Saturday, November 17, 2012

A different kind of Cultural Memory...

Deciding to go out to get some air and grab something to eat at the last minute turned into an experience that took us back in time and a journey to a time I had thought long lost.  Istanbul always had a tradition of Greek ladies who ran meyhane's (tavern) especially in and near Pera.  My husband took me to a restaurant tonight that is (almost) in our backyard, in Ferikoy, that he had heard about from his childhood. When we set out all we knew was that it was the best meyhane and it was ran by a Greek woman.  Despina Restaurant is the epitome of off-the-beaten-path, located on a dark street in an old decrepit neighborhood, with an excellent staff, good food and ...(it turns out) live music.

In typical meyhane style we ordered a couple of little plates of meze and a tek (one shot of)  raki. Just as we started our meal, a group of musicians came and started to play at the big table behind us. The familiar songs that we all sang along to, the raki with feta cheese and melon, and especially the local clientele all contributed to a very special evening that can only be experienced in Istanbul.

Despina Restaurant
Feriköy Mh. Açık Yol Sokak 9 Şişli, Turkey
+90 212 247 3357
(Around 60-70 TL per person)

Saturday, September 1, 2012

An American Icon - The Diner

John Baeder, Bell's Pond Diner, Oil on canvas,
30"x36", 1990
(Private Collection, Paris, France)

Every country, every culture has its icons that tells the story of that civilization which resonates with its residents and to a certain level with  outsiders.  To the members of that society these icons represent all that is good and home and to outsiders they are familiar sights they may have encountered from popular culture.  The American Diner is one such icon. They can be found all over the country from small winding country roads to State Highways, with counter space seating, non-stop coffee refills and round-the-clock service they are an ingrained part of the fabric of this country.  Sometimes, they are what we miss when we are away...  I still smile as I recall my father's vexation at the price of a cup of coffee when we were in Italy many years ago and his reminiscing about the local diner with the waitress coming up and asking him "You want a refill honey?"

John Baeder, Rosie's Diner, w/c, 2003
(Paris, France)

As opposed to my brother who loves diners and goes to one of his favorites each week, my husband and I are not really avid diner-goers.  This morning was an exception. Having an early doctor's appointment, we didn't have time for breakfast before we left the house. After a not-so-pleasant appointment  we went to the most convenient place for breakfast, to the diner right across the parking lot. As soon as we were seated, our server, Linda, came by with a smile on her face and a ready quip on her lips.  She was so warm and so pleasant that she revived our lagging spirits... she even got my usually austere husband to smile. Linda with her sunny disposition turned a visit to the local diner for a cup of coffee and an omlet with toast into an experience akin to sitting to a comforting breakfast at an aunt's kitchen table. We left the diner with a much lighter heart, ready to face whatever the new day may bring.

Coming from a Mediterranean culture, we are used to having interactions with everyone we encounter during the day from our neighbors to all the clerks and owners of the local stores.  In my hometown, Istanbul, everyone is genuinely interested in one another and their well being. As soon as I arrive, the owner of the little restaurant around the corner from our apartment inquires about my children and how long I plan to stay.  The lady who owns the tiny dress shop, asks how my mother-in-law is doing. The greengrocer sets aside the best figs for me because he knows I can't find them here. Living in New Jersey, these are the kind of interaction we miss out on where everyone is too busy to get to know their neighbors and lately, simply suspicious of their fellow man. But today, thanks to Linda I feel I have found a small vestige of a world where people can show genuine warmth and be more than just civil to each other.

While I was trying to find visuals to portray what I wanted to express in this post, I came across a wonderful site belonging to an artist who is a photorealist, John Baeder. Mr. Baeder's paintings truly captures the spirit of this American  icon and I am grateful he has allowed me to use them on my site.

For anyone, visiting the United States, I strongly recommend a visit to a diner to get a feel for the "real" America, even if it is just to hear those famous words..."You want a refill honey?"

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Lentil Fingers

Teatime is a pretty big deal in Turkish households. It is a wonderful ritual of taking tea at five in the afternoon with family and friends where one can sit, relax and enjoy the moment. It can be a challenge to practice this during the week when we are here in the States (in Turkey, even at work there is teatime) but the weekends are ours to do with as we please and five o'clocks at home are reserved for teatime on Saturdays and Sundays.  The tea is usually accompanied with some kind of pastry, which can be salty or sweet - (preferably one of each). There are also times when the accompaniments can become extravagant and go beyond mere pastries to include what would be considered "real food".  My husband asked if I could make mercimekli kofte (let's call them lentil fingers, for lack of a better name) for tea today and I decided I could indulge him just this once since it's our anniversary.

Both my parents come from South Eastern Anatolia and mercimekli kofte is one of this regions most famous delicacies.  Lentil fingers are made with red lentils (mercimek) and cracked wheat (bulgur) which is one of the chief ingredients in Eastern Anatolian cuisine.  I have a great recipe that comes out perfect every time... It only took me half an hour to make this.

Lentil Fingers

1 cup red lentils (washed and drained)
2 cups water
1 cup fine cracked wheat
3/4 cup olive oil
1 Tbspn tomato paste
1/2 Tbspn pepper paste
1 tspn cumin
1 tspn salt
black pepper
1 onion diced

one bunch of parsley finely chopped
1/2 cup diced green onions

Put the lentils and the water into a pan and let it boil.
Once it starts to boil, turn down the heat and let it simmer til all the water is absorbed and the lentils are soft.
While the lentils are cooking, in a separate pan saute the diced onions with the olive oil, tomato paste and pepper paste.
Take the pan off the heat and add the cracked wheat, cover, let it sit for 5-7 minutes.
The onions should have turned a translucent color by now - take that pan off the heat and let it sit and cool.
Turn the contents of the pan with the cracked wheat and lentils into a big oven tray (somewhere easy to knead it) Add the salt, pepper and cumin. Mix and knead the combination til the cracked wheat softens. I usually taste a little bit to see if I can still feel the crisp of the cracked wheat - if you can - you have to keep on kneading. Rule of thumb for someone who has never had this dish before- it should be as soft as your earlobe and not crunchy at all.
Once your mixture is soft enough, then add the olive oil mixture and mix well.

Add the parsley and the green onions and you are ready to make the lentil fingers by squeezing them in your hand. You can serve them topped with parsley and green onions. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ramadan... Thanksgiving for a whole month

It is Ramadan and tomorrow night is "Kadir Gecesi", we are having a guest over for "iftar" which reminded me of another Ramadan two years ago...

September 10 2010

Ramadan, the most wonderful, fulfilling and benevolent of all Islamic traditions has been one of my favorite times of the year for as far back as I can remember.   There are scenes from my childhood that resonate with a warm family environment where everyone is quiet and contemplative, sitting around the table laden with all kinds of delicacies awaiting the faithful, who have been fasting since sun-up to partake of the feast set before them.  The minute the sun sets and the call for prayer can be heard reverberating throughout the streets, it's time to eat, and the calm and expectant setting turns into a hive of activity as the hungry are fed and everyone is trying to oblige them in the offerings prepared especially to their tastes.  After the first pangs are satiated everyone is eating, talking and laughing all at the same time.  The food keeps on coming one after another for what seems to be an endless amount of time.
There is a traditional 'Iftar Sofrasi' (the table set for the meal of breaking the fast) that follows a particular order for practical reasons more than anything else.  The table is set with what the Turks eat for breakfast - cheese, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, jams and sometimes 'pastirma' (a beef cured with spices that has been dried / smoked in the sun) or 'sucuk' (garlic flavored Turkish sausage); all of this is eaten with a special 'pide' (pita bread that comes out only during Ramadan).  The fast is broken with something that hasn't touched fire, either olives, dates or water.  Fruit juices, water and soda are beverages served with the meal; most Turks don't drink alcohol during the month of Ramadan.  The first course that comes out is always a soup to help with digestion.  One or two olive oil dishes and some sort of borek is usually on the table also, as a starter, before the main meal.  Everyone samples a little bit of everything while the little tea glasses are never left empty.

After the main meal, a big a variety of deserts and fruits are brought out but the special desert of Ramadan is 'Gullac' (thin layers of starchy dough drenched in sugary milk and served topped with crushed walnuts, pistachios or pomegranate seeds.)  It's a delicate, delightful desert that is a favorite in our family, my sons look forward to this time of year, if for no other reason than to have this desert that is available, for some unfathomable reason, only during Ramadan.

This year, the month of Ramadan, was over without any of us realizing that it had even started.  It's always difficult to get into the spirit of any holiday that is celebrated away from familiar surroundings; we are not a very religious family except for my mother and remembering it is Ramadan when no one is fasting and there is no acknowledgement  around anywhere, makes it almost impossible.  All of these excuses must seem pathetic to the truly devout but this is a fact about the culture we grew up with in Turkey.  We are not ruled by the 'sharia laws' but have a democratic constitution that allows for freedom of religion.  Although almost %98 of the country is supposed to be Muslim, nothing in Turkey is similar to any other Muslim country.  People are free to pray and practice their own religion the way they choose to; most of the people I have known have found their own interpretations of Islam that, I think, is unique to only Turkey.

When we were living in Turkey, I used to fast almost for the whole month of Ramadan; it is a great time for cleansing your soul as well as your system.  Fasting helps to ingrain patience, humility and gratefulness.  It's a great way to recognize all that we have in our own lives to be thankful for, almost like Thanksgiving, but for a whole month.  I wanted to share with my children this wonderful concept of abstaining as well as sharing with those less fortunate, that is such an important part of our country's cultural traditions.

This year we were able to catch only the end of the month before it was completely over.  My younger son, Murat fasted for one day during the day of 'Kadir Gecesi' which is to be the most important day of Ramadan when the Koran was supposedly revealed.  Fortunately, we were able to share this wonderful tradition with my brother Cenk and his wife Wendy, with little Prometheus joining us at the table only briefly.  It was so great to be able to share this poignant part of our heritage with Wendy.

Murat gave me his list of must haves for the iftar -lentil soup, borek with ground beef, and a fried egg along with the usual breakfast stables.  We were never too big on the main meal during Ramadan and couldn't seem to get past the soup and borek, so the meat I prepared for this night was for the rest of the family's benefit.

The day before the planned 'iftar', Mehmet and I went shopping for the authentic breakfast supplies from a Turkish grocer, Ethnic International Holding, Inc. in Cranbury, New Jersey.  The whole shopping expedition was a such a happy occasion.  I found all the specific brand name products I was looking for, from the sheep's milk white  cheese (some call it feta) and special green olives to the halvah and even sour cherry juice.  The preparations were quite easy, once we had all the materials ready.  I only had to make the soup and the borek, the meat would cook all by itself anyway.

Finally, at 7.30 in the evening, it was time... we all gathered around the table and waited for Murat to break his fast. He savored everything I had prepared for him and we all relished the chance to take part in an important tradition, as a family, in such a distant land.  I was grateful that Murat had fasted that day and made the whole experience real for all of us.

Cenk, Wendy and Prometheus left to go back to Los Angeles at the beginning of the week; we are back to our nucleus family of six. Everything returned to normal, we all went back to work and school and the 'iftar sofrasi' we shared with the whole family became nothing but an exotic, distant memory.

But today, it is the second day of 'Ramadan Bayram' (Ramadan holiday), marking the end of the month of fasting; thanks to the lucky coincidence of it coinciding with Rosh Hashanah we have a vague perception of a holiday ourselves.  This is actually suppose to be a three day celebration that is commemorated by visiting friends and relatives.  For those of us who live away from most of our friends and relatives which this holiday would be significant to, have to settle for Facebook posts and long distance phone calls.  For our family in New Jersey too, life would have been 'business as usual' if we hadn't made a point of sitting down to an especially prepared 'Bayram breakfast' yesterday. I tried to set a cheerful table laden with all Turkish specialties.  We got the boys out of bed by force, and made them sit outside with the rest of us, in the morning chill of a beautiful fall day and humored their complaints about the cold and the hour and how strange we were...We celebrated as best we could, enjoying the camaraderie of dancing to our own tune.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Pasha Restaurant - A Turkish Delight in Upper West Side

 I was in New York one fine day and driving around looking for a place to park the car on the Upper West Side when I came across a spot right in the middle of 71st Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. This was pure "Kismet" because this street turned out to have the best Turkish restaurant I have been to in New York City.

Pasha Restaurant in the Lincoln Center area is a favorite with Upper West Side locals offering wonderful Turkish food made just right.  Since Turkish food is the cuisine we cook at home, I am usually not too thrilled with eating out at Turkish restaurants but for Pasha I can always make an exception.  Every dish we had was perfectly prepared and memorable.

Kofte Kebab Served with Grilled Vegetables

We went for lunch and had the Kofte Kebab , Sigara Boregi (Turkish Eggroll with cheese), Tarama and Yaprak Sarma (Stuffed Grape Leaves). They were all excellent but the Kofte Kebab was superb and the Tarama (one of my favorite dishes) was to die for.

After lunch came a desert plate of Baklava and Sun Dried Apricots with Pistachios which was another delightful surprise.  The Baklava was very good but the Apricots which I don't usually eat turned out to be out of this world.

We sat in the front section of the restaurant which was tastefully decorated like a small European bistro although there was a bigger dining room in the back with a skylight. The decoration was quaint, the service impeccable and the food marvelous. I have been recommending Pasha to everyone I know ever since.

Pasha Restaurant
70 West 71st Street
New York, NY 10023
Tel:  212-579-8751

Monday, April 9, 2012

Road Trip Recommendation for New Jersey

I was inspired by my evening commute to write a post about what I consider to be one of the most beautiful country roads in New Jersey...

There are some roads that are worth going out of one's way, even taking the longer route if necessary, just for the experience of driving down it; Country Route 537 is one such road.  Whatever the season, whatever the conditions, it always feels like a piece of heaven.  I only use the10 miles between Freehold township and Eatontown in Monmouth County but even that little bit is enough to soothe my soul and give me renewed energy.  The drive goes through Colts Neck township passing large farmsteads, orchards with row upon row of fruit trees and horse farms with five star facilities... for equines.  The biggest appeal of this country road is probably the charm of another era it still has not lost even after so much residential developing.

For anyone in the Tri-State area, interested in taking a nice drive on a beautiful weekend, Rt 537 in Monmouth County offers a nice day-trip with plenty of diversions along the way.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Great Blog for Istanbul GoodEats

I just discovered a very interesting blog that I want to recommend to all food aficionados, Istanbul Eats written by two expats who seem to know what they are talking about.  Istanbul is full of wonderful restaurants but some are more wonderful than others and Ansel Mullins and Yigal Schleifer seem to have discovered some of the great 'not to be missed' ones. 

Looking through their blog has put me in an 'Istanbul State of Mind' so I decided to share my photo album of pictures I took for my Facebook profile, while roaming the streets of Istanbul one beautiful summer day.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

This Concert Should Not Be Missed!!!

We went to a Symphonic Mehteran concert tonight and I was reminded of a museum that is usually an off the radar tourist destination, the Military Museum in Istanbul. Not only is this museum full of unexpected delights such as the Ottoman tents they used during war campaigns but also it has a show of the Mehteran, the Ottoman military marching band, between 3.00- 4.00pm everyday except Monday and Tuesdays. I have to go back and take pictures and report about the collection of the museum but I can guarantee the tents and the concert are worth the price of admission.

Askeri Muze ve Kultur Sitesi Komutanligi
Valikonagi Caddesi,
Harbiye, Sisli, Istanbul
Tel:  9 0212 233 2720

Open Wednesday - Sunday 9.00am - 5.00pm
Mehteran Showtime 3.00pm - 4.00pm

P.S. During the summer months there are also performances at the Topkapi Palace as well.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Recipe for 'Zeytinyagli Dolma' (Stuffed Grape Leaves)

Dolma is probably one of the most basic and loved foods of Turkish cooking.
I should probably start by defining the word Dolma - It can be used to mean filled or stuffing or filling.  In Turkish Cuisine, we have two types of Dolma - meat filled (served hot as an entrée or an appetizer) and with olive oil (served cold as an appetizer).  Dolma can be made by stuffing peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, grape leaves, cabbage leaves, chard  or any other vegetable that can be filled.  According to the vegetable, some of the stuffing ingredients might change.  The following is my personal recipe for Zeytingyagli Dolma that I have simplified after doing extensive research in my family and friends who have been renowned for their Dolma recipes. It can be used for stuffing peppers or wrapping grape leaves which we happen to also call Sarma (meaning wrapped) by the way.

Zeytinyagli Dolma - (Stuffed Grape Leaves)

Zeytinyagli Biber Dolmasi
Zeytingyagli Yaprak Sarmasi


3/4 cup olive oil
10-12 onions finely chopped
1 cup rice (washed and drained)
50gr pine nuts
50gr currants
4-5 lumps of sugar
1 Tbspn salt
1 Tbspn black pepper
1 Tbspn  dried mint
1 Tbspn  allspice
1 1/2 cup warm water

Sauté the onions in olive oil, on low for 15 minutes.  Add the rice and sauté for another 15 minutes over low heat.  Add the pine nuts and currants and sauté for 5 more minutes.  Add the spices, mix.  Add the water and put the heat on medium; when it begins to boil (in about 5 minutes) turn the heat down for 10 minutes.  Turn the heat off and let it cool for at least 2 hours.

This filling can be used to fill green or red peppers or wrap in grape leaves or boiled cabbage leaves or zucchini flowers (as seen above).  Put a plate above the Dolma and pour 1 1/2 cups of water over it, close the lid and cook for about 1 hour after it boils.   I've heard my husband's maternal grandmother had a saying that I use as a rule of thumb "You should cook with the food"; these measurements work for me but you should be on hand to check to see if there is enough water in the Dolma and maybe add another 1/2 cup warm water if needed.

Afiyet Olsun...

Friday, January 13, 2012

Berlin - Scenes From the Streets of Berlin

My last day in Berlin was to be devoted to the Gemaldegalerie, the museum holding one of the  largest European paintings collections in the world.  It turned out to be only a fifteen minute walk from our hotel which gave me the opportunity to go walking and exploring the streets of Berlin, one of my favorite activities in an unknown city.

Corner of Anhalter Strasse and
Etap Hotel Postdamer Platz


My ramblings took me to Martin-Gropius Bau, a building I had noticed as we had passed by in the taxi twice the day before.


The inside of this exhibition hall was just as impressive as the outside.  There was a very pleasant cafe and an incredible book store.

Main Lobby, Martin-Gropius Bau

The Cafe, Martin-Gropius Bau

The Bookstore, Martin-Gropius Bau

After Martin-Gropius Bau, I just walked and took pictures till I reached the Gemaldegalerie.

Finally I reached the Gemaldegalerie and lost myself in the art for many hours.

Gemaldegalerie is inside the Kulturfom