Florence – The Other Side of Florence Food Tour

My initial impression of Florence on the day of arrival was that it was a very beige city… same color, different shades wherever one turned in the historical centre.

I hoped that the neighbourhoods on the other side of the Arno, where the Florence food tour took place, would inspire more confidence with vibrant dishes that gave Tuscany it’s reputation for the best produce and food in the country.

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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¬†KurtuluŇü 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¬†ūüėČ )

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 KurtuluŇü neighborhood that had once been home to religious minority groups during the Ottoman empire and still maintained it‚Äôs 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 KurtuluŇü
Streets of KurtuluŇü

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 ‚Äėgetting to know you session‚Äô 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.