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Well, I’m back from Turkey. I know I’m back, because I no longer hear the call to prayer from the many mosques at various times throughout the day, nor the roosters crowing near the home where I stayed, nor the continuous honking of traffic horns on the main streets. I’m suffering from culture shock, but surprisingly, it’s harder to be home in Canada than it was to be in Turkey.
I travelled with my Turkish friend, which made life very wonderful for me. He guided my steps around Istanbul with the surety of someone who had lived there, and was able to talk to everyone about various things on my behalf. We stayed in his parent’s home, in the outskirts of the European side of Istanbul.
I’m going to try to keep most of this blog confined to food issues, which is blocking out a lot of my trip, but I simply can’t tell you about a month in Turkey at one go. I will post at least one more blog about the trip, focusing on other aspects of my time there.
We arrived at the airport and were met by my friend’s brother and uncle, who drove us to the family home. We were not allowed to enter the house before a lamb was removed from a small shelter under the front porch. It was taken to the side of the house, we stood and sang a prayer and then the lamb, who had been held down on it’s side, had it’s throat slit with a sharp knife. The whole thing was quick and peaceful, though I turned my head at the crucial moment. After a short while we were looking at pieces of meat in the kitchen and deciding how much I might need to eat for the month in which I was visiting. The rest was cooked and used for various visiting relatives.
Eating was a challenge for me, but somehow I managed to stay on my feet in spite of every challenge. There was a lot of soup made with yogurt and rice, but they like to season almost everything with pepper, so often I had to stop after a few spoonfuls and say I couldn’t eat any more. Lamb in restaurants was particularly peppery, so it was a mixed blessing to eat out.
The Turkish breakfast is a lot of crusty white bread with olives, feta cheese, boiled eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, and various other spreads which could include sesame tahini halvah, etc. The family watched in amazement as my friend cooked my breakfast every morning – onion or leek, cabbage, eggplant or zucchini with feta cheese and sometimes a boiled egg, sometimes mushrooms added to the mix. This was cooked in a frying pan with olive oil. I think the amazement was mutual – me watching them eat their meal, and them watching me eat mine. When we travelled away from Istanbul for a week, I had to improvise on the standard breakfast, but did fine by eating an egg, feta cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers. Tomatoes in Turkey are delicious. They taste the way they used to taste in my childhood, before all this genetic engineering started to take over our food chain. I really enjoyed them, and was happy that my non-secretor status makes them a neutral food for me.
In Toronto, we have the dubious title of having the most coffee/donut shops in North America. In Istanbul, they must hold the world’s title for having the most simit shops – restaurants that serve freshly baked buns of various descriptions with various fillings and/or toppings, and black tea, the Turkish national drink. Simits are delicious in that they are so freshly baked, and often warm from the oven when you buy them. You can buy them all over Turkey, and simit vendors with the huge donut-shaped buns can be seen with amazing loads for sale in front of almost every public site and along the streets as well.
Often in the simit shop, especially if the weather was warm, I opted to have a glass of ayran, the national yogurt drink. It is delicious and available everywhere, not just in simit shops. I drank several glasses every day, and it is one of the things that contributes to my culture shock in being home – I can’t buy it here anywhere! There are two versions of ayran. The one in the restaurants and teashops and cheese stores is a plain variety consisting of yogurt and water. The one made in homes will often have an addition of fresh garlic to the mix.
One night, following a marathon of eating meals away from home four times in a row (not knowing what avoids were involved in each of them), I just got very, very tired, and lay down before supper was served. I was asked to get up (out of politeness) when visitors arrived later, and I drank several glasses of tea, hoping the stupour would leave, but it didn’t help (are you surprised, my ERFYT friends???). Finally, someone in the house made a glass of garlic ayran for me, and I perked up immediately. It was a wonderful antidote. After that I was given garlic ayran every day in the evenings.
The one treat I indulged in, on almost a daily basis, was a dessert called sutlach. It is basically a rice pudding made with milk, boiling both together until the rice breaks down and thickens the milk, with a little sugar added. It is delicious, and it was wonderful to have something slightly sweet that I could eat without repercussions.
Salads are served on a communal basis. Chopped lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers are mixed together on a large plate and put in the centre of the table. Everyone at the table reaches with their fork or spoon and eats from this plate. I found it shocking the day I arrived, but it was normal by the time I came home. I had to be careful with the salads, often a long, hot, green pepper would be chopped into the mix, and I had to pull these out to avoid more pepper discomfort.
People in Turkey are suffering on the health level, though surprisingly few of them are fat or obese, at least until later in life. Young people seem to be lithe and lean for the most part. So many people asked me what they could do for various health problems. Of course, the best thing they could do is to change their diets, but it is difficult to do that in Turkey. We here in North America are spoiled so much in the food department. We can buy an infinite variety of fruits and vegetables in our stores and markets, but the choice is very limited in Turkey. I could only see one beneficial bean for A blood type there, though lentils are also available, and used often in soups. Most menus do not include beans, but focus on meat combinations, deadly for A blood type people, which was most of my friend’s family’s category. There were a lot of blank faces when I talked about changing their diet and what they could or could not eat with benefit. I don’t think anyone I met will change their diet, no matter how much they suffer with various ailments.
Half way through the visit, after endless glasses of black tea being consumed, the family asked if I drink tea at home. I said I make a pot of green tea every morning, and produced my until-then unused stash of green tea. We made a pot of it, and it had some immediate results. One sister who had been bloated and uncomfortable found that it vanished after drinking one glass of green tea. My friend’s mother likes it so much she made a whole pot for herself every morning, and was feeling much better as a result. We even located a source of bulk green tea for her, at the Egyptian Market near the Bosphorus. Before we came home, I was noticing green tea ads on television programs in the form of a small icon that never left the screen, and on various billboards around town as well.
Other than restaurants, the biggest businesses seemed to be cell phone stores and drug stores. Probably this will tell you more about life in Turkey than anything I could say.
I became quite protective of my health while I was in Turkey, and simply refused to eat food that I knew was bad for me – chicken was everywhere, it seems – and stayed with a few simple foods that I knew worked for me. As a result, I did not get really sick – to my great surprise – although my friend suffered with flu-like symptoms for 10 days as an emotional reaction to being back in Turkey after almost 5 years away from his family.
The trip to Turkey was a blessing in every possible way. In my next post, I will tell you a little about some of the places we visited, some of our experiences.