Pul biber stockpile: Mercan Bey high-tails it to the Mısır Çarşısı

And there he is, Mercan Bey, the spice trader from the Arabian peninsula – oh – wait – you can’t see him? That’s right, he’s just a figment of my imagination. Regardless, he orchestrated the purchase of 10 vacuum-packed bags (i.e. TSA-proof) of pul biber (which masquerades in the U.S. as the name “Aleppo pepper”)…enough to last a nuclear war?

As soon as he heard that we were heading out of Istanbul as soon as possible, Mercan Bey went into panic mode.  You may recall that Mercan Bey is a spice trader from the Arabian Peninsula (as I wrote about here) who collects (some say hoards) as many spices as he can during his jaunts around Turkey.

With three fewer weeks to search out interesting new baharat mixtures for mangal mania moments during hurricanes, or pul biber for spice-oil making or teyze-thyme-picking collectives on Bozcaada, Mercan Bey was feeling, well, antsy. He quickly wrapped himself up in a cool white cloth, clambered up the kitchen window and hitched a ride with a spice-friendly pigeon all the way down to the Mısır Çarşısı.

As Mercan Bey commenced to scope out the spice situation, who had the best deals, the most interesting new mixtures, etc., Esma, Karagöz and I were over in Taksim Square, in the midst of a jasmine-Coca-Cola tug of war about the joys and pains of seeing the old and new Istanbuls live and converge, M. was battling the usual bureaucracy, as in the red tape management needed for just about any interaction, just about anywhere in Turkey. It has always seemed to me that this is both an annoyance – but somewhat of a national pride in pastime as well.  See, for example, Istanbul’s Stranger writing the wonderful tale about how she ended up BEATING the red-tape-making-machine otherwise known as TurkCell

Emerging victorious with our revised tickets in hand and a fresh story about the most recalcitrant of Turkish street-level bureaucrats besotted by his charm and twinkle, M. kissed me and pulled me back out into the sunlight.  This had the effect of brushing the tug-of-war swarm aside and dispatching Esma and Karagöz back home to G’s apartment via a trolley-cum-puppet zip line..

“I know,” M. said with a glimmer of glee in his hell-bent on cheering me up eyes, “we need to pick up Mercan Bey on the way home – and perhaps get some lunch at Hamdi (see Istanbul Eats’ review of this once-hole-in-the-wall now larger-than-life eatery here) to boot. We can eat pistachio kebap and pistachio baklava in honor of your Father since he wasn’t able to make a trip here…”

Mercan Bey’s dark and smoky playground consists of hanging sponges to swing on, grabbing swingy snacks of dried peppers and squash from rustling hangers while avoiding getting impaled on the burnished brass domes of lovely, tourist-friendly spice cannisters such as these in the Egyptian Spice Market (Photo by Liz Cameron)

And although the kind thought did result in more than one tear, off we went, to drown our sorrows in the best of Turkish meze and kebap, in honor of my Father, who sadly never got the chance to taste those tastes on M.’s home soil.  Mercan Bey finally tore himself away from the market and met us on the Hamdi patio, and as the afternoon namaz rang out, he sprinkled some pul biber over my food, softly offering gentle words for my Father, who he respected a great deal, even if my Father was spice-averse…”Şerefe baba” (To your honor, Father)

On the 8th day of Christmas: Meet Mercan, the spice trader from Arabia

Meet Mercan, itinerant trader from the Arabian Peninsula - here he is sneaking up to me to let me know of a new spice in the market - he is my major spice and zest for life supplier (image thanks to the Asian Shadow Theatre Exhibition's Flikr photostream)

So, we move from yesterday’s introduction to Zenne, the former dancing girl now in love with her fragrant herbal garden, to an introduction to Mercan Bey (pronounced mehr-jahn bey), a spice trader from the Arabian peninsula. Now, I only became aware of the presence of the Karagoz shadow puppets in my mind in 2004, when M. and I got into a relationship, and I started to experience confusion in our cross-cultural relationship. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that Mercan Bey has been with me for a lot longer than that. As a tradesman well-versed in spice, he peddles everything from tumeric to cassia cinnamon and cayenne pepper. I have loved spice since I was small – and embraced every chance I had to lean more – there was always a tiny voice in my head, encouraging me to do so.

I can remember climbing up on the salmon-colored wooden chair painted by my mother in order to step onto the harvest golden-colored linoleum counter so that I could gingerly step over to open the spice cabinet, twirling the triple-decker lazy susan around to see what treasures lay there. I had my share of sour moments, such as when I tried the alluringly-titled “cream of tartar” or got too much nutmeg up my nose or had the bitter taste of too-old marjoram under my tongue for the rest of the day…but I had many wonderful discoveries as well – cinammon, ginger, clove, thyme, basil, oregano and many more…

All my life, I think Mercan Bey has been tracking me. It first started with the first snack I cooked for my parents, aptly named “Italian toast,” which was essentially buttered bread sprinkled with “Italian seasonings” which was a blend of green herbs – marjoram, thyme, oregano and basil. It continued on with the trick my friend’s Swedish mother taught me when I had trouble sleeping, namely, to grind up a bit of cardamom and add it to warm milk. Later in my life, it was the lady who hired me to work in her herb and spice shop, and taught me to make spice necklaces by soaking allspice, star anise, cardamom and cinnamon until it was soft enough to pierce. The romanticism of this was seductive to an imaginative, old-fashioned yet difference-seeking “tween.”

And yet later, it was my Bohemian neighbor, who taught me about how a tiny bit of cayenne adds a whole lot to the standard white sauce my Grandma taught me to cook out of flour and butter. My mother, an adventurous on and off vegetarian was especially adventurous, and put a lot of coriander into her infamous tofu-nomeat-balls, get it? This spice exploration went on for years and years, through the introduction of ajwan by a boyfriend referred to by my father as “the old Indian,” asafoetida as the mystery ingredient used in much southern food, as revealed by a friend of a friend from New Orleans and finally to pul biber (the sweet to hot, non-bitter red pepper) and island-grown kekik (thyme) introduced to me by my own beloved M. once in Turkey for the first time. It is my belief that all of this spice exploration is at the silent hand of Mercan Bey, who loves nothing more than to show up with a new spice for me to sample.

An image of the stereotypically myopic American care of this link at the School Library Journal

Mercan Bey is the rarely-present puppet (due to his ramblings along the spice route in Anatolia) who encourages me to seek broader horizons, explore the unknown, to embrace the experience of difference and learn as much about the world as possible. While he is rarely physically present, he is ever-present in my mind as I seek to do my best to break out of the myopic ectoplasm of my American upbringing to look beyond. I love Mercan Bey and am grateful to him for his part in opening my eyes to the rest of the world.