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

Meze and Mercimek Köfte:

While it might be technically fall on the calendar, the weather begs to disagree here in Istanbul.  Working all day in the heat has me just about melting by the time I get home and the last thing I want to do is turn on the oven and cook something.  I’ve recently started stocking the fridge on Sundays with easy to pull-out items that, after the initial effort of making them, require no effort except that of my teeth to chew them. However, refrigerator size here is much smaller than the standard state-side size.  I do have a full fridge here…but it’s still maybe only 1/3 the size of my parents’ back home.  This plays a major role in my cooking routine as when I stock the fridge full, I feel I should be considerate of my roommate-She needs to eat too right?  Well…she has recently gone back to being A VEGETARIAN!  When she told me she was thinking about this life choice, my exact words (I kid you not) were “This may seriously affect the depth of our friendship.”  I’m happy to report that actually I’m coping with this new lifestyle and I’m even enjoying it (as much as it pains me to admit).  The vegetarian has caused me to seek out more veggies in my own diet and get creative.  In trying to find dishes that we both love,  I’ve stirred up quite a new love affair with a few Turkish dishes.

Enter THE MEZE: ‘Meze’ are small dishes that are appetizer-like as they are served at the start of a meal. Be careful though as once the meze tray is brought out, you might end up sitting there and eating for hours as usually there is a tray of cold meze, followed by hot meze, followed by then the main course.  They are normally vegetables cooked slowly with olive oil added to them.  You usually find them at restaurants serving fish but they can really be found anywhere.  They are also usually soft or mushy textured… with a consistency of a spread or a dip that one might not normally think to eat lots of…and that’s where the BREAD comes into play.  Normally meze is served with bread to scoop up the olive oily meze and savor everything there is-which then usually results in being stuffed full before the main course is served.  In this way, meze aren’t appetizers but in most cases they are a meal in itself.

In the Kadıköy Fish Market, there’s an amazing shop that sells pre-made meze all day every day.  At Gözde Şarküteri  you can find everything from eggplant salad with tomatoes, to potato salad, to stuffed grape leaves or even to different herb cheese spreads.  It was my favorite place to pick up meze and take it to meet friends for a picnic by the sea-side.  This always ended up turning into a very pricey picnic however as the food is incredibly simple in nature, but a bit expensive as it’s time-consuming to make.

 

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Meze Heaven

 

With meze, there is a lot of cooking vegetables first and then cooling them down-a lot of wait time.  Also, here, you can’t just go grab pre-chopped veggies.  You have to chop, slice, and grate everything yourself.  Most meze have only 3-4 ingredients total, and yet the flavor is usually rich and complex.

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Made by me-recipe at the end…

Mercimek Köfte are lentil meatballs, and they are not technically classified as a meze.  You can however find them and other bulgur style meatballs at Gözde Şarküteri though.  They aren’t served at restaurants with typical meze fare, but they are definitely a cold, refreshing, and squishy textured food that fits well into my ‘roommate menu’.  This spicy vegetarian meatball combines mashed lentils with onions, tomato paste, spices and lemon juice to be mushy and tangy and really filling all at once.  It may not be a typical meze, but it’s in the same style as it is made from a few simple fresh ingredients, served cold, and can easily be eaten as an appetizer or a whole meal.  It’s also a dish that nearly everyone here knows how to make off the top of their head.

That’s the way it is with this style of food it seems.  Everybody knows how to make it as a part of who they are.  I actually learned how to make the two meze below from my roommate’s boyfriend.  He made the carrot one once for a party and I was crazy for it.  When I asked him how he learned to make it, he just gave me this look.  The look said everything, but mostly it said ‘How could you not know how to make something so simple?”  Because, that’s what meze are: simple recipes that are traditional and not to be deviated from.  Every Turkish person knows how to make some version of meze, they are foods that exist in some form in every family, in every household.

……………………………….Continue reading below for recipes………………………

**On the left: Közlenmiş Patlıcan Salatası = Smoked Eggplant Salad
*4-5 long skinny eggplants  *3 cloves of garlic, chopped fine  *1 teaspoon salt  *1 lemon
*2 cups thick plain yogurt (Greek Style works)  *good olive oil

To make this, you cook and cool and mush the eggplant.  After this, you squeeze the lemon juice on the eggplant and let it sit 5 minutes, then you mix in all the other ingredients and you drizzle oil on top  and put it in the fridge.  VERY easy, but you have to ‘smoke’ the eggplant.  You could do this on a grill, I use the eye on my gas stove.  You want to blister the eggplant skins all over.  This is worth doing just for the smell of the smoked eggplant!!

**On the Right: Yoğurtlu Havuç Salatası = Yogurt Carrot Salad
*5 carrots, grated, with 1 teaspon of sugar sprinkled over them
*3 cloves garlic  *1 teaspoon salt   *2 cups thick plain yogurt                  *1 lemon

You make this by giving the carrots a quick saute for about 10 minutes on the stove top, then let them cool.  Next stir eveything together and drizzle with olive oil and put it in the fridge.  SO AMAZINGLY FRESH AND YUMMY!

**Mercimek Köfte= Lentil Meatballs
*2 cups red lentils  *1 white onion, chopped  2 tablespoons tomato paste
*1 bunch green onions *3 tablespoons fine bulgur wheat (small ones)
*2 teaspoons cumin  *salt to taste  *red pepper flakes to taste  *olive oil  *lemon juice

First you cook the lentils (I cover them with water, bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and let them soak up the water).  Then, in a separate pan, saute the white onion with the tomato paste until the onions soften.  Stir the tomato-paste-onion mixture into the lentils and mush them around.  Stir in the bulgur and wait for 10 minutes for this to absorb some of the lentil liquid.  Next, stir in the green onions and spices, add olive oil and lemon juice (the oil and juice is per your taste, add it until you like the taste).  Then, you can shape them into little nuggets by pressing them into your fingers and palm.

Afiyet Olsun

Hunting for Lahmacun…

Before I took the plunge and decided to move to Istanbul I was just a normal tourist.  My best friend and I had come here on a 2 week vacation while teaching at summer camps in Italy and therefore we were on a pretty tight budget.  We survived mostly off of cheap street food through the long days trekking around all the museums and historical sites. It was in this way, exhausted and hungry and desperate for something quick and cheap, that I first encountered lahmacun, pronounced “la-ma-joon”.  I still remember the very moment that I ate it, a memory which connects me both to food and that beautiful time when I was discovering the city for the first time-an experience which ultimately lead to me moving across the world.  That very first lahmacun was at a touristy place in Sultanahmet near the Hagia Sophia, and my friend and I were ravenous after spending all day walking in the sun.  Did I mention that this was in July?   I remember we saw a place with tables outside and fans hung up on the ceiling blowing a breeze down below.  The people were eating a round crunchy bread with meat on top which drew us in.  We looked at the menu and each crunchy bread was only 4 Turkish Lira.  Sold!  I think we each ordered 3 and ate them in seconds.

I loved lahmacun the first time I ate it and I still love it. It’s one of my most favorite foods, not just to eat in Turkey, but of all time.  Who on Earth doesn’t love a crunchy bread smothered in spicy ground meat that is both crispy and also chewy simultaneously?  OK, well maybe a vegetarian but then it’s their loss. Lahmacun is both hearty and  savory and refreshing and light at the same time. It’s also a good fast food and very affordable. The actual origins of lahmacun seem to be a bit controversial with many different cultures claiming to have invented it much like hummus and it is found throughout the Middle East.

So, what exactly is it? Well that’s an interesting question as if you look in guide books or plug it into the internet you might get lots of results calling it a ‘Turkish pizza’…but it’s not really a pizza. The only way in that this comparison even comes close to being true is that Neapolitan pizza began as a cheap street food that was made in a circle and then for convenience of eating, folded over in half in to eat.  Lahmacun is a street food and it is round, but it’s not eaten like a pizza.  Lahmacun is a flatbread, baked on a stone in a wood fired brick oven. It’s super thin and crispy, sometimes as thin as a sheet of paper, with crunchy oven- charred blisters on the skin of it. The topping is a ground meat mixture, using either beef or lamb, with various spices such as peppers, onions, and garlic. There’s no tomato sauce and there’s no cheese covering it. It’s served with “yeşilik” (parsley, lettuce), onions, and tomatoes and a lemon wedge. You can dress your lahmacun however you like it and then… yes, this is the magical part… you ROLL it up! So in one mouthful you get an equal layer of crispy crunchy crust mixing with the spicy meat and fresh greens all coming together in one of the most beautiful bites you will ever take….I promise.IMG_0102

Over the years I’ve discovered my favorite spots for what I consider to be the best lahmacun, but very recently I tried one from a new place that was kind of a game-changer. Now I am torn between my all-time favorite and the new one. So for the past 2 weeks I have been taste testing. Yes, I am actually that intensely interested in being able to finalize my decision that I have been eating in order to figure out this perplexing situation.

Borsam Lahmacun, in the heart of Kadıköy, is a long beloved favorite amoung many residents. I also love their lahmacun, however to be honest I find that these days I enjoy it more for the ambiance. You can sit on the street and people watch or watch the guys at the oven making and loading in the lahmacun to bake. As delicious as it is, it’s my 3rd favorite. Now-for the battle between 2nd and 1st place. My all time number one is from a restaurant serving up mainly ‘Antep’ cuisine, meaning food using traditional methods from Gaziantep. That place is called ‘Dürümcü Emmi’ located again in Kadıköy, and is one of the best places to eat in Istanbul. Although they are famous for kebabs, their lahmacun is to die for…that is until it tried the ‘Özel Lahmacun” at my neighborhood pide place, ‘Pidene’m’. “Özel” means special, and it’s 2 TL more expensive than just their normal lahmacun. After eating it, I understood why they call it özel! It is truly a work of art.

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        Pidene’m’s Özel Lahmacun

Pidene’m’s  Özel Lahmacun‘s flavor is intense and their meat mixture is very red in color due to cooking down the meat and spices in tomato paste.  They also use veal as their meat, which creates the silky richness.   In addition to this, they also use a hearty helping of chopped walnuts in meat mixture.  If you look closely, you can actually see huge halves of walnuts on top of the bread. There’s a good bit of garlic and onion going on in this lahmacun recipe too. This version is a much heavier and savory style of flat bread.

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Dürümcü Emmi’s Lahmacun…with onions

Dürümcü Emmi’s lahmacun has a kind of tangy-ness to it and you can see the flecks of red and green peppers ground into the meat mixture. It has a good bit of heat to it.  Instead of walnuts, it has pistachios ground into the meat. I also have a strong suspicion that there is some form of pomegranate on these lahmacun’s in possibly the form of the nar ekşisi sos which I’ve mentioned before. Their lahmacuns have a sweetness to them and coupled with the lemon juice you add yourself they have a sweet and sour feel to them.

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Dürümcü Emmi’s Lahmacun…no onions

So, which one is the best?  I still don’t know.  They are both equally good because although they are the same food and cooked using the same traditional methods, they are totally different from each other.  It depends on what you are in the mood for.  If you want light, fresh, and fruity then Dürümcü Emmi is your pick.  If you want something heavier and richer to fill you up, then you should go with Pidene’m.  Sometimes, as much as you try, you don’t have to have a favorite, you just have to really enjoy the options that surround you.

 

 

 

 

Hummus Along the Silk Road…

 

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– Hummus in all its glory –

Two years ago, I took a trip down to Turkey’s southern region of Hatay specifically to see the historical city of Antakya, or Antioch as it’s called in English.  It’s claimed by historians that Antioch was actually the first place where Christians were given the name of “Christians” and called so by others.  It is also said that St. Peter himself set up the church there in Antioch.  Today the actual city still lies within the original Roman city walls and St. Peter’s church carved into a rock cliff is still there.  Being an enormous history and architecture fanatic, I really wanted to see this place and visit the historical sites…what I had not expected however was some of the best food of my life, and an other- worldly experience with HUMMUS.

Everybody knows and loves hummus, it’s become a super trendy food in the states and you can buy huge tubs of the stuff in nearly every grocery store.  You can even buy hummus made from beets or edamame or avocado.  The thing is, living in Istanbul, I can’t very easily just go and buy hummus from the store.  It’s not really a traditional food.  You can find it here and there and occasionally it will be on the menu in a few restaurants, but it’s really not a typical meal.  However, this is not the case in Antakya.  It’s on the menu in every restaurant and is a staple of their daily cuisine, even serving it up for breakfast.

Located very close to Syria, Antakya was very important throughout history for its pivotal role in trade with spices and goods, as part of the famed ‘Silk Road’ trade routes.  It was originally inhabited briefly by Alexander The Great before being a part of Byzantium and later the Ottoman Empire.  The region has always straddled both Syrian and Turkish cultures and most of its citizens speak Turkish and Arabic. Therefore, although still within Turkey, you feel almost as if you have traveled to a completely different place, stepping back in time-of which the food has a distinctly different flavor than that of Turkish food in other areas.  This food tends to be seasoned with much more spice and heat, and many things that are typically more Middle Eastern dishes can be found as local dishes here.  This makes sense as to the importance of hummus here in Antakya- a food probably brought to this area along the Silk Road establishing itself as a favorite among its people.

 

 

As all food that begins in one culture and is brought to another, the hummus in Antakya has taken on its own style and become a truly different and delicious experience.  For example, you can find it for breakfast doused heavily in olive oil and pickles.  Yes, pickles!  Pickles, or in Turkish turşu, are a popular part of Turkish cuisine, usually served with salads or sometimes served with rice-but in Antakya, you get your hummus with pickles.  I have to say, the ‘brine-y’ sourness added from the vinegar really lightens up the richness of the hummus giving it a very refreshing quality.  For dinner, you can find hummus on the menu again-but being as it’s night-time and you might want something heartier, it’s served with melted butter and cooked in the oven.  Nope, I am not making this up!  They pour melted butter with toasted pine nuts over hot hummus, bake it in the oven so that the edges get a little crispy, and serve this with bread!  It is rich and warm and gooey and salty -a sinful side of heaven!

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Notice the pool of butter, not olive oil, on top…

When you visit Antakya, you will walk along streets laid down by Romans, you will see mosques, churches and synagogues all sitting peacefully side by side, and you will eat amazing food.  You will meet some of the friendliest people who can’t wait to share their culture with you, as the city is accepting and inviting. It’s a continual melting pot of history and modernity with cultures coming together to share in traditions.  Hummus is itself an important food across the entire Middle Eastern region, with each culture having their own particular way they feel it’s best made.  Here in this part of Turkey is yet another example of this food that spans cultures and puts its own twist on this Middle Eastern staple.

 **Continue reading for a recipe and pictures of the process and as always, Afiyet Olsun!**

Hummus How-To: This is something I kind of taught myself how to make and again, I asked a lot of people for advice.  My best friend’s mom has an awesome hummus recipe that she got from her friend who is Lebanese.  I used that recipe for years before trying to copy the style I had eaten in Antakya.  In her recipe, she used canned chickpeas, but her secret was to save the liquid from the cans and to incorporate this into the hummus.  My mom also always told me to add a pinch of baking soda to anything that could be …well… gaseous.  If you are cooking cabbage or collard greens, throw in baking soda.  The same is true when you soak beans!  The hummus in Antakya is extra crazy smooth and also it has lots of tahini in it.  There are so many hummus recipes out there in the world and many ways to make it that are easier…but I like it this way, so I’m sharing.

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I made this one!

Ingredients:
* half a bag of dried chickpeas
* 4 Tablespoons Tahini paste
* 1 teaspoon salt
* 1 teaspoon ground cumin
* 3 cloves fresh garlic
* 1-2 cups of liquid that you cooked the chickpeas in (don’t pout it down the sink!)
*1 lemon
*red pepper flakes, and good quality olive oil to spread on top

 

OK, so first you have to deal with your chickpeas.  Soak them in a bowl overnight with 1 teaspoon of baking soda added to the water.  Rinse them the next morning and cook them- you just want to simmer them on low heat until they are tender (1 hour).  They should be squishy.  Drain them, let them cool… and peel them.  Oops, yes, I said that… to get them smooth, you have to peel them.  It’s totally annoying, I know… but it’s worth it!  I asked many people and they all agreed…you have to squish the chickpeas out of the white skin.  Once they are peeled (you should have at this point 5 cups of peeled chickpeas), start pureeing them in a food processor.  Add the garlic, salt, cumin, tahini, and the juice of the lemon.  Now, start adding in the reserved cooking liquid.  You want to add enough so that it’s watery.  Don’t be afraid- it will thicken with time so you should get it pretty thin while blending.  Pour it into a dish, spoon olive oil and red pepper flakes on top and stick it in the fridge (if you can wait!) to cool for a bit.  If you want to ‘do as the Antakyans do’ so to speak, you can bake your hummus in the oven until the edges crisp and pour butter on top!  Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Old Traditions and New Experiences at Üsküdar’s Kanaat Lokantası…

On the Asian side of Istanbul, in one of the oldest neighborhoods named Üsküdar, and right in the middle of the busy center is an amazing restaurant originally established in the 1930’s-that until this past Saturday, I had never once stepped foot in.  It’s not far from my own neighborhood and my Turkish friends have been telling me about it for years.  You see, my friends know how I feel about food.  I once booked an entire trip to Gaziantep, a city in the South East of Turkey that is arguably the birthplace of many kebabs and also baklava, for the sole purpose of eating as much as possible.  I did a similar ‘food quest’ to the Black Sea villages and also the old city of Antakya.  Yet I had never gone to this place so easily accessible and within reach.

After yet another food ‘trek’ around town last week, one of my closest friends here in Istanbul had had enough of my wanderings when there was an amazing place right under my nose, as he let me know with :”You have gotta go to Kanaat!  Come on!”  And so, there we went, to Kanaat Lokantasi.

The best way to describe the food here is TURKISH COMFORT FOOD.  If you’ve ever wondered about traditional Turkish food, you probably know about kebabs, but what’s offered here at this restaurant is another facet of cuisine that is very well-known among locals but not something really known outside Turkey.  This kind of food is called ‘ev yemek’ in Turkish which means ‘home cooking’ and that’s exactly what this is.  It’s as if you sat down at your auntie’s or neighbor’s house for dinner.  Some of the dishes are incredibly simple and others are some of the most difficult and labor inducing ones to make.  It’s a restaurant that while next door offers Burger King, this one is still serving timeless dishes.  The atmosphere is clean and bright but you don’t go there to sit all day and spend hours.  The waiters are even semi notorious for being brisk.  You go there to do one thing: EAT.

My friends explained to me that this particular restaurant was an ‘esnaf lokantası’ meaning that it was traditionally the local place serving food to all the workers in the shops nearby.  Open from 6:00 am to 11:00 pm, its hours are for the people working all day who want something cooked the way mom does to eat on their break.  The food is prepared and ready to go, you order up at the counter, and while everything is fresh that day it’s readily at hand to the people of the neighborhood.  In this way you can have an amazing home cooked meal on a tight schedule… in a sense, the original ‘fast food’ of much better quality than what we call fast food today.

Nearly everything served here is a classic, traditional dish stemming from Anatolian or ‘Ottoman’ roots.  You have the ‘zeytinyağlı’ dishes that are vegetables prepared by being slowly cooked with olive oil and lemon juice.  There are the vegetables with meat, the ‘etli yemek’, such as spinach or leeks sauteed with tomato paste, onions, and ground beef.  There are also heavier smoked eggplant kebabs and various froms of ‘pilav’, Turkish traditional rice.  The yogurt served here is homemade and thick.  Also, SAVE ROOM for desserts: to name a few, the traditional puddings ‘sütlaç’ (rice pudding) and ‘aşure’ (a complex pudding translated into English as ‘Noah’s pudding”- yeah Noah like from the ark- that celebrates harvest times).

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Beğendili Kebab (eggplant and meat), Yogurt, and Mixed veggies

When I think about the fact that I had never eaten at Kanaat before this past weekend, I’m shocked.  I pride myself on knowing good restaurants, how had I missed this?  After pondering on this long and hard, I think it’s because this is actually the kind of food that I eat all the time.  Zetinyağlı  food isn’t new to me having learned how to make a few myself, and the rice and meat dishes are regular options prepared and served for lunch at work.  To me, this is ‘home cooking’ and something I might not normally seek out at a restaurant.

However, what sets the food at Kanaat apart is the quality.  Everything here is clean.  Nothing is too oily.  The ingredients are very fresh and everything is done just right.  Here is a place where you always know what you are going to get.  There aren’t surprises and the menu isn’t going to offer any wild cards, but the food is something you can depend on.  If you are working hard and only have 1 hour during lunch to grab food, what choice would you choose: fast food french fries or home cooked traditional foods?  I think the answer to that is easy.  My Turkish friends know this place because they remember it from their own childhood as the reputation of this place is historical in itself. In Istanbul, Kanaat remains a constant for food in a city forever in flux and movement.