Famagusta, Northern Cyprus Getaway…

Some days I find myself sitting and scouring the internet for flights to literally ANYWHERE.  I love Istanbul for so many reasons, but definitely its location to endless possibilities of weekend trips has its draws.  This is exactly how I came across tickets for Northern Cyprus… two tickets total for under $90—SOLD!

I have been wanting to check out Cyprus for a while but all I really knew beforehand was that it was a territory of Turkey and the island was divided into two parts.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t do enough research before the flight and even afterwards I found myself desperately ‘googling‘ the history.  The short version (please research on your own as it’s quite extensive and I will NOT do it justice for details) is that over hundreds of years Cyprus was inhabited by many civilizations including the Persians, Egyptians, Syrians, Venetians, The Ottoman Empire, and it was once even a British Colony.  After many years of conflict between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots, in 1983 the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus came into being for the northern half of the island.

Northern Cyprus is famous for casinos and night life…but I wasn’t really looking for that kind of trip…I wanted something quiet, historical, preferably within reach of ancient ruins. A friend of a friend, who just happened to be a Cypriot herself, told us that what we were looking for could be found in Famagusta, or Gazimağusa in Turkish.

Always trust a local’s advice! Famagusta was exactly the kind of weekend trip destination that I had imagined…complete with ruins, golden sandy beaches, and Shakespeare.  According to lore, the setting of Othello is Famagusta’s castle, which you can still see today.  Othello’s actual plot and characters are supposedly based on real events from Famagusta when it was under Venetian rule.

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Picture taken from the left side of the road…

Of course, no paradise is easily found.  We arrived late from Istanbul and went directly to rent a car.  There was the minor detail that in Cyprus, leftover from the days of being a British Colony, the cars drive on the left side of the road!  So, after I looked at the guy who gave us our keys and asked “Is it difficult?” (to his complete horror) we were off… my roommate being the one to drive.  In this situation the best advice I can give is this: remember always to go LEFT and don’t have your navigator set to ‘walking route’ (oh yeah, we realized that a bit late).  The trip took about an hour and a half.  We parked at the hotel- jittery and stressed- and went right to sleep.

Waking up the next morning, it was like we had been transported in time.  I can’t describe how peaceful…only the sounds of the seagulls were audible.  We had breakfast at the hotel… cucumbers, tomatoes, bread, jam…very similar to a Turkish breakfast we would get in Istanbul, only with the addition of HELLIMHellim, or Haloumi, is salty cheese that is grilled so it’s crispy and also melty/gooey….yessssss.  Cyprus is known for their hellim and it was one of the main reasons I wanted to visit.

After eating, we walked down to the main square and saw the 2 churches which were converted into mosques, the old port, Othello’s castle, and climbed up on the city walls. Bougainvillea was blooming everywhere-you could smell the sea and honeysuckle.  By Lale Mustapha Pasha Mosque (what used to be St. Nicholas Cathedral) we came upon a woman making fresh squeezed orange pomegranate juice.  We each got a glass, sat down, took sips, and nearly cried!  I am not exaggerating, that was the best juice of my life.  It wasn’t tart or sour, not too sweet… full of flavor.  I later learned Cyprus is known for its citrus fruits.  We wandered around a bit and then got frappes at the famous pastry shop, Petek Pastanesi…our first of 2 memorable visits to this café.

After our walk, we decided to utilize the car, figuring it would be less nerve-wracking in the daylight.  We drove up to Dipkarpaz Beach (known as Golden Beach).  This beach is has crystal clear blue water and is very clean because it’s a national park reserve, therefore it’s protected.  It’s famous for loggerhead sea turtles and wild donkeys… neither of which we saw…but the drive and the beach were worth it regardless.  I’ve never been in water like that.  You could see all the way down to your toes…and there were about 6 people on the whole beach including us.  We had the whole place to ourselves.

6275cfae-d785-48ba-ab79-635808e01d65On the drive back from the beach we pulled into the only real cafe we saw along the street.  The sign said literally ‘Sea Front Beach Restaurant” with a smaller name below in Greek. Unfortunately I can’t tell you anymore information than this…but it was PERFECTION!  We sat on the back terrace and asked if the fish was fresh (to which the look on the waiter’s face was answer enough for us to understand we were stupid to have asked) and we ordered fried calamari and a salad.  Apparently the calamari came with french fries and assorted meze and our whole table was filled before our eyes.  The calamari is UP THERE for one of the best I have ever eaten… it tasted exactly of the sea.  Salty…fresh…crunchy…not greasy.  The meze they brought out were pickled beets, hummus, tahini hummus (or so we thought), and olives. The fries were also incredible…hand cut, not greasy at all, and I suspect they were double fried.  And… if there was ever a doubt that the seafood was fresh, while we were eating we watched a man spear a stingray right in front of us and bring it up to the restaurant…yup, that happened.

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The tahini is located behind the olives…

We drove back to Famagusta and walked around some more before dinner. Dinner was good.  The food was delicious and actually there was so much food that we had to tell the waiter to please not continue bringing out food. But…the atmosphere wasn’t one I would repeat. There was a woman singing very loud karaoke music and halfway through dinner a belly dancer appeared and danced on every table.  However, just on the food alone, it was a good example of the style of food in this part of Cyprus.  The restaurants are ‘meze restaurants’ serving menus that change daily with different cold and hot mezes that come one after another in a never-ending food parade to your table.  Our favorite thing was again the tahini hummus which we had at the seafood beach place for lunch.  We asked about it and learned it wasn’t hummus.  It was just TAHINI.  It was literally tahini paste with lemon stirred in… so we ate 2 giant tubs of sesame paste… and it was absolutely amazing…fluffy, creamy, tart, a nuttiness and richness of flavor… and mildly shocking that such depth of flavor can come from 2 ingredients.

The next day we woke up, had breakfast, revisited our juice stand, and went for visit number 2 to Petek Pastanesi.  We were on a mission: ice cream.  We had been told that this place was famous for KESME MARAŞ DONDURMA.  This kind of ice cream is traditional Turkish ice cream that has mastic added to it so that it is CHEWEY and NOT REALLY MELTABLE.  Yes.  The ice cream doesn’t melt.  Also, the word ‘kesme’ means ‘cut’.  This ice cream is made in a block, where the waiters cut off a slice of it, and then you eat it using a knife and fork.  We ordered vanilla and pistachio.  As much as I love pistachio, I had a bit of food envy over my roommate’s vanilla.  Mine was delicious– saturated with pistachios, creamy and nutty– but my roommate’s was that kind of dreamy creamy ice cream texture.  It’s a nice way to eat ice cream as it’s not often you can sit and spend time to savor it before it melts, making this extra special.

Afterwards we packed up our stuff and drove to the Salamis Ruins.  Salamis dates back to the 11th Century and at one time was one of the most important ports of Cyprus.  I’ve been fortunate enough to see lots of ruins and this one is seriously IMPRESSIVE.  First of all, it’s enormous, with a massive amphitheatre that you can climb all over and get views of the sea from.  Second…there’s no one there!  At the most there were 10 people while we were there.  It was really something to just be wandering around left alone with stones thousands of years old.

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We left Salamis and headed back to the airport.  We passed some roadside cafés overlooking the beach along the way.  Unfortunately I forgot to write down the name of this place.  It had a similar menu to the other cafés and also served various meze…but this time we went for the stuffed grilled squid.  Wow.  It wasn’t rubbery, it was soft and melted in your mouth like seafood butter…the only seasonings it had were lemon and parsley.   It was stuffed with tomatoes and cheese…I wasn’t sure but I thought the cheese was hellim, just softly melted instead of grilled.  It was served yet again with french fries…to which I can’t complain about.  It was a perfect end to such a memorable trip.

Considering I really had no idea where I was going, Cyprus ended up being a place that I feel deserves much more exploration and is somewhere that I know I’ll make a habit of going back to.  After all, it takes me less time to fly to Cyprus than to take a taxi from my house to the airport!

 

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

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.

Kadı Nimet Balıkçılık…a break from the ordinary…

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

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

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

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

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

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Rakı, with white cheese and melon

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

 

 

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

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

 

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Outside the terrace window

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

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

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

‘Kalá Christoúgenna’, Happy Holidays from Athens…

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Klimataria Taverna and its wine barrel wall…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Proof is in the picture… Oineas Restaurant!

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

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

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Krasopoulio Tou Kokkora
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Xmas Earrings

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

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Dessert featuring melomakarona

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

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


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

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

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The grilled eggplant at Klimataria

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

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!