We're just back from Turkey and Australia. In the former, we formally (ie. with contract in hand) began work on our cookbook. In Oz, Dave and I spoke (separately) on food travel writing and food and travel photography (terrifying at first, absolute fun in the end) at the Words to Go bloggers' workshop attached to the annual Tasting Australia. It was an intense 5.5 weeks, every day filled with good food and new friendships. We managed to fit in a wee bit of vacation in Sydney in at the end. In just a little over 2 weeks we'll be off again, back to Turkey.
Our Turkey time was spent mostly in the southeast. We've been before, but never for such an extended period, and never feeling the sort of pressure -- lovely lucky pressure, but pressure nonetheless -- that comes with a manuscript deadline hovering in the back of your mind. We worked as we usually do: mostly on our own, feeling our way, meeting people in markets and bakeries and restaurants and on farms and orchards and wherever else one meets perfect strangers willing to share time, a recipe, a story, their home, their workplace. There were ups and downs, but mostly there were high highs. My notebooks are filled with more stories and recipes than I can ever fit into a single chapter. (Some of them will end up here.)
We're so excited about what we experienced and documented -- and ate! -- on this trip. This -- getting out there, meeting people, cooking and eating and photographing up a storm -- is what we live for. Those three weeks were a reminder that we really are astoundingly lucky to be able to call this work.
We flew from Istanbul to Gaziantep, where we picked up a car and overnighted before setting off. From there we drove a sort of lopsided counterclockwise almost-circle, covering about 1000 miles excluding day trips before we dropped the car off back in Gaziantep 22 days later.
Our first stop was Sanliurfa, a bland-looking modern city with a lovely preserved historic core of sandstone houses and a fascinating covered bazaar.
In Sanliurfa isot is king. You might know this pepper in its dried and ground form, when it's very dark, with a beguiling sweet-hot flavor reminiscent of Mexican ancho chilies. I'd never seen isot in fresh form but that was remedied in Sanliurfa, where it was everywhere, sold in markets and at small corner shops, skewered for grills, carried in tepsi, or pans, to the community oven for roasting. Sanliurfali eat fresh isot morning, noon and night.
There is almost no time of the day when Sanliurfa doesn't smell like barbecue. A favorite kebab is liver. Before you turn your nose up, know that the liver is cut into small cubes that char and crust beautifully over the fire and that it's eaten wrapped in soft lavash with fresh parsley and mint, grilled isot peppers if you dare, and an addictive almost kimchee-like onion salad-relish flavored with pomegranate molasses and isot paste, among other ingredients. Fantastic.
Even for breakfast, as in this photo above.
When we weren't scoping out the bazaar or skulking about grill stalls so that Dave could photograph over the shoulders of diners we spent a bit of time with a woman who is committed to preserving local culinary traditions. From her I learned the recipe for several dishes, including a simple crepe with walnuts and a one-pot meal of baldo rice pilaf with small whole onions and chunks of lamb cooked for three hours with pepper and tomato pastes. The latter dish may sound laborious but, like many of the recipes I've collected in eastern Turkey, is deceptively simple, using just a few ingredients and requiring only 20 minutes, if that, of active time.
While eating breakfast at our guest house one morning (we arrived intending to stay one night and ended up staying four -- Hasankeyf is that kind of place) the daily bread arrived by red bike. The white sheet hung from a tree practically begged Dave to take advantage.
We spent a bit of time with a couple of households learning to make a lovely egg bread in the tandir (aka tandoor) oven. What's the best way to use up extra dough? Deep-fry it and salt it, of course, for a hot snack.
Then we backtracked to Mardin, from where we reported a story on the city's first bienale almost four years ago, stopping en route for glasses of bracing, reviving ayran (salted and water-thinned yogurt) made with a mixture of sheep, goat and cow's milk. (As an aside, this salty-sour-milky drink has become my go-to refreshment right after we arrive in lstanbul from Malaysia. It's soothing to a jet-lagged stomach and the saltiness brilliantly combats the dehydration that hits on long flights.)
Once we arrived, there was fragrant spice bread, meat, parsley and onion-filled hand pies, an addictive crepe-like concoction filled with fresh cheese and soaked in not-too-sweet syrup and, well, some of the finest meatballs I have ever eaten. Our stay in Mardin was very short, only two nights, but we can't wait to return and dig more deeply into the local cuisine.
Our book will have a strong seasonal component, and so throughout this journey we had our eye out for what spring means for local diets. We learned that, to be honest, spring isn't as over-the-top bountiful as fall is. But I did gather recipes for some season delights like peas, young cardoons, otlar or wild herbs and greens (many of which are actually cultivated in the Unites States). The spring produce that showed up most often, everywhere we stopped, was marul or a type of romaine lettuce -- big, sturdy, flavorful-with-a-hint-of-bitterness heads of romaine lettuce. Would you stuff and stew romaine? Southeastern Turkish cooks do, and it is absolutely delicious.
On to Diyarbakir, with its black basalt city walls and breakfast obsession. Most every Turk we know adores breakfast, and we've certainly eaten some fine ones around Turkey (especially in Van), but Diyarbakir breakfasts blew us away. Our favorite breakfast dish opens this post (see up top): a very simple fried eggs with sliced long green peppers and beef confit.
Why we travel in Turkey by car: the ability it gives us to pursue not-pursueable-by-bus obsessions like cheese, even if it means driving, twice, to a village far from the city to observe milking, and the cheese making process, afterwards to be welcomed by the cheese maker's generous family with a lunch of cheese (of course!), charrred peppers and eggplants, spicy potatoes, cucumber and tomato salad, fresh melty butter and homemade bread.
Another reason we travel Turkey by car: the freedom to take less direct routes between cities that reward the effort with views like this. We're quite partial to the northeastern provinces and the Black Sea coast, but on this road trip we took in some of the most spectacular scenery we've ever come across in Turkey. Spring had truly sprung, everything was green and the air was sparkling.
Right in the midst of this undulating sea of green we stumbled upon a place Dave and I call Heaven. That's not the real name of the village, but it's how the village's residents (just seven households) described it to us. "We have everything we need here," one spry eighty year-old man told us. Indeed, as we sat down to this "snack" (whey cheese and fresh butter, meant to be smashed together, fresh cow cheese, yogurt mixed with young pistachio tree leaves, green almonds and green plums, bread from the tandir -- you know, just a little something you might throw together for unexpected guests, everything grown, foraged or produced in the village) in the late afternoon sunshine and drank in a view much like the one in the photo above, it was hard not to agree.
That road eventually delivered us, after an unplanned ride on a car ferry, to Adiyaman, where around 5pm seemingly every firin (wood oven bakery) in town turns out not only plain pide for dinner, but pide laden with bubbling cheese and sugar for pre-dinner snack. A bit greasy? Yes. Addictive? You bet. We skipped dinner that night.
From Adiyaman we drove south to Hatay, which borders Syria on the south and is edged by the Mediterranean on the west, and where we found enough goodness to merit a Part II. Stay tuned.
For more food images from Turkey see our tumblr (heavy on photos, light on text) Eating Turkey and Dave's photo blog SkyBlueSky. When on the road in Turkey we post intermittently, but update our culinary meanderings with photos and a few words pretty often on Facebook, and Twitter (@EatingAsia).