Category Archives: Turkey

Mince the cat. That’s a name, not an instruction.

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His grubby paws said “stray” but his full belly said “pet”. We met him on the street. He followed us up the three flights of stairs to our apartment, using our legs as a kind of snugly slalom course. We fed him leftover mince and named him for it. He purred appreciably as he wolfed it down. Now he’s cuddled into Fiona for the second night in a row.

Mince is the most gregarious street cat we’ve met in Istanbul, but there are plenty more. By and large they appear, healthy, well fed and active. Previously, local governments had rounded them up to be put down, but when locals felt the population wasn’t suitably controlled (and feared they carried diseases) they sometimes took matters into their own, violent hands. Then, in 2004, the government passed an animal protection law and changes its approach. Stray cats are now caught, neutered or spaid, micro-chipped and then put back on the street where they were found. There are probably a dozen who call our suburban lane home.

They’re mostly well cared for. Certainly they look well fed. We’ve seen them congregating around piles of luncheon sausage left on the sidewalk, and we’ve heard tales of neighbours feeding them as a kind of community service. True to their culinary traditions, some of the food looks pretty good.

One especially famous street cat is Gli. He lives in the Hagia Sophia, the astoundingly large and beautiful church turned Mosque in Istanbul’s tourist heavy centre. When we met him today he was effortless posing for a never ending stream of photos. I didn’t know he was famous until I googled up stray Istanbul cats and found he’d been visited by President Obama.

We like cats. Watching them skulk around at night, or dash across a palace courtyard in pursuit of a pigeon is definitely adding to our Istanbul experience. The policy approach that sees so many on the streets seems pretty nice. But it does also have its problems. Without regular veterinary care there are still serious risks of the cats carrying disease. And while a community that cares for them gives them a better chance than strays in poorer countries, their life still isn’t super. Mince, for example, loves a good scratch and a stroke, except on the right side of his neck. Touch there and he’ll lash out with all the speed of a very streetwise puss. We assume he’s nursing an injury. We’ll keep doting on him until we leave.

Gobbling Turkey

Don't mess with mezes.
Don’t mess with mezes. Plates include – raw lamb, yoghurt and aubergine, tabbouleh, marinated pepper etc.

Ever since Fiona visited here a decade ago her answer to the very important “if you could only eat one cuisine…” question was: Turkish. I’m as partial to the occasional Donner kebab as the next person at 3am in the morning (or from Daniel’s fine foods with hummus, garlic yoghurt and three lines of hot chilli, at any other time) but I struggled to see what she was on about until we got here. Now, I understand.

The Turkish food that’s available at home is just the tip of the Turkish culinary iceberg. Like Mexican, the foods we associate as the whole of the cuisine at home are really on snack foods here. Kebabs are on every street corner, sure, but they’re not what’s on offer in nicer restaurants. And they’re never offered with the sauces that define their flavour at home. They’re typically only meat, onion, tomato and maybe a pickle or two. Not hummus in sight. Pide, a sort of cheeseless pizza, all lamb, tomato and egg, rounds out the snack offering with aplomb. In a mostly porkless land, it reminded me of bacon and egg pie. In a good way.

So what else is there beyond snacks in the Turkish food universe? A wide range of other approaches to grilled meats (and meatballs), an abundance of complimentary salads, and a delightful array of artfully spied stews and casseroles. Seafood is also a feature for those that are so inclined. The good people of Izmir have even managed to create a thoroughly agreeable way to eat mussels for those who are not: cooked in their shell and stuffed with a lightly spiced rice dish.

Then there are mezes. Like anti-pasti, these are small bites to be eaten with bread before lunch or dinner. Highlights so far include ezme, a mushed tomato and pepper thing that is delicious, an implausibly delicious dip constructed from broad beans and dill peppers, and sun-dried tomatoes are either more tomato, or more sun-dried, because they are the best I have sampled. There’s also a delicious option which is based on raw minced lamb. We tried it on our first night in Turkey and had no inkling of its butchered content.

Maybe best of all, Turkey is a country where people care about food and therefor eat out. A lot. So as opposed to, say, Iran, or most of South America, where you need to wrangle your way into a home to get a decent meal, there’s good fare to be had everywhere you look in Turkey. And if you happen to want a home-style meal, there are lunchtime places that offer that very experience in their bain-maries (bains-marie?), and the piles of crusty breads besides.

The richness of Turkey

Nothing says rich like a marina and a castle.
Nothing says rich like a marina and a castle.

Turkey feels rich. It feels more developed than most places we’ve been this year. We say that because:

  • the roads we drive on are good, and the hotels they lead us to are good quality (if expensive).
  • there are fewer small children, and they’re more likely to have their dads looking after them.
  • when our mini-van to Sumela monastery was pulled over by cops the driver couldn’t bribe his way out of having the wrong license.
  • there are lots of cats and dogs on the streets, but they look healthy and cared for.
  • people seem well dressed, like they’ve put time and effort into what they’re wearing.
  • the informal economy feels small: the taxis we take are marked; the stuff we buy is from shops, not the street (although apparently the number of people who dodge income tax is egregious).

We’ve often found these kinds of social markers the clearest indicators of development like when we we arrived in Argentina, got up into Colombia’s highlands or to Shanghai and Beijing. But they’re anecdotal, so I’ve gone searching to see how Turkey’s riches really compare to the other places we’ve been.

Riches in context

Our intuitions are about right. Turkey’s PPP per capita  (~$18k) slots it in between Iran (~$16k) and Argentina (~$20k). Venezuela is actually closest, just a couple of hundred dollars per person off Turkey. But I’m going to discount that as some kind of communist voodo. When we visited, Venezuela’s economy was going completely to pieces.

The problem with these kinds of per capita numbers, though, is they gloss over disparities within countries, and in Turkey these are big. In fact regional inequality in Turkey is amongst the highest in the OECD. This actually matches our observations too. It wasn’t until we got to some of the richer cities (Trabzon for starters) that we started seeing signs of richness. Since we’ve been through Ankara, Izmir and Istanbul and experienced the same thing.

All this has come as a bit of a surprise. We hadn’t conceived of Turkey as especially rich. Probably our expectations were just out of date. Turkey’s economy, especially the ‘Anatolian tigers‘, have been smashing it. Turkey just about went point for point in GDP growth with China around 2009-11, although it has dropped off the pace a little since.

Tamam hamam: adventures at Turkish communal baths

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My first experience of communal bathing, other than as a toddler with my siblings, was on a high school trip to Japan. As a self conscious fifteen year old I found myself showering beside my Japanese teacher. We weren’t just in adjoining cubicles. We were sitting on stools, naked, side by side, in front of a wall length mirror, and using hand held shower heads. She may even have borrowed my shampoo. That was a formative experience.

Since then, with a good deal more body confidence, I have made several visits to a hamam on my travels. The hamam is the Turkish variant of the ancient Roman bath. It consists of several interconnected rooms made of stone or marble, with the final room being the source of heat. Hamams are widespread in the Islamic world: every historic house or palace we visited in Iran sported an old hamam complex, beautifully tiled and with doomed roofs. They were used as a venue not only for bathing but for (sex segregated) social interaction and entertainment. Indoor plumbing has reduced the need to visit a hamam but public ones still operate, especially in Turkey. I suspect that today, rather than a necessity, visiting a hamam is more of a luxurious pleasure, like getting a massage in the West.

The hamam I visited in Trabzon was just off the main square, though the women’s entrance was tucked discreetly around the corner. The receptionist indicated the price for entrance, a scrub and a massage. So far so good. An attendant dressed in red hot pants and a boob tube led me to my locker and indicated a small curtained-off area in the corner where I could change. Unsure of the level of nakedness expected I put on my bikini. As I emerged from the curtain I was handed a piece of cloth – like a large tea towel – which I gratefully wrapped around my waist.

Inside the bath the dress code was clear: bottoms but no tops. Several obese women were being soaped on a hexagonal marble platform in the centre of the room. My attendant took me to a basin by the wall where she encouraged me to douse myself with numerous buckets of water. Across from me a mother and her two young daughters were doing the same. Thoroughly doused I was led into the sauna where I lazed on a wooden bench until summoned.

I lay down on my towel on one side of the central platform, my head a few inches from another woman’s feet. The attendant scrubbed me, hard, with a rough mitt and millions of skin cells and months of travel grime collected in ridges over my body. Pulled to sitting and with my head tilted back my neck and face were given the same treatment. Back at the basin I was splashed with alternate buckets of cold and hot water. I was now ready for soaping. Lying on the towel again my attendant liberally soaped my entire body, lightly massaging as she went. Every few minutes she indicated for me to roll over – onto my side, then my back, then the other side. My bikini bottoms were pulled down to enable soaping. She even washed my hair – soap suds cascading down my face left my spluttering. A final dousing at the basin and I was ready to go. I was given two fresh towels to wrap myself in and sent back to the changing area to a waiting cup of tea.

Leaving the steamy hamam atmosphere into the cool evening air I felt renewed – bodily cleansed and psychologically refreshed – ready to face another job application.

What are these? Hint: you eat what they grow.

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We’ve done sunflowers and pistachios. Now in the continuing series I ask: what do these trees grow, that you eat?

These examples are outside Izmir in Turkey.

Addaboy Ataturk

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Portraits of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk hang on the walls of every Turkish public building, and many private homes. I might say that to us he looks a little Hannibal Lector, but with better eyelashes. Or I might say that every time I hear his first name I want to giggle like a Lion King Hyena. But I won’t say either because I might be arrested. In Turkey it is illegal to insult Ataturk, or his legacy.

And, to be fair, it is an astonishing and impressive legacy. Ataturk went from commanding Turkish forces at Gallipoli to election to the Presidency and the successful execution of a plan to turn Turkey into a modern, secular republic. In the process he:

  • established a constitutional democracy with separation of powers and at least a semblance of the rule of law
  • changed the alphabet, so that modern Turkish is written in a slightly amended version of Latin script. He wanted literacy to be more accessible to the masses.
  • banned the wearing of headscarves by government workers, banned religious political parties and ditched Islamic law
  • formed a new capital at Ankara and watched as it transitioned from a relative backwater to Turkey’s largest city

For all this he is seriously revered in modern Turkey. We visited is Masoleum in Ankara. It was more impressive than Mao‘s, and in this sense it is disproportionate to Ataturk’s meglomania. His progressive legacy continues in modern Turkey where democratic institutions have remained broadly intact, and the modernisation project continues. Next stop, EU membership.

Mountains of meat

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Turkey may not be up to much in the pizza toppings department, but they have other meat based snacks down. You can scarcely walk a city block without encountering massive piles of meat being cooked on rotisseries like the one above. And the snacks they make from them are much more varied than the doner kebab you might get at home. This kind of meat is a key ingredient in all sorts of wraps, pizza, sandwiches and even just sold in a bowl all by its lonesome.

The prevalence of meat mountains has caused us to wonder how they’re made. It is hard to see in this picture, but in Turkey they actually have slices of tomato cooking amongst the meat, presumably to keep in moist. And the construction of the mountain is ongoing through the day. See the bits on top that look a little like tinned apricots? They’re actually new, raw, bits of chicken that are being added to the pile. Initially this caused us concern. Putting raw chicken next to cooked chicken didn’t seem like a hygiene maximising idea. But then we realised it won’t just be the chicken on top that is raw, presumably the stuff in the middle is too, only cooking when it reaches the outside.

A great place to be a cat

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Trabzon is a good place to be a cat for a couple of reasons.

First, there are lots of cats around. We’ve seen at least ten for every dog. There were similar proportions in Iran and we gather it is likely because dogs have historically been deemed unclean in Islam.

Secondly, it’s a big fishing town. There were lots of cats roaming around in the fish market. We followed our noses to understand why. Fishmongers leave plates of discarded fish heads and other fish junk out for local cats to enjoy. There are literally as many fish heads as they can eat. Despite the oversupply they still seem to have wee scraps with one another over particular bits. Economists might call this irrational. I suspect cats would just call it fun.

A rocking monastery

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About 1600 years ago two Greek orthodox monks found what they believed to be an icon of the Virgin Mary in a cave halfway up a massive cliff about thirty minutes drive from modern Trabzon. They thought the logical response was to construct a monastery there, and so their discovery gave root to Sumela monastery. Today the monastery still stands on an impossibly difficult site, but visitors are more likely to be tourists than monks.

My lingering question is why the monks were wandering in the cave to start with. Maybe they were looking for icons but it would have been a helluva climb (and making chocolate may have been just as prodctive). Even today, with the aid of a road and a staircase or two, the monastery is still tough to get to. And the fact that something so grand was built there is nothing short of extraordinary. It stands on a beautiful bluff, looking out over the valley. Inside, a range of frescoes are still more or less intact, though many have suffered graffiti. I guess that’s what you get for being a Christian sight in a predominantly, and at some points in history fiercely, Muslim country.

Charging ahead: we should have these at home

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On the streets of Trabzon you can put a little money in a machine and give your mobile a quick charge. In this world of smartphone that gobble up battery life all too fast, and when a dead battery significantly diminishes your enjoyment of your commute, I say these machines are an excellent development. We should have them at home. In train stations, cafes, at bus stops…

If someone could figure out an easy way to allow you to lock your phone to the machine for the duration of the charging (so you could go about your business while it charged) that would be excellent. Kthanksbye.