On the meeting point of two worlds, the ornament of the Turkish homeland, the treasure of Turkish history, the city cherished by the Turkish nation, Istanbul, has its place in the hearts of all citizens. -Mustafa Kemal Ataturk
Exactly one week ago I was still firmly caught in the peaceful embrace of that beautiful creature, Vacationland. Now, however, I am (finally!) home in California, looking through pictures and wondering where my vacation went. The whole trip, from door to door to door, was truly epic and by no means can I complain about a good thing having come to an end (they always do). There is something to be said, after all, about waking up in your own bed, watching the fog roll in from the hills and, most importantly, about recreating some of the tastes and flavors of your vacation in your very own kitchen. Yes, after a month of no recipes, this post will contain one–a Turkish twist on hummus!
But before I get ahead of myself, I should mention that, after writing my first post on Istanbul and my fortuitous layover, I realized that I had failed to mention one small, but very important detail: we would be returning for two days on our way back from Greece. In hindsight, it was a bit of an ambitious decision since our bags were overflowing and we had already been on the go for a solid three weeks…However, there was no other way. As much as a small part of me just wanted to go home already (Greece was the true star of our trip and, once we left there, our vacation star was waning), I could never regret getting to explore Istanbul and to really see some of the major sights–Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Taksim Square (aka New–as in, nineteenth-century–Istanbul). It’s one of those magical places that impresses upon you the weight of history and the very strangeness of our own conceptions of space. I kept asking myself and even the Greek, what is Istanbul? Is it Eastern? Is it Western? Is it Islamic? Is it secular? There may be answers to these questions, but there are many shades of grey in between the supposed facts.
When not pondering some of these lofty, philosophical questions (questions that intersect with my dissertation research and Russia’s own uncertain status), we were wandering from cafe to monument and back again. The breakfast at Van Kahvalti Evi was one of the highlights. While the Greek went with an omelet with pastourma (a garlicky meat) I decided to go with the Classic Breakfast (klasik kahvalti) and was delighted with the simple, but fresh selection of olives, tomatoes, cheese and eggs. On the condiment side of things, I was surprised that Nutella had been given classic status, but, when paired with the sweet cherry compote on the freshly baked bread with black sesame seeds, I realized that this import (like so many things European) had taken on new life in the Turkish context.
The heavy breakfast was necessary because, immediately afterwards, we set off for Old Istanbul, home to the monuments that bring millions of tourists to the city each year. First on our list was the Blue Mosque (more formally known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque). When you consider the immensity of the building, as well as the thousands of handmade ceramic blue tiles that decorate it, it’s almost hard to believe that it was built in only seven years. The mosque is still used for prayer, but, at the height of tourist season, part of it is blocked off. One of my favorite moments was when three rambunctious children darted under the cord and gleefully started running around. To be entirely honest, I wouldn’t have minded joining them.
From the gorgeous and cool blue of the mosque we moved onto Hagia Sophia. This is where you can see traces of the city’s history–Byzantine, Ottoman and even modern efforts at restoration. I loved the mixture of cultures and beliefs that you could find lurking on each and every wall; faces of seraphim are covered by stars (only one face remains), Arabic calligraphy hangs next to icons of the Virgin Mary and crosses are painted over so as not to be crosses anymore. The class that I had taken on Eastern Christianity, not to mention the paper I had done on Iconoclasm, had never seemed so relevant. Seeing it in the flesh simply brought it to life. Travel sometimes makes better students than the classroom.
Hagia Sophia is a place where you can stay for hours and, by the time we were done, it was time for a snack. We returned to the juice shop that we had passed by during our earlier reconnaissance; all of that fresh fruit, just hanging there and waiting to be juiced, drew us in. I was again a sucker for all of those vibrantly bright oranges, but this time I added mango, too.
Besides the monuments, the two places I most wanted to go to in Istanbul were the Spice Bazaar (for the obvious reasons) and to a restaurant that I had read about in one of my favorite Turkish/Eastern Mediterranean cookbooks, Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume, the Ciragan Palace. Since it turned out that the latter, a former Ottoman Palace that looks out on the Bosphoros, has been turned into a five-star hotel, it clearly wasn’t in the cards for two graduate students making their way through Istanbul. Maybe next time. As sad as I was to realize that this fantasy wouldn’t be coming true (yet!), both the endlessly fascinating Spice Bazaar and some Pistachio-Crusted Baklava went a long way in healing my disappointment. Plus, considering all the sumac I bought, I can simply recreate my own Turkish feast at home, minus the Bosphoros.
Really, it was a whirlwind two days, full of smells, sights and sounds that will linger. I became accustomed to the men who were roasting chestnuts on each street corner, as well as to the stands devoted to grilling corn. I also fell in love with the evening call to prayer that cuts through the urban bustle and resonates throughout the city, setting in motion a flurry of religious activity. Hearing the sound of the voice reminding the city of its religious obligations made faith seem very much alive. On the fashion side of things, the clothing of the women also proved endlessly fascinating. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were really cool beneath those layers of somber black clothing, but then, when I would be standing right next to them, not only would they seem to be the only people not sweating, but I could also see that what appeared to be a sea of black headdresses actually included personalized bursts of color: pins, scarves, designer handbags and sunglasses.
By night, Istanbul was just as vibrant. We spent both of our evenings there either on or around Istiklal Avenue, the Madison Avenue of Istanbul. It was amazing to me how many people were there–young singles, married couples pushing strollers, groups of smoking older men–and from nightfall until well after midnight. In some areas, it was almost too congested to move; the sidestreets make for a fine escape route, and wonderful Black Mulberry wine can be found at many of the bars.
If you’re willing to brave the storm of people, however, a trip to Hala Manti is in order. I admit that I was drawn in by the eye-catching sight of two elderly women rolling dough as thin as paper, but the manti, small meat dumplings that melt in your mouth, were also some of the best I’ve eaten. I’m not the kind of girl to pass up anything smothered in sour cream and a garlic sauce that the menu claimed was optional, but, really, wasn’t. Trust me, when asked to garlic sauce or not to garlic sauce, the answer should always be in the affirmative. These are words to live by.
Our final day of tourism, before taking an evening flight to JFK, included a trip to the Topkapi Palace. The opulence of this place was astounding and, as a whole, showcases the glories of the Ottoman Empire. That is, if you can see them. As beautiful as everything was, you had to fight and elbow your way through a lot of the more popular areas of the museum–the Treasury and the Clothing Rooms. Because of that, I preferred exploring the courtyards and the less crowded Circumcision Room (yes, the room with the beautiful stained glass was used exclusively for circumcision). As much wailing as that room must have heard throughout the centuries, it’s now one of the palace’s more peaceful corners.
And would a trip to Turkey even be legitimate without some Turkish Delight? As we dashed to the airport bus and maneuvered our suitcases through the busy streets, we decided to buy, with our last Turkish lira, some Pistachio Coconut and some Rose Turkish Delight. Amazingly, I managed to resist eating any until we were safely at the terminal. With that first bite and the way I was savoring it, I understood that our European adventure was really over. It was sad, but it had to be.
But as I eased my way back into my kitchen yesterday afternoon by making hummus, I realized that I’d be carrying traces of my trip with me for a long time to come. I decided to consult Purple Citrus and Sweet Flower to see if there were any Turkish tricks I could incorporate into my hummus making. While the recipe I found was fairly standard, the technique it suggested–blending chickpeas and ice-cubes together in the food processor–with its promise of a creamier and smoother texture, appealed to me. As I ground the chickpeas and ice cubes together, my eyes fell upon the vacuum-sealed packages of spices lining my counter….and the magenta bag of sumac spoke to me. I felt that adding some of the tart and salty spice would not only help the flavor, but would also carry me back to the crowed streets of Istanbul. In short, it did. I may just be adding sumac to everything in the weeks to come.
Yields about 8-10 servings
Adapted from Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume
Making this hummus was a bit of an impromptu decision, and, although the recipe calls for soaking dried chickpeas and then bringing them to a boil with 1 teaspoon of baking soda (this leads to a lovely white color and smooth texture), I used a can of chickpeas instead and therefore held the baking soda. I did, however, employ the ice-cube method and can say that, based on my previous hummus-making experiences, the texture was definitely smoother and creamier this time around. Because I added 1/2 tsp. of sumac and more for a garnish, I was a little lighter with the lemon juice than I would have normally been, but with perfectly pleasant results.
Finally, because I was out of garlic (in this household, this is uncustomary, but we’re still restocking our refrigerator and pantry in these first post-travel days), I didn’t add any and, surprisingly, I didn’t miss it. Without it, I felt that the tahini, lemon and sumac were really able to shine.
1 16 oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
5 ice cubes
1/4 cup tahini
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 tsp. sumac and more for garnish
sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
-Drain the chickpeas and rinse them. Set a few chickpeas aside for a garnish.
-Place in a food processor and blend. Add the ice cubes one by one and continue blending.
-Transfer the chickpea mixture into a bowl and stir in the tahini, lemon juice, sumac, salt and pepper.
-Serve with a sprinkling of sumac and the reserved chickpeas.