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elastic fantastic

Guest Contributor

Food theatrics and Salepi Dondurma.

I don't know about you, but I'm all about the thrills and frills. And culinary theatrics do it for me every time. From that first hit of tableside pyromania (hello Christmas pudding with your halo of fire) to the riotous rituals of roadside cooks... a side order of showmanship? Don't mind if I do.

How I love to sample these bite-sized pleasures, the miniature ceremonies and traditions performed time and again, no-one quite knowing from where they originated. They're eccentric without trying to be. And properly human. Their evocative nature has the power to anchor you into any culture instantly. And on my jaunts through Europe and beyond, I have trifled upon many.

Take for instance the vertiginous pouring of fresh mint tea in Marrakech. Do I want boiling liquid poured from 3 feet above my head into a tiny etched glass? It turns out I do. And my crepes suzette set light inches from my eyes? Flambé away en Francais! The fear of losing an eyebrow merely adds to the holiday drama. And when I spot a super-crazy-fast chapati-maker doing his thing at a street food market, I stand in awe. Cut, knead, fling. Repeat. And when I say 'fling', I mean like a breakneck frisby, aimed with precision at a kitchen hand 15 feet away. A spectacle of well-honed tradition. Only in India.

And from flying chapatis to ice-cream with amazing elastic powers. Upon seeing such a thing I wondered: how on earth has this not reached London? It turns out there are still culinary surprises to discover beyond our great city, and Salepi Dondurma is one of them.

Sold from the street carts and bazaars of Turkey, this indigenous treat is the plaything of men in costumes, whose sole aim is to work their magic on baffled tourists. Rumour has it this super-stretchy ice-cream is so elastic you could even use it as a skipping rope.

Thankfully, the vendors resist the urge to skip rope. Instead they tease the customer with a flamboyant selling ritual. Excitement and customers are drummed up with a rhythmic beating as the vendor bangs his 3 foot spatula against the vats... clang! clang! clang! As people gather and gawp, the game begins. Stabbed, lifted and stretched like pizza dough, the ceremonial trickery performed with this sticky, chewy delicacy continues as it's scooped onto the cone, then theatrically whipped back and forth between vendor and befuddled customer before eventually being relinquished and enjoyed.

The secret to Salepi Dondurma's elastic prowess? The magical ingredient salep - literal translation 'fox testicle'. What? No, not real fox's dooberies (phew), more like a pet name for the powdered bulbs of wild orchids, orchids so rare that the Turkish government has forbidden their export. So if you want a piece of the action, you are Turkey-bound for sure. Such cultural quirkisms slap a smile on my face. Exotic occasions to collect and squirrel away in one's memory, to relive at leisure once back in the humdrum of everyday life. So for cheap thrills and fancy frills, I shout from the rooftops: bring on the culinary theatrics! Up with the curtain, let the show commence, the world is my stage, play on, play on...