Rome – Taste of Testaccio Food Tour

I woke up on my first Saturday in Italy, excited at the thought of the Taste of Testaccio food tour later that morning.

Having read about the Eating Italy Taste of Testaccio food tour, I hoped that it would be a good way to ease back into Italian cuisine as well as visiting a residential neighbourhood to see Italian artisanal food producers at work.

It was the first of my excursions during my short stay in Rome. For more ideas on how to make the most of a short stay in Rome please click here.

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London – East End Food Tour

When I lived in the UK at the turn of this millennium (anyone remember Y2K hysteria?), London was not notable for it’s food scene or any known gastronomic wonders of the modern world.

Instead, it had a reputation for stuffy restaurants serving bland and uninspiring fare, a place where a curry and a beer was the most exciting thing on a menu for most people. A far cry from being one of the culinary capitals of the world that it is today.

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Shop, Cook, Feast – a hands-on adventure

 

The final leg of my culinary tour with Culinary Backstreets was the Shop, Cook, Feast: A Hands-On Istanbul Culinary Adventure, where I learned to make melt in the mouth borekci and eat Pumpkin dessert with tahini.

This took place in the Kurtuluş neighborhood with the very knowledgeable and helpful Iris, an engaging young Turkish chef from Cookistan Turkish Cooking Classes. Also on the cooking adventure were two American couples and an Australian lady.

Getting there

The Marmaray station in Sirkeci was a four minute downhill walk from my hotel. (I discovered it’s very easy to pull in your stomach when walking downhill 😉 )

From Sirkeci I took the Marmaray line to Yenikapi and that took all of two minutes. Crossing from the Marmaray line to the metro line required me to go through two ticketing machines for some reason. I took metro line M2 that originates in Yenikapi and ends in Haciosman.

The ride from Yenikapi to Osmanbey metro station took 12 minutes. I took the exit for Pangalti then Dolapdere and the exit brought me out right opposite the Ramada Plaza hotel Istanbul, that is the meeting place for the start of this adventure.

On the way back I noticed that the charge for the trip on the metro was only TL 1.60 while the charge for the Marmaray was TL 2.15 using a rechargeable TL 8 Istanbulkart. The cost of a 1 ride Bilet – Pass is TL 4.0.

PS: it takes longer to ride the elevators from the Marmaray platform to the exit than it does to travel between Yenikapi and Sirkeci.

The walk

We started with a walk through the Kurtuluş neighborhood that had once been home to religious minority groups during the Ottoman empire and still maintained it’s multi-ethnic soul. During the walk Iris pointed out numerous places of interest and gave a unique insight into the lives of secular Turkish muslims.

Streets of Kurtuluş
Streets of Kurtuluş

Our first stop was a bakery for morning tea goodies when we reached the class venue. A few blocks further and we came to a bountiful deli selling cheese, preserved meats and olives in abundance, amongst other things.

Sweet and savory
Sweet and savory

On one of the downhill treks we stopped by a tandir bread baker where a family still shaped the dough by hand and baked it fresh in the deep hot pit of a tandir oven. Any unsold bread was cut into strips and dried for use in soups or salads.

Fresh artisanal tandir bread
Fresh artisanal tandir bread

We passed the friendly butcher who offered us tea and visited an artichoke specialist shop where two men sat peeling and cleaning artichokes with lighting speed. Huge vats of artichokes lay soaking in different stages of completion. Apparently, artichokes can be used for various medicinal applications as well.

Artichoke specialists
Artichoke specialists

Our last visit along the downhill walk to the class venue was to a spice and herb shop that catered to clients needing traditional home remedies. This is the place to find cherry stalks (used for kidney stones) and special natural herb blends made up according to folk remedies well known to older generations of Turks.

Natural apothecary
Natural apothecary

After a leisurely ‘getting to know you session’ at the venue with the rest of the group, drinking tea and eating cookies and simit, and learning about the tradition of baby simit cookies baked for the religious festival of Al Isra Wal Miraj, we commenced our 6 course cooking class.

Cooking class

We had the opportunity to watch and learn from Iris. She was very patient throughout the walk and class whenever any of the group with mobility issues were slower than others, or when we wished to photograph while she cooked. We did not have the pleasure of meeting Aysin, whom we were told was traveling, but we did meet the gracious Aysun and her assistant.

The recipes were simple but with enough flavor variation to keep it interesting. Kitchen staples were tomato paste, pomegranate molasses, cumin, paprika and chili flakes.

Sulemaniye soup
Sulemaniye soup
Bulgur salad
Bulgur salad
Circassian chicken salad
Circassian chicken salad
Borecik with minced lamb
Borecik with minced lamb
Stuffed dried eggplants, courgette and vine leaves
Stuffed dried eggplants, courgette and vine leaves
Pumpkin dessert with tahini
Pumpkin dessert with tahini

If you love cooking as much as eating, then this class is not to be missed. I was amazed by how combining such simple ingredients gave birth to such a wide variety of mouthwateringly delicious dishes.

Now that I have finally found Yufka (the Turkish dough used for borek and baklava) in Dubai, I will attempt my own version of borek soon, in shaa ALLAH.

Last but not least, unless you have a Turkish market near you, I suggest that you stock up on the Turkish staples (tomato paste, pomegranate molasses, tahini, grape molasses) as other Middle Eastern variants may not be quite up to the Turkish standard of flavor.

unseenDXB Photo Trail

 

The #unseenDXB Photo trail held during Ramadhan in Dubai is a culinary walk and photographic exploration of the Dubai backstreets and the rich culture of the multi-ethnic city, co-hosted by Gulf Photo Plus and Frying Pan Adventures.

I had taken a photography course at GPP in June 2015, and was looking forward to learning more about street photography since my experience thus far has been limited to food photography. A week after publishing this blog post, the #unseenDXB Ramadan photo exhibition was published in the image gallery on The National’s website and two of my photographs, the Pre-iftar discussions and Iftar snack pack were included.

My start to the evening was inauspicious to say the least. I was stuck in traffic, driving in circles and finally arrived 15 minutes late to the start of #unseenDXB Photo Trail adventure that takes off from the Al Ras Metro station in Naif, Deira.

All participants were requested in advance to adhere to a dress code. Ladies were requested to have a scarf for Iftar & only long skirts/trousers with our arms covered. Gents were requested not to wear shorts or vests and everyone was advised to wear loose, light and sweat proof clothing. Our hosts provided complimentary water, wetwipes, snacks and dinner during the course of the evening.

The first stop was Al Ahmadiya school built in Dubai in 1912 by Sheikh Ahmed bin Dalmouk. It has not been an active school since it’s closure in 1965 and now serves as a historical landmark and museum of education. Arva Ahmed provided the backstreets guided tour while Alex Wilson provided on the go photography instruction and guidance.

We walked through alleys and passageways, passing by street vendors selling fresh cut fruits and hot and spicy fritters and snacks to reach our next stop, a place of two mosques on either side of a narrow street.

At the mosque on one side men were handing out glasses of sherbet in preparation for iftar. On the other side, men were seated in neat rows on the sidewalk, waiting in anticipation of the call to prayer that would soon echo. The area was perfumed with the scent of oranges that had been sliced and placed before each diner.

During our stop one of the shop owners brought a gift of harees for our own iftar. The men graciously allowed us to photograph them while they sat talking to each other. Sometimes looking up surreptitiously to check if we were still focusing on them.

A brisk walk later and we came upon a green mosque where the men were sitting down in an alley under the arches. The smell of oranges pervaded the air and we were invited to join them for biryani. Alas, our iftar was to be had at the next stop. Each of the men gathered beneath the arches had received their own iftar snack of dates, laban, orange and apple slices, water, and pakoras.

We moved onward towards our iftar destination at the Kuwaiti mosque where worshippers are treated to a speciality biryani soup made of rice, three types of lentils and meat. The lightly spiced dish is the perfect balance of nutrition and flavor, although neither the lentils or meat could be distinguished in the soupy mix.

After taking a few more photos after iftar we proceeded to Baniyas square where we completed a photo trail assignment for Alex, before walking around the bright lights and onwards to dinner at an Afghan restaurant tucked away in the backstreets of Baniyas.

Before starting the tour I had been unsure of what to expect. What I found was the immeasurable hospitality and generosity of total strangers who offered us gifts of food or drink to take for breaking the fast wherever we stopped. It was the perfect way to see areas of Dubai where I would never have ventured to on my own.

I had been shy and hesitant to heed the calls of the photography instructor to approach our subjects to make them feel at ease with being photographed. It is an unease borne of an innate shyness and a conservative lifestyle where engaging in unnecessary conversation with unrelated males is discouraged.

On this occasion I stepped outside of my own comfort zone and asked the captive audience about themselves and their origins. Some were more forthcoming than others, but it was an essential tool to break the ice and to make them feel at ease with the invasion of their privacy. So much so that they didn’t even bat an eyelid when I snapped them breaking the fast.

I was humbled by the generosity of the benefactors of the various iftars that we encountered on our walk. Not only to the hundreds of regular attendees but also to the group of strangers who dropped by to stare, photograph and cross question them.

If you have a few hours to spare, the # unseenDXB Photo Trail during Ramadhan is fabulous way to learn about the city’s backstreets, it’s community of expatriate workers and the food culture that has arisen as a result.

Have you taken any similar backstreet tours in your city? Please feel free to share your stories and experiences with us in the comments.

Born on the Bosphorus

 

My second culinary walk in Istanbul was ‘Born on the Bosphorus: Exploring three distinct waterside neighborhoods’ with Ipek, the walk leader, an American couple, an Australian couple and a Japanese American solo traveler.

I had no idea where the meeting place for the walk was located and was assisted by Leo, the Concierge / Front office staff at Hotel Miniature, where I was staying during my trip. The Sultanahmet tram stop was a 2 minute walk (or less) down the road from my hotel and I took the tram to the end of the line at Kabataş.

Leo had recommended taking a taxi to the Naval museum as it would only cost 10-15 Turkish lira from the tram stop. However, an encounter with a taxi driver who didn’t understand English changed my mind, and I took a brisk walk down the seafront road to the museum. It only took about 15 minutes at the most.

Naval Museum
Naval Museum

After meeting Ipek and the other members of the walk who had arrived at the museum, we proceeded into Beşiktaş for a pre-breakfast appetizer of meat, cheese and potato borek at Kafadaroglu borekci. At this place the early bird catches the worm as they are often sold out by midday.

Cheese and herb borek
Cheese and herb borek
Meat borek
Meat borek

We walked through the Beşiktaş neighborhood and gravitated to a narrow street where the simple restaurants serve Turkish breakfast all day. Our feast consisted of scrambled eggs with cheese or socuk and mixed peppers; sheep’s and goat’s cheeses; kaymak (clotted cream) with honey; olives; sliced tomato and cucumber salad; sour cherry jam; grape molasses with tahini; Turkish bread and tea.

Turkish scrambled eggs with cheese
Turkish scrambled eggs with cheese
My Turkish breakfast
My Turkish breakfast

After breakfast we visited the Beşiktaş fish market where they also had a variety of local vegetables; had a chat about Turkish anti-government protests in the past few years that centered around Taksim and a small square in Beşiktaş now overlooked by a giant election poster of the opposition candidate; and a lesson in Raki drinking etiquette and customs.

IMG_0320

Local seasonal vegetables
Local seasonal vegetables

After a visit to the mosque named after famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, we took a ferry ride across the Bosphorus and spent much time in open markets and surrounding shops in Üsküdar tasting the traditional honey, sweets, nuts, fresh fruit and pickled vegetables, cheese, fish and meat. Ipek, the walk leader, was very animated and engaging and well loved by all the vendors.

Bosphorus ferry ride
Bosphorus ferry ride
Mosque of Sinan Pasha
Mosque of Sinan Pasha

The first stop in Üsküdar was the honey vendor from Eastern Turkey, and Ipek, the walk leader, mentioned later that he refuses to charge her for any of the honey consumed during her tours. We tasted wildflower honey, chestnut honey and a queen bee honey mixed with ginger and other good stuff. A few meters further down we had some tasty cheese and olives.

Traditional honey shop
Traditional honey shop
Turkish cheese and sausage
Turkish cheese and sausage

The area after the Mihrimah Sultan mosque was a series of covered markets. Our next stop was at a dried fruit and sweet shop with a neon sign screaming Kalite Kuruyemiş. We tasted nuts and dried fruits including dried Malatya apricots without sulphur. The color was almost black but the taste was sweet as honey.

Sundried unsulphured apricots
Sundried unsulphured apricots
Nuts and dried fruits
Nuts and dried fruits

On the way to our next stop we passed by shop after shop of dried fruits, nuts and herbs and one that caught my eye had strings of dried peppers, aubergine and baby okra. I had tasted soup made with baby okra the day before and would be cooking with the rehydrated dried aubergine the following day.

Dried red peppers and aubergine
Dried red peppers and aubergine
Very expensive dried baby okra
Very expensive dried baby okra

Further on we stopped at the store of a third generation candy maker. I finally knew what the saying ‘like a kid in a candy shop’ meant. Tall glass candy jars filled with every type of boiled candy imaginable, and trays of soft turkish sweets in all colors and flavors.

Turkish delight taster plate
Turkish delight taster plate
Turkish delight selection
Turkish delight selection
The original Candy Shop
The original Candy Shop

We stopped by Kardesler Sarkuteri, a local charcuterie shop, for a taste of homemade pastirma (pastrami). The long lengths are backstrap and the oval shapes are butt cheeks encased in a spicy paste containing tomato paste, garlic and other herbs and spices and pressed to compact it during curing. This was a welcome respite from all the sweets we had consumed thus far.

Pastirma
Pastirma
Whole pastirma
Whole pastirma

He also sold fresh phyllo sheets every day. They are unlike the rectangular ones available in supermarkets in rest of the world. These are the size of a huge round tray (the pan they are baked in) and they come in different thicknesses depending on the use.

Real fresh phyllo sheets
Real fresh phyllo sheets

We followed the pastirma with salty and sour pickles at another nearby shop. I had come to realize by this time that there is not much that the Turks don’t pickle or preserve thanks to the ancient nomadic and seasonal lifestyle of their ancestors. The pickle shop did not disappoint and we tasted pickled beetroot, unripe plums , unripe melon and green tomatoes.

In a pickle
In a pickle
Pickled plums, melon, beetroot, green tomato and cabbage
Pickled melon, beetroot, green tomato and cabbage

The neighborhood had lovely parks, squares and open areas where retired men and women spent the morning together. We passed through a converted Ottoman era hamam that was now used as a retail clothing hub.

Public park and rest area
Public park and rest area

On the walk to the Butcher section of the market we passed by many fresh fruit and vegetable stalls with the most beautiful selection of seasonal local and imported produce. The colors seemed brighter than I recall from my local supermarket and I found myself compelled to capture them all. I hope you like them as much as I do. I can assure you that the taste of the fruits are as vibrant and fresh as their colors.

Local and imported fruits
Local and imported fruits
Juicy sweet apricots
Juicy sweet apricots
A cook's delight
A cook’s delight
Seasonal fresh vegetables
Seasonal fresh vegetables

We stopped at a small confectionery shop on the way to Butcher street for some Turkish glaced fruits and hot and cold beverages. The fruits reminded me of the glaced fruits and preserves that were served at Cape Malay wedding reception dinners when I was young. It seems to be another one of our traditions that is slowly but surely dying out.

Turkish black tea
Turkish black tea
Glaced chestnuts, figs and preserved tomato
Glaced chestnuts, figs and preserved tomato
Glaced melon and figs
Glaced melon and figs

By this time everyone was feeling giddy with all the sugar consumed and we were craving something salty. So onward we traipsed to Butcher street with counters full of offal (tripe, trotters, liver, kidneys, tails and hearts of oxen and sheep). You have to see this to believe it, as I have never heard of it sold anywhere else for normal household consumption than in South Africa.

Tripe and trotters
Tripe and trotters
Fresh oxtail, liver, kidney and heart
Fresh oxtail, liver, kidney and heart
Slow roasted sheep head
Slow roasted sheep head

Our next treat was slow roasted sheep head, expertly sliced and diced with surgical precision by the butcher. The sheep heads are roasted on a low heat for hours once a week only. They sell like out quickly and should ideally be pre-ordered. I had never tasted sheep head before but found the cheeks delicious and the flesh of the eye socket meltingly tender (we knew this from Andrew Zimmern on the Bizarre foods Travel channel series). I tasted a bit of the brain and that was creamy and not what I expected.

Lamb head surgery
Lamb head surgery
Sliced roasted sheep head
Sliced roasted sheep head

Our next stop was at a small seafood restaurant called Balikci Barinaği serving simple and tasty dishes of deep fried sardines coated in semolina served with rocket salad and fat tasty mussels stuffed with rice and spices.

Stuffed mussels
Stuffed mussels
Sardines and rocket
Sardines and rocket

Our last meal in Üsküdar was at Cafe Menesse, a restaurant specializing in Black Sea cuisine, where we were treated to Mihlama (a butter Turkish take on cheese fondue) served with fresh home made cornbread and meatballs. The restaurant was small and homestyle with seating for at most 16 customers. The smell of the roux while she was preparing the fondue was so buttery and nutty and the taste of the Mihlama was cheesy, stringy and delicious. It went well with the cornbread and meatballs.

Cafe Menesse menu
Cafe Menesse menu
Mihlama, lamb meatballs and cornbread
Mihlama, lamb meatballs and cornbread

The last of the three neighborhoods on our tour was Kuzguncuk, a charming residential neighborhood that is attempting to recapture the multicultural spirit of it’s earlier years. To get there we boarded a bus and took a ride a few minutes down the road. We passed family bakeries, pharmacies, community gardens as well as countless feeding stations for the stray cats and dogs. I have never seen any city where the people are so concerned for stray animals that they put out food and water daily and even build houses for them on the sidewalk.

Neighborhood bakery
Neighborhood bakery
Community garden
Community garden
Kuzguncuk street
Kuzguncuk street

Our last meal of the day was fish soup at a neighborhood cafe. Thereafter Ipek took us back down to the ferry station at Üsküdar with directions on how to get back to Sirkeci by the Marmaray line undersea metro.

Fish and vegetable soup
Fish and vegetable soup