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Incredible fresh bread is just a small part of why eating in Turkey is amazing. photos by Erin Phelan.
Incredible fresh bread is just a small part of why eating in Turkey is amazing. photos by Erin Phelan.

Eating My Way Through Turkey

By Erin Phelan

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.

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.

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?

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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.

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?

Cappadocia's amazing hills.
Cappadocia's amazing hills.

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 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.

Istanbul

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.

The Blue Mosque. photos by Erin Phelan.
The Blue Mosque in Istanbul

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.

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.

The kitchen chimneys at Topkapi Palace
The kitchen chimneys at Topkapi Palace

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.

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.

Traditional Turkish lunch
Traditional Turkish lunch

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.

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.

Spices are in abundance in Turkey's bazaars.
Spices are in abundance in Turkey's bazaars.

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.

Spice Market

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!).

Celsus library in Ephesus.
Celsus library in Ephesus.

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.

A gulet, or sailboat
A gulet, or sailboat, bobbing on the sea

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).

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.

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.

Along the Bosphorus
Along the Bosphorus

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.

Needless to say, the walk around Ephesus is much needed.

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.

“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.

Peaches in season
Peaches in season

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Hot-air balloon
Hot-air balloon

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.

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.

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.

We sit overlooking the village square and sample two types of pide from the bakeryone 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.

Lift Off

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.

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.

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)

For more accommodation options, find unique Turkey hotels and interesting tours in Turkey.

Erin Phelan.





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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