It’s that time of year…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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