Bologna: Where the GELATO is a literal life-changing experience…

 

I’ve done it again and taken a loooong hiatus from here. With the start of a new teaching year (and embarking upon an online master’s program), somehow I woke up this week and realized that next week is Halloween…and just how did that happen???? This summer was spent with visits ‘home’ to America, then returning ‘home’ to Istanbul– but not without adventures in between.  This is the 1st of a few posts thinking back to summer trips…

After returning home from America, my roommate and I had planned a trip to Tbilisi (one of my fav places, read about it here if you want:Georgia On My Mind…) but through some kind of cosmic mishap or divine intervention, our flight was cancelled and with the refund we were offered a ‘same price’ flight to Italy.  SOLD!

 

Before moving to Istanbul, my life’s dream was actually to live in Italy and I went so far as to even get a degree in Italian language alongside my other degrees.  Obviously that dream evolved and led me to where I am now, but it’s never ended my love affair with Italy and all of my adventures that took place there in my twenties when I briefly lived there.  Through most of those adventures, my best friend was also there, and we spent days traipsing through the Italian countryside eating gelato after gelato.  I remember back then my best friend saying she wanted to have a gelaterria.  As we would taste each swirled scoop, she would compare this one to that one and this flavor to the next.  At the time it seemed like a sort or game or untouchable dream as we ate and ate.

As much time as I spent in Italy years ago, I had never been to Bologna…a completely magical city.  It’s quiet.  Everyone rides bikes.  It has porticos and nearly every street is red or terra-cotta orange.  It’s so picturesque you want to swoon.   It’s also known throughout Italy as ‘La Grassa”, which translates literally to the ‘The Fat One’ because of THE FOOD!!

If you want to eat the best pasta and gelato of your entire life, GO THERE.  GO NOW.  JUST GET ON A PLANE.  ARRIVE.  EAT.  BE FULFILLED FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.

Upon arrival in Bologna we found a cute local cafe by our apartment.  We were the only non-Italians in there and it was filled with little old men and over-sized bowls of pasta.  You always know a place is good if it’s filled with old people and the decor isn’t fussy. Trattoria Amedeo in Porta Saragozza is a fantastic little restaurant, serving old school favorites and not needing to modernize them.  Why change a good thing?

 

As pictured above, I ordered the Linguine Al Ragu (the closest thing you get to what we call ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’ in the states, only… that doesn’t actually exist in Italy).  It’s probably the most traditional dish of Bologna and is perfectly buttery al dente linguine covered in a thick meat sauce.  Everything is perfectly seasoned and melts in your mouth.  My friend ordered to ravioli con burro e salvia (butter and sage). So simple, just 3 ingredients: cheese, butter, and sage-yet completely complex in flavor.  We ate here at least 2 more times and every time it was a sure bet for just good perfectly made pasta.

 

We also began the ‘Gelato Journey’.  We started out at Cremeria Santo Stefano, then, no exaggeration, after finishing the gelato we walked over to Sorbetto Castiglione and for round 2.  Both gelaterias produced the creamiest gelato and the most intense flavors I’d ever eaten.  It was hard to choose between the two and we decided we would have to keep comparing a few  more times.  My favorite flavor at Santo Stefano was the pistachhio salata (salted pistachio) and at Castiglione I loved the ‘dulce emma’ which had ricotta with fig jam and candied almonds.

 

I think back to those 1st few days in Bologna and it was just magical.  After stuffing ourselves with good food we would walk around and explore the tiny alleyways, then head to Piazza Maggiore for an aperitivo (aperol spritz thank you!) on the square, looking out at the rows of chairs lined up for the open air cinema that played every night.

 

We took several side trips: one returning to where I had lived and studied abroad, one to visit great friends who will always remain like family outside of Florence, and then several to the surrounding towns outside of Bologna.

 

The most surprising side trip was our trip to Dozza– a walled Medieval hilltop town which in recent years local artists have begun painting murals all over the walls and is famed for having one of the best regional restaurants as well as a regional food and wine enoteca.

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Ristorante la Scuderia is worth the hassle of figuring out how to get to Dozza (regional train to Imola, then taxi for 25 minutes).  This restaurant is kind of like a little piece of paradise.  Of course, in typical fashion, we proceeded to order everything on the menu without realizing that there was a certain way in which we were supposed to order our courses –thoroughly confusing the waiter in the process.  When the cheese plate filled with homemade fig preserves came out before the pasta and the waiter presented it to us with a terrified look written all over his face, we understood our mistake.  However, he was so kind about it  so we went with the flow and began our meal of: a regional cheese and jam plate, fried zucchini sticks, fried polenta sticks with creamy cheese, and ravioli with butter and sage.  All paired with a robust Sangiovese red wine… of course.  It.  WAS.  AMAZING.

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img_3804After eating, we went to have a look at the Enoteca, which is located in the old dungeon of the Dozza Castle.  To our delight, we found that the Enoteca was basically a gigantic wine cellar…with wine on tap to taste!  YES.  On. Tap.  You give the nice man a form of identity which he keeps at the register, then he hands you a credit card.  You take this credit card over to the wine taps and press ‘fill’.  For each wine you taste, the card is charged and then when you pay at the end you get your ID back.  It’s quite possibly my new favorite place/activity on Earth.

We enjoyed this experience so much that it resulted in us buying 5 bottles of wine…not bothering to think about how in the world we would get the said wine home.  The cliffs notes version of that end of the story is that we finally got that wine nearly 2 months later and nothing had broken –miraculously!

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Our fav’s were all red and all Sangiovese or Sangiovese blends: Impetuoso, Crepe, and the best wine I’ve ever had-Olmatello Reserve

We also headed to Modena for a quick day trip to check out the city and see if we could find Bloom Gelateria which is becoming very trendy for its vegan and non-dairy flavors.  I have to say, in the years it’s been since I studied and lived in Italy, the amount of vegetarian and vegan options has dramatically increased.

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Bloom Gelateria in Moda:  Pictured here, vegan cherry sorbet, vegan almond and mango

The vegan flavors at Bloom really shocked me.  They were creamy, rich, dense, and didn’t taste at all different from normal gelato…and in fact were much better than some ‘normal’ gelato I’ve had in other parts of Italy.

 

Back in Bologna, we had a final gelato from Santo Stefano. On that last night, I had a combo of lemon sorbet, raspberry sorbet, and something called ‘cafe bianco’ (white coffee).  To this day, I’ can’t tell you what was in the white coffee flavor, but it was awesome.  It was like a mellowed out milky coffee ice cream.  It was sweet and rich and creamy and it was the perfect way to end this spur of the moment Italian trip… or… at least I thought it was the ending…

That whole week we were in Italy, something was happening to my friend.  She was still tasting and comparing gelato and dreaming up new flavor profiles, only this time she kept saying “I WANT to do this.”  So, here we are, it’s almost November, and you may have already guessed it, but YES— at this very moment my friend is on a plane returning from a month long study at Bologna’s finest Gelato Training School: Carpigiani.  This is how dreams come true... take an idea and keep going, because they ARE reachable!

 

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2 weekends ago, I found myself back in Bologna to visit my friend while she’s on her new incredible journey.  The weekend was spent with many trips back to Santo Stefano and even another trek out to Dozza for La Scuderia and the Wine Cellar Paradise.  This time at La Scuderia, fried porcini (again paired with Sangiovese table wine) were the star.  Of course we had to have the ravioli con burro e salvia again as well as the buccotini with pork cheek and carmelized onions.

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Granita Goodness!

The ‘return’ trip back to Bologna also featured a new gelato experience: granitas from Galliera 49.  As soon as I arrived in Bologna, my friend was like ‘Good!  You’re here!  You have to eat this granita I discovered while walking.’  Never one to turn down a food opportunity, of course I obliged and soon we found ourselves with a full cup of granita (italian ice).  Mine: mandolra and cioccolato con arancia (almond and chocolate orange).  Imagine marzipan melted down to a marshmallow fluff consistency and Christmas orange chocolate smushed together in a cup.  That’s what I ate.

On the last day there we walked all over Bologna exploring the antiques market set up in Piazza Santo Stefano and of course eating a final gelato at Cremeria Santo Stefano.  After all my years of gelato eating and all the gelaterias I’ve been to, this one really is the ABSOLUTE BEST.  The ‘gusto del mese’ (flavor of the month) was lemon-saffron-almond.  I ordered it wanting to try something different.  What I got wasn’t different at all but the most mouth watering nostalgic experience.  It tasted exactly like a southern iced lemon cookie.  It took me back to years growing up in the hot summers of the south and eating the lemon cookies.  I actually kinda got emotional while eating this flavor, totally lost in memories.  That’s the beauty of food…when it’s done right, it transports you through time and you are able to connect to past experiences.

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Linguine al Ragu con vino… da certo!

For dinner we needed to eat quickly so I could catch my flight so we went to a place on Via Pratello.  Pasta Fresca di Valeria Naldi serves up traditional pasta and is beloved by locals.  You go in and choose from the menu of the day then stand in line and wait for yours to be cooked upon order.  Once you get your little package, all the cafes and bars don’t mind if you sit down and order wine or snacks and eat your pasta there.  The street was packed full of people at cafes and I realized that everyone was eating pasta from Valeria Naldi.  Era perfetto.  I went for the classic linguine al ragu as it was the best way to say ‘bye to Bologna.  A glass of wine, fresh home made pasta, and in the company of my best friend after a weekend of gelato sampling and hearing all about what she’d learned at school= a moment to cherish forever.

Cheers Bologna, fino alla prossima volta.

 

 

 

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!

 

Weekend Getaway: Edirne and Ciğer…

Life always seems to turn a bit upside down when the new school year starts.  Summer vacation is always a whirlwind of going ‘home’ to the states and experiencing brief reverse culture shock, trying to see everyone, not being able to see everyone, and returning ‘home’ to Istanbul where you are suddenly thrown back into everything full force.

Things generally never get any easier once the school year begins either.  I can say that now things are wonderful and going smoothly, but the first few weeks of school are always critical.  You don’t know your students yet–likewise they don’t know you– and you have to tread lightly so that you can slowly start to build trust and ensure that things are going to be ‘ok’ for the rest of the year.  Not easy.

Let’s add to this being in a foreign country… in a city with a population 2 times that of NYC… and oh yeah, let’s not forget the language barrier too….

By the end of October, I needed a ‘mini-vaca’…. somewhere green and quiet… I needed to get out of the city…and so…to Edirne I went!

 

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Along the main street…

Edirne is just 3 hours north of Istanbul by bus and sits so close to the Bulgarian border that my phone didn’t know where it was for the full 2 days.  Its location is right at the intersection where the borders of Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria meet.  Ten minutes on one side of Edirne you can pass over to Bulgaria, while ten minutes in the opposite direction leads you to Greece.  In comparison to the sprawling urban tangle that is Istanbul, Edirne is utterly quaint.  It gives the feeling of a small village.  There are old wooden houses, green rolling hills, decorative fountains down the main street, and people selling homemade jam, pickles and vinegar. There were peppers strung up on thread and hanging out to dry like curtains in the sun, and peppers sun-bathing on the ground.  There were even giant orange pumpkins!  This is monumental as I’ve never seen orange pumpkins in Turkey–only the green-ish exterior ones pictured below.  There were even a few (but just a handful) trees with leaves changing color. Finally, I could experience Fall!Edirne_2

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Orange Pumpkins (next to the usual gray/green ones)…

Edirne_12Each day I woke up and started by treating myself to breakfast.  In the fields along the river are outdoor cafes serving village breakfasts, ‘köy kahvaltı,’ where they fill your table with traditional Turkish breakfast, a spread of cheeses, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggs, olives, peppers, and various other things.  It doesn’t matter which cafe you choose, they are all more or less the same, similarly priced, and all delicious.

This was only my 2nd trip to Edirne over 6 years living in Turkey, and I spent the time walking around, taking in the fresh air, and stuffing my face with fried liver.  Yes.  That’s right.  Fried Liver.  In Turkish, it’s called ‘Tava Ciğer’, and it alone is worth the 3 hour bus ride to Edirne.  In fact, Edirne is really famous for 3 things: fried liver, oil wrestling (yup, exactly what you are imagining… but I missed the festival), and some of the most beautiful mosques by famed architect Mimar Sinan.  Whenever you mention Edirne, the first thing out of people’s mouths is usually ‘Did you eat the ciğer?‘…. Oh yes I did!  

 

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Tava Ciğer in all its glory…

Tava Ciğer, (pronounced jee-air), in my honest opinion, should really be considered a delicacy.  In general, I have always liked liver and onions and am not squeamish in the least about it, but this style of liver is the best I’ve ever eaten in my life.  After having this version of your old ‘liver and onions classic’, you won’t be able to eat it any other way. I think that the meat itself is one of the reasons why the liver is so flavorful.  It’s made from lamb’s liver instead of beef, and it’s rich and strong and velvety.  The liver is sliced paper-thin and then fried in oil.  It’s served straight out of the pan and onto a plate of sliced onions and fiery dried hot red peppers.  Sometimes another hot pepper sauce is served alongside hunks of crusty french bread as well.  The meat tastes like butter…like you are eating salty, slightly crispy, velvety rich butter.  It’s soft and tender, not tough at all… and it just melts in your mouth.  The perfect bite is to take a slice of the liver, put a few onions on top, and slather it with a dab of the pepper sauce… finish by tearing off a chunk of bread to help with the heat of the peppers.  With the added condiments, the taste is still like butter…but with more crunch and spice.  There’s no extra seasoning; there are no fancy tricks being played.  It’s just meat and onions…and it’s incredible.

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Peynir Helva

Aside from the fried liver, there’s not much by way of famed cuisine in Edirne apart from a few sweets.  These two desserts, while not my all time favorites, are definitely interesting and can only be found near and around Edirne.  Those are the Peynir Helva and the Hayrabolu Peynir Tatlı.  Peynir Helva is made from cow’s milk cheese (the texture is like mozzarella) where it is heated and boiled until it gets stringy…then flour and sugar are added and stirred to it.  It’s a bit like a chewy sweet cheesy porridge.

 

The Hayrabolu Peynir Tatlı is also made with cheese.  However, this one has cheese inside of semolina that is baked golden and then soaked in simple syrup.  It’s served with tahini sauce drizzled over top and sprinkled with nuts.  This one plays more with sweet and savory and with textures.  It’s cake-y and bread-pudding-like, with its spongy cheesy center…and the tahini adds a nice bitterness.  I couldn’t eat these every day (as with the ciğer you would have to fight me to keep me away) but they are satisfying in that it’s nice to have something sweet after all the saltiness of the liver.

After stuffing myself with fried liver all weekend, slowly savoring breakfast spreads that spilled off the tables, strolling through the little streets, and going in and out of every beautiful mosque and gazing at the tiles, Edirne revived me enough to head back to the hustle and bustle of city life.  After all, it’s only 3 hours away…that’s nothing for a journey when there’s ciğer involved!

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Selimiye Mosque designed by Mimar Sinan

 

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’.

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!