Here’s a short and sweet tribute to my favorite thing: BREAD.
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.
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 thatdidn’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.
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 !
Some days I find myself sitting and scouring the internet for flights to literally ANYWHERE. I love Istanbul for so many reasons, but definitely its location to endless possibilities of weekend trips has its draws. This is exactly how I came across tickets for Northern Cyprus… two tickets total for under $90—SOLD!
I have been wanting to check out Cyprus for a while but all I really knew beforehand was that it was a territory of Turkey and the island was divided into two parts. I’ll be honest, I didn’t do enough research before the flight and even afterwards I found myself desperately ‘googling‘ the history. The short version (please research on your own as it’s quite extensive and I will NOT do it justice for details) is that over hundreds of years Cyprus was inhabited by many civilizations including the Persians, Egyptians, Syrians, Venetians, The Ottoman Empire, and it was once even a British Colony. After many years of conflict between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots, in 1983 the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus came into being for the northern half of the island.
Northern Cyprus is famous for casinos and night life…but I wasn’t really looking for that kind of trip…I wanted something quiet, historical, preferably within reach of ancient ruins. A friend of a friend, who just happened to be a Cypriot herself, told us that what we were looking for could be found in Famagusta, or Gazimağusa in Turkish.
Old City Walls
Lale Mustapha Pasha Mosque
Always trust a local’s advice! Famagusta was exactly the kind of weekend trip destination that I had imagined…complete with ruins, golden sandy beaches, and Shakespeare. According to lore, the setting of Othello is Famagusta’s castle, which you can still see today. Othello’s actual plot and characters are supposedly based on real events from Famagusta when it was under Venetian rule.
Of course, no paradise is easily found. We arrived late from Istanbul and went directly to rent a car. There was the minor detail that in Cyprus, leftover from the days of being a British Colony, the cars drive on the left side of the road! So, after I looked at the guy who gave us our keys and asked “Is it difficult?”(to his complete horror) we were off… my roommate being the one to drive. In this situation the best advice I can give is this: remember always to go LEFT and don’t have your navigator set to ‘walking route’ (oh yeah, we realized that a bit late). The trip took about an hour and a half. We parked at the hotel- jittery and stressed- and went right to sleep.
Hellim and Eggs…
Waking up the next morning, it was like we had been transported in time. I can’t describe how peaceful…only the sounds of the seagulls were audible. We had breakfast at the hotel… cucumbers, tomatoes, bread, jam…very similar to a Turkish breakfast we would get in Istanbul, only with the addition of HELLIM! Hellim, or Haloumi, is salty cheese that is grilled so it’s crispy and also melty/gooey….yessssss. Cyprus is known for their hellim and it was one of the main reasons I wanted to visit.
BEST. JUICE. EVER.
The juice stand…
After eating, we walked down to the main square and saw the 2 churches which were converted into mosques, the old port, Othello’s castle, and climbed up on the city walls. Bougainvillea was blooming everywhere-you could smell the sea and honeysuckle. By Lale Mustapha Pasha Mosque(what used to be St. Nicholas Cathedral) we came upon a woman making fresh squeezed orange pomegranate juice. We each got a glass, sat down, took sips, and nearly cried! I am not exaggerating, that was the best juice of my life. It wasn’t tart or sour, not too sweet… full of flavor. I later learned Cyprus is known for its citrus fruits. We wandered around a bit and then got frappes at the famous pastry shop, Petek Pastanesi…our first of 2 memorable visits to this café.
After our walk, we decided to utilize the car, figuring it would be less nerve-wracking in the daylight. We drove up to Dipkarpaz Beach (known as Golden Beach). This beach is has crystal clear blue water and is very clean because it’s a national park reserve, therefore it’s protected. It’s famous for loggerhead sea turtles and wild donkeys… neither of which we saw…but the drive and the beach were worth it regardless. I’ve never been in water like that. You could see all the way down to your toes…and there were about 6 people on the whole beach including us. We had the whole place to ourselves.
On the drive back from the beach we pulled into the only real cafe we saw along the street. The sign said literally ‘Sea Front Beach Restaurant” with a smaller name below in Greek. Unfortunately I can’t tell you anymore information than this…but it was PERFECTION! We sat on the back terrace and asked if the fish was fresh (to which the look on the waiter’s face was answer enough for us to understand we were stupid to have asked) and we ordered fried calamari and a salad. Apparently the calamari came with french fries and assorted meze and our whole table was filled before our eyes. The calamari is UP THERE for one of the best I have ever eaten… it tasted exactly of the sea. Salty…fresh…crunchy…not greasy. The meze they brought out were pickled beets, hummus, tahini hummus (or so we thought), and olives. The fries were also incredible…hand cut, not greasy at all, and I suspect they were double fried. And… if there was ever a doubt that the seafood was fresh, while we were eating we watched a man spear a stingray right in front of us and bring it up to the restaurant…yup, that happened.
We drove back to Famagusta and walked around some more before dinner. Dinner was good. The food was delicious and actually there was so much food that we had to tell the waiter to please not continue bringing out food. But…the atmosphere wasn’t one I would repeat. There was a woman singing very loud karaoke music and halfway through dinner a belly dancer appeared and danced on every table. However, just on the food alone, it was a good example of the style of food in this part of Cyprus. The restaurants are ‘meze restaurants’ serving menus that change daily with different cold and hot mezes that come one after another in a never-ending food parade to your table. Our favorite thing was again the tahini hummus which we had at the seafood beach place for lunch. We asked about it and learned it wasn’t hummus. It was just TAHINI. It was literally tahini paste with lemon stirred in… so we ate 2 giant tubs of sesame paste… and it was absolutely amazing…fluffy, creamy, tart, a nuttiness and richness of flavor… and mildly shocking that such depth of flavor can come from 2 ingredients.
The next day we woke up, had breakfast, revisited our juice stand, and went for visit number 2 to Petek Pastanesi. We were on a mission: ice cream. We had been told that this place was famous for KESME MARAŞ DONDURMA. This kind of ice cream is traditional Turkish ice cream that has mastic added to it so that it is CHEWEY and NOT REALLY MELTABLE. Yes. The ice cream doesn’t melt. Also, the word ‘kesme’ means ‘cut’. This ice cream is made in a block, where the waiters cut off a slice of it, and then you eat it using a knife and fork. We ordered vanilla and pistachio. As much as I love pistachio, I had a bit of food envy over my roommate’s vanilla. Mine was delicious– saturated with pistachios, creamy and nutty– but my roommate’s was that kind of dreamy creamy ice cream texture. It’s a nice way to eat ice cream as it’s not often you can sit and spend time to savor it before it melts, making this extra special.
Afterwards we packed up our stuff and drove to the Salamis Ruins. Salamis dates back to the 11th Century and at one time was one of the most important ports of Cyprus. I’ve been fortunate enough to see lots of ruins and this one is seriously IMPRESSIVE. First of all, it’s enormous, with a massive amphitheatre that you can climb all over and get views of the sea from. Second…there’s no one there! At the most there were 10 people while we were there. It was really something to just be wandering around left alone with stones thousands of years old.
We left Salamis and headed back to the airport. We passed some roadside cafés overlooking the beach along the way. Unfortunately I forgot to write down the name of this place. It had a similar menu to the other cafés and also served various meze…but this time we went for the stuffed grilled squid. Wow. It wasn’t rubbery, it was soft and melted in your mouth like seafood butter…the only seasonings it had were lemon and parsley. It was stuffed with tomatoes and cheese…I wasn’t sure but I thought the cheese was hellim, just softly melted instead of grilled. It was served yet again with french fries…to which I can’t complain about. It was a perfect end to such a memorable trip.
Considering I really had no idea where I was going, Cyprus ended up being a place that I feel deserves much more exploration and is somewhere that I know I’ll make a habit of going back to. After all, it takes me less time to fly to Cyprus than to take a taxi from my house to the airport!
One of the 1st posts that I wrote here on GirlMeetsTurkey was about my trip 3 years prior to Antakya, or ‘Antioch‘ in English… in Turkey’s southeastern region of Hatay. That post focused primarily on my love affair with the way they make hummus and also gave some background history. If you want to check that out, click the link here: Hummus Along the Silk Road…
This past fall some friends and I returned to Antakya for a short weekend getaway to EAT… of course. We had all been to Antaky previously and had been wanting to get back to this part of Turkey that is really just kind of serenely magically beautiful. The city itself, dating back to Roman times where you can walk among the streets and walls that supposedly the disciples roamed (as Peter and Paul both were recorded being in Antioch), is something truly amazing to experience.
The thing about Antakya that always strikes me is how friendly the people are. There is a feeling of all cultures and religions being accepted here. You will see tour groups bringing people to historic churches that are next door to mosques and synagogues. Aside from the history, the food is also a blend of Turkish and Syrian cooking styles. Different food traditions were transported along the Silk Road and recipes were left and incorporated into the cuisine and then changed to have their own take on that recipe. That’s what I love about this area… there’s a harmony of cultures and beliefs coming together giving this city a general warmth and feeling of generations of people interacting. So here lies the account of a wonderful return back to this historical and charming city BUT most importantly, some of the best food I have ever eaten…
The Catholic Church courtyard pictured above
First things first: BREAKFAST. My love of Turkish breakfast cannot really be competed with. In general, BRUNCH in any country rates highly with me, but Turkish breakfast is really the best. It’s my favorite ritual in terms of Turkish cuisine, and the spread splayed before you at the Antakya Kahvaltı Evi ranks up there as possibly my favorite Turkish breakfast experience of all time. It was THAT good. Just look at the photos. Front and center is a mound of hummus(definitely NOT the typical member of a Turkish breakfast spread, and really a regional treat): creamy dreamy and cloud-like, with tons of tahini and fresh extra virgin olive oil poured on top, spiced with turkish pul biber(hot red pepper) and garnished with pickles. Radiating out from the hummus are different regional cheeses, local black and green olives, tuzlu yoğurt(salted yogurt), cucumbers, tomatoes, spiced cheese wedges, zahter salad(wild thyme with pomegranate), and various spicy and sweet breads. It’s enough to make you weep with joy.
After breakfast (as the very meaning of the Turkish word means ‘coffee after’), a trip to Affan Kahvesi was the natural next step. I absolutely LOVE this coffee shop. I still remember the first time walking inside this building and being told to go see the back courtyard and the sharp intake of my breath as I saw the adorable courtyard covered in ivy vines. While the front shop is reserved for men
playing backgammon all day long, the back garden is my favorite spot. The building itself has been around since 1913 and they still serve their coffee in the glass tulip shaped vials that are usually for tea. They are also famous for a rose flavored electric pink dessert. I’ll be honest, the dessert isn’t my favorite and we were stuffed from breakfast so we skipped it, but the waiter got a lot of fun out of requesting I take a picture of it. So of course, how could I not oblige him?
After coffee we headed to the main local market, or bazaar. This bazaar is really great because it’s one of the only bazaars I’ve been in where you can buy every single house appliance you could ever want and simultaneously get given free samples of every food from every booth as you work your way down the stretch of seller stalls. It puts COSTCO’s samples to shame. One of the big treats in this region is taş kadayıf which is a kind of pancake that is deep-fried and wrapped in a half-moon shape around walnuts or pistachios and soaked in simple syrup.
The last shop on the left side of the bazaar alleyway is a juice shop selling fresh şalgam suyu. Now, this drink is not for everyone, and while I love it, I know many people who despise it. That being said, it (like anything that is naturally fermented) has tons of healthy bacteria and antioxidants. It’s made from black carrots and is fermented with spices added to it. As we ordered it, the man suddenly looked at my friend and I closely and said ‘You came here 3 years ago. You live in Istanbul.’ I was floored. He then proceeded to make us sit down and he insisted we drink our black carrot juice ‘on the house’. He even had his son go over to the bakery across the alley and bring us bread sticks! It was so sweet and just really a touching experience. It’s these small moments like this that make traveling so special and endearing. It was like running into someone from your hometown. Suddenly, here we were, miles away from Istanbul, yet being treated as if we were family members come for a visit.
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After all the sampling through the bazaar and the black carrot juice, we had worked up quite an appetite and decided it was künefe time! This is up there with one of the best things on Earth. However, once you eat it in Antakya, you won’t really be able to eat it anywhere else in Turkey. While its origins are controversial as other countries have similar desserts, Antakya is one of the historic places where this dish began. It’s basically cheese (don’t ask me what kind) encased in layers of shredded wheat and grilled so it gets all melty and gooey and then soaked in simple syrup with ground pistachios garnishing the top. It’s sweet but not too sweet. Salty but not too salty. It’s gooey and crunchy. Imagine the best grilled cheese in all it’s goo and crunch…but a sweet version of it. It’s essential comfort food.
Afterwards, in a food coma, we wandered around the bazaar, buying laurel soap (this is bay leaf to us, but it’s ‘defne’ in Turkish, coming from the Greek ‘daphne’ so named for Daphne, the nymph Apollo tried to chase and who was turned into a tree…which that very tree happens to be in Antakya) and pomegranate syrup, then headed into the old town which is a maze of alleyways with various cafes and restaurants hidden among the walls. The architectural style is that where from the outside, it’s just a line of stone walls, but once you walk through a doorway, you enter a quiet oasis with a big indoor courtyard.
I’m ashamed to admit that I can’t remember the name of where we went for dinner, but every single restaurant in Antakya is good. I mean it. All places serve similar food and the same style of dishes. It’s all delicious. We ordered several of our favorites including Ali Nazik Kebab and Tereyağlı Hummus(buttered hot hummus). Ali Nazik is usually served hot, but in Antakya, is served like a meze and is cold. It’s smoked eggplant mixed with yogurt and garlic with lamb on top. The butter hummus… does it need explaining? Pools of melted butter on top of the tahini cloud pillow of hummus. The addition of butter is truly transformative.
The next day, we woke up and repeated the breakfast extravaganza and set out for our journey around Antakya to see the Moses Tree(a tree that supposedly grew from where Moses rested his staff, the water there is still considered holy) and the Titus Tunnel(built over 2,000 years ago during Roman times to help with the flow of water), walked along the seashore, and headed back into the center of town for our final meal at Konak Antakya. The final meal was more of the same. More Ali Nazik, more peppery cheesy yogurt spreads, and one final hummus with melted butter. Perfection. It was a beautiful weekend…not just for the food (but really it’s SOOO good), but for the experience of the city itself. A city that is history on top of history on top of history and still continuing to grow and pulse with life…something nostaligcally of a different time and yet of today…and a place that will always be special to me.
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!
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!
Each 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!
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.
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 Helvais 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!
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.
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.
One 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.
My next favorite has to be Midye Dolma.
These are steamed mussels that are stuffed with 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!
It’s been quite a hectic few months with the end of another school year, a visit from family, my own visit state-side and now, sitting here in the Istanbul heat, I find myself wishing I were on another holiday…somewhere a bit cooler in temperature and with really amazing FOOD. That place would be Georgia…no, not Atlanta, but the Republic of Georgia. I traveled there this past spring with my friend and her two teenage daughters. I have to say the trip made a lasting impression…kinda fell in love with Tbilisi… might be my new favorite getaway…
I’ve been interested in Georgia for a while, especially after several friends visited and came back praising it. So, here lies one of the many beauties of living in Istanbul: PROXIMITY—Tbilisi is only 2 and half hours by plane. I was lucky enough that my friend could speak one of the languages spoken in Georgia–a huge help, as there was truthfully quite a language barrier. We had worried that the teenagers would get bored or that there wouldn’t be enough to sight see… and we were (thankfully) completely wrong. As many positive things that I had heard about Georgia, I still was shocked by how completely and utterly charming it was.I definitely feel that there’s enough to explore for at least 5 days or more, but we also took a few side trips to Georgia’s ‘wine country’ for vineyard exploring, and we made the journey up Kazbegi Mountain. The trip honestly could not have felt more out of a fairytale and the country is beautiful, the people are heart-warmingly friendly, and the food is AMAZING: Dumplings for breakfast? Yes, thank you. I’ll be staying.
The first part of the trip was spent solely exploring Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. We walked around the old town and got completely lost in the small back streets. Locals told us that in Georgian, they call Tbilisi the ‘balcony of Europe’ and it’s not hard to see why. There are Romeo and Juliet-style balconies in every teeny tiny alleyway with wisteria and bougainvillea trailing down in clumps, wildly poking out of windows and cracks in the walls. It’s all very ‘storybook’…although as charming and pretty as everything is, it’s still an old city and one trying to rebuild itself—not only architecturally, but also economically. Georgia only became independent from Russia in 1991 and in a lot of ways is still trying to pick itself up. It certainly does have a lot to offer in terms of tourism, with many museums, hundreds of stunning hill-top Orthodox churches, and pretty little cafes serving their own Georgian wine and lining every sidewalk. For me, the highlights were wandering the streets, heading up to Mtatsminda Park and Pantheon, catching a show at the Rezo Gabriadze Puppet Theatre, and stopping for wine or the stronger ‘cha cha‘ all……day…….long.
My favorite cafe was hidden a bit off the beaten path. Purpur Cafe is in the old town but
back and around a few layers of streets, inside a building that appears at first to be abandoned, but is actually home to this precious cafe on the 2nd floor. It’s a bit pricey-er than most of the other restaurants in town. I honestly wouldn’t suggest it for dinner, but rather something light (cake/coffee)—or if you are like me, treat yourself to a half liter of wine and just enjoy the beautiful setting. I feel it’s pretty fair to say that people go to Purpur for the ambiance. The decor looks like you just walked into an antique store. Every light fixture is different, as are all the tables and chairs, and the china is all adorably mismatched. It’s that kind of ‘absolutely perfect’ that happens when everything isn’t perfect. Each time I was there, the only sounds heared were from Billie Holiday blasting overhead, drowning out any other city noises…a kind of magical transport back through time.
Those 1st few days in Tbilisi, breakfast was usually a large coffee from the Dunkin Donuts on Rustaveli Avenue (Yes, I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s the truth) and then some kind of meat or cheese filled ‘kacapuri‘ from the Good Mood bakery nearby. We would walk and explore all day then go for a long dinner. We decided to check out a place known for dumplings called Zakhar Zakharich. We went once, and this became our favorite place with a tradition of nearly every dinner eaten here. This is not a place for ambiance and is actually dark and a bit noisy. It’s not a fussy place for anyone concerned with presentation, but rather a place to come and just full on EAT—eat more specifically things like ‘kacapuri’ and ‘khinkali‘. ‘Kacapuri’ is a pizza-like dish made of bread and cheese, sometimes with an egg or meat as well. The bread is flaky almost like a southern biscuit and the cheese is melted so that it’s sort of soufle- esque as it all squishes together.
‘Khinkali‘ are the dumplings. These are not dainty little dumplings. These are ginormous, half-the-size-of-your-face dumplings that you actually have to eat by picking up their nubby stems and then biting and quickly sucking out the soup broth inside. It’s juicy and savory and spicy and chewy and a complete total mess…but in the best kind of messy way. The most common filling is meat spiced with garlic and lots of cilantro. We would usually order lots of different things and just share it all- filling the table with various kacapuris and khinkalis and beet salads and roasted pork chops or sausages and roasted vegetables.
A surprising food star turned out to actually be an eggplant dish. Hands down, the khinkali was initially my favorite Georgian food…but by the time the trip was ending, after day in and day out of dumplings, I actually came to love this eggplant dish even better. Yup, eggplant won over dumplings…even I’m shocked! I can’t remember the Georgian name, but it was the only eggplant usually on the menu and it was very thinly sliced roasted eggplant filled with a walnut pesto made of walnuts, garlic, and cilantro and topped with pomegranate seeds. It’s salty and savory but sweet and light and fresh…but filling. Sometimes we would have to order three plates…it was that beloved.
After Tbilisi we hired a private car to drive us to Sighnagi, a town in the Kakheti region
of Georgia. Although debatable, Georgians claim that wine was actually first produced in Georgia dating back to around 4000 BC and that the methods they use today are true to the first style of wine production. All I know is that it’s completely different from anything I’ve ever seen. The wine is produced by placing the grapes inside a giant clay pot, and then burying this pot underground and letting it undergo the whole fermentation process inside this pot. This controls the temperature to get the perfect fermentation. We spent a day being driven all over to various different wineries that showed us the process. We also got to see the ‘cha cha’ process and taste that as well. ‘Cha cha’ is what’s made from the grape leftovers after the wine… and it’s pretty strong stuff. After a few glasses of ‘cha cha‘ everything tasted pretty good to me, but my two favorite wines were definitely the Saperevi(a dark nearly black colored grape), and the Kindzmarauli, (a naturally sweet cherry-like wine). The wine is rich and velvety, but also very easy to drink…as we experienced when our B&B hostess in Sighnagi kept bringing us up her homemade semi-sweet wine every morning for breakfast.
Dumplings and Wine
Looking back, I think those were my truly favorite meals in Georgia: the 2 breakfasts at Temuka B&B in Sighnagi. Each morning, the owner filled our table with homemade ‘kacapuri’ and ‘khinkali’, cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, olives, coffee, fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, homemade ‘paczki‘- a kind of doughnut…and to wash it down with…WINE! Everything was delicious, but more than the taste, I think the fact that this woman opened her home to us and took such pride in sharing her traditions with us was truly the most special part. Sometimes she would sit and speak to my friend, who would translate back everything to me and her daughters. Then later in the evening, after we had gone touring and come back, she would always offer us some of the dinner she had made for her and her husband. One night she made us borscht, a dish I normally think of as Russian, but seems to have roots in many cultures. Hers was bright red and filled with carrots and beets, and tasted of warmth and love and health.
We left Sighnagi and headed back to Tbilisi where we explored more, ate more ‘kacapuri‘ and even more ‘khinkali‘ and took a day trip to the Caucasus Mountains to see St. Gergheti Church. Everything was wonderful, my friend even laughingly joked that for her and her children this was simultaneously ‘the most relaxing and most adventurous trip’ they had ever had. On our last night, we had an early dinner at Zakhar Zakharich, eating all our old favorites (yes, lots of the eggplant) while drinking Kakhetian wine. After dinner, we went to a show at the Rezo Gabriadze Marionette Theatre for the show ‘Marshal De Fantie’s Diamond’. I’ve never seen a marionette puppet show before. I had no idea what to expect…and it was one of the most profound artistic experiences I’ve ever had. I was crying at the end (and it wasn’t sad… it was a comedy) for how beautiful that the messages were. It was thought-provoking for adults and dream-like for kids of all ages. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to Georgia as the show referenced Georgian culture, joking about traditions and food…the absolute best way to hold the memory of this place with me in my heart.
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!
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!
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, rakıis being poured! Rakıis made from distilled grapes and flavored with anise seeds (hence the liquorice flavor). Of course, drinking rakıhas 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 mezeand 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!
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.
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’.