Back to Antioch…

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

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Antakya Kahvaltı Evi

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.

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The courtyard at Affan Kahvesi

03C651B8-CC11-41EE-BEA4-3070F0F6F2F6After 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 265D1933-19DE-45CD-B17C-4073ACCEDA55their 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?

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The pink dessert….
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Tha pancakes waiting to be fried…

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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This is where you go…

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.

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KÜNEFE 

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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.

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Tereyağlı Hummus- Konak Restaurant

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!

 

Georgia On My Mind…

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…

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Tbilisi, Georgia

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.

Purpur4My 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.

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Good Mood Bakery, various Kacapuris

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.

Zakhar1Khinkali‘ 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.

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I made these myself once home: walnuts, cilantro, oil, garlic for the pesto!

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

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Homemade Cha Cha

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 Signagi9various 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.

Signagi10Looking 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.

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Rezo Gabriadze Theatre

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.

“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.

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving from Turkey…

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Mashed Potatoes- Green Bean Casserole- Cornbread Dressing-Chickens-Corn Pudding- Biscuits- ‘Sweet Potato’ Casserole

Living so far from home can be very difficult at times, especially during the holiday season.  It’s at these times that I always feel a bit down and nostalgic…reminiscing over family memories and thinking about how now I’m missing out on the new  memories and not being a part of those traditions.  That’s why, of the many things I am thankful for this year, one things that shines above others is my friendship with the group of women I work with-who I truly consider my ‘family’ abroad.  They helped me through many things, taught me how to do my job successfully, called people and translated messages in Turkish, shared vacations together, and  welcomed me with open arms into their homes as a member of their family.  We often joke that we are ‘sisters or like aunts and nieces’, and I have to say that these relationships sometimes make those moments when I am feeling so far from ‘home’ seem not so very far after all.

My roommate and I always try to stick to traditions and honor the holidays.  Every year we have a big Thanksgiving dinner.  Our 1st year we invited nearly everyone we knew and had almost 30 people in our tiny apartment.  Through the years as many of our friends left Turkey and in dealing with increasingly busy work schedules, we have cooked less and less.  This year, Thanksgiving fell on my roommate’s Fall Break from her school and she booked a trip abroad.  I unfortunately did not have a week-long vacation, although I did have Wednesday and Thursday off.  It would be my first big holiday without my roommate and best friend in years, and as much as I would miss her, I still wanted to spend the holiday with ‘family’.

So I invited my colleagues and their kids and told them to come over Thursday during the day as that day was doubly important.  It was not only Thanksgiving, but it was also Teacher’s Day here in Turkey.  In case you haven’t guessed by now, yes…we are teachers!  What better way to celebrate than with a group of teachers, all foreigners like me, with their children, and lots of food?   Many of my other close friends were out of town or at work but this wonderful group was a perfect match for the day.

As I was running in and out of the kitchen trying to balance what was coming out of the oven next and putting my friend’s oldest daughter to work at making the sweet potato casserole topping, and getting out the crayons and coloring books for the little kids I remember looking around and just feeling very happy.  This felt like home.  This felt like being at my grandma’s house with all the little cousins…all the chaos… everyone talking at once …everyone hungry and everyone part of a family.

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My plate… well one of them…

Growing up, my Thanksgiving was usually split every few years between spending it with
my dad’s family in Virginia or driving down to my mom’s family in the deep south.  Whether we made the drive down to Mississippi or not, we still always had several of my grandma’s dishes-my mom’s mom (Big Mama to me).  Even now-so far away- if I am cooking for Thanksgiving I have to make Big Mama’s cornbread dressing.  There’s something so special about it that I almost want to cry when I eat it.  With one bite I remember Thanksgiving and Christmas and being with the whole family- staying up late and talking for hours with my mom and Big Mama, my great grandmother Ella, and my aunts.  I’m sure the men were there somewhere, but my memories always involve the women of the household…and they are always filled with so much love.

But I should also stop the trip down memory lane and keep it real here y’all… making these traditional southern recipes in a foreign country isn’t exactly a piece of pie.  First of all to get a turkey you have to spend a lot of money and pre-order a cooked one.  Then, there’s a small issue with any recipe (and there’s a lot of them) involving celery.  Celery stalks are not valued here-they are thrown away as only celery root is sold here!  Also, pumpkins are not small sugar pumpkins…they are the size of crazed pumpkins that you think must be some form of genetic mutation but they aren’t…they are just giant greenish white meaty pumpkins.  You can’t even buy a whole pumpkin.  You go to the market and the guy slices it for you and sells it to you in chunks by kilo.  There is no cream of mushroom soup or French’s fried onion rings.  Oh and there are no sweet potatoes and there are no pecans.  There just aren’t.  Also my oven is a glorified ‘Easy-Bake’ oven.  I’m not exaggerating much.  It sits on my counter top and only fits two (barely) casserole dishes in at a time.

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Another Plate…

How does one make cornbread dressing with no celery and sweet potato casserole with no sweet potatoes?  CREATIVITY.  Liberties had to be taken with time-honored recipes…but everything SURPRISINGLY turned out perfect and tasted exactly how it was supposed to!  For the cornbread dressing, I used leaks instead of celery.  I made the green bean casserole 100% from scratch.  I made the cream of mushroom soup and fried the onions myself… and it was possibly the best green bean casserole I’ve ever eaten.  One of my amazing friends roasted two chickens and made gravy and brought those over.  I discovered a revelation…I made sweet potato casserole with PUMPKIN!!  I promise you, it was not too sweet, it tasted exactly like sweet potato casserole, and I used walnuts for the crunchy topping.

The scene in my kitchen the day of the big event was total madness.  I had written down a schedule to the exact minute of what casserole had to go in first in order for everything to get heated up in my tiny oven and stay warm! Mashed potatoes and green bean casserole were heated on the stove top while simultaneously setting the table and playing host to the guests.  Most of my friends had never before eaten any of the items on the table as this was the first ‘Southern Thanksgiving‘ for them and in the true spirit of Thanksgiving, food was devoured and 2nd and 3rd helpings of items were heaped onto plates, resulting in me needing to lay on the sofa for an hour after it was all said and done.

I think the highlight of the evening might have been when my friend’s oldest daughter announced that ‘this really felt like the way real Thanksgiving was supposed to be, like in the movies.’  I couldn’t have agreed with her more, only it didn’t feel like the movies to me, it felt like a little bit of ‘home‘, for which I am forever grateful to these amazing women I call friends and are my ‘family‘ away from home.

 

Aşure: Dessert as old as the ARK…

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                     My ‘aşure’ or ‘Noah’s pudding’

If I could make a meal out of just dessert, I would.  My favorite food of all time is ice cream, and I can eat it any time of day…enough said.  Aşure (pronounced a- shure-ey) however is in another realm all together.  This isn’t just a dessert, it’s an entire cultural experience that transports you through history and brings people of all backgrounds together. To me, the taste reminds me of the taste of the holidays.  Just looking at the ingredients though, you might at first glance find it a bit strange.  It’s essentially a pudding but it’s ingredients include barley, beans, and chickpeas.  This is also something I never thought I would learn how to make as there’s no set recipe for it- it varies literally household to household.  But I did learn and I brought it to work to share last week and got pretty good feedback!  One colleague actually said that after making this I had proven myself as a true Turkish lady…a compliment I valued highly!

Aşure is a very important and special dish with a complex history, significant to many countries and cultures.  Here in Turkey, it’s usually translated into English as ‘Noah’s Pudding’…yes Noah, like of the Ark.  According to beliefs, this dessert is the actual dish that Noah himself made with all the leftover ingredients remaining on the ark when they landed on Mount Ararat to celebrate that they had safely made it through the flood.  This is often argued to be the ‘oldest dessert in the world’.  It’s also important as this dish is prepared and eaten during ‘Muharrem’ which is the first month of the Islamic calendar.  ‘Aşüre günü’, or the ‘day of aşure’, (in Turkish) apparently means ‘tenth day’ (Ashura) in Arabic and also represents the day that Moses led his people out of Egypt.

When this dish is prepared, it’s made in HUGE quantities and shared with the whole neighborhood.  It’s a truly special event.  It brings everyone together through eating and through celebrating the tradition of people (usually grandmothers) cooking this through generations.  The idea is that in making this, you also share it with family, friends, and neighbors.  It began as a tradition for making it and giving it to people in need due to it’s filling and healthy ingredients, a charitable dish that is still today made for the purpose of sharing what you have. When I was trying to learn how to make it, all of my friends told me that their grandmother or their great-aunt was the only person who knew how to make it.  It’s a dish that has to be taught and passed down lovingly.

I’ve been in Istanbul for over 5 years now, and I have grown to love and adore aşure, but that wasn’t always the case.  I remember the first time someone told me about it and described it to me as a cold pudding with nuts, beans, wheat, and chickpeas…it was definitely not something I ran out to try.  I was honestly a bit scared of it.  Here’s the thing, when you describe it with the actual ingredients it seems insane.  It seems like you are throwing everything in the kitchen together and that it will NOT work…BUT…it DOES work! However different the ingredients might be, the end result is like a cross-over between a tapioca-esque rice pudding and a fruity cold oatmeal.  The additions of cinnamon, clove, vanilla and orange taste exactly like the holiday season to me and the perfect holiday pudding.  It’s fruity, sweet, rich, creamy, fresh, a bit spicy, and full of texture.

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The aşure from my neighbors

This year, for the first time since I moved to Turkey, my neighbors brought aşure!  I recently moved into a more family oriented apartment complex where the neighbors take the time to get to know everyone, and when they brought over the aşure I was beyond touched.  I was so happy to be included…and then…slowly…the panic set in!  They gave us the aşure in fancy bowls.  Ok- in Turkish culture, when someone brings you food on their own nice plates, it is customary to return their plate back to them, but it should be full of something you make for them.  The pressure was on!  I still hadn’t attempted aşure yet, so I whipped up a batch of pumpkin muffins (something they don’t eat here, so it was still ‘traditional’) and ran it upstairs.  I would say though that this event sparked the desire to finally conquer the aşure recipe and take part in this special ritual of making and giving.

 

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Aşure from Kanaat Restaurant

Aşure traditionally is made from barley, white beans, chickpeas, different dried fruits and different nuts, sometimes rose-water, sometimes adding milk… it’s rumoured to have as many as 19 different ingredients.  Every person makes their own version of the recipes according to taste and preference.  There are a few tricks that I learned by asking around.  My recipe was something I put together by asking many friends and getting advice from friends’ grandmothers and searching for translations online.  It was very difficult to figure out exactly how to get the ratios correct.  In the end, surprisingly, it turned out exactly as I wanted it to and exactly how I like to eat it.

My great-grandmother, Mary Ella, lived until I was 21 years old.  She was one of the most special people on the planet.  Every year for Christmas she used to sit and scoop out a million oranges, making her signature ‘ambrosia’.  Her version of it was a kind of holiday fruit salad.  It was fresh, tangy, and to me, the embodiment of the holidays.  It took her days sometimes to put it together and in the end there was enough for the household of at times 20 of us traipsing in and out.  I can’t explain it, but the taste of aşure has a similar taste to my great-grandmother’s ambrosia.  The first time I had a spoonful of the pudding, I remember feeling shocked and overwhelmed…and a bit emotional.  The taste of the aşure was something so comforting to me.  Maybe this is why I’m so drawn to this dessert, being that it not only tastes similar but I know it’s a similar style of traditional recipe-one that takes time and effort, but produces memories and love for years to come.  Aşure may not be your typical pudding, but it might be the most special one you will ever eat.

Recipe and ‘How TO’ Below:

Making aşure takes time-start doing it over the weekend or prepare everything the night before.  It makes A LOT, and it will keep in the fridge for a long time as well, so the hard work and time is worth it in the end.  My one recipe made 3 large casserole dishes (9×13).  This would probably make 15-20 individual serving bowls.  I made this also according to my taste preferences.  I did not use chickpeas, and I used only almonds.  You could use chickpeas (in that case, use 1/2 cup and decrease the barley) and you could use walnuts, hazelnuts, or pecans instead of almonds.  Figs are usually added traditionally but I didn’t use them because I don’t like how mushy they become.  You could add whatever dried fruit you like.  

*1 and 1/2 cups hulled barley    *1 cup white navy beans     *3/4 cup white rice
*2 and 1/2 cups sugar    *1 medium orange    *2 tsp. vanilla extract *2 cinnamon sticks
*a spoonful of whole cloves   *2 cups raw almonds  *20 dried apricots  *2 cups raisins
*1/2 cup dried red currants      *2 T. flour, or cornstarch  *1 tsp. salt
*ground cinnamon for topping
*pomegranate seeds for topping

The night before:  In separate bowls, soak the barley, the white beans, the dried apricots, red currants, raisins, and almonds in warm water.

The day of: 1) Cook the barley (cover it with water-3 fingers width height water above the                           barley- bring it to a boil, then reduce to low and cook for 1 hour.)
2) Separately cook the navy beans (they only take about 30 minutes).
3)slice the almonds and slice the apricots

-Bring them off the heat and put them together.  Add new water to fill the pot just above the barley and beans, throw the rice in here.  Zest and juice the orange and add this.  Let come to a boil and then let this cook until it thickens (about 30 minutes on low).

-Put the cinnamon sticks and cloves in a bowl and pour 1 cup of boiling water over them and let them sit for 5 minutes, then add this water to the barley mixture.  Add in the vanilla.  Add in the salt.   Bring it back to a boil, then turn it back down the low.

-Add the dried nuts and fruit last.  Bring it back to a boil, then cover and turn to low.

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Once most of the water has evaporated, but it’s still liquid, add 2 Tablespoons flour or cornstarch.  Bring it back to a boil again and reduce to low.  When you are able to rest a spoon on the top of it and the spoon doesn’t sink, you know it’s ready to be poured.

-Pour it into serving dishes, let it set, and then decorate.  I decorated with cinnamon, pomegranate seeds, the remaining cup of almonds, and leftover apricots.  You could also add ground pistachios, cocoa powder, and dried coconut.  Refrigerate and enjoy !!

Food First-Coffee After: Turkish Breakfast and a recipe…

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Turkish Kahvaltı

I’m kind of obsessed with breakfast, particularly BRUNCH, my favorite eating experience. Growing up, the daily breakfast routine consisted of a pop-tart on the way out the door to catch the school bus…unless if it was a Sunday.  Sundays were when, if I had hinted enough about it the night before, my dad would cook a big breakfast: pancakes, bacon, and eggs. I love BREAKFAST…like really really truly love breakfast.  It’s not only love of the food but love for the ritual of BRUNCH-that of sleeping in, waking up to the smell of food, then eating and talking with family or friends. I go crazy for eggs benedict or french toast and I LOVE shrimp and grits with a fried egg underneath!  I love greasy hole-in-the-wall diners serving eggs any way you like with biscuits and gravy. Eating brunch reminds me of home and spending the weekends with family.

 

Although I can’t get the exact same food like back home, it’s funny how you can find similar experiences on the other side of the world and within different cultures.  The food may be different, but the idea of breakfast as an important eating ritual that brings people together for hours is definitely a part of ‘Turkish Breakfast’.  Before coming to Turkey, I didn’t know what a traditional Turkish breakfast was.  I imagined it being something like European cities where most places I visited ate sweet pastries with strong coffee.  I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined that ‘Turkish Breakfast’ meant ‘The Best BRUNCH Ever’.  

Turkish breakfast consists of savory and sweet items, with lots of bread, and lots of strong Turkish tea.  When you go to a breakfast cafe, you can order a breakfast plate (a single serving) or you can order the serpme kahvaltı.  This is when they literally fill your table with as many small dishes of various things that the table can hold.  It’s amazing!  It’s also quite daunting as you don’t know where to start!  Salty or Sweet?  And oh no, what if by the time I finish eating this dish, my friend finishes the dish over there… it requires careful tactics of ranking what to eat first.  It’s serious business.

Here in Turkey, breakfast is an assortment of cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, roka (wild arugula), olives, olive oil, butter, fruit, nutella, honey, tahin pekmez (tahini mixed with grape molasses), jams, and bal kaymak (honey and clotted cream… or as I have nicknamed it, the ‘baby angel’).  In addition to that spread, there are usually fried eggs or menemen-a scrambled egg and tomato casserole.  You can also order gozleme, which is like a sort of savory cheese filled crepe.  All products are from local villages nearby unless they are imported from other regions(usually special cheeses) and it’s fresh and very good quality.  It feels quite healthy. The first time I ate Turkish breakfast I was so excited and couldn’t wait to start eating, but I remember also being a bit confused.  Cucumbers and tomatoes…olives and honey…at the same time?  For breakfast?  But it really works.  The vegetables are refreshing with the cheese and eggs.  Then, when you are ready for sweets, you just switch to the jams and kaymak.  It’s the best of both worlds.  A huge, always full basket of warm bread is placed on the table and of course, glass after glass of Turkish tea.

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The word for breakfast, kahvaltı in Turkish translates literally to ‘kahve= coffee’ and ‘altı=before/underneath’.  The way Turkish grammar works, the sentence reads with the emphasis of the 2nd part of the word being first.  Put it together and it literally means, ‘before coffee’.  So you drink tea with the food before you have your coffee once you have finished eating and are completely stuffed to help with digestion.  This is one of the most notable differences between breakfast culture back home and here.  I used to give myself extra time to make coffee at home first but now, I find myself craving the tea and forgetting about coffee until after.

 

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“Home-made” Turkish Breakfast 

While eating out for breakfast is popular especially here in Istanbul, this style of breakfast is also prepared at home too.  Most Turkish families keep jam, honey, cheese, tomatoes and olives on hand and just pull them out in the morning.  I recently stayed with a good friend over the weekend and she woke up every morning, pulled out little dishes and put them on a tray.  As each family member woke up, they got bread, made themselves an egg, then served themselves from the tray that my friend had set out.  The ease of the process was astounding and quite beautiful.

 

When you sit down to eat Turkish breakfast, you know you will be satisfied and happy and full.  You also know you will sit there for hours eating slowly, drinking tea after tea, and talking all afternoon with the friends surrounding you.  It’s as close to a feeling of home that I can get, for which I am truly grateful.

                               **Recipe for Menemen (Turkish Egg Casserole) Below: 

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Menemen (Made by ME)

This is so easy and so DELICIOUS!  One of my favorite Turkish dishes, it’s perfect with hunks of crusty french bread and some cheese to go with it.  For the recipe, I’m using 6 eggs, so that would be a portion size of 2 eggs per person, serving 3 people. I also like some onion and garlic in mine, but those two ingredients are not completely traditional.  

*3-4 large heirloom tomatoes or 6-8 medium vine tomatoes, chopped and set aside
*2 red bell peppers, chopped and set aside
* 1 small white onion, minced
*2 garlic cloves, minced
*good olive oil
*salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper to taste
*flat leaf parsley to garnish

*Place a skillet pan on the stove with about 1 tablespoon of olive oil in it and heat it on medium heat.  Add the onions and garlic first and let them cook but don’t caramelize the onions.  Add the peppers next and cook for 1-2 minutes, then add the tomatoes.  Put the lid on the pan so that not too much water evaporates and turn the heat down to low.  You want the vegetables to get soft and still have enough liquid in the pan.  You want to look for a kind of home-made spaghetti sauce consistency (takes about 10-15 minutes).  Here add a pinch of salt and pepper and stir it around.

* Once the vegetables are soft and you have a kind of sauce in the pan, crack the eggs into the pan.  The eggs will be sitting on top of the sauce in little pools.  I sometimes run a knife through the egg whites and spread them around over the surface but I keep the yolks in tact as much as possible.  It’s ready when the egg whites are no longer clear.

Sprinkle the parsley on top and get ready to dig in!

Vişne Pie and Eating Seasonally…

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Sour Cherry Pie

One of my most favorite things about summer in Turkey is the moment when fruit like strawberries, green sour plums(called erik) and cherries arrive to market stands.   This summer I was craving PIE literally ALL SUMMER LONG!  I went ‘home’ to the states for most of the summer and begged my mom to make me a pie…I would have even been happy to eat the kind made with cans of gooey pre-made pie-filling.  In the end as it usually happens when I go back to see my family in the summer, the days booked up quickly with seeing as many friends and family as I could in only 3 weeks…and the pie was never made.

I was ‘ok’ about it because I just thought, “You can have it in Turkey, cherries are better there anyway”.  YES cherries are AMAZING in Turkey.  There are two kinds, the large sweet ones called ‘kiraz’ and the tiny sour ones called ‘vişne’.  Vişne are apparently highly sought after and are one of Turkey’s largest export crops.  They are supposedly a traditional fruit stemming all the way back to Ancient Anatolian times and possibly even the Hittite Civilization.  The Turks use them in savory dishes, on the menu as a sauce for kebabs adding a sweet and sour element.  They are also a very popular juice, ‘vişne suyu’.

Here’s the thing- living in Istanbul definitely comes with its charms and yet also presents me with the weekly if not daily hurdle of navigating and understanding a foreign environment.  I thought I could make cherry pie here but it turns out that I forgot many crucial things:
1) There is no pre-made refrigerated pie crust to be found !
2) There is no air conditioning in my apartment-making the kitchen a furnace in August !   3) Fruit is SEASONAL!

I came back ‘home’ to Istanbul and set out for sour cherries! I’ll give you the ‘Cliffs Notes’ version of what turned into me wandering around my neighborhood going from market to market and begging for vişne only to be met with the same answer “We had an early season, vişne are finished”.  I was heartbroken-not only because I couldn’t have pie, but also because I couldn’t have the cherries in ANY form.  I had compeltely missed what I had been wanting all summer!

I ran into some luck a week later at my usual grocery store…and what transpired was very strange.  I asked for vişne and the grocer looked around and said (whispering), “How much do you want?”- I told him a kilo would be good-he didn’t respond, he just walked away and minutes later returned from the back with a package wrapped in plastic wrap and a price sticker on it.  I paid, left and kinda prayed I had actually bought cherries and not something that had been lost in translation.  I never saw anymore vişne again in markets after that day… and I think I probably bought a kilo that was meant for someone else.

That’s the thing about living here-When I first moved here, I had a really hard time figuring out food and shopping. I also didn’t really know how to cook.  I always helped my mom make cookies but actual dinner wasn’t something I did unless it was heating something in the microwave or throwing frozen veggies into a pot.  I can’t do any of that here.  I don’t own a microwave and nothing is in cans or really processed.  I had to learn slowly how to do everything from scratch.

I ABSOLUTELY wasn’t aware of seasonal fruits and vegetables.  I grew up in suburbia where anything I could ever want to eat was just there at the grocery store.  I guess on some level I knew that certain fruits didn’t grow in winter, but there they were still at the store.  But upon moving here, it was baffling.  Tomatoes don’t grow year-round?  If I want broccoli or celery, I really have to wait until Fall?  I forgot about this rule once again after returning to Istanbul- I went in search of cauliflower …the guy at the market looked at me amused and told me “Cauliflower is not in season until October”.

So there I was with these prized cherries, possibly the last of their kind until 2017 worrying if I should eat them or save them…when I had a brilliant idea!  One of my dearest friends was planning a trip to Istanbul and just so happened to have the surname of Cherry.  Perfect!  I planned to make the pie when my friend was here and we could all pay tribute to people named CHERRY and food that was CHERRY.

img_0039I pitted the cherries using a straw, then made the pie crust.  My mom’s southern cookbook had millions of recipes…all calling for shortening…again an ingredient not to be found.  I found a recipe from Martha Stewart and made the dough in my food processor.  Doing this in August with no air conditioning was the most challenging cooking experience of my life.  Everything went into the freezer: the butter, the rolling pin, the blades from my food processor, and water.  I made the crust while stopping every now and then to chill the dough and then froze everything.

img_0640We ate the pie a few weeks later, and I invited some Turkish friends over as well, as some of them hadn’t really ever had this American style of pie before. Everybody loved it, and I do have to say that it was exactly what I wanted!  It was sour, and buttery, and gooey, and crunchy… it felt like being home with my grandmother, and yet it was different because it really had such an intense cherry flavor.  Why is pie so good?! I promise, I am not making another one for a long time!

After pie night I went on my vacation and came back to FALL and was reminded yet again of the seasons. It happens like that here in Istanbul…there’s no slow and gradual warning of season change.  One day it’s summer, the next’ it’s not.  Simultaneously worked started and I promptly got the FLU !  Having the Flu as an adult is horrifying. I thought I was actually dying.  There was only one thing that helped me get over the flu: Herbal tea.  Two herbs in particular are both really prominent at this time of the year and only recently started showing up in markets, just in time to cure us of winter colds.  I know how it sounds…herbal tea… but just hear me out.

These are two magic flu killing herbs: 1) Adacayı and 2)Taze Kekik.


Adacayı
(pictured above on the left) translates literally as ‘island tea’ but it is actually wild sage, and it grows here in mountainous seaside areas.  My colleague has a summer home outside of Istanbul on the Black Sea and always brings it.  I make tea with it by sticking it in my french press with a cinnamon stick and some cloves, then when I pour it I add honey and lemon.  I promise it works like medicine.  It actually smells like you are making tea out of vicks vapor rub…which might be gross to some but is heaven to me.  My colleagues rely on it when cold and flu season starts and they told me it actually has been proven to have healing properties for the throat and mouth.  It grows in summer but then is harvested and dried for the winter. Continue reading “Vişne Pie and Eating Seasonally…”

Girl Meets Crete-Vacation Part 2:

In my latest post about Thessaloniki, I told you about how that city began as just a quick trip stop-over before the ‘real destination’ but actually ended up being a great experience that left me wishing I had more time to spend there.  So, what was the ‘real vacation’ that was worth the 10 hour bus journey (both ways) and the headache of various transportation methods?  That would be the island of CRETE, Greece’s largest island and the one hardest to get to… for me anyways.

 

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At the ruins!

Lots of people fantasize about taking trips to the Greek Islands of Mykonos and Santorini.  I however have always wanted to see Crete most.  When I was 15 years old in High School, I learned about the Minoan Civilization. My class studied architecture, frescoes found inside, ceramic statues and pots found at the site, and also read the related mythology.  Still to this day my favorite myths are those of King Minos and the Minotaur and of Deadalus and Icarus.  For me, going to Crete was always about seeing the Palace of Knossos and stepping inside the legendary world of the Minotaur.

What I did not expect was FOOD that REALLY AND TRULY was amazing at EVERY tiny small village restaurant.

Over 5 days, my best friend/roommate/ High School best friend who also studied the Minoans (Yes!  What a friendship!),  rented a car and drove the whole of the island.  We started in Heraklion then headed down to the Sfakia region, then up to the Chania region and back to Heraklion.  At nearly every small village road sign that we passed we took the exits and followed the roads.  It was perfect.  Crete, an island with beaches and moutains, is perfection.

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Savory Moon Pie on the Left- Sweet Ave Maria on the Right

Starting in Heraklion, we started the day off right with a bakery near our hotel.  It was called Elit Special and I do believe it was called ‘special’ due to its moon-shaped breakfast pies.  They were essentially a sweet cottage cheese of some sort inside a salty buttery pie crust.  Do I need to say more?  Another discovery was a tiny moon-shaped sweet bun called the Ave Maria.  The bread  was a perfect spongy consistency and inside was cottage cheese and HONEY!  Yes, thanks Maria, I approve.  Again, while Greek and Turkish food is very similar, these pastries are really something I haven’t ever come across before due to the cheese and honey combination.

Still in Heraklion, after a visit to the archeology museum (where actually all the ceramics, statues and frescoes found at Knossos are on display), we decided to splurge a bit for lunch and found ourselves at Erganos Taverna.  There’s no delicate way to put this- we had a  5 hour meal here- thank you Hunger Gods.

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First Course:Salad, olives, cheese, tzatziki, stuffed grape leaves and stuffed zucchini flowers, spinach and feta pies, and ‘dakos’ -hard wheat bread with tomato puree and cheese.
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As you can see from the picture above, we clearly were not aware of the portion size.  I think also the waiter was amused and thought we didn’t know what we were doing by ordering all this… rest assured, there wasn’t much left over.  These were some of the best meze I have ever eaten in my life.  Nothing was overly oily or salty. It was easy to taste the ingredients which were all really good quality.  For the second course I got pork souvlaki.  I miss pork so much.  It’s my favorite meat… hands down, it wins.  This was marinated in yogurt, garlic, dill, and lemon.  You could distinctly taste each flavor of the marinade.  Perfection.  img_0834For dessert, as we were getting ready to ask for the bill and roll ourselves out of the taverna, we were given a plate of cakes with ice cream, watermelon, and a small jug of alcohol as a gift of the restaurant.  When food is a gift it must get eaten, no matter how much you want to burst.  The alcohol we later realized is a traditional drink produced in Crete and it’s basically Cretian moonshine.  It’s made from grapes and is called raki, although it’s not at all like Turkish anise seed rakı and is not to be confused with it.  The Cretian raki is most similar to ChaCha from Georgia or Rakia from the Balkan area…it quickly became a new favorite of mine.

img_0845The remainder of our time in Haraklion we went back to Elit Special Bakery several times and also frequented a tiny-no-name-hole-in-the-wall place near our hotel. Sorry about the name but never before has the idiom “It’s all Greek to me” rung so true. My favorite was the stuffed eggplant.  The eggplant was sliced very thin, narly paper-thin, and grilled.  Then, it was rolled around a piece of halumi cheese and smothered in tomato puree and chopped fresh parsley.  There was garlic and olive oil somewhere in there as well.  It was so soft and tender…and RICH…it really reminded me oddly enough of Italian-American ‘veal parmesan’… only better and much more authentic.  We ate this paired with lots of Greek salad and of course, the free raki after the meal.

We left Heraklion and headed to the ruins of Knossos, had a wonderful day filled with sun and selfies, then headed on to the region of Sfakia.  This was my favorite area on the whole big island of Crete.  It’s much less crowded is just filled with strings of charmingly authentic villages, where you can always find delicious food…always.   I have never before been somewhere that I haven’t researched and just stopped in, sight unseen, and consecutively had good meal after good meal.  Nothing was bad or even just ‘ok’.  I think this really comes down to the quality of the ingredients.  Many of the herbs and vegetables as well as the cheeses and olive oil are grown locally there on island and then exported to other parts of Greece.  Pictured above is fried zucchini chips, perfectly lightly battered and crispy, and then of course, the free dessert which included a sfakian pie: a kind of cheesy honey pancake.

Our last meal in the Sfakia region was in the small village of Sellia, at a taverna named Elia and it was a magical and storybook-esque as it sounds.  The food here was a tad pricier than at other tavernas we had stopped in but I think this was due to the fact that my roommate and I took a few bites then both declared the food to be ‘next level’.  Again, simple fresh ingredients yielded complex and intense flavors.  The top left picture is of baked feta topped with spicy peppers and tomatoes.  The greens were called ‘horta’ which I have yet to figure out what plant it actually is.  I feel there was a hint of cinnamon in nearly all the dishes, adding sweetness and depth to the savory dishes.

img_1392We left the Sfakia region and headed up to the opposite end of the Island to see the old city center of Chania.  We walked around a bit then got on the road back towards Heraklion, and again detoured to a small village-this time stopping at Vamos Village.  Here we had our final tastes of Crete, complete with the end of the meal complimentary raki, and filled with delicious meze.  The star of the show was the fava bean puree.  I know fava doesn’t sound that interesting, but I promise it was everything. It was mushy and tangy and splashed with good quality olive oil and loaded with dill, chunks of fresh garlic, and sliced onions.

After downing our free raki, we headed back to Heraklion, dropped off the mini-car, and boarded the plane with heavy hearts.  Leaving Crete meant that the end of summer was truly here and it was time to head back to work, another busy school year to start back in Istanbul.  It also meant no more free alcohol and dessert while overlooking an olive grove.  While Crete might only be an island, it has been inhabited and flourishing since about 3650 B.C.E, and to top it off, the food is pretty epic as well.

Girl Meets Thessaloniki… for a day…

thessa7Last week I had my final summer adventure before starting back to work and the usual chaos of daily life. Living abroad, I try to take advantage of the close proximity to locations and travel as much as possible when I do get time off.  The holiday was Kurban Bayran (in Turkish or known as Eid in Arabic), one of the most important religious holidays where families gather together and celebrate, which also means nearly everything shuts down for a few days.  This time my roommate and I were heading to the Greek Islands, specifically one island, Crete- we had the time off, getting to the island was not as simple.

Crete is farther away than any other Greek island and there aren’t direct flights there from Turkey. Nearly all flights were in and out of Athens and finding that perfect flight which connected on the right day at the right price was just not happening. In order to get to Crete, the only affordable option was the totally comfortable and convenient 10 hour bus ride…  Yes… 10 hours… on a bus…

The trip route was as follows: Istanbul to Thessaloniki by bus, then flying to the big island from there.

I will be completely honest here, I had absolutely no expectations for Thessaloniki. It’s very easy to get there from Turkey as the border is only about 4 hours away from Istanbul, but I didn’t do any ‘travel homework’ at all and just assumed that we would sleep there before flying to Crete. I marked it in my mind as a ‘wasted travel day’ and was just gonna grit my teeth until it was over.  So… here’s the thing… I travel A LOT.  I would love to say that I’m an expert and a well-seasoned vacationer, but it’s moments like these that just make me humble and feel completely connected to the poor guy from An Idiot Abroad.

I completely wrongfully pre-judged Thessaloniki.  What started out being a necessary stop-over turned into a great experience and exploration of a city that I absolutely want to go back to and keep discovering.

The city is big and sprawling, sitting right on the sea and decorated with a beautiful seaside promenade. It’s clean and the sidewalks are well maintained with easy walking paths. While I wouldn’t use words like ‘beautiful or picturesque’ to describe the city, I would definitely call it ‘vibrant, lively, and compelling’. It’s very reminiscent of Athens and yet, more real than Athens, being that there weren’t many tourists other than us around and it had a very small town and local vibe although it was quite a big modern city.


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We only had a half day in Thessaloniki and then a few hours at night on our return journey so we didn’t do any museums (although we did stroll past the childhood home belonging to 1st Turkish President Atatürk as we couldn’t be there and not go).  There wasn’t time for anything other than walking and EATING.  I have always been a firm believer that if you want to get to know a place, you have to get to know its food.

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The first morning, for breakfast, we walked into a random bakery out of desperation for anything to eat and were greeted with a yogurt buffet!  Next to the shelves of bread and pastries was a counter with yogurt (normal yogurt not frozen), where you could fill it up with all sort of fruits and nuts and sugary toppings.  It was 3 Euro total for a yogurt and a double cappuccino.

This filled us up for several hours while we walked around and took pictures, sat down for a frappe (my new obsession…coffee milkshakes…YES, Thank You!), and mapped out how to get to the airport.  While researching what bus line to take, we quickly browsed restaurant suggestions and decided to try to find the 1st place on the list.

Success!  On so many levels!  Restaurant=found. Hunger=ended.  One of the most amazing meals of my life=consumed.

The place was Bazagiazi Restaurant, sandwiched in between two giant buildings and at the end of the general covered market area.  It’s described online as a typical ‘Ouzerie’, restaurants serving ouzo-Greek anise flavored alcohol- and meze.  The style of food is very much like a Turkish ‘Meyhane’ restaurant, which serves rakı-Turkish anise flavored alcohol- and meze and fish.  In Turkey, this style of food is usually referred to as Aegean Style and is famous in places like Izmir and Ayvalık.  It’s also one of my favorite styles of food!

There are many similarities between Greek and Turkish food as the two cultures have a strong history that intertwines.  There are many famous rivalries and arguments about food specifically as to who created what or who does what better.   I won’t get into the politics of the food, but I will say that I felt comfortable ordering off the menu of this restaurant because lots of it was familiar to me and either way, the restaurant was hands down amazing.

We ordered a half liter of white wine, grape leaves (dolmadakia in Greek, yaprak sarma in Turkish), tzatziki (cucumber heaven), grilled eggplant and stuffed squid.  The grape leaves were fuller and fatter than I’ve had before, and they didn’t have too many spices.  I don’t mean that they were bland, just fresh and without really anything besides some lemon juice on top.  Everything was light and fresh, not too oily- the natural flavors of the vegetables were the stars…simple.

The stuffed squid was cry worthy.  It was grilled and the skin underneath was pretty charred and crispy-then it was stuffed with feta cheese, parsley, chopped tomatoes, olive oil and lemon juice.  I have honestly never eaten anything like that before.  Again, the flavors and ingredients were so simple…but it really had depth due to differences in texture and the creamy feta mixing with the acid from the lemon.

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THE SQUID

We left feeling totally stuffed and heading on our way to the airport.  Walking to catch the bus, we passed a bakery near the main square chock full of people!  Huge crowds were lined up outside and everybody who went in was coming out with beautiful turquoise colored cardboard boxes filled with goodies.  The boxes looked like the ones from Tiffany’s, only instead of diamonds, filled with cake… quite possibly a twisted dream come true of mine. We went inside to check it out.  It had these gorgeous braided breads (you see them at Easter usually) covered in melted chocolate.  I remember saying ‘Wow these must be good, everybody is buying them”, to which my roommate said ‘Yeah too bad we are full”.

 That bakery might haunt me until the end of my life.  

We made it to the airport, got on the plane, sat down (still full from the stuffed squid), and proceeded to watch every other passenger get on the plane with those turquoise boxes!  I am not exaggerating, every person had boxes from that mystery bakery.  Every passenger was bringing one of those breads to family in Crete.  I never learned the name of that bakery and I never tasted a single baked good…but I would be willing to bet it was the best bread in Thessaloniki…and I missed it!

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MYSTERY BAKERY AND BREADS!

We managed to have an amazing week in Crete before flying back to Thessaloniki and spending a few hours there before the bus home the next morning.  We went back to Bazagiazi, where the waitress remembered us from the week before, and ate one last meal.  We ordered grape leaves again, a Greek salad, oven baked feta (try this!  Stick your feta in the oven…you will not regret it!), and fried zucchini chips.  It was the perfect way to say goodbye to Greece before returning home and starting work.

As I mentioned above, I want to go back to Thessaloniki as there is much more to be explored.  I want to walk around the streets, actually go inside the museums, and find that bakery!

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Final meal at Bazagiazi