"That man sounds like he's yelling 'sherbet,'" laughed my friend and photographer, Groovehouse, as we made our way through the crowds at the 4th annual Turkic Cultures and Children's Festival -- or Turkic Fest, for short -- this past Sunday afternoon.
He was referring to a brightly outfitted man with a mustache made for envy, carrying a giant brass canister on his back and dispensing a vivid red liquid from it with a wild cry of "SHARBAAAAAAAT!" each time. The man seemed to show up around every corner, delighting little children and their parents alike with his acrobatic pouring displays of the red liquid inside.
After crossing paths with him so many times, I finally sent Groovehouse over to grab some of the sharbat, which was being dispensed into Styrofoam cups. "Get two!" I told him as I tore off two tickets and handed them off.
"What if we don't like it?" he responded.
"It's just sharbat!" I said. "You'll like it!" And with that, he trotted off.
Sharbat is a beverage that's akin to tea. It's sweet and fragrant and is made by steeping flower petals in water. Houstonians might be more familiar with the Indian version of sharbat made with rose petals, but it's consumed all over the Middle East and Central Asia, as well as down into the Indian subcontinent.
When Groovehouse returned, I was excited to try what looked like the Turkish version of sharbat, şerbet. Excitement quickly turned to an amused sort of disappointment, however, when I realized that the sharbat was really just strawberry Kool-Aid. We drank it anyway, thirsty and happy to suck it down like little kids.
This year's Turkic Fest had the benefit of a beautiful weekend to up its anticipated turnout of 35,000 visitors. Booths held not only foods from Turkey, but from all over the Eastern European and Central Asian regions: Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan were all represented along with Bosnia, Serbia and Herzegovina. Whirling Dervishes and folk singers called out from the main stage as people browsed tents containing calligraphers, painters, potters, weavers and all manner of cooks.
Turquoise Grill and DNR Cafe & Deli were the most popularly represented Houston restaurants of the afternoon. I got an enormous bowl of manti from one of the older ladies in a head scarf at a DNR booth, who seemed delighted that I knew what the little Turkish dumplings were. "They only serve these at Istanbul on Sundays!" I told her.
"Well, today is Sunday, too," she laughed back. "So you haven't made all that much progress."
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Turkish coffee obtained from another DNR booth was strong and rich, although not as hot as I'd hoped for. Any disappointment was offset, however, by the giant square of burma kadayif I ate alongside it. Burma kadayif has absolutely everything I love about Middle Eastern pastries all rolled into one perfect dessert: pistachios, honey, semolina and beautiful, gold-colored strands of shredded wheat on top.
Groovehouse, meanwhile, was enjoying what a man at a DNR tent had been touting as "the best gyro in town!" Neither of us had ever encountered a gyro like this: shredded lamb covered with pearls of bulgur wheat that had been cooked down in tomato and onion, topped with more onions, parsley and plenty of tangy yogurt. As we polished off our meals, I began having serious second thoughts about the list of Top 5 Houston Food Festivals I put together only a month ago. How could I have left off the Turkic Fest?
It's an omission I plan to rectify in the future. But for now, all I could do was enjoy the gorgeous weather and the last of my burma kadayif. And maybe track the sharbat guy down for some more strawberry Kool-Aid.
See more photos from the Turkic Fest in our slideshow.