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.


gözleme

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

Advertisements
Standard

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

Continue reading

Standard

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

Continue reading

Standard

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.

Standard

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.

Img_0900

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!)

Img_0989

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.

Img_0918Img_0770

Standard

Istanbul and a evening of Classical music…

As Americans, we are used to having tons of stuff. When we left the states we were very selective about the stuff that we brought. I’ve often bemoaned the amount of crap that we’ve lugged across the world, but people are always remarking on how little luggage we brought. Last night was one of those nights that I wished I had just one more thing with us. I wish I’d brought our Mini-Disk recorder. Then I could have posted the sonorous beauty that we experienced at one of the concerts at a music festival here in Istanbul. Organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts back in June of 1973, this year marks the 38th year of it’s inception.

We rubbed elbows with the Istanbul bourgeoisie last night, me in my Birkenstock sandals, jeans and a wrinkly linen shirt and Tracie in a lovely linen dress. Fifteen minutes before the performance began I bought a ticket for a glass of Turkish Malbec and began to warm up to the atmosphere. Tracie could only take a sip as she’s nursing a small cold. The wine was filled with mellow tones of walnut and cherry goodness. The bells chimed ten minutes and then five minutes prior to seating and we all began our lulling march to the toilets and to our seats inside Aya Irini (Hagia Irene) which sits in the outer courtyard of Topkapi Palace. Originally an Orthodox Christian Church, it was built sometime in the 4th century, commissioned by Constantine I, burned down in 361 and then restored by Justinian in 537. We sat there underneath the only example of a Byzantine church that retains it’s original atrium. The dome sat high in front and above us and reverberated the sounds of Mendelssohn, Chopin and Beethoven.

According to one of the books we’ve been reading about Istanbul, Istanbul: The Collected Traveler, An Inspired Companion Guide, Edited By, Barrie Kerper , Constantine the Great’s tomb is somewhere within the church itself. We looked and couldn’t find it, but knowing it was there added emphasis to the chill I felt on the back of my neck at the crescendos.

There is something unique about listening to classical performances, the sense of timing, the teamwork and the giant intellect that created the pieces all comes together in a group of musicians hands. All of their experiences and yours seem to hang just above your head, filling the room with dreams, memories and hope. Sharing all of that in such a place, is something that will always stay with us. To experience this all in such a central place to European and World history brings to life those composers that lay at rest yet still stir our imaginations.

Standard

Giving Milan a second chance

Why so quiet on the blog, you ask? We're in Italy! I always forget about how different the pace of life is here, and we felt it as soon as we got off of the plane. Italy hadn't even been on our itinerary, but a series of coincidences led us back. Back in March we met Francesco, an Italian who was visiting Pun Pun in Thailand at the same time we were. We chatted over all of our meals and found we had a lot of ideals and interests in common, and eventually he said, “You need to come and visit me, see our family farm and cook with my mom!” We thought about it for a couple of weeks. By the time we needed to plan the next leg of the trip we knew we wanted to mostly skip sights for a bit (I felt like if I saw another temple/wat/church/castle/fort/whatever I was going to curl up into a fetal position) and just focus on visiting people, talking to them about their projects, and eating. Italy actually seemed perfect because we've visited the so-called “major tourist draws” already so we didn't feel like we were going to miss out. So we emailed him and said, ok, when should we come? We didn't want to pass up a chance to visit Francesco and see his farm. We thought we'd also drop in and visit Peter, a baker that Wayne used to work with who had been living in Milan for about a year and a half. So here we were, back in Italy.

We had a few days on our own before meeting up with Francesco and we weren't exactly sure where we needed to be. I hadn't really explored the northern part of Italy much while I lived in Florence ten years ago; I think I was too much in love with Tuscany at the time to even give the north the time of day. The impression of Milan the one time I did visit was that it was a big city, grey and grimy, not someplace I'd want to visit again. But we didn't want to stray far and we were flying into Milan so we decided to give it a second chance, just wander around and get a sense of its character.

And it was a totally different experience. This time Milan seemed like such a vibrant city, people were out on the streets walking and biking and having animated conversations. The center of town is so easily walkable and there's an abundance of public transportation options, from the metro to the tram to the bus. And even for a city that has a reputation for being the most uptight, Milan seemed so laid back to us. Almost every bar worth its salt had aperitivi (snacks laid out buffet style eaten with wine between 6 and 8 pm), so tables full of people spilled out onto the sidewalks everywhere we went. Don't get me wrong, Milan is not some backwater place – I've never seen so many Porsches before and everyone is so dressed up – but it just had a more laid back pace than any city we'd been in the past month or so.

We serendipitously found a local saturday market close to our hotel and admired the mountains of fresh produce from all over Italy. People jostled each other for the vendors' attention and a shot at the best produce. We followed their lead and picked up some salame, prosciutto, cheese, olives, bread, cherries and peaches for a picnic. We headed over to a park, grabbed a bottle of wine on the way and commandeered a bench. It couldn't have been more perfect, each thing we ate was like the Platonic ideal of that thing. Mamma mia! Literally I thought I had never really eaten a white peach before until that moment, and the salame was intensely meaty and delicious. The quality of food here always amazes me, and also that it's so affordable compared to what you would pay in the States. The people and dog watching was quite excellent too, we were quite fascinated by the lengthy conversations that Italians would have with the Senegalese street vendors that constantly bother people with random trinkets.

Our schedule ended up working out quite well with Peter's so we had a chance to stay with him for a few days and had a fabulous time eating and talking. He's been in Milan for about a year and a half so we got the scoop on some good places to go. We made a day trip to the beach at Finale Ligure and ate at a local pescheria (fish restaurant) – I had an unusual dish of anchovies in a green parsley sauce with argula and apples topped with some kind of caramel sauce. We waited patiently in line together at Luini for some panzerroti, basically a small calzone that uses a slightly different dough and that's fried. We also checked out Peck, a sort of high end gastronomic grocery store (think Citarella's but a hundred times more formal, fancy and expansive). We definitely got the sense that the Milanese are just as seriously obsessed and particular about their food as anywhere else in Italy. And of course we were thrilled that we got a chance to make dinner at Peter's house, we've been missing the kitchen so much. Well, to be honest it was mostly Wayne because I had an apertivo of Aperol and something else and was sort of out of commission (whatever! It was delicious and why don't Americans drink cocktails like that more often??), but either way we jumped at a chance to cook a meal at home.

I think Milan, for me, was so different for a number of reasons. Perhaps the city itself has changed in the past ten years. I know for sure that the Duomo had been scrubbed clean – it's glowingly pink now, whereas it was grimy gray the last time I saw it. Of course contextually everything just seemed so convenient and easy after Beijing, I can speak the language and know the basics of how things work (or don't work). Knowing someone who lives in Milan who could give us advice made a big difference in how we interacted with the city too. And what about age? What I look for and appreciate in a city is probably a bit different than what I was looking for ten years ago, now having been to so many other places. All in all our time in Milan couldn't have been more enjoyable and we were more than ready to jump into the Italian pace of life.

Img_8572Img_8578Img_8630Img_8634Img_8641Img_8642Img_8644Img_8645Img_8653Img_8654Img_8675

Standard

Beijing Is Not Our Best Friend

What can I say about Beijing? Honestly, I'm finding it hard to say something nice about it at the moment. It's HUGE and that's an understatement. The city is on such a monumental, grand scale that it made me feel like I was the most insignificant speck. Every day we were there we walked for hours and we felt like we had gotten nowhere. Blocks of government buildings have been built to intimidate and impress, not to be useful and inviting. Everything's spread out and the city map we had made the distances seem deceivingly short. The traffic (that we've mentioned previously) is horrendous and frustrating and practically unavoidable. There's a neverending tide of people in every conceivable means of transport and on foot. Every major intersection here makes Shibuya seem like child's play because it's literally a free-for-all.

Everywhere we went we were unbelievably frustrated. Take for instance our visit to the Forbidden City. Thinking we'd be clever and to save some time, we decided to take the bus. We got to the end of the line and realized we were at the southern end of Tiananmen Square, not the northern end. All we wanted was to cross the giant ten lane boulevard, either to walk up Tiananmen Square (about 880 meters on one side) or to take a different bus back. We walked around the bus area for literally ten minutes and we could not find any way to cross the boulevard. So we gave up and took the subway (it only had an exit on the northern side of the boulevard if you paid), which took another half an hour to just get to the stop closest to the Forbidden City and was still another twenty minute walk (I am not joking) just to the entrance of the damned place.

By then we were already running out of steam and we were getting run over by hordes of tourists. To us it just seemed like the Forbidden City was a bunch of wide open, weedy open spaces with no places to sit and imposing imperial style buildings in various states of disrepair. Maybe it should be renamed the “Forbidding City”. After walking for another half an hour we finally found some benches in the shade to nap on, and we decided it wasn't worth hanging around so we left to get some food. I had a bunch of restaurant listings and I vaguely knew the street where it was located so we hopped back on the subway. Lo and behold, the restaurant was on the top floor of a crappy mall and of course you had to take eight levels of escalators. Not only did we get stuck behind a family trying to haul a wheelchair up the escalators, we then discovered the restaurant was gone! (Did I mention that this was one giant CCF?)

We took another bus back to the neighborhood where the hostel was and tried to find a place to eat. Finally deciding on one, we sat down and tried to order. You'd think it would have been easy enough, the menu had pictures and all we had to do was point. Of course, the waitress insisted on thinking that I spoke Chinese and kept blabbing on even though I was like “I DON'T SPEAK CHINESE JUST STOP OK??!!” I threw my hands up in despair, we finally got our food, we drank beer. Before we were halfway done they shut off half the lights in the restaurant. We resigned ourselves to the fact that visiting the Forbidden City was a big fail and collapsed back at the hostel.

Almost every day in Beijing had been a comedy (or horror, from our point of view) of errors like that. Every time we felt just confident enough with the buses we would get totally screwed. We took a bus to visit a farm on the outskirts of the city, but of course we accidentally took an express bus (not that there were any signs or indicators there was a difference) that completely bypassed the neighborhood altogether and we had to flag down a cab on a desolate highway. Even getting back to the airport was a nightmare, the bus we took when we first arrived didn't pick up in the same location and didn't even drop off at the terminal we needed to be at. That was another twenty minute shuttle bus ride from where we got off! Luckily we left FIVE hours early for the airport, it ended up being just enough time.  When we've given up on public transportation in exasperation, empty cabs would pass us by, eject us because we weren't going in the direction that the cabbie wanted to go in, or would drop us blocks from the location we wanted to be at because they didn't feel like it. Wayne and I have gotten used to looking at each other, rolling our eyes, and saying “CCF!”

I could go on with the examples (oh wait did I mention the chunks of raw chicken in my curry noodles?) but I think you get the idea. We've had low level annoyances and difficulties in other parts of China on this trip but we've more than managed. We've been able to say, that's not a big deal, we can work through it and brush it off. But for some reason in Beijing it was happening so often that we had a hard time putting a smile on our faces again. I honestly have a hard time understanding how anyone could live here long term, it seems like you develop coping mechanisms to the point where you just don't notice anything anymore. Of course we've had some good experiences – hiking the Great Wall, sharing meals with old and new friends, visiting the Green Cow Farm – but this time the bad has outweighed the good. We were not sad at all about leaving Beijing, we were totally ready to say “Zai jian zhong guo!” and “Ciao Italia!” instead.

Img_0006Img_0005Img_0004Img_0003Img_0002Img_0001_2Img_0001_1Img_0001Img_0007

Standard

Bathing is not a luxury

Now that I've gotten my frustrations with traffic out, let's talk about something more soothing: onsens! We mentioned them briefly before but I think that onsens deserve their own post. An onsen refers to a natural hot spring that's been harnessed for a bathing facility or a bathing facility in general. And in my opinion if you haven't been to an onsen and say you've been to Japan, you haven't really been to Japan. 

Bathing is a big part of traditional Japanese culture. It's something you do at the end of the day, a ritual as a way to relax and to chat with your friends and family.They also view it as good for your health, as it makes you sweat and the water has various minerals in it – sometimes it can smell a bit sulfur-ish. It's also a big draw for domestic Japanese tourists and towns have built their economy around their hot springs. Usually the baths are divided by gender, although you can still occasionally find mixed gender onsens in a few places. It's quite lovely to see people of all ages (yes even wrinkly grandmas!) just hanging out together. If you're walking around town, you can identify an onsen by a symbol that looks like a semi circle with three vertical waves emanating from the top of it – sort of steam-bathy looking.

The etiquette is relatively straightforward; you enter a changing area, which sometimes has lockers, and you undress (yes you are completely naked – everyone else is too!). You then find the area to rinse off with water before you get into the bath. You can use shampoo and soap (which some places provide) beforehand or after the bath, but definitely not in it. Once you've rinsed off, you can jump into the bath and relax.  Think of it like a giant jacuzzi; it can be rather hot, I found myself slowly easing myself into the bath a few times. Apparently there are signs warning you not to bathe alone in case you pass out from the heat. One more thing – bring your own towels, as they don't usually provide them and I'm not sure if you can even rent them.

Some onsens have rotemburos, which are outdoor baths. They can be quite spectacular, like the one we visited in Ibusuki. Basically we were sitting in the bath and could see the entire bay and giant rock formations. Giant clouds were scudding across the sky and light rain was falling which was quite refreshing! Some people even have onsens/rotemburos in their homes, Yoshi (whom we stayed with in Kagoshima) has a one person sized rotemburo on his outdoor deck that looks out across a valley all the way to Sakurajima, the volcano. Every night we each had a scalding bath with an incredible view. So we totally recommend seeking out an onsen with a rotemburo. 

We even tried out a super rare hot sand onsen in Ibusuki. We laid down in a depression in the sand and covered the bottom half of our faces with a towel, and someone came along and shoveled a bunch of sand on us until everything was covered except for our heads. We laid there for about fifteen minutes, meanwhile we felt like we were being roasted alive because there was all this heat emanating from the sand. I felt pretty claustrophobic most of the time, I could feel my pulse going from my toes all the way up. I'm glad I tried it but probably wouldn't do it again.
Of course the best thing about onsens that it's so affordable to go. You'd think it would be expensive, but it's not. We paid around 3000 yen ( around $3 US) each for access to the onsen in Ibusuki. For me, it was definitely a different way of thinking about and experiencing bathing, as I've always seen it as such a utilitarian act. I'm of the "8 minute shower for cleaning purposes only" school and I've always hated baths. It hasn't completely changed my mind, but I like the idea of a ritual that the community participates in together and that it's a relaxing thing to do.
Standard