Category Archives: Turkey

Turkish or Greek Coffee?

We went into Turkey expecting to love Turkish coffee. What we learned is that it’s easy to go wrong with its preparation. Some establishments burn the brew and others are too hasty in its preparation, churning out a watery drink over a grimy base. Good Turkish coffee is robust and smooth, never bitter, have a frothy head and an ever so faint grainy texture. As we spend more time in Istanbul, we understood Turkish coffee and where to score a perfect cup.

Turkey, after Yemen, was one of the first countries to truly adopt a coffee culture. The Ottoman Governor of Yemen introduced the drink back home to Suleiman the Magnificent in 1543. Soon, coffee became integral to Turkish life. Throughout the day, Turkish coffee houses serve the concoction in colorful 3 ounce ceramic glasses. Turkish coffee preparation and consumption is a slow affair, so it naturally leads to a social element as well.

When we came to Greece, we saw what we thought was Turkish coffee. The only recognizable difference is that the Greeks serve it in white porcelain cups.

It turns out that is the only difference. For a long time, Turkish coffee was referred to as Turkish coffee even in Greece. However, when Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, the irate Greek government was against the use of  Turkish terms. Greek coffee was born. Coffee becomes Turkish, or Greek, coffee due to its preparation, not bean variety. Most coffee is made by running hot water or steam through ground beans. Turkish coffee uses superfine grounds to avoid the filtering process. Grounds are essentially boiled and dissolved into the brew. Beware, though, not all the grounds disappear, leaving a thick base. The solution for the inedible leftovers? Fortune telling.

If you want to try your hand at Turkish, I mean Greek, coffee, you can follow the step by step instructions here.

While Greek coffee may be Turkish coffee, the Greeks do have their own unique coffee culture. It is one that revolves around frappe. In the late 1950s, a Greek representative of Nestle improvised a cold brew of coffee, water and ice. After vigorous shaking, it resulted in a super frothy foam. Today, in most parts of Greece, it is more common to see people gathered over frappes than Greek coffee.

The relaxation with which Turkish coffee is enjoyed is not lost on Greek frappes. Unlike a Starbucks pick-up, frappe consumption in Greece is a leisurely affair. The rule of thumb is one sip every ten minutes. Any faster and the barista will be offended. With Greek waters as the setting, why would you hurry anyway?

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Gule Gule Istanbul

Our hearts were heavy when we left Istanbul this morning. We lingered for a few extra minutes on our apartment balcony, filling our eyes with the Bosphorus waters.

The taxi to the airport took us through areas that have become so familiar. As we rounded the Golden Horn, we cranked our heads to get one last look at the mosque-dotted silhouette of the Old City. We spent our last night eating all the things we knew we would miss – kebabs, Turkish delight, mezes. At the airport we even squeezed in a final Turkish breakfast.

I asked the family what they would miss the most about Istanbul. Ava replied, “The park next to The Bosphorus. The water is so pretty you can’t even tell. And the lumps of delight. And the clouds and the sky because it is so bluey.” We enjoyed lumps of delight almost every day and in every flavor available.

Even I may miss the park on The Bosphorus. There’s no where else where I can watch the kids swing in one continent while overlooking another.

As usual, Kayan echoed Ava’s response, but with a few twists, “Turkish delight. Hmmmmmm. Hmmmmmm. Miss the tram. Play doh. Hmmmmmm. Hmmmmmm. Flower tulips.” For the past few weeks Kayan thinks long and hard before saying anything, as if each word is precious and he only has one shot at the conversation.

Sandeep was a little more profound in his reply, “I’ll miss all the things I didn’t do enough of, like eating kebabs, spending time at the coffee shops, watching local theatre. I was never was able to find a pop Turkish concert, so I guess I missed that.”

As for me, I will miss the way Istanbul embraced our family. The kids were welcome wherever we went and we always had a helping hand, be it in restaurants, trams or out on the street. We also met many interesting Istanbullus who went out of their way to show us their city and involve us in their social lives. The city as a whole made us feel so at home that leaving almost came as a surprise.

A benefit of extended travel is that it gives us the time to truly love a city and its people. The downside is it leaves us much more vulnerable to heartbreak. Until we come back again, Gule gule (goodbye) Istanbul.


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Packing for Around the World Travel

Last night we went through our packing ritual. We have it down to an art at this point. It used to take us hours to collect, strategize and execute on getting all our stuff into two duffel bags. Now we know where every thing goes – the exact placement of every sock and diaper – to allow the zippers to seal.

Our first task is collecting all our stuff. Inevitably two thing go missing, my sunglasses and Taniya, Ava’s doll. We leave tomorrow morning for Greece and we still have to find either. Taniya usually makes a magical appearance just as we are about to lose hope, as if she’s protesting our departure and held out until the last minute before agreeing to join us. My sunglasses seem to have many lives.

We then begin stuffing the bags. First, let me tell you that these are magic bags (thank you The North Face). Every time I see our stuff gathered for packing I swear it’s not going to fit. There must be a secret compartment in these bags because they take all our clothes, an inflatable car seat, a year’s worth of sunscreen, insect repellant, contacts for two people and other toiletries, electronic paraphernalia, and oh so many shoes.

If you’re suspicious about the amount of stuff we carry, let me introduce you to our shoes (starting from behind Ava’s head and going clockwise). I only mention the brands when I am impressed by their resilience and quality. I’m also going to put a plug in here for Zappos because we bought and returned so many pairs of shoes from them before deciding this lot was worthy of around the world travel.

Diya’s flip flops (hidden behind Ava’s head) – Perfect for pool lounging

Sandeep Keens – For extreme heat when shoes are unbearable

Ava’s Crocs – Her everyday shoes only because she refuses to wear anything else.

Diya’s running shoes – Perhaps the largest waste of space.

Sandeep’s running shoes – He uses them a lot more than I do.

Kayan’s Crocs – The shoes he dubbed as “my two-way shoes”

Sandeep’s Sauconys – Sandeep’s everyday shoes

Sandeep’s blue canvas shoes – Serves the split personality of evening attire and dirt gear

Ava’s Keens – She’s slowly warming up to them because they are pink

Diya’s Pumas – My everyday shoes. Ok, I like red shoes too.

Diya’s gold sandals – I’ve worn these only a handful of times and keep thinking of leaving them behind but I love them.

Kayan’s Keens – The first time we put these on he cried for his two-way shoes. It’s a work in progress.

Packing is bitter-sweet. We know that one chapter of our journey is ending but also look forward to unpacking in our new home. We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again. It is such a liberating feeling to walk away (regardless of what shoes we are wearing) from a place with everything we need in two bags. Now where is that Taniya?


Filed under Travel With Kids, Turkey

Mosques in Istanbul

When Kayan and Ava first heard the muslim call to prayer they were scared. “Too loud!” proclaimed Kayan. “Is that the police?” asked Ava. The first few nights in Turkey, they were shaken awake by the sunrise prayer call. They have since learned about the prayers and now slumber until late morning. I find the call to prayer soothing. It reminds me of my childhood in Egypt. The night call is like a childhood lullaby to me.

We’ve spent a lot of time in religious houses during our trip. There were the Taoist temples in Penang, the Buddhist monasteries in Thailand and pagodas in Myanmar, and the synagogue, churches and Hindu temples in India. We had not yet paid homage to Islam until reaching Turkey.

Our first stop was Aya Sophia, which was built in 360 A.D. as a basilica, converted to a mosque in 1453 and then a museum in 1935. The massive Byzantine structure is said to have changed the face of architecture and remained the world’s largest cathedral for a thousand years. Today, motifs of Christ and Mary stand alongside Muslim scripture.

We tried to visit the famous Blue Mosque, but our arrival coincided with a call to prayer.  We spent time in the inner court yard where this scene of chatting women huddled against the ancient doors.

The crowds when we went back at the Blue Mosque were overwhelming, so we opted for the smaller and less tour visited Rustam Pasa, a 450+ year old mosque that has the country’s best preserved display of  Iznik tile work. While we were there, a Muslim woman started playing with Ava and Kayan, even taking them around the mosque for a walk while we sat in peace.

Just down the road from our apartment is the Kilic Ali Pasa. We pass it almost every day and a welcoming guard always smiles at us. Today we stepped inside to see its beautiful interiors. A man who just finished his prayers asked where we were from and welcomed us to explore the mosque.

We knew that Istanbul’s mosques are drenched in history and architectural greatness. However, we were at first reticent about visiting mosques that were not visibly open to tourists. Here is some etiquette that may help make a mosque visit feel more natural.

– Like most houses of worship, anyone is welcome into a mosque. Entrance is usually free but a donation for the mosque upkeep is a nice gesture.

– Even though most mosques are continuously open, it’s best not to visit during prayer times or on Friday mornings, which is when sermons are held. I remember having tourists taking pictures during our wedding in Cochin. It was highly annoying.

– Attire etiquette is similar to Buddhist houses of worship. Everyone should remove their shoes and wear clothing that goes below knees and elbows. Women should also cover their heads (as in their hair, not their entire faces).

– Just as in church, speak softly. Or sing softly if you are a toddler.

– Photography is acceptable but it’s probably better to ask for permission before taking pictures of people.

The bottom line is that mosques, at least those we visited in Istanbul, are open houses of worship. Everywhere we went, people welcomed us, happy that we came to respectfully appreciate their heritage.


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Visitors in Turkey Take Care of Homesickness

We’re often asked “Don’t you ever get homesick?”

To answer that, we’d first have to identify a home. Here are the responses I got when I asked our family, “Where is home?”

Sandeep “Wherever you are.”

Ava “New York.” Long pause, “And India.”

Kayan “Mmmm. Mmmmm. New York.” Long pause, “India”

We really don’t have an answer to where is home so it’s hard to respond to a question about homesickness. We miss elements of New York, India, as well as all the countries we’ve visited. However, what we really miss are people. Luckily for us, a few people miss us too. The allure of Turkey combined with its relative accessibility when compared to other places on our itinerary made it possible for us to catch up with various friends and family from all stages of our lives. An added bonus is that these reunions happened about half way through our trip, giving us some grounding before we embark on the rest of our journey.

Our first visitor was Sandeep’s brother, who endured living in a cave with us in Cappadocia and driving cross-country with two kids who alternated between singing and whining the entire way. My bro-in-law is a great travel companion – well travelled and always up for anything.

In Istanbul our first friendship reunion was with Sandeep’s Northwestern friends. They live in France and work in Switzerland – I found that pretty neat – and have an adorable daughter who entertained Ava and Kayan for hours.

We had a family reunion with Sandeep’s cousins from New York. Our four kids are all around the same age. Thank goodness the Turkish love children because the sight of all of us scouting places to hang out would have scared off most people.

We also turned neighbors into friends. Ava and Kayan’s best friends from New York came to visit Istanbul with their parents. We had only known their parents as acquaintances in New York but, after they planned their Turkey adventures to coincide with our stay, we became fast friends. We thought that Ava and Kayan would have forgotten their friends after five months on the road. However, absence apparently makes the heart grow fonder, even in the littlest of people. The kids picked up just where they left of, even reminiscing about old times. While saying their goodbyes Ava instructed “Make sure to say hi to the park we used to play in. And remember that big slide? Say hi to that too.”

My cousin who now lives in London spent a few days with us, giving me some needed girl company and the kids a huge dose of laughter. After some begging and pleading from Ava, who wants “the whole white world to come for my birthday”, my cousin is planning to visit us again in Greece next month.

Sandeep’s friend from Northwestern, who now works in Amsterdam, made it a point to coordinate a business trip around our Istanbul stay. We went through three bottles of wine in one evening, talking about old times and pontificating about our futures.

I also caught up with Macalester College mates from Cyprus and Turkey. I haven’t seen them since college but sipping cay at an Istanbul coffee shop took us straight back to St. Paul, Minnesota.

Our social calendar in Istanbul has been busier than it was in New York. We’re surrounded by loving family, great friendships and old memories. Does that make Istanbul home? We not sure, not we are most definitely not homesick.


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Turkish Inventions and Irrational Behavior

In 1992 I remember being in Floriade, the flower show that The Netherlands holds every ten years ( it’s on this year from April to October in case you want to see blankets of flowers disappearing into the horizon). The display of flowers, namely tulips was so immense that I, as many people, thought that tulips originated and were perfected in Holland. Not true. Tulips are actually from Turkey. They found their fame in Holland after a 16th century Dutch ambassador took the bulbs back home. The tulips garnered such adoration that people started to pay irrational prices for the plants, and in 1637 the love led to what can be argued was the first speculative investor bubble. Our Istanbul stay coincides with the city’s annual tulip festival and we wanted to catch a glimpse of the 12 million bulbs that were planted for the occasion.

Ava and Kayan were thrilled at the color variety when we visited Emirgan Korusu, a suburban park boasting the city’s largest tulip display.

Turkey has invented other things associated with irrational behavior.

One of them is wine. Actually, there is some debate as to the origins of wine. Archaeological evidence points to Georgia (as in the country not Peachtree) as having first produced wine but ample findings show that the Hittites in central Turkey were enjoying wine while living in their underground cities thousands of years ago. Today Turkey is the fourth largest producer of grapes. The bulk of this goes toward raki, the native aniseed brew. Contemporary wine is gaining popularity, but in an odd dynamic. Much of Turkey’s vineyards are in conservative areas where the production of alcohol is frowned upon. It is common for vineyards to sell their grapes to wineries who blend Turkish wines, some of which we have had to spit out, but some that have been really especially good over a late night game of Scrabble.

Another Turkish invention that causes irrational behavior? Money. Entire fields of study are dedicated to our relationship with money. We may have Turkey to thank for its origins, at least in the coin form. There is evidence that it was the Lydians of what is now Turkey who first started assigning value to metal objects. Perhaps in a rational celebration for not making it into the EU, Turkey introduced a new symbol for its currency last month.

Tulips, wine, money, kebabs, the Bosphorus, indulgent breakfasts… We could stay forever. And that’s not irrational.


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Career Interview: Cafe Maestro

At what point should Sandeep start paying rent for his office in Istanbul? Every morning he parks himself at Mavra, an inviting cafe down our street. He jumps on conference calls and even hosts the occasional meeting out of a table that has informally been designated as his. The attendant is a very animated and friendly Istanbullu. He greats us with an opera voice booming “Good Morning!”

Mavra opened over three years ago on Serdar-I Ekrem, a small winding street with a colorful mix of boutiques and cafes, a mosque and a church, as well as old buildings undergoing various states of restoration. It’s an ideal place to watch young Istanbullus, particularly the artist crowd. Murat Nergiz has been serving Mavra’ss patrons for a year and a half. While Sandeep worked I interviewed Murat, with the conversation translated by another willing Mavra regular.

What types of people come to Mavra and does that change through the day?

We get all types here – students, travelers, artists, photographer, designers, architects. The owner’s husband is an architect. It is quieter in the mornings and at night we tend to have parties. People like to come here to celebrate their birthdays. We get a lot of regulars as well, like you.

I’m flattered to be called a regular, but what do you think about people who spend half the day here and just drink coffee?

(Murat turns to look at Sandeep, who is engrossed in his screen and doesn’t even notice us) Does he feel good when he is here?

He looks comfortable.

Then that is all that matters. It doesn’t matter if you just get one coffee or eat a meal. Be happy here, that is all that matters.

What is your signature dish?

Our pasta and meatballs. Our chocolate cake is also good, it’s a Turkish cake, very moist.

What is unique about your job?

The owner of this cafe is more of a friend, not a boss in the serious sense. There are no restrictive rules here. I am working here but I don’t feel as though I am a waiter. I am just part of the cafe.

What is behind the singing?

I just like to sing, especially in the morning. I am a writer also. I write poetry about women. Actually, I am just writing about one woman.

Does she know that you write about her?

She knows. She is a mixture of flowers and chocolate. When I see flowers and chocolate together I think of her.

Back home we never had the luxury of spending hours at a coffee shop. If I had to envision an ideal setting, it would have everything Marva offers. The music, a mix of sultry female jazz and oldies, is familiar. Mismatched furniture makes us feel as though it is an extension of our living room. The open doors leading out to the street is ideal for people watching. Most of all, Murat welcomes us as old friends and keeps us coming back every day. Luckily he’s not asking for rent.

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The Spice Market and Grand Bazaar Surprise Us in Istanbul

Kayan and Ava got a free meal at the Spice Bazaar. The Turkish love for children combined with their love for Turkish delight led to an all out binge as every other store owner stuffed juicy pieces of lokum into their mouths.

Eighty eight shops line the L-shaped 352 year old Spice Bazaar. Since it’s birth, the market has been through two major fires and some personality adjustments. Even though it still services as the center of spice trade in Istanbul, tourists can now find everything from jewelry to tea for every occasion.

We chose to first visit the Spice Bazaar over the Grand Bazaar as we thought the former would be less mobbed with tourists. Wrong. The Spice Bazaar’s size is a fraction of the Grand Bazaar, so every additional body inside the building adds exponentially to the crowd.

I joke around about being the Queen of Rationalization while Sandeep is the King of Paranoia. The truth is that I am paranoid about losing one of the kids. I have this recurring nightmare that we are in some crowded place in some corner of the world. I think Sandeep has the kids, he thinks I do and suddenly they are gone. Our afternoon at the Spice Bazaar definitely had my nerves on edge and I couldn’t relax enough to take many pictures. Oddly, we found the experience in the Grand Bazaar much less chaotic.

The Grand Bazaar is more like a covered city. At 551 years of age, it is one of the oldest markets in the world and welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors a day. The covered bazaar has 18 gates leading to a maze of 61 streets with 3,000 shops, dozens of eateries and cafes. Despite its popularity among locals and visitors alike, it doesn’t feel “crowdy” according to Ava. The quieter vibe also makes it possible for us to rest at a few stores and appreciate what’s on sale while the owners coddle the kids.

It’s interesting how our travel preconceptions can be so far from reality. As a foodie and cook I thought I would really enjoy the Spice Bazaar and almost skipped the Grand Bazaar, thinking it would be a chaotic market full of kitschy souvenirs. In the end, we ran through the Spice Market, each of us holding tightly onto a Turkish delight stuffed child. Not only did we enjoy the Grand Bazaar, we went back a second time to meander its alleys in relative peace.


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Starting our Days with Turkish Breakfast

I participate in a monthly writing project with other traveling families. Last month we wrote about how Anyone Can Travel. This month, we’re sharing stories about a major reason why many of us travel – food. After reading about our breakfasts in Turkey, you can go on a culinary journey around the world with other families by clicking on the links at the bottom of this post.

The first meal of the day in Turkey is an elaborate affair, one traditionally enjoyed over hours with family. Visitors can experience a Turkish breakfast at leisure in one of Istanbul’s cafes or restaurants, each competing for the best breakfast spread. Turkish cuisine reflects the country’s position at the cross roads of East and West. Of all Turkish meals, breakfast best showcases the effect these cultural exchanges have had on Turkish food.

The Turkish word for breakfast is Kahvalti, which translates to before coffee. No respectable Turkish person would consume coffee without first starting with a hearty breakfast and plenty of cay (tea). Equally as important as the food, numerous tulip shaped glasses of black tea accompany the traditional Turkish breakfast. I am a tea drinker but I’m not a big fan if Turkish cay. I find the brew bitter and would love to add just a little bit of milk to calm the flavor. I’ve been told that the locals would gasp in horror if I tried.

To truly understand the ingredients in Kahvalti, we went to the market to assemble our own Turkish breakfast. It’s hard to name the main dish in Kahvlati as the meal is more of an assortment of various nibbles. Most of the dishes do not require cooking, which means that even though the meal is broad in variety, it can be somewhat easy to prepare. Consuming it is another issue. It takes time to enjoy traditional Kahvalti and our Turkish friends tell us that in modern days, a full spread Kahvalti is a treat for weekends and holidays.

Cheese, peynir, is a key ingredient. The most ubiquitous cheese is white sheep’s milk, which is creamy and salty. This is usually paired with a couple of other cheeses, one fresh and mild and another aged and sharp. I put a cheese plate for breakfast up there on the list of genius culinary inventions.

For meat eaters, there is always a selection of cold meats. Being a predominantly Muslim country, this rarely includes any pork products. What’s missing from bacon is more than made up with cuts such as pistachio studded beef or garlicky Turkish pastrami. Various countries claim to have invented pastrami, and the Turkish say it originated with their bastirma, which means to depress and reflects the process of squeezing out the juices from air dried meat.

Green and black olives, zeytin, add additional saltiness to the spread.

To balance out the meal there are fresh seasonal vegetables, currently tomatoes and cucumbers.

The savory side of kahvalti is married to sweet goodness. White bread, ekmek, baked twice daily serves as a vehicles for freshly churned butter, jams and honey (called bali). At least one syrupy jam, recel, is on every Kahvalti plate. Usually there is also some honey, preferably still in its comb. The recel and honey are meant to be mixed with the fresh butter and then applied to the bread.

Fancier Kahvalti include boiled eggs or mememen scrambled eggs and fresh juices. However, with all the food and cay these additions seem superfluous.

If breakfast really is the most important meal of the day, then the Turks have their priorities straight.

Finding My Way to Fabulous (and Freaky) Food by Walkingon Travels

Persian Pomegranate Chicken and other Fantastic Foods of Iran by Growing Grace Life

Food from Guatemala by Travel Experta

Magical Easy-To-Make Israeli by The Nomadic Family

Traditional Dishes of Peru by Raising Miro

Alloco (from West Africa) by Sparkling Adventures

My crêpes recipe (from France) by Avenue Reine Mathilde

Gallo Pinto, Costa Rica’s Signature Dish by Family Travel Bucket List

Taking the Kids to Yakitori Alley in Tokyo Japan by Vagabond Kids



Filed under Food, Traveling Family Writing Projects, Turkey

Celebrating Childrens Day on a Tram in Turkey

Yesterday I wrote about how much the Turkish love kids. Today is Children’s Day, a holiday that originated in Turkey. We’ve seen posters advertising various children’s events to commemorate the occasion, but they have all been in Turkish and appear to cater to school age kids more than those as young as Ava and Kayan.

We were wrong if we thought we were going to be left out of the festivities. We were waiting to take the tram to the Grand Bazaar this morning when a heavily decorated tram approached the station. After telling everyone that the tram was not in operation, the conductor ran over and ushered us inside. At first we resisted – why would we be singled out from the platform to board this elaborately dressed vehicle? Before we could think, a hand reached out from inside the carriage and gave Ava and Kayan balloons. Then a clown popped his head out with a “Mehraba!” The kids were inside before we could react.

Turns out we were just in time for the Children’s Day party tram. The Istanbul transportation authority runs one just for kids and their families. Kids are the ticket to boarding this tram and those without children were left waving at us from the platform. The tram blasted children’s music and came complete with entertainment, balloons, puppets and miniature turkish flags.

I can’t think of a better person to celebrate Children’s Day with than my cousin Keri who is visiting us from London. She knows so much about kids and their care that she was the one who taught us how to change Ava’s first diaper. In addition to being our go-to person for baby care, she knows how to show Ava and Kayan a good time. Some combination of the party tram and the company made Ava exclaim, “Mama, I love Istanbul!”

While we didn’t start the morning with the intention of celebrating Children’s Day, we were reminded quickly that it’s hard to escape anything that has to do with lavishing love on children in Turkey. We’re glad we caught the tram to another Turkish cultural experience.

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