‘Kala Christougenna’ and Welcome to 2019…

It’s officially 2019 and where exactly did the time go?  Wasn’t it just summer?  I began writing this post just after Christmas and then again on holiday in Morocco (next post to follow), and I’m back in Istanbul and can’t believe it’s going to be Spring in the blink of an eye.  This is a bit late, but here’s a post to wish you all Happy Holidays and Happy New Year…

It’s become a tradition (5 years and counting…) for me to spend the Christmas holidays in Greece.  With only 2 days off work, I can’t exactly fly home to the states, and with Athens being only a 45 minute flight from Istanbul, it’s my favorite ‘destination’ Christmas spot. Click here if you would like to read last year’s Athens Christmas Post where I explain my usual hangouts:‘Kalá Christoúgenna’, Happy Holidays from Athens…

This year was filled with returns to many of the same places; however, also new discoveries and one of the best Christmas Eve Dinners of my entire life.

Leaving Istanbul and starting the journey, I settled into my seat and 20 minutes later was wished Merry Christmas and given my first melomakarona by the Aegean Air hostess…these cookies are my FAVORITE thing about Greek Christmas.  This one was just an ‘airplane’ melomakarona but I savored it and felt the spirit of all things Christmas and cinnamon and honey enter my soul. Melomakarona are 1 of the 2 Christmas cookies served during the holidays…and I’m obsessed.  They are semolina cookies with orange, cinnamon, clove and honey. They taste like Christmas in one perfect bite. Yes.

In previous years we stayed in either Monastiraki, Plaka, or Thiseo (Filopappos Hill) and I have to say those neighborhoods are still my favorite as they are in easy walking proximity to the center and main sites.  However, we booked late and found a place in Kerameikos. I’ll be totally honest that I didn’t adore this particular neighborhood and it was further than I realized, but because Athens is always full of Christmas miracles, our Air Bnb ended up on the very street with 2 restaurants a friend had suggested. We weren’t close to the Acropolis, but we were still near GREAT FOOD.

My favorite things… Lukumades

The first day was spent returning to our usual places.  We walked directly to Meliartos for a cheese pie (flaky, savory, chewy) and then immediately afterwards walked up the street to Lukumades for an order of lukumades (the name of a mini doughnut) and a double cappuccino.  I LOVE LUKUMADES. LOVE. I also LOVE that a double cappuccino is under 2 euro. Lukumades are traditional doughnuts that remind me more of a beignet than anything else. They are very similar to Turkish lokma, although lokma are soaked in sugar syrup and lukumades are bready and fried like beignets.  They are served plain or with toppings drizzled over, or filled with various flavors like chocolate and cream.

All smiles after the climb up for the view…

We over-did it a bit from having two breakfasts and needed a good walk afterwards.  We headed to the antiques area of the Plaka and then continued walking over to climb on the rocks and get a view of the Acropolis.  As many times as I’ve been to Athens, gazing at the Acropolis never gets old. We climbed down and wandered back through the Plaka then up to Anafiotika.  This is my favorite part of Athens. It’s literally underneath the Acropolis and right above the Plaka…and it’s the most charming place. Bougainvillea (yes even in December) drapes over tiny alleyways like curtains and treacherously uneven steps lead up and around corners.  Cute little cafes and restaurants dot the pathways and it’s easy to lose yourself here for the whole day. We discovered this by accident on our 1st Athens trip, and now it’s our favorite place to wander and also the home of some of our favorite spots to eat. Our number 1 place in this area: Klepsidra Cafe.  

When the waitress came to tell us the daily specials, we apologized but told her we didn’t need to see the menu.  We were ready! We ordered the Klepsidra salad, the roasted lamb with lemon sauce, and an extra order of their house potatoes (with a liter of the house table wine of course).  

We finished it off with rakomelo: tsipouro (Greek grain alcohol from grapes) warmed up with honey and cloves (basically the same idea as mulled wine, only its like ‘mulled super strong alcohol’).

Rakomelo

It was Saturday night and we wanted to check out the bar scene a bit.  Athens is fun at Christmas because it’s not touristy and is instead just filled with locals who have come ‘home’ to spend time with their families.  We walked by Little Kook to soak in the ambiance and feel the tacky crazy Christmas lights, but we didn’t bother waiting in the line. Next, we headed to Juan Rodriguez, a cocktail bar with a mini-carousel twirling around and antiques lining the walls.  At about midnight we made the trek back to our Air Bnb neighborhood and had one last drink at The Blue Parrot, where locals were dancing under a huge flourescent christmas tree. An hour later, we were on the street in search of FOOD.  Of course.  Here lies a Christmas Miracle: ELVIS SOUVLAKI. Thank you Mr. Presley, cheers to the King. Elvis Souvlaki stays open all night and serves only souvlaki: Greek meet on skewers.  This souvlaki at Elvis is truly something special. We ordered the pork belly skewers and were deeply saddened to realize we should have ordered about 20 skewers.  It was love at first bite. The pork belly was crispy and charred on the edges but soft and basically like you were eating meat butter that melted in your mouth. I nearly wept it was so good.

Waking up the next morning, still dreaming of the previous night’s dessert of pork belly, we were sad to find that Elvis wouldn’t open until much later in the afternoon.  And then…another Christmas miracle! As we were walking in to the center, we stumbled upon a Sunday market…with pork belly souvlaki being sold on the street. Pork belly for breakfast.  Is there a better way to start the day?

We wandered the hipster Psiri district and stopped for ice cream at Kokkion, a new discovery.  While it was no Italain gelato to be sure, it was a tasty little cup of ice cream. I got the flavor: molasses, bergamot, and marscarpone.  It was creamy and fragrant…truly a flavor I had never experienced before (and that’s saying a lot).  I will definitely return here to this little ice cream place.

Kokkion

On this day, we actually walked up and then down Lycabettus hill, firing up our appetite and needed a ‘snack’ before dinner.  We stopped in at Savvas Kebab, our fav place for pork gyros and ordered what we thought was a pre-dinner snack. What was served to us was an embarrassingly over-sized portion of pork and potato chips.  We couldn’t even eat a third of the meal.  Best place for gyros in town for the price, plus, the rooftop view of the Acropolis is pretty great.

We walked off the pork (sort of) and ended up at City Zen Bar for another view of the Acropolis and an over-priced cocktail (tip: definitely go here for the view, but just order wine).

City Zen View

Then, it was time for midnight rakomelo and Lukumades-because Lukumades stays open 24 hours (again, Christmas miracles all abounding) and we discovered a ‘Christmas flavor special’ called the ‘melomakarona lukumades’.  I can’t explain my joy. Seriously. I may have actually jumped up and squealed with delight upon this discovery. My two most favorite things about Greek Christmas combined into 1 single dessert: a lukumades doughnut filled with cream and topped with honey, cinnamon, and crumbled melomakarona cookies.  THE. BEST. EVER.

Needing to walk off the lukumades, we wandered again, and found ourselves led by the sounds of guitar and traditional music to a small hole-in-the-wall place called Taki 13. We sat down and ordered what we thought (wrong again) would be some small meze to snack on and listen to the music. I don’t even know why at this point we were surpsied, when the table was filled to the edges with fava(served warm and in a literal bowl), tzatziki, and grilled feta.  We washed it down with more rakomelo and toasted to Athens and Christmas miracles big and small. Yamas!

Pretty much heaven: Lukumades topped with melomakarona…

The next day, back to Lukumades for breakfast: coffee and the melomakarona special. Then we wandered around and decided to do something we had never done before-take the tram out to the coast.  We figured we should see another side of Athens. Long story short: you don’t need to see this side of Athens if you’re pressed on time. It took us over an hour of walking to find the tram which we then just rode back.  Feeling disappointed about our seaside fail we decided to try our luck at a restaurant very close to our Air Bnb that a friend had recommended: Seychelles.

Christmas. Miracle. Again.

Thank you my dear friends (you know who you are E + P) I am forever indebted to you both for this recommendation.  I ate one of the best meals of my life. Seychelles may actually have been life changing. Christmas Eve dinner… one to remember.

We ordered the roasted beet salad, french fries, the papardelle pasta with kavourma and goat cheese, and the slow cooked pork belly with cherry glaze.  The beet salad was served with a spicy tangy cheese and carrot puree with cinnamon. It was sweet and salty and a bit bitter…just really different.  Then came the pasta…perfectly al dente and rich from the meat sauce ragu and dusted with cheese.  It kind of tasted like a roast beef stew over top of pasta…decadent.  Then came the fries and the pork belly. Dear God. The skin of the pork belly was crunchy to a near candied texture and with the cherry glaze on top tasted almost like you were eating a pork jolly rancher (this may sound odd but go with me here, it was amazing), then the pork belly itself was fatty and gooey and melty… just phenomenal.  The fries were crunchy and coated with thyme and salt…a great tool for soaking up the pork juices and fatty pork belly butter. At the end of the meal, I had that feeling I always get after Thanksgiving: full to the point of bursting and also sadness that it’s over. That’s the test of a truly good meal: If you feel like crying because you don’t know when you will eat such amazingness again.

On our final day in Athens, before returning back to Istanbul, we woke up and grabbed pastries from Meliartos and went back up to Anafiatika to Yiasemi Cafe, one of the nicest places to sit and have coffee -or in our case rakomelo- alongside a plate of melomakarona.

We left Yiasemi and headed into the center and ducked in to ‘A for Athens’ cafe to say goodbye with a drink and a final view of the Acropolis.  ‘A for Athens’ never disappoints and even though its cocktails are still overpriced, theirs are worth the splurge.  Feeling full on Christmas cookies and with drinks in hand overlooking the Acropolis, it may not have been the Christmas of memories and of my childhood, but it was a beautiful Christmas and one filled with good company, good food, and as always, great adventures.

Goodbye Athens, see you in April with Mom xx

Bologna: Where the GELATO is a literal life-changing experience…

 

I’ve done it again and taken a loooong hiatus from here. With the start of a new teaching year (and embarking upon an online master’s program), somehow I woke up this week and realized that next week is Halloween…and just how did that happen???? This summer was spent with visits ‘home’ to America, then returning ‘home’ to Istanbul– but not without adventures in between.  This is the 1st of a few posts thinking back to summer trips…

After returning home from America, my roommate and I had planned a trip to Tbilisi (one of my fav places, read about it here if you want:Georgia On My Mind…) but through some kind of cosmic mishap or divine intervention, our flight was cancelled and with the refund we were offered a ‘same price’ flight to Italy.  SOLD!

 

Before moving to Istanbul, my life’s dream was actually to live in Italy and I went so far as to even get a degree in Italian language alongside my other degrees.  Obviously that dream evolved and led me to where I am now, but it’s never ended my love affair with Italy and all of my adventures that took place there in my twenties when I briefly lived there.  Through most of those adventures, my best friend was also there, and we spent days traipsing through the Italian countryside eating gelato after gelato.  I remember back then my best friend saying she wanted to have a gelaterria.  As we would taste each swirled scoop, she would compare this one to that one and this flavor to the next.  At the time it seemed like a sort or game or untouchable dream as we ate and ate.

As much time as I spent in Italy years ago, I had never been to Bologna…a completely magical city.  It’s quiet.  Everyone rides bikes.  It has porticos and nearly every street is red or terra-cotta orange.  It’s so picturesque you want to swoon.   It’s also known throughout Italy as ‘La Grassa”, which translates literally to the ‘The Fat One’ because of THE FOOD!!

If you want to eat the best pasta and gelato of your entire life, GO THERE.  GO NOW.  JUST GET ON A PLANE.  ARRIVE.  EAT.  BE FULFILLED FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.

Upon arrival in Bologna we found a cute local cafe by our apartment.  We were the only non-Italians in there and it was filled with little old men and over-sized bowls of pasta.  You always know a place is good if it’s filled with old people and the decor isn’t fussy. Trattoria Amedeo in Porta Saragozza is a fantastic little restaurant, serving old school favorites and not needing to modernize them.  Why change a good thing?

 

As pictured above, I ordered the Linguine Al Ragu (the closest thing you get to what we call ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’ in the states, only… that doesn’t actually exist in Italy).  It’s probably the most traditional dish of Bologna and is perfectly buttery al dente linguine covered in a thick meat sauce.  Everything is perfectly seasoned and melts in your mouth.  My friend ordered to ravioli con burro e salvia (butter and sage). So simple, just 3 ingredients: cheese, butter, and sage-yet completely complex in flavor.  We ate here at least 2 more times and every time it was a sure bet for just good perfectly made pasta.

 

We also began the ‘Gelato Journey’.  We started out at Cremeria Santo Stefano, then, no exaggeration, after finishing the gelato we walked over to Sorbetto Castiglione and for round 2.  Both gelaterias produced the creamiest gelato and the most intense flavors I’d ever eaten.  It was hard to choose between the two and we decided we would have to keep comparing a few  more times.  My favorite flavor at Santo Stefano was the pistachhio salata (salted pistachio) and at Castiglione I loved the ‘dulce emma’ which had ricotta with fig jam and candied almonds.

 

I think back to those 1st few days in Bologna and it was just magical.  After stuffing ourselves with good food we would walk around and explore the tiny alleyways, then head to Piazza Maggiore for an aperitivo (aperol spritz thank you!) on the square, looking out at the rows of chairs lined up for the open air cinema that played every night.

 

We took several side trips: one returning to where I had lived and studied abroad, one to visit great friends who will always remain like family outside of Florence, and then several to the surrounding towns outside of Bologna.

 

The most surprising side trip was our trip to Dozza– a walled Medieval hilltop town which in recent years local artists have begun painting murals all over the walls and is famed for having one of the best regional restaurants as well as a regional food and wine enoteca.

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Ristorante la Scuderia is worth the hassle of figuring out how to get to Dozza (regional train to Imola, then taxi for 25 minutes).  This restaurant is kind of like a little piece of paradise.  Of course, in typical fashion, we proceeded to order everything on the menu without realizing that there was a certain way in which we were supposed to order our courses –thoroughly confusing the waiter in the process.  When the cheese plate filled with homemade fig preserves came out before the pasta and the waiter presented it to us with a terrified look written all over his face, we understood our mistake.  However, he was so kind about it  so we went with the flow and began our meal of: a regional cheese and jam plate, fried zucchini sticks, fried polenta sticks with creamy cheese, and ravioli with butter and sage.  All paired with a robust Sangiovese red wine… of course.  It.  WAS.  AMAZING.

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img_3804After eating, we went to have a look at the Enoteca, which is located in the old dungeon of the Dozza Castle.  To our delight, we found that the Enoteca was basically a gigantic wine cellar…with wine on tap to taste!  YES.  On. Tap.  You give the nice man a form of identity which he keeps at the register, then he hands you a credit card.  You take this credit card over to the wine taps and press ‘fill’.  For each wine you taste, the card is charged and then when you pay at the end you get your ID back.  It’s quite possibly my new favorite place/activity on Earth.

We enjoyed this experience so much that it resulted in us buying 5 bottles of wine…not bothering to think about how in the world we would get the said wine home.  The cliffs notes version of that end of the story is that we finally got that wine nearly 2 months later and nothing had broken –miraculously!

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Our fav’s were all red and all Sangiovese or Sangiovese blends: Impetuoso, Crepe, and the best wine I’ve ever had-Olmatello Reserve

We also headed to Modena for a quick day trip to check out the city and see if we could find Bloom Gelateria which is becoming very trendy for its vegan and non-dairy flavors.  I have to say, in the years it’s been since I studied and lived in Italy, the amount of vegetarian and vegan options has dramatically increased.

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Bloom Gelateria in Moda:  Pictured here, vegan cherry sorbet, vegan almond and mango

The vegan flavors at Bloom really shocked me.  They were creamy, rich, dense, and didn’t taste at all different from normal gelato…and in fact were much better than some ‘normal’ gelato I’ve had in other parts of Italy.

 

Back in Bologna, we had a final gelato from Santo Stefano. On that last night, I had a combo of lemon sorbet, raspberry sorbet, and something called ‘cafe bianco’ (white coffee).  To this day, I’ can’t tell you what was in the white coffee flavor, but it was awesome.  It was like a mellowed out milky coffee ice cream.  It was sweet and rich and creamy and it was the perfect way to end this spur of the moment Italian trip… or… at least I thought it was the ending…

That whole week we were in Italy, something was happening to my friend.  She was still tasting and comparing gelato and dreaming up new flavor profiles, only this time she kept saying “I WANT to do this.”  So, here we are, it’s almost November, and you may have already guessed it, but YES— at this very moment my friend is on a plane returning from a month long study at Bologna’s finest Gelato Training School: Carpigiani.  This is how dreams come true... take an idea and keep going, because they ARE reachable!

 

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2 weekends ago, I found myself back in Bologna to visit my friend while she’s on her new incredible journey.  The weekend was spent with many trips back to Santo Stefano and even another trek out to Dozza for La Scuderia and the Wine Cellar Paradise.  This time at La Scuderia, fried porcini (again paired with Sangiovese table wine) were the star.  Of course we had to have the ravioli con burro e salvia again as well as the buccotini with pork cheek and carmelized onions.

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Granita Goodness!

The ‘return’ trip back to Bologna also featured a new gelato experience: granitas from Galliera 49.  As soon as I arrived in Bologna, my friend was like ‘Good!  You’re here!  You have to eat this granita I discovered while walking.’  Never one to turn down a food opportunity, of course I obliged and soon we found ourselves with a full cup of granita (italian ice).  Mine: mandolra and cioccolato con arancia (almond and chocolate orange).  Imagine marzipan melted down to a marshmallow fluff consistency and Christmas orange chocolate smushed together in a cup.  That’s what I ate.

On the last day there we walked all over Bologna exploring the antiques market set up in Piazza Santo Stefano and of course eating a final gelato at Cremeria Santo Stefano.  After all my years of gelato eating and all the gelaterias I’ve been to, this one really is the ABSOLUTE BEST.  The ‘gusto del mese’ (flavor of the month) was lemon-saffron-almond.  I ordered it wanting to try something different.  What I got wasn’t different at all but the most mouth watering nostalgic experience.  It tasted exactly like a southern iced lemon cookie.  It took me back to years growing up in the hot summers of the south and eating the lemon cookies.  I actually kinda got emotional while eating this flavor, totally lost in memories.  That’s the beauty of food…when it’s done right, it transports you through time and you are able to connect to past experiences.

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Linguine al Ragu con vino… da certo!

For dinner we needed to eat quickly so I could catch my flight so we went to a place on Via Pratello.  Pasta Fresca di Valeria Naldi serves up traditional pasta and is beloved by locals.  You go in and choose from the menu of the day then stand in line and wait for yours to be cooked upon order.  Once you get your little package, all the cafes and bars don’t mind if you sit down and order wine or snacks and eat your pasta there.  The street was packed full of people at cafes and I realized that everyone was eating pasta from Valeria Naldi.  Era perfetto.  I went for the classic linguine al ragu as it was the best way to say ‘bye to Bologna.  A glass of wine, fresh home made pasta, and in the company of my best friend after a weekend of gelato sampling and hearing all about what she’d learned at school= a moment to cherish forever.

Cheers Bologna, fino alla prossima volta.

 

 

 

Gaziantep Baklava : Tale of joy and sorrows…

This post is the follow-up to my previous one about my trek to Gaziantep, a city in Southeastern Turkey famed for Turkish cuisine.  That post focuses on savory meals like kebabs—- so if you haven’t checked that one you can read it here: Gaziantep: Into the land of the kebab

There are two major desserts in Gaziantep: Katmer and Baklava.

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Katmer

Katmer is made by taking a piece of hand rolled and stretched yufka (the Turkish version of phyllo dough, made with olive oil instead of butter) and filling it with a thick layer of ground pistachios and kaymak (Turkish clotted cream) then baked in the oven until everything gets a bit melty inside and the outside is flaky and golden brown.  The best Katmer Salon is Zekeriya Usta. The Katmer are as big as a large pizza…huge, enough for 4 people. That’s why…even though we were in fact 4 people…we always ordered 2 of them. Of course.

Katmer3Katmer4They are I think my favorite Turkish dessert…well…actually that’s a hard call, but they are up there on my list. They are sweet but not too sweet. They taste really nutty from the pistachios and are a bit salty… but the cream balances them out to be more mellow.  Think of like a flaky croissant type dough exterior with nuts and cream inside all gooey and drippy.  Mind you, when i say ‘cream’ this is not to be confused with pastry cream or sweet cream that has sugar added to it.  This is just fresh thick curdled cream…milky and rich. Over the course of our 2 day trip we ate 7 katmers. Yes. We did.  This is true.  I am not ashamed.

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Simit Katmer

Also on this trip, for the first time ever we sought out the Simit Katmer…a rolled version of katmer, found at the famed Akşam Simit Katmer Salon.  This is made from nearly the exact same ingredients but instead of laying the yufka down into a flat square, it’s rolled up into a ring, imitating the Turkish bread ring called ‘Simit’.  The rolled style gives it more crunch on the outside with more squishy softness inside…like how with a cinnamon roll the inside is soft and gooey (and usually the best part, who cares about the outside right???). My friends still preferred the original katmer best but I dunno…I was having a hard time (and still am) making a choice. They are both so good…and while similar are so different in texture.

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Baklava at Imam Çağdaş….looooook at the pistachios……..

Aside from it’s call to fame for spicy kebabs Gaziantep is also, according to lore, the ‘birthplace’ of baklava.  Now this is quite a controversial statement as baklava is fought over between many cultures and cuisines.  Not being one to want to enter into food politics, especially something that has been argued for hundreds of years, here is what I do know: In Turkey, it’s known that the style and traditional way of making baklava came from Gaziantep.  Regardless of where the tradition began, the level of deliciousness of Gaziantep baklava cannot be negated. Baklava can be found all over Turkey and there are many famous shops in Istanbul claiming to have ‘Gaziantep Baklava’. Really it is always good and I can’t say that I’ve ever had ‘bad’ baklava.  Can you go wrong with dough, nuts and sugar? But there are different levels of just how good the baklava can be. In Istanbul, the best baklava place is hands down Karaköy Güllüoğlü, who state they use the ‘traditional Gaziantep recipe and art of baklava making’. Therefore, when you are actually in Gaziantep, the quality and level of baklava is so good it’s mind-blowing.  

Each piece is stuffed bursting open with pistachios, turning the little dough packages green in color.  In Istanbul, to get the quality with that amount of pure pistachios and as large of a piece of baklava, you would pay maybe 3 times as much as what you pay in Gaziantep. There are of course famed places and people who will argue with you into the hours of the night about which Gaziantep Baklava Bakery is ‘The Best in Gaziantep’. There are people who only buy from their particular stores and won’t step foot into any other. Baklava in Gaziantep is so famous and beloved that in the more popular shops, entire walls of baklava will actually sell out completely each night, packed in vacuum sealed boxes and taken by the kilo home to eat or put onto buses or in suitcases on planes, bound for future gifts to people who live outside the city.

Bak6As you read this, are you starting to slowly comprehend now what I was alluding to in my previous post about the ‘Baklava tale of woes’ ?  I am trying to hint subtly at the fact that baklava stores DO sell out of baklava. And that’s what makes my trip a tragic comedy.  You see, if you haven’t guessed it, the stores (yes plural, stores) DID sell out. But even more tragic: it was my fault.

Locals may argue over which Baklava Salon is THE BEST, but a usual favorite is Koçak.  I also, having been to Gaziantep several times, firmly believe that Koçak is in fact THE BEST. So, fast forward to the Sunday evening the night of our flight.  We had already (thankfully) had a feast of baklava at Imam Çağdaş the night before.  Imam Çağdaş really doesn’t do anything wrong, and their baklava is amazing.  It’s a close second to Koçak…only Koçak is just a tiny bit better. So anyways, it’s Sunday, we have a few hours before we need to head to the airport, and all of us in our travel group have dreams of bringing baklava home with us.  For some of us it was for work, some for ourselves, and for one person for her boyfriend’s grandmother who requested it.

We arrived at the nearest Koçak…a small store only showing a few of the baklava styles. I didn’t see my favorite style on display and when we inquired we were told they only had the ‘traditional’ left.  There’s nothing wrong with the traditional, in fact, with nothing to compare it to, you would think it’s so good it’s a crime. But I HAD TASTED others before and I wanted the other style. Plus, I don’t know what came over me. I just didn’t believe that this famous store, with so many locations, didn’t have their other styles.

The waiter promised us that even at their other stores they also didn’t have anything but the traditional, that they were all sold out.  I didn’t believe him. I could not be told. So…with a stubbornness I had not realized I possessed, after we all ate one piece of traditional baklava, the square one with pistachios, I made us all get up and walk over to the other Koçak.  

As we neared the building, we saw tour buses lining the sidewalk. We then saw people with open suitcases in the parking lot stuffing gigantic boxes of baklava into these suitcases. Then a man from the Koçak store came out and very pleasantly smiled and said ‘I’m so sorry. All the baklava is gone. It’s all finished.”

Yes.  The whole store.  

We had no baklava for work.  Worse, we had no baklava for the friend’s boyfriend’s grandma.

So, we walked back to the store we had just left, determined to get boxes of the traditional I had turned my nose up at.  And what did we find? As we walked up the steps, the very waiter who had told me to buy the baklava from there looked at us with deepy pity as he said ‘It’s all gone.  The people after you bought the last of it.’

It was cruel twist of fate.

SO, we jumped in a taxi and had the driver speed us to Imam Çağdaş to buy their baklava…as I said, it’s a close second.  Only…as we entered the store…the wall filled with thousands of squares of baklava normally… was… EMPTY.

They too were sold out.  

At this point, I felt like the worst person on Earth.  My friends found all of this hilarious and were laughing and becoming hysterical.  They are truly good human beings. I will never forget their kindness because, truth be told, I’m not sure I would have been laughing if the tables were turned.  We eventutally did find some baklava to take to the boyfriend’s grandmother…but it was still an eye opening moment.  It was a valuable lesson in life about myself and about food.  Who knew the whole town sold out of baklava after 7 p.m. ?  Who knew that busloads of people would buy busloads of this delicacy?  Can I blame them?  Absolutely not.  I would have done the same if my luggage weren’t only 8 kilograms because we bought the cheap flights.

But here’s the biggest lesson I learned, a metaphor applicable to life in general: when you see baklava, get it and eat it while you can, enjoy it in the moment and don’t waste time walking to the other stores (or just believe the waiter when he’s trying to caution you that they are selling out).

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The one piece of ‘traditional’ baklava from Koçak

Gaziantep: Into the land of the kebab…

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Gaziantep Backstreets

How do you write about one of the best if not THE BEST food experiences of a cuisine? It could easily be argued that every experience I write about here I call ‘one of the best’.  While that may be true–as I do love food– the dishes from Gaziantep really stand out to me as some of the most exceptional representations of Turkish cuisine.  This is what immediately comes to mind when I think of Turkish food….my favorite style as it strangely makes me feel at home.  It’s heavy comfort food: kebabs, meat, spices, lots of bread, and sugary sweets.  It’s wildly different from what I grew up eating in the states and yet oddly familiar. Gaziantep food reminds me of being at a big family dinner: eating food that you kind of want to hug.

Located in Southeastern Turkey, Gaziantep is famously home to some of the most beloved Turkish dishes.  When people say they are going to Gaziantep, the assumption among everyone is that they are going there for one thing: TO EAT. I know people who have flown down in the morning, eaten at just one restaurant, and flown back in the evening. Yes…it’s that important of a culinary destination.  Gaziantep is famous for being the birthplace of the kebab (in general) and also very controversially of baklava for sweets. The food is known for being heavy, spicy, and not fit for vegetarians.

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Hot Peppers!!

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Wandering the neighborhoods…

My latest trip to Antep was for exactly the sole purpose of eating.  I had been a few years back, making this trip my 4th of 5th (I honestly lost count) and when the opportunity arose for a food trip with friends, I jumped on it…imagine that.  This trip, while only 2 days, was filled with so many food memories that it’s impossible to make just one post.

I’ve decided to split it up into main course and dessert: my tragic escapade in baklava hunting will come later in a follow-up post.

We began our trip at my favorite coffee place, conveniently next door to our hotel this time around.  Kır Kahvesi pictured above isn’t as old or as famous as Tahmis Kahvesi (which is in all the guidebooks being as it’s dated from 1638), but it’s dearer to my heart. I genuinely feel that the coffee is better but also, the decor is just for lack of a better word, quaint.  There are red and blue stained glass windows and the whole experience makes you feel like you are sitting inside a candy house. I could spend hours in there drinking coffee after coffee…but alas, I was with other travelers so we moved along to the bazaar.

Wandering the Bazaar of Gaziantep is a feast for the eyes in itself.  Many of the products from Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar are actually made by craftsmen in Gaziantep, so while there you get the opportunity to see the artists at work.  Antep is also where most of Turkey’s spices are produced: pul biber, isot, dried eggplant and peppers to be used for dolma, tomato paste and red pepper paste in giant vats that you buy by the kilo.

kutnu1.jpgTraditional textiles called ‘kutnu’ are also made in Gaziantep.  Half cotton and half silk, woven on a loom…these fabrics are soft and have a shiny glittering sheen to them because of how the silk is spun. In the past I’ve bought everything in sight– fabric that I have been told were actually tablecloths that I bought and used as scarves and shawls.

Gaz5Through the maze of the bazaar you may turn the corner and find yourself in the Tütün Hanı.  On Saturday nights the middle courtyard is filled with locals coming to smoke nargile and listen to live music.  Before the music kicks off, in the daytime the shops around the central courtyard are open and there are beautiful antique textiles and kilims.  It takes a bit of searching through piles of forgotten and dusty fabrics but can be really worth it in the end.

After exploring the bazaar (with a short visit to gorge ourselves on Katmer… a pistachio cream pillow from heaven which I’ll go further into detail with in my follow-up post about dessert), we stumbled across a Chickpea Wrap Street Vendor. I’ve never seen this before in any of my prior travels and it was amazing. We found the street vendor as all street vendors are usually found: by noticing a giant circle of people and going over to investigate. In the center of this circle was a man serving up spiced chickpeas with parsley, onions, peppers and tomatoes on fluffy pita bread.  It was delicious… savory, smoky, very spicy, but also fresh because the chickpea and parsley was very “salad-esque”. We knew we would hit the kebabs hard at dinner, so this was the perfect mid-day snack… and still very filling.  

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Ali Nazik in the center being devoured…

Gaz13We walked around more, observing neighborhood football games and getting lost in the stone alleyways before heading on to DINNER which in Gazinatep MUST be had at İmam Çağdaş…the most famous restaurant.  It’s always packed full but you can always get a table. However, if you want the full meal complete with dessert, don’t go too late as they do actually sell out of baklava (foreshadowing of my baklava tale of woes).  We ordered 2 Ali Nazik Kebabs, a mixed kebab, a few lahmacun , and finished with baklava of course. I had forgotten how in Gaziantep, when you order kebab they also bring out hot peppers, onions, parsley, and sometimes radishes and spiced potatoes to garnish your kebab.  They also never leave you without fluffy pita-like bread.

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Ali Nazik in all it’s glory… meat floating on top of the eggplant yogurt puree

The star of dinner was the Ali Nazik Kebab.  This kebab, the first time I ever tasted it years ago on my first trip, brought me to actual tears. It’s made of spicy ground lamb with lots of garlic and grilled on skewers. They then place the meat into a bed of smoked eggplant that has been mashed and pureed with yogurt, more garlic, and lemon.  It’s dusted with a heavy sprinkling of hot red pepper (turkish pul biber) and olive oil. It’s amazing. It’s rich and velvety. It’s spicy and smoky. It’s buttery. It’s salty. It’s comforting.  It tastes nothing like Thanksgiving cornbread dressing but it totally reminds of that exact feeling.  Although the flavors are entirely different, it’s that kind of dish that transports you back through time to a moment of eating a special meal…It’s my all time favorite kebab…EVER.

Here’s the thing: they make this in other Turkish cities. I have ordered it from various restaurants ‘claiming’ to be from Gaziantep... places that I trust. But this dish is not the same. It is only this mouth-wateringly-good when it’s made in Gaziantep.  I don’t know why… I can’t understand it.  The ingredients are the same.  It’s just not the same.  But isn’t that the way you feel about Thanksgiving dinner?  If your grandmother doesn’t make the meal, it doesn’t taste like anything does it?  Sometimes you have to go to the source.  This one dish alone sets İmam Çağdaş at such a high-caliber as it is culinary genius.  I’ve never tasted anything like it anywhere else.  And yet, it tastes of home.  One is not enough to share–you will want your own.

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Çiğer on the grill…

We left the restaurant full and practically ready to burst.  The next day we wandered the back streets and the bazaar again, had more katmer (in the next post) and for lunch I ran into a shop for a Çiğer kebab.  I love çiğer.  Love love love love.  It’s liver and onions: only they grill the liver so that the outside gets charred and crunchy.  Then they add lemon juice and hot red pepper and place it on fluffy bread and add parsley and onions on top. It’s your grandma’s liver and onions, another comfort food, only amped up about 50% to something char-grilled and spicy.  It still has that metallic tang to it as with all liver dishes, but the lemon juice and parsley help to mask it a bit.  I dunno…to be perfectly honest, I could eat normal liver and onions all the time and I’ve always loved it.  Just this version is EXTRA YUMMY.  It’s different from the fried liver that I’ve written about before and it’s very spicy…lots of red pepper dry rubbed before grilling. 

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Beyran… ‘meat soup’ to cure anything

For dinner, we found a kebab place recommended by a friend.  It was really good and I’m ashamed that I can’t find the name of it anywhere.  But really: ALL KEBAB PLACES IN GAZIANTEP ARE DELICIOUS as here is where the kebab really began, thus existing as a true art form. We started the meal with a bowl of Beyran Çorba, which is a spicy lamb soup only made in Gaziantep except for a few places in Istanbul (but you have to seek it out).  It was very tasty with lots of garlic.  I firmly believe the broth alone of this soup will cure the flu…like being a kid and needing chicken noodle.  Again: comforting. 

We also got a mixed kebab. For the kebab they filled the table with all sorts of spreads and vegetables: cucumber yogurt dip, pickled cabbage, radishes with spices and lemon, spicy roasted potatoes, çiğ köfte (a spiced bulgur ‘meatball’ that was once made with raw meat but now not anymore), sliced white raw onions, hot peppers and roka (wild peppery arugula).  All of those are meant for garnishing the kebab, depending on if you want to make small wraps using the veggies and meat or just if you want to snack on the veggies to balance out the heat of the kebab (because it’s quite spicy).  Kebab places in Istanbul don’t seem to bring out the extra garnishing free of cost and plentiful.  It’s really a Gaziantep treat.

 

We finished dinner and went for a walk to go and buy our final baklava before heading to the airport.  It was a short trip, with some of the best food dishes I’ve had in years.  It was also just nice to be in this part of Turkey…a quieter city still full of history and with tradition.  A place where you don’t feel hassled to bargain for prices as you see the craftsmen busily at work, a place where you can literally taste the artistry of food and a place that connects you to memories through food.

It’s that time of year…

                          Here’s a short and sweet tribute to my favorite thing:  BREAD.

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Since childhood, my favorite foods have revolved around bread–my grandmother’s southern biscuits…fresh out of the oven or the next day sliced in half and toasted…the best things on EARTH.  Who doesn’t adore a good frozen dinner roll?  What’s a hamburger without a good bun to support it?  When I lived in Italy, I became obsessed with ciabatta and focaccia and all sorts of croissants (il cornetto con marmellata to be exact).

So here I am in Turkey and it’s the holy month of Ramadan, or Ramazan in Turkish.  This coming Wednesday marks the eve of the holiday which lasts through Saturday to signal the end of Ramadan where people have been fasting during the day.  This culminates in a big holiday known here as Şeker Bayram or Sugar Feast/Holiday, where the elderly are honoured by the youth.  Children traditionally go door to door and wish their elders a ‘Happy Bayram’, and receive candy and sweets in return.

But, this month is also when the BEST BREAD IN THE UNIVERSE is made.  During Ramadan, as a kind of special celebration, this bread is made as a traditional food to break the fast with.  It’s made with yeast and is pretty calorie dense, as well as being shaped in a large circle…about the size of a medium pizza disc to give you a comparison.  The top of the bread has a triangular indentation pattern.  These indentations make it easy to tear or rip off pieces of the pide into chunks.  It’s easy to understand why this is a great food to break the fast with.  It’s heavy, filling, and sharable among the whole family.

Ramazan Pide is not just bread.  It surpasses what you think of as bread and transcends into its own food group.  It’s dense and chewey…but light and fluffy.  The outside is crispy, has a golden glow to it and is usually decorated with nigella seeds.  When it’s right out of the oven, it actually melts in your mouth.  Not as in the expression ‘it melts in your mouth’ but as in the reality of ‘it’s so soft and fresh’ that it melts.  It’s divine.  It’s not usually made outside of the Ramadan time period (although a few bakeries do make it year round) so that’s why it’s extra special.  Here in Turkey, bread is always good.  I have to say it’s a bread culture and they know what they are doing…But this bread… it’s truly something beyond.

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How many times can you honestly say something is so good that you have to change your route home to avoid the temptation?  My love for Ramazan Pide is so great that I’ve literally had to choose routes home after work that didn’t involve going past bakeries This is because at the time of day I’m coming home from work, the pide’s are being pulled from the ovens.  You can smell them blocks away, the scent secretly pulling you into the shops.  If I didn’t stop myself, I could eat an entire pide every day…alone.  Eat it plain.  With olive oil.  Eat it with labne (a kind of cream cheese) and tomatoes.  It’s a paradox.  I have to avoid the bakeries so that I don’t buy a pide every day…and yet…if I don’t eat the pide it will go away at the end of the month, not to be found for another year.

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A meal prepared by my close friend, served ‘family style’ and with Ramazan pide in the basket…the pide already torn and eaten by the time I photographed!

It’s part of the beauty of this culture.  It’s a traditional food originally for this special month, but it’s beloved and consumed by all.  Many people who aren’t fasting will also tell you they look forward to when they can start to smell the Ramazan pide wafting from the bakeries and that they can’t wait to buy several and place them on their table.  In Turkish culture, bread is something sacred, something to be respected and enjoyed, something to have at your table with every meal.  Ramazan pide is the ultimate bread, bringing people together.

…………To everyone celebrating, herkese iyi bayramlar !

Weekend Getaway: Edirne and Ciğer…

Life always seems to turn a bit upside down when the new school year starts.  Summer vacation is always a whirlwind of going ‘home’ to the states and experiencing brief reverse culture shock, trying to see everyone, not being able to see everyone, and returning ‘home’ to Istanbul where you are suddenly thrown back into everything full force.

Things generally never get any easier once the school year begins either.  I can say that now things are wonderful and going smoothly, but the first few weeks of school are always critical.  You don’t know your students yet–likewise they don’t know you– and you have to tread lightly so that you can slowly start to build trust and ensure that things are going to be ‘ok’ for the rest of the year.  Not easy.

Let’s add to this being in a foreign country… in a city with a population 2 times that of NYC… and oh yeah, let’s not forget the language barrier too….

By the end of October, I needed a ‘mini-vaca’…. somewhere green and quiet… I needed to get out of the city…and so…to Edirne I went!

 

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Along the main street…

Edirne is just 3 hours north of Istanbul by bus and sits so close to the Bulgarian border that my phone didn’t know where it was for the full 2 days.  Its location is right at the intersection where the borders of Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria meet.  Ten minutes on one side of Edirne you can pass over to Bulgaria, while ten minutes in the opposite direction leads you to Greece.  In comparison to the sprawling urban tangle that is Istanbul, Edirne is utterly quaint.  It gives the feeling of a small village.  There are old wooden houses, green rolling hills, decorative fountains down the main street, and people selling homemade jam, pickles and vinegar. There were peppers strung up on thread and hanging out to dry like curtains in the sun, and peppers sun-bathing on the ground.  There were even giant orange pumpkins!  This is monumental as I’ve never seen orange pumpkins in Turkey–only the green-ish exterior ones pictured below.  There were even a few (but just a handful) trees with leaves changing color. Finally, I could experience Fall!Edirne_2

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Orange Pumpkins (next to the usual gray/green ones)…

Edirne_12Each day I woke up and started by treating myself to breakfast.  In the fields along the river are outdoor cafes serving village breakfasts, ‘köy kahvaltı,’ where they fill your table with traditional Turkish breakfast, a spread of cheeses, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggs, olives, peppers, and various other things.  It doesn’t matter which cafe you choose, they are all more or less the same, similarly priced, and all delicious.

This was only my 2nd trip to Edirne over 6 years living in Turkey, and I spent the time walking around, taking in the fresh air, and stuffing my face with fried liver.  Yes.  That’s right.  Fried Liver.  In Turkish, it’s called ‘Tava Ciğer’, and it alone is worth the 3 hour bus ride to Edirne.  In fact, Edirne is really famous for 3 things: fried liver, oil wrestling (yup, exactly what you are imagining… but I missed the festival), and some of the most beautiful mosques by famed architect Mimar Sinan.  Whenever you mention Edirne, the first thing out of people’s mouths is usually ‘Did you eat the ciğer?‘…. Oh yes I did!  

 

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Tava Ciğer in all its glory…

Tava Ciğer, (pronounced jee-air), in my honest opinion, should really be considered a delicacy.  In general, I have always liked liver and onions and am not squeamish in the least about it, but this style of liver is the best I’ve ever eaten in my life.  After having this version of your old ‘liver and onions classic’, you won’t be able to eat it any other way. I think that the meat itself is one of the reasons why the liver is so flavorful.  It’s made from lamb’s liver instead of beef, and it’s rich and strong and velvety.  The liver is sliced paper-thin and then fried in oil.  It’s served straight out of the pan and onto a plate of sliced onions and fiery dried hot red peppers.  Sometimes another hot pepper sauce is served alongside hunks of crusty french bread as well.  The meat tastes like butter…like you are eating salty, slightly crispy, velvety rich butter.  It’s soft and tender, not tough at all… and it just melts in your mouth.  The perfect bite is to take a slice of the liver, put a few onions on top, and slather it with a dab of the pepper sauce… finish by tearing off a chunk of bread to help with the heat of the peppers.  With the added condiments, the taste is still like butter…but with more crunch and spice.  There’s no extra seasoning; there are no fancy tricks being played.  It’s just meat and onions…and it’s incredible.

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Peynir Helva

Aside from the fried liver, there’s not much by way of famed cuisine in Edirne apart from a few sweets.  These two desserts, while not my all time favorites, are definitely interesting and can only be found near and around Edirne.  Those are the Peynir Helva and the Hayrabolu Peynir Tatlı.  Peynir Helva is made from cow’s milk cheese (the texture is like mozzarella) where it is heated and boiled until it gets stringy…then flour and sugar are added and stirred to it.  It’s a bit like a chewy sweet cheesy porridge.

 

The Hayrabolu Peynir Tatlı is also made with cheese.  However, this one has cheese inside of semolina that is baked golden and then soaked in simple syrup.  It’s served with tahini sauce drizzled over top and sprinkled with nuts.  This one plays more with sweet and savory and with textures.  It’s cake-y and bread-pudding-like, with its spongy cheesy center…and the tahini adds a nice bitterness.  I couldn’t eat these every day (as with the ciğer you would have to fight me to keep me away) but they are satisfying in that it’s nice to have something sweet after all the saltiness of the liver.

After stuffing myself with fried liver all weekend, slowly savoring breakfast spreads that spilled off the tables, strolling through the little streets, and going in and out of every beautiful mosque and gazing at the tiles, Edirne revived me enough to head back to the hustle and bustle of city life.  After all, it’s only 3 hours away…that’s nothing for a journey when there’s ciğer involved!

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Selimiye Mosque designed by Mimar Sinan

 

Reminiscing Over Summer “Street” Food…

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Istanbul’s Buyukada (one of the Prince’s Islands) in late June

It’s officially FALL everywhere in the world and surely some of you out there are already planning Halloween costumes…but today…in going through photos of this past summer, I found myself really wanting a few local summertime snacks.  You see up until a week and a half ago, it still very much felt like the dead of summer here in Istanbul…  97 degrees ‘dead of summer’ to be exact.  There was a moment when I wondered if fall would ever come to Istanbul…or if I would be doomed to deal with my 1 hour daily commute sweating to death in the humidity.  Then right when I had given up all hope, the weather drastically dropped, and I got the flu.  Typical.  As much as I welcomed  and desperately wanted this weather change, it happened overnight without leaving me time to properly prepare for the food change.  My neighborhood markets stock only seasonal items.  In just one day, nearly all summer foods were gone from the shelves . So now, let me take you back just a bit to the start of summer in Istanbul and my favorite snacks that helped me survive.

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When I think of Istanbul in the summer, I think of three things: the sea, fish and cold beer.  It’s usually so hot outside that the only thing I want to do is sit somewhere with a nice seaside view, drink something cold and eat something light.  This can easily be accomplished here in Istanbul as seafood is such a huge part of the culture.  When my brother came to visit last June, he was surprised by this cultural aspect.  He was expecting to eat kebab every day and generally have really heavy food.  He didn’t expect there to be so many fish places.  After thinking about it a bit he looked around and said ‘But you know… it makes sense…there’s water everywhere.’  Precisely! Istanbul is surrounded by the Marmara Sea and has the Bosphorus literally cutting the two sides of the city in half.  In the summer, Istanbul is in its glory (if you can stand the heat) with outdoor seating everywhere.  The Prince’s Islands are also only 50 minutes by ferry and are the perfect day-trip getaway to soak up the sun.  So what do you eat?  Seafood: fried mussels, calamari, octopus salad… and while fall is the true fish season (when markets overfill with huge fat bellied Palamut and Lufer) nothing beats a plate of fried seafood with a beer in the summer.
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balikEkmekOne of my favorite summertime street foods is actually the very first food I ever ate in Turkey.  By the ferry-boat ports, especially over in Eminonu, you can find boats serving up this delicious meal.  Balık Ekmek translates literally to ‘fish bread’… and the simple translation states all that there is to know really.  It’s a sandwich made of fresh grilled fish, covered in raw sliced onions (sometimes with lettuce and tomato-but not always) and stuffed in between a hunk of crusty french bread.  There’s salt and lemon juice that you can squeeze onto your fish  bread… depending on your own taste.  That’s seriously all there is to it.  There’s no sauce, there’s no extra seasoning.  It’s absolutely perfect.  The fish tastes like the sea and is spicy from the onions and tangy from the lemon.  It might be one of the best things I’ve ever eaten and there’s nothing fancy about it.  It doesn’t need to be overstated.  It is exactly what you imagine when you hear those words ‘fish bread’ and in that way it’s probably one of the truest food experiences you’ll have.

 

midyeDolma2My next favorite has to be Midye Dolma.
These are steamed mussels that are stuffed midyeDolmawith spiced rice and served cold with lemon wedges.  When I say ‘spiced rice’ I mean rice that is very similar to what you wold find in a yaprak sarma, or Turkish style stuffed grape leaves.  The rice is seasoned with onion, dill, currants, often times pine nuts, and red pepper and cinnamon.  So it’s hot-spicy and also a bit sweet.  It sounds like a strange combination I know, but somehow it matches perfectly with the salty mussel and then just a squirt of lemon on top.  They are soooooo good that I even don’t know how to describe just how good other than again, so simple and yet so straightforwardly satisfying.  I could easily eat about 30 of them myself and actually have been told that large grown men sometimes compete with each other over who can eat the most midye dolma.  This is definitely a “street” food being that you most often see these in giant trays being prepared and sold on the street.  Several people have also told me that midye dolma originated on the very streets of Istanbul and that other cities copied the idea later… in that case making it a true “Istanbulu” delicacy.  However I haven’t been able to find any real proof of this claim, but I do like the idea that when I’m eating this food, I’m taking part in a time-honoured Istanbul tradition.  And yes, these pair perfectly with an ice cold Efes beer.

After all that salty fried food, how can you not end with something sweet right?  What’s the perfect cure for your sweet tooth…when it’s a million degrees outside…and you need something light? LOKMA !  These are Turkish ‘mini doughnuts’, very similar to Greek loukomades, or Italian zeppole.  In fact, the word ‘lokma’ in Turkish literally means ‘small bite or morsel’ which explains perfectly that these are perfectly bite-sized treats.  The lokma is made from a light, airy batter that is dropped and fried in oil, then the dough balls are soaked in simple syrup.  The outside skin is crunchy and the inside is soft…almost cloud-like and bursting with the sweet syrup.  According to local legend, these doughnuts were created by the Sultan’s cooks to please the royalty of the Ottoman Empire…which is interesting in that today they are mostly served as ‘street’ food and usually considered a kind of fast food.  Something you grab and eat on the go, walking around Istanbul with friends.

For most of the summer, I wandered Istanbul’s streets, taking the time to stop and grab something to eat and sit by the water to watch the sunset.  With the end of summer vacation and having to go back to work, the heat of the summer lost its appeal and I found myself begging for colder days.  Although now, I find myself dreaming of summer again and days with my stuffed mussels and beer overlooking the Bosphorus!

 

Kadı Nimet Balıkçılık…a break from the ordinary…

Coming back from semester holiday, work hit full force.  The big art/drama tournament took place just 3 weeks after school started back up and with that over, it’s been an interesting several weeks to say the least.  Spring usually brings me clarity and a renewed energy…which this year has me thinking of some big changes in the future…as well as mulling over what’s been going on here in Turkey.  Whatever is ahead, for now life goes on as usual and regardless of the day-to-day grind, something I can always count on to fuel my soul is FOOD!

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Center:  ‘mevsim’ (seasonal) salad  Bottom Right and Around:  sea beans(with lemon juice, olive oil and garlic), hot pepper spiced yogurt, fish dolma( sea bass stuffed with pine nuts, herbs and garlic), white cheese with sweet red peppers, and smoked eggplant salad.

So today I am sharing a place that is more of a ‘special occasion’ type place- a place that welcomes you and lifts you up and into a different realm momentarily, and is really all about the ambiance.  Right smack in the hubbub of the crazy and always loud Kadıköy Fish Market, is my favorite place for ‘rakı-balık’, Kadı Nimet Balıkçılık.  It’s a bit more upscale in terms of price and decor, but that’s also why I really love it- sometimes you just need to ‘treat yo self’-if not even for a special occasion but just for YOU.

Eating ‘rakı-balık‘ is not just dinner… it’s an entire cultural experience consisting of two major factors: rakı (liquorice flavored powerfully strong alcohol) and fish (balık).  When you go for ‘rakı-balık’ or if you go to eat at a ‘meyhane’ you are not going to just sit for a quick bite to eat.  Oh no no no.  You will most likely instead spend probably 2 hours (and that’s the short version) or potentially all night eating slowly, ordering course after course, drinking, talking, eating, drinking and talking.  Eating for hours while socializing all evening… what’s not to love about this? This kind of ‘hours on end’ meal centering around light but filling meze and fish is very typical of meyhane restaurant culture.  These are traditional restaurants dating back to the Byzantine Empire that started popping up mostly in seaside areas where tradesmen and merchants would come in to port and have a meal and wine.  This tradition continued into the Ottoman Empire and somewhere during that time(it’s unclear exactly when), rakı replaced wine as the traditional alcohol served, according to lore.

The experience starts with first ordering meze– these are kind of like appetizers in that they come before the main course.  They are typically small little plates served either cold or hot.  They usually feature vegetables in olive oil with yogurt and topped with lots of fresh lemon juice. A few of my favorite are sea beans(super salty and with lots of chopped fresh garlic on top), haydari(thick yogurt with mint and dill),  and patlıcan salatası(smoked eggplant drizzled with lemon and mixed with roasted peppers, tomato and parsley).  After meze you go on to order the mini-main course.  This is usually calamari or a similar small fried fish like hamsi or istavrit (small sardine-like fish from the Black Sea region).  Here you can also order midye dolma which are actually traditional to Istanbul itself and are mussels steamed and mixed with spiced rice and currants, then put back in their shells.  After the mini-main course, it’s time to order the full main course, which is THE FISH.  When I say fish, I mean a whole fish with head and tail attached, waiting for you to pick out all its bones!

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Rakı, with white cheese and melon

If it sounds like a lot of food and a lot of courses, well…it is…but the intention is that you share everything with the people at your table, keeping in with the social theme to this kind of meal.  All food is placed in the center and everyone serves themselves.  The whole time the eating is taking place, rakı is being poured!  Rakı is made from distilled grapes and flavored with anise seeds (hence the liquorice flavor).  Of course, drinking rakı has its own ritual.  There is a specific order as to how one must pour and serve rakı.  You first pour yourself a generous amount, then fill the glass up with water, then last…ALWAYS LAST…add ice.  When you add water to rakı it turns a strange milky color, giving it the nickname ‘lions milk’- the drink of strong ‘lion-like men’.  Yes…they really do say that.  The first time I ever tasted rakı I absolutely despised it.  Now, it’s something that I really enjoy paired with the freshness of the meze and fish.  The liquorice flavor surprisingly pairs really well with the acidity from the lemon in most dishes and it’s good with fruit and cheese…although speaking honestly, it really can be an acquired taste.  Recently a friend of mine came to visit and after one sip of rakı, immediately ordered a different drink…much to the shock of the waiter.  It’s also very very potent stuff.  You aren’t ever supposed to just drink it, but always order it with some food…the purpose I think is that the food helps you not feel so wobbly when you go to stand up at the end of the night!

 

 

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2 Pics Above: fresh swordfish outside the restaurant.  Pic Below: View of the rooftop terrace seating

For all of that, Kadı Nimet is not your typical meyhane… and I don’t even think it qualifies as an actual meyhane. For one thing, due to its casual off-the-street market location, you don’t need to be dressed up to get a seat.  The downstairs rooms have tables out on the street and you can watch the fishermen calling to passersby to buy fresh fish from the restaurant.  I have also bought fish from here and taken it home to cook.  You just choose a fish and then they take it inside, wash it and clean it at the counter.  Here you can sit on the sidewalk with some fried fish and a beer(yes beer is ok, rakı isn’t a must) and relax-not feeling forced to order the full multi-course experience.

 

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Outside the terrace window

However if you want the more upscale feeling and a quieter atmosphere, reserve a table on the rooftop
terrace.  Here, the noise of the crowded streets below float into something momentarily forgotten.  You know that old Drifter’s Song ‘When this ole world starts getting me down, I climb way up to sit up on the roof…’, I can’t really explain it… but sitting up on the rooftop of Kadı Nimet feels exactly how I’ve always imagined I would feel in that moment of the song.  Up there on the roof, if timed right, you can watch the sunset over Kadıköy with a drink in your hand, eating fresh clean food, slowly taking your time to savor it all while chatting with your friends, and then order more, eat more, chat again, and relax.

The prices of Kadı Nimet are reasonable-most fish places serving meze are usually on the pricier side.  I recently ate here with several friends to celebrate both a birthday and an engagement-between the 6 of us we each paid 100 lira.  This might seem like a lot, but keep in mind we had a huge bottle of rakı as well as other drinks, two table salads, maybe 8 meze, 2 orders of calamari and other various fried fish, and 2 large whole fish… all for the equivalent of $35 including tax and tip.  As for the food I really think the meze are the stars…but I could personally just make a meal out of them anytime, any day.  The fish is delicious but very simple.  It’s not much more than just fish…however the beauty in the simplicity is astounding.   It’s freshly caught and clean…it’s not greasy and doesn’t even smell ‘fishy’…just cooked and sprinkled with a bit of salt and served with slices of onion, lemon wedges, and wild arugula (roka).

Of course, it’s a special experience usually reserved for special events… which means you can splurge every now and then…and sometimes that kind of splurge is just really necessary.  Sometimes all you need is good atmosphere, simple food, friends, a drink and a place ‘up on the roof’.

‘Kalá Christoúgenna’, Happy Holidays from Athens…

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Klimataria Taverna and its wine barrel wall…

It’s been a few weeks since my last post, due to the general chaos of everyday life here in Istanbul during the holiday season… which always coincides with the hectic ‘end of term’ moments of teacher life.  It’s about to be semester break for teachers/students and final exams need to be created, given, and graded.  Also this past week, Istanbul had the biggest snowfall in record years. The week before that we had crazy winds and storms and the whole city lost electricity on and off for 4 days.  But… that’s life here in Istanbul…the city which simultaneously steals your heart and at times kicks you to the curb.  It’s not a city for those who love calm and serene environments.  It’s the total opposite, a city that is always pulsing and moving…and yet that’s always where I’ve found the most beauty.

That being said, celebrating the holidays abroad is one of the biggest sacrifices of living here.  It’s not easy.  I miss my family and our own special traditions.  I miss all the cousins running around and my grandmother’s cooking.  I miss the moments that I know I might not get the chance to ever have again.  This year I got two days off for Christmas, and like every year here so far, I chose to get away from Istanbul for a few days.  I’m incredibly fortunate to have my best friend from High School as my roommate…at least we have each other, ‘sisters’ cherishing the holidays together and waving to family via the internet.

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For the past 3 years, Athens, Greece has been my ‘Destination Christmas’ spot and each year it feels more and more like a home away from home.  Athens is simply put, THE BEST.  To be fair I’ve never really spent longer than a few days there and I’ve always gone in the ‘off-season’…but I’ve had nothing but beautiful experiences.  It’s only a 50 minute flight from Istanbul (it takes me longer just to get to the airport!) and unlike other cities that nearly shut down completely for Christmas festivities, Athens is pretty lively throughout. Surprisingly on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day all restaurants are open and you will see families-from grandmas to small children-walking around and then eating out together.  All streets are decorated with colored lights and music plays everywhere.  The most magical part of Athens though is that from within the city center, at almost every vantage point, you just look up and see the Acropolis sitting on the hill… perfection.

img_3360-editedEach year I discover new things but I also have some well trusted favorites in terms of food too.  We stayed at the same hotel as last year which is in the Psirri Neighborhood.  It has become a kind of ‘tradition’ when in Athens to start the day off right by heading to Loukomades Cafe, serving ‘loukomades’ Greek doughnuts and coffee.  I have to be honest and admit that I just go for the coffee.  You can’t beat a perfectly made double cappuccino for 2 Euro!

This trip, like previous ones, was spent wandering around beautiful streets-coffee in hand- and stopping in at cafes for snacks and wine while gazing at the Acropolis. There’s
an area of the Plaka neighborhood, up above the maze of tourist shops, with tiny perfectly picturesque streets sitting literally underneath the Acropolis.  Over the years we sampled most of the teeny little cafes snuggled into the rocky alleyways, and they were all good.  However, there’s one cafe that is such a perfect gem that I really feel I should hoard it as a secret for myself…but… I will tell.

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It’s called Cafe Klepsidra, and it serves roasted potatoes that will make you rethink your life.  I know.  Potatoes.  But seriously… these potatoes are so good you feel like you are eating a rack of lamb.  They must be glazed in some kind of meat stock and are cooked with some peppers, tomatoes, and lots of rosemary.  There’s a kind of salty brine-y flavor as well that I couldn’t figure out.  I think that flavor was a combination of lots of fresh lemon juice and also capers.

Another favorite area of mine is the Psirri district itself.  It’s the ‘bohemian’ section and feels incredibly cozy and friendly.  There is graffiti everywhere and at first glance it can seem a bit dodgy, but then you see that everyone knows each other and there are families and small children out until late at night chatting and strolling through the cafes and shops.

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Proof is in the picture… Oineas Restaurant!

Oineas Restaurant is a really good place to sit and spend some time.  It’s a bit pricier than some of the other places in the same area, but the food is really outstanding.  First of all, I wanted to go back there because of the wine.  Last year I remembered drinking the best white wine there…and of course I didn’t write down the name. This year, I retraced my steps in the name of wine sleuthing and found it!  I still can’t tell you how to pronounce the name, but it went perfectly with our meze of baked feta covered in honey and fava bean puree with caramelized onions and of course a Greek salad filled with huge fruity olives.

Right down the street from Oineas is another great place called Krasopoulio Tou Kokkora.  It’s a tad less expensive and the food is a bit more on the heavy side.  It’s more ‘comfort food style’ but sooooo yummy.  We ordered the house salad and more baked feta, as well as some dolmades (grape leaves).  The salad was OUTSTANDING…lettuce, raisins, feta cheese, onions, mint, sun-dried tomatoes and kalamata olives drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and layered inside a crispy crunchy flatbread shell.  To eat the salad they served it with tongs for the purpose of breaking the bread shell into pieces to be like croutons…genius.

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Krasopoulio Tou Kokkora

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Xmas Earrings

The baked feta and dolmades were delicious and seasoned perfectly.  However, the real star of this restaurant was the atmosphere itself.  It was filled pretty full with locals eating lunch and the owner was bustling from table to table greeting everyone.  At the end of our meal, the owner came by and plopped two desserts and mulled wine on our table as well as two pairs of earrings made from Greek bottle caps.  He said “Everybody needs something for Christmas” with a wink.  It still makes me smile remembering his joy as he wished us happy holidays.  Small things like that are beyond priceless.

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Dessert featuring melomakarona

One of the desserts that we were given at Krasopoulio was the melomakarona cookie.  It’s a special cookie made for the holiday season (in the picture on the far right) out of semolina flour and spiced with orange and cinnamon.  The cookie is baked then soaked in honey and topped with chopped nuts.  They are my new obsession and as soon as I have time, I’m determined to figure out how to make them!  When you eat them, you literally just taste Christmas in one single bite.

img_3450-editedThe highlight of my trip this year though was an adorable new discovery, Little Kook Cafe. It’s also in the Psirri neighborhood and although we were on these very same streets last year, this must not have been open because I definitely would not have forgotten this!  It’s just a little cafe serving cakes and coffee…but they had decked it out to epitomize every Christmas wonderland fantasy!  The street leading up to Little Kook was covered in lights and the exterior featured Santas, trees, and giant nutcrackers!  The inside had Christmas lights and ornaments stuck into every square inch of the wall and hanging from the ceiling.  They had even covered the chandeliers to create a giant lit up bean stalk with ornaments hanging down.  It was like walking into my childhood vision of the North Pole or something.  We went there every night of our trip just to feel the Christmas spirit and to warm our hearts.


On our last day of the trip, before heading to the airport, we headed to a place suggested on TripAdvisor as one of the ‘best tavernas’ that just happened to be not too far from our hotel.  Again in the Psirri neighborhood (but towards the outskirts of it), you can find Klimataria Taverna.  This part of the neighborhood is not the nicest but don’t let that fool you because this place is like stepping back in time away from the rough modern surroundings…and I think it’s now my favorite restaurant that we’ve eaten in.  The building itself is just a shell of walls that connect to an old church.  There’s no actual roof, but just some metal beams and a tin sheet they have created a covering with.  The whole back wall is made out of wine barrels!  There are even barrels stacked on top of seating.  It’s the most charming ambiance… you really feel like you are sitting in a vineyard and having dinner with a Greek family.

img_3707-editedThe food was out of this world good.  On the menu, it seemed simple.  ‘Stuffed peppers’, ‘Greek Salad’, ‘Fava Beans’.  But these were not simple at all as the flavors were rich and complex.  The food had lots of fresh herbs and spices… still clean and elegant and not overpowered by the seasoning, but at another level of flavor intensity.  It’s the kind of place where when you take a bite, you know that these recipes are special.  They are something that someone’s grandmother made and perfected and passed down.  We ordered an assortment of meze that included grilled eggplant, spicy feta cheese, tzatziki, bell peppers stuffed with feta, fava beans with onions, and a Greek salad, along with their house white wine.  Everything was delicious.  Lots of fresh lemon and parsley were splashed over everything, and the spicy feta had crushed red peppers and tomato paste which made it savory and fresh.  The eggplant was the star…smoky and seasoned with garlic, onions, and lots of lemon.

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The grilled eggplant at Klimataria

It was the perfect last meal and way to say ‘goodbye’ to Athens.  For me, food is such an important part of celebrating the holidays.  It’s food that brings everyone together for the purpose of sitting down and sharing.  You are allowed to be indulgent and celebrate being together.  We didn’t get to have dinner with our family, but we definitely indulged in beautiful traditional meals that felt like we were eating a ‘family meal’.  In walking around the city-so full of life and decoration, speckled with families smiling together and restaurants bursting with noisy chatter, it felt like ‘home’ in a sense.  Living abroad, you have to make new traditions and learn to let go a bit of things that are familiar.  Celebrating the holidays in Athens, although never as perfect as it truly would be with family, was very special and made me feel warm and rested-ready to go back ‘home’ to Istanbul and conquer the end of the teaching year!

“Drinking” my way through the winter…

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Mercimek Çorbası at Dürümcü Emmi, Kadıköy

It is FREEZING cold here in Istanbul!  I keep crossing my fingers and praying for snow (really wishing for a snow day), but there’s none in sight-only rain and icy winds on my walk to and from work.  When I get home the only thing I want to do is curl up on the sofa with a huge bowl of soup.  Just something WARM!  Thankfully, Turkey is a culture for soup lovers where it’s a very important part of the daily cuisine.  In southern parts of Turkey, soup is even eaten for breakfast to keep you full and get your morning started right.  At every restaurant it’s on the menu and, in fact, I’ve never been to eat anywhere that didn’t offer soup.  It’s served in most business cafeterias as a daily staple.  It’s even served some places 24 hours a day, feeding the late night crowd on the weekends.

In Turkish, when speaking about soup, you use the verb ‘içmek’- to drink.  So, when you say you will have soup for dinner or you are eating soup, you say ‘çorba içeceğim/çorba içiyorum’  which directly translates to ‘drinking soup’.  I always crack a smile when my students ask me ‘Did you drink the soup today?’.  Actually it makes sense and in many ways, to say ‘drinking soup’ seems more and more correct to me linguistically.  It is in itself a liquid, and in Turkish recipes, it’s usually blended very smoothly with the broth being the star -the perfect dinner for this weather.

When I think back to those first few days upon my arrival years ago in Istanbul, I remember a conversation with a ‘new’ colleague at the time.  She was inviting me to lunch and she said “Oh shall we go for soup?  Soup is so filling here.”  I remember trying not to laugh at this lunch option.  I was never really a soup and salad kind of girl growing up in the states.  But this was a new colleague and I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes.  Although here I was in Turkey… I was ready to run out the door and eat a huge kebab and this girl was inviting me for one of my first meals.  But for soup? Reluctantly I pretended like I was just dying to eat it, we went, and I was pleasantly surprised…as seems to be the trend in my food adventures.  True to her claim, the soup was delicious and also very filling.

 

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Red lentils… main ingredient!

The exact soup I ate on that day was one of the most common and most traditional, the beloved ‘Mercimek Çorba’.  It’s a lentil soup that is hard to describe in any other way than just YUMMY.   I then proceeded to eat this daily (sometimes even twice a day) alternating it with another very common lentil soup, ‘Ezogelin’.  Interestingly enough, these two Turkish soups recall the same memories of comfort food from my childhood an ocean away from these recipes.  It’s that feeling of having something warm on a cold night, being inside and listening to the wind,  and knowing that the holidays are getting close.  However, although the feelings take me back,  I really have never had anything with these same flavors before.  It’s like chicken soup meets vegetable stew and yet also not at all like that.  They are a combination of rich and velvety, with a hint of something exotic, and they taste a bit like a kind of spicy wild rice dish or even a meaty gravy.  Here’s the thing though, aside from the chicken stock (which can be left out), there is no actual meat and so all the heartiness comes just from the lentils and vegetables themselves.

These soups are very affordable, usually around 5-7 turkish lira for a serving.  I got into the habit of just stopping in somewhere on my way home and ‘drinking’ a quick soup- or ordering it online and having it brought to my door (YES!!  That’s a thing!!  A very dangerous thing!!).    My most favorite place in all of Turkey for soup is at Dürümcü Emmi, possibly my favorite restaurant just in general.  They are more famous for other dishes, but the mercimek is not to be overlooked.  I think they use the same garlic-infused-lamb bone-broth that they use for another dish of theirs to be the stock in their mercimek soup. This version is not vegetarian friendly but it is life changing! When you ‘drink’ it, you kind of just want to bottle up the broth and never stop drinking it- it’s so full of salty garlicky goodness! The waiters drizzle a spicy red pepper oil on top and it’s always served with fresh lemon wedges…that little bit of acid to freshen everything up.

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My own Mercimek Soup

Last year, I finally asked a friend (at a table full of colleagues) ‘So is it easy to make?” and I was met with wide-eyed stares.  The answer to my question:  YES-It’s very easy to make.  Also, EVERY person here knows how to make it.  Mercimek Çorba is made using red lentils, onions, carrots, and a potato.  Sautee them, add chicken stock, salt, cumin, a bay leaf and some red pepper and throw in a spoon of rice.  Ezogelin is very similar, just you don’t add the carrot or potato and instead you add tomato paste and some dried mint instead of cumin. Of course, there are different variations as to the amount of stock or lentils or bulgur instead of rice and in typical fashion, I wasn’t really given an exact recipe.  As with many traditional dishes here, it’s such a staple of daily life that none of my friends could even give me a written recipe for it.  They all just dictated how they make it and how they like it.  My actual recipe I use is probably the result (or divine gift) of 3-4 different people who told me tips and tricks.  I tried Ezogelin once before and couldn’t get the exact flavor right until just recently when my friend’s boyfriend shared his recipe.  Through all the variations, one thing remains common, that is the fact that it is TRULY simple yet SO powerfully flavorful!  These two soups will definitely turn you into a heavy ‘drinker’ but one you won’t feel guilty about!
***Read below the picture for recipes is you wish…

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Ezogelin made by me

*Mercimek Çorba (Red Lentil Vegetable Soup):

*2 onions  *2 carrots  *1 large potato  *1 cup washed red lentils  *2 T. white rice
*1 (16 oz.) can veggie broth or chicken stock  *1 bay leaf  *2 tsp. salt  *2 tsp. cumin
*pinch of hot red pepper flakes  *dried mint and lemon wedges to serve

Chop all vegetables and saute them for a few minutes in olive oil (until the onions turn clear).  Add the lentils and rice and sautee them too for about 5 minutes to toast them a bit.  Add in the chicken stock, salt, cumin, red pepper flakes and bay leaf.  Let this come to a boil.  After it boils, turn the heat down low and add 4 cups of water.  Let this slowly simmer until the lentils are tender (20 minutes).  Take out the bay leaf and with a stick blender, puree the soup a bit (optional).
Serve with lemon and dried mint.

*Ezogelin Çorba (Red Lentil Tomato Soup):

*2 onions  *1/2 cup tomato paste *1 (16 oz.) can veggie broth of chicken stock
*1 and 1/2 cups washed red lentils  *1 spoon white rice, washed  *1 spoon bulgur
*2 tsp. salt  *pinch of red pepper flakes  *dried mint (2 tsp. and more for serving)
*lemon wedges for serving

Chop the onions and saute them in olive oil until they become clear but don’t caramelize.  Add the tomato paste to the onions and cook them together for about 5 minutes.  Add the washed lentils, rice and bulgur and saute them together for another 5 minutes.  Next add the chicken stock, salt, and red pepper flakes.  Let this all come to aboil then reduce to low.  Add 4 cups of water and let this all simmer on low for about 20 minutes.
Add the 2 tsp. dried mint at the very end and stir through.  Use a stick blender and puree it before pouring into bowls (optional).
Add more dried mint and lemon wedges to serve.

**General note, as the lentils break down they can stick to the bottom of the pan and burn easily.  Don’t let it simmer on anything but low heat and always re-heat on low.