What an incredible country.
When I told people of our plans to visit Turkey, they often responded with a confused "Why?" or "What made you pick Turkey of all places?" And with the recent protests, since I've returned, many have treated me like I just got back from a war zone.
Why visit Turkey? Turkey is a cradle of civilization. It's location straddling Asia and Europe has made it home to some of the most well known civilizations in history. Archeological remains from the Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, Hittites, and Byzantines can all be found in Turkey. Often, ruins of different civilizations are found just a quick walk away from one another. Until our trip, I didn't realize how many important events in the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam happened in Turkey.
Turkey has some of the most incredible scenery. Even though we stayed in a small area on the Turquoise Coast, the landscape changed dramatically from cove to cove.
Turks were one of the friendliest people I've met, always willing to strike up a friendly conversation or help with directions. From the shop owners at the Grand Bazaar to our waiters to the boat crew, the customer service was fantastic! People go out of their way to make sure your trip is memorable.
And the recent protests? If we didn't watch the news, we wouldn't have known about it at all. If fact, on the last night of our trip, Scott and I felt safe enough to take a community taxi from our hotel near the airport to Beyoglu, even though it dropped off right outside Taksim Square. The community taxi was $5 versus $40 for a personal taxi. Saving $70 > personal safety.
Scott and I traveled with my dad and stepmom, who had been to Turkey three times already, and my brother. Our first two days were spent in Istanbul. Since there are so many sites to see, we mostly stuck to the biggies - Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, Suleymaniye Mosque, Tokapi Palace, and of course shopping at the Grand Bazaar and spice market. From Istanbul, we flew to the Mediterranean coast, stopping at Ephesus, the House of the Virgin Mary and the Bascilica of St. John the Apostle, which had a nice view of what remains of the Temple of Artemus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. We boarded a boat in Bodrum and spent the next week exploring the Turquoise coast. The boat trip was by far the most relaxing vacation I've been on. We're usually known for our "on the go" style of family vacation, and although I don't think I'll ever be a week at the beach kinda gal, I have to admit it was pretty nice to spend a day doing nothing but soaking up the Mediterranean sun. Plus, being on a small boat, we were able to see many impressive, but lesser known sites, like Knidos, Loryma and Dalyan.
And then there was the food.
Given it's location, Turkey's cuisine is almost a fusion of Mediterranean foods with Middle Eastern flavors. The food was just as flavorful as it was healthy. Seasonal vegetables starred in most dishes. Here's a look at what/where we ate along with links to recipes so you can recreate them at home!
Tamara is worth it for the stunning view of the Blue Mosque alone. Luckily, the food was pretty great too. After a day of traveling, we were all pretty hungry, so we started with a meze platter and pide, Turkish-style pizza, topped with spicy sausage. My entree was the best (yes, I stole bites of everything!) - a spiced lamb sausage pressed flat then pan fried, served over eggplant and cucumber in a creamy yogurt sauce.
Sultanahmet Fish House
One of the more memorable meals of our trip, in no small part due to the fantastic service. We started with a plate of fried calamari, served with a creamy yogurt sauce, pan-fried sardines (FYI, a low mercury fish rich in omega 3s) and dolmas, which are grape leaves stuffed with lemon and dill seasoned rice. My dad and stepmom's entree was the highlight of our meal, a salt baked fish served with the most delicious parsley and olive oil sauce. The presentation was quite the production, complete with flaming raki and a random French kid helping our waiter break the salt crust. It's such a simple preparation, but it yields to most tender, flavorful fish. I enjoyed the stuffed cuttlefish, which is similar to octopus or calamari. It was stuffed with a rich bread and fish stuffing and served in a creamy tomato sauce. A fantastic Turkish white wine and (too much) raki completed our meal.
After drinks and meze at Seven Hills (great sunset view of Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque...food and service was not so great), we went to Antiochland. I don't have any good pictures since we ate outside and it was dark, but the food was definitely up to par with it's number two rating on trip adviser. I ordered eggplant stuffed with spiced rice and lamb. My dad, brother and Scott (clearly, they hate to share) all ordered a rich braised lamb in a fruit sauce which was delicious, and oddly reminiscent of Chinese food (in a good way!). There was an outdoor concert at a nearby bar, so we were able to enjoy some Turkish rock music while we ate.
FiccinAfter the boat trip, we were back in Istanbul for one last night. Scott and I went to Beyoglu, which is often called the "New City" of Istanbul. We walked along Istiklal Caddesi, a busy pedestrian street lined with stores and restaurants. Keeping with my brother's advice of "one street of the main drag is where you find the best restaurants," we wandered through a few side streets and noticed Ficcin's interesting menu of small plates and pretty outdoor seating. We started with lima bean pate, flavored with lots of dill and olive oil. Then came small plates of meatballs layered with eggplant and peppers, peppers stuffed with lamb and rice and a savory meat pie topped with an eggy crust. Not our healthiest meal, but worth the splurge! And so was the cone of Turkish ice cream we had afterwards!
We ate most of our meals on the boat, prepared by chef Malibu (best chef name ever, right?). I tried to find out as much as I could about how each dish was prepared and their Turkish names, but unfortunately Malibu didn't speak great English, and I didn't think he would want me creepily watching over him as he cooked. Each meal consisted of a main course with 6 or 7 different vegetable sides. Usually, dessert was fresh fruit and although I'm normally not big on fresh fruit for dessert (bad dietitian!), it was so perfectly ripe, it was exactly what I wanted. If we did have something baked, it always had just enough sugar to make it dessert.
We spent our first night on the boat in a pretty little cove outside Bodrum. After a spectacular sunset, we enjoyed a fantastic 4 course meal. The meal started with a simple, but flavorful fish soup. A testament to how delicious simple food can be when made with quality ingredients, it was probably little more than fish cooked in a homemade stock with potatoes, rice, carrots, lemon and dill. Our second course (which I thought was our main so I chowed down!) was puff pastry wrapped fish, zucchini blossoms stuffed with dill-scented rice, octopus salad, and a potato salad made with waxy gold potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes in a lemon mustard dressing. After stuffing myself on all that, out came a pan fried fish! Luckily, I was able to made some room. Living down South, we're used to deep frying fish, but I enjoy pan fried fish so much more, since you actually can taste the fish itself but you still get the crispiness from the skin.
In Knidos are the ruins of an ancient Greek city situated in a stunning cove surrounded by chalky white cliffs. We spent the morning exploring Knidos with hardly any other tourists. We worked up quite the appetite hiking up and down the mountain side, so we were thrilled to come back to a delicious lunch of beef casserole with eggplant, tomatoes, and spicy little green peppers served over rice. Sides included a simple slaw with lemon and dill dressing, a salad with corn, tomatoes, cucumbers and a buttermilk dill dressing and green beans braised with garlic, tomatoes and plenty of olive oil. We also had our first taste of greens in a thick garlic and Turkish yogurt sauce, a reoccurring theme in our meals. Almost every day, we enjoyed whatever fresh local greens were available in the market prepared the same way.
My favorite meal of our trip was in Datca at Fevzi nin Yeri. The main harbor in Datca was lined with touristy looking seafood establishments, but right off the main street, almost in an alleyway, we spotted this restaurant. It's not much to look at, but luckily I happened to glance at the chalkboard menu outside, which looked more interesting than overpriced fish, so we decided to stop. So glad we did. It's a family run establishment and our service was fantastic. The food was so unique, unlike anywhere else I've eaten before. All the dishes were small plates - perfect for tasting everything on the menu! One of their specialties is local herbs, which the family collects from the mountains each winter, then pickles and preserves. Many of these herbs are used in alternative medicine and the menu comes with a description of their traditional uses. We couldn't decide what we wanted, so our waiter brought us a sampling. Most were prepared in a similar fashion with lemon and olive oil, but they all tasted completely different. He also brought us a plate green olives stuffed with walnuts, pomegranate, and garlic and the most delicious soft cheese seasoned with garlic and nuts. It tasted almost like parmesan but a spreadable consistency. We then ordered an assortment of small dishes. My favorite was cuttlefish casserole, which came in a light buttery tomato broth with a hint of spices we just couldn't put our fingers on. When we inquired about the spices used, he just said it was "made with love." Hrumph. Well that doesn't help me recreate it at home! We also had snails in a rich tomato sauce, which a slightly different but equally elusive spice mixture, pickled white fish (basically ceviche), pan-fried angler fish, and fish cakes. We finished our meal with a gooey caramelized fig and - stay with me on this one - artichoke heart topped with ice cream. I know you're probably gagging right now, but the artichoke was prepared in a way that it tasted sweet, but it still had the texture of the artichoke heart. It was incredible and (obviously) unlike anything I've had! In all, we must have spent 3 or 4 hours over our leisurely meal, laughing with our waiter.
After spending the morning swimming and snorkeling in a cove outside Datca, we had a nice light lunch - chicken thighs served with stewed white beans, watercress in a garlic yogurt sauce, leeks braised with tomatoes and olive oil and an arugula salad with tuna, red peppers, tomatoes, and onion. The white beans, stewed in a brothy tomato and olive oil sauce with carrots were especially nice and I will admit to going back for thirds.
Selimye is a cute little port town in the middle of a serene pine forest. The first night, we stayed in a quiet (except for the goats!) cove outside town. The crew set up a grill on the front of the boat and grilled a plate of chicken wings, kofte and lamb kebabs, which were served with a flavorful condiment of shredded zucchini in a spicy tomato paste. They also prepared this fantastic baba ganoush made with eggplant that was grilled over pinecones. I think all they did was mash it with onion and lemon juice, but it had the most complex flavor. The meal was also served with braised watercress stems, leftover from the watercress leaves served in yogurt at lunch. I never thought of saving the stems from your greens to cook, but I love the thriftiness! And the outcome was delish!
We spent the next morning exploring Selimiye. Being a dietitian and someone who appreciates landscaping, I noticed everyone's front yard was filled with fruit trees - figs, pomegranates, and citrus everywhere! After working up an appetite jewelry shopping (it can take a lot out of ya!), we enjoyed a lunch of pan fried fish on the boat. The fish was a little scary looking (check out those spikes!), but tasty. It was served with fresh egg pasta in a thin puttanesca style tomato sauce, more greens and yogurt, confit red peppers, braised green beans and slaw with a creamy dill dressing.
Loryma was one of the highlights of out boat trip. Perched upon a cliff overlooking the most beautiful cove of clear, turquoise water are the remains of a Rhodesian fort. Little remains besides the walls, which are perfect for exploring. We risked death (seriously!!) for a fantastic view of the Mediterranean. After exploring, we enjoyed our lunch in the cove. The main course was kofte smothered in a rich tomato sauce with potatoes. One the side were mushrooms in a tomato, garlic and olive oil sauce, roasted peppers and eggplant, a Caesar salad with dill dressing and cacik, the Turkish response to tzatziki. We also had green peppers stuffed with a dill-scented rice. Normally I'm not a big green pepper fan, but the ones we ate in Turkey were much sweeter with just a hint of spiciness.
Marmaris itself was nothing to write home about, simply our last stop before getting off the boat. Chef Malibu prepared a special feast for our last night - a whole roasted fish. Fish this fresh is best kept simple. Ours was roasted with a flavorful spice mix, olive oil and a bit of lemon. Perfection. Chef Malibu also made borek (spanikopita), jumbo prawns, braised green beans, olive oily (that's an adjective, right?) broccoli, and slaw with big chunks of pickles (yes!). We finished our dinner with baklava made with watered down honey. That probably doesn't sound very good, but it kept dessert nice and light, almost more like a thin honey syrup.
If you are look to travel abroad this year, I highly recommend Turkey. Given everything going on politically, prices will be down, but I felt it was still completely safe to visit! And if a big trip isn't in your plans, have fun recreating these dishes at home and at least eating like you're there!