Sunday, March 25, 2012


I am a man of many inconsistent prejudices. For example, I love peanuts, but I hate peanut butter. Well, alright, maybe “love” isn’t the right word. That’s just the American talking. You love your children, you like this peanut. But I do hate peanut butter. In the same way, I like cucumbers, and I like sauerkraut, but I despise pickles. All forms of them. I like beef, but I do not like porkbeef. What is porkbeef?

“Hey, there’s a new sandwicherie in Kaubamaja,” Mrs. Mingus informed me last week. Kaubamaja is Tartu’s downtown mall.
—I’m on it! I told her without even thinking. Within a minute, my coat was on and we were on our way downtown.
—So what’s it like?
“I just walked by it. I haven’t tried it yet,” she answered.
—What do they serve there?
—Right, but what kind?
“Stop it,” she told me. I was asking stupid questions. I wasn’t being very Estonian, and by that I mean I wasn’t thinking before opening my mouth. With today’s over-processed food, you really need to consider both what comes out of your mouth, and what goes in.
—So, it’s like Subway? I carefully asked.
“I think so. But I really hope it’s better than that cheap knock-off of Subway, called Metroo, across the river.” “Metroo” is the Estonian word for metro, or subway.
—Yeah, that place is nasty. Cheap, but nasty. You’re basically eating sandwich-flavored bread, they skimp so badly on the fillings.

We entered Kaupsi, as the locals call the mall, and went to the side entrance to XPRS Deli. An attractive little corner kiosk, I had high hopes. It’s an Estonian chain, but you won’t find the Tartu XPRS on your GPRS, or GPS or whatever the acronym is. It’s so new they haven’t even updated their webpage yet.

Not that it’s a problem for me, but the menus are only in Estonian. Even on the webpage, which says in Estonian, “The best chef is you—make your own sandwich!” That’s cool. But for most people in Estonia, a võileib, or sandwich (literally “butter bread”) is still an evolving food.

My first time in this lovely country, I was a guest in my friend’s aunt’s home. She had made an incredible butter bread smörgåsbord. At least ten different kinds of butter breads. But these weren’t what I considered a sandwich. Each consisted of a slice of bread with various toppings. Quite good, and a different experience. And having new experiences was why I had visited in the first place.

A sandwich for me was a massive baguette with three kinds of meat, and a lot of it too, a couple kinds of cheese, oil and vinegar, sliced onion, tomato, lettuce—Subway, basically. After years in Estonia, I can now honestly say that my favorite “sandwich” ever, however, is a slice of black bread with garlic cheese. Garlic cheese is grated cheese (no particular type) mixed with a little mayonnaise and crushed garlic. I cannot get enough of it. I do not love it, but I like it, yet I don’t like most Estonian cheeses by themselves, or the mayo. Don’t criticize me for that, though, because it’s not my fault. I can’t help what I like. All I can do is try new things.

“Hi, can I get the Men’s Favorite, please? But with no pickles,” I asked Õpilane, the waitress. That’s a pretty name.
—Of course, she smiled. What would you like instead of pickles?
“Hmm,” I said, eyeing the wide selection of ingredients that were not protected by a sneeze guard. “What goes well with beef?”
—We don’t have beef, she informed me, a mildly odd look on her face in reaction to my apparently odd question.
“But,” I began. “But, the menu says this sandwich has röstbeef.”
—Ah, yes, that’s roast pork.
“Ah, I see,” I responded, intrigued at my discovery of a new element on the periodic table of deli meats: porkbeef. “What would you recommend?”
—I don’t know, Õpilane told me. I’m new here, my name is Krista, she continued.
“OK, could I have some jalapeños, then?” She looked confused for a moment. I found it odd that the sandwich station would be manned by a trainee, without supervision or instruction as to what she actually was selling, but I didn’t take issue with it. “Chili peppers, I mean.” And she happily placed some jalapeños on top of the porkbeef.

Mrs. Mingus ordered a sandwich for herself as well. The main ingredient was salmon. “We’re out of salmon,” Krista informed her, so she chose something else. Mrs. Mingus asked for Feta on her sandwich, and mentioned Feta three times. When she started to eat her sandwich, she noticed there was no Feta on it.

Krista mentioned that if you buy two sandwiches, you get one free. “Three equals two”, as the ad puts it. “You can build your own sandwich,” Krista said. “Just tell me what you want, and I’ll make it.” We decided to get soy meat. I don’t know what else to call it. Soybeef? We asked for any suggestions, but Krista didn’t know. She was very polite though, and eager to at least try and answer questions. She was about twenty. Had she been forty, she would have just answered our pestering questions with a cough.

The sandwiches themselves were, well, mediocre. At first I thought they were skimping on the fillings, but then I realized that you could order as many different kinds of fillings as you wanted. I just didn’t know what to order, and neither did Krista. But that’s not her job, I guess. Or is it? However, I did feel like they skimped on the meat.

The bread was good though. It was almost like a focaccia. XPRS Deli had a good selection, as well. But yesterday, Mrs. Mingus went back. The sandwiches were made by another person, who did not skimp with the fillings. The bread was dry, however, “crumbling apart”, she said.

One extremely minor thing that kind of bothered me was that the onions were diced, not sliced. The way vegetables are cut really does make a difference. Texture is all-important in cuisine. The tomatoes were tiny little chunks, too. Not the thick slices in the pictures on the menu.

I hope the owners read this, I can imagine one of them looking like Ned Stark. “Subway’s coming,” he mutters to himself. If XPRS Deli wants to survive, more attention needs to be paid to freshness, variety and consistency. In addition to porkbeef, maybe also serve realbeef. And garlic cheese! That would be awesome on a Subway-style sandwich. Also oil and vinegar.

I hope XPRS Deli doesn’t lose its head. Estonian integration to the West is both good and bad. Good for security, bad for local business. There is already McDonald’s in terms of culinary invaders. Local restaurants need to get their acts together. The Americans are coming, and they love processed food. Personally, I don’t love it. I don’t even like it.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Hinkaali Maja

“What is Georgian food like?” my visiting friend asked after we'd ordered lunch at the Hinkaali Maja in Tallinn, across the street from the intercity bus station.
—Well, it's kind of hard to describe, I replied, not sure of how to answer. You know how in the US, Mexican food is easily the most popular, uh, minority cuisine? I ventured.
“Yeah,” he stared at me with mouth open.
—And in the UK, Indian food is the most popular minority cuisine?
“Yeah,” he once again replied.
—That's what Georgian food is here.
“But what's it like?” he pressed, fully aware I'd not answered his question.
—It has a lot of onion in it, I confidently stated.
He raised his eyebrows. “So, it tastes like onion?” he asked. He had been out of the US for only two days, his first trip abroad. Ever. I decided to have some fun.
—Are you familiar with Armenian cuisine?
He shook his head.
—Iranian food? Pakistani? Saudi? Moroccan?
“I've had Moroccan before. It was good.”
—OK, it's nothing like any of that.

My visiting friend—let's call him “Mike”, because he's American—seemed to be undergoing the initial stages of culture shock. Symptoms of this included short-temperedness, an inability to understand why anyone would ever do anything differently than what he was used to, and an unwillingness to blend into the surroundings. Go native. Do like the Romans do in their own city.

“What did you order me?” Mike asked. The small, English menu only contained a portion of the larger, Estonian and Russian menu, so I had ordered what I thought he would like.
—I can't remember. I think it was chackapuli or something similar. The waitress took the menu.
“Well what's in it?” he continued.
—Want me to ask?
He nodded, so I went to go ask the extremely attractive waitress, Krista. Her name wasn't really Krista, but I don't know how to say Krista in Russian. I found her, and she smiled. “You have question?” she asked in basic Estonian.
—Yes, my friend would like to know what he ordered, and I can't remember, I slowly replied in Estonian.
“Your friend not want to order...” she tried to understand.
—It's OK, don't worry about it. I smiled reassuringly and returned to the table.
“So what did you get me?”
—No clue.
“Didn't you ask?”
—I did, but her Estonian wasn't strong enough.
“She doesn't speak Estonian?”
—No, not really, I replied.

I could hear the up-coming conversation, quoted with perfection in my own future vision. Mostly because I had had this conversation so many times before. He would ask why she didn't speak Estonian, if she lived in Estonia. I would explain recent history. He would then judgmentally state with authority that she lives in Estonia, she should learn Estonian. I would say that's a very black-and-white, or rather red-white-and-blue, way of looking at things. He would say something about Mexicans in America. I would fail in attempting to explain to him that that was a very different situation. And we would reach an impasse, neither able to convince the other, each feeling they were right and the other wrong. Although in my heart I knew I was more right than he was. And that was a very blue-black-and-white way of looking at things.

The chackapuli was delicious, according to Mike. He had never tasted anything like it. I explained how it likely had fresh basil, dill, parsley and cilantro as the primary seasonings. I had eaten a late breakfast, so I just got the—surprise, surprise—khinkali, or Georgian dumplings. The khinkali at the Hinkaali Maja were indeed as big as a house. Because that's what the name means. Dumpling House. Each plate had six of the gargantuan Caucasian ravioli—spiced pork and beef wrapped in a floury pasta-like thing that looked like a head of garlic. They were a bit difficult to eat, but they were even more difficult not to finish. What I mean by that is, well, I'm not sure. They were delicious, but there was a lot of food and I didn't want to finish them because I was full. But I didn't want to leave anything on the plate either, because it was so good. The end result? I economized on space in my stomach by not drinking my water, and I finished my plate, thirsty all afternoon as the end result.

This place was better than Tbilisi in Tartu, and a helluva’ lot cheaper too. Larger portions, better quality, and smaller prices. And I think Tbilisi is pretty good. This place is better.

“I find it odd,” Mike suddenly began, “that in a restaurant that serves the cuisine of a country that was recently attacked and invaded by Russia, in a restaurant that is located in a country that was also attacked and invaded by Russia, there is a beautiful woman who speaks no language but Russian.”

My jaw would have dropped at this American's surprising knowledge of history, except I was chewing on a khinkali. “You're not going to let this go, are you?”
—No, Mike said. I mean, I just want to understand. Why can't they just learn Estonian?
“A lot of them do,” I encouragingly answered.
—But she's young. Why didn't she already learn it? Estonia's been free for ten years, now!
“Twenty,” I corrected him.
—It doesn't matter. Her parents have had twenty years, or whatever, to learn the language. You live here, you learn the language. I mean, you did, and you're American. We're not exposed to language like other countries.
I was honestly pretty startled and surprised by Mike's reasoning. “Look. There's a long and complicated history at work here. Russia has more or less 'owned' Estonia at several points in the past. Most Russians here today arrived by order of their Soviet government. They arrived as conquerors, colonizers in a way. Russifiers. And then one day, poof! It's all gone. The Estonians get back their country. Understandably, there is some enmity from the Estonians toward the Russians. But things changed so fast. Most of the Russians—most, mind you—were completely alienated from Estonians. And still are today. Estonians and Russians alike both find themselves in unfamiliar territory. 'Learn my language!' one side shouted at the other, then all of a sudden, 'No, you learn mine!' I mean honestly, everyone wants the same things—peace, security, comfort, and so on—it's just a language. Who cares? They'll communicate in one way or another anyhow.” And I finished my speech.

Mike replied with, “But it's their language. You don't understand what it means to have people in your own country who make up a huge part of your country, but don't want to learn your language. Who refuse, in fact. That's a very American thing for you to say.”

I was confused as to how the tables had been completely turned on me. Was he talking about Mexicans? Or Russians?

But he went on. “Yes, the Russians should learn Estonian. It would be considered a good gesture, to put the past behind them. Another way of looking at it is take advantage of every opportunity you can in life. Learn everything. Including Estonian. And the Estonians on the other hand should be more patient and encouraging too, perhaps. To me, it sounds like because both peoples are in unfamiliar territory, these are your words, because they are both here, in this new situation, maybe they are both just suffering from culture shock. Symptoms of that include always thinking you're right, and not willing to accept new things. When in Rome. That sort of thing.”

I just didn’t reply any more at this point. From his simplified, outside, fresh-from-America point of view, the Russian–Estonian thing was so simple. And from my slightly inside point of view—I mean, I’ve been here for well more than a decade, and I know many, many half Russian–half Estonian families, families for whom this issue is strictly a non-issue—from my point of view, I just couldn’t see it as being more complicated than how Mike described it. Even though I knew it was.