Italy was not on my bucket list

I haven’t watched it in many years, but my earliest childhood recollections of a place called Rome was from the 1960’s movie, Spartacus. However, growing up, Italy was not on my bucket list of places to see before I die.

Continue reading “Italy was not on my bucket list”

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.

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

Backstreets of the Bazaar Quarter

My first culinary walk in Istanbul was the Culinary Backstreets of the Bazaar Quarter with Ugur ‘Adam’ Ildiz the walk leader, his intern for the day, and two American couples.

Our first stop was a few steps from the meeting place at Sirkeci Train station where we were treated to a beautifully prepared authentic Turkish breakfast. Ugur also gave us a quick lesson on Turkish honey with wildflower honey from the Mediterranean region, chestnut and rhododendron honey from the Black Sea area and the first harvest of a new colony of young bees that had a very thick texture.

Breakfast consisted of lightly spiced pastirma, kaymak (clotted cream) with honey, fresh wild thyme, sheep’s and goat’s cheeses, aged Kaseri cheese, acuka (spicy tomato and walnut spread), olives, rose petal jam, grape molasses with tahini, candied unripe walnuts served with simit and acma breads. This feast was washed down with black tea and Turkish coffee made the right way (with a layer of crema that covers the coffee completely).

After breakfast we took a walk up the hill and around the area surrounding the train station. Our next stop was at Kısmet Börekçisi where we sampled the freshly made borek. The outside was crisp and the inside surpringly tender and soft with a texture similar to fresh pasta.

Borek from Kısmet Börekçisi
Borek from Kısmet Börekçisi

A shortcut through a converted hamam brought us to our next stop, Güvenç Konyalı, a restaurant that specializes in Anatolian cuisine. Their speciality is the Konya wedding soup, made with dried baby okra that has been rehydrated, other vegetables and shredded lamb. The baby okra has a very short harvest season and is very expensive to purchase.

We passed by historical Ottoman era buildings and stopped at the Neslihan Büfe for a refreshing freshly squeezed fruit juice of mulberries, bananas and apples.

Fresh mulberry, banana and apple juice
Fresh mulberry, banana and apple juice

We then made our way through the garment district that borders the Spice Bazaar, and I for one was overwhelmed by the serious wedding dress shops and accoutrements available. If you’re planning on getting married and money is no object, then a visit to this area would not be wasted.

Wedding essentials
Wedding essentials

A walk up a steep hill took us to the Ottoman era hans (trader’s inns) and the area where the porters who transport the goods up to the craftsmen’s workshops rest and eat.

Our next stop was Pak Pide, where we had a taste of traditional baked pide made for over forty years by the same man using local ingredients and a wood fired oven using wood that burnt with very little smoke. Ugur led us up a flight of very steep steps (without any banister or railing) to the rooftop of the Han where we enjoyed our mid-day snack with a stunning view across the Bosphorus.

Artisanal pide
Artisanal pide

We walked through the Han visiting metal smith workshops along the way. One was for making the steel fittings for the narghile (shisha). Another workshop of a company called Soy was for hand fashioned copper and silver cookware, which one of the tour members said was of superior quality and much cheaper than what she saw on a recent vacation to Paris.

Metal smith tradesmen's Han
Metal smith tradesmen’s Han

A leisurely walk through the Han brought us to Buyuk Yeni Han, a traditional workers tea shop, where we were treated to freshly made kadayif with kaymak (clotted cream) and Turkish tea and coffee. The Han has an intercom system for the workshops to order their beverages and snacks from the tea room. They also had a manual rope system to lower down trays of tea to the floors below, saving the server trips up and down the steep stairs. Ugur gave us a brief lesson on reading coffee grinds left on the upturned cup. Basically, it had no scientific or metaphysical basis, just look for the pictures and make up a story.

Kadayif with clotted cream
Kadayif with clotted cream

The burst of energy from the sweet dessert gave us the second wind we needed to approach the Grand Bazaar through alleys lined with silver shops catering to Russian and Arab tourists, narrow side streets and the great expanse of the undercover central trading area. First stop was a surprisingly clean public toilet at the edge of the bazaar in the grounds of the mosque.

Next stop was along the road with a reputable cart vendor of Midye dolma (stuffed mussels). The mussels are prepared fresh every day by the vendor’s wife and stuffed with rice and spices. He collects the shells in a bag to determine the bill for each buyer. The mussels were moist, flavorful and delicious with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

A little further and we stopped opposite a very busy small kiosk called Kokoreççi Erdinç Usta (Usta means Master) selling crusty Kokoreç sandwiches (sweetbreads wrapped in intestines and grilled on a rotating spit). Ugur warned us that it would be spicy and an altogether acquired taste. I found it crunchy and not at all weird tasting. The spicy kick from the hot chili was delicious too and probably killed any funky flavors that may have been lingering on the intestines.

Kokoreççi master at work
Kokoreççi master at work

Our first stop for lunch was at Dürümcü Raif Usta where we enjoyed Adana and Sis kebap served with a lovely cold Ayran (salted yoghurt drink). The meltingly tender lamb cubes and the minced lamb were perfectly spiced and served with fresh salad of lettuce, tomato and parsley and grilled hot green peppers.

Our second stop for lunch at Yasemin’in Mutfağı was a delicious spread of seasonal vegetable mezzes including artichoke hearts with peas and carrots in olive oil, hummus with chili pepper and fresh herbs, Turkish moussaka (no béchamel included), and bite size Manti filled with minced meat and covered in a yoghurt sauce sprinkled with fresh herbs and melted butter. The menu changes every day according to what is available fresh in the markets.

Hummus with fresh herbs and chili pepper
Hummus with fresh herbs and chili pepper

By the time we left Yasemin’s we had walked, visited and savored our way through 7 hours of sights and treats. After an amazing day the only thing left was dessert, which we had in the grounds of a mosque that backs on to an establishment called Bena Dondurma. It was my very first taste of Tırlıçe, the delicious Turkish version of tres leche, a three milks cake soaked in evaporated milk, condensed milk and cream. The Turkish/Albanian version sometimes literally uses three milks of sheep, cows and goats. Our Tırlıçe was served with creamy Turkish ice cream or dondurma.

After the conclusion of the walk, Ugur offered us some tea at the narghile cafe nearby. The tea was lovely, but the smoky flavor filled air was a bit overwhelming. It was a lovely end to an amazing day.