I don’t always follow the Coptic Lenten fast, but when I do…

I make okra.20150323-193245.jpg

What?

The Egyptian Lenten fast is 55 days long (out of about 210 days in the year… The Copts take their religious dietary restrictions seriously, it seems). The fast calls for an entirely vegan diet over those 55 days, excluding all dairy, meat and fish products.

I’m not a regular practitioner of Coptic dietary restrictions, but I had recently pre-boiled and frozen a massive amount of chickpeas and I found fresh-frozen okra at the MigrosJet near campus today, so I decided to give it a whirl, at least for my dinner tonight.

A quick Google search confirmed my guesstimation of how to combine these two gems, the okra and the chickpeas:

Sauté some garlic and onion in olive oil, add tomatoes and okra, some cumin and lemon juice (also parsley for garnish but i didn’t have any) and voila- serve with rice.

Of course, while the rice was simmering and I was doing some kitchen clean-up I grabbed the now empty bag of frozen okra, and lo and behold: an identical recipe to my “authentic Egyptian” spelled out in detail in Turkish and English on the back of the bag.20150323-192506.jpg

Nothing surprises me anymore.

Who needs Google, anyway?

I added some tomato juice for extra flavor, and if you aren’t the fasting or otherwise vegan type, my recommendation of a spoonful of plain yogurt on everything applies to this meal as well, of course. Additional spices could include mint or crushed red pepper.

A blessed Lent to my Coptic family, and alf sa7a (a thousand times to your health, y3ni ‘bon appetit’) to any who want to give this recipe a whirl.

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Yabancı Chicken Freekah Soup

Winter has truly arrived here in Kirikkale. Frigid temperatures and a blanket of snow have descended on the city, prompting my hibernation and hot plate to go into full gear– roads haven’t been plowed and a trip down the street to the grocery store seemed daunting and fraught with slip-potential.20150107-225946.jpg

I decided to make do with what little I had stocked up in the ol’ mutfak (kitchen) and devised a “chicken freekah soup,” blending the fabulous Palestinian standard shurba al-farik with hints of the chicken noodle soup of my childhood (basically just that there are carrots). A simple and delicious one pot dinner that’s a little funk, a little familiar, and a surprising amount of flavor.

For those who have yet to be acquainted with the Arab staple turned cult favorite gracing many “supergrain” lists, freekah refers to roasted cracked green wheat. The name comes from the Arabic root f-r-k, to rub, referring to the thrashing process it undergoes during production. It is a standard grain found most commonly in the cooking of the Levant and Egypt, though it has recently found new life in chef’s kitchens across the globe. High in fiber and low on the glycemic index, with a delightfully chewy texture similar to pilavlik bulgur, it also is a lovely addition to salads, or on its own as a side dish with poultry or lamb. In any event, it’s freek-in awesome. 20150107-225959.jpg

Ingredients:
One chicken breast
1 cup freekah, rinsed
Water
2 Carrots
1 onion
Garlic (to taste, I minced 4 small cloves)
Lemon juice
Mint
Thyme or Zaatar
Olive oil

Gently sauté the onions and garlic in olive oil, then add carrots. After a few minutes add the freekah and stir continuously for a few minutes, to toast it. Add water and bring to a boil. After boiling for 5-10 minutes, add the chicken to poach it. When cooked, remove and shred using two forks. Return to pot. Season with lemon juice and healthy scoops of dried mint and zaatar (or any selection of fresh herbs you may have on hand). If you like,(I love!) serve hot with a dollop of plain yogurt.

Snuggle up with the bowl and a book, and you’ll forget the snow outside.

Afiyet olsun! Sahtein! Enjoy!

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Easy Vegetarian dinner with tastes of the region

This meal combines tastes and adapted recipes from the Maghreb to the Levant to Anatolia.

20150106-200020.jpgNohutlu pilav, or rice with chickpeas, is a street and home cooked staple, often served with boiled shredded chicken. Because I used canned chickpeas, I began by preparing the rice and then added the chickpeas on top towards the end of the rice’s preparation. As with just about all of my recipes, serving size and ingredient quantities are highly adjustable according to taste.

Ingredients:
Rice (any form will do, while “baldo” is most common here for this dish)
Chickpeas (canned, about 1/3 less than amount of rice used)
Water
Butter (about a tablespoon)
Chicken bouillon cube, crushed (optional, commonly used to flavor the rice)
Salt and black pepper, to taste.

Plain Yogurt (optional)

Melt the butter in a pot, add rinsed rice and stir continuously for 1-3 minutes. Add water, bring to a boil and then simmer with closed lid until all water has been absorbed. Do not stir. Add chickpeas and incorporate them into rice by fluffing with a fork. Season with salt and pepper.
Serve with a healthy dollop of plain yogurt.

Peasant Salad ; Modified Fatoosh/ Çoban Salatası

This salad is either a classic Lebanese fatoosh salad without the requisite toasted pita bread pieces, or a Turkish çoban salatası with the addition of spices to the dressing. Either way, the name and tradition of both is that of a peasant salad, a gloriously easy hodgepodge that can include whatever vegetables one may have on hand. I especially love adding purslane (bakhleeh in Arabic, semizotu in Turkish) when available. I try to use an even amount of each vegetable (i.e. one tomato, one cucumber….). Based on preference, vegetables can either be roughly chopped, as in the Arab style, or diced, a la turca.

Tomato, chopped
Cucumber, chopped
Green pepper, chopped and de-seeded
Onion, chopped
Fresh mint, chopped (Optional. I used about a tablespoon of dried mint instead)

Dressing:
Olive oil
Lemon juice
Pomegranate molasses
Sumac
Salt and pepper to taste (optional)

Combine all ingredients. Boom.

“Moroccan carrots”

I have never been to Morocco nor had these carrots served to me by a Moroccan. The recipe is actually a modification of a dish made for me by a Lebanese roommate in Beirut. Numerous adaptations abound online under names like “Moroccan carrot salad.” This is a great, quick, easy way to add some veggies with a unique flavor spectrum to a meal. They can be served hot or at room temperature, and make an excellent meze, in my opinion.

Carrots,
washed, peeled, sliced, and boiled or steamed until tender but not squishy

Dressing:
Olive oil
Lemon juice
Lots of cumin
Turkish crushed red pepper flakes
(Or paprika)
Salt, to taste
Garlic (optional)

Drain the carrots and mix them with all the dressing ingredients over very low heat, stirring gently until cumin and the liquids form a light sauce. Amount of cumin is super adjustable, I like lots. When the dressing lightly coats all the carrots, take it off the heat immediately.

20150106-200131.jpgAfiyet olsun! Sahtein! Bon appetit!

Bayram I: Chios – the Mastic Island

Using Izmir as a ‘home base,’ I used the Bayram holiday to travel to two new places, Chios, and Bergama (coming soon!).

Chios is a (not that) small island 7 kilometers off the coast from Turkey, in the Aegean Sea. It is most famous for its production of mastic, a tree resin. The name of the island in Turkish reflects this: Sakız Adası, or Mastic Island. Mastic is synonymous with ‘gum’ in many languages, has health properties, and is used as a base or flavor for chewing gums and a wide range of desserts and fruit preservatives (including being the special ingredient in ‘Maras Dondurmasi,’ the chewy ice cream now ubiquitous across Turkey).

The mastic tree can only grow under very specific conditions; southern Chios produces something like 82% of all mastic globally. Dating back to Genoese presence on the island, production and price of mastic here are tightly controlled by a union which sets standardized prices to avoid exploitation.

IMG_5382Chios is also the alleged birthplace of Homer. He follows me!

We went to Chios via high speed ferry from the port at Cesme. Time and finances didn’t permit a longer stay on the island, so we tried to capitalize on our limited time (about 8 hours on the island) by taking a tour offered by the ferry company.

This was a mistake.

I’ll be honest. I’d never taken a ‘on-the-bus, off-the-bus, snap-and-go’ tour before. My fears about how frustrating an experience that might be were totally confirmed: Confusion and delay in starting the tour (wasting something like an hour standing by the port of Chios), strategic (and extended) stops at tourist trap souvenir vendors at every site, including an extremely expensive lunch (ouch, the Euro!) (albeit in a beautiful location, the Port of Mesta), and being herded through stunning, winding streets, filled with a mixture of awe and panic about losing the group if I stopped to admire anything, even for a moment. The tour guide did share useful and interesting information on the drives in between the sites, so thankfully I had a friend who happens to be a translator along, as everything was conducted in Turkish.

Perhaps my frustration with the experience is a testament to how spoiled I’ve been, gallivanting leisurely around Turkey, using my guidebook, recommendations and intuitions of friends, and my ever-increasing language skills to really explore places. Perhaps recent turmoil has heightened my sense of “what if I can’t go back?,” as I’ve wondered about many of my favorite trips from last year, which I’ll hopefully be documenting and posting here soon (as selfish as that is). This may have been exacerbated by the fact that the tour didn’t go to Nea Moni, an 11th century monastery and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Inshallah, there will be a next time. Also, inshallah, because over Easter the residents of Chios fire off insane amounts of fireworks. Also, stunning beaches. If I could do it again (if I could drive!!) I think renting a car or motorbike, and staying at least one night, would be the best way to experience the island.

The tour took us to three locations: Armolia, Pyrgi, and Mesta.

Armolia is in the heart of the mastic tree groves that characterize southern Chios, though much of the area was devastated by a massive forest fire in 2012. We visited a small grove that was conveniently located right next to a number of pottery shops. Mastic trees are both beautoful and interesting; they have a tendency to grow sideways, apparently to allow the mastic to drip off the tree to the ground, where it is harvested. They are in the same family as pistachio trees, who knew? The harvest season had just ended, and we were able to see some small remnants of hardened mastic amidst the bark. There were also some olive trees in the area. I love olive trees. But that’s a different story….

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The next stop was Pyrgi, one of a handful of very famous villages. Pyrgi is famed for the grey and white geometrical designs that grace the façade of almost every building. There was a beautiful church in the center of the city that we unfortunately couldn’t enter.

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I may or may not have dressed to match.

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We had lunch at a seafood restaurant by the docks of the port of Mesta, another picturesque medieval village in the region. I was frankly more taken with the prospect of dairy than fish, and devoured a Greek salad with a massive slab of feta on top, along with some ouzo.

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Both Pyrgi and Mesta were walled cities, thanks to a long history of invasion and foreign influence. We were able to enter a beautiful old church, where I lit a candle for all of my loved ones. The church allegedly has relics from Hagia Sophia’s Byzantine days, but thanks to the upsetting antics of bumbling tourists just the day before, we weren’t allowed to access the main sanctuary of the church.

IMG_5437 IMG_5444 IMG_5447 IMG_5455Recognize that yogurt, anyone?

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A beautiful, if rushed, trip.

Final note that doesn’t fit the narrative:

I’d long been aware of the “food war” that mingles itself in the tangled nationalisms, cuisines, lands and and histories of Greek and Turkish peoples. I suppose I’d taken the labeling of various coffees, gummy dried ‘delights’ (lokum), grilled meats, liquors, cultural symbols like the evil eye etc. as ‘Turkish’ for granted in my time here. Seeing all of these products and more labeled explicitly as Greek was eye opening, though not surprising. Food for thought, if you’ll forgive the pun. I love food but I’m certainly not a historian of things like active milk cultures (yogurt) or nomadic usage of flaky layers of dough (baklava, borek, etc.)  so I’ll sigh and eat it all regardless. It’s all Greek to me anyway. 2-2 on the pun-o-meter, time to go.

Kahvalti


Kahvalti 
means breakfast in Turkish.

What a ‘typical’ Turkish breakfast consists of could be debated (endlessly?) but some of the basic staples are bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, and cheese. Let’s follow that basic list with runners-ups: olives, eggs, and sweet spreads (jams, ‘bal-kaymak,’ which is honey and clotted cream, pekmez (often with tahini, the much improved Turkish equivalent of PB and J)). We’ll add to the list some other commonly found additions, like borek, sucuk or other sausages, cold vegetable dishes and, increasingly, french fries.

This pictures below will evince this, but it should be noted that Turkish cay (chai… tea) is the necessary complement to the breakfast meal, despite the fact that the name for breakfast, kahvalti, literally translates to ‘a base on which you can drink coffee.’ Traditionally tea is drunk during the meal, and Turkish coffee follows the meal.

Whoa now, you say. That sounds like a lot of food. Oh yeah, it is. photo This image is of a fabulous breakfast place in Cihangir, Beyoglu in Istanbul, called Van Kahvalti Evi. I absolutely recommend it to anyone traveling to Istanbul who wants to experience an authentic breakfast. The city of Van, located in the far east of Turkey, is famous for their breakfasts. In the next few days, in fact, Van residents are attempting to break the world record for the most crowded breakfast table! Two food items are particular to Van Kahvalti specifically are visible above. The most famous is Van otlu peyniri, or ‘van herb cheese.’ It’s very salty, but delicious. The other is called kavut, made of ground wheat… my friends and I have a difficult time appreciating this one due to the texture, which is very gritty. IMG_3767 My friends and I traveled to Van to experience their authentic Kahvalti, and we were not disappointed. Above is a picture of me in Van, not disappointed. IMG_3766 The plate closest to me 2 images above, and the plate closest to the bottom hold two ‘local-to-van’ breakfast foods. The darker of the two is kavut, mentioned above…. you can see how gritty it is, even from the picture. Kavut also goes by the name “devseyiti.” The chunky-looking, caramel-colored food next to the kavut is alternatively called ‘jejerun’ or ‘murtuga,’ and it consists of bread that is coated in flour and egg and fried. This Van ‘kahvalti salonu’ (breakfast joint) is the only place I’ve ever seen this food. IMG_1966 Another shot from Van Kahvalti Evi in Istanbul, on a different occasion. The plate just up from mine (with the two pieces of bread) is honey, which is often locally sourced and has bits of the comb still (as you can see above)…. sometimes more than bits…. so yum. As described above, honey is often served along with clotted cream (bal=honey, kaymak=clotted cream), especially in the eastern part of the country. A decadent but delightful way to start a morning.

Above are some of the more elaborate kahvalti spreads I’ve experienced, and they focus on the specific culture of Van (which has Kurdish influence,among other things). However, the INSTITUTION of breakfast in Turkey isn’t limited to a region.

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This one is at a cafe in Eskisehir. Note the bal-kaymak (next to the olives), the boiled egg, the french fries, and the little fried sausage, which are also common. This is a fairly typical offering when ordering a “breakfast plate” from a cafe.

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My beautiful friend at a different lovely cafe in the Cihangir district in Istanbul. The two bread-looking objects next to the boiled eggs are gul boregi “rose borek,” a flaky pastry filled with cheese.

IMG_0799This spread is from a sea-side cafe along the Kordon in Izmir. On the far right you can see a different variety of borek. In the middle, to the left of the sunny-side up eggs is one of the key standards of Turkish breakfast: menemen. It’s very similar to a Lebanese or Tunisian shakshouka– a mixture of tomatoes and peppers cooked with eggs. The spice level of menenmen can vary wildly– a group of us tried some at a roadside tea garden in Adiyaman province in the southeast, and many wept, sweated, and wailed from the spice (me). College kids often joke that it’s the one dish they can prepare besides pasta. Variations on menemen are popular, including with sucuk (spicy garlicky sausage), cheese, etc.

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Here’s a breakfast morning at my home in Kirikkale. Our friend sucuk makes a re-appearance, this time in omelette form. In the foreground of the image is gozleme. Gozleme is a distinctly Turkish and notoriously poorly translated food. Most often tourists are told it is a pancake, or ‘savory pancake;’ neither of those do gozleme justice. It is a very fine crepe-like dough (not sweet) filled with variable items like cheese, mice meat, spinach, eggplant, etc.) and cooked on a ‘sac,’ a rounded griddle (the same stove-thing used to make manouche). It’s just awesome.

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There’s a lot that can be said about Turkish breakfast, but beyond all the food, perhaps the most important thing about kahvalti is the way it is eaten: slowly, in a relaxed atmosphere, preferably with great people. An important aspect of Turkish culture is that of ‘keyif,’ which someone once described as “a pleasurable state of idle relaxation.’ As well as being delicious, kahvalti should be keyifli.

Afiyet olsun!