Monday, May 21, 2012

Late Night Kabobs

One of my former classmates and friends posted the following on his blog.  I loved his vivid description of a cool spring night on the town. So I asked permission to post it here so you could all enjoy.
I remember chatting with a guy from Central Asia when I lived in the States.  He talked about how quiet the U.S. was and how it felt lonely at times due to the lack of people on the streets at any given time.  Only after moving here have I fully comprehended what he must have been experiencing.  Especially with summer just around the corner, I have fully enjoyed cool evenings here and the chance to get outside after a long winter.  Sidewalks are bustling with people late into the evening.   Walking home from a friend's place tonight I was savoring a few minutes to myself.  People leaving a wedding party stood outside a banquet hall.  Men stood in a circle outside a mechanic shop chatting about the VW Santana they were working on, cigerettes glowing in the low streetlights.  New beds of flowers appeared on the curbs tonight; the workers delivering these flowers were eating a late dinner squatting in circles or on ledges along the street.  The strange sounds of dialects I do not speak or understand rose from the midst  migrant workers while just a few feet further I heard a group of men chatting in Kazak, two plump old women in loose fitting head scarves gossiping in Uyghur, and some university students yelled back and forth, bottles of beer in hand as they headed off for  a night of carousing.   Couples strolled by enjoying a leisurely evening walk. Store clerks squatted on the stoops of their shops aimlessly watching traffic as it rolled by, horns blaring occasionally at fearless jaywalkers.  Old men sat on street-side benches chattering away about whatever old men chat about.   Fruit sellers crowded corners of one intersection in particular with their flatbed carts, hawking the last of their day's supply of mangos, bananas, pineapples, and apples.   The smell of fresh, hot nan came from the guys baking bread in open-topped clay ovens.  Smoke from kabob grills wafted the aroma of spiced lamb skewers across my path.  Here it was 10:30pm and my street was more active than any street where I lived in Columbia, SC might have been at noon on any given week day.

As you might guess one of my favorite things about such a scene is the food.  Somehow dinner eluded me tonight.   Lost in thought as I headed home it occurred to me that I was hungry.   Just yesterday I came across a Turkish donar kabob cart that sells a sort of Turkish gyro wrap sort of thing.  Spiced lamb and beef roasted on a spit, then shaved onto a very thin flat bread and topped with slices of cucumber, spicy cabbage, onion, and a yet to be identified sauce.   "Turkish gyro!", I thought.  It was only a few minutes past my house up the street.  With this goal in mind I headed in that direction.  To my great disappointment the cart was not there.  This is the problem with mobile food service.  It's never where you want it to be.  I mean, can we get an app for iPhone that tracks the worldwide movement of mobile food carts? Or maybe I just need to get the number of the guy that owns the cart.  Regardless, my dreams of the prized Turkish gyro came to a swift end.   The story wasn't over, however.

Just a few feet away stood a mobile kabob station.  Unlike that flaky Turkish gyro cart, you can set your clock by this kabob guy.  Night after night he appears sometime after dinner in the same spot.   His business consists of a kabob grill, a table spread with skewers of meat, kidneys, liver, lung, tendon, and a few items I've yet to identify, a fan to blow the smoke off to the side, and a table with stools for his customers to sit at.  Saved by the kabob guy!  Ordering 5 kabobs I sat down and watched with great anticipation as my kabobs got grilled up.  First the skewers went on the grill.  Then salt, cumin, and chili powder were added.  "Do you like it spicy?", the guy asked.  "Yes.  Please add extra spice", I replied.   After a slight pause, having noticed I'd been coughing, the guy kindly added, "You've got a cough.  You had better not eat too much spice.  I'll put less spice."    Though I don't yet completely understand Asian logic about health and what should be eaten when I have to admit I appreciated this complete stranger's gesture of concern.   But enough of that.  Let's get back to my kabobs.  After adding spice, he grabbed a piece of nan in one hand and my kabobs in the other.   Then he wrapped the nan around the kabobs, letting the grease and spice soak into the bread after which he added a bit more cumin and chili.  This was repeated several  times until finally, my late night snack was served up on a metal tray covered in a plastic bag (easier to cover the tray and then dispose of the bag since there is no way to wash dishes).   There are few late night snacks that compare.   Paying for my kabobs I headed back up my street past fruit sellers, kabob grills, and late night strollers.  I see why my friend missed home if his neighborhood was like this one.   This is definitely one scene I'll miss when the time comes for me to head back to the States.

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