A Turkish Food Primer: Börek and Beyond

What is a börek? Put simply, it is a savory pie: a filling, usually of cheese or meat, is sandwiched between sheets of thinly rolled-out dough. It is baked, or pan-fried, or deep-fried, which allows the ingredients to combine in a delectable marriage as the filling melts, blending to a creamy consistency inside a crisp casing of pastry.

“Simply Sensational”, Berrin Torolsan. p. 346. Istanbul: The Collected Traveler: An Inspired Companion Guide. Ed., Kerper, Barrie.

I couldn’t really have described it any better. Some mornings we’d smell the rich scent of börek wafting down the alleys and we had to find our way to the nearest börekçi (shop that specializes in making börek) and fill up on an entire bag’s worth of them. They’re best when freshly made – when you bite into them, there’s a crisp airiness that I still dream about. I was especially fond of the cheese and spinach ones, but there were plenty of other fillings like ground lamb or potatoes or straight cheese. They’re made from yufka, thin unleavened sheets of dough similar to phyllo, so their shapes and sizes could vary widely. We saw cigar shaped ones, puffy ones, triangle ones – each börekçi had its own specialties.

In Eskesehir we were quite lucky to try çiborek, a variant on börek that apparently came from the nomads in Central Asia. They seem like a cross between a flaky pastry and a dumpling, filled with minced beef and onions, and comes burning hot out of the fryer. When we bit into it, meaty-fragrant juice leaked out and scalded our tongues but at the same time we couldn’t eat them fast enough because they just tasted so good.

çibörek – eating nine of these is considered a normal portion!

Another savory bread-based snack that we encountered was gözleme. It’s a thin dough that’s rolled out by hand and cooked on a saç, a convex shaped griddle/oven with a flame underneath. Yufka is also traditionally made on a saç, but yufka is much thinner while the gözleme dough is more the consistency and thickness of lavash.

woman making gözleme by hand

Once the dough is almost done cooking, fillings such as cheese and spinach are placed in the center and the dough is folded up to contain the filling. By far the best one we had was at Bugday‘s organic market in Istanbul on Saturdays, as it was made freshly by hand. We found gözleme at every café in every bus station and town we visited, but often they had been sitting there for hours and were rather soggy. So we recommend a trip out there to try some.


Bugday organic market
in its 4th year!
Sisli neighborhood, Bomonti, close to old Tekel Beer factory


A Turkish Food Primer: Bread

So now you have all these meze on your table – what do you eat it with? Bread, of course! To say that Turks “like” bread is the understatement of the year. We had bread with literally every meal of the day, every day. Early one morning on the farm we were on our way to the fields in a cart attached to the back of a tractor. Suddenly the farmer pulled over and ran into the corner store. We realized, oh, he’s grabbing a huge loaf of bread to go with breakfast! (What do the girls we’re working with buy? Lollipops.)  We observed a few types of bread (ekmek) that  seemed to be most common: giant loaves of white bread similar to scali bread, pide, which is similar to pita but without the pocket, and lavash, which is a thin type of flatbread that’s slightly thicker than pide.

Bread and Water

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A Turkish Food Primer: Mezeler

On our return Stateside we’ve been cooking all our meals from scratch – partially because we don’t have a lot of money right now, we’re sick of eating out at restaurants, and we wanted to try to make some of the dishes that we’ve eaten on this trip. We’ve been reflecting a lot on Turkish food in particular because generally it doesn’t require any crazy ingredients or specialized equipment. So for the next few posts we’ll share what we observed about food while we were in Turkey and present some recipes.

One aspect of Turkish food that I fell in love with is the meze (plural: mezeler). Mezeler consist of small plates of food, similar to tapas, that are eaten at the beginning of lunch or dinner as appetizers, or can make up the entire meal if enough dishes are ordered. At many restaurants, the waiter wheels out a cart loaded to the brim with dishes wrapped in saran wrap for you to ogle, prod and salivate over.

at Değirmen Restaurant

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Doric, Ionic, Corinthian

One of the reasons why we picked Turkey as one of the countries on our itinerary was the fact that it has such a rich and long history. Wayne and I both have wanted to see classical ruins for a long time, and then we realized, duh, there are plenty of classical ruins to visit in Turkey! It’s super close to Greece and was part of the Roman empire.

After we ended up at Değirmen farm, we discovered that we weren’t far from Ephesus (Efes in Turkish – also the name of Turkish beer!). It was the second largest city after Rome during the Roman empire and was an important trading port. It had an enormous amphitheater, a network of aqueducts, large public baths and a beautiful library. After a few centuries though the city fell from prominence because the river gradually silted up the harbor and it became unusable. The history of Ephesus and the amount of remains that have been dug up/restored seemed quite impressive, so Wayne and I put on our tourist hats and joined the crowd.

The amphitheater. This place is ridiculously huge. And yes you can hear people murmuring on the stage rather clearly.

A view from about halfway up the steps in the amphitheater, looking out down the avenue. The port would have been farther into the distance. The sea is now about 5 kilometers away from Ephesus.

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Two Lumps, Please

One of the things I am missing the most since we've left Turkey is çay – pronounced “chai”. Çay at its most basic is black tea, but at the same time it's so much more than that. If there's one thing I had to pick to represent Turkish culture as we've experienced it, it would be çay. 

To make çay, a double boiler consisting of two stacked pots of differing sizes is employed. The bottom larger pot is filled with water and brought to a boil. Some of the boiling water is poured into the smaller pot on top that contains the tea leaves. The heat is kept high as the tea leaves steep and the water continues to boil. After a few minutes this thickened tea liquor is poured into small tulip-shaped glasses, and the strength of the tea can be adjusted individually by adding more hot water from the bottom pot. Çay is served extra hot, always in small glasses, a ceramic dish and a spoon, with sugar cubes on the side, and never with milk.

People drink çay all the time. At five in the morning on the farm we'd be greeted by the clink-clink-clink of a spoon being stirred in a glass in our next door neighbor's kitchen. You can while away the hours on a one lira glass of çay in a cafe while playing backgammon with a friend or reading the paper, we saw scores of old men in every town passing time that way. We'd drink it with lunch, breakfast and dinner. We'd drink it at in between times, and were offered it every time we visited someone's house. We'd watch men with trays filled with those tulip-shaped glasses weave their way through the crowd in the bazaar in Istanbul, delivering it to each shop. We drank it (yes, in tulip-shaped glasses) on the twenty minute commuter ferry past the Golden Horn while watching the sun set.

To be honest I didn't get it at first. I thought, “it's so hot, why would you want to drink tea?” And the first time I tried it, I wasn't thrilled with the taste. Because it's been steeped for so long the tea ends up being rather bitter. And ran counter to everything the tea lady in Beijing told us about making tea! But çay is everywhere, you can't avoid it. Two sugarcubes seemed to mellow it out a bit, and after a while we got addicted. It's actually refreshing when it's hot out, and I always looked forward to having some çay with a meal, especially breakfast. (Have we talked about Turkish breakfast yet? Bread, cheeses, olives, honey, cucumbers tomatoes, boiled eggs? Still my favorite.) Perhaps we also got hooked on the ritual as well. We'd get mesmerized by the clinking of the spoon and watching the sugarcubes dissolve into the tea. It's a social glue, a way to kill time while waiting for the dolmuş, stretching out dinner just a bit more, an excuse to people watch, a moment of relaxation.

We ended up liking çay so much that we stuffed an entire “crystal” tea set into our backpack. Next time we'll have to figure out how to bring one of those double boilers home.


Map update

Since I woke up early today (finally got used to waking up at 5 am working on the farm and now we're back in a city!) I decided to update the Google map that Wayne and I had made before we even started our trip. It just has the major points we visited and there's so much more detail that we can add, but before we go crazy with it I wanted to know if anyone could make recommendations for an app/plugin/widget/whatever: we want to tie our photos on flickr and our blog posts to a map somehow but realize that it may be a rather daunting task after four months of non-geotagging going on. Any ideas?


Crazy and Wine

For the past two weeks we’ve been working on an organic farm in Kuşadası – it’s a summer resort town on the Aegean coast of Turkey close to Izmir. Yerlim farm is the largest organic farm in Turkey, and in part supplies Değirmen Restaurant which is on the grounds of the farm. We’ve been helping and observing the team with their daily tasks, like picking tomatoes and eggplant or collecting mulberries. The team consisted of small groups of mostly teenaged girls led by an older (usually male) foreman. One of the most frustrating things was the language barrier, seeing as we didn’t know any Turkish and nobody really speaks English. So it was really difficult to ask anything beyond rudimentary questions and just straight observation.

At the same time, it gave us an opportunity to learn some Turkish, more than we had been since we had mostly been spending time with English speakers. And it gave us (and the farm team) endless hours of amusement, as we often tried to pantomime what we wanted to communicate. Best of all, our names were “Crazy” and “Wine” – at least that’s how it came out whenever anyone was trying to get our attention. “Crazy! Gel!” meaning “Tracie! Come!” What’s even more hilarious is that it was usually a teenaged girl saying it. And whenever they wanted to talk about me amongst themselves my nickname was apparently was “japon”. Probably meaning “that asian chick who says she’s american”. Mehmet, one of the farmhands, would randomly shout across the field: “Wine!” to get Wayne’s attention. I’d snicker but no one else got the joke.


Did Wayne just kill someone? Oh wait we were picking mulberries.

We accepted our new names and tried to learn as many Turkish words as possible in the meantime. (Please don’t ask us to conjugate any verbs.) We had probably the most crappy dictionary for doing farmwork seeing as our dictionary was actually a phrasebook geared towards tourists. At least Turkish is relatively straightforward to pronounce once you know the rules, it’s very regular so at least we could sound it out from the phrasebook. We also used lots of hand and body gesturing to get our point across, and luckily one of the interns spoke enough rudimentary English that she was able to help us figure out more words. The teenaged girls were a bit more mischievous, as they’d try to get us to call each other names or tell each other to shut up when we had no idea what we were saying. We wised up pretty fast and turned the tables by telling them to “sus”! “Shut up”!

(can anyone tell us what “çani başi” means? I think that’s how it’s spelled, and means “how are you?”. and apparently the reply is “başim tu çani”. please correct us if we are wrong!)


The girls at work.

One of my favorite Turkish phrases is “çok güzel”. It literally means “very beautiful”, but Turks say it all. the. time. Once we learned the phrase I could hear people saying it across a restaurant, on the beach, on the dolmuş, basically everywhere. It seems like you can use it to describe the taste of something, the beauty of a place, the weather, a girl (not boys though!!), an experience. And often a hand gesture consisting of putting your fingers pointing upwards, with your palm facing you, and your thumb touching your forefinger, accompanies the phrase. I think it’s the earnestness with which it’s said that really appeals to me.

çok güzel!

We even surprised other Turks with the amount of Turkish we had picked up. Last night we were trying to get back into the center of Kuşadası to move on to Selçuk but the dolmuşes kept passing us by because they were full. So just for kicks we put our thumb to hitchhike. And a car actually stopped! Three Turkish college students were super nice and gave us a ride into town. And as we were chatting and telling them about our experiences, we listed off a whole bunch of Turkish words for various fruits and vegetables and describing what the farm was like. (“çok sıcak” – “too hot” – was an all encompassing phrase.) They were like, “uh, wow you know a lot of random words in Turkish. And by the way why did you want to be on a farm??”

More about that next time.



The Great Outdoors

This time around in Italy we were determined to spend more time outdoors than in museums. And how could we not? The landscape is just absolutely stunning, and there’s so much variety within two or three hours’ travel of Milan. And really, if you go to Italy and you don’t spend time in the fields and the mountains and the seaside than you really haven’t been to Italy. There’s something about the way the centuries-old villages and farmhouses and villas are such an integral part of the landscape that makes it even more picturesque and beautiful.

In addition, it’s a super economical way to spend the day, especially if you pack a picnic. Most of the places we went were easily accessible by public transportation, but if we had wanted to do any serious hiking in the mountains or stay at an agriturismo we probably would have needed to rent a car. There’s always next time!


We didn’t even mean to go on a hike, it just sort of happened. Behind the hotel we were staying at (Hotel Montecadeno), there’s a small road (Via Vezio) that rises steeply up to Castello di Vezio and a tiny village at the top of the hill. The castle was closed by the time we arrived, but the town is worth a short exploration.


We found a hiking path (Sentiero del Viadante) that passed through some farmland and across the spine of the hill. The signs aren’t exactly straightforward but it’s a relatively easy hike, in fact I was wearing my fancy (flat) sandals and it wasn’t too much of a problem.


We saw some stunning views of Lake Como from up high, and it was early evening so the sun was just behind the mountains and the light was totally amazing. And best of all in that hour we didn’t encounter a single other person.


The bottom of the trail ended up on the opposite side of Varenna so it was an easy loop back through the town to our hotel.



Francesco, Chiara and Giovanni took us to a gorgeous spot on the Trebbia river and we spent the day sunbathing and swimming.


The river is at the bottom of a wooded steep valley filled with rocks that makes for some dramatic scenery. The water was such a clear blue turquoise color that you could see all the way to the bottom. The water was freezing when we jumped in but felt so good after being in the sun for so long.


There really wasn’t anyone else around for the whole day, and it was just a magical place – getting there definitely involves driving on some carsick-inducing curves. I wish we had spent more time in that area, we saw some trails that started around Bobbio that seemed worth a look.



Cinque Terre

We planned on hiking the path between the five towns of Cinque Terre, but it was closed due to the danger of falling rocks! So we revised our plan a bit, started out in Riomaggiore and had a picnic overlooking the village from up high.


We then walked on the Via dell’Amore to Manorola as it was the only part of the trail that was still open.


We finished the rest of the picnic on a bench overlooking Manorola and eavesdropped on some old ladies talking about food.


 We took the train to Corniglia in the evening, which proved to be ideal – we caught the best sunset I think I’ve ever seen in my life.


As Corniglia is up high, you have a very wide view of the ocean and you can see Manarola in the distance. Just be prepared for the 368 steps from the bottom of the hill near the train station to the village at the top of the cliff.

We had dinner the next night in Vernazza, but it was rather disappointing. I think in general it was the most disappointing for me because my most vivid memories of Cinque Terre from the first time I visited more than ten years ago were of Vernazza. I remember it being a bit on the shabby side, kind of deserted (I visited in the fall) and quiet with some older people who were hanging out in the piazza. This time it just seemed overrun with tourists, the piazza was filled with tables with Americans stuffing their faces and everything was loud and brash and maybe a bit overdone.

That being said I think that Cinque Terre still retains some of its charms, we certainly enjoyed our time taking photos and sketching the afternoon away in Manarola. I guess I just shouldn’t have expected a quiet village on the seaside when it’s the height of tourist season.


Camogli was definitely more low key than Cinque Terre and much more geared towards Italians. In fact I recommend staying at a town anywhere on the Ligurian coast that isn’t Cinque Terre if you want to get a feel for where Italians like to vacation on their own turf. Each town has its own character – Finale Ligure has a laid-back beach town feel, Santa Margherita delle Ligure is a more happening, social place and Levanto is the young-dudes-in-their-twenties-learning-to-surf kind of spot.

Camogli definitely has a local vibe, lots of 19th century buildings near the train station and older farmhouses up the slope. We didn’t explore the town itself as much since our main goal was to hike from Camogli to Portofino. Both towns sit on a pennisula, so the hike involves following the coastline of the pennisula (or over the top of the mountains) from Camogli, which is in the northeast corner, to Portofino, which is in the southwest.


We heard conflicting reports about the length and diffculty of the hike, and we thought it would be around four hours and a moderate hike. Picking up the trail at the beginning is a bit of a pain as there’s a bunch of construction and it was totally confusing, but the first bit is pretty easy in that it’s mostly paved. It is sort of straight up the hill, but at the top you’re rewarded with a tiny village that overlooks the Tyrrhenian Sea past Genova all the way to the Alps. And yes there is even a restaurant on the trail where you could probably enjoy some prosecco while watching the sun set.


We continued on the trail and we passed some signs that said “DANGER FOR EXPERT HIKERS ONLY” (or what I gathered from my rather lame knowledge of Italian) with some more details about being prepared with lots of water and not going in the middle of the day. We pshawed the sign thinking, dude, we’ve climbed a volcano and the Great Wall, how hard could this be? The trail we were just on was just a piece of cake! But then quickly realized that they weren’t joking – there were literally parts of the trail that consisted of a vertical rock face, a chain attached to the rock face that you had to cling to and a 300 foot drop straight into the sea.


Needless to say I tried to ignore the fact that I am afraid of heights and just plunged on ahead – we were too far into the trail to go back and that just seemed more painful.


We didn’t even make it to Portofino, the hike just to San Fruttoso was so difficult that we basically ran out of gas by that point. We got on the boat instead – and then while we were sitting on a bench in Portofino a guy who had passed us on the trail earlier walked down into town past us and we felt totally lame. I’m really glad that we did the hike because the view was unforgettable, but if I did it again I would be much better prepared with a better trail map, a good pair of hiking shoes, two extra liters of water and a ton more food. Note to self: take signs seriously, even if it’s in Italian. I still recommend exploring the pennisula if you have any sense of adventure because the views are amazing and the landscape just feels so unique.

We were really glad that we got off the beaten path (so to speak) this time around in Italy. And remember: always pack a bottle of wine because you never know when you’ll need to break out the picnic!