Monday, November 29, 2010

This city reminds me of...

Something I've grown to love about travel is that the more places I go, the more places I have to compare and contrast, making them increasingly easier to describe. For instance, when we visited Istanbul I was struck by its similarities with San Francisco (incidentally, the city in which Sam and I honeymooned nearly 10 years ago, the first of our travels as a married couple), with its sharp hills and cable cars, suspension bridges covered by fog, and hip vibe.

But it also made me think of Cairo, because of its colorful markets and plethora of really old mosques.

I would add a bit of Zurich as well, both for the integral role of the river in the life of the city and for the way the tram weaves through immaculate city squares dotted with cafes and fashionable youth ...and then suddenly you spot a castle.


Yet even with this San Francisco-Cairo-Zurich combo as a point of reference, Istanbul, like all cities, holds a quality that cannot be compared with anything else. It is uniquely Istanbul. The fun part is knowing that at some point in the future I'll look at my surroundings and think, This kind of reminds me of Istanbul. And I'll have a new color for my palette.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A foodie in the UAE: eating my weight in Turkey

The coincidence of visiting Turkey right before Thanksgiving has been the brunt of many a joke around here. The title of this post will be the last one.

In preparation for our trip I read a novel written by a Turkish author (translated into English) and set in Istanbul. I thought this would be a fun way to learn more about the sites and culture we would encounter. What I didn't expect was how intimately food is woven into the fabric of the society. This was a delightful surprise in the novel, and it led me to do a great deal of internet research before we left to determine which restaurants and foods we needed to try. I ended up with a very long list! We weren't able to try them all but you'll see from the pictures below that we gave it our best effort. 

Upon arrival, lunch was our first priority, so we stowed our bags in the room and immediately ventured into the nearest square. We landed at Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi, which has just one item on the menu: köfte (meatballs), served with peppers, pepper-sauce, and bread. Köfte is one of the most common dishes in Istanbul - you find it everywhere, though prepared in a variety of ways (apparently there are nearly 300 kinds served in Turkey). 

We spent the afternoon seeing the major landmarks of Sultanahmet and then wandered through the Arasta Bazaar, a pleasant if contrived venue for tourists to buy local arts and crafts. Just outside was a three-story establishment called Tamara which had a rooftop terrace. The sun was beginning to set so we thought we'd have a snack and see what kind of view we could take in. For reasons we cannot fathom, the terrace was deserted except for us and the waiter, who served us freshly-baked puffy bread, oozing with salty cheese yet somehow not greasy at all. We were sad to see they didn't serve beer or wine, but in fact the bread was perfectly paired with fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice. And when we looked up from this--

We were rewarded with this--

In my opinion fantastic atmosphere cannot make up for bad food, but it can make good food taste fantastic.

Later that evening we went looking for the positively-reviewed Paşazade Ottoman Cuisine. Located on a cozy, cobblestoned street lined with elegantly-restored historic buildings, we felt we had stumbled into the set of a romantic comedy (French Kiss, perhaps?). We started with a round of meze, the small appetizers traditionally served before the meal. There were 6 items on the plate, every one of them a new experience of flavor and texture, and all of them outstanding. Anyone sitting near us would have heard the sounds of happy chewing with the occasional interjection of "I usually don't even like eggplant!", "these green beans are like candy!" or "how did they get the zucchini to taste so good?" Parents, if your kids won't eat their vegetables, perhaps you should send them to Turkey.

Every morning our hotel put out a beautiful spread for us to eat on the terrace. All manners of fresh fruit, yogurt with homemade honey, half a dozen different cheeses and several kinds of bread awaited us.

And we got to eat it out here--

Feeling we had eaten a bit too healthily for vacation standards, on day 2 we stopped at an outdoor cafe called Konyali, on the Topkapi Palace grounds overlooking the Bosphorus, and ordered the most decadent thing we could find--

Thinking this was the most chocolatey eclaire I'd ever seen, I dug in with gusto and was startled to find it was actually topped with a chocolate-dipped banana! Istanbul was determined to keep us healthy.

Moving on to the Grand Bazaar, a shopkeeper helped us find a highly-recommended hole-in-the-wall called Aynan Dürüm, for a traditional Döner kebab, made from lavaš (tortilla-like bread) wrapped around meat sliced from a rotating spit and stuffed with tomatoes and parsley. Wrapped conveniently in a paper sleeve, it's a satisfying lunch on the go!

Worn out after completing all of our Christmas shopping in the Bazaar, and with the air turning a bit chilly, we were ready for comfort food. We found the Turkish equivalent at a restaurant located in the shadow of the Suleymaniye Mosque. They didn't have a menu, so you just pointed to whatever looked good from the pots bubbling behind the counter. Waiting for our food I noticed that all the locals around us were lapping up dishes of flat white-beans, so we ordered one of those as well. Of all the colorful food brought to our table, this was my favorite. The creamy beans stewed in spicy-sweet tomato base warmed me right down to my toes.

The next morning we ventured over the Galata Bridge to explore the modern side of the city. Before attempting the hilly streets of Beyoğlu, we stopped at a bakery for a mid-morning coffee break. We had been noticing bakeries everywhere with lovely display cases, so we could no longer resist.

We asked for baklava, and the man behind the counter smiled and quickly filled a plate with five different kinds, not really asking, or caring, if we wanted five different kinds. How could we ever eat them all?

Like that, I suppose-

We made it to Taksim Square right at lunch time, and stopped at Kizilkayalar, recently made world-famous by a feature on Anthony Bourdain's show, No Reservations. They serve up something I've never seen before and will be perfectly fine never having again: it's called the "wet burger," and it's pretty much exactly like it sounds. It's a hamburger patty that has been fried, put in a bun, basted in tomato sauce (bun and all), and then steamed in a box like this--

And this is what you get--

Supposedly this is the perfect food to eat after a wild night of drinking; fortunately the place is open 24-7.

That evening we went 180° the other direction in terms of food and ambience, to a restaurant called 360°, a yuppy-friendly establishment on the top floor of an apartment building and the kind of place you have to know about (I had read about it in the New York Times but actually finding it was pure luck). As the name suggests, solid floor-to-ceiling windows provide a lovely panoramic view of the city.

The food was decent, trendy fare with a bit of a Turkish twist, but nothing to get excited about. What was odd about this place was the decor, which reminded me a bit of senior prom, with sporadically hung disco balls inside and oversized plastic chairs dotting the terrace, all serving to compete with the view. The longer we sat the weirder the atmosphere became - they began projecting on two walls what must have been a Turkish version of Star Trek (the sound was muted), some of the light fixtures began to glow red, and a ticker started to run above the bar broadcasting the evening's drink concoctions like they were stock reports. We left at this point. Back home Sam looked up the place online and discovered that in the evenings the restaurant transforms into this--

Courtesy of 
Apparently we were watching the metamorphosis as we ate. This picture had escaped me when I read the article the first time, so luckily we escaped before it came to this.

Istanbul is lousy with simit-vendors, reminiscent of hot dog vendors in NYC. But somehow we managed not to have our first taste until our last day. Unfortunately, it did not live up to the hype we had built in our minds. Though it looked good, it tasted like a stale bagel. Hopefully this was just a fluke, but we'll have to wait until our next trip to Istanbul to confirm.

Our final day was all about the sea. We spent the day aboard a ferry sailing up and down the Bosphorus, and ate lunch at this quaint little village--

Having sea bass, probably the freshest fish I've ever had!

And that night we braved one of the fish sandwich restaurants lining the Bosphorus shore. See those colorfully-lit boats? They are grilling fish right there on the water, slapping it in a piece of bread and throwing it out to customers.

We weren't feeling quite that adventurous, so we settled on Balik-Ekmek (translated: "fish in bread"), a surprisingly clean, bright and modern establishment for being literally underneath the Galata Bridge. It was packed to the gills with locals (pardon the pun), and was either a family-run affair or an egregious violator of labor laws (the bus boys were about 10 years old and the barmaid maybe 15; Dad was at the grill, Mom was running the books, and Grandma seemed to be mopping the floor). They were serving the same fare as their counterparts outside - fish fillet sandwiches - but on plates and with napkins, a side of fries and a frosty beer.

And how did they taste? Well, they were fishy.

Thus ended our tour of Turkish cuisine, my overall impression being that Turks love to eat and they love their own food. What I mean is that we saw very few restaurants serving cuisine from other countries. In this way it differed heavily from other big cities we've visited. Turks seem to have specific tastes and find they can satisfy themselves best. I can relate. It's the same reason that, when in Abu Dhabi, we usually eat at home.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Alhamdulillah (thanks be to God)

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow…

Praise Him all creatures here below…

Praise Him above, ye Heavenly Host…

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A post for my sister (and other cat-lovers)

A common trait I've noticed among the countries we've visited east of Europe is the surplus of street cats.  In the UAE, Oman, Egypt, and Nepal filthy felines roam freely. In Cairo they were prominently seen picking through the heaps of garbage lining the streets. In most cases the poor things were emaciated with angular, alien-esque faces and dull, sad eyes. They seemed starving and terrified.

But in Istanbul the street cats look like pampered house pets. Throughout our stay we were constantly accompanied by fluffy, well-fed and groomed cats of all colors, in the monuments, outdoor cafes, parks, even at our hotel. As numerous as squirrels in the US, they have no tags or collars, but they act like they belong to whomever is in the immediate vicinity, rubbing against their legs affectionately, playfully pawing their camera strings, or just sitting beside them. They do sniff around for food, but they seem content with a few strokes behind the ears.

I'm serious when I say that cats - were - everywhere!

Greeting us in packs as we left our hotel each morning--

Guarding the streets--

Acting like man's best friend--

Chilling on the lawn outside Topkapi Palace--

Waiting for a head scratch--

Entertaining us in the evening (this little guy played with that leaf for about 10 minutes)--

Hiding in the bushes!--

And behind every lamp post--

Imploring us to take them home (believe me, I was tempted)--

Joining us for breakfast on the terrace--

Jumping into our pictures (see right of the frame)--

Fighting for our attention--

And getting it!--

If Paris is for lovers, then Istanbul is for cat-lovers. Lisa, you would have been in heaven!

Monday, November 22, 2010


We just returned from four days in Istanbul. Despite it's brevity it was one of our more relaxing trips, in that we stayed in one hotel the whole time and had a pretty flexible itinerary. We found the city to be delightfully clean for its size and old age, easy to navigate on foot (aside from one boat ride, we walked everywhere), and filled with beauty, history, and an intriguing blend of western and eastern cultures. Between the warm, sunny days and cool evenings, we couldn't have asked for better weather - overall a successful vacation!

We took about 500 pictures, so here are the highlights (you must congratulate us for narrowing it to 30):

Our first stop, just yards from our hotel, the fascinating Aya Sofya, aka Hagia Sophia--

The main hall--

Dedicated in the year 360, it was once the cathedral of Constantinople until its conversion into a mosque in the 15th century. In 1935 it was made into a museum. Some of the original iconography still remains - you can see below how they tried to cover over the crosses with Muslim symbols.

The next major site was the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii)--

The inner courtyard--

It's called the Blue Mosque because blue is the most prominent color on the interior tiles--

The entrance to Topkopi Palace (Topkapı Sarayı), the main residence of the Sultans during the Ottoman Empire--

It's a massive complex, but we spent most of our time touring the Imperial Harem, which had the most stunning and varied mosaics and stained glass. Every room was unique and fabulous.

As the name implies, these were the rooms where the queen mother, wives and concubines of the sultan, and the eunuchs lived.

All things considered, not a bad place to live!

Close-up of a most unusual mosaic (appears to be a rendering of an encampment)--

On our second afternoon we ventured into the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar. We were so overwhelmed by what we experienced next that we forgot to take pictures, so this is it unfortunately--

On the edge of the bazaar we were greeted with the color and aromas of dozens of sidewalk vendors serving up traditional Turkish cuisine of all sorts. The culture of food in Istanbul warrants its own post, so you'll be reading more on this later...

We decided to gather strength for our shopping extravaganza by lunching with the locals at Aynen Dürüm, which has one item on the menu - meat wrapped in lavaş (flat bread). We chose kuzu dürüm, the lamb wrap, from the three meat options. The establishment's one table was lined with pickles, peppers and herbs to be eaten freely; and the rate at which people sat, ordered, stuffed their faces, and left, made us feel we were in some kind of eating contest!

The next morning, Shannon went to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar while Sam toured the 16th-century Rüstem Pasha mosque, which displayed more of the intricate Ottoman-style tiling and wood carvings--

We met up again in this Eminönü square, which holds an interesting juxtaposition of modern art and ancient architecture--

From there we crossed the Galata Bridge over to Beyoğlu district, the modern section of Istanbul, and strolled down the famous İstiklâl Caddesi between Tünel and Taksim Squares. This avenue is lined with countless shops, restaurants and quaint alleyways lined with more shops and restaurants, and as you can see is quite popular--

We also went to the top of Galata Tower (built in 1348), which provides an excellent 360° view of the city--

The origins of the word Galata are disputed, but a major theory is that the tribe known as the Galatians (as in the Apostle Paul's "letter to") once camped here before settling in Galatia. Here it is by night--

Walking back across the Galata Bridge, which comes alive at night with fishermen and vendors--

And here is Galata Bridge by morning (the banner rings true, as Istanbul was designated the 2010 European Capital of Culture by the European Union)--

On our last full day we booked a cruise up the Bosphorus which took us nearly to the Black Sea, criss-crossing from shore to shore so we could observe the various historic landmarks and quaint little seaside villages. It was interesting to experience the change in weather from a warm, sunny day in Istanbul city to a chilly, foggy afternoon in the village of Anadolu Kavağı where we stopped for a seafood lunch. (The cool air was due to the proximity of the Black Sea.)

We were fortunate to make friends with a native Turk and his Russian wife while on the ferry, and they invited us to join them for lunch. It was a great opportunity to learn more about his culture (and nice to have a Turkish speaker help us order!)

On our way back to Istanbul we were happily greeted by warmer air and a lovely sunset.

We were fortunate to be in Istanbul for the Grand reopening of the newly-restored Süleymaniye Mosque (built in 1550), which had been closed up until the previous evening. We caught it in between our cruise and a Whirling Dervish ceremony (of which we have no pictures - they weren't allowed).

The interior is stunning--

Below is what appears to be a group of young disciples learning at the feet of the Imam; not a sight you see everyday, but we happened to be there right before prayer time--

One of our favorite aspects of the trip was our daily, pre-breakfast walks to the local Starbucks (our hotel only served Nescafé, simply not an option for me). Between 7-8 am we essentially had the city to ourselves. So peaceful, and it set the pace of our entire visit.