Turkey – A Million reasons to visit

Shahrukh Khan, Shahrukh Khan!”, go the bellows of the vendors behind you, competing fervently for your attention with the strong wafts of the spices on display, the aromas of Turkish coffee & apple teas flowing from all directions and with the spectrum of the colours of lamps that hang from the ceiling. You’re baffled, taken by the deluge on your senses in the Grand Bazar of Istanbul. Far off, in another continent & yet in Turkey, in Konya, a ney (flute) plays a soulful tune and a group of dervishes dances to the tune in the sole anticipation of unison with the Beloved. As the tune reaches a climax, and the hem of the white robes of the Dervishes sways in harmony with it, you are once again baffled, at the stark contrast in the varied experiences in Turkey. Turkey is an enigma, a land where kebabs are accompanied by salads, where Anatolian rock and Sufi music are sold on the same music shelves, where Cappadocian wine and Efes beer have as much an ability to give you a hangover as the çai (pronounced ‘chai’) and Turkish kahve to help you get over it & where the coffee is not prepared in a punch but in a Cezve. If there’s one reason to visit Turkey, then it is for its culture that embodies all of this enigma. The good part is, as an Indian you can fully appreciate the treasures of an enigmatic country. (Oh, and did I tell you, if you listen closely, perhaps, you’ll also be able to appreciate a little bit of their language. Çai, meydan, peynir, dunya, don’t you already know the meanings of several such common words?)

View of the Bosphorus from the Topkapi Palace

View of the Bosphorus from the Topkapi Palace

Like the generations of Romans, Greeks and Turks before, you too land in Istanbul, every bit of which talks of history. A blue mosque, a museum, a church converted into a mosque, a bridge connecting two continents, a sea whose calm ironically expresses the tales of the swarms of civilizations and kingdoms that ruled it and the exchange that occurred at its waters. And then there’s the present. The meyhanes & bars of Beyoglu that sizzle in the evenings, the stadiums of Beskitas and Fenerbahce that roar of a football fascination unsurpassed, the trendy cafes of Sultanahmet with their hookahs and the swarm of tourists and the Dervish Houses of Galata which lend a much required serenity to this mind-boggling city. Istanbul has so much to offer it’ll not only charm you through your journey but also continue to haunt for long, even after it’s over. 

The vistas from a hot-air balloon flight above Cappadocia

But oh, what a mistake it’d be to stay back only in Istanbul. For Turkey & its culture extends far beyond. Into the caves of Cappadocia and the comfort of its charming cave hotels, in a hot air balloon flight above the Goreme valley and the views of snow-capped mountains from the flight. It extends into the monasteries perched on mountains in the Black Sea region and the valleys that straddle it. It preserves itself in the scenery of the far off town of Van and its meshur breakfast culture, Van Kahvalti, whose breakfast spread is as much a treat for the eyes as for the stomach.

The beautiful lagoon at Oludeniz

The beautiful lagoon at Oludeniz

Head south and you’d discover the origins of the word ‘turquoise’, in the waters of the Aegean, where, in the resort town of Fethiye, a glide above the waters will be as gratifying as a dip in the lagoon of Oludeniz. And then as you take a bus to the towns of Selcuk and Ephesus in the west, take some time off the gratis food and drinks (and ice-cream!) served, to marvel at the scenery around you. At Ephesus, the Roman ruins would take you back several centuries in time (perhaps even bring out the thespian in you!) and at Selcuk, the alfresco cafes and the vine all over them make you wonder if Greece would be anything similar. And if you can’t get rid of this curiosity, just board a Dolmus to the nearby town of Serince and where slurps of multiple fruit wines will hopefully lay your confusion to peace.

Discover your inner Thespian in Ephesus!

 

The ruins at Ephesus

And when in Turkey, the burps can hardly be far behind the slurps. What would Turkish culture be without talking about its cuisine? The ustas of Anatolia, and Gaziantep and their kebabs, Iskendar, Testi, and the Doners in Istanbul, the stories wrapped in the vine leaves of Dolmas and Sarmas (stuffed vine leaves & vegetables), the assortment of over 100 kinds of peynirs (& you thought there was only one!), and the competing tastes of butter and syrup in a Baklava, perfected over generations of Ottoman kitchens, as it melts inside your mouth, will all give you the favouor of a culture proud of its cuisine. And even though Turkish hospitality doesn’t really let you miss home, do come back and tell your mom that you remembered her parathas each time you had a bite of the ‘Gozleme’, her chhaas with each sip of the ‘Ayran’, her shira with a scoop of the ‘helwa’. Don’t be surprised (Spoiler Alert!) if you discover cousins of your very own Jalebi and Gulab Jamun at unexpected places, even at an Otogar (Bus Station). Let the Kaymak and yogurt served with these foods remind you of your childhood days when hung curd in a cloth used to adorn the balconies of the house. And if the child in you takes over, then head to the alleys of Istiklal Caddesi in Istanbul and let it chuckle at the tantrums of the Dondurma vendor & all the fanfare that the local ice-cream comes with.

Maras Ice cream seller in Istanbul

A Maras Ice cream seller in Istanbul

 Phew! So much and we aren’t done yet. For, a nation (and a destination), and its culture are all made by the attitude of its natives. Ask a stranger for directions in Turkey and you’ll probably end up being accompanied by the good soul all the way to your destination. For once, skip the taxi and give yourself the chance to interact with these wonderful people. They’d love to know you came from Hindistan and are probably as much in love with the çai as them (Hint Hint Hint!!). Pick up a conversation with the little boy at your hotel to discover his passion for his favourite Istanbul football club and talk to the local restaurant owner in a village to learn he’s as much in love with his grandmother’s food as you. Sit in a coffee house in the smaller towns and play Okey with the old men. Come back with a thousand pictures each worth a thousand words to give you a Million reasons to smile. And as you reminisce each of them to write a post like this, play some sizzling Turkish music, like that which accompanied all your breakfasts, lunches and dinners throughout Turkey or simply play a Maris Banco to hear a baritone calling you back with an old Turkish song that goes

Nazar eyle, Nazar eyle..

Gel yanima pazar eyle..

 (Look at me, O Look at me

Come to me and let’s make a lively bazar)

Nazar Eyle.. nazar eyle

Nazar Eyle.. Nazar eyle

This post is an entry in the “Million Stories” Contest sponsored by the Turkish Embassy, India

 

 

 

Veg-Tripping around Turkey

I turn this dripping sweet upside down and place it in my mouth. With a sound of crunch, as the top of the pastry crumbles over my teeth, the heavenly baklava melts in the palate. An invincible mixture of its butter and sugar syrup takes over & seems like I’m experiencing the whole of Turkey and its Ottoman cuisine all over again, albeit sitting miles away in Mumbai, in this single piece of Baklava sourced from Istanbul. I have a great urge to start this food trip description with Gaziantep, for it is from there, that the greatest of Turkish baklava makers originated, even those who are today known as the best in Istanbul, and still reside. However, I must resist, for good food has the power to sway our senses far far away. And so, I’d rather stick to tradition here and start where we should, breakfast.

Image

Van

Fly to the far East in Turkey, stopping only miles short of the border with Iran. Van, the beautiful city situated besides a lake of the same name, has distinguished itself, not just in being the center of the Kurdish populace but also in having a breakfast culture of its own. Choose the Kahvalti Salonu (breakfast salon) in the morning and leave exploring the vistas of the city to the day. And with that, dawns the realisation that breakfast, in Turkey is an elaborate affair, more like an occasion for the family to sit together and eat. With different varieties of cheese, including ‘peynir‘, olives (both black and green), kaymak (Turkish version of clotted cream), cacik (similar to Indian raita) with bread, honey, salads, fruits and even dry fruits, the Turkish breakfast ensures a wonderful start to a day of exploration of the old towns; needless to mention the ubiquitous ‘cay‘ (tea) to lend further zest to the morning.

Turkish breakfast by Pocket Cultures

Turkish breakfast by Pocket Cultures

A quick thought for vegetarians though, Kahvalti may typically consist of a few meat items as well. In that case you can try telling them ‘Ben bir vejetaryen’ which translates to ‘I am vegetarian’ or also try ‘Tavuk, et ve balik yemem’. (Tavuk, Et, and balik are Turkish for chicken, meat & fish respectively, ‘yemem’ for ‘I do not eat’. Beware though, saying ‘yemek’ instead of yemem can mean ‘I eat’!)

Goreme

Goreme from a hot air balloon flight

Goreme from a hot air balloon flight

From the far east, head to the interiors, and probe the heart of Turkey a little. Land at Kayseri and change some buses to reach Goreme, where the valleys and caves have preserved more than just a landscape. And while you move from one cave city to another within Goreme, step into one of the restaurants to have the humongous lentil burger. A scrumptious one with a patty of lentils at its core, adorned with some onions and other leafy vegetables, it is a perfect meal to bring your craving for ‘local’ vegetarian food to a halt. And the Lentil soup, as the name suggests, is vegetarian to the extent of being almost identical to the Indian Dal. At those times when you really can’t think of much at a Turkish eat out, just order a bowl of this soup and some rice, and you’ll be alive and kicking again to explore the next cave city (Yes, there are more than one of them). At night, get drunk on some Cappadocian wine, unless you have a hot air balloon flight the next morning, in which case you really wouldn’t want to be hung-over (literally!).

Red lentil and bulgur soup by LWY

Red lentil and bulgur soup by LWY

Anatolia

The lagoon at Oludeniz

The lagoon at Oludeniz

A trip to Turkey would be rather incomplete without a visit to one of its several pristine beaches, the colour of whose waters gave modern vocabulary the word ‘Turquoise’. From Goreme, head west in a bus to Oludeniz. But break in between. For it’s in Anatolia that some wonderful Turkish foods are to be found. To believe me, try the Testi kebabs – cracker of a dish from central Anatolia. The vegetables are slow cooked in a sealed clay pot to prepare a hot stew, which is then eaten with rice and some salad. But the delight of the dish lies in the way it’s served – cracked open with a hammer in front of the eater! Definitely calls for an experience. Doesn’t it?

Pottery kebabs by albertjyi

Pottery kebabs by albertjyi

And meanwhile, at all those places your bus stops, feast your way to some Gozleme, Turkish handmade pastry, much akin to the Indian ‘Paratha‘ and have it with Ayran, thick butter milk with lots of froth dangling over your glass. There are Gozleme varieties galore for vegetarians, Spinach Gozleme, Peynir Gozleme, Spinach & Peynir Gozleme, Potato Gozleme (yes that almost amounts to saying Aloo Paratha) or all of them. But decide soon among them because, my friend, there’s a bus to hop back on to! Did warn you, good food can sway your senses away.

Selcuk

Step into one of the quaint alleys in Selcuk

Step into one of the quaint alleys in Selcuk

Once you have soaked into the sun on the most fabulous beaches in Oludeniz, near Fethiye, head a little north along the coast. Cross over from Aydin to Selcuk. You are closer to Greece than ever before, geographically and may be, just maybe, culturally. And so, even though these may not be a Selcuk speciality per se, try the Yaprak Dolma – Stuffed grape leaves, which have been signature Mediterranean food for years. Annia Ciezaldo in her book ‘Day of Honey’ calls the dolma, a narrative dish, like short stories, where each ingredient speaks as the package unfolds. The good part is, dolmas are usually vegetarian, with a stuffing of rice inside grape leaves (their non-vegetarian cousin is usually called ‘Sarma‘). There are other dolmas as well, basically stuffed vegetables. They’ll make for a good change in taste, and a good conversation, as you open each leaf and devour the stuffing inside. After all, they are a narrative dish :)

Dolma by Vegan Feast Catering

Dolma by Vegan Feast Catering

Gaziantep

Now, I want to you to take several steps back, closer to the border with Syria. Fret not; it’ll be worth the effort since we are talking about the most important part of the meal, the dessert. And for that we’re heading to the birth place of the Turkish Baklava, Gaziantep (or just Antep). It’s said that the baklava of Gaziantep is impossible to make anywhere else owing to the weather conditions and the nuts found there. Layers of filo pastry with multiple layers of nuts in between, dripping with syrup, ready to melt in your mouth, the moment you eat. Baklava, for any food lover, is a journey in time and space alike, with its varieties (Turkish, Syrian, Iranian, Lebanese and even Greek!), its origins, and the claims laid by different Middle Eastern countries to its origin. (Yes, it is that important a thing!). Though there are several chains in Istanbul selling them, one would do good to eat Baklava from one of the smaller outlets in the other Turkish towns. They are equally lovely and cheaper! (Heck, everything is, outside Istanbul).

Turkish Baklava by Alaskan Dude

Turkish Baklava by Alaskan Dude

And finally, arrive in Istanbul, where the culinary greatness of the entire Turkey flows through the waters of a certain Bosphorus. It is here that the kebaps of Anatolia, its pilaf and its lentil soup, the baklavas of Antep and the legends of its Ustas, the leaves of Dolmas and the tales of the Mediterranean that they behold, the Turkish coffee and the fortunes of the future, the coffee houses and the stories of the past, the Dondurma ice cream of Maras and the tantrums of its sellers, the breakfast salons of Van and their inherent diversity, all come together to make Turk Mutfagi what it is today!

The Bosphorus from the walls of the Topkapi Palace

The Bosphorus from the walls of the Topkapi Palace

A previous version of this post was published on The Shooting Star – A Vegetarian in Turkey.

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Have you been to Turkey? Share your impressions of the food there.

Travel with the Music of the Sufis

Somewhere in the land of Persia, a man sits in the bleak light of a setting sun, and in the khumar of the Beloved, he writes verses of remembrance. Another one, centuries later, sits under a tree in Afghanistan and perhaps, driven by the same remembrance, plucks his Rubab to a deep, expressive music. Close by, two girls bind the same verses into a melodic song & somewhere, in the far off land of the Ottomans, a hand stretches out, towards the sky, as if soaking in all the energy from the vast expanse through its spread open palm.  And the other hand reaches out to give to the earth what the first one asks from the skies. Slowly, as a Ney weaves out a soulful tune behind him, the man with these hands suspended mid-air and his head inclined on one side, turns & twirls. And his white gown whirls in space, like his longing soul that sways somewhere between two worlds. As the poem in Persia grows, from love to pain to nashey, and the fingers on the Rubab pluck even faster than before, the singing grows graver and the feet in the Ottoman land spin swiftly and more swiftly until there arrives a moment when all of these feel that they have united with the One.

What seems to bind all these together, is the world of Sufi music. A world that spans far beyond what we usually imagine. From the whirling dervishes & Sufi music of Turkey to the quatrains of Omar Khayyam & quotes of Rumi, the poems of Bulleh Shah in Punjab, and the compositions of the Grammy winning A.R. Rahman in India, it transcends beyond states and their borders. Singers over generations have weaved these lyrics into profound yet beautiful songs in a multitude of languages from Turkish & Persian to Punjabi and Hindustani. Instruments from various musical schools such as the Ney(a kind of flute), Rubab ( a lute like instrument), Tabla, Iranian Bagpipe, have all tuned their way into this music. Songs of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, A R Rahman (such as Kun Faya from the movie Rockstar, Haji Ali from Fiza & Khwaja from Jodha Akbar) or the famous Lal Meri Pat (performed by several singers & bands such as Junoon) have been adored by listeners for decades, each of these compositions somewhere retaining their Sufi influence. As intense as it may sound, this is music that has struck a chord with deeply varying peoples, cultures, languages, and traditions. It is, what one would call, “Music that travels”, that finds reverberance across continents.

Join me as I travel to the far off desert of Thar in India to the World Sufi Spirit Festival to unravel a bit more of this wonderful form of music!

Until then, if you may want to, try closing your eyes & listen to ‘Paimona Bideh‘ by Zeb & Haniya or ‘Kun Faya’ by Mohit Chauhan/A.R. Rahman or ‘Lal Meri Pat‘ by Junoon or may be just ‘Bulla‘ by Rabbi Shergill to build up the mood. :)

Turkish Delight!

The Bosphorus Bridge

‘Shahrukh Khan!’, exclaims the man, sporting a smile, at the sweet shop at the Ataturk Airport. As he tries to sing a Hindustani song and even though you know it’s the same age-old trick to garner every Indian’s attention, you still can’t avoid but smile back at him. Even here they watch bollywood, you think. Little do you know that during the next one week, you’ll end up humming Turkish music yourself, eating more Turkish food than you’d have eaten on a normal day back at home, drinking more Cappadocian wine than you’d have in Sula and perhaps praising more folks than you’d have abused on a regular day in Mumbai.
Indeed, Turkish delight is more than just Baklava and Lokum.

Roman ruins at Ephesus

The Roman ruins at Ephesus

You don’t know where to begin. Like the several generations of Byzantines or Greeks before you, you too land up in Istanbul, the mystical cosmopolitan city that is the bridge between the east and the west, both geographically and culturally. How else do you explain the presence of oodles of salad in the same plate as a pottery kebap? Or that of Turkish rock and Tarkan’s pop music CD’s in the same shelf as the famous Sufi music ones? As you roam around more of Istanbul and Turkey, you realise it’s a tad similar to your own India, with a pot-pourri of cultures, music, food and architecture. And to your amusement, they literally sound similar as well. Chai, duniya , zameen, sabun are just few of the several words common between Hindi and Turkish.

Pigeon Valley - Goreme

Pigeon Valley – Goreme

Someone’s told you that the one place to go to in Turkey apart from Istanbul has to be Cappadocia. Well.. terrifically right and terribly wrong! It is indeed one of the best landscapes in Turkey with weird rock formations, and even weirder (but amazing) cave hotels to live in and a wonderful opportunity to take a hot air balloon flight at the most competitive prices in the world (a bigger price to pay for it is waking up at 5 in the morning to make it to the take off location, but totally worth it). But your next stop, Fethiye makes you realise what you’d have missed had you followed the earlier advice and stopped at Cappadocia. With a visit to the Oludeniz lagoon, that can make even the waters of Thailand look colourless, you are sure to return back with a golden (if not black!) tan. And the simple, yet tasteful Gozleme (Turkish handmade pastry), which will keep coming back to you wherever you are in Turkey, but you’ll find them really good here.

The beautiful lagoon at Oludeniz

The beautiful lagoon at Oludeniz

And then, you take another scenic bus to the west, to Selcuk and Kusadasi and Ephesus(or Efes), all in the same neighbourhood but drastically different. One of them, a cute, small town, with even cuter and smaller cafes, the second, a happening beach town and the third, an excavated ancient city with majestic ruins of the Greek and Roman times ( and a beer named after itself!). Each of these, a captivating experience in its own way.

A lazy morning in Kusadasi
A lazy morning in Kusadasi
And a lonely one..
And a lonely one..

The library of Celsus at Ephesus

The library of Celsus at Ephesus

And by this time, you have fallen in love with Turkey!

You still end up asking WHY? The answer lies in the loads of pottery kebaps (they’ll bring steaming hot Turkish stew – vegetables, chicken, etc. in a pot, and crack it open right in front of you) or doners that you or your friends have gobbled up in the last one week, the Gozlemes that have so reminded you of the aloo and paneer parathas back home, the bottles of Ayran that have been gulped down every day (and no, it’s not alcohol.. just a refreshingly richer version of India’s chhaas), the Raki – the aniseed flavoured drink that changes its colour the moment you mix chilled water in it and the baklava( a honey or syrup sweetened pastry filled with nuts), halva, lokum (confectionary with small cubes dusted with sugar or coconut), sekarpara, kemalpasa (something like a gulabjamun), name it and you have it sweets – that taste as awesome as they sound :), the Turkish Maras icecream that just doesn’t melt – and comes with its own fanfare of bells, sounds and mischief – it’s a task to get it from the ice cream seller ( Try it, and you’ll know why I say this)- but deliciously worth the effort :). To your delight, even the buses you travel in serve you free cold drinks, snacks, coffee and even ice cream (in our bus, the man came back for another serving and we happily obliged).

The answer lies in the sizzling Turkish music (sometimes live) that has accompanied each of your drinks, your breakfasts, lunches and dinners. It lies in the amazing scenery that you have witnessed alongside all your bus journeys. But most pleasantly, it lies in the amiability of the people you met along the way, in the conversations with little kids who are as gripped by Fenerbahçe’s football as by their fathers’ booming hotels, in the honesty and the warmth that greets you everywhere you go in the countryside, the help that’s coming your way even before you have asked for it. It makes you believe that for once, you did the right thing by not taking a direct taxi but three different buses to reach your village cave hotel from a small town airport. Only then you realise how the helpfulness of the countryfolk makes the phrase ‘language barrier’ lose all its meaning here. Quite frankly, it seems difficult to get lost in turkey. You’ll always find someone to tell you the right way :).

If you ever go to Turkey – remember to learn one word before you go- ‘Teşekkür Ederim’.
It’s Turkish for Thank You. You may end up using it far too many times.
Because, Turkish Delight is indeed more than just Baklava and Lokum!