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Archive for September, 2009

Just about when Babs was feeling like all these farmers markets looked a bit samey, my case for dawdling with a camera got renewed (whew!) when we came across these giant alien-looking discs at the traditional Stary Kleparz Market in Krakow, Poland.

After circling a few times, peering at them up close, and prodding them a little, we finally realised that these were, essentially, a large bag of sunflower seeds in their original packaging. (This may be far more obvious to some of you, but certainly not to this city girl at the time.)

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To put the above in context, here’s a sunflower in the middle of the seeding process, which I photographed at a flower show in Tallinn, Estonia, a couple of weeks later.

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Another first-time find at Stary Kleparz Market: these luscious tomato-shaped peppers.

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It being August at the time meant that locals were currently enjoying the best of 2 seasons: late summer berries, and early autumn wild mushrooms. Some stalls had mountains of both, but there were plenty of locals simply hawking just one basket of whatever they foraged or grew at home, e.g., blueberries and wild strawberries sold by the cupful.

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The lack of a kitchen pained me greatly when I saw these heaps of bulbuous porcini. Fortunately, the popular Polish restaurant U Babci Maliny (which delightfully translates as Grandmother Raspberry) served up a mushroom soup that did them justice (read the post here).

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The Poles take their pork pretty seriously. I’m not sure I’ve seen a ham display this large anywhere else. Not even in Spain. Well, not this well organized, at least.

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IMG 1226Given Krakow is on Poland’s landlocked southern side, most of the fish we saw was smoked or pickled. Up north, freshwater fish such as carp, perch and eel from native lakes are popular picks for regional cuisine.

GlobArt Hostel , where we stayed, is just round the corner from the market, which made for cheerfully cheap and downright delicious lunches, with a view of Krakow’s Old Town.

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Cooking Alaturka in Istanbul

One of the (many) things I’m keen to do on this sabbatical is to learn how to cook traditional dishes from various cuisines, be it from a family’s keeper-of-recipes, or a professionally-run cooking class.

While in Istanbul, Babs and I had the opportunity to sign up with Cooking Alaturka , a €60 4-hour cooking class located right by the Blue Mosque run by Cordon Bleu alum and experienced kitchen hand and hotel manager and manager, Dutch-born Eveline Zoutendijk.

The proposition: Make a 5-course Turkish meal, then sit down together with your classsmates to eat it. Practice at home with your take-home recipe booklet. Not to mention, get to play with some badass blades. Bonus! (Melf this photo’s for you!)

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Our merry little crew of 8 on this particular day included a 30something couple from Kent, England; a couple of Americans who work for the US governement processing refugee paperwork (who sounded like they had been to every exotic location we’d ever been to or were planning to go to), and a retired couple from Florida who regaled us with tales of how their son and daughter in law took 2 1/2 years to sail around the world. Babs and I feel pretty tame by comparison!

Right. Cay and chitchat done for now. On go the aprons, up go the sleeves.

I’ll be recapping the highlights of the class, but won’t share the details on the recipes here, as they are not mine to share. Happy to practise what I learned and feed you the results if you’ll lend me access to your kitchen and don’t mind being a gourmet guinea pig, though!

Imam Bayildi: The Imam Fainted

This fabled Turkish dish — made from eggplant, tomatoes, onions, herbs and spices — got its name from its effect on a certain cleric. Possibly from how amazing it tastes, possibly from seeing how much olive oil goes into making it.

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Eveline shows the class how to core and peel tomatoes (lookit how RED they are!). Classmate Simon puts some muscle into machete-ing the mint.

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Feyzi, Eveline’s talented and tireless chef, gives Babs a lesson in putting the squeeze on sliced onions, then dollops in tomato paste and red pepper paste. The latter is made in villages all over Turkey, by cooking red peppers then sun-drying them to concentrate the flavour. I’ll have to figure out where to buy this in whatever city we end up living in next.

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Next, we make eggplant boats, stuff them silly, lay them in a steaming pan, and watch Feyzi lay on the olive oil…and then some, and then some. A few classmates start to feel faint…

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One of the rare moments Babs bothers to photograph his food.

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Etli Yaprak Dolmasi: Grape Leaves Stuffed with Meat and Rice

I’ve never been a fan of dolmas until right now. I’ve wanted to like them, but there’s something about the taste that never went down well. It was just too…overpoweringly…green? Turns out, grape leaves are usually sold in brine, and the more usual way to eat them is cold. This particular dish washes the leaves and cooks them, which may explain the much mellower flavour of the leaf.

We sort the leaves by size, and fashion a stuffing of minced beef, lamb, rice, tomatoes, onions, garlic and herbs.

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Eveline shows us how to roll a dolma, which I turn out to be idiotically slow at. Those of you used to rolling ciggies are likely to do better. Apparently if you are a guest in a Turkish home, the smaller the dolmas, the more honour your host is showing you, since they went through all that extra faff to make them that dainty. I can just see Babs and myself protesting “Please please we’re all friends here! No need for such ceremony! Bigger is fine!”

We start a production line. Many hands make light work.

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Boil in stock, then serve with yoghurt on the side. Dolmalicious.

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Mantarli Sac Boregi: Anatolian Flatbread with Mushrooms and Herbs

The key to these tasty mushroom packets is the pillow casing, calledyufka. They remind me of popiah (Chinese spring roll) skin, but with more elasticity. Cut the yufka down to size, lay on the pre-pan-fried mushrooms and herbs, fold, and lightly pan-fry the packet on all sides. Restaurants are more likely to deep fry these, resulting in something more akin to samosas .

Other popular fillings among the locals include spinach or cheese. I expect if I get around to making these at home, I’ll be making them with shrooms AND spinach AND cheese.

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Yayla Corbasi: Meadow Soup

This hot yoghurt and mint soup turned out to be a great combination of refreshment (from the lightness of the yoghurt and mint and lemon) and comfort (from the meat stock). I’m looking forward to making more yoghurt-based soups at home, or maybe using them as a substitute for cream.

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Sekerpare: Syrupy Semolina Sponge Cakes with Hazelnuts

Another production line exercise in rolling out cookie-dough balls, plonking in the hazelnuts and brushing on the egg-white glaze before they go into the oven.

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My heart stops momentarily as Eveline drowns the baked cakes in sugar syrup. They are then left to sit in the syrup and soak it all in — at commecial bakeries possibly for a day or 2. I give my heart a few good thumps to jumpstart it.

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Dust with powdered pistachio and dessicated coconut. Thankfully, these tasted lighter than I thought they were going to. For all my protesting I scarf it all down, while some others at the table sensibly stop at 1.

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IMG 3247After lunch, we peruse Eveline’s little shop shelf, which offers items such as spices, home-made jam (right), ornate tea trays and even the lovely giant curved knife shown above. Try explaining that one to airport security.

The retired American couple pick up a tea tray, and Babs and I pick up a copy of Tales from the Expat Harem , a book chronicling the adventures and insights of 32 expat women from 4 continents now living in Turkey as archeologists, volunteers, artists and entrepreneurs etc.

Eveline’s chapter “The Painting or the Boy” is an engaging few pages that punch through rose-tinted glasses and pinch at the raw nerves of running a business in a foreign land and culture, and grappling with managing an employee with strong similarities in work ethic and conviction, but competely opposite beliefs. I look forward to reading the other stories, and the fruition of Eveline’s memoirs which she’s currently writing.

As for the class, it was a very enjoyable 4 hours of getting our hands saucy and then eating our handiwork. At a class size of 8, we just about fit into the teaching kitchen, so I’m not sure how well a full class size of 10 would navigate the space. It might be ok, if you’re closer to the size of the dolmas of a very hospitable Turkish host.

Eveline also runs afternoon classes than end with dinner. If you want to test her culinary credentials before signing up for the class, or just want to sample her work without learning how to cook it, her restaurant is open for lunch, and by appointment for dinner.

Cooking Alaturka
Akbiyik Caddesi 72A
Sultanahmet, Istanbul
+90 212 458 59 19

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Fast Break-fasts in Istanbul

Still plowing through notes and photos from Central and Eastern Europe, but given it’s already halfway through Ramadan, I thought to skip forward briefly to the action in Istanbul.

Ramadan — or Ramazan, for the Turks — is the annual month-long fast for Muslims. Any eating or drinking is done sans sunlight. The most electric time of day this time of year, therefore, is just as the prayer call at dusk commences, signalling the break of the day’s fast. Food vendors and their customers — having been poised at the starting blocks — bound like coiled springs into a blur of lentil soups, mezzes and pides before digging into heavier meatier fare.

Restaurants all over town offer special Ramazan feast menus, but feeling fairly budget-battered after emerging from Russia, Babs and I mostly followed my street-urchin palette around town. I am delighted to say, Istanbul more than delivered.

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Above: Evening breakfast by the fish sandwich boats at the Eminonu end of the Galata Bridge

One of the most fun, overload-your-senses way to break-fast in Istanbul is to join the crowd under the fish sandwich tents, at the Eminonu end of the Galata Bridge. Mackeral fillets are fried en-masse on viciously bobbing boats a mere few inches from you (I felt sea-sick just trying to take this photo below).

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There’s salt and lemon juice at every table for you to jazz up your 4-lira sandwich, and plenty of colourful pickle carts nearby if you want a side dish.

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If you’re good to eat on your feet, however, look for the pushcart vendors just a few steps away. This gentleman’s mackeral fillets were thicker, had more bite (which means they were fresher), had that lovely irreplaceable smokiness of a charcoal flame, and cost only 3 lira.

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I am still slightly sore at Babs for scarfing more than his fair share of the sandwich we shared — he ruthlessly played the “you snooze you lose” card because I was running around snapping photos. Unfortunately, if tried by a jury of our peers, I know his defence would hold.

Only one way to remedy that. Move on to the kofte (spicy meatballs) sandwich cart a few steps on. Yes, I would like a toasted green chilli with that, please, Uncle. Absolutely gorgeous. And only 2 lira! Gawd I love this city.

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What’s this, what’s this? A 2-grill pushcart, one for fish and one for kofte! And a DIY salad bar to boot! I found these street-cuisine geniuses at Sirkeci, right outside the entrance to the ferry to the Harem bus station across the water.

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All that grilling and greens too healthy for you? How about some battered and deep fried mussels? Many touristy fish restaurants will have a mussel-stand for the casual passer-by. We found this one on Sahne Sokuk, just off Istikal Caddesi in Beyoglu.

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To end your break-fast stroll on a sweet note, grab some tulumba — deep fried dough drizzled (regularly, throughout the day… urk!) with sugar syrup. Sold as long pretzel-like rings, as below, and thumb-length stubs.

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Fast Breaking News: Free Dinner at Fast-Breaking Tents

The most popular break-fast treat in town is evidently in one of the city’s many iftar (break-fast) tents, sponsored by local councils. The queues start some 2 hours before dusk, and according to a friendly security guard, this tent feeds about 1,500 people a day. City-wide, Istanbul hosts some 100 tents and according to Turkish English-language newspaper TodaysZaman expects to feed some 300,000 people this Ramazan at the cost of US$15m.

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In principle the iftar tents are meant to provide food for the poor and those who are not able to prepare dinner at home because of work — in Islam it’s considered a good deed to feed those who have been fasting. It seems plenty of locals join in simply for the festive community atmosphere. We also saw a few tourists in line. In the end we decided we couldn’t join in in good conscience — our budget wasn’t that battered, we’re not local taxpayers, and I haven’t even been fasting — but the friendly security guard lets me poke my head in to take this photo.

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Hayirli Ramazanlar, folks. Going hungry — especially on a voluntary basis — has never been a strong point with this particular foodie, so may God look very kindly on you.

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Riding in Göreme

Well, we’re now in Turkey, soon to travel to Syria, and I realise it’s been a while since I wrote my own post for the blog. Well, I’m not about to catch up with this one, but thought I’d skip forward with a photo from Göreme, in the Cappadocia region of Turkey.
Wabs riding horses around the moonscape of Cappadocia
Have a look at the bizarre ‘fairy chimney’ structures in the background. They’re all around the town we’re staying in, and most were hollowed out and made into houses hundreds of years ago. It’s quite surreal. The Göreme open air museum showcases a set of thousand year old churches hollowed out of these fairy chimneys and the surrounding cliffs.

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Babs and I spent 1 night in Zagreb at the start of August, as a transit point between Dubrovnik and Prague. We spent 1 day exploring Upper Town — made up of the historical clerical distrct called Kaptol, and the merchant and tradesman stronghold called Gradec — and the next day wandering the parks and government monuments of Lower Town.

Smack in the middle of it all, up the steps from Ban Jelacic Square, was my favourite part of the city — Dolac Market, where we bought and made lunch on both days for less than €4 per person.

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IMG 0812Dolac Market was built between 1926 and 1930, when city authorities decided to level an inner city slum and replace it with a destination more palatable to visitors’ eyes. The market is currently open from 6am – 2pm each day, and until 3pm on Saturdays.

Its centrepiece is an armada of red-and-white striped umbrellas sheltering fruit, vegetable and local craft vendors. On the far side of the square is a stairway and elevator that leads you down to 2 covered storeys of meat and cheese vendors.

The market square is ringed with cafes and bars, where you can perch and watch the grazing and haggling action, or better yet, grab a borek (cheese, spinach or meat-stuffed filo) and kava to line your stomach and clear your head sufficiently, then wade into the thick of it yourself.

We did just fall off the overnight bus from Dubrovnik, but geez, the old women around here look like they’re made pretty much of the same stuff as the statue above. So, bleary-eyed schmleary-eyed! Stiff upper lip, chug another double expresso, and in we go…

Turns out, the kaleiscope of colours will jolt you awake anyway. Given it was the height of summer at the the time, there was an explosion of berries. A new find for me were these pretty yellow raspberries.

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I’d seen curiously shaped pettipans in UK farmers markets before, but never ones of this muffin shape. Anyone know if they grow this way naturally, or if they are forced into this shape? (A long time ago as a cub reporter I covered a story on the Japanese growing cube-shaped watermelons in a bid for easier transport. Each baby watermelon would be placed in a box, and the box would be replaced with a larger one as the melon grew. I don’t get the sense the idea caught on, given the amount of faff required.)

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Another first for me — these gorgeous beans of varying shades and speckles of purple, freshly shelled by stallholders. You’d think they were jellybellys!

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IMG 0786 On to the indoor meat section one floor below. I felt my arteries clog just at the sight of this shelf full of pork crackling (this photo’s for you Jas!)

There were smoked meats and sausages everywhere, from different animals, using different spice blends, from different makers and regions.

And just in case you had a hankering for something different from all that was on offer, there was a stall that sold sausage casings and nettings for you to make your own at home.

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And now to the cheese wing. If you hear a lot of “Sir” this and “Sir” that around here, it’s not that these vendors are extra formal. Sir is the local word for cheese. The local make seems to be a mild, salty and sometimes curdy cross between ricotta and mozzerella, made simply in plastic bowls. Some had been smoked for a stronger taste. I was especially amused by the cheese cones. Sadly, these were mostly targeted at local home-based buyers and we weren’t able to buy a small tourist-sized portion (or maybe we just lost too much in translation…).

We got a good taste of the goods however, as many stallholders were keen to show off their wares and give us a sample to nibble on. Hvala ti, ladies!

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The fishmongers had their own off-shoot building. The range wasn’t anything to scream about, but I was amused by this helmet-sized tuna head. Also, we saw some of the skarpina we had at Restaurant Lindo in Dubrovnik, in their original state. Very pretty.

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On top of providing hours of entertainment, local markets are a great way to very eat well on a tight budget. We could barely eat or drink anything else after this 1.5kg slice of watermelon, bought for ~€1. The plums and blueberries would have to wait, but there might just be enough room for that half of a rotisserie chicken…

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Souperb Finds in Eastern Europe

Sometimes I imagine what hell might be like. Firstly, I imagine it’s customised, so that eternal suffering is maximised for each person. In one of my many imagined versions, it’s always mid January in Eastern Europe (yes in this version I suppose hell freezes over). And the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld (or a real Nazi, given the location and history dialed to the right year) bellows at me “NO SOUP FOR YOU!” unto all eternity.

*Shudder*

It’s enough to make me behave. And slurp as much soup as I can as summer winds down in Eastern Europe. I wanted to share with you my most souperb finds. The Berlin film scene has its Golden Bears; I thought I might hand out a few Golden Bowls. If you have nominees to add, I’d love to hear from you!

For Best Ensemble Performance of a Soup Menu, the Golden Bowl goes to Restaurant Zemaiciai in Vilnius, Lithuania. The richness of their soup stock blew me away, be it the very dramatic borscht with rib, sorrel soup with smoked meat and quail’s egg, or the humble but powerfully executed potato soup. This kind of deep sweetness in a stock you can only get from a lot of lovely bones, and time. Cheating by using MSG tends to leave a hollow after-tinge. Good stock is not hard to make, but many restaurants don’t have that kind of patience.

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For Best Art Direction, the Golden Bowl goes to organic restaurant AED in Tallinn, Estonia. Kudos for keeping this cute island of summer sprouts so pristine amid a red sea of beetroot.

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IMG 1242 For Best Performance Featuring a seasonal ingredient, the Golden Bowl goes to the mushroom soup at U Babci Maliny in Krakow, Poland.

Very ballsy with the boletus, and brought out in a giant bread basket to boot!

And now for a few special mentions.

For successfully making me miss every Jewish mother who ever had me at their dinner table while I was a student at Brandeis, the 2 winners are both from Krakow (natch).

CK Dezerter’s beef buillion with liver balls; and U Babci Maliny’s borscht with dumplings. Special congratulations to the latter for living up to its name — Babci Maliny means Grandma Raspberry (and she has the colour on all her walls to prove it) Maseltov!

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And last but not least, for a very special booby “Surprise Supplies” prize (say that 3 times fast), the Golden Bowl goes to the hot and sour soup by Chinese restaurant CBET BOCTOKA in St Petersburg, Russia.

My heart sank when they brought this bowl below to our table. It sure didn’t look hot or sour. And it was a lot larger than the 2 small portions we ordered. Were we going to get charged for an order completely lost in translation?

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Turns out, it WAS hot and sour soup, just not the usual gloopy orange Szechuan kind. And very delish at that! Surprise!

And yes, they didn’t charge us for 2 portions. They charged us LESS. Babs and I counted the portions we had from the bowl below. We counted 6. Supplies!

The perfect tonic for being caught in the rain earlier in the day. And it made me feel souper smug for ordering our food in Chinese.

Zemaiciai
Vokieciu gatve 24
Senamiestis, Vilnius, 01013, Lithuania
+370 5 2616573

Restaurant AED (Embassy of Pure Food)
Rataskaevu 8
10123 Tallinn, Estonia
+372 626 9088

U Babci Maliny
Ul. Szpitlana 38
Krakow, Poland
+48 12 421 4818
(Note: Most guidebooks — even the restaurants own website — still show a Slawkowska 17 address, but this location has closed. Thanks to the kindly building security guard who sent me on to the Szpitlana location)

CK Dezerter
Braka 6
Krakow 31005, Poland
+48 12 422 7931

CBET BOCTOKA
2nd Sovetskaya 12
St Petersburg, Russia
+7 812 717 2511

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