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Monthly Archives: March 2013

What does your imagination conjure if you think, “Turkish bath”? Is it something like this:

hammam 2

Opulence in the court of Cleopatra and all that business

Or like this?:

Hammam Palin

Michael Palin: Aaaaaahhhhhhwwwwwww get me outta here!

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but was recommended a visit by a half-Turkish friend who said that a trip to the historic Cemberlitas hammam enchanted her two young daughters and is a highlight that they still talk about. I’ve always wondered what a hammam experience would be like, and so did Hattie, so we coaxed our boys into joining, promising they wouldn’t get pummeled by fat, hairy Turkish men (and even if they did, it’d be something fun to write home about).

Opting for the bath and scrub (no oil massage), which runs a pretty pricey 50 Euros (but, you know… it’s a must-do), Hattie and I are given traditional linen cloths and yellow plastic tokens indicating our “ticket”. We wave farewell to our boys and head to the ladies’ hammam section…. then I get a bit awkward, not sure what the traditional etiquette is versus what the modern standards are. i’m talking about the nakey-factor. Luckily Hattie has done some preliminary research and seen people advising that at hammams in Turkey, toplessness is the norm (in fact, shamefully wearing a bikini or bra top is far more awkward and a blaring indication of your touristness). We get into changing rooms, pull on the black cotton briefs provided and wrap the linen cloth around our bodies — boobies concealed.

Çemberlitas Hammam

Çemberlitas Hammam

The bath chamber is a beautiful domed room with cut-out circular spotlights above that let the sun’s rays twinkle in like starlight. A heated marble slab in the middle of the room, right under the dome, is there for you to lie on and there are little antechambers on the sides where you fill a rustic brass bowl with hot and cold water, mixed to your liking, from antique taps that drip clean water into a marble sink…. then I’m not sure what to do. The past year has seen me become very body-confident; having a boyfriend of more than one year has helped, as well as maturing into near-total acceptance of my non-existent breasts. Plus, being a chef has whittled my waistline — always been a troubling spot for me Before I can mull over this for long, Hattie is topless and going about her business at the sink. We’ve been friends for eight years now — since age 14 — and this is the first time, in all our sisterly sharing of rooms and clothes, that I’ve seen her boobs. I realise we’ve both grown up and it’s not a big deal anymore- not at all – and off my towel comes. Free! I felt free and odd and slightly hippie-ish, and relaxed.

We bask on the marble slab while the damp heat of the room steams our bodies, in preparation for a thorough scrub of our scaly winter skin. Someone is getting scrubbed by a grumpy Turkish woman with the most enormous breasts, ever, which kind of get in the way of the whole operation. Luckily I don’t get her, but a rather nice lady who picks up my arms to scrub over and around me. It was not a pretty sight, the amount of old skin sloughed off of me. I felt like I was being born again, the old rubbed off and the newness of babyhood, being lathered up in a mountain of soapy bubbles and having water poured over my head.

So the experience was more like picture A, above… although be warned, it’s not exactly a princess-pampering experience. The ladies squawk at each other and at you a bit, and you sometimes feel like you’re being processed like a piece of meat as they order you around to move here, do this, DON’T do that — like me, unfortunate ignorant fool that I am, as my attendant moved on to Hattie and caught me giving myself a second scrub-off. I don’t know if I was dirtying the area or if I insulted her scrubbing skills, but she marched over, angrily finished me off and barked at me to get into the jacuzzi.

A few minutes more of basking later, we thought the boys might be done so went to get changed. In fact you can stay at a hammam for as long as you like — the rate you pay is per day! When we got out, after slathering lotion all over our squeaky, shiny new skin, we met the boys at the co-ed rooftop terrace where they had been soaking up the Mediterranean rays and sipping freshly pressed, ruby-red pomegranate juice. “Wow, feels like we’re in Greece!” I sighed. “Nooo…” Will cooed, “feels like we’re in TURKEY!”

On to the Archaelogical Museum, where the highlights were magnificent B.C.-era sarcophagi discovered in the 19th century; and a third-century B.C. clay figure with moveable arms (strung through the body with a small cord — hey, the world’d first Barbie doll!

B.C. Barbie

B.C. Barbie

Topkapi Palace was astoundingly beautiful. within the palace walls were many different rooms, ceremonial and residential, like the greeting room for foreign ambassadors — which was made to look more European — and a quiet, beautifully tiled library with low-lying, cushion covered bench. The tilework is dazzling. We fantasized about decking out a future home with these Iznik tiles, Will suggesting that a perfect place would be a bathroom or kitchen…. but I found that a bit insulting, and out of place given that these tiles weren’t restricted to small rooms or niche corners, but generously and magnificently spread from floor to ceiling, corner to corner. The harem was itself another section, and which was cheekily priced as an extra entrance fee, but well worth seeing for the eunuchs’ chambers and the Queen Mother’s room, all decorated as a half-and-half mix of Versailles and a Sultan’s palace.

Iznik Overload! Dream décor.

Iznik Overload! Dream décor.

Istanbul Modern was next. Contemporary art is already a prickly subject for me, what with bogus-looking art and pretty fishy pretenses of meaning in the absurd… you know, like sharks in formaldehyde tanks. That didn’t make it unenjoyable, though. We didn’t get the point of one installation, where you pass into a pitch-black room through a thick, 3-foot expanse of feather boa curtains. Suddenly a big globe of the earth lights up, looking like it’s suspended in the room and you’re floating in space…. then an eery and comical choir of angels comes on the speakers while the globe spins. Is it a commentary on the insignificance of humanity relative to the universe and eternity? I don’t know, but it was funny…

For dinner, we soldiered on to the Asian side. Kadikoy is apparently where it’s at, and we had to visit Ciya Sofrasi, an authentic Turkish restaurant featured on Ottolenghi’s Mediterranean Feast. It’s known for serving daily specials. Hattie the vegetarian loved it, as there was far more variety in the range of vegetable stews and dishes than the standard, meat-centric kebabs elsewhere. A very unusual highlight was a warm soup of yogurt, mint and lamb. It was tangy, creamy, fresh and just a bit lamby… delicious.

You can imagine how shattered we were… so we headed back to “our” side of the Bosphorus, hatching up tomorrow morning’s plan — to meet Hattie up at THE baklava place, also featured on Ottolenghi, which Hattie had been visiting every day since arrival as it’s located conveniently near her hotel. That would mean a 7am wake-up time to get dressed and meet by 8am. Just another packed day in our whirlwind tour…

Tomorrow: BAKLAVA and vertigo on the tower…

(Note 22/3/13: I will add more photos tomorrow!!)

I’m inside the Hagia Sophia mosque at a bright and early 8:30am, alert and in good spirits from the fresh Turkish breakfast spread at our hotel: slices of ripe, juicy tomatoes; peynir cheese, like cream cheese and feta combined; deliciously spiced aubergine fritters served at room temperature; and the ubiquitous Turkish bagel, simit, which like a hula-hoop is thinner and has a much wider hole than a normal bagel, and is crusted more generously with roasted sesame seeds.

photo-19

Suddenly two skinny arms coil around me and squeeze, HARD. “Hmm…. don’t freak out,” I think. “Be cool.” I turn around and of course, it’s Hattie, my best friend from highschool who’d decided to join us last-minute with her new hubby Duncan. The serendipitous joy of meeting up the old-fashioned way, sans phones, is something we’ll experience for the next few days (as well as the temporary agonies of going no-tech).

The Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) means “Holy Wisdom” and was first built in the year 360. Yes. Three-six-zero. After serving as the oldest Christian church on the planet, in 1453 the Muslim Ottoman invaders galloped in. The emperor had an imam chant a few words and boom, it was magically transformed into a Islamic mosque. As you can see, the early Christian art and stained glass survives alongside beautiful and grand Arabic script. Breathtaking.

We move on to the Blue Mosque, which is just behind the Hagia Sophia. Shoes must be taken off and put in plastic bags before entering the completely carpeted cathedral of splendid, hand-painted tiles. An organised flurry of hand-painted flowers, vines, scrolls and geometries dominated every inch of wall and dome, yet another breathtaking experience.

Exiting the mosque we wanted a Turkish coffee to steady our dizzied heads, while waiting for Hattie and Duncan to come out… and worrying that they already had, but abandoned us. Sipping the thick, condensed milk-like drink with cinnamon (not coffee, as it turned out, but the vendors didn’t have signs or prices), the pair emerged… accusing us of abandoning them! But with the relief of finding each other we soldiered on for lunch; it was almost 1pm and we were starvin’.

I’d do just about anything to check off a list of places Anthony Bourdain has been to (each destination I travel to requires a “No Reservations” YouTube briefing), so we trek out west by tram and by foot to a quiet back street with door-to-door, local kebab restaurants. Neither Hattie, a vegetarian, nor I realised how meat-heavy Turkish cuisine is… we just assumed that the food was pretty much the same as Lebanese (many types of salads, falafel, hoummous, etc.).

At  Siirt Şeref Büryan Kebab I just had to try the perde pilaf, a fragrantly spiced rice pilaf studded with tiny currants, almond or pine nuts and fine shreds of chicken meat, all baked within a fez-shaped pastry shell that is crisp yet tender (almost like a 蔥油餅). I was so hungry and it was so good I didn’t have time to take a picture. While we and others waited, cats circled around diners. These furry critters run stray all over the city, quietly lurking among people. At one point we look down at our bags on the floor, and saw that one kitten had very smugly nested itself plop on top of Will’s carrier bag. “He just wants to be cosy,” Hattie crooned; though a cat-hater even she couldn’t resist the cuddliness. Just before we left we wrapped Whiskers up in the restaurant’s outdoor fleece blankets, and slinked away from the unbearably content-looking cat.

Exhaustion soon set in; in the end we couldn’t muster the energy to stay out late at night (I’d wanted a full-on Istanbul club night experience), though we did all meet up on a trendy uphill street, quite like Lan Kwai Fong, for one of the outdoor restaurants packed with young locals enjoying raki (Turkish aniseed liqour, like Sambuca and absinthe) and sharing small plates; we had some calamari, fresh anchovies wrapped around green olives, baba ghanoush eggplant puree and fried baby mushrooms with a bottle of Angora Turkish wine. Yes, Turkey does wine; and this one, although a modest off-the-shelf label, was fresh and only slightly dry with barely any acidicity.

photo-20

Many hours and a shisha later (here called Nargileh), I wanted to trek up the longest road ever to Taksim Square. We couldn’t for the life of us find the well-reputed Indigo electro-dance music club, supposedly just off that main street; but we did reach the end, Taksim Square, where I HAD to try the burger of disrepute: the islak burger (“wet burger”) at Kizikayalar. It looked so wrong that it looked so good…. but that goes for anything that comes an arm’s length from Anthony Bourdain’s face. I gotta say though that it was thoroughly unpleasant, despite the anticipation of snaking through a long queue of adoring fans. Fine, I may have be wrong — but that’s only because I wasn’t the least bit drunk. Friend, I advise you not to sink your teeth into this sad excuse of a thin McDonald’s patty, soggy with weak ketchup sauce (on the outside of the bun too!)… well, do try it so at least ya know. I know now.

Tomorrow: Ferry ride to the Asian side, Istanbul Modern and seagulls… lots of seagulls…

Sorry I’ve been slacking on posts big time. When my life did a 180 and I suddenly found myself working as a full-time pastry chef, that didn’t leave much time or energy for blogging, let alone much else.

In a fit of frustration at the demanding work schedule, lack of fresh air, and disbelief that Will and I have been together for more than one year but haven’t even flown away together yet, I up and booked a 4-day trip to Istanbul. In my mind, for the past 5 years that I’ve been dreaming of visiting, Istanbul signifies everything beautiful, exotic, elegant and eclectic. How can you not be seduced by an ancient city — formerly called Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (hence, like, the WORLD) — that literally straddles Europe and Asia, with design, art, food and culture that has a whiff of European elegance and a Middle-Eastern exoticness?

I’ll break this down into the days spent there, with this post giving the scoop on Day 1. Hope you enjoy the pictures, and I’m aiming add more.

DAY ONE

Squeak into the plastic-leather seat of an old Turkish Airline plane slumbering at Heathrow Airport, look out at the gray London sky through half-woken eyes. Kick off leather boots — my feet only had 5 hours’ rest since coming home from work as a pastry chef. Pastry…. mmm, can’t wait for the delicately layered Turkish pastries, borek and baklava. Squeeze semi-conscious boyfriend’s hand; wheeee, it’s actually happening: We’re going to Istanbul!!! Zzzzzzzz.

plane

Arrival a breeze; take straightforward ride on the pretty crowded, but modern tram and help an old Turkish granny onto a seat during a pretty jerky ride . Check into a modest little hotel, among the many on a road leading straight to the Topkapi Palace. Unload then reload with a walk towards Galata Bridge, which connects the Old City with hip Beyoglu district just across a narrow shimmer of water, passing through a couple of mosques and chestnut vendors, whose ubiquitous presence fills the air with smoky scent.

At Galata Bridge you’ll find a square on the edge of the Bosphorus’ waters, packed with lively, ramshackle seafood stalls. People snarf down grilled fish wraps and sandwiches at all hours of the day seated on low stools and tables while, behind, the chefs animatedly grill the bounty of the Bosphorus on wildly throbbing boats tricked out with large charcoal grills. Postpone temptation and step onto the lower deck of the bridge, which stretches door-to-door fish restaurants across the waterway. They are  packed with people sitting indoors and out. We choose the most humble one (and least populated by tourists) at the end of this lineup, which looks like a diner due to its wooden booths and conspicuous lack of tablecloths, silverware or pretension and lots of Turkish people, young and old. We point at the cheapest thing — “FISH BREAD SALAD 5TL” — which we guess is what everyone else is having: oversized Italian baguettes with grilled mackerel, lettuce, onions and lots of lemon juice. Simple and delicious chased with Efes beer while the sun sets on the Bosphorus. People on the top deck of the bridge reach and pull at the Bosphorus with their fishing lines, which sway hilariously near us while we eat below.

Galata bridge

(The above image borrowed from Google image; I didn’t take a pic of the bridge that evening)

We’re exhausted and head back to the hotel, swinging into Hafiz Mustafa baklava shop (in business since 1864, and beautifully decorated inside with colourful Iznik tiles and gilded display cases… so it must be good!) before indulgently supping on these sweet treats under the covers. Tomorrow will be a big sightseeing  day so we rest up.

Helpful travel notes:

Metro cards can be bought for 6TL (HK $25) deposit and can be shared between two people

Hafiz Mustafa: Hobyar Mahallesi Hamidiye Caddesi No. 84, Sultanahmet, Istanbul (http://www.hafizmustafa.com)

Next up: The Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and kittens everywhere….