Our best souvenir of Turkey was not a rug, a set of tea cups or some blue evil-eye charm.
It was the newest member of our happy household, this sweet little guy:
We’ve named him Sugar Duck.
This is why:
See, we had dinner at a cheapie restaurant in Edirne where they had the red chili in these nifty flip-top caddies on the table: glass bottom, bright-green flip-top dome.
A couple days later, in Istanbul, we nipped (I was going to say ‘ducked’) into a restaurant-supply place just as it was closing, and they had the exact same form as the Edirne model, but in three colors…and with adorable eyes!
And labeled, in Turkish and English, sugar duck.
As Peter points out, we probably wouldn’t love him half as much if we didn’t know this adorable name. Heck, we probably wouldn’t even have put sugar in him.
Best of all, he’s made in Turkey.
Peter’s first thought was, Oh, we’ll use a better spoon. But then he appreciated just how flawlessly designed the Sugar Duck was. The spoon is his tongue, you see.
The only down side of our new Turkish pet: We definitely use more sugar than we used to.
File all this under Things I Wish I’d Eaten More Of.
1. Fresh mizithra
We drove to the next little town to visit the place that makes the killer sheep’s-milk yogurt, with its nice crusty top.
I’ve read rapturous descriptions of fresh ricotta, but I didn’t really believe it until they fed us the mizithra, scooped fresh out of the vat and still warm.
Mizithra is, in this form, basically ricotta. It’s also made from the whey from a sturdier cheese (in this case, feta), so it’s soft and jiggly, not too intense.
Having it warm is like eating little dairy clouds–but not so ethereal. More primal. I think people might love it so much because it reminds them of nursing?
Same bat place, same bat channel. Same ‘Oh, now I understand!’ moment.
Ladotiri is literally ‘oil cheese.’ It’s a specialty of Lesvos, cured in olive oil. It’s normally kind of rubbery and salty and doesn’t seem particularly interesting.
This stuff, though, fresh–ah-ha. It was nutty, like gruyere. A tiny bit grainy, mostly smooth.
OK, actually, this was more of a visual thing than a taste thing. They make a lot of ouzo–most of the ouzo–on Lesvos. It’s great. I don’t drink all that much these days, but I always wish I’d drunk more ouzo so I could look at the bottles.
Ouzo Mini, which may be the best ouzo of Lesvos, is also conveniently the cutest. It has a hip new label:
And Ouzo Matis, another brand with babes on the label…well, they cut right to the chase. We’re not sure if this is new, or we only just noticed, but here’s Peter noticing:
What’s he noticing? Va-va-voom!
OK, so the photo is not the greatest. But yes, peer dreamily through your ouzo bottle, and you’ll see a girl in a red bikini (or blue, should you choose) on the inside.
3. Obscenely ripe fruit
Waiting for the early train in Soufli, we breakfasted on figs from in front of the stationmaster’s house. You know how everyone leers about figs? How they’re vaguely dirty-looking?
These weren’t even purple on the outside, and they were the dirtiest figs I’ve ever eaten.
Then, in Turkey, a nice old man gave me a tomato. It was hot from the sun. He smiled and kept walking. I cupped that tomato in my hand the whole rest of our walk–it felt like one of my own organs.
We ate it the next morning for breakfast, gulped over the sink.
Maybe the best tomato of my life? Almost all goo, perfect acid-sweet balance. No need for salt at all.
Days later, Peter said, “Agh! Why didn’t we save the seeds?!”
4. Hot sausage
No innuendo intended.
We were in Komotini, our first real stop after Eressos. Whole new part of Greece. The town is 50 percent Turkish, complete with a mosque and an Ottoman-era cemetery.
The streets were empty, which was partly due to Ramadan, and partly due to it being 108 degrees. One restaurant in the market was open, and fed us this:
We marveled at the sensation of hot chili in our throats. The Greeks aren’t so into spicy-hot, and we hadn’t tasted it for weeks. The sausage was spiced like basturma, which is to say, intensely, with coriander and pepper and more. It was a mix of beef and lamb. It was superb.
5. Turkish ice cream
I love Mado ice cream. To Turks, it’s probably only as exciting as Haagen-Dazs, but to me, it’s the most fantastic ice-cream brand, the height of luxury. It’s all goat’s-milk, and the fruit flavors (which I think are fruit-only, no dairy, but who knows?) are so intense, it feels like the fruit is communicating directly with your brain, bypassing your tongue entirely.
In Edirne, we sat at the Mado cafe and had ridiculous Mado treats. Just for Peter, it seems, they have the ‘Red Fruits Passion’ (or some such) sundae on the menu. Sour cherry, raspberry and strawberry, plus raspberry goo, and some clotted cream for good measure.
I had a nice orange-creamsicle-ish thing with pistachios, but whatever. Need more red fruits, please.
6. Hazelnut meringue
Sorry, no photo. I bought it on the Istanbul ferry, along with my tulip-glass of tea.
I know from flying Turkish Airlines, which is neck-and-neck with Emirates for the best-food-in-coach prize, that Turkey produces like most of the world’s hazelnuts. They call it a miracle nut, and serve it instead of peanuts.
So I grabbed a hazelnut meringue cookie, and it must have been 99% hazelnuts, because it was more like an energy bar than a meringue or any cookie, really. So intense.
But then again, everything tastes more intense when you’re traveling. But then again again, America is the Land of Bland. These tastes will tide me over till my next adventure.
Want a real mind-bending experience when you travel?
Don’t worry so much about what to eat. Focus on the odd things there are to drink.
That’s where you get into severe mind-warping territory.
Exhibit A: Salgam Suyu
(Sorry–there’s a little cedilla under the s, and also under a c farther down. I’ve taught myself a lot about code in a decade, but never mastered those special characters.)
Salgam suyu is a Turkish purple carrot drink. Apparently it’s fairly common at juice stands in certain parts of Turkey that I haven’t been to.
I think if I encountered it in a juice stand, I’d be pretty giddy and think it was cool.
But I saw it as a packaged product, in a grocery store–and that was even more mind-blowing. It’s like it proved it was a major part of the culture, not just some health nut’s invention.
“Is that a…carrot? That’s purple?” I said, squinting at the label. I flipped it around to look at the ingredients. Yup, purple carrot.
At the checkout, the lady looked unimpressed with it, like it was a totally normal thing. I guess, for her, it is. Which is the mind-blowing part.
It’s really beautiful stuff:
By now, you’re probably wondering about the taste. The label said in capital letters BEST SERVED COLD.
But we had no fridge. We popped it open near the end of a long walk, standing on the top of a windy dyke at the edge of Edirne, with the massive Sinan mosque on the hill above us.
Peter gulped as I read out the ingredients: “Purple carrot, wheat, turnip, salt, red chili, pepper…”
“Huh. All those things really come through,” he said, scrunching up his face. “In that order.”
I took a swig. It was bracing. I wished it were cold. But for electrolyte replacement or whatever, and in lieu of food, it was pretty fantastic.
This product really made me rethink everything I knew about Turkey, Turkish food and Turks in general. Granted, I’m no expert to start with (the only Turkish I know is cok güzel, and I learned that from an Eartha Kitt song), but this made me realize there’s just so much I don’t know, there and nearly everywhere I go.
Like, what is the significance of this drink? Do grownups drink it? Do kids drink it? Does your mom tell you to drink it when you’re sick with something in particular? Do dudes drink it to feel studlier? Does it go with certain foods? Do you drink at night? In the morning? Is it old-fashioned? Or suddenly cool again? Is this a good brand? The only brand? Do people scoff at seeing it packaged at all?
I have no real answers, but I do see the word afrodizyak on the packager’s website. And, according to the ad, it makes you do backflips.
Each dish in every culture has all this resonance, but we barely begin to learn any of it when we travel. We can read up on some of the most famous dishes–it’s bachelor food, it’s court food, it’s imported-from-China-on-the-silk-road food… But a lot is just never even discussed, until someone thinks to ask.
It’s true for food, but it’s doubly true for drinks, because they’re almost always, by definition, a secondary thing.
Drinks also tend to be more personal, like breakfast–we have our routines, and we don’t want to mess them up (just think of your morning coffee).
And, more practically, travelers often shy away from water-based things for health reasons.
But one huge selling point about trying new drinks is: they’re cheap! Even if something’s disgusting and you’ll never put it in your mouth again, you only spent a couple bucks, max, on it. But you will have seen, for a gulp or two, a whole side of a culture you never knew before.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever had to drink in another country?
Help me out here, Internet. I’m trying to identify a mystery fruit. Or maybe fruits.
There are three stories to tell:
Incident #1: Lebanon
A nice Druze woman on a bus in the Chouf mountains in Lebanon told me her favorite fruit was Persian aprict–mishmish ajami. She said it stayed green, and was both sweet and sour, and was not very fuzzy.
Sadly, I was scheduled to leave Lebanon just a couple of days later, and had no time to look for this fantastic fruit.
In lieu of a picture of that fruit, or of that woman, here at least is a nice photo of Peter with a Druze man.
Incident #2: Greece
After the fantastic ladies at our favorite restaurant in Eressos showed us how to make Easter lamb, they pointed to a crate of fruit and told us to help ourselves.
They called the fruit milorodaxino–literally, “apple peach.” From far away, all piled in the crate, the fruit did look like kind of crappy little Golden Delicious apples. Up close, though…best nectarine ever:
And, as you can see, green all the way through.
Was this the phantom Persian apricot, by another name? The farmer who grew the fruit was there outside the restaurant, all burly forearms like Popeye and a mustache to beat the band. He was the only one that grew this fruit, he said. End of story.
Incident #3: Astoria, New York
When we returned to NYC, one of the 24-hour produce stores (yes, we have more than one) had these “honeydew nectarines” in stock:
They looked the same, but they were kinda crappy–a little mealy, not intense flavor. The woman who runs the store admitted they were not at their best. It was hard to tell whether it was not the same fruit at all, or just a typically poor American rendition of it.
And because she’s Greek, Peter asked her if she knew if these were the same as the milorodaxino. No, no, she said–those are part apple, and these were part melon.
Er, I think she’s wrong on both counts, because that would be like serious fruit miscegenation, so unfortunately I have to discount her as an unreliable source. But I appreciate that she makes an effort to source new and interesting fruits and veg–we also got these neat bulbous cucumbers from her, and some great liver-colored heirloom tomatoes.
Second data point: After writing all this, I flipped over an old issue of Cook’s Illustrated, and it had an illustration of peaches and nectarines. The Honeydew variety was on there. The issue was from 2002–so this isn’t a new strain.
Further data point: Turkey
Check out these marzipan fruits in a storefront in Istanbul. A couple of them look like they could be the mysterious fruit.
Ala elma = “ala apple” according to Google translate, which is maybe just the variety name of an apple, like Gala?
Or this one:
Papaz erik = “pastor plum”
Obviously, the fact that these were rendered in marzipan makes it especially difficult. In retrospect, Peter and I should’ve gone to the adjacent market and looked for the real-fruit equivalents, instead of getting distracted by an antiques store.
So gardeners, travelers, botanists, Lebanese fruit-lovers: tell me what you know. Have you eaten any of these things? Are they all the same? Are they different?
Bottom line, really, is: Did I miss the Best Fruit Ever by not getting those mishmish ajami in Lebanon in the first place?
(If you like stories about cross-cultural plant identification, also check out my old story about purslane[PDF]. That one took years to solve. Now that the internet is more full of information, I expect to solve this question in minutes. Right? Hello? Anyone?)
The Greece adventures continued, with some village foraging.
Peter bought peaches from a truck, because he could:
I bought sour cherries, because I could. We made a mess, and then made compote, to go with our local yogurt for breakfast.
Truth be told, the cherries were not from a truck, but from the produce stand. A four-foot-tall old Greek woman grabbed me by the elbow and pointed and said, “Visino! Not sweet! Special!” Handily, I have learned the word for sour cherry in many languages, so I jumped right on that. Here’s the compote, with a mug of extra juice off on the right. Just looking at it makes my salivary glands twinge in longing.
We didn’t buy chickens from a truck, even though we could have.
Nor did we buy vegetables. But we ogled them, you bet.
And we ate our share of French fries that originally came from this truck, a potato processor from the next town down. Every day we watched them deliver tons of precut fries to all the local restaurants. And every night we gobbled them down. Beautiful Photoshopping, guys.
Every morning, a truck drove around selling fish. The loudspeakers made it sound like the revolution was starting. This little guy got left behind when progress marched in.
Near the end of our stay, we foraged for figs. These are Aydine figs, brought by families when they fled from Aydin in southwestern Turkey in the early 20th century. Lucky for us, they ripen earlier than other varieties, and there’s a giant tree in a vacant lot.
What fruit would you carry with you if you had to flee?