Spring on My Windowsill: Sage

sage on my windowsill

I love our apartment in Rome. It is in an old palazzo from 1886. I love everything about it. There is just one aspect which I miss, which would make out of this lovely apartment a perfect apartment: A balcony or terrace. So on my kitchen windowsill I have put some planters and have some herbs in there, it is great to have them, not only because of the quick and fresh herbs I can use anytime, but also because they just look great. This lively green in the silver-aluminum planters.

Now they are even more beautiful to look at, because, starting with the sage, they are in flower! As much as I love the looks, I wonder, is the life of a windowsill herb over when it blooms? Will the herbs taste the same afterwards? I have sage, rosemary, thyme and, no, not parsley (this is Rome, not Scarborough Fair!) but basil. I lived in Liguria and know first hand that “wild” rosemary bushes are perfectly ok after flowering but that when basil blooms, the leaves turn too hard and bitter. Do you have any experience to share with me?

In the meantime, the next couple of days I will be in Istanbul, gathering great recipes and hopefully some nice pictures, and eating some real simit, so get ready, when I return, there will be some cooking!

Istanbul: Meyhane Food (Meze and Rakı)

Sitting in a taxi cab in Istanbul at 3 in the morning, doused with rakı and with a full belly, either going to a club to dance the calories away or to your hotel (depending on your fitness), you will be caught in a traffic jam. Not if, not when, there will be a traffic jam. The cab driver, if he is not from Istanbul (as are many of his 18,500 registered colleagues), will get mad, pound on the steering wheel and go: “I don’t understand it. Why don’t these people go home and sleep? What is it with this city? I just don’t get it! They are crazy!” But you will know better, you had the street food, you had the meyhane food: You don’t have to understand Istanbul, you just go with the flow. You eat what comes to your table, you drink, you have fun, you live.

Meze

Whenever I go to Istanbul, the highlight is the night when we go to a meyhane. Literally, this means a “wine house”; although nowadays you would be hard-pressed to find good, or any, wine in a meyhane. (Don’t let me get started on the theme “Turkish wine”. It is a pity that the 4th biggest grape grower country in the world, just after Italy, is not capable of producing decent wines. And the very, very few good wines are often ruined by uneducated restaurant owners and waiters, who don’t know how to store and serve it.) You should rather stick to rakı (the i without the dot is pronounced liked the “e” in “vowel”), the Turkish national drink.

Rakı

This is a clear, 45% – 50% alcoholic beverage that smells like aniseed (there is some involved in the production process) and turns cloudy when you add water, just like absinth. Despite the high percentage, it is not drunk as a digestive; rather throughout the whole meal as an accompaniment, especially to meze and fish. Although it may not be obvious at first glance, the aim is not getting drunk as fast as possible. The idea behind it, just as the whole idea behind a night out in a meyhane, is enjoying. Enjoying the food, the rakı, the company, the music. You eat slowly, take small sips of rakı, chat with your friends, save the country (- from all its political problems; a favorite pastime for all Turks. As a tourist you should stay clear of such discussions and just tell everyone how much you love everything. Copious amounts of alcohol and criticism don’t go well together!) and go home as a happy soldier after a long night out.

You don’t go to a meyhane to have your own, individual dishes. Meyhane is about sharing. The tray you see in the opening picture is full of 26 different cold meze. Such a tray is brought to each table at the very beginning. Everyone at the table points out the ones they want to eat and these are put on the table. Our waiter saw himself forced to say “stop” after 19 meze the four of us chose:

Meze on the table

And then there were these, which weren’t on the tray:

Beyaz peynir - kavun

Kavun and beyaz peynir, a.k.a. melon and white cheese (feta) are the most traditional sides to rakı. Usually they are brought to the table without being explicitly asked for.

Fresh Almonds

If you are visiting Istanbul in the right season (early summer) and you are very very lucky, you will see a guy entering your meyhane with a huge tray of fresh almonds and/or fresh walnuts. Don’t let him go before you buy a plateful of his goods! The ice on the almonds not only cools them refreshingly down, it also makes the skins damp and plump up, so that it becomes very easy to get rid of them. An ideal snack.

Eggplant puree

This is eggplant salad. The eggplants are first charred on the grill, then peeled and pureed with some garlic and lemon juice. This is a delicious and light meze I make very often, the eggplant has this smoky flavor which T. and I just love.

Fish pastirma

This was a first for me. Pastırma is usually dried and cured beef covered with a paste made of garlic, hot red pepper, cumin and fenugreek, served cold in paper thin slices or as a filling for börek (baked pastry). This was made of fish, sturgeon, to be precise. A great method to make fish durable and delicious, rather pungent and spicy, of course.

Salicornia

A salad of salicornia, which is literally called sea bean in Turkish. When I lived in Turkey, I was not aware of this salty plant, which smells definitely of sea shores (where it grows). I first got to know it in Europe, where it is very expensive and considered a delicacy. My brother, who lives in Istanbul and is a foodie himself, has been talking about it for some time now, this was the first time I ate it in Turkey, I think…

Whiting

Whiting ceviche, delicious tender fish pieces marinated with lemon juice, garlic and basil.

Topik

This was also a first for me: Topik is an Armenian delicacy which has almost completely disappeared from kitchens. In the Ottoman Empire, of which Istanbul was the capital for centuries, lived many nationalities and religions together. The traditions, especially the kitchen traditions, are tightly intermingled and have succeeded in many an understanding and friendship which unfortunately hasn’t been supported through politics. This dish is a perfect showcase how food evolves, incorporating ingredients from other cultures.

Topik - inside

The casing is made of potatoes and garbanzo beans, the filling is to die for: slow roasted onions, tahini, black currants, allspice and pine nuts. I would have gobbled up the whole plate if they had let me. The meyhane where we were is one of the very few last places who offer this specialty. Nowadays it is only (and even then rarely, as it is very cumbersome to prepare) found in the private kitchens of the Armenian minority in Istanbul, especially around New Year.

Octopus Salad

This is the original I geared to as I made my own octopus salad. As you can see, here the octopus is “peeled” after it has been cooked, a process I deem unnecessary, but can make the dish more accessible for the faint-hearted.

Red Peppers

Grilled and marinated red peppers. These long red peppers are so much more flavorful than the bell peppers, try to find these next time you are cooking with red peppers, it is worth the search.

Purslane Salad

Purslane salad with yogurt is a typical summer salad in Turkey. The green leaves are very tasty and yogurt (and a little bit of garlic) is always very refreshing. Green leaves like purslane, spinach, swiss chard etc. are in Turkey often mixed with yogurt and used as a bed for meaty dishes. A nice idea to try in the hot days of summer.

Barbunya Plaki

Fasulye plaki is a dish of dried big red beans cooked in a lot of olive oil, along with carrots, green peppers and tomatoes. Olive oil dishes are usually eaten either at the end of a series of cold meze (as we have done here) or after the main dish.

Shrimp

This was the first warm meze: Shrimps sauteed in an earthenware pot. Very fresh and actually with a lot of taste, as opposed to in a lot of restaurants nowadays.

Squid

Squid rings, fried and served with a great sauce: tarator. This sauce is made of old bread, yogurt, walnuts, garlic, lemon juice and some spices and can be eaten alone as a bread spread. In Turkey it is often served as a dipping sauce for fried squid or fried mussels. Oh, I am hungry right now!

Bonito meatballs

This was the last warm meze, before we got fried sardines as the main, which I forgot to take a picture of. Remember, by this time the four of us had already drunk just short of two 0,75 bottles of the devilish, 50%, rakı; which also explains the decreasing picture quality. Anyways, this was a bonito meatball (I told you there are over 30 kinds of meatballs), which T. and I found to be wanting more seasoning. But it might have been our tongues numbing…

Salad

I always think that a mixed or green salad tastes best in Turkey. I don’t know what the reason is: The nostalgia, the freshness of the produce or the use of lemon juice instead of vinegar. It might be a combination of all, of course, but do try dressing your next salad with olive oil and lemon juice and leave the balsamic on the shelf. You might like it a lot.

Dessert

The first dessert was very thin yufka dough (similar to the greek filo but thinner) rolls filled with pistachios and soaked in syrup, with a dollop of triple cream to “lighten up”. Please, please stop talking about the “honey-laden” Turkish sweets, there is almost never honey involved in these pastries: It is just a simple and sweet syrup!

Dessert 2

And the last “first” for me this evening: Baked halva. Of course I grew up eating halva (or helva, as we call it; or better yet, “tahin helva” is the very correct term for this), this sweet paste made with tahini, sugar and the powdered roots of the gypsophila plant. But never before had I eaten it baked. My brother recommended it, and I have to say I wasn’t crazy about it, there is such a thing as “too sweet” in my vocabulary. But I hear this is a popular dessert in the Black Sea shore of Turkey.

Music

Of course a night out in a meyhane is perfect only with music. Usually musicians go from one meyhane to the other and play as long as they are asked to by the customers. These two could play an array of instruments and sang a couple of popular old Turkish songs which every Turk feels like singing along to when they are drunk.

Real Close

He is not holding his ear shut, he is cupping it so as to hear it better: Do this only if you are a) a crazy Turk b) have worked as a DJ for the last ten years or c) you are already deaf.

One last word about music and dancing in Turkey: You will notice that a lot of Turks start belly dancing as the hours go by. All tourists are encouraged to dance along. Don’t be fooled. Watch this video. She is not a professional! Next try doing the same in front of a mirror. Only now may you decide if you want to belly dance in front of a Turkish public. I personally know of only one non-Turkish friend (hi, A.!) who could dance like this. Consider carefully if you are an exception as well!

We almost always go to this meyhane:

Boncuk
Nevizade Sokak 19
0212-243 12 19

right behind the “Balıkpazarı”, the fish market. But any meyhane on this street is bound to be good, just avoid the ones in the touristy “Çiçek Pasajı” at the beginning of the market.

Read more: Street food in Istanbul

Istanbul: Street Food

Give me your hand. I will take you to Istanbul. I can not put into words how it is over there; I can not convey all my feelings about it. Give me your hand. Don’t be afraid. You have to see, hear, feel, smell and taste everything I am talking about. Give me your hand. We will start with the street food. Food is never just nutrition in Istanbul, food is life.

Istanbul streets

Look, this is Istanbul. See all the people? It is not a rally or something; this is just a regular Saturday afternoon in the city. And there are no tourists here, either. They are all busy visiting the two thousand year old buildings in the old town. They will not come out of the area on the south most European side of the town, squeezed between the Bosporus and the Golden Horn, they will grab a McDo lunch and in the evening they will eat grilled chicken in their hotel restaurant. We will stay on the Asian side and start exploring from there.

turkish breakfast

This (above) is a proper Turkish breakfast. If you don’t have time for this, you could just grab a simit (below) and drink your tea later on the ship, when we go to the other side.

Simit vendor

DolmuşWhen I was a student, I used to live on the Asian side but my university was on the other side, a.k.a. in Europe. It was one of my (and my best friend E.’s) rituals everyday: Get a dolmus to the harbor, cross the Bosporus with the ship, get a bus to the campus. Crossing the straitWhich took two hours. One way. Everyday. The part with the ship is the most relaxing part. You can drink tea, eat your simit (in winter there is also another typical Turkish hot drink: Sahlep), and read the newspaper. Of course, we never had time for that, I think the hours I spent talking with E. on the ship would sum up to a year. Every morning, it was either the ship or hitch-hiking*. But that is another story (and what stories we have to tell!).

Corn on the cob 1

Corn on the cob 2

Corn on the cob 3Corn on the cob 4 After breakfast you might consider eating some corn on the cob. Hard to decide between these two guys. The cool one has the boiled version on offer, the shy one has grilled corn. As a kid, I loved the Sunday outings with my parents, it was the one opportunity to eat everything I saw on the streets, I would eat corn on the cob (both versions if I could getaway with it), later on some ice cream and top it all of with can erik, a green plum kind. No wonder these Sundays ended with belly-aches!

Hamburger

Where is the beef?

Oh, here is something you are familiar with. Hmmm, maybe not. Where is the beef? The pickle? Lettuce? Onion? Tomato? All these pre-made hamburgers are soaked in some kind of tomato sauce, which is so full of chemicals and flavorings that it just replaces all toppings. But, strangely, it does taste good when you come out of a disco or club at 4 in the morning and are starving. And it is fast.

Köfte

Ok, let’s get a real lunch. This is as Turkish as it gets. Grilled köfte and green peppers (above), put between half or quarter loaf of bread on order, to eat on the go. You can have various toppings with it, usually onions and tomatoes. Köfte might be the number one food stuff in Turkey, the Turkish Wikipedia lists no less than 33 kinds and I could add three more myself. No Turkish picnic is complete without köfte. Or you could get a proper sulu yemek (below), but then we would have to sit down. “Sulu yemek”, literally “saucy food”, is the pillar of Turkish home style cooking. The omnipresent meze, which everyone first thinks about when Turkish food is mentioned, is for fun evenings, when you are going to eat for hours with friends and drink rakı (as you will see later). But after a long hard workday and the long commute home, all you want to eat is a nice plate of such a one-pot-dish which will be ready in no time. Almost always it starts with some chopped onions and tomato paste fried in oil, later vegetable of the season are added and just a little bit of stock or water. The resulting juicy dish is eaten with any or all of the following: rice, bread, potatoes, maccheroni.

Sulu Yemekler

Now is time for some afternoon tea or coffee. What better place to relax than a little café on the Bosporus shore, especially if there are two very interesting and yummy things to eat and such a view to enjoy? Let’s go to Kanlica, a part of town higher up the Bosporus, on the Asian side. There we can sit and relax, enjoy the breeze under the century old trees on a hot day and do some people watching.

The view

The first specialty is yogurt. Yes, you have eaten yogurt before, I am sure. But this yogurt is different. It is made with a different bacterium than what is common in Europe and USA, which makes the yogurt more set, slightly sour and with a unique taste. Usually it is eaten with powdered sugar. To learn of how this yogurt tasted to a German palate, read Sebastian’s post (in German).

Kanlica Yoǧurdu 1 Kanlica Yoǧurdu 2

The second specialty is ice cream with kaǧıt helva. Basically, this is a triple-strength wafer, spread with delicious ice cream and then folded over. A nice change to the ever same ice cream cone!

Kagit helva - dondurma

Now is time for some pre-dinner nibbles. How about some midye dolma? These filled mussels are perfect any time from dusk till dawn, especially as a stomach liner for all the alcohol when you are out bar-hopping. The mussels are shelled, cooked with a lot of olive oil into a pilaw, and then refilled into the shells. The vendor will re-shell them for you and serve so that you can eat them without getting your fingers oily. At 10 pieces for around 1 Euro, these are the perfect snack.

Midye dolma

Midye dolma 2

Or we could eat some kokorec if you feel adventurous. Just some to taste. One way to cook it is on a horizontal skewer in whole, the alternative is chopped while it is being cooked on a griddle. Pure music!

So, now we are ready for some dinner. Up to now we only did some grazing, now we can talk about serious eating. In the next post, I will take you to a rakı and meze laden evening.

* Hitch-hiking is dangerous everywhere in the world. At that time, there were special, informal, pick-up spots in Istanbul, where we students used to gather and get a lift. Everyone (well, almost everyone) knew what it was about and there was no danger for us, we were never alone, we were on lively city streets at all times. That said, there are always sick people and you shouldn’t hitch-hike anywhere in the world. If you are a tourist, you shouldn’t even think about hitch-hiking.

Read more: Istanbul food in “meyhanes”