Eating My Way Through Turkey
Eating My Way Through Turkey
By Erin Phelan
We sip coffee and take in the Cappadocian morning – soft hues light up the sky, the dew on the grass smells sweet, and there is an undeniable excitement afoot, likely because we’re about to have an aerial look at this bizarre, magical landscape– spires and “fairy chimneys” made from tufa, a volcanic ash have been whimsically sculpted through centuries of wind and rain and villages carved into the rock.
Tribe Travel Tours, reassures me the pilots are not laughing at the size of my behind.
But Omer has been plying me with unlimited cherries, peaches and plums, pistachios and hazelnuts, borek and pide, and has taken to calling me lokum, which we know in English as Turkish Delight.
I have to wonder: Has Omer started calling me this because it is a Turkish term of endearment? Or whenever he looks at me he finds me stuffing my face with Delight?
The plan is to travel from Istanbul down the Aegean Coast, along the Mediterranean, and to Central Anatolia, where cherry trees line the highway and there is no such thing as too much bread.
It’s a tough assignment – but someone has to do it.
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.
Unbeknownst to them they are advocates of the Slow Food Movement, which has gained popularity in the last few years advocating local, seasonal food, which is the Turkish way of eating. This is obvious when a woman from our group tries to order a pomegranate soda and the waiter looks confused – doesn’t she know pomegranates aren’t in season? If she wants that soda, she’ll have to come back in September.
Thankfully olives and tomatoes are staples. And gorgeous fish, and warm breads… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Impressing the Sultan
We take in Istanbul with a voracious appetite, gobbling up mosques and palaces with a hunger for history, architecture and culture. I get my first insight into the development of Turkish cuisine as we tour the Topkapi Palace, once home to the wealth and excess of the Sultans, now a museum with greater square footage than the Vatican.
In this environment the Sultan chefs, who dedicated their lives to their art, developed and perfected dishes still made today. Manti, for example, a small, ravioli-style dumpling stuffed with meat and served with a garlicky yogurt sauce, came from the 12th C. and is clearly a labor of love, as each parcel – the size of a pea - is wrapped by hand.
The feast of mezes – stuffed peppers, long bean salads, juicy tomatoes – can’t distract from the star of the meal. The manti is delicious, and I add more yogurt sauce liberally sprinkling sumac, a rust-red lemon pepper, as Omer does, thinking about how long it took to make the manti.
Time, when dealing with food in Turkey, seems irrelevant. It is the food that is important.
A bit of history
I’m getting used to Omer knowing everyone - the way he walks into the 600 plus populated village of Sirince and is surrounded by friends.
It is helpful having someone like that order your food and the group agrees the meal at the Arsipel Restaurant ranks among the best of our lives, highlighting the flavors of the region.
Needless to say, the walk around Ephesus is much needed.
Sailing the Blue Lagoon
“Blue Cruises” are an integral part of any trip to Turkey – where turquoise waters beckon you for a swim and lazing in the sun is mandatory after stopping to explore the many islands. We board our gulet and meet the captain and his brother, the chef.
I smile my prettiest smile, hoping my eyes say bring me my fish. If he’s heard me, he isn’t giving it away: at lunch we have pasta. I’m a little disappointed but it doesn’t last long, after we take a jaunt up St. Nicholas Island to pick wild oregano seeds and watch the sunset.
It is ok, eat me.
I have no problem complying, and the fish flakes delicately off the bone, done simply in salt, pepper and a little flour. I offer praise to the cook as I head for my cabin, satiated by the meal. As the boat rocks gently, the water napping at my window, I feel like I’ve gone back to the womb.
Center of Anatolia
We stop in a little town en route to the center of Anatolia - known for its breads and pide, a flat pizza topped with meats and cheeses - and sample gozleme, a thin pancake filled with potato and herbs lightly fried on a giant griddle. Our cook’s daughter giggles at us as we ooh and aah our way through eat bite.
Instead of heading to the Goreme Open Air Museum which is littered with tour buses, Omer takes us to Zelve, a fantastic cave city which was inhabited until 1952, when erosion collapsed some walls, killing over 1000 people.
The surviving residents were relocated, and it is now a UN World Heritage Site. It is amazing that nomads built such an elaborate city from such fragile material – salons, barns, a church, bedrooms, kitchens ceilings black from fire, and I dance like Lucille ball in the winemaking pool.
We sit overlooking the village square and sample two types of pide from the bakery– one with a mellow cheese, one with spicy lamb; I can’t decide which I like best; a fresh Arugula and onion salad, and spicy tomato salsa round out the meal, and we head home to our cave. I fall into bed and don’t think twice about being buried alive.
Though I’ve been snacking, my snacks are nutritious: fresh and dried fruits – The figs! The apricots!– and nuts. Most importantly, even the “fast” food like pide and kebabs is prepared without preservatives: fresh, pure, using age-old practices.
If you go:
Erin Phelan is a freelance writer who divides her time between Toronto and the Lake District, UK, traveling and writing extensively from both pit stops.
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