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If there is any downside to travel, it’s that I find myself feeling increasingly haunted by ghosts.

Not ghosts of people long gone, but of dishes long digested. Full sensory hallucinations of treats prepared in a very specific way in lands far far away. I — pale, wild-haired, gaunt (ok fine, not gaunt) — cut off from their delicious realms, call out into the dark trying to channel them: Manoooooooolo Fernandez pooooooollo… Gelateria del Teatrooooo watermelon granitaaaaaaaa…”

And now add to that list Beit Sissi’s hummus with grilled lamb chunks and toasted pine nuts, thanks to a quick visit this past September. Creamy. Smoky. Juicy. And maddeningly far away in Aleppo in Syria, tucked into a discreet alleyway in the city’s charming and labyrinthian Al-Jdeida neighbourhood.

Once you’re through the multiple arches and the door, however, the restored 17th century Arab-style mansion-turned-restaurant throws open a double-storey sundrenched dining room, complete with resident violinist.

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Babs and I opened with a mess of mezzes: the hummus as mentioned above, a slightly tart but refreshing eggplant rattatouille, and a dish of silky mallow leaves. All mopped up with a lot of pita bread and even more gusto.

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Just as we were feeling pleasantly and sensibly full (as is always the case when we go to Middle Eastern eateries) the main meat dishes arrive.

Cherry kebab — cooked in a lurid purple cherry sauce and garnished with yet more toasted pine nuts — is the signature dish of this region. For me anyway, the celebrity cherry sauce tasted too tart, and messed too much with — rather than complemented or lifted — the natural taste of the meat.

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The house-style kebabs, however, unadorned except for a flap of pita soaking in kebab juice, were gorgeous in the nude and voluptuous in flavour. Beautiful like Botticelli’s Venus. Another strong candidate for the haunting list. Wooooooooooo……

Beit Sissi (aka Sissi House)
Sharia as-Sissi, Al-Jdeida
Aleppo, Damascus
+963 21 212 4362

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With a little bit of luck, there is a rare and very delightful kind of nut you might find while in Kerala, India, Like everything else in nature, this kind of nut shines its brightest in its high season. In these parts that’s right about now, at the turn of the year.

The scientific name of this nut is the heckwithhighmargins-wejustwantyoutobehappy-homestayandhouseboathost nut. And thanks to Babs’s sister Aasha’s research and organising, and a little serendipity, we came across 2 during our time here.

This week the 4 of us (Babs and me, Aasha and husband Greg) paid a mere 11,000 rupees for a 1 night stay on a gorgeous 2-bedroom houseboat with AC built just a year ago. By comparison, the Swiss couple who had the boat just before us paid a whopping 34,000 rupees for the same.

The 2 Keralan nuts responsible for this delightfully bargainous travel tale?

1) Jose who owns and runs Kattayam Homestay and said houseboat in Alappuzha (Allepey), who charges a high-season rate only during the week between Christmas and New Year (while many others extend high season till mid or end January).

2) Beena of Beena Homestay in Fort Cochin, who took only a 1,000 rupee commission to set us up with Jose’s boat. (Now do some quick Math and think how much commission the Swiss couple’s houseboat tout took.)

Both Jose and Beena are the real deal when it comes to homestays. They live onsite with their guests, amid a growing number of newcomers who capitalise on the “Keralan homestay” buzzword by renting a house and subletting the rooms while living somewhere else (sometimes overseas).

Beena also provides delicious breakfasts and local dinner feasts for guests (according to rave reviews from Aasha and Greg). Add that to her unusual commission-taking behaviour, and it’s no wonder her homestay is so popular that she has to maintain a waiting list of hopefuls. While other homestay hosts rejoice when they get a Lonely Planet mention, Beena reportedly went into a bit of a fit because her waiting list — already at a healthy length from word of mouth — spurted straight to unruly.

Jose’s nuttiness burst forth from its shell the minute he found out that Babs’s Dad was originally from Kerala, and I from Singapore. Turns out his twin teenage sons are studying in Singapore. He immediately declared Babs and me to be extended family. He even took Babs’s hand and held it swinging while walking down the street to the houseboat!

Jose did indeed treat us like extended family, in the Indian context. When we came back from town to his homestay the next evening we were sat down for a long chat about Singapore’s job market. Shown assorted family slideshows. Used as a sounding board for lamenting why oh why were their sons buying iPhones, aiyoh with that money they could be buying gold. Asked when we were going to start having kids and hopefully we’ll bring a baby the next time we visit. And even put on the phone to say hello to one of the sons who called home from Singapore, even though I had of course never met him before.

Ah well. The houseboat was worth it. A few peeks below.

The living and dining deck, ensuite bathroom, hallway and bedroom.

 

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Our Captain and first mate. Nice work if you can get it.

 

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We stopped at a backwaters fish shop to pick up some still-flapping local pearl spot, to be fried with masala later in the afternoon for a snack. (Tip: if you’re serious about scoring extra seafood for your voyage, buy it in town before getting to the backwaters, where you will be charged double.)

 

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The cruise also came with a delicious Keralan lunch and dinner cooked on board. My favourites were the veggies, fried lightly with masala and coconut stubble, as opposed to the often over-gravied concoctions in so many eateries. The little pomfrets were pretty damn tasty too.

 

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The rest of the day was a delicious lazeabout, soaking in the view.

Neighbours.

 

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Phat looking ramshackle house.

 

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Waiting for the local ferry.

 

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Padi fields. Quite ingeniously water levels are maintained at a higher level than the rice fields by man-made embankments, to facilitate irrigation.

 

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All houseboats have to dock at 5.30pm each evening for the day, so that local fishermen can do their thing.

 

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Kattakayam Homestay
Nehru Trophy Starting Point
Thathampally P.O.
Alappuzha 13, Kerala, India
+91 944 743 2518, +91 477 223 2380
(Contact Jose directly for houseboat hire to minimize commissions)

 

Beena Homestay
KB Jacob Road, Kadathanad
Fort Kochi, Cochin, India
+91 484 221 5458

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30 Dec 2009

Quite the time to be in Hyderabad. The city’s in a bit of kerfluffle. Separatists are lobbying for the state of Andra Pradesh to be split into two states. Maybe three.

Depending on how adventurous you’re feeling (I’m not), you can wander into downtown hotpots to watch separatist demonstrators. Apparently there will be hordes of them, regardless of the side of the argument. Some will tell you India is a very politically passionate country. Others will tell you the demonstrators are poor people hired for the day to wear the appropriate colours and hold the appropriate banners and chant the appropriate chants. The most hardworking ones among them apparently stagger their engagements so that they can work for one party one day and another party the next.

“Nothing is what it seems in India,” people keep telling me. I can’t tell if they’re warning me or feeling smug.

The more annoying part of all these political theatrics is the separatists strong-arming the city’s merchants to go on strike. That is, goondas (hired gangsters) roam the city, making sure businesses have their shutters shut. Or else.

So the boys can’t get their sherwanis (long Indian shirt-coats) tailored today, and the henna hasn’t yet been delivered to girls’ bridal henna session.

But nothing here is what it seems.

At various food purveyors, it’s worth checking in with the security guard in front of the shutters. Sometimes, you’ll be shown the side or back door, in through the delivery entrace, the storerooms, the prep rooms, kitchens and plating areas, into the establishment where it’s business-almost-as-usual. (The sights enroute are a good way to test if you still want to eat there. Maybe all restaurants should be made to admit customers this way.) A network of lookouts send word by text message if the goondas are on the move.

This is how we got brunch from a well known city bakery today. We came home smug with a pile of chicken croisssants, chicken cutlets, chicken drumsticks and coffee cake.

The buttery croissants and moist mashed potato cutlets were chockful of pulled chicken, more generous that what I’ve seen in any other commercial establishment.

The drumsticks, on the other hand, were just a chicken legbones with chicken-leg-shaped patties of mashed potato, breadcrumbs, onions and masala. And maybe some chicken flavouring.

Nothing, nothing, nothing here is what it seems.

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“Cross the bridge… follow the detour for 4km… look for the church and the school… look for the turnoff 1.2km from the school… go 1.5km… past the neighbour’s farm… left at the fork… then go to the end of the road.”

We were on a treasure hunt for Fynboshoek Cheese, a South Africa Garden Route locavore haven by award winning cheesemaker Alje van Deemder, who has been personally serving lunches for more than a decade, with just about everything served being grown and / or made onsite.

I trust this is the right way…

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Success! We drive up to a mustard house garlanded with many a flowering tree, and get ushered into a breathtaking sunroom, where classical music is softly playing. If they had divans here I could dawdle with a book for many afternoons on end.

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There’s no menu at Fynboshoek. (The set lunch costs ZAR 110 per person. Drinks are extra.) So we wait, soaking in the view. Then the opening act arrives, with quite a bang: Fried goat cheese canapes, with a dab of jam and sprigs of fresh thyme.

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Next, salad caprese, with a sunny homemade mozzerella. And rosemary focaccia, fresh from the oven. Combine with a giant bowl of vibrantly coloured salad leaves for a soul-cleansing gorge.

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The headline act: The Fynboshoek cheese platter, with 3 goat cheeses of varying maturity, a couple of cheddars, a smoked provolone ball, and my favourite (on the far left) a cow’s milk cheese with cumin. Not being a class-A curd nerd, I sometimes find the taste of goat cheese to be too overwhelming, but the ones put forward here were gentle and gorgeously creamy.

I’ve never had a meal of cheese, bread and leaves to be this satisfying.

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You can read about the health and environmental merits of eating locally — where ingredients are grown and sourced from as close to the dining table as possible — but it’s so much more seductive to experience the difference with all five senses.

Out bread was finger-singeing hot, with salty dough and rosemary wafting about the table. The salad leaves were surprisingly sweet, having been spared nitrogen and that awful bitter plastic infusion that comes with supermarket packaging. If you have time after lunch, you can go stroll on the grounds outside the house, and say hello to the goats and cows that provided the milk for your cheese.

The other diners in the sunroom and at a long table outside were quite uniformly of the pastel shirt and shoulder-slung sweater and posh leather loafer variety. So Mr van Deemder — possibly pleasantly surprised by the diversity of a scrubby Chinese and Indian couple — tarried over expressos, asking what we were doing way out here in Tsitsikamma.

He was quite amused with our casual quest of eating our way around the world, and he visibly perked up when we said we focused especially on eateries that showcased local ingredients and traditional recipes. We shared laments about how so much of South Africa’s best produce (especially seafood) is sent overseas while locals lap up cheaper but lower quality imports. I told him about our frustrated quest to sample Knysna oysters, and he rejoined: “Our squid and cuttlefish is top quality, so it all goes to Europe and Asia. All the squid you find here is from South America.”

Tragedy! How does one hijack a South African squid boat I wonder…

The music switches to a jaunty ragtime jazz tune. Do we really have to go?

But I take heart. Fynboshoek is that kind of treasure trove that is more likely to keep keeping on if you spread, rather than hoard, the word. So go. Off-map, off-GPS, to where cheese marks, and hits, the spot.

Fynboshoek Cheese
Off the N2 Highway across from Tsitsikamma Lodge
Calling ahead for reservations and directions is essential
+27 42 280 3879

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IMG 5338How ever the town of Arusha, Tanzania may pitch itself to the world (one reference is apparently “The Geneva of Africa”) it is in essence a pit stop. Arusha is where travellers from all over the world break their journey on the overland route between Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam (as we did in late October), or else camp for the night before forging onward to Serengeti National Park or Mount Kilimanjaro.

As such, Arusha’s streets are chockablock with buses, safari vans and giant SUVs owned by flush tour operators. And hungry pedestrians in transit.

One enterprise that has embraced this situation with some delicious genius is wheeler mealer Zubeda Auto Spares / Khan’s Barbeque. By day, it sells auto parts to vehicles trundling through town. By night, it sells some of the best damn Pakistani-style BBQ chicken parts I’ve tasted anywhere for the travellers pouring out of said vehicles.

Slot yourself into one of the long bench tables (or simply lower your SUV window if you want to eat in your plush vehicle), place your order, then go build your own salad that comes with each meal. I particularly liked the green tomato achar (pickle) salad.

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Beware: this is one of the few eateries in East Africa where when they tell you something is spicy, they mean it’s spicy (I learned this the hard teary-sweaty-snotty way).

The other thing the more sensible among you need to be aware of, is that 1 order of chicken at Khan’s means 1 whole chicken. We unknowingly ordered 2. Which meant we had the most badass snacks on the bus to Dar Es Salaam the next day.

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Twas the proverbial dark and stormy night when we ate at Khan’s. In these parts, this often means that power cuts out for hours on end.

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So while waiting for Khan’s backup generator to kick in, we dined by Maglite and SUV headlight… same way the grill chefs soldiered on.

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Having lived in London, I had full appreciation of their stoicism while BBQing in the rain. So we made another pit stop at Khan’s on the road back to Nairobi a week later.

As tender, juicy, spicy and smoky as the chicken was, I was glad to be moving on. If Khan’s were in my neighbourhood I’d find myself there embarassingly often. Eat frequently enough at a place like this, and you’re bound to eventually get a spare tyre for free. And I don’t mean the type you can run your car on.

Khan’s Barbeque / Zubeda Auto Spares
Mosque St
Arusha, Tanzania
+255 27 2500 458 / 2544 925
Mobile: +255 713 / 754 / 784 652747

(Note: The 3 digit prefix numbers are for different mobile network providers. Calls within the same network are sometimes discounted or free)

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IMG 5661My best meal in Zanzibar found me through a thicket of seaweed.

It was low tide on a November morning at Jambiani village, on Zanzibar’s south-east coast. Out into the horizon, women were either bent over picking or walking back to shore with giant sacks of seaweed on their heads. Patches of the stuff were sorted by hue and laid out to dry in front of many of the concrete and coconut-leaf-thatch huts in the village, like bonsai astroturf lawns.

What did they do with so much seaweed?

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Our hostel manager said the seaweed was used for food. The dude who took us sailing and snorkelling on his dhow the next day concurred.

Fabulous. A locally foraged delicacy. Get me some-o-dat.

Except our hostel chef looked at me like I was crazy. He asked me how to cook it. How ever the villagers cooked it, I said. He didn’t know, he said, he’d never cooked it before. He didn’t know anyone here who ate it. Maybe I could show him what to do with it.

But…the manager said…

“No no no we don’t eat it,” now said the manager. “They sell to Asia. China. Japan. Asia people eat.”

Tsk. If anything not fillet-able is coming out of the sea in large quantities, it’s probably going to us bloody Asians (ok and maybe the Spaniards). Later in my research I found out the seaweed out here is farmed, not foraged. And it gets sent off to processing centres like Singapore to be turned into agar (vegetarian gelatin) and food stabilisers that go into all sorts of processed food, and toothpaste.

The things that happen to your food right under your nose! I had grown up on Grandma’s agar jellies. So this is where they came from. But was brushing my teeth the only way I’d get to taste some seaweed while I was out here at the source?

Another walk the next morning, this time north to Paje. Much more real estate development here, but a similar seaweed scene. All that fresh, crunchy, briny sea-mineral-filled goodness, just going far far away to Asia. Bah.

Out popped this guy on the beach. A Captain Hadji, and a pitch for a fish lunch at his home-restaurant.

How much, I asked, wary of a fat bill no one agreed on after the meal.

7,000 Tanzanian shillings. (~£3.20) Very fresh, he said.

Can we see the fish? Babs asked.

“Fish not here yet,” he said. “I wait for fishing boats. High tide they come back. They come, I buy fish, I cook, 30 minutes, lunch.”

“Can we come with you to the boats?” I asked.

“Ok, you come, you come,” he said.

One last hurdle. A long shot: “Do you know how to cook seaweed? Can we have some? With the fish?”

Captain Hadji chuckled at me.

“You like our seaweed! Yes I know. Yes ok I get some for you.”

SOLD.

And so Babs and I sat on the beach and waited for the tide. And sure enough, at noon, the fishing boats came, dragged through the shallows up to shore by their various captains and 1-man crews. Captain Hadji waded out to meet them. Babs and I waded out after him.

No one had nets or lines. Just fishing spears. Little piles on reef fish. One boat had a baby shark. Fwah!

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“Ok I have your fish. I go get seaweed. You come at 1pm for lunch,” said Captain Hadji.

“Fine. Great,” I said, still gawking at the shark.

I was happy to have some fellow gawkers for company onshore. Various villagers came to gather round the 50kg shark, including a blind boy who squatted with it, running his hand along its cool leathery skin and its many pointed teeth.

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Then came the next course of entertainment and education. Next to the shark, fishermen from various boats came up with sacks and buckets and emptied out piles upon piles of beautiful giant starfish. Our little patch of Paje turned a gentle acid-trip of technicolour.

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What do you do with the starfish? I asked each villager until I found someone who spoke enough English. My heart was clenched, ready to break if they said they sold it as curios to tourists.

“For fish. Catch fish. Put in traps. Fish eat. Catch fish,” someone finally told me.

I still didn’t feel great about what that meant for the coral reef. But it beat putting them on a shelf so that some idiot could brag to their friends about how at one they felt with marine life at some exotic location.

It was 1pm. Time for the main course. Babs and I trooped over to Captain Hadji’s porch, soggy, sunburned and starving.

He was just getting to putting the fish on his charcoal grill. It was white snapper and red snapper today, he said. Marinated in salt, pepper, ginger, garlic and lime juice. With rice cooked in coconut milk.

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I recognised the spots on the “red snapper”. It was actually red garoupa, a premium fish in Chinese restaurants prized for its sweet, delicately flaky flesh. My Dad and I are both mad fans. Good Lord, everything in the water here must be heading for the far east.

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Babs and I wolfed everything down, picking through each crevice of the heads, the cheeks and the eyes with surgical precision. Captain Hadji wasn’t kidding about “very fresh”. I still don’t know when I’ll get to eat fish this fresh again, barring joining a fishing expedition and cutting up some sashimi or ceviche on the boat.

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And he did good on the seaweed. It came stir fried with a little garlic, a little tomato, a touch of masala. Crunchy briny magic. The two Swedish women who had also signed up for lunch didn’t get any. They had asked Captain Hadji to remove the fish heads from their lunch, so they didn’t deserve any, in my mind. I wish I had overheard them at the time. I would’ve demanded to rescue their fish heads. I hoped at least this meant Captain Hadji and his family would eat them.

The bill for the fish was as agreed. We both had soda. “Pay what you want for the seaweed,” said Captain Hadji.

So we put in 10,000 TZS each. Our best meal in Zanzibar cost us a grand total of £9. The food and the service were both ten out of ten. The ambience, something I don’t usually don’t pay much attention to… in this case… out of ten… scores… to be conservative… about a million.

Captain Hadji Suleima Hassani
Paje Beach, Zanzibar, Tanzania
+255 77 883 1384

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“Okay. So. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being ‘Wen you’re being an idiot, just stop this nonsense now’, and 10 being ‘helllllllll yeeeeeeah’, where would you say you are?” I asked Babs and Louise, our fabulous host in Dubai.

“Five…” said Babs, “…not that a 1 has ever stopped you.”

” ‘On a scale?’ You are SUCH a geek. Seriously,” said Louise. She would know. We used to work together in Singapore.

We were at the poultry aisle in Spinney’s, a supermarket chain in Abu Dhabi. In particular, we were all staring at a trough full of frozen Butterball turkeys. It was mid afternoon on Thanksgiving Thursday, and I was testing the momentum behind my crazy idea to throw together an impromptu Thanksgiving dinner out here in the Gulf. If we went through with it, the plan was to buy a turkey now, thaw it in Louise’s car outside while we chatted over cake and coffee, and hope for the best come dinnertime. Given I usually defrost turkeys overnight, there was a serious risk of serving up turkey slices for dinner and turkey popsicles for dessert.

But I couldn’t just give up now. Not when we had found any turkey at all out here in the desert. I love turkey. I love its dramatic size, carving it, how its clean firm flesh is such a great canvas for gravy and cranberry. I love picking apart the carcass after dinner, gleefully anticipating a week’s worth of snacks. I love turning a turkey’s lovely bones into a hearty soup or congee. I loved turkey even way back when my family ate store-cooked ones at Christmas, woefully flavourless and so overcooked you choked on its dryness with every mouthful. Back then it wasn’t about eating turkey at Christmas dinners, it was about drowning mostly untouched turkey slices in gravy and mozzerella to make a very messy turkey melt for days afterwards.

Then while at university in the US, I got invited to Thanksgiving dinners with various friends’ families, and learnt how to cook turkey myself. Pilgrims pillaging the New World notwithstanding, I like the ritual of sitting down with family and friends with a mountain of food, and being thankful for the year’s bounty of provision and affection. So I took the tradition with me back home to Singapore, and later to London, converting (or at least feeding) a few friends along the way for whom I am thankful.

A decade on from my first DIY turkey, was I about to break with my adopted tradition?

“Hey look. These turkeys are defrosted already. And they’re halal!” said Herbert, our friend based in Abu Dhabi, coming back from further along the aisle.

I am thankful for Herbert!

After coffee and cake we zipped back to Herbert’s flat, and within 4 hours had a gorgeous piping hot turkey with homemade gravy and cranberry sauce and Babs’s ever reliable roast potatoes. Herbert even invited over a couple of his friends in town to add to the festive atmosphere.

And so, as always, so much to be thankful for as we tuck in. Just a few mentions here:

I am thankful for Louise, who housed us, smelly backpacks and all, drove us all over the gleaming desert, and sous-chefed brilliantly for dinner!

I am thankful for Herbert, who trusted us with his kitchen even though he was flying to Singapore right after dinner. I hope we cleaned up ok!

For Josh and his mother Janet (may she rest in peace), from whom I got the orginal version of the turkey recipe.

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Early September 2009, Kiyikoy, Turkey.

Kiyikoy being one of those increasingly rare places that still have fishing dayboats rather than seafloor-scraping ocean trawlers, Babs and I decided that trekking down to the harbour to see the boats pull in would be a good use of a Saturday night.

And what a Saturday night it turned out to be.

By the time we sauntered over, there was quite the crowd of men, women and children alike at the breakwaters. Evidently the arrival of the home fleet was the Saturday Night Live event in these parts.

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After finding myself a place to perch among the locals, I started to muse about how much time these people spent waiting on a regular basis for fishermen fathers, sons, husbands, uncles and brothers to come home. I also started to wonder how closely they watch each incoming catch. After all, a day’s catch for me just determined what kind of dinner I could get for the day — for them it likely determined what their lifestyle might be for the next few days or weeks.

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The fleet held this line for a long time, just slightly away from the harbour. Too long. What the hell were they doing? Waiting for something? Comparing catches? Colluding on prices?

People at the pier were waiting. Watching. Pacing. Exchanging murmurs. Was this not a usual weekend homecoming party of the returning fleet after all?

“There’s some drama going on here that I don’t quite understand yet,” I said to Babs. Oh for subtitles in real life!

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More omens. A guy in a black t-shirt (below) showed up on a motorbike and whipped out a heavy-duty looking camera. And then (I can’t even make this stuff up) I saw a red moon rising.

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Then finally it became clear. A fishing boat had gotten into trouble and had to be towed back by a big brother of some sort. The nets were completely tangled all over the masts and it was already more than half submerged. Hopefully everyone on the boat got out in time.

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By now a good chunk of the town was thronging the docks, snapping pictures with phones and cameras (I’m glad it’s not just me!). There was a lot of shouting between men on boats and men on the docks about what needed to be done.

A bulldozer / excavator pulled up behind the crowd. More yelling. A lot of rope got thrown around, and tied onto the excavator’s “fingers”.

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The excavator starts pulling hard on the rope attached to the boat. A horribly painful creaking sound ensued. I managed to grab this one photo before Babs yanked me quite a distance away.

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“There’s too much water in the boat. That rope is going to snap, and when it does, there’s no way you want to be anywhere near it,” he said.

Sure enough, whatever the rope was attached to on the boat cracked and broke away, the rope went flying, and the locals went running and gasping. Damn. Great scout / sailor / engineer instincts, Babs.

Yet more shouting. I’m guessing that in the end the plan to tow the boat out of the water got abandoned, because these 2 poor sods were told to go wade in and undo all the roping.

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The attention of the crowd turned. An empty truck had pulled up to the water’s edge. Somebody’s got to deliver some fish tonight. Another fishing boat — whom in the corner of the crowd’s eye had been quietly sorting and boxing their haul — now pulled up quickly in front of the truck. A man holding an order list yelled out fish names and weights and one box after another got relayed up into the bowels of the truck, none of it even touching terra firma on Kiyikoy.

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I suddenly realised it was was 9pm. We’d been here 4 hours. A local man possibly realised the same, and maybe decided that I had scrambled up and down enough crates and fishnet piles and had the right reactions at the right times to earn a little street cred. He yelled out to the fish relay team to stop for a minute so that I could get a proper picture. Then he nudged me forward, pointed to the man below with his arms folded and said, “This captain of this boat. You take photo of him.”

And so I did. His mates looked quite chuffed.

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Quite a different look on the other boat. This image is the one that often comes to mind now whenever I’m tucking into fish, with a new sense of appreciation of what it can take to get to my plate.

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The Accidental Istanbullus

Stuffing ourselves silly with street food aside, we did a lot of waiting while in Istanbul this past September. Waiting for Syrian and Indian visas. Waiting for letters of reference from our native country consulates to furnish visa applications. Waiting for our laundry. Waiting for a pharmacy to scrounge up the inventory for our comically large order of malaria tablets to take with us to Africa.

There’s plenty in Istanbul to keep a tourist gainfully unemployed — The Blue Mosque, Haga Sofia, cruises on the Bosphurus, whirling dervishes… among countless other worthy distractions — but we had both already done a respectable chunk of those before. And after the break-neck pace of the last few stops in Eastern Europe, we quite relished the idea of dropping gear and allowing ourselves a gentle steep in whatever Istanbullus got up to during the quieter hours of the day.

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For a large part, this meant whiling away many langourous hours on tea and tavla (backgammon), be it at swish cafes in European-style neighbourhoods, or on low stools and tables in the peaceful backstreets around a mosque, hunched with our knees almost up to our shoulders, day and night alike. Babs was devastatingly good at the game — it took me until Goreme to start turning the tavla tables on him.

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Watching locals play provided much entertainment as well. Sometimes there’s money on the game, other times one’s reputation (often a more serious bet than all the lira in the world). Either way, it made for a lot of stylish dice throwing, triumphant tavla-piece-clacking, Turkish trash-talking and cursing, and a seemingly inexhaustible amount of shisha, ciggies and strong black sugary tea served in svelte glasses. I didn’t understand a word of the back and forth, but the body language of the players and their spectators was fantastic to watch.

A tip if you want to go shopping for, say, a Turkish carpet or lantern or other classic souvenir, and want a few minutes of undisturbed browsing before the traditional product parade begins: Find a store that has a tavla game raging on outside, and slip inside. It might just be one of those games where the owner decides he has more riding on the tavla board than you!

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Dessert in Istanbul also seemed to be an all-hours-of-the day affair, even though it was Ramadan at the time. At Olimpia Patisserie in Taksim we assembled a little sampler made from signature local ingredients: semolina, pistachios and pomegranates. I was especially amused by the nazar boncugu semolina cakes. The striking blue-eye design, found on all manner of trinkets all over Turkey, is to ward off the curse of the evil eye, believed to be caused by envious gazes. But surely this sugar syrup-soaked cake is more like to invoke envy than to nullify it?

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When our butts got numb sitting, we undulated through and around both the European and Asian sides of the city. We people-watched, went panning for gems in second-hand bookstores and book exchanges, and poked around and inside buildings that caught our eye.

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When each little bout of waiting was done, we’d lope over to wherever we needed to be using the city’s fascinating array of amazingly affordable public transport: metro, buses, commuter trains, trams, ferries, funiculars, and even cable cars. I loved the ferries for the scenery and fresh air, but the most-amusing-mode-of-transport award goes to the cable car. Through the cabin porthole the world takes on that hazy glow of photos from the 1970s.

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If you plan to be in Istanbul for a few days, then do as the locals do and buy an Akbil stored-value travel card. While you can buy tokens to get around, for whatever reason the different transport systems use different tokens that look similar enough to the naked eye, but have minute variations that get picked up and rejected at the turnstiles. You could, like us, end up with a few annoyingly odd tokens at the end of your sojourn, but I suppose as far as traffic-related accidents go, such a situation might attract a few envious gazes.

Olimpia Patisserie
Siraselvilar Caddesi 117
Taksim, Istanbul Turkey
+90 212 292 2342
(Additional branches at Ihlamudere Cd. 154, Besiktas, and Nujkuyusa Cd. 329, Baglarbasi)

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IMG 2659The other Accidental Istanbullu thing we did while waiting for our Indian visas in Istanbul this past September, was to take another little vacation from our vacation.

We decided to go with the smallest, most remote seaside village we could find in our Lonely Planet Guide within a 3-hr travel radius of Istanbul. Kiyikoy on the Black Sea Coast — population ~2,000 — with allegedly more fish, frogs and tortoises than people, and with nary a detail on Wiki Travel and Google Maps, sounded perfect.

We weren’t disappointed.

We took a long metro ride to Istabul’s central bus station, then 2 buses on to Kiyikoy. True to the old adage that the journey counts for as much as the destination, we had some hair-raising entertainment(?) on our bus ride when our driver and a rival bus company driver got into a loud scuffle at one stop, got separated by their colleagues, then came storming back to each other, armed. I wasn’t keen on the odds, given our driver’s big stick was up against the other driver’s kitchen knife. Thankfully they got separated again, properly this time.

We got to Kiyikoy in the late afternoon, and used the rest of the daylight to soak up the view from our lovely cliff-side boutique abode, Hotel Endorfina.

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The next morning, we set out to walk around the little farming and fishing village nestled behind the old city walls. Sadly, there were quite a few of these gutted stone and wood houses below, as locals moved out into the “suburbs” dotted with more modern but far less charming concrete houses.

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A lovely unmistakeable perfume of food being smoked wafted through the air. We followed our noses into a little alleyway between 2 houses and found this coven of women cooking peppers, eggplant and claypot stews on a wheelbarrow full of coals. My enthusiastic gestures of “smells very good!” got the women to chuckle and beckon me closer for a better look.

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Onward to the water. We watched 2 boys take potshots at seagulls. I wondered if this Old Man of the Sea down below approved.

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Making our way down to the beach from the cliff, I heard a gentle cling-clanging chorus behind us. I turned to find a flock of sheep about to overtake us! Would these count as salt-marsh lambs, y’think?

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Their shepherd stopped for a few minutes to chat. Well. That is to say, from behind me he yelled “JAH-PAHN! JAH-PAHN! JAH-PAHN!” until I turned around and yelled back “SINGAPORE!”

He pulled up alongside, replied, “Ahhhh. Singah-puuur. Singah-puuuuur….uhn…”, and then moseyed on, possibly wondering where or what the hell Singapore was. We saw him again the next day, somewhere in the middle of the village, again with his flock. No hollering of nationalities this time, just a smile and wave to each other.

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We decided to join these buffalo in the river…

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…though in a paddleboat. Below, the view from a few kilometres upriver. The tortoises and frogs didn’t disappoint. We even saw a few jumping fish! Twas all very summertime, and the living is easy…

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IMG 2819All that exercise sent us prowling for lunch. I’m pretty sure the eatery we ended up at didn’t have a name. But it’s on Kiyikoy’s main street, peppered with leathery fishermen sipping tea and playing tavla, and run by this handsome gentlemen on the right. I had a good feeling about the place when the big burly guy who runs ATV tours at our hotel popped in, started bantering with the owner and poking about the tiny kitchen to see what was being made.

Hearty chicken kebab in fluffy turkish baguette aside, of special note was this corbasi (soup) below.

“Meat or lentil,” the owner asked in Turkish.

Meat.

“(something I couldn’t understand)?”

Uhm….

The owner points to his head, then to his gut.

Uhm???!!!…

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He then showed me a box of thin-sliced tripe.

Ahhhh.

I wasn’t quite in the mood for tripe, so I said the other thing, before fully realising he might have meant “brain”.

Luckily, it was just little flecks of meat. Maybe face or cheeks then. And a loose scattering of rice. And — a amazing little addition I’m going to start using creamy soups when I get home — a spoonful raw minced garlic. So stinky, but soooooo diabolically good.

I quite like this town.

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