Eating My Way Through Turkey
The sound of a thousand faucets fills the air as rushes of propane pump into deflated hot air balloons lying on the ground looking like beached jellyfish.
Bit by bit the balloons rise and the pilots share a joke. Maybe I’m paranoid, but I’m pretty sure I know what they’re laughing at: How are we going to get off the ground, given this group of women have been eating their way through Turkey for the last 10 days?
Our guide Omer Yapis, a Turk whose 20-year dream of leading specialized tours off the beaten path, is coming true with Tribe Travel Tours, reassures me the pilots are not laughing at the size of my behind.
Before I arrived in Turkey, I had little idea what to expect from Turkish cuisine. I’ve come to experience the “real” Turkey - the culture, the history and the people - through its food, flavors and freshness of the ingredients, eating off the beaten path with a local guide and a fun group of women.
The population of Istanbul has exploded in the last decade as Turks from all over migrate for employment; Istanbul now has a population in excess of 14 million and the smog on our first Friday suggests an urban crisis brewing. However nothing can take away from breakfast on the patio overlooking the sea at our boutique hotel in Sultanhamet, the old quarter.
The spread will prove to be a repeat everywhere yet never grow tired: fresh tomatoes, cucumber and feta cheeses, hard boiled eggs, sweet watermelon, olives and dried figs, and my first introduction to borek – a pastry that comes in different shapes and forms and today is a soft cheese filled cylinder lightly fried without the heaviness of a North American deep fryer.
Omer explains we are in time for melon season, and might get lucky with a juicy peach. Turkey has four distinctive growing seasons and is one of the only countries in the world that feeds itself from its bounty with leftovers for export.
The chimney stacks of the kitchen are astounding - this was the place where cooks competed to impress the Sultans, and by the 17th century, roughly 1300 kitchen staff were housed at the Palace feeding as many as ten thousand people each day.
The importance of food in Turkey, historically and today, cannot be understated. Commanders and high-ranking officials in the Ottoman military were known as “Soupmen or “the Baker” though their duties had little to do with cooking.
I’m not sure how I feel about pasta topped with yogurt, but quickly have to decide when we stop in Ortekey for lunch, an Istanbul neighborhood that buzzes at night with patios overlooking the
Bosphorous. Omer takes us to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, the kind of place the average tourist would never stop, and speaks with women clad in scarves rolling dolma, vine leaves wrapped around fragrant rice pilaf.
One of the women from our group gets the urge to learn to make dolma and instantly thin rubber gloves appear; even though they can’t communicate in words, they communicate through food and before long she has the knack.
While local tastes and availability of ingredients dictate what we will eat, one thread ties all Turkish cuisine: Turks are purists, and the dishes will not only be fresh, but will highlight the flavor of the main ingredient. Eggplants aren’t masqueraded by sauces, and fish isn’t overwhelmed by marinade. Turks let the food speak for itself. Trust me, you hear it loud and clear.
It is hard not to get swept away in the Spice Market, a feast for the senses. The Spice Road was one of the most important factors in culinary history, under control of the Sultan who deemed only the best ingredients could be traded. This remains true today: Heaping mounds of apricots, dates, nut and barrels of Turkish Delight in all flavors and colors line the corridors along with spices in every color: bright yellows, blunt ambers.
Every five feet salesmen offer samples of their Turkish delight including the Viagra Turkish Delight (scientists have yet to determine its medicinal effects!).
As we shop we are given the customary tulip-glass of strong Turkish tea, with a cube or two of sugar it give me the caffeine kick so lacking in a country that believes coffee should be muddy and thick, or Nescafe. But we’re not done: Omer wants to have us taste and takes us to try “the best Turkish Delight in the county.”
We walk to Koska on Istilklal Caddesi (just up street from the Blue Mosque and share nightingale nests, a variation of baklava dripping in honey, crunchy on the tongue, and buy the freshest Turkish delight I’ve ever eaten. Though others have argued that Haci Bekir, another Istanbul shop, owns bragging rights my stout belief is: Always trust the local.
A bit of history
Thank the Gods for Ephesus. The ancient city on Turkey’s East Coast was established in 10 BC and the massive amphitheatre and antiquated highways running through its core show off its majesty. Ephesus passed under the rule of many - the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans - and the Celsus Library, still intact, is an amazing spectacle that symbolizes the grandeur.
But I’m not thanking the Gods for this – though it is impressive. I’m thankful I can walk off one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten in Sirince, a little Turkish village only 15 minutes from Ephesus, nestled high in the hills amid olive groves and peach orchards. It is famous for olive oil and wine, and has a very Greek feel to it (Ottoman Greeks formerly inhabited it, as did Turkish Greeks after World War I).
We start with an eggplant soup that is delicately spiced but so rich I long for a bottomless bowl. Plate after plate emerges: lamb stewed with a local plant root that doesn’t have an English name as it is only found in the Sirince hills, a creamy macaroni and cheese dotted with walnuts, six types of spinach tossed with herbs, and woodsy mushrooms filled with cheese.
The bread served to mop up the sauces, or dip in the pungent olive oil, is warm from the oven. We all wish we were more bovine in nature – an extra stomach would help right about now.
Sailing the Blue Lagoon
Since we arrived in Turkey, I’ve been dreaming of eating fresh fish aboard a gulet, the traditional wooden boats that wind their way along the Turkish Riviera.
The chef must have heard my thoughts because we return for a feast of the seas: prawns who drew their dying breath that morning are lightly done in butter, the sweetness of the meat melting on the tongue, soft and tender calamari, and my own sea bass stares up at me, seeming to saying It is ok, eat me.
Center of Anatolia
The Turkish people are descended from nomadic tribes, and I start to like one after several days traveling the country. The saving grace is our Tribe leader understands well-fed women are happy women: I wish all my road trips were filled with bags of fresh cherries, sour green plums and hazelnuts.
When we pull up to the Hotel Alfina jaws drop: we are going to be sleeping in a cave! I run my fingers along the walls of my suite, and grains of sand come off – I briefly think about what might happen were a devastating earthquake to hit this area, but shake it off as I’m called to discover the area.
We tour “Imagination Valley” with rocks shaped like camels and learn the land around us is rich with ash, highly fertile and famous for apricots, tomatoes and grapes.
But my stomach is now conditioned to eat every two hours and before long it grumbles. Omer takes us to the town of Avanos to a bakery where we sample the local bread and watch it being made and stuffed.
The balloon is afloat and we topple inside the basket. As we lift off the ground I know it isn’t simply a feat of engineering. I checked the scales this morning and even though I’ve been eating non-stop, I’ve lost weight. The Turkish diet promotes good health: grains, fruits and vegetables form the cornerstone, meat is used sparingly, fish is a staple, onions – believed to help the immune system – are used liberally, and we can thank the Turks for yogurt, a detoxifier.
The researchers are right about the Mediterranean diet: I’ve never felt better.
If you go:
For a local experience like this one, contact Tribe Travel Tours or North American representative Brenda Farrell at 604-913-0045 (email)
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