Pilaf Files: Island of Secret Microbes

The city from Treasure Island
San Francisco from Treasure Island at dusk.

While my existential fog (this is what I am now calling milder hangovers) only needed some scrambled eggs and orange juice to clear, the rain in the city kept on coming down, painting the bay, the city, the bridge, the cranes and everything that spilled out below my window shades of gunmetal grey and silver. The next morning, however, would require more than orange juice and eggs.

I stood for a few minutes wincing against the wind waiting for my Boris (chowbacca415) and Natasha (guadiori) and their toddler aged daughter to meet me at the rendezvous point at the now infamous Upper Saloon.

With my hands in my pockets, squinting just so, I felt a little like Captain Ramius floating down the Delaware.

Also converging on a man-made island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay from the far-east (okay, San Joaquin Valley), was our very own ace-assassin and pastry maven 99% Bittersweet and her G-man and their three little chefs-in-training.

You see, we were on a mission - infiltrate a prison in a shuttered naval base to meet with an Uzbek to discuss secret formulas.

And eat.


Treasure Island was originally built on the northern shoals of Yerba Buena Island in the San Francisco bay in the 1930s, no doubt part of some socialist "public works" project. The site of the 1939 World's Fair, The Golden Gate International Exhibition, Treasure Island was also leased to Pan-American Airlines for flying boats until the outbreak of World War II, when it was reclaimed by the Federal Government and turned into a naval base.

During the war the base was a major departure point, as well as home to many dangerous and top-secret operations, signals intelligence and nuclear decontamination programs. In a land swap with Pan-America, Mills Field in Millbrae became the new home for San Francisco's airport and the Treasure Island Naval Base continued operations until the late 1990s. It was officially shuttered in 1999.


In the 1970s and 1980s, much of the base had already fallen into disrepair, despite swelling national defense budgets and tough talk from the likes of Nixon and Reagan.

Meanwhile in the Soviet Union, Russian Jews were denied emigration to the West primarily to settle in Europe, the United States or Israel. Soviet leaders, already extremely oppressive of the Jewish population, considered them a significant security risk during the Cold War.

These отказник, or "Refuseniks", were later granted reprieve during Gorbachev's "Glasnost" and "Peristroika" programs and waves of immigrant Soviet Jews flooded out of Soviet countries and into the United States, Israel and Europe.

[ Editor's note: I wonder how many ECHELON triggers are in this post. Hi, folks at the NSA! ]


Lev's Original Kombucha
Kombucha is a fermented tea that has gained a great deal of popularity and even some notoriety of late. The claims of it's health benefits have almost certainly been overstated by many. Lev's Original Kombucha made on Treasure Island allows for some florid prose to introduce the millennia old elixir:
People the world over believe that drinking Kombucha can cure many ailments and prevent major health problems. The recorded history of kombucha dates back well over two thousand years to the Qin Dynasty in China, who called it the “Immortal Health Elixir”.
But the brass tacks of what it is and how it is beneficial comes down to biochemistry:
Our products are raw and un-pasteurized so that all the pro-biotic effects are preserved. Lev’s Original is made from green teas which contain antioxidants that prevent cell damage. Furthermore, all our Kombucha based products contain beneficial acids such as acetic, lactic, and glucuronic acid that can aid in healthy digestion and enhance the body’s normal toxin elimination processes.
That's all well and good, but this isn't a post about Kombucha. It's about pilaf. And yogurt, and farmer's cheese, and sauerkraut and microbes and drinking a little bit too much vodka and celebrating the culture of a Uzbekistan, a former Soviet rival to the United States, on a former military base whose potential purpose would have been to strike against them.


Uzbek Kazan
Kazan, photo by Yakov Weinstein
"Do you know why the pilaf is better when cooked this way," says Lev Kilun motioning towards a steel "kazan", a giant wok like vessel with a heating element underneath that is common in his homeland of Tazhkent, Uzbekistan.

"Because it's so big, so unwieldy that only a true professional would attempt to cook in it."

Two large platters of pilaf are served, more than enough for the 10 adults and half as many children in attendance that rainy Saturday, all cooked in a single vessel over many hours. Surely, cooking in a kazan is not to be taken lightly, even though the food and company were themselves extremely casual.

Uzbekistan, of course, is in Central Asia. The Mongols came through on their horses (and were rebuffed in Afghanistan). Kublai Khan brought Northern and Eastern Asian influence to the region, and probably his successors brought what would eventually become Kombucha with them. Kefir, a Central Asian version of yogurt, is made in Uzbekistan. Strained and cooked it becomes soft, pillow-y farmer's cheese - tart and grassy, rolled in herbs.

The rice used in a Uzbek pilaf would surely be of a local variety, and so in this spirit Lev used a Californian sushi rice. Adding a kick of smoke to the dish were two whole smoked Mexican chiles, and Lev replaced lamb for chicken legs to accommodate everyone's dietary requirements.

Sushi rice, ancho chiles: a sort of multicultural riff on traditional pilaf. There was a certain poetry to it - or maybe I had had a few too many glasses of kvass (or some facsimile of it) and vodka.

Uzbek pilaf and "kvass"
Pilaf, Kvass

"Pro-biotic" bread beer, kvass
The drinking began almost immediately, and while for safety's sake a couple of people bowed out at the beginning, it continued for several hours: shots of chilled vodka at steady intervals, alternating toasts of "na zdrovya" and "lachaim" (and occasionally sneaking in a proclamation unique to certain Cleveland Russians, "za s'lo" - to evil!), bread beer called "kvass" in varying stages of readiness, and kombucha "beer" (green tea beer with gluten free malt, honey, molasses, rye bread and cascade hops) served from a chilled, conditioned keg.

99% Bittersweet, Lev and I discussed strains of yeast: champagne yeast for beer, cider yeast for wine, wine yeast for sake. Mix it, match it...know the rules and break them.

Lev's Original Kombucha's brewmaster, Yakov Weinstein, also of Tazhkent, Uzbekistan originally (by way of Cleveland Heights), would occasionally dart a feigned withering look toward Lev as Lev would describe his various tinkerings.

"I have no idea how much molasses he added," Yakov would complain. "I write everything down, I know exactly what goes in when for how long and at what temperature."

We hope Yakov reverse engineers Lev's hacks to the kvass. It is certainly a product worth re-producing: tart, sweet, with a note of apples, mildly hopped and very drinkable. And yes, "pro-biotic."

"Pro-biotic, this is a made up word," Lev says, leaning over conspiratorially to me, 99% Bittersweet and Chowbacca415. "It just means your food is living, as it should be. Organisms working in concert to each others benefit, this is something science has yet to improve on."

I'll drink to that.


Olive oil, dill, balsamic vinegar, garlic, pomegranate.

Red and green cabbage sauerkraut

Lev's Hot Mustard
A fresh batch of the Best Mustard In The World

Jewish Salsa
"Certain Ethnic" Salsa

Fermented radish sweet slaw
Sweet fermented shredded radish

Farmer's cheese
Farmer's Cheese

Tilapia spread
Tilapia and jalapeños slowly braised in olive oil

Apples, currants and arugula

Pilaf, on "gluten free, compostable" paper plate.


Lev's Original Kombucha


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