Expanding our belts & worldview in Turkey
The thought of distilling more than a week in Turkey into a post — and the lingering jet lag — is enough to help me put this off a few more days… and then I realize it has been a few days since we returned.
Our trip to the Cappadocia region of Turkey, mostly Nevşehir and Goreme, was defined as much by the people as the place. And the people, in this case, were mostly Iranian refugees we had the privilege of meeting via friends in the country and with whom we shared more than a few meals. I must say that Turkish food, as good as it was, didn’t stand a chance compared to home-cooked, Iranian dishes that I’m not sure how to spell, let alone pronounce. But I do know they were good. Really good.
But first, the Turkish food. It’s a lot like all Middle Eastern foods, with a focus on tomato- or eggplant-based dishes and lots and lots of bread. The pottery kebap was a popular offering in the region where we stayed, where pottery clay was plentiful and breaking the cooking vessel made for some dinnertime entertainment. Restaurants offered everything from kebabs and salads to sauce-laden dishes of lamb and eggplant, some topped with cheese. There were Turkish versions of hummus and dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with rice), baklava and stuffed peppers or squash. The bread served with these ranged from naan-like pita to soft sandwich rolls.
But our favorite Turkish dish was grilled up by the owner of our S.O.S. Cave Hotel where we stayed. He had already impressed us with the daily breakfasts, which included “grass-fed, organic eggs” (yes, he knows how to market to Americans), yogurt that even my husband liked and fruit, olives and nuts galore. They even offered small batches of American-like coffee, which sustained us. But he pulled out all the stops to make a special lamb, chicken and meatball dinner for us on the Fourth of July, this after he’d already gone out of his way to conjure a birthday cake for my husband a few days before. I highly recommend his hotel!
The Turkish truly were hospitable, not allowing us to tip after an expansive pottery tour and how-to lesson (though they may have still been hoping we’d buy a $1,000 vase). But nothing could compare to being invited into the Iranian families’ homes for meals. I was overwhelmed by not only the incredible flavors — saffron-infused rice and “gheme,” homemade yogurt and pickled vegetables, fritters that tasted like a fried infusion of everything we’d enjoyed most — but also the incredible hospitality. We enjoyed (and only embarrassed ourselves a few times) learning the culture and being welcomed into it for a window of time.
The women even let us help cook (OK, we basically picked parsley off the stems and assembled sandwiches) for big picnics, and they shared some of their recipes. One made me fruit leathers and a spice mix to take home while another that worked at a local nut shop spoiled us with gifts. I especially liked a local dish called “tedique” (no clue how to spell it though), which involved slowly cooking a layer of potatoes or rice at the bottom of the rice pot to form a crispy side dish. The technique looks quite difficult but was wonderful when done well. It didn’t matter if we ate on a tablecloth on the floor or on sofas pulled up to tea tables, I will long cherish the meals and fellowship they shared with us.
The women loved to share their flavors and cultures with us and see how we’d react. At one picnic, they brought us what I thought was a piece of candy to try and, urged by their fervent nods, I popped it into my mouth. Now, there’s not much I don’t like in the world, but it was difficult to hide my reaction to what tasted like a fermented ball of old cheese. Our translator soon moseyed by and, just before the guys popped it into their mouths, said, “Oh no, no, spit it out. You will not like it!”
I didn’t want to be rude, so I persevered for a few more moments until he really urged me to spit it out. Phew! Turns out my taste buds weren’t that far off — it was basically yogurt that had been dehydrated into tiny balls, intended to rest in one cheek and promote salivation on hot days. I think that was the only thing I didn’t like. I could even be convinced to like Ayran, the yogurt-and-water drink that’s popular in Turkey, before those sour milk balls. Thankfully they gave me homemade fruit leathers to wash the taste out of my mouth, and I loved the tart, just-fruit flavor of the Iranian fruit roll-ups.
While in Turkey, I had hoped to buy gobs of saffron, which I was told would be cheap. It was, but I was conflicted by reports — from both Turks and Iranians — that Iranian saffron is better. So I held out for that until the end of the trip, only to realize that there was basically no way of getting it where we were. (Travel advice for the future: see saffron, buy saffron.) But I did enjoy a wonderful open-air market in Goreme, where we stayed. I found the spices not only beautiful in the morning sun but also reasonably priced for what might have been a tourist area.
I came home with a big bag of the ever-healthful turmeric, which the Iranians used in a nearly 1-to-1 ratio with their house-made curries on most occasions, sumac, paprika, a soup mix/curry, pomegranate flower tea and a small rock that is used as a natural antiperspirant. One of the Iranian women also gave me a bag of her personal curry mix, which I cannot wait to use (Though I’m not sure how well I can duplicate her recipes. OK I’m pretty sure I’ll fail.)
There is so much more I could say, truly. Traveling to another country and culture is just so good for us. It expands so much more than our recipe repertoires and spice cabinets. It expands our worldview. It expands the feeling that, when we share the most important things with people — even people so far removed geographically and experientially — we have much more in common than not. Thank you to all those who shared their hotels and restaurants and homes and meals with us. We were truly blessed.
Next post: A couple days in Madrid, Spain! A little preview…