An official banquet

An official banquet in China is quite an experience. There is the round table with its Lazy Susan which is slowly loaded with more food than you think you can eat. The featured photo shows a small selection of a banquet. There is the amazing sweet and sour Mandarin fish; amazing for its knife work, the way the fish seems to grow quills as it is cooked. The duck-shaped dish above it contains slices of Peking duck, served with chapatis (yes, that is a more appropriate translation than pancake) and plum sauce. You can also see a wonderful mushroom called black fungus and an interesting dish of pork lung in chili sauce.

Niece Mbili looked at the photo of the menu (above) and asked “Which ones did you order?” She was blown off her feet when I explained that you don’t choose. Everything on the menu eventually arrives at the table, the dinner continues for several hours, and a lot of baijiu drunk during the dinner. I rather like the sweet pumpkin stuffing that you get in China.

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Tulip and turban

In the late afternoon we sat down for a quiet time and looked at the crowded road outside Sirkeci station: the lines of taxis, people crossing the road, trams coming and going. It looked so calm and unhurried, compared to the tempo of Mumbai, that I wondered about the inflamed imagination of writers who passed through here in the nineteenth century. Could this really be the colourful East of their imagination: debauchery, glamour, exotica?

A hint of that exotica arrived at our table in the form of güllaç (pronounced guellash). This traditional sweet is made only for Ramazan: thin layers of pastry oozing milk, filled with nuts and pomegranate. Perfect with çay. We’d run into güllaç before, and had put off our first experience of it. Now that we had only a couple of days before we left Turkey, we were rushing through our list like the last episode of the Game of Thrones. The result would be some hard-to-shed holiday weight.

That plate looked nice. We took a closer look at the design. Swirling bands of green and gold looked like the “awful turbans” which Mark Twain took such a dislike to. The tulips recalled the heady days of the Ottoman-era tulip craze. This shop was certainly standing when Twain’s ship pulled into Halic to dock. We’d had a wonderful reception at the counter of the sweet shop. We didn’t see a place to sit in, and were gently led upstairs to their cafe. I’d carried my library of books about Turkey on my phone. When I opened Mark Twain’s diatribe about Istanbul (“Everybody lies and cheats”) we had a hearty laugh at the depressive comic who might as well not have left home.

Kabab for lunch

I love to read the general instructions in guide books when I plan to visit a new country. One of the big tips I got before we traveled to Turkey (and one which I forgot until I reached Istanbul) was simple: a kebap restaurant is usually not a take away. The Family and I like to sit down for lunch, even if it is a quick lunch. When we looked for quick bites for lunch and found kebap shops, I finally remembered this piece of information. We loved these kababs, flavourful and low in salt. A typical lunch would be çöp sis kebap or Adana kebap for me, and a tavuk sis kebap for The Family. Often this would come with a salad and bulgur rice on the side, and a basket of nan.

The little shop that you see in the photo above is a typical little kebap shop off Istiklal Caddesi. It was a one man show. The guy whom you see in the pictures ran the shop, We were the only customer in the afternoon, and we took one of the tables downstairs. The man grilled the kebaps after we ordered, and heated up the nan. We could see him do a quick barbecue of the tomato before serving it to us. We loved the food, and liked the service, but we were certain that we were unlikely to come back here. There are many equally charming and good shops scattered around Istanbul. We ate at a new place for lunch every day, and did not regret trying any of them.

Street food on the Halic

The ferry terminal on the Golden Horn may not be the most fashionable place to eat in Istanbul, but it is easily accessible. The double decked Galata bridge has a deck full of restaurants. The punters here were mainly tourists, and the restaurants were beginning to shut down already at 11 at night. Continuing music indicated that at least one bar was planning to keep open later.

We’d spent the evening hopping from place to place tasting wonderful Turkish wines and little eats, otherwise it would have been nice to sit at one of these tables and stare out at the ferries. The atmosphere reminded me of the waterfront eateries on Shamian Island in Guangzhou.

The upper deck of the bridge was lined with people fishing. Those must be really long lines, to reach all the way down to the water. I should have asked one of them how high the bridge is, because I couldn’t find the information any where. It is a bascule bridge, rolling up to let shipping pass below it, but only only traffic here seem to be the ferries, and they are low enough to pass. People with smaller lines were fishing on the waterfront below the bridge. The cheerful candles must have been special to Ramazan.

We stopped to look at a kiosk open for late customers. I love to look at the kind of things that would have stopped me in my tracks when I was a school boy, only now I don’t think of buying them. The silent school kid inside me must be screaming at this betrayal. The young salesman was very friendly and smiled for the camera.

The waterfront is a great place at this time: not too crowded, but there is activity enough to be interesting. Just the place to sit down for a chat. The Family stepped up to the safety wall to check for a place to sit. I was happy to take photos. We walked on.

There was a quiet little party happening on a boat. One person stepped off as we stood nearby. Another couple of friends joined them. It was very casual, quiet, just a small thing after a day’s work. The man fishing nearby was quite sure that the chatter and the lights would not keep the fish away, but I didn’t see him land a catch in the time we stood there.

The ferry terminal was closed, but this man in front of it had a lot of yet unsold mussels. I thought for a moment of trying out one. The Family does not like to risk it. If there had been a crowd around the man it would have reassured me enough to risk it. But with no local around, I was not sure whether fresh catch from the Halic is edible. Maybe it is; Erdogan came to power first as a mayor of Istanbul who promised a clean-up of the Golden Horn.

A cart nearby was selling boiled corn. I’m used to barbecued corn on the cob with lime, salt, and chili flakes. That’s a staple of Indian street food. The boiled variety does not tempt me. Also, I saw no chili flakes. The cart made a pretty picture, though. As pretty, in its way, as the picture of the chap frying fish on a boat. Earlier, we’d seen a bar right up on the terrace of a building looking out to the Halic and Bosphorus. It was time for a nightcap.

Delightfully sweet

The unexpected rain had cooled the air down as we walked downhill along the ancient middle road of Constantinople, now called Alemdar Cadessi. It was that time of the afternoon when you need to sit down with a small Çay (pronounced chai). We passed a place with large windows looking into a cozy space where people were sitting with chai. I looked at The Family, and she nodded. Efezade was our choice this afternoon.

It was nice to sit down after a day walking around the area of the old imperial palace of Constantinople. We could let our umbrellas drip into a little stand, and take off our damp jackets. The place was comfortably warm, the server was friendly. We got our large cups of tea, and inspected the special lokum (Turkish delight) that they make here. Claudia Roden writes with feeling about sharbat vendors of Cairo “The flasks glowed with brilliantly seductive colours: soft, pale, sugary pink for rosewater, pale green for violet juice, warm, rich, dark tamarind and the purple-black of mulberry juice.” Here the colours and flavours of flowers had been captured in these special sweets on display: rose, orange, saffron, chocolate, violet. Two tiny cubes of lokum studded with pistachio: a rose and a chocolate, and I was hooked. Later we would buy large amounts to bring back to India, but that afternoon we pushed on an open door to go beyond the packets of pale cubes on sale at airports and tourist shops. The world of lokum is deep, and I think I have just started exploring.

A quiet dinner for two

I was back from China, and The Family was missing all the Chinese food she hadn’t eaten. So we decided to compensate with a visit to a new pan-Asian restaurant in one of the by-lanes of Colaba. Pan-Asian is a silly name because it is based on a “race” classification in the US which seems to lump together Malays and Koreans, among others. To be more accurate this restaurant served modern food influences by countries to the east of India.

The shrimp roll to start was a choice that we were very happy with. The steamed rolls with shrimps and fresh veggies rolled in a thin chapati made with rice flour came with a peanut and soya sauce options, and shavings of deep fried onions and garlic on the plate. The peanut sauce was an interesting combination, heavy, without hiding the freshness of the roll.

The cocktails were really exciting. The Family made the most interesting choice: a margarita infused with rice kanji. We had a sea bass for the mains. The little dab of green that you see on it turned out to be a very flavourful coriander based sauce. This was light and perfect as the major protein. The dessert was the amazing dish you see in the featured photo: a lemon tart topped with black sesame ice cream, black and white sesame wafers and little shavings of almonds. The food will bring us back to this small, quiet, and intimate place.

Window shopping

On my first day in Istanbul I had to stop every few steps to look in at the windows of sweet shops. The Family wanted to get to the Topkapi Palace at a reasonable time, and my distraction wasn’t helping.

I couldn’t stop to taste, so I did the next best thing: take a few photos. I always thought that halwa, Turkish Delight, was the main Turkish sweet. I was only just beginning to find that was a false impression. The commonest sweet in Istanbul seemed to be baklava.

Surprising Chinese Food

What could be surprising about Chinese food, you ask? Isn’t it all chop suey and sweet and sour chicken, spring rolls and sweet corn soup, chili chicken and gobi Manchurian? On my first visit to China a few years ago I was surprised at how wrong this is. Noodle soups were only a quick stop for lunch. After working my way through many pleasant surprises, I settled on stir fried veggies with slices of meat, lots of different kinds of veggies on the side, and a bowl of steamed rice as a default comfortable dinner.

For dinner with non-Chinese friends on my last visit to Wuhan, I walked into a nice large restaurant full of people. Negotiating a menu is no longer impossible, now that everyone is equipped with apps that look through the camera or translate speech instantly. It may still be hard to understand what the translation means (an example is in the photo above). One of the dishes we ordered was billed as a fish soup, and the lady who was taking our orders added that it had eggs. A little confusing, we thought, but let out order stand. The result was a complete, but pleasant surprise. It looked like a custard (featured photo) but tasted of fish soup. It came studded with mussels. It was one of most delightfully different things I’ve come across for half a year.

I forgot to take note of what it is called. Can an old China hand help me out with guesses about what its name might be? (Thanks to a fellow blogger, I now have an answer. It is called 蒸蛋羹, Zhēng dàngēng, ie, steamed egg tart, or 蒸水蛋, zhēng shuǐ dàn, ie, steamed water egg).

Güllaç, Baklava and Ekmek Kadayifi

When we planned to visit Turkey during the month of Ramazan, one of the things we looked forward to was the food. “There’s bound to be special food that’s only made in this month,” The Family told me. So when we finished our dinner on the second of the month, we asked the friendly waiter about special Ramazan sweets. That’s how we encountered Güllaç (pronounced guellash). We were too full to try one of these enormous helpings that evening (featured photo). When we did later, we were charmed by the thin layered pastry, filled with crushed nuts and pomegranate and oozing milk. The food of Ramazan is usually very traditional, so Güllaç is probably close to the origins of Turkish food.

Our evening’s guide through the esoteric world of Turkish sweets led us to the counter where varieties of sweets were on display. Another speciality of Ramazan, we were told, is the Ekmek Kadayifi. Ekmek is Turkish for bread, and the name of this dish would translate to bread pudding. It is essentially bread soaked in syrup and topped off with clotted cream (called kaymak). What made it special? Perhaps only a cultural connection with this month. I understand that the Id which signals the end of Ramazan is celebrated as Seker Bayrami, a time when plates full of sweets are served to family and friends. The simple Ekmek Kadayifi finds a place on this plate.

The cafe was full of Turkish families at their Iftari dinner. The children were happy at this treat at the end of a long and stressful day. Many of them ended their meals with Güllaç or Ekmek Kadayifi, but a significant fraction also had the perennial favourite, baklava, on their table. Baklava was another syrup soaked delight that I would get to love a little too much. After the trip I had to work hard to shed a couple of kilos which I attribute entirely to these nut-filled syrupy pastries.

A family restaurant

Some of our most memorable meals in Turkey were in family-run restaurants. In the village of Şirince (pronounced Shirin-je), not far from Ephesus, we walked through a large door, up some stairs, and into a courtyard with a verandah running around it. Tables were set out on the verandah, and we chose one looking out on the trees in the courtyard.

The restaurant was run by a young couple. One part of the house was given over to the restaurant, and they seemed to live in a part with a separate entrance, but looking over the same courtyard. My translator app was not needed very often because the lady spoke some English, and I’d managed to pick up enough words to make rough sense of the menu.

They had wonderful salads, with flavourful carrots and greens (that’s one nice thing about eating in a place with its own kitchen garden). I’d been missing salads, so I ordered another one made of pumpkin and walnut. For the mains we had ribs. We’d grown fond of gözleme (pronounced goez-li-may), which is something like a stuffed paratha. The Family adventurously ordered one with eggplant. This was surprisingly good.

The couple didn’t mind us watching them at work in the kitchen. The division of labour was interesting: the lady made the gözleme while the man frenched and grilled the ribs. There are hundreds of questions which rise in my mind, about methods and material, when I watch people cook. While we ate, a group of women, from a town, going by their looks, came in to eat. Listening to their easy chatter with the couple, I wished I’d known enough Turkish to be able to ask the questions which had come to mind while I’d watched the couple in the kitchen.

The day had started sunny but clouds gathered as we ate. There were even a few drops of rain. Our table got windy and cold, so for coffee we moved to a corner which was better protected. This part of the verandah had a bunch of photos on the wall: all of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Was this a family of staunch republicans? A hundred years of history has made everyone a republican. The lady was sharing work with the man, talking to customers, head uncovered.