A Roving Appetite | An Interview with Robyn Eckhardt
WHEN IT COMES TO FOOD, ROBYN ECKHARDT GOES ABOVE, THROUGH, AND WELL BEYOND
INTERVIEW AND PHOTOGRAPH: ROHAN KAMICHERIL
inding the perfect spot for lunch with Robyn Eckhardt is serious work. Eckhardt is the voice behind the popular blog Eating Asia and the author of the new cookbook Istanbul and Beyond and I have a deep-seated worry that not only has she seen it all—she’s probably eaten it all, too. Even in a city like New York, I worry that the culinary treats on offer may pale compared to what she’s eaten in her many years as a roving food writer.
For years I’ve traveled vicariously and deliciously through Eckhardt’s writing as she’s discussed such topics as palm sugar and hand-shaved noodles in Manila, given vivid life to the culture and food of George Town (the capital of the Malaysian island province of Penang that Eckhardt and her husband, the photographer David Hagerman, called home for many years), and visited the smoky interiors of small murukku manufactories in Chettinad in Tamil Nadu. Her ability to capture the tiny, compelling details of life close to the ground has always given me hope that there are still writers out there who are committed to creating real, living portrayals of places, people, and cuisines.
When we finally meet, on a blustery, grey February day, it’s on the fringes of Astoria Park in Queens. The park is wind-blown and filled with skeletal winter trees. We sit down to a simple Greek meal and a long and fascinating talk. As we tuck into a dried rusk salad tossed with winter tomatoes, olive oil, and black olives—improbably delicious despite the season—Eckhardt gamely recounts the recent travails involved in pulling up roots for the umpteenth time for her and Hagerman’s move from Penang, their home of many years, to Piedmont, in the north of Italy. Her most recent woes have involved the complicated procedures involved in getting their coterie of dogs from Malaysia to Italy. When I ask her what she’s missed most of all, living in Penang, she hesitates briefly before musing, “The seasons. How did I last so long without the seasons? I don’t know.”
But even if it’s been a while since Eckhardt has seen a northern summer, her life has led her through the full gamut of seasons and climes: from Sichuan to Penang, to Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, New York, and California (and this isn’t even a comprehensive list). She and Hagerman have travelled widely and deeply and come back with treasures for the rest of us in the form of soul-stirring photographs, clear-eyed and beautifully told stories, and gorgeous reports of little-known and delectable foods. Their most recent collaboration, Istanbul and Beyond, paints a stunning portrait of the cuisines of Turkey—from the coasts to the mountains to the heartlands—one that teems with life, energy, and the prospect of delicious, home-cooked meals. To talk to Eckhardt about the book is to invite an exhilarating torrent of memories—of meals shared in unassuming lokantas, of encounters with cheesemakers, noodlemakers, fruit growers, and the whole complement of people, foods, sights, flavors, sounds that make the food of any place come to brilliant life.
Rohan Kamicheril: Your writing covers such a vast ground—from Thailand to Malaysia to Italy to Turkey. Where did you grow up?
Robyn Eckhardt: I grew up in Michigan.
RK: Where in Michigan?
RE: Outside Detroit. In a place called Grosse Pointe.
RK: Oh, like the movie?
RE: [Laughs.] Exactly. Yeah, and where the Fords lived, only we weren’t of the Fords’ caliber. And David grew up in Holt, just outside Lansing. So, we met in Michigan and went to China for a year. I went right after university to teach English and then he joined me and then we came back and went to Boston for grad school. And then we went to New York for a couple of years. But then he got a job offer in California in 1990 and so we moved out there—to the San Francisco Bay Area. So whenever people ask me where I’m from, I say … Michigan? I guess I’m from Michigan but I consider myself a Californian. We lived there about eight years total.
RK: When you first went to China to teach English was there any thought that you might then go on to do something else in China?
RE: I was in Sichuan in 1984 and there was nothing there. It was a hard year, but it was a good year. Dave joined me after half a year and when we left it was like we knew we would be back in Asia at some point. And then I started school again, which is what you do when you don’t know what you’re going to do with your life, right? You just keep going to school! [Laughs.] So I started my PhD program in 1992 and Dave left for Hong Kong and I stayed in Berkeley. And then I joined him after a couple of years and then we moved to Shanghai and he worked there and I did my dissertation research—not in Shanghai, but in various places.
RK: And what were your encounters with food like at that time? Were they already beginning to present themselves as something you could do professionally?
RE: Well, no, because when I started my PhD program in 1992, food writing wasn’t really something you did for a living. I mean, people did, but I’d never thought about it that way. I’d thought about going to culinary school and becoming a chef, but decided I probably couldn’t deal with the lifestyle. It’s hard work, with long hours. And so I decided to get a PhD instead.
RK: Was there something that was pushing you toward food in general? An encounter or someone who influenced you?
"It was 1990—right after the earthquake. I just suddenly became aware of food in a way that I had never been before."
RE: Well, my mom was a great cook. And she was an adventurous cook for her time and place—Michigan in the early ’70s. She’d grown up in Arizona, California, so we’d have artichokes, avocados—exotic things at that time—and Mexican food. We were a family who always had dinner together. I remember when I first started really getting into food—moving to California was kind of a pivotal moment, I think. It was 1990—right after the earthquake. I just suddenly became aware of food in a way that I had never been before. In the Bay Area it’s just all around you.
RK: And it seems like the late ’80s and ’90s was a time when there were a lot of culinary things incubating in the Bay Area.
RE: I remember, up until that point, at home I’d only ever cooked stuff my mom had made, or Chinese food—because I wanted to recreate those flavors—or Thai food. And going to California, there was Joyce Goldstein and Alice Waters and all this amazing produce and it totally expanded my mind.
RK: You mention Joyce Goldstein—I love her, by the way—did the work she did provide some kind of model for what you wanted to do?
RE: Actually, the first non-Asian cookbook I bought was her book The Mediterranean Kitchen. I cooked from that a lot. And from her I went to Paula Wolfert and I bought one of her books. I can’t remember which one—it wasn’t the Morocco one, it was another one—and I saw what she was doing and I still wasn’t thinking, Oh, I could do that, but I was really interested in what she was doing.
RK: What was it that appealed to you about it?
RE: That she was going and spending time in places and learning from cooks. And at that time I was starting my PhD program and my focus was tax protests in rural China. I had a professor who was a political scientist but who approached things as a historian, in that she told people’s stories. And I really wanted to do that—that kind of grassroots approach. And I think that was also kind of a pivotal point because I feel like what I do now is basically what I trained to do as a political scientist, but I’m doing it with food instead of with politics. I want to be low to the ground, I want to learn real stories, I want to tell real stories. I’ve never been interested in elite politics, and I’ve never been interested in elite dining.
RK: And what do you think is the difference in the picture that results from being closer to the ground—in terms of how people see a culture?
RE: I just think those stories and that side of food should be told, and celebrated, and not in a way that says, oh, isn’t it cute and quaint, look at the homey grandma and so on. Just recognizing that that exists.
"I’ve never been interested in elite politics, and I’ve never been interested in elite dining."
RK: Well, there also just seems to be less of a market engine that drives an interest in home food. Restaurants have a sort of built-in capitalist motive and restaurants and magazines can sort of support each other, which is why it seems all the more important to support and document home cuisine.
RE: I don’t know. Maybe New York’s a bubble. And I don’t know enough about New York to judge, but these days it just seems like if you’re a food writer it’s just getting harder and harder to sell something that’s not focused somehow on restaurants or trends or the industry. And I think that’s too bad. And especially since—let’s just call it what it is—the “Muslim ban,” suddenly people are outraged and now there’s an interest in refugees and their food. And while I appreciate that and think that that can only be a good thing, I find that just a little—I don’t know what the word is— but it’s only now okay to write about home food because it’s about refugees because now the story has legs? Food writing in America is very trend-driven.
RK: You go into more depth in your treatment of your subjects than is common in a lot of mainstream food writing. How do you think that affects how people view food in general—the way that stories are told rather than just the subject matter?
RE: I think that people are interested to know these stories, to hear about people who live in ways that they don’t live, who live in places they’ve never visited, who cook foods that they would not think to cook, or foods that they’re sort of familiar with but that are cooked in different ways.
RK: To go back a little bit, you mentioned that you were cooking Sichuan food when you were in the Bay Area—were you learning how to cook when you were in China?
RE: No. But this is kind of how I do—I don’t cook the food of a place where I am until I leave because I’m driven to the effort of learning how to cook it by the desire to eat it. And so I went home to Michigan and my future mother-in-law gave me a Sichuan cookbook and I just started cooking from there.
RK: Do you remember what it was called?
RE: Yeah, it was Mrs. Chiang’s Szechuan Cookbook, written by a woman who lived in Taiwan. It’s a really good book. It produces absolutely spot-on flavors.
RK: Did you eat well in Sichuan?
RE: [Groans and nods.]
RK: Are there things that stand out in your memory?
RE: I was twenty-one or twenty-two, and you know your metabolism when you’re young. I ate all the time. From October until April it was so cold and I think that makes you hungrier. And on the way to class there was this guy with these gorgeous baozi, about the size of my fist, and he’d lift the lid of the bamboo steamer and this wafting, smoky, porky smell would come out and the top knot would be leaking pork fat. It was so good! Then there were dumplings—boiled dumplings—which you would order by the jin, which is a measure of weight, and so we’d go for lunch and eat like fifty between the two of us. They’d come on one of those big enamel platters that have painted roosters on them, and with that sandy Sichuan sauce that’s just chillies and oil and we’d just sit there and eat them. And then dao xiao mian, which are the hand-shaved noodles. And it was early in China’s gaige kaifang—the economic opening and reform movement—and there weren’t really many restaurants but they’d just started allowing people to make money in restaurants. There was a restaurant near the university that we took my parents to when they visited and my mother compared it to a garage—it was just this little block-y room with a cement floor and they would just cook up whatever you ordered—pork stir-fried with cucumber, egg, and tomato, or whatever—and at that time meat was still rationed, so one serving probably contained less than a quarter pound of meat, but [sighs] it was just the best food.
RK: So meat as a flavor rather than the star ingredient.
RE: Yeah, and they did a hot and sour soup, which we didn’t discover until shortly before we left. And that was kind of a revelation because I knew hot and sour soup from Chinese restaurants in the States. This was just pickled cabbage in pork broth, with a lot of chillies—hot and sour. Totally unlike that whole thing that you get here.
RK: This puts me in mind of how immigrant cuisines are generally talked about in this country. You had a short piece about your irritation at lahmacun being described as “Turkish pizza.” What do you think is missing from the way that the mainstream food media covers “ethnic” cuisines?
RE: Well, there was recently that whole uproar about Bon Appétit and pho—just, like, hey, here’s this groovy white chef—
RK: Who discovered pho, right?
RE: [Laughs.] I feel like a lot of times editors still underestimate their readers. I’ll always remember pitching palm sugar to the editor of a food magazine eight or nine years ago and him just saying, “They can’t even get to grips with galangal, I can’t put palm sugar in front of them!” And I was like, really? People can’t get to grips with this incredibly delicious, smoky, caramel-y, brown sugar that you could basically eat with a spoon?
"I think that people want to know about little-known ingredients or dishes—as long as it’s delicious. I’m not interested in writing about anything gross!"
RK: And you actually can get palm sugar in New York. Maybe not of the highest quality, but it is available.
RE: Give people that choice, you know? Same thing with Taiwan. I just had a piece in the New York Times about eating in Taipei. I’d been pitching Taiwan food stories for seven years and I literally had an editor laugh in my face and say, “Food in Taiwan—are you kidding?” And I’d still like to do a more in-depth, longer piece about what’s going on in Taiwan, but still no takers. I think that people want to know about little-known ingredients or dishes—as long as it’s delicious. I’m not interested in writing about anything gross! I just think it’s a shame—how and when does it become okay to write about a certain food?
RK: Tell me a little bit about the food in George Town, where you lived for so many years, until recently. Malaysia, like the United States, also brings a lot of different cultures together, no? It’s been the nexus for a lot of immigration in the region—from the Indians to the Malays to the ethnic Chinese—
RE: Well, it was always nice that you could get really good South Indian food in Malaysia—though, of course, not as good as in South India!—and Malay and Indonesian food and Chinese foods. And there are other immigrants, too. But Malays are not very welcoming. The state government in Penang just put a law into effect about a year ago that said immigrant workers cannot cook street food because—I don’t know, they think they’re going to get their immigrant-ness on it or something? It was like they think George Town and Penang are in danger of losing their traditional street foods, so the way to deal with that is to not let migrant workers cook it. It’s very xenophobic.
RK: But it’s so hard to reconcile those two things: often the people most interested in traditional regional food in many parts of the world, and who are doing the most to make it visible, are the most xenophobic. There was an interesting piece I read some years ago about the food at—I think it was at Shiv Sena rallies. There was all this amazing, regional food from around Maharashtra but you basically had to go to a Hindu nationalist rally to eat it!
RE: [Laughs.] I also think that in Asia there’s this idea of standardization. Thailand recently issued a list of standardized recipes for Thai dishes, and I just don’t think that’s really a way to promote the food. But it comes from the same impulse that says we need to get street vendors off the street and into nice, clean hawker centers in order to promote their food. I don’t know quite how to explain it but you see that kind of impulse everywhere in Asia. I think Taiwan is really interesting because it seems to have this self-confidence. The Taiwanese don’t feel like they have to become—Singapore, for example. They’re like, we have street food, we have really fine dining, we have stuff in between, and that’s just who we are, and we’re great. And it’s really refreshing. Whereas in Vietnam and Malaysia and Thailand you see this thing often where Singapore is the standard—we all wish we could be Singapore.
RK: Sort of an inferiority complex?
RE: It is. I don’t know if that’s because “modern” to many people means a food court and no street vendors or what, but Taiwan just seems to say, we’re modern, we’re fine, we don’t care. Is this an impulse in India?
RK: It definitely is. And I wonder if some of these cues are coming from more successfully integrated Western cuisines like French food or Italian food which have come to be identified with a sort of tangible canon which people can see as both incredibly diverse but also sort of manageable. When people look at the diversity of Italian food, they see it as a welcoming, embracing multitude, but if you tell them that there’s a million kinds of food to eat in India they get overwhelmed by the idea. I wonder if this impulse is, in its way, an attempt to codify these cuisines and make them somehow understandable to the outsider.
RE: That might be. But isn’t that something food writers could do, without sanitizing it?
RK: Well, not to dismiss the efforts of food writers, but to be honest, I think a lot of information about food is propagated through things like restaurant menus and the ways in which they communicate these pernicious misconceptions about cuisines. And it’s a hard thing to change—Indians, for example, don’t take their restaurant food very seriously.
RE: It’s more of a home food scene?
RK: I think so. There are definitely smaller restaurants that do an amazing job in India. If you wanted a truly amazing, interesting regional meal you’d have much more luck going to someone’s house. There’s just not much of a history of doing that kind of food in a mid-range restaurant setting. I wonder if restaurateurs, like editors, are just afraid that if they do anything too out-there that people will just be terrified by it.
"I said to Dave, I don’t know how and I don’t know why but Turkey’s going to be part of our life some day."
RE: I think that’s true. Like with all the Turkish restaurants that open up and all have the same menu. I think it’s more risky to open yet another Turkish restaurant that serves chicken and lamb kebabs and three dips.
RK: Speaking of Turkey, though, how did you make your way from Malaysia to Turkey—culinarily and otherwise.
RE: Well, Turkey happened because when we were living in China, in 1998, we had three weeks over Chinese New Year and we had these frequent flier miles and we needed to go somewhere cheap. So we went to Turkey. And we just fell in love with it, basically. I don’t know why—it’s like when you meet someone and you fall in love. You go to a country and it just feels right. And so, on that trip, I said to Dave, I don’t know how and I don’t know why but Turkey’s going to be part of our life some day. And we moved back to California ten months after that and I started taking Turkish at Berkeley and spent all my time doing that instead of working on my dissertation and then three years later we moved to Southeast Asia and I sort of set this Turkey stuff aside to get to know this new place. And so we didn’t return to Turkey for ten years.
Then when we went back in June of 2010, we were worried—was it going to be different? Would we still like it? But the minute we landed and got into a cab in Istanbul and were riding along the Bosphorus we were like, oh yeah! It just feels right. We went to Gaziantep, we drove east and north into eastern Turkey, where we had never been before and where not a lot of people go because it’s not on the usual tourist route. And I think my brain just started going, this is interesting … And so we went back six months later with no plans and then went to the Black Sea for anchovies because it was anchovy season. And the food on the Black Sea is so different. It’s like you don’t even know you’re in Turkey. It’s dried corn, corn flour, corn grits, these collard greens that they call black cabbage, fried anchovies, anchovies in corn meal, fried—it’s all just different. We got back to Penang after that trip and that’s when the wheels started turning. Like, wow, Turkey is really a country of regional cuisines and I bet if we go very systematically around the lesser-visited parts of the country, we’re going to find some interesting stuff. And it was the time in my career for me to start thinking about a cookbook. Could we do a cookbook on Turkey? Were we qualified to do a cookbook on Turkey? Was this a possibility? And so that’s when we decided to start doing the research.
"Out in eastern Turkey, you really see how people are locavores not because it’s cool or hip but because that’s what grows there."
RK: And that’s where the idea of the cookbook came from?
RE: Yeah. Especially the next trip. Every cuisine is rooted in its geography, though there are other influences of course—but you never see that in the US. And in a lot of ways if you grew up in a city you never see that—even in major cities in Asia. But there, out in eastern Turkey, you really see how people are locavores not because it’s cool or hip but because that’s what grows there. The northeast is cow country because it has high plateaus and you can’t have sheep there and you can’t have goats there. Then you go down to Van and it’s craggy mountains and you can’t have cows there because cows can’t pasture in those conditions, but it’s perfect for sheep and goats. And just learning what grows where—this is a perfect place to grow wheat, or this is a Mediterranean climate and they have olives and pomegranates and chillies because they’re close to Syria. And that’s how the shape of the book started to come together in my brain. And we always road-tripped so we’d just drive ourselves. And Turkey is a small, small country, so in six hours you can go from Mediterranean to something like a New Mexico landscape and end up in a place that’s really harsh and cold in the winter. The lines separating geographic regions are so in your face. You can go through three climates in a day, and then the food changes, too. So it was just an eye-opener for me.
RK: How did you go about finding people to talk to? Were they eager to talk to you or were they surprised by your interest?
RE: Well, I could speak Turkish, so that helped a lot. Turks—and Kurds—are just the most hospitable people that I have ever met in my life. We would just go to a market and I would start asking vendors what they did with stuff or we’d drive into a village and people would come out and say, come in for tea, or stay for dinner. There are fishing ports where we’d go talk to guys on fishing boats and someone would be cooking in the galley and we’d want to see—how is he cooking the fish? And we’d go to restaurants—and by restaurants I mean what Turks call lokantas, which are steam table places where the food is really home-style—and we’d just talk to those people and we’d end up in people’s houses and in their kitchens, or we’d go to farms. It was easy to meet people. And I think Dave’s camera helped a lot, too, as a conversation-starter. People would ask, why are you taking pictures of my collard greens? And I’d say, Oh, I’m collecting recipes. What do you do with those collard greens?
So we made a bunch of trips and it took us a while to get into our rhythm but by the third or fourth trip I realized, for example—Dave doesn’t want me around all the time when he’s doing photos which is fair enough. I don’t really like to get up at 5 AM. When we were there at certain times of the year he would just get up at 5 AM, before dawn, and he would get in the car and he would just drive. He was looking for photos—scene-setting shots—and invariably he’d meet people. He’d drive into a village and meet a cheesemaker or whatever—
RK: Does he speak Turkish, too?
RE: No. [Laughs.] And then he’d come back and get me and we’d have breakfast and we’d go back, and I'd speak Turkish. I mean, he did as much of the finding as I did. One time he wanted a beautiful shot of the Black Sea coast and we saw this dirt road going up this hill and we just drove to the top and we got out and there were two people’s houses right there and this guy comes out from under a fig tree and is like, here, have some figs, and then his daughter-in-law comes out of her house and we ended up staying there and she cooked us dinner and we went back every time we went back to that area—three or four more times, and I learned some recipes from her. That’s why I don’t want anyone to think the book is comprehensive because this wasn’t systematic—these were just the recipes that we were fortunate enough to find while travelling the way we like to travel.
RK: Which is as it should be. So many cookbooks on so-called ethnic cuisines are forced to be too comprehensive and as a result they turn into something more like encyclopedias and nobody really uses them.
"What’s the point if I have a hundred and twenty recipes that you can find anywhere else?"
RE: There’s no manti in the book, and you know someone’s going to say, you’re writing about Turkish food and you don’t have manti?! How can that be? What can I say—I didn’t encounter anyone making manti. It’s just my Turkey—it’s our Turkey. There’s an Istanbul chapter, but a lot of the things you see in most Istanbul chapters or most Istanbul books will not be there, but what does it matter? What’s the point if I have a hundred and twenty recipes that you can find anywhere else? What am I adding to the conversation if I’m not opening people’s minds to a new flavor or something that they never would have thought of as Turkish?
RK: When you’re talking to someone and they’re telling you about a recipe, what draws you to one recipe over another? What makes it stand out for you?
RE: It should be delicious. If it’s surprising—if I’d never heard of it before or never tasted it before, that’s a bonus. How amenable the person is—how pleasant they are, that’s a factor. Are they fun to be around? It’s like Dave taking a photo of someone who doesn’t want to be photographed. Why would you do that? Why would I waste someone’s time and hammer at them to give me a recipe or talk to me if they’re not into it? I don’t want to do that. It’s serendipity—it’s a combination of elements.
RK: If you had to choose one dish that would provide the perfect entryway into Turkish food—and to the book— for an uninitiated reader, what would it be and why?
RE: I would choose the meatballs with pumpkin and spice butter, from the Van and Hakkâri chapter. For me, the dish embodies the appeal of so much of the food in Turkey, especially eastern Turkey: it's familiar in some ways, familiar enough that it is not off-putting to less adventurous palates ... but with one or two really delicious twists that take it just beyond. We all know meatballs, and meatballs are for the most part a beloved food. But the meatballs in this dish are highly spiced, use broken rice as a binder, and contain no milk, bread, eggs, or cheese (like the meatballs I grew up with in Michigan). As a result they are relatively light. The dish is straightforward in terms of assembly—meatballs on a bed of cubed pumpkin or winter squash, then cooked on top of the stove in a thin tomato-based sauce. Pumpkin is a familiar autumn vegetable, but rarely do American cooks combine it with tomato, so that usually comes as a surprise. Then, when the meatballs and pumpkin are cooked, the whole dish is finished with a generous drizzle of crushed red chilli and dried purple basil (easily substituted with dried Italian basil and ground anise) sizzled in butter. The combination of the meatballs, the softened pumpkin in the thickened tomato sauce, and the whomp of the fragrant butter drizzle at the end—it's a fantastic dish that I reckon most people have never eaten the likes of before … but it contains elements familiar enough to give folks a reference point.
"I hope that we'll now stop talking about “Turkish food” and talk instead of Turkish Black Sea cuisine, Hatay cuisine, and the foods of Turkey's far northeast."
RK: What would you hope that readers of the book will take away from it? What has been the abiding lesson that you’ve taken from working on the book, writing about Turkey, and traveling around the country?
RE: That we can't talk about “Turkish cuisine.” We can talk about “palace cuisine” (the dishes that were invented during the Ottoman Empire, in the kitchens of Topkapi Palace), and we can talk about street food in Istanbul. But there is no “Turkish cuisine.” Twenty-five years ago we knew “Chinese food” and “Italian food.” Now we think of Shanghai, Cantonese, northern Chinese, Xinjiang, and Sichuan cuisine (and more), and we understand that there are differences between the cuisines of Rome and Sicily and Puglia and Tuscany and so on and so on. By the same token, I hope that we'll now stop talking about “Turkish food” and talk instead of Turkish Black Sea cuisine, Hatay cuisine, and the foods of Turkey's far northeast. I hope that readers come away with the understanding that what people eat in the fishing port city of Sinop, on the Black Sea, bears little to no resemblance to daily diets in Van and Hakkâri, Kurdish provinces bordering Iran and Iraq. Of course I also hope that people come away with a curiosity about food in Turkey, and a burning desire to cook their way through the book!
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Get the recipe for Turmeric-Scented Lamb and Chickpea Stew from Istanbul and Beyond over here.