Saturday, January 31, 2015

Saturday, January 31, 2015 - No comments

Home is Where Your Tastebuds Sing

"You just can't find ________ (insert tomato paste/peppers/cheese) here like you can in my hometown."

This is probably the most common phrase I've heard as I've done interviews for my book about hometown longing.  And with good reason.  In the same way as poutine in British Columbia or pork barbecue in Minnesota "just aren't the same", transplants to "the big cities" are forever pining for "the food mom always made" and lugging favourite local staples home from wherever it is they come from.   Any Turk knows that dried apricots should be from Malatya and garlicky mantı is best from Kayseri and no one stuffs grape leaves like old Aunt Ayşe back in the village.

In honour of the fact that one's palate is always longing for home, every year our city puts on a "Regional Delicacies Exhibition" - a conference-salon-turned-smorgasbord offering fare from most of our eighty-one provinces.  Curious foodies and homesick "can't-find-this-anywhere" ingredient seekers converge on the fair to taste test and stock up to their hearts' content.  

Not one to miss out on a morning of samples (who else used to love scoring "lunch" by hitting up all the booths at Costco?) and sure that I'd find useful information for my book, I headed down to the exhibition.  I got to munch on hazelnuts from Trabzon (terribly expensive this year due to an early frost and a devastated harvest), clotted cream from Afyon, and my longtime favourite, mulberry pestil (like fruit leather) from Gümüşhane.  And I may or may not have come home with a sack-full of goodies....

Here's a sampling of my "edible research" from that day.

"Eat honey, live longer."

Marmalades made from rosehip, hawthorn, and kızılcık, a relative of the cranberry.

"Sausages" made from mulberry and pomegranate fruit leather stuffed with walnuts.  I'm a total sucker for this stuff.

Pots of pickled peppers.

A special variety of garlic native to my Turkish dad's hometown.

This guy was proud to tell me about all the varieties of roasted 
chickpeas that come from Çorum.

The ballı susamlı fıstık (honey sesame peanuts - bottom right) are
 a staple in our snack cupboard, but the honey poppyseed 
chickpeas (bottom middle) were a fun new treat.

Spices and wafers from Kahramanmaraş.  One of my good friends is from there, and I have no doubt she'll return home from winter vacation next week with several jars of fiery pepper paste (far right).

Pişmaniye - "Turkish fairy floss".

The name pişmaniye comes from the verb "to regret."  
I understood why when I walked away from that booth with 
strands of sugary goodness all over my black coat...

"Stinky cheese" from Erzurum.

Several packets of yaprak sarması (stuffed grape leaves) 
found their way home into our fridge.

Spiced mean for dürüm kebap on the grill.

Peppers headed for the grill at the Hatay tent.  (Having made several visits to the town in Hatay where this crew was from, this was a fun spot to visit.)

Katıklı ekmek - spiced flatbread made on a metal disc over the fire.

Wishing that, after all my "bits of this and that", I still had room left for lunch!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday, January 25, 2015 - 1 comment

I Can't Bring WHAT On the Plane?!?

We all know the drill.  No liquids over 100 mL in our carry-ons.  Contact solution and hand cream sealed up in a nice little Zip-Loc baggie.  Scissors and tweezers safely stowed away in our checked luggage.  No explosives or live animals in any of our suitcases.  

The other day, though, as I was purchasing a domestic ticket on Atlasjet, an airline I don’t often fly with, I was caught off guard by the very specific list of what cannot, under any circumstances, be brought on a plane.  And I chuckled to myself and thought, “Only in Turkey.”

Here's what it said:

"Fluid substances like olive oil, pickles, tomato paste; flammable substances such as acetone, cologne; cans, sacks, plastic bags and barrels will not be accepted to the flight neither as free baggage or as cabin baggage."

I could just picture an old teyze staring, bewildered, at the guy at the check-in counter, asking, “Why in the world can’t I bring tomato paste on the plane?  Do you know how long it took us to make that?”  Or, “But these pickles are my daughter’s favourite!  You can’t get pickles like these in Istanbul!”  Or, “Young man, this oil is from our family’s own olive grove.  Don’t your mother bring you things home from your village??”  

There’s a reason many Turks still take buses when traveling cross-country, even though the price of a plane ticket is often way cheaper:  You can’t bring a whole winter’s supply of goodies home on a fifteen kilo weight limit!  People who spend their summer in their hometown will have invested months in harvesting and processing everything they need to make it through the cold season, and they’ll add in a whole bunch extra to pass out to friends who weren’t able to make it home or are just lucky enough to get in on the stash.   Spicy pepper paste from Urfa, pistachios from Gaziantep, apples from Amasya, jars of anchovies from Trabzon.  Grape leaves, tomato paste, tarhana, walnuts....what you can find in the big city is just never as good as what you can pick in your own family orchard.

The “cans, sacks, plastic bags and barrels” bit cracked me up, too.  How many times have I seen someone cram a ten kilo can of white cheese, a monstrous sack of onions or a whole flat of cherries into the luggage compartment under a bus?  And the “cologne” - our beloved “lemon kolonya”, no doubt.  The cure for everything from greasy hands to paper cuts to fainting.  (Got a stain on your wooden table?  Slather on some kolonya and set in on fire - the stain will vanish before your very eyes!  But watch out - this practice can be habit forming....)

Affordable air travel is a relatively new development in Turkey.  Airports and routes have multiplied tenfold even in the eight years I’ve lived here.  So it’s understandable that the rules and restrictions related to flying are not yet common knowledge.  If you’ve only ever travelled on long-distance buses, discovering that you won’t be accepted onto the plane if you show up ten minutes before take-off or that you can’t bring unlimited luggage can be a rude awakening. (I’ve seen my fair share of tantrums at the check-in counter...)  

My Turkish mom, who has only flown once or twice in her life, is a sweet, well-meaning example of this.  When I’m returning home from visiting my family in Istanbul, she is forever giving me “one more thing” to bring home as a present, and always right before I’m leaving for the airport.  I’ve usually already crammed my suitcase to the limit (I can never resist Istanbul’s wide array of bookstores...) and don’t have the space or the weight allowance to squeeze in a kilogram of mantı (ravioli) or a big box of cookies from the pastry shop where she works.  These scenes usually end up stuffing a kilo’s worth of stuff in my coat pockets so as to avoid breaking the rules or breaking her heart.

I’ve noticed in the past year, though, how “Turkified” I’ve become in this area.  When visiting friends who live in colder parts of the country or in cities where they don’t have access to good, cheap produce like we do here, it’s fun to bring them something from the pazar or our garden that I know they’ve been missing.  When we headed east to Erzincan to see our old neighbours in their village last fall, we got some amused looks as our carry-ons went through the x-ray machine laden with two kilos of pomegranates and a whole pile of lemons from the tree in our yard.  (Our friend used to be “soul mates” with our lemon tree, so we knew this would make her year!)

When returning from said trip, we had a little “suspicious package” episode of our own.  Our friends make this amazing stuff called çemen - a sort of “breakfast sauce” made from red pepper paste, crushed walnuts and various herbs that tastes amazing on bread.  When they lived here, we always felt privileged when they’d pull out a jar at breakfast and share it with us.  We knew it was a valuable “hometown specialty” that they didn’t bust out for just anyone.  (Kind of like how we only use imported brown sugar and chocolate chips to make cookies for certain select friends.  You have to pass the appreciation test...)  Like tomato paste, making çemen is pretty labour intensive, and it was even more precious this year after a late frost all but nixed the walnut harvest.  So it was a huge honour when they sent us home with a big jar of our very own.  

Naturally, we weren’t too keen on packing a big jar of squishy red stuff in either of our checked bags where one over-zealous toss by a luggage handler could render our clothes permanently streaked with “souvenirs of Erzincan.”  So, with a very Turkish “bir şey olmaz” (“eh, nothing bad will happen”), we decided that çemen didn’t count as liquid and opted to put it in my roommate’s carry-on.  

As we went through security to head to our gate, the guy at the scanner paused the conveyor belt and looked up with a suspicious, “You have a large cylindrical object in here....can you tell me what it is?”  

Now, before we proceed with this story, you have to understand a thing or two about this airport.  It’s in a tiny city that has only recently arrived on the airlines’ map.  The building is a brand new, state-of the-art glass dome that provides a 360 degree view of the mountains.  The locals are very proud of it.  It boasts both a domestic and an international terminal, though there aren’t actually any international flights coming in and out of the city as of yet.  The domestic terminal has exactly one gate.  As far as I can tell, there are about six flights in and out each day - all of them to and from Ankara and Istanbul.  There are two snack shops outside security, and one inside.  When they announce a departing flight, the guy from one of the shops literally closes his store window, crosses into the gate area, and opens the shop on the inside.  It’s the ultimate frontier-town scene.

Accordingly, we followed our pre-agreed upon script.

“It’s çemen!”

The girl unwrapping the plastic bags around the jar eyed us curiously.  (How many foreigners have ever heard of çemen?)

“We came to visit our friends and they made it themselves and gave it to us cuz they know we can’t get it where we’re from.  Wasn’t that nice of them?  You’re so lucky you live here and can have it all the time...”

She looked questioningly at the guy who seemed to be her supervisor.  

“We brought them lemons from our garden and they’re sending us home with çemen.  Good trade,” I said with a bright smile.

He opened the jar to sniff it and then handed it back to her.  “It’s çemen,” he laughed.  “Bir şey olmaz.”

And off we went.

The moral of the story?  When in doubt, appeal to cultural pride.  

A recent attempt by a friend to bring me some lingonberry jam in his carry-on (he’s lucky enough to have an IKEA in his city) didn’t result in the same show of mercy and, sadly, the jar ended up in the trash.  I guess the rules only stretch as far as the limits of what’s treated like gold in one’s own culture.  Swedish delicacies, apparently, are outside the acceptable zone.

I’ll have to test out the strictness of Atlasjet’s baggage policy whenever they start doing routes to and from Erzincan.  Tomato paste might be a no-go, but maybe çemen will still fly.  :)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Wednesday, January 21, 2015 - No comments

"Spring" Break

It’s like the weather knew.

Turkish universities just got out on their semester break, and the elementary and high schools will follow on Friday.  And after two weeks of thunderstorms and flooded streets, power outages and sub-zero temperatures (only a few degrees and only at night, but still - this IS the Mediterranean!) the sky seemed to have heard the last bell and yelled, “Spring break!”  

I woke up to sunshine - real, true sunshine.  Not the kind that peeks out weakly from behind a cloud just long enough to make you think, “Yay, hot water today!”, only to leave you feeling defrauded when it’s replaced by a dark sky and raindrops in the afternoon.  Nope, this was the kind that makes you forget last week’s scarves and mittens and makes you scan the ground for violets.  The kind that beckons old ladies and their teacups onto their balconies and little boys and their footballs out into the empty lots and means (joy of all joys) laundry that dries in just a few hours and doesn’t turn mildewy from sitting on the rack for days.

I got home last night from an intense five days away co-hosting a seminar and was way overdue for a day off.  Today didn’t turn out to be so much of a “fun day” as a “catch-up-on-life” day (empty fridge, overflowing laundry basket) but the warm weather made even my errands feel like recreation.  

I rode my scooter to the pazar wearing sunglasses and no jacket, and I took the long way just for the pure pleasure of being outside.  The streets were full of university students home on break - knots of slow-strolling girls catching up after months apart, guys whooping and hollering as they tore up and down the road on their motorcycles.  Women in long skirts and headscarves lugging carts laden with fruit and vegetables stopped to chat with friends working in their gardens.  An unusual abundance of mobile fish-sellers hawked their glassy-eyed wares-on-wheels.  Piles of avocados and “winter strawberries” at the pazar got me fantasizing about summery salad combinations.  Even the freshly-shorn sheep at the animal pazar seemed to be smiling at the sun.  (Poor things had no idea that the people admiring them weren’t doing so with petting zoo intentions.  At least their last day on earth was a pretty one....)

My favourite use of the sunshine today was a long afternoon run. (In a t-shirt!  In January!)  I’m training for a 10k in March and, after five days away, was eager to get back in the swing of things.  It turned out that every female home on university break had decided to take driving lessons this week, so my normally quiet dirt road route was suddenly clogged with student drivers, and I spent as much time dodging crawling vehicles as I did remnant puddles and sheep poop.  But I wasn’t bothered.  Winter break will soon end, the freezing weather will swing back, and there will be plenty more hood-and-gloves runs to come.  I was happy to share the road, so long as I got to be outside! 

Around my complex, it was as if everyone had come out of hibernation.  I spotted two neighbours were washing their cars- one because her car actually needed it, the other, because he’s unemployed and seems to have made a career out of religiously shining his up once a week.  Our new Syrian “winter gardener” appeared (much to our disappointment, our full-time, live-in one was recently let go) and raked up all the half-decomposed leaves littering the driveway.  He also scrubbed down the “sitting hut”, ridding it of rooster “deposits” and making it sittable again.  (When the manager tried to get the birds’ owner to clean up their messes and told him that a townhouse complex really isn’t the place for breeding poultry, the owner apparently yelled at him, asked him who he was to say he couldn’t keep chickens, and came after him with a stick.  You can take a man out of the village....)

The main event of the day was heralded with the early morning sound of sledgehammers on concrete.  The house kitty-corner to us was sold last week and apparently the new owner has a beef with the third floor.  Its punishment:  being reduced to sacks full of debris on the side of the road.  Over the course of the day, I watched from my window as workmen in wife-beaters brought a bedroom, kitchen and bathroom to their knees and tossed them over the balcony.  

Now, it’s “against the law” for homeowners in this type of complex to change the basic structure of their houses.  And when it comes to colour and design, there is supposed to be a uniformity to the place.  But in recent years, no one (including our various managers) has stood up to (or been in town to stop) those “creative license bullies” who have said, “What do I care about the rest of the complex?  I want ___________ (insert “an extra room”, “a different colour of paint”, “ostentatious Corinthian columns” here) and I’m gonna have them!”  And so our complex has become a bit of a neighbourhood joke.  

This morning, when the demolition was in the early stages and only the roof was missing, my roommate, who was recently “elected” (against her will) assistant manager, decided she should go over and investigate.  (The actual manager doesn’t even live here, hence the “finding out about these things after it’s too late” phenomenon.)  She took another neighbour along for good measure, and they asked the construction workers if the owner was planning on adding a fourth floor.  “We don’t know what his plans are,” he replied innocently.  “We were just told to remove the roof and the windows.”  Right.  And the walls coming down later in the day was just because the sun was shining and you got carried away.  

We’re all watching with great interest to see what will materialize in place of all those rooms that disappeared.  The new owners certainly aren’t doing themselves any favours by gaining a “rebel” reputation before they even move in.  But if this sunny weather keeps up and if it turns out they’re installing a swimming pool up there, I just might have to take over a plate of cookies and welcome them to the neighbourhood....  :)

Note the bannister peeking up where the top of the stairs and the hallway ought to be.... :)

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Saturday, January 03, 2015 - No comments


My first Christmas away from home involved palm trees and a barbecue on a hot Mexican day.  I remember being excited to be with old friends in the new city I'd just moved to, but also thinking that t-shirt weather and carne asada, tasty as it may have been, just didn't feel like Christmas.  

Fast-forward fifteen years and almost half that many Christmases spent somewhere other than home in Canada with my family.  Much as I miss listening to Amy Grant's "Home for Christmas" album with my Mom, the star decorations they've have up at Blundell Centre every single year since I was six and keeping warm with "the fireplace channel" (and watching for The Hand to put another log on every hour or so), I love the fact that I have a community here in Turkey that truly is like family.  After so many Christmases together, we've gathered our own traditions, and now there are certain things that, while they were never a part of my holiday must-do's growing up, are now on my "It's Not Christmas Without ________" list.  

This was a particularly fun Christmas as I got to spend it both with my "family" here in the city where I live, as well as with some of my best friends who live in another city a short flight away.  In honour of the traditions we've kept and the new memories made this year, here's a little collection of some of my favourite Christmas-ing highlights from this year:

Kicking off the “waiting season” with the first Sunday of Advent (celebrated on a Tuesday) with three of my best friends as we gathered from our various corners of the globe for four precious days together.  Singing Christmas carols along with YouTube videos and cracking up when, in the middle of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, in place of the lyrics, the screen simply read “musical interlude”.  Sipping spicy Russian tea and eating our sugar cookies piled high with icing and iced lebkuchen.  Reading the prophecies of the foretold birth in Bethlehem, my heart waking up to the anticipation and the mystery of a promise on the edge of being fulfilled...

Sitting in front of the tree(s) with said best friends, trying our darndest to get a Really Really Ridiculously Good Looking selfie.  Inevitably one of us (who shall remain nameless) coming out looking like a duck, or another like a photo-bombing creeper, and the laughter that ensued making for the best photos of the night.  After several days of disciplining over-tired children, making meals and having “adult conversations”, it felt so good to be loopy and silly and us.

Christmas Bazaar-ing
Cramming five adults, two kids, a massive bag of popcorn and a whole lot of Christmas cookies into the car and driving an hour and a half to the Turkish version of a Christmas bazaar in a nearby German expat-laden city.  Highlights:  bratwurst, mulled wine, some very un-Christmasy Pink Floyd covers, and the jolly, rotund Englishman who led us in a rousing chorus of “Now, bring us some figgy pudding!”  (It’s quite possible we ended up on TV for that one - the camera seemed to always be on us, as we were the only ones who knew the words.)

Joining an estimated 40% of the world’s Swedish population in watching Kalle Anka, a 1958 repertoire of Disney cartoons, at precisely 3:00 Sweden Time (4:00 here) on Christmas Eve.  (Most of my Turkish Christmases over the years have been celebrated with Swedish friends, and I’ve happily adopted this tradition, despite the fact that I can’t understand a word.  Donald Duck is still Donald Duck in any language!)  Feasting on moose-shaped gingerbread, borscht, and Christmas tea by candlelight with dear friends, and Facetiming with those Swedes who are now back in the motherland and no longer here to enjoy cartoons and Glogg with us.

Progressive Carolling
Singing, candles in hand, at the doors of several foreign friends, as we’ve done every year for the past eight.  Feasting and playing games when we gather at the last house, and the obligatory mint fudge.... :)

Hide-and-seek-ing, tea-partying, reliving the whimsy that is Candy Land and killing myself laughing over the long, creative stories a certain three-year-old came up with while playing her new Show and Tell game.  (“Once upon a time there was a sheep, a frog and a hippopotamus and they all lived on an iceberg and they had no mommy and daddy......”)

Baking and decorating a bajillion cookies with finger-licking kids and friends who start off putting pockets on their gingerbread men’s clothes and then run out of steam and wind up going for the “just “throw a handful of sprinkles on there and call it a masterpiece” method. 

White Elephant-ing
The annual “steal game”, a.k.a. purging of weird stuff we’ve collected over the last twelve months, carefully wrapped with a teaser of chocolate tied onto the outside in hopes of tricking someone into taking whatever “recycled treasures” are inside.  This year’s biggest victory:  passing off the gaudy golden angel statue that a neighbour (who has since moved away and therefore won’t notice its absence) thought would “look good in our living room.”

Skyping with my Mom and enjoying her surprise and delight over the Shutterfly book I made her for Christmas.  Sharing heart-stuff on a kid-free walk with my kanka (best friend) on Boxing Day.  Finally getting to meet my other best friend’s baby on a video call.  Opening yet another best friend’s (I have multiples) gift on Christmas morning and being reminded that far away isn’t really so far away after all.  

Bartering for wheat and ore in Settlers, relishing the satisfaction of slyly dropping the Queen of Spades on an unsuspecting opponent in Hearts, and subjecting the kids to pantyhose antlers in a “build the best reindeer” contest.

Memory Lane-ing
Opening a new Hallmark ornament from Mom, who never misses a year.  Quoting along with “It’s a Wonderful Life” while decorating the Christmas tree (taking breaks during the swimming pool scene and the telephone kiss, of course.)  Getting choked up during Home Alone as I did my Christmas baking.   And missing Mom during all of the above.

Elfing (and Being Elfed)
Cooking and creating and coming up with fun gifts for under the tree.  This year’s favourites:  Vanilla Chai Sugar Scrub, Pear Cinnamon Caramel Sauce and peppermint, chili and espresso truffles.  (And, yes, I kept some for myself!)

The kids in my life are at that age where they’re into making (or buying) gifts themselves, and I was SO blessed by how thoughtful they are and how well they know me!  I got a macaron-shaped compact, a chocolate bar-shaped bookmark and a poster covered in things that remind one sweet girl of me.  For a homemade-love sort of person, this totally made my Christmas!


So... thanks to all of those on both sides of the globe who have made my Christmases past and present something to savour and to look forward to living again!