikipedia was a Middle-Eastern drink called tahn, which forwarded me to ayran. I know ayran from regular trips to my local Turkish restaurants when I lived in Dalston, London; this is not ayran. I opened the bottle and found the smell was a mixture of yoghurt, kefir and Parmesan. It’s probably one of the strongest tasting things I’ve ever drunk: very sour, very salty, very chalky with a very watery consistency. It was a liquid version of the dried yoghurt cubes that people here eat while drinking. And it was not good. And after the tan, I now realise it was difficult to taste other things.

Tan

Tan, oh dear!

A glass of tan

This is not milk

My third drink is sometimes called limonad in Russian, but I’m going to call it by its brand name, Dyushes. It is not like lemonade. I’d first seen this being carried round by groups of teenagers in Bishkek swigging out of the bottle. When you first have a look at a bottle of this, it looks like iced tea, and it has pictures of pears on the label. In terms of taste, it doesn’t have much in common with either, and has the very sweet and slightly sharp taste of Irn-Bru.

Dyushes

Dyushes, definitely not lemonade

Dyushes in a glass

Sticky and sweet

You can start to see a pattern when yet another fermented drink (from bread this time) Bio-Kvas is up next, and smells of a wooden cupboard that’s been locked for a long time. I always think of bio-kvas and real kvas‘ poorer cousins, but this one was mixed with honey and wasn’t as bad as other bio-kvas that I’ve had. The honey took away from its almost overpowering breadiness and made it actually kind of drinkable.

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Bio-Kvas. The bio part is very important: it means it won't be as good as Kvas.

Bio-Kvas in a glass

A glass of bio-kvas

Best of the bunch was standard, commercial kvas. It has some of the breadiness of bio-kvas mixed with what to me tastes like Doctor Pepper. It’s probably full of sugar and bad for you, but it’s what I’ve been brought up to expect from soft drinks. I like salty lassis or sour lemon drinks, but I’m quickly finding out that I don’t like overpowering salty and overpowering milky sour at the same time.

The winner

My winner for the evening: Russian kvas

Glass of kvas

For all its greatness, this is not the best kind of kvas. That's called monastyrsky kvas and I've only been able to find it sold from barrels on the street.

My curiosity is more than satisfied. I’m glad I tried them, and I’ll be going back to kvas, but probably not to the others quite so quickly. And I can politely decline tan next time if it’s ever offered.

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