Almost sixteen years ago to the day I booked our first trip to Turkey. Dave and I were living in Shanghai at the time and Chinese New Year was just around the corner: a nice long slice of vacation time to do with as we pleased. After a so-awful-it's-funny Christmas trip to Guizhou we were determined to travel as far from China as we could. Our award miles would take us as far as Europe, but Europe was expensive. Somehow (advice of friends? an article in a travel pub? for the life of me I can't recall) we decided on Turkey.
We arrived in Istanbul after midnight and glided into Sultanahmet, the old city, along the ribbon of road that runs along the Bosphorus. I remember gawping up at the minarets of the Blue Mosque as our taxi slide along silent streets to our guesthouse, falling into a deep sleep beneath thick duvets on a charmingly high bed, and being jolted awake before dawn by the call the prayer bellowing from a loudspeaker affixed beneath our window. I sat up ramrod straight, delirious with jet lag and, for the minute it took me to figure out what that noise was, scared silly. I think I fell in love with Istanbul, with its ability to surprise and astonish me, right then. We lingered in the city for 10 bitingly cold days, extending our stay when I came down with a horrible cold. For 48 hours I lay in our room, hunkered feverishly but happily beneath the duvet, watching snow fall as I ate lentil soup and rice pudding that Dave brought from nearby shops.
I got better and we hit the road. We flew to Izmir and picked up a car, visited a deserted Ephesus and drove south. It was way, way off-season. In Bodrum a storm knocked out power. Our room's ceiling began to leak, making it impossible to use our fireplace to keep warm. We hastily repacked the car and drove through the rain to Aphrodisias, where the only pension open had no heat or hot water and was run by two strangely hostile brothers who served canned tomato soup for dinner. Our compensation was waking after a night of thunder and lightning to a spectacular and empty (except for us) archeological site set against a backdrop of mountains whose peaks had overnite been freshly frosted with what looked like swirls of buttercream.
Further east at a lakeside resort, restaurants were closed; our hotel's owner took pity on us and defrosted two schnitzel. In Konya, which Istanbul people had warned us would be "very conservative", residents approached us on the street to shake hands and wish us a good trip. Antalya was our Turkish food epiphany. We stayed in an old house in Kaleici owned by a slightly eccentric woman named Perla who kept box tortoises in her large leafy courtyard. Perla and her partner Ali loved to eat, and drink. Every night was an orgy of meze and white wine followed by a perfect grilled fish. Further along the coast, in a seaside village walking distance to the Eternal Flame, we stayed in a bright white room with gauzy turquoise curtains and ate our breakfasts in an orange grove warmed by the sun -- in February.
We returned to Istanbul in love and obsessed with Turkey, Turks, Turkish food, Turkish towns, Turkish ruins and the wide open Turkish road, all of it. On the flight back to Shanghai I turned to Dave and told him that as soon as I could find a teacher I would study Turkish. I added, "I don't know how and I don't know when, but some day Turkey will be a big part of our lives."
Nine months later we moved back to the Bay Area, and I found a Turkish tutor, then joined first-year Turkish classes at UC Berkeley mid-year. My teacher was a Turkish cookbook author: Kismet! Only I and one other student enrolled in her second-year class, so she split us up for private tutorials. I gained halfway decent proficiency via a steady diet of food magazines and newspaper columns and stories that touched on Turkish culinary culture. Meanwhile Dave and I continued to vacation in Turkey once a year, always following a stop in Istanbul with a long road trip out east. (My biggest regret: no notes from any of those trips.)
Midway through my sixth semester of Turkish we moved to Bangkok, and set our Turkey obsession aside to immerse ourselves in southeast Asia, a place we'd long wanted to explore. We moved to Saigon, then Kuala Lumpur. We started this blog. I began freelancing and, after leaving his corporate job at the end of 2008, so did Dave.
In 2010, nine years after our last trip to Turkey, we returned so that Dave could attend a photography workshop. Being back was like slipping on a well-worn glove; Istanbul still fit. Before the workshop began we flew out east to Gaziantep and picked up a car. We drove and drove, first to Mardin -- where I stumbled across a travel story -- and then to Midyat, Van, Kars and Erzurum. Along the way we ate. And ate. Back in Istanbul we extended our stay beyond Dave's workshop, first by a few days, then by a week, then by another week. If we hadn't had a home and pets and responsibilities waiting back in Malaysia for us, it's entirely possible that we'd be one of those ex-pats you meet in Istanbul who came to the city for a visit, and then a second visit ... and never left.
We returned to Turkey six months later, again in the middle of winter, way way off-season. I love Istanbul most in the winter under gray skies and drizzle; I especially love it under a blanket of snow. After eating fresh anchovies at a Black Sea restaurant in Beyoglu we decided to go to the Black Sea to eat them in situ. We met a fishmonger in Sinop and struck up a friendship. We visited wonderful markets and ate delicious dishes that didn't fit most Western pre-conceptions of "Turkish food". We met home cooks who allowed us into their kitchens and master bakers who invited us behind their marble slabs.
And we returned home to Malaysia with an idea: a book. But could we? Could I write a book about Turkish food? More important: could I sell a book about what essentially began as a crazy obsession?
After nine or ten research trips, two years of on-and-off book proposal writing (with the help of a great editor/coach) and photograph collecting, an at times demoralizing month pitching agents followed by six months of tinkering with the proposal under the guidance of the one who took our project to heart, and four weeks of nail-biting as the proposal went out to and was reviewed by publishers, we had our answer. Last October, as we were finishing up our latest eastern Turkey roadtrip with a few days in -- of all places -- Sinop, we learned that yes, we could sell a book born of our obsession with a country and a people and a cuisine that we came to know by chance, a place that -- Who knows? -- we might never have visited if we hadn't been so eager, that winter 16 years ago, to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and China (Shanghai, thank you.)
We have no title yet for our book, but we can tell you that it will be filled with mouthwatering recipes, plenty of gorgeous photographs, and stories -- about markets and farmers and cheese producers and other food artisans, and ingredients and home cooks in their kitchens and bakers -- from Istanbul and Turkey's eastern half. It will not be EatingAsia in book form, but you'll recognize my voice and Dave's eyes in the text and images on its pages.
I'm honored and still rather shocked to be working with a woman who has edited Jacques Pepin. Rux Martin Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish [Title ToBeDecided] in 2016.
Before I jumped wholeheartedly into freelancing I took a food writing class taught by a then-editor at Bon Appetit. One of her sagest pieces of advice: "Give into your obsessions. They can become great stories." And, apparently, books.
Over the two-plus years that I worked on our book proposal I had so many doubts, and so many fears. (And as I contemplate turning in a completed manuscript in 18 months, I have new doubts and fears!) It often seemed silly, this gut desire to write a book on Turkish food. But I'm so glad I pushed on. You never know where an obsession will lead.
For 2014, I wish everyone reading this the time and opportunity to really give in to an obsession. Am I telling you to quit your job, sell your belongings and travel the world? To chuck it all and become a writer? To pick up a camera and become a photographer? No. But if there is something -- an activity, a language, a dance, a species of orchid, a cuisine.... whatever -- that intrigues you, give in to your curiosity and pursue it, even if for only an hour a week. Life is short. Do that for yourself.
Happy New Year!