Behind the radio silence

Lots of things have happened since last time I’ve posted, an attempted military coup for one, but most importantly for us, Gürkan was approved for a green card at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara. With that good news in hand, I moved back to the United States in December and he followed shortly after in February (entering right in the midst of that unlawful and disastrous “Muslim Ban”).


Ready to fly. Istanbul’s third bridge in the background.

The only hiccup in our long awaited move is that we ended up in different places — me in Chicago for work and Gürkan in San Francisco. Life is strange, and everyone will believe me when I say that I never once pictured myself living in California, so you can imagine our shock and surprise when Gürkan got transferred to THY’s San Francisco office (though I was silently thanking the gods that it wasn’t Miami, another opening at the time). Because if there is a comparison that people make between Istanbul and a U.S. city, it’s always San Francisco — the great expanse of water, the bridge, the streetcars, the hilly streets.

Given that we are stateside — and that I’m trying to manage living in two cities at once — I’m not sure what this blog will become, or if it will lie dormant, as many a blog do when one returns home (because though repatriation can be an interesting topic, I have no interest in writing about it at length, and honestly, my family and friends are so great that I’ve literally picked up right where I left off). If I had to point to one thing that presented a mild culture shock, it would be that first trip to the grocery store and the mind-boggling array of products, frozen, processed and otherwise. American consumerism at its peak.


Looking out in Garipce, a village at the tip of Istanbul, where the Bosphorus meets the Black Sea

As for the things I miss (other than our dear friends, and you know who you are), it’s the sounds and places of familiarity — the ezan at the break of dawn, our street dog Charlie barking at deliverymen as they cross the threshold onto our street and the neighborhood repairman yelling “tamirci, muslukçu” as we break bread for our weekend breakfast.

And, of course, I miss our neighborhood hangouts: Kılıt, Deal, Pizano, places of comfort, a familiar face, a known entity. And, I daydream about another hearty mid-morning snack at Asım Usta, another late lunch at Köfteci Yaşar, another luxurious dinner at Set Balık, one more carry-out from Cağdaş Urfa.

I do plan to scratch out a few last blog posts of travels that we managed to squeeze in before we left — Sofia, Baku and Tbilisi — as well as a Cappadocia trip from ages ago. I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t share the stark beauty of that place, but also, I miss writing.

After that, we’ll see. Maybe more travels with Team Çapkın. California, here, or elsewhere.


A day trip to Sintra

On our second day in Lisbon, we took a day trip out to the small town of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Trains leave regularly from Lisbon’s main train station on the hour, with the ride taking about 35 minutes.

Once we arrived in Sintra, we were surprised to find that all the sights were quite far apart, so we bought tickets for a ring road bus. We were reluctant to do so as we always like to “do it ourselves” but this time the bus was a lifesaver, as we found ourselves atop a mountain just 15-20 minutes later, a walk that would have taken us nearly half a day at such a steep incline.


The Moorish Castle as seen from Pena Palace

Our first stop  was the Moorish Castle, which wasn’t part of our original plan, but since it was on the bus route, we decided to hop out. The fortress was built around the 9th or 10th century by the Muslim population, which occupied the Iberian peninsula at that time, and was later surrendered after the Conquest of Lisbon.

The Castle reminded me of none other than Rumelihisari – which sits on the banks of the Bosphorus and served as an Ottoman fortress – but this one was on a much grander scale.


The Portugese flag flies atop the castle keep

Just like our visits to Rumelihisari, I found the fortress rather frightening, with its steep staircases and treacherous heights. I opted to play it safe while Gurkan traipsed to the highest points, and sometimes, even stood atop the fortress walls. At one point, I ducked out of sight, knowing that I couldn’t stand to watch him stand precariously on the edge.


The fortress is perched high above the valley below


A view from the fortress’ Royal Tower

Our next stop was Pena Palace – King Ferdinand’s colourful summer residence, and probably the most well-known of all of Sintra’s attractions. The palace was constructed in the 1850s after the King acquired the land, which was the site of an old monastery built centuries earlier.


Pena Palace seen from the Moorish Castle

Just like at the Moorish Castle, the palace is perched atop the mountains, so be prepared to walk up a steep incline from where the bus drops off in order to get to the castle entrance.

We were hot and sweaty by the time we reached the entrance, so we first set out for the palace terrace, where the air was crisp and fresh with a tinge of the Atlantic Ocean, and the geometric reds and yellows were sharp and vibrant against the bright sky.


The colourful Pena Palace up close

The terrace walk was also one of the quieter moments of the day, as many of the visitors had headed directly inside the palace. It was a nice opportunity to take a moment’s pause from the sightseeing rush of the day.


Along the terrace walk


Looking out

The interior was an even more eclectic mix than the garishly-coloured exterior, with an architectural style which clearly drew on  Eastern influences, which can be seen in the arched gateways and inner courtyard.


Moorish archway


Inner courtyard

The rest of the castle’s interior was less than exciting and much like you would expect: chamber rooms, chandeliers, and other luxurious items, but the last room on the tour – the kitchen – was a dream. With well-appointed copperware and plentiful natural light, it was a kitchen fit for a king (or alternatively, his kitchen staff).


After Pena Palace, we jumped on the bus and headed back into town for a quick lunch before visiting the Quinta da Regaleira residence, which is a short 10 minute walk from the town’s centre. Known for its whimsical gardens featuring underground tunnels, hidden waterfalls, and other labyrinthine structures, the residence seemed otherworldly.


The lush green of summer

The gardens were expansive (in fact, we didn’t even have enough time to make it to the residence) and as it was sweltering hot, we were drawn to the cool tunnels.

At one point, we entered a dark tunnel which dove into the ground, feeling along the damp walls to stay on the path, only to come out minutes later at this small pond. Other times, we found ourselves on winding paths that emptied out into hidden waterfalls with drawbridges and stepping stones laid across the water.


A small cave within the “Labyrinthic Grotto”

The Quinta da Regaleira is perhaps best known for its Initiation Well that plunges 27m into the ground, and which can either be accessed through a tunnel at its base or from a non-descript top entrance. We arrived via the underground tunnel after finding an entrance at the aptly named “Portal of the Guardians.”

After just a few minutes underground, we found ourselves peering up out of the darkness.The well is supposed to make the relationship between heaven and hell “intensely felt” according to the map we were given, and it was indeed an eery feeling to be caught so far beneath ground, peering into the light, a middle ground or a Dante’s inferno of sorts.


Looking up from the base


Looking down after reaching the top

Although there is plenty more to see in Sintra such as Monserrate Palace and Cabo da Roca – continental Europe’s westernmost point – we opted to head back on the train to be able to spend the evening in Lisbon, complete with more custard tarts, a bit of port wine and just by chance, one of the best steaks I’ve had in a really, really long time.


Exploring Ayder Yaylası in Rize

On our way back from our trip to Batumi, we made a stop at Ayder Yaylası in Rize, a city in Turkey’s tea-producing region along the Black Sea coast.

Yaylas, like the one in Rize, are cool retreats for families looking for a respite from the summer heat, as well as an opportunity to take in Turkey’s natural beauty.

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Driving up to Ayder yaylası

While we visited in October, the yayla was still fairly busy, with a number of Turkish families, as well as several tourists from the Middle East, taking advantage of the clear blue skies, a real treat since the Black Sea region where Rize is located is known for heavy rainfall throughout the year; hence, the plateau’s lush forest and greenery.

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The main road lined with small shops, restaurants and pensions

The air is fresh and clean, and yet also filled with the heady smell of burning firewood, a comforting smell that reminds me of my childhood around the campfire.

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The smell of smoke from wood-burning stoves fills the air

At the yayla, many families were relaxing on the slopes, while others picnicked – some had even brought along a small grill. I’ve always been impressed by Turkish picnics which far outdo even the best of the ones I’ve seen stateside.

In Turkey, the extended family gets together, bringing out a full spread, which no doubt took hours to prepare (sarma, börek, anyone?)  accompanied by never-ending kettles of tea, which appear from nowhere. More simply put, Turkish families bring the whole kitchen to the picnic, instead of just a basket with the essentials.

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Here a family sans picnic relaxes along with a special guest

In addition to many families, I was surprised by the number of young couples. Presumably, Ayder yaylası also makes for a nice romantic getaway, or at least that seemed to be a trend.

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Couples’ outing

Throughout the yayla, cows roam freely, meandering through groups of people, munching the grass where they please. The man-made world juxtaposed onto the yayla – the vehicles, shops and main thoroughfare – hardly phased them at all.

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Gurkan checks out the area while a family grills out on the left

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The yayla is home to cows plus other furry friends (see the dog in the background?)

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A peaceful-looking village home

After walking for a bit, we decided to stop in for a bite to eat. As an appetiser, we split mıhlama, a fondue-like dish made of village cheese, homemade butter and corn flour. It’s a regional dish, often hard to find outside the Black Sea region, but for cosmopolitan city-dwellers Istanbul’s Black Sea-inspired restaurant Klemuri offers a decent version.

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Mihlama to start off lunch

This mıhlama was particularly cheesy, as you can see from below, and delicious to boot. A perfect way to fill up on a cool fall day. Afterwards, we stocked up on village butter – or so we thought – when we returned to Istanbul, we were disappointed to find that our “butter” was actually uninspired kaşar cheese.

The homemade butter in the Black Sea region is extremely yellow and nearly impossible to tell from cheese, or at least it was for us (and apparently the sales lady, too). Luckily, we’ve gotten a few wheels of butter from Gurkan’s mom recently to hold us over for awhile.

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This mihlama is the par excellence of cheesiness. Here Mehmet and Gurkan struggle with the melty cheese.

Rize is also famous for its honey, but the price tag is hefty (well over 100 TL a pop!), and I have reason to believe that it’s not all produced locally like the shop owners would like you to think.

When it comes to honey, my instinct tells me to head into Georgia and get delicious honey at a fraction of the price. It might not make you crazy like Turkish mad honey, but if you’re looking for something sweet with breakfast, Georgia has you covered.

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The honey here is pricey and I am skeptical about whether it is the real deal.

Before heading back into town, and then onto Trabzon airport, we chanced upon this lovely, time-worn bridge over the rushing water coming down the mountain, one last chance to take in the scenery, the peace and also the quiet.

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On the way back down


Köfteci Yaşar, Eminönü’s best kept secret

It’s been awhile since I wrote about an Istanbul restaurant so I wanted to come back with one of our favorites – Köfteci Yaşar – which Gürkan discovered. This little gem is tucked away in the Eminönü bazaar district, and every single time we try to find it, we inevitably cannot, and have to ask for directions from several shop owners. The small restaurant is right next to a mosque which may or may not be helpful because there are plenty of mosques in the area. Perhaps more helpful is that it’s located in the corner where the wholesale burlap sellers are located.  My advice – be prepared to get lost and ask for directions once you get close. We’ve found that almost everyone in the bazaar knows Köfteci Yaşar.

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Köfteci Yaşar, one of very favorites in Eminönü

We really like this place, I mean, a lot.  We woke up on Saturday with nothing to do (a huge relief!) so we had a small breakfast in Beşiktaş and made a day of walking from Beşiktaş to Eminönü, just so we could have a meal at Köfteci Yaşar. In fact, Köfteci Yaşar was the only plan for the day while the long walk (we also made it to the colorful neighborhoods of Balat and Fener) was just a treat to spend a wonderful day in the sun.

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The grill master

Köfteci Yaşar is a small operation. I know for sure that they have köfte (meatballs), biftek (steak), and piyaz (a cold white bean salad dressed with olive oil and lemon juice), but there may be a few other meat options as well. Today, we had the piyaz and two plates of the biftek. I actually think the biftek is a tad on the salty side (Turkish food tends to be), BUT I can overlook that, because it’s extremely delicious. It’s perfectly prepared – pink inside and very juicy – and today it  came sprinkled with a generous helping of oregano. I love it for its simplicity.

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The light and refreshing piyaz

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The biftek served with green peppers and tomatoes

There are usually only three men working – one behind the grill, one taking orders and one helper- meaning there is way too much going on for three people to handle so they sometimes forget things. Be prepared to gently remind the server if he initially brings one entree instead of two which is what happened today.

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The cozy inside of Köfteci Yaşar

The restaurant is cash only. For two biftek portions and a large portion of piyaz, we paid 42 TL. Outdoor seating is available which is what I recommend.  Stick to the table under the umbrella. The pigeons perched on the tree above can send down surprises for the unassuming customer. This happened to us the first time we visited in summer.

Rüstem Paşa Mahallesi, Mahkeme Sokak, No 21, Fatih, İstanbul


I don’t think this map is spot on, but it’s definitely the general area.

A breath of fresh air in Antakya & İskenderun

There is no other city quite like Istanbul, but despite its aching beauty, a city of 15 million can be incredibly overwhelming. Every so often, all Istanbul residents – myself included – get an urge to escape the city to catch one’s breath and rejuvenate the soul. For me, I usually head straight to Bursa, but I was happy to change it up for a weekend in Antakya, İskenderun and Adana with friends, Nazlı and Berk. A brief stay on the Mediterranean Sea, and I returned to Istanbul feeling refreshed and relaxed with a large bag of citrus to bring some joy to the Istanbul winter.

We landed in Adana early on Saturday morning and started off the weekend with breakfast at Can Cafe en route to Antakya. After an impossibly long wait, our grumbling tummies were rewarded with a spread of magnificent proportions including all the standard Turkish breakfast items, plus many more: various spiced and dried cheeses drizzled in olive oil, spicy ezme-like breakfast salads, breakfast-style eggplant dishes, and finally, tahini for the sweet tooth. We were surprised when the waitress asked whether we wanted normal tea or kaçak çay, tea smuggled from across the border. We opted for the kaçak çay which we found richer and deeper in color.


Breakfast spread minus the potatoes and eggs


The view from the breakfast cafe

After we had our fill, we headed straight for Antakya where we explored the city’s covered bazaar, a testament to Antakya’s reputation as a food lover’s mecca. Not only did we stock up on spices and the dried cheeses from breakfast, I witnessed the making of künefe, one of my all-time favorite Turkish desserts, and tasted lahmacun piping hot from the oven.


Preparing strands of kadayıf to be used in künefe


Finished kadayıf ready to be assembled


A künefe workshop with baked künefe in the foreground


A portion of cheesy künefe soaked in syrup at Petek Pastanesi in İskenderun


Fresh bread and lahmacun from the oven in Antakya’s bazaar

In the evening, we dined at Şirinyer Balık Restoranı in İskenderun, a city once known as Alexandretta, or “Little Alexandria” as Nazlı, a Greek aficionado, patiently informed us. The selection of mezes at Şirinyer was huge and very much Middle Eastern-inspired; we opted for hummus topped with olive oil (hummus with butter was also an option), muhammara (red pepper & walnut dip), and Ali Nazik (fried eggplant in garlic yogurt, topped with minced meat). We followed the mezes with fried calamari and one large lagos fish which the waiter recommended we order fried, not grilled.


A vast meze selection at Şirinyer. Muhammara is front and center.


Fried calamari



The Ali Nazik was a hit; I had only previously had it served kebap-style, but the meze version was delightful. The heat of the muhammara was deceptive, light on walnuts but packed with the red pepper the region is so famous for, the heat crept up on you when you were least expecting it. The lagos turned out to be an extremely meaty fish with plenty to go around for the three of us. The waiter did, however, look disappointed when we left the head; I momentarily felt ashamed that none of us were willing to tackle it, but as soon as a plate of fresh fruit was set in front of us, we quickly forgot.

On Sunday morning in İskenderun, we had breakfast at the open buffet in one of the city’s three Petek Patisseries. We were served toasted bread topped with rosemary and drizzled with olive oil, and helped ourselves to an abundance of fresh herbs, mücver stuffed with greens, za’atar in olive oil, menemen deep red with ripe peppers, and yogurt thick as cheese. We were in food heaven, and over a glass of fresh mango juice for Nazlı and several cups of tea for me, we hatched a plan for a book together.


One table from Petek Patisserie’s open buffet breakfast with fresh herbs, thick yogurt, regional cheeses, olives, and jams. A separate table offered baked goods and hot dishes.


The İskenderun beach near Şirinyer


Nazlı and Berk picking lemons

I found İskenderun to be a positively charming city nestled on the Mediterranean coast at the foot of the Nur (Amanos) mountains. Even in December, the gardens were lush with lemons and oranges, and despite the howling wind at night, the weather was perfect for a morning walk along the seaside. Christmas trees made of macaroons seemed to be on every street corner and the spirit of a Mediterranean Christmas hung in the air. The region’s diverse mix of religions and its rich history of French and Syrian influence have surely left its mark.


Mountains and sea in İskenderun’s city center

Back in Istanbul, I returned to the hustle and bustle of the city, heaving my bag of  lemons and oranges along with me, just as all Istanbulites do after a weekend in the countryside.

Exploring Istanbul’s urban food system on the Princes’ Islands

I’ve started writing for the Miracle of Feeding Cities, a website that explores the urban food system in some of the world’s major cities. The project is supported by the University of Texas at Austin and it is a great initiative that has got me thinking more critically about Istanbul’s food system and the sustainability of our current food practices.

Check out my article on the Princes’ Islands where I took a look at the islands’ food distribution system and its opportunities and challenges. A big shoutout goes to Gurkan for helping me with the interviews and research and Becky Altinman for being extremely helpful throughout every step of the process – providing first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to live on Buyukada, how the locals navigate the local food landscape, and connecting me with the friendly people of Plus Kitchen!