Istanbul: From Kofte to Sütlaç

What an amazing gastronomic adventure to be had in this wonderful country!

We had a grand time gorging ourselves silly on succulent kebabs, with a tantalising combination of fruit with meat, and of course, sickly sweet desserts!

Starting with our dinner at the Sultanahmet Köftecisi.

When we arrived at some time past 7pm, there was already a long line snaking from the restaurant! I was shocked, are the Turks a lot like Malaysian and Singaporeans on the inside? Patience to queue for good food? No matter how long it takes?

Well, fortunately for us, the answer is not quite. The queue was meant for the iftar crowd: they were in line for dusk to set in before grabbing seats. So we got a table immediately. Phew.

Of course, V will have a different version on how we managed to get seats quickly.


These totally rocked my world! Check out the glistening meat on that Izgara Köfte Porsiyon (bottom on photo) - Grilled beef meatballs with onion, salt and bread. Comes with pickled green chilli (packs a spicy punch!) and some sambal. The sambal wasn't particularly spicy nor very flavourful. So the focus is all on the preparation of the delicious meatballs.

Above the köfte is Lamb Shesh Kebap - tastes so-so (can you tell that we're both very spoiled in the food department?). The accompanying bread was very flat, meh. The texture was too dry, bread wasn't fresh and for heaven's sake, at least toast it if it's stale! That would have made so much difference.

Still the kofte was so good, we were back for more - lunch the following day

This time, we opted for the takeaway sandwich and took it to the Hippodrome park (I was educated by a very distinguished historian that this was where the race of hippos take place. Maybe I'll bring my pet hippo here some other time). Again, that annoyingly dry bread does not do the köfte justice!

Sultanahmet Köftecisi
Alemdar Mh., Divan Yolu Cd No12
34122 Fatih, Istanbul

We scored another big win, thanks to V:

This was located on the Asian side of Istanbul. We took the novel ferry across the Bosphorus Strait to Kadikoy. Being wiser after a false alarm with queues for iftar the night before, we arrived well and early, ahead of dusk.

A recommendation by the friendly waiter - kebab with cherries. The saltiness of the kebab goes superbly with the sweetness of the cherries (which is in season). Delish!

Even the colours are inviting us to tuck in!

Perde Pilavi : Rice cooked with pine nuts, chicken and raisins and baked in dough. The external bread -shell was quite hard and tough to chew. The rice and nuts was fantastic though, crunchy and flavourful. I am totally digging the whole savoury combination with pine nuts and fruit!
Check out the colours!

That thingie at 2 o'clock was amazeballs - Iskandar kebab (Must have forgotten to take a solo photo!). Marinated beef and grilled, served with pickled green chilli and a dollop of yoghurt - we wiped it clean.

Çiya Sofrasi
Caferaga, Günesli Bahçe Sk No43

Simit (a bagel of sorts with sesame seeds) and coffee are quintessential to the Turkish breakfast. Peddlers selling simit and other Turkish breads are ubiquitous in this city, along with corn and chestnut peddlers. Grilled corn is simply addictive! We have had countless number of corns - so juicy!

My take on the Turkish coffee: it was really quite bitter and very strong. I noticed the coffee is always served with a glass of water - for good reasons, so you better not refuse that glass!

Hamsi Tava - Deep fried anchovies served on a bed of rocket leaves with a squeeze of lemon juice - another addictive snack! We were supposed to share this but V hates the strong smell of fish so it was all up to me to clean this plate up hehe. We spotted this small eatery while browsing through the Spice market. It was small and cramped, but damn, those anchovies were yummy.

Just your friendly neighbourhood hamsi tava seller.

More firsts: Turkish pide, washed down with Turkish beer.

Here's a tip. If it's oblong, it's pide. If it's round, it's pizza.

Moving on, dinner at Zübeyir, courtesy of V's searches again. I gotta give him credit - he's done all the food research this trip. Usually the foodie is me but look how much he's grown now (literally!! hehe), so proud of you! :D

It has a little roasting pit right in the middle of the first floor of the restaurant. Good hood though, cos we caught no sniff of that thick smoke.

Fantastic breads! Soft on the inside, crunchy shell on the outside. Paired with a yoghurt and roasted red pepper dip - oh my.

A kebab platter for sharing - roasted chicken, lamb and beef.

V contemplating where to start first.

Zübeyir Oçakbasi
Şehit Muhtar Mh. Bekar Sk. No 28 

A delightful breakfast we had in Beyoglu - a small cafe tucked in a residential area. I wasn't expecting much, until we were served with a soft bread and clotted cream with honey. I couldn't stuff myself enough!

That glorious honey.... and clotted cream. Carve this on your must-eat list in this lifetime. Seriously.

Menemen: a scrambled egg dish with tomatoes, peas and of course, sucuk (beef sausages), if you are Mr V.

My breakfast of pancake stuffed with sucuk - was alright - much preferred the menemen actually, as a breakfast option.

Van Kahvalti Evi
Kiliçali pasa mah, Defretdar yokusu 52/A

Climaxing to the creme de la creme:

(This is where we were headed and the whole neighbourhood disapproves of my 'revealing' outfit)....

We had a lot of fun picking out our dinner! Too many tempting options -- A little trivia, Asitane offers historical renditions of the Ottoman cuisine. The menu includes the year a particular dish was created! 

We arrived for lunch - and were the only diners in the establishment.

Stuffed Vine Leaves with Sour Cherries (1844)
Grape leaves stuffed with blend of sour cherries, rice, onions, pine nuts. Cooked lightly in olive oil and seasoned with black pepper and cinnamon.

The combination worked really well: grape leaves was ever-so-slightly crisp, with a soft center of cherries, rice and an intermittent crunch of pine nuts.

Stuffed Calamari with Shrimps: Oven baked calamari, stuffed with blend of rice, pine nuts and currants; flavoured with cinnamon and fresh mint.

Delicious! I absolutely loved the combination of calamari, rice and pine nuts - that crunch! And coupled with peppery rocket leaves.... perfection!

"Mahmudiyye" (1539)
Cinnamon and clove flavoured chicken stew cooked with apricots, Rezaki raisins and almonds.

The flavours in this dish was mild - not quite spicy, not quite sweet and not quite salty. Interesting idea but not wild about its execution...

Stuffed Melon (1539)
Cored melon stuffed with a blend of minced meat, rice, herbs, almonds, currants and baked in the oven.

This is our fave of the lot (along with the calamari with rice). The juicy, sweet melon complemented wonderfully with the minced meat, currants and nuts. Lip-smacking!

As much as we loved the food prepared by Asitane, I find it lacking in a certain something (je ne sais quoi?), and would have gone back to Çiya Sofrasi in a hearbeat. You know how no matter the premium ingredients a hotel could incorporate in their dishes, but the street side hawker's version still tastes better? This metaphor is apt in the case of Asitane vs Çiya Sofrasi.... Although an accomplished gastronomer may opine that they are both incomparable. 

Kariye Camii Sokak No6
34240 Edirnekapi, Istanbul

And to top off our culinary adventure - our favourite dessert in Turkey:

The Sütlaç! Caramelized milk pudding, served chilled. I fell in love with this from the first bite! It reminds me so much of the steamed milk pudding in Hong Kong. Wow, wow and wow. Can't get enough of it. But we only tried out this dessert on our last day in Istanbul! Wish we had more of this than the pile of baklavas.... Admittedly, that may have been a blessing in disguise.....

Saray Muhallebicisi
Kuloğlu Mh., Istiklal Caddesi No:105, 
34433 Beyoğlu

Sweating It Out At The Hamam

I admit it, I am a kiasu when it comes to holidays. I *do* have a checklist of quintessentials. Be it the food, the culture, the sights... even the baths.

Enter hamam. 

Hamam - is a spa, or a public bath where the Turks go for a bath, scrub and a massage, and are usually segregated by gender. I was keen to try out the centuries-old tradition.

Since there is a hamam close to our hotel (and pretty much scattered everywhere else throughout the city),  V 'dropped' me off so he can dust his hands off from babysitting me.

The hamam was a small family-run business. A fan lazily creaked from the ceiling, a couple of middle-aged woman lounged and chatted, while a chunky telly was playing some telenovela. Furnitures look old and a little tacky. 

No turning back, now. 

A few options are provided - soap massage, oil massage, male or female masseuse. I opted for the regular hamam - just a soap massage, no oil massage.

Payment was made in advance, and I was shown into a small little massage room, to change out into a towel - and nothing else. 

One of the masseuse, a middle-aged matronly woman, led me further into the establishment. She showed me the sauna and indicated for me to bask in the heat for 20 minutes. So in I go, towel and all. It started getting hot, until it got almost unbearable. I contemplated. It's hot outside. I was already sweating earlier. And now this sweating business indoors isn't enjoyable. It'll be nice to soak in cool water. I stayed just a teensy bit longer, debated that thought and sweated for 5 minutes. Finally I got out and searched for my masseuse. 

I called out to her (from the entrance of the women's section). No answer. I spotted a young male washing towels in another room. He heard me and hollered to my woman. She came over, indignant. "Not yet -- twenty minutes!". I said, no, too hot. Okay, she said, and ushered me into a bath area, about 4mx4m large. 

There are 3 wash basins, and she indicated for me to take off my towel and demonstrated scooping water from the basins. Then she said: 10 minutes; and left.

For the record, I honestly tried being cooperative. I scooped some water, and rinsed. And I was finished in 1 minute!! The bathing duration could have been stretched further, had there been soap. But there wasn't! And let's be realistic, there's only so much water you can go on scooping!!

Yet again, I crept out and called for my masseuse. She came around, definitely with a hint of annoyance - "But 10 minutes!", I insisted I was done, and she said, ok wait, while she goes to change.

She returns in a pair of tank top and shorts and I was led into yet another room. In the middle of the room was a marble table top. She indicated for me to lie on top of the marble (with only my thin, wet towel on it - not comfortable, I assure you). She was out of my radar for a few minutes, and when she returned, just entering my peripheral vision: She had undressed - she is in her underwear.... and just that. Mammaries in full display, she scooped some water and unceremoniously splashed me.

It was a most strange sensation. I have never quite been bathed by a stranger before, but this, an adult being washed by a matronly woman - it does feel like my mother was giving me a shower.

Why do people pay for this experience, remind me?

With about 100litres of water splashed on me, she started with the soap bubbles. A long, thin cotton cloth (looks like a bolster cover) was soaked in soap water. She then blew into the pseudo-bolster-cover and transformed it into an airy sausage. She then squeezed the bolster sheet and a thick layer of soap foam covered me almost entirely. It was wonderful (for a change), light and tingling.

Then came the "soap massage". Armed with a loofah, she climbed over me and started scrubbing me vigorously. It sure felt like she was trying to remove my epidermis - I could feel myself being rubbed raw! From my neck, down to my butt and to my legs. She showed me the dead skin accumulated on her loofah (grimace), and then gestured for me to flip around, facing upwards.

This has got to be the most awkward feeling I've EVER had to endure. Me, staring at the algae-covered ceiling, determinedly averting gaze with the woman (and her hanging bosoms) while she hovers over me and scrubs my armpits, breasts, and well, everything else.

Once that was done, I was asked to sit upright, and she started shampooing my hair and briskly massaged my scalp. Rinse, and a dry towel handed to me. I accepted the towel gratefully.

The hamam experience is finally completed by lying face down on a heated marble slab (10 mins, please), presumably to relax a bathee. I finished my 10 mins of hot marble relaxation, got up, got dressed and anxiously left the hamam.

The entire experience left me feeling like a baby - raw and red, but clean - reborn again.

Istanbul: An Asian Girl's Guide

I was going to have a week-long break for the Eid holidays - so we were brainstorming how and where we should spend it. Europe remains a favourite during the summer (what's there not to like??) - but I reckoned one week is too brief to properly enjoy and fully utilise the time there (what with jet lag and all). We debated Philippines for a bit - for a spot of diving, though it isn't at the top of my bucket list.

After throwing ideas back and forth (over a few months, mind you), we finally settled on Turkey. Both feeling quite excited as we've not been, and so exotic! 

.....So.... the obvious subsequent events to take place is a multitude of dangerous incidents bound to change our minds, right? And that, is precisely what happened. Deja vu!

Case 1: Planned a fun weekend in Phuket. Red shirt protests happened just the week before our trip. Curfew announced at parts of Thailand. We stubbornly proceeded. Everything was normal in the touristy part of Phuket. Holiday fun, check.

Case 2: Bought tickets to Hong Kong for a few days. Coincides with Occupy Central. Luckily, it was a peaceful protest and other than some roadblocks, nothing else hampered our trip.

Case 3: Turkey. She upped it a few notches for us though. A month before our trip, there was a bombing in Istanbul where 11 people died - claimed by ISIS. Then, just days prior to our departure for Istanbul, another ISIS bombing was reported at the Ataturk airport. Messages poured in from friends who asked us to reconsider the trip. Mum was best of the lot - instead of the usual barrage of nags, she reminded to go shopping for souvenirs, and specifically to purchase hand-painted plates for myself, hehe. 

Despite all of the bad rep surrounding Turkey, we made up our minds to visit. And we are really, really glad that we made the final call.

Turkey is one of the most beautiful countries I've visited. More accurately, it is unlike any other city I've been to. The diversity of its food, the grandeur of its monuments, the friendliness of its people, the beautiful handicrafts... I could go on and on.

When we first arrived, we were surprised to see how empty the city is. Not that we were complaining. Long queues to the Hagia Sophia? Didn't happen to us. Jostling with the crowd in Grand Bazaar? Shopkeepers were practically shoving freebies into our hands to get their first sale of the day. It's great for us shoppers, but it's also sad to see the locals having a hard time to get by. Saying all that, I do wonder if it was all for show? Make a sob story and bank in on the sympathy of the tourists. I guess I'll never know.

The slow tourism was a temporary respite. Soon after the Eid, the streets were filled with people again, with an almost tangible festive cheer in the air. We realize later, that the locals usually leave the country for a holiday overseas over Eid.

Anyway, jibber-jabber aside, I am here to give you some nifty tips 'n' tricks. Your holidays in Istanbul won't ever be the same again! *wink wink*

Our itinerary of 8 days are made up of 4D in Istanbul, 3D in Cappadocia, and one final night on the Asian side of Istanbul - Beyoğlu.

From Kuala Lumpur, I flew in to the Sabiha Gökçen International airport via Abu Dhabi (that rascal actually tricked me into thinking he is flying through Dubai and suddenly plopped on the seat beside me at the gate in Abu Dhabi! <3)

Before the trip, I searched on the Interwebz for some clues as to how to dress. Some were most conservative, advising to cover up; whereas some were more liberal - dress like how you will in any other European cities, they said.

Well, I beg to differ. In, say, Paris or London, I could put on a pair of shorts and a tank top - nobody bats an eye. In Istanbul, as far as major cities go, the local Turks are dressed conservatively. Some with headscarves, mostly in long skirts or pants and covered up. The only instances of shorts or sleeveless tops are worn by foreigners - and even then, they are the minority.

Digressing, we were on a food excursion to Asitane, somewhere on the outskirts of the city. To get there, we had to pass though residential area and the quieter neighbourhoods. On that day, I decided I will wear shorts (I had been wearing long dresses the past few days, but after noticing some people wearing shorts, I thought I'll be more comfortable in the summer heat). Throughout the walk, I started to become acutely aware of how my exposed legs were drawing attention (I actually thought I heard an old, geezy man letting out a sigh). Feeling increasingly conscious, I withdrew an emergency scarf from my bag and transformed it into a makeshift knee-length skirt.

My advice, go conservative. Respect the local culture and cover up! This means, wear something that reaches your knee at the very least, and a sleeveless top as your maximum exposed limbs. Cleavage - don't even go there!

To enter the mosques, you need to be fully covered - long sleeves, long pants, the whole works - and a headscarf to cover your hair. No biggie if this slips your mind, cause at the entrance of the mosque, scarves and long robes are provided at no extra charge for visitors.

These are some of the thoughtful little things I like about Istanbul. A far cry to Milan: we were queueing to enter the Piazza Duomo, I got a bit of a rude shock when I was told that my dress was too short (a couple of inches above the knee) and was refused entry. A bunch of opportunists then shoved an armload of colourful scarves in my face, hoping to cash in on my need (but we did not enter eventually).

Our trip was free and easy: we do try to plan our routes so we don't double up too much. It is not an easy feat, what with the various foodie spots we were keen to go!

The majestic Hagia Sophia. I stepped in and felt my jaw drop to the ground. And this with an entire wall covered in scaffoldings - the awe that would have inspired otherwise...

Strays lead a good life here. Bowls of cat food and water are put out for these ungrateful creatures. Dogs too, wander freely, even though it is a predominantly Muslim country. Something you'll never in Malaysia, sadly. Quite a mystery it is, with the vast number of strays in the city, we've not come across poop! (Paris, learn!)

And the Hagia Sophia at dusk...

Chomping on a simit - a Turkish bagel with sesame seeds - from a street side peddler. Various snacks are being sold by peddlers: roasted chestnuts, grilled whole corn (my fave!) and other baked goods.

The Blue Mosque:

The tall ceiling but low chandeliers are quite a sight. I can only imagine the hall filled with men in white robes.

And moving on to the Topkapi Palace.

We spent a good few hours exploring the palace/museum - do go and visit! My favourite is the kitchen quarters - studying how preparations were made, and the changing wares used through the times. 

An epic quote from the palace: "During the Ramazan, the royal family refrained from using gold wares. Instead, yellow plates are used due to their resemblance to gold".

The Harem - such luxury!

Next stop: The Grand Bazaar. I am in love with this market!!!

Markets are my absolute favourite haunts in any city. Of course, not all of them are pleasant. Some can be downright nasty, while some a total ripoff before you even step in. In Vietnam, we were harassed and practically bullied into buying goods! I've had some shopkeepers who had rattled to me in Vietnamese when I said I'll come back later. In contrast, Laos, the people are friendly without being pushy. European markets are more relaxed, some of the sellers look like they can't be too bothered whether you purchase or not!

The Grand Bazaar (and some photos may be from the Spice Bazaar) is a feast for the eyes, ears and nose. Intricate and high quality handicrafts, I have to say. I go all mad over the hand-painted ceramic bowls and plates! I bought 2 plates and a bowl - wish I had gotten more now! Then there is the copper coffee pots, pepper grinder, colourful glass lamps, ceramic wares, a billion types of spices, sweets... plenty to keep you busy poking your nose in!

Suleymaniye mosque

This mosque seems to be more low-key compared to the Blue Mosque. We sat for a bit at the tourists' section (the praying area for Muslims is a separate section), while enjoying the cool breeze. 

Speaking of weather: the summer is warm, but not humid. In the shade, the breeze is a delight. But the sun is harsh, and can be uncomfortable. Pack a hat and slap on sunscreen!

All covered up for the mosques:

Exploring the Taksim Square in Beyoğlu. The streets are vibrant: live music, food vendors, decadent sweet shops (which we frequently popped in), antics of the ice-cream sellers..... there is constantly something going on!

We also did the Bhosphorus cruise, heh. I know, it all sounds very touristy, but hear me out on this. Some of the sights aren't possible to view through land, just like this photo below.

On the cruise, we were ushered to the top deck with at least 30 other tourists, including small children.  We had to quickly grab our plastic chairs and parked them strategically for best viewing point (without having raindrops splashing on us, oh yeah, it rained). Loud, dance music blasted on the boat (strongly reminded me of the Andaman's Green Ocean, which blasted Indian dance hits, hehe) and occasionally, the tour guide speaks over the PA system in Turkish. Too funny!

Aaaand, there you go. By now I'm betting you're exclaiming, but there are no food photos! Blasphemy!

Indeed, that's cos Turkish food deserves a post of its own. That'll be up next!

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