aboutWe are Akila and Patrick. Our minds (and waistlines) expand as we travel, cook, and eat our way around the world with our two dogs.
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balsamic glazed cipollines

Balsamic glazed cipolline onions

Venice is still busy in November.  There are tourists everywhere in the bright and sunny days.  (Though, is there ever a time when the tourists leave Venice altogether?  Probably not.)  We like the November evenings better than the summer evenings.  There's less heat, humidity, and stench.  I pull my fleece jacket close around my shoulders and Patrick zips his up to his neck. 

We walk away from the Grand Canal, into small narrow alleyways, away, away, away from the noise.  We see a small door against a wall, light shining out as the door opens and closes, and men with half-filled wine glasses and burning cigarettes standing right before the entry, ushering us in with wafts of noxious smoke.  The decor is minimal, with a few wooden benches and tables crammed against the corner of a wall and men and women standing shoulder to shoulder in front of the long bar. 

Balsamic cipollines

We immediately see the attraction.  Cichetti are arrayed in platters and bowls across the bar.  There is a good variety at this one: peperoni grigliata --- grilled and peeled red bell peppers; baccala --- pureed salted dried cod; carciofi grigliata --- artichoke hearts, marinated and grillled; mozzarella e pomodoro --- fresh balls of mozzarella with sliced tomatoes; bruschetta with prosciutto; calamari; and more. 

Balsamic cipollines

Cipolline onions Cooking cipollines

And, there are the cipollines al aceto balsamico, or balsamic glazed cipolline onions.  The first bite surprises us.  Our mouths pucker from the vinegar and then relax as we taste the underlying sweetness of the reduced balsamic vinegar.  We try another bite.  This time we are prepared for the sensations of vinegar and sweet and we feel the texture.  Soft, billowing layers of onions melt against our tongue and we catch hints of rosemary and butter.  We go back to the counter and order them all.

And, we return the next night and order all the cipollines again.

balsamic cipollines

When we came back to the United States, I tried a whole host of balsamic glazed cipolline recipes including ones from Mario Batali, Deb from the Smitten Kitchen, and Bon Appetit magazine.  None of them had the puckering sweetness of the cipollines we tried in Venice and I realized that the problem is that every single one of these recipes relies on sugar to enhance the flavor of the balsamic vinegar.  I dropped the sugar and simplified the recipe.  The result has a less thick glaze than what you might get if you make Mario Batali's recipe but it is, I think, a purer and superior version of the dish.  It is a fundamentally Italian recipe --- very few ingredients of extremely high quality --- so that the cipollines take on the strong flavors of red wine and balsamic.  We serve it often in the winters, with rich casseroles and soups, as a small plate or side dish, sometimes for the holidays, to remind us of Venice's meandering canals.

Balsamic cippolines

 

 

. . . keep reading balsamic glazed cipollines after the jump
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how to make baklava
at karakoy gulluoglu

baklava

Baklava

Here's what we know for certain after spending two months in Turkey: the baklava in the United States isn't anything like the baklava you get in Turkey.  I'm not being a food snob.  Okay, fine, I am being a little snobby . . . but, this is snobbery with justification.  As I truly believe that tofu is underappreciated in the United States, so, too, baklava is not the same when outside of its native soil.  Yes, Turkey has spoiled us for baklava.

I've been dreaming about this post for months now, trying to describe to you the magnificence of baklava, the impressiveness of the labor used to create it, and the reason why I would hop onto a flight to Istanbul just to eat baklava (okay, I probably would eat other things, too, but baklava would end EVERY meal.)

So, for a moment, please erase all memories of inferior baklava from your tongue.  If you're a baklava hater (as we were) and think of it only as a gooey, dense, sticky concoction, set aside those prejudices.  Grab your cup of coffee and hear this story from beginning to end and, perhaps, I can convince you that, when in Istanbul, baklava should be your top priority.

Baklava

baklava
baklava baklava

Baklava from four different vendors in Istanbul: notice, however, the similar puffiness in the centers, the many, many layers of dough, and the relatively small amount of filling

The History of Baklava

This is the part of the post where I normally explain a bit about the history of the dish or the cuisine.  But, there isn't much known about the history of baklava. In fact, baklava lore is akin to politics or religion as a conversation firestarter in the eastern Mediterranean countries. 

The Turkish people are very secretive and loyal to "their" neighborhood baklavacis and each Istanbuli we met could point at a flaw in the baklava that was not from "their" shop.  Susannah, one of our Context docents, insisted that it's not possible to get good baklava outside of Gazantiep, her hometown in southeastern Turkey and what is generally considered as the best baklava producers in the country.  But, all Turks agree upon one thing: Turkish baklava is the best and original baklava. 

On the other hand, when describing how much we loved Turkish baklava in Athens, Greece, immediately, an older woman began reprimanding our docent, telling him that the Turks make baklava incorrectly and "everyone knows that Greek baklava is the best."  Our docent told us when we were safely away from that bakery that he actually preferred Lebanese baklava to the Greek and Turkish variations.

Baracklava

Nadir Gullu's famous Baracklava, made in 2009, before President Obama came to visit Turkey

Baklava pride is not only an individual matter, but even a matter of state.  In 2006, Greek Cypriots proclaimed baklava as their national dessert in an European Union Day poster, which set Turks off, leading to what the press dubbed the "baklava war": 200 Istanbul baklava producers demonstrated in Sultanahmet against the Cyprus' designation and Turkey's EU secretary raised a protest to the EU.  A few months ago, President Obama stepped into the baklava fray by opining at a Greek-American function that he loved "baklava."  Turks furiously responded, stating that everything, including the baklava, served at the dinner was nothing more than Turkish dishes dressed up as Greek ones.  (Unfortunately, the President never deigned to visit Karakoy Gulluoglu's shop in Istanbul to see the Baracklava made in his honor.)

I've found sources that list baklava as originating from the Turks, Greeks, Syrians, Cypriots, Lebanese, and even the Chinese.  Here are the bare facts what I've been able to piece together:

  • There is a wide Internet rumor that the Assyrians first invented baklava in the 8th century B.C.  I have seen no evidence of this in anything other than random websites BUT, given that Assyria included much of the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, this contention makes sense.  The Assyrians supposedly layered nuts between dough, poured a sweet syrup on top, and baked it in ceramic ovens.
  • The ancient Greeks first invented a flaky thin rolled dough (though not as thin as modern phyllo dough).  Even today in Athens, it is possible to find this thin dough rolled over, fried, and topped with cinnamon sugar, a dessert first eaten in the times of Socrates and Plato. (source from our Context Athens Walk called Beyond Feta)
  • Pistachios are native to the southeastern Turkey, western Iran, and northeastern Iraq.  Archaeological excavations in Turkey show that pistachios were eaten in 7,000 BC.  Gazantiep, in southeastern Turkey, is particularly famous for its pistachios and baklava.  Antep baklava includes pistachio and cream layered between thin flaky dough.  (source and source)
  • The Ottoman emperors loved baklava.  It was one of the most common desserts in the Ottoman Empire, in part, because it showcased the wealth of the Ottoman Empire: good baklava required specially picked Gazantiep pistachios, butter, honey, and very carefully prepared dough.  (from the Matbah dining menu in Istanbul)

And, that's all I know for certain.  It's a pretty sketchy history of own of the world's favorite desserts.

Nadir Gullu eating baklava Nadir Gullu with his baklava
Karakoy Gulluoglu
Little girl at Karakoy Gulluoglu Loading baklava from the Karakoy Gulluoglu shop

Nadir Gullu, shots of the Karakoy Gulluoglu shop, and loading baklava from the Karakoy production center to the shop

About Karakoy Gulluoglu

If you're not here for the history lesson, here's where we get to the nuts and bolts: how to make baklava.  And, the answer is, that you don't. 

Most Turks will laugh right in your face if you tell them that you want to attempt to make baklava.  Nobody makes baklava except for the grandmothers who will spend all day making one batch or the professional baklava shops.  Baklava --- like a wedding cake --- is a dish best left to the experts, the Turks say.  And, once we got our behind-the-scenes blogger tour of Karakoy Gulluoglu, the first Gazantiep baklavaci in Istanbul, we understood why baklava should be left to the masters.

The Gullu family has been in the baklava business since the 1800s when Gullu Celebi spent six months in Damascus and Aleppo to learn how to make baklava.  The Gullu family is from Gazantiep, in southeastern Turkey, and, there, baklava quickly became a favorite dish and baklava shops and street stalls were in high demand.  The family continued making baklava after Gullu Celebi's death and sold baklava to other neighboring towns and villages.

In 1949, Mustafa Gullu, Gullu Celebi's grandson, set up the first baklava shop in Istanbul in the Karakoy neighborhood.  Mustafa Gullu said that, in the beginning, selling baklava was very difficult because, though it was a favorite dish of the Ottoman emperors, the common people had never tasted this delicacy.  "For a few years, we offered free baklava," he said and, slowly, they grew a following of baklava lovers. 

Now, sixty years later, Nadir Gullu, Mustafa Gullu's son, manages Karakoy Gulluoglu.  Nadir Gullu is an enthusiastic and energetic man with an infectious love for baklava, his company, and his country.  His moustache quivers as he tells us the importance of eating baklava every day, "It is good for you," he insists. "A good strong man must eat one piece of baklava to live long."

His baklava business is truly an empire.  Though the company is still family run, with no more than one hundred employees, and most of those employees are related to Nadir Gullu, they make over 2.5 tons of baklava and other desserts per day.  They export a large quantity of this baklava all over the world and Mr. Gullu told us that he was the favorite baklava maker for Saddam Hussein: "because we do not care about politics, we care about providing good baklava."

How to Make Baklava by a Baklava Master

Nadir Gullu at the baklava production facility

The baklava production facility

Step 1.  Mix the Dough

We walk excitedly into the inner sanctum of baklava-making, up the stairs, and stand at a window where Mr. Gullu points to his baklava masters.  A master is not simply a person who makes baklava; a master must be trained in the art of baklava making.  The dough consists of flour, salt, water, and a small amount of butter.

Dough rolling by machine

Baklava rolling by machine

Step 2.  Roll the dough by machine.

Initially, a mound of dough is rolled through the machine to thin it out.  This thin layer of dough is rolled around a wooden stick.

Baklava dough making

Making baklava dough Baklava dough
 Baklava making dough  Baklava dough making

Step 3.  Use those muscles; roll the dough by hand.

"A baklava master must be strong and disciplined."  Traditionally, baklava making is a man's profession, because it is believed that only men have the muscular strength to roll the dough to the necessary thinness.  Baklava making is a full contact sport --- and the men who make baklava are heavy and thick-muscled men.  As each layer of dough is rolled out, the baklava maker flicks starch over the layer to prevent it from sticking, which is why the room is constantly in a floury haze.

Thinness of Karakoy Gulluoglu baklava dough

Flags held up against the Karakoy Guluoglu dough

The dough is impressive, to say the least.  So thin that a mild graze by a fingernail could tear it and with a translucency that allows us to clearly read text and see flags through it, it is still strong and sturdy enough to be held by a single person without tearing.

. . . keep reading how to make baklava at karakoy gulluoglu after the jump

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vegetarian food in turkey
yummy veggies

Cig kofte in Istanbul

Cig kofte (crushed barley with tomato and spicy pepper)

Last week's post on the grilled meats of Turkey might have convinced you that Turkey's not the optimal place for us vegetarians.  You'd be wrong.  Though it can require a bit of creative thinking and negotiating with waiters, Turkey's actually a great place for vegetarians and even vegans (a surprise in dairy-heavy Europe).

Is there vegetarian food in Turkey?

Though the Turks have a storied tradition of meat eating, there is also a long history toward vegetarianism in this region.  Before the Turkmen occupied present-day Turkey, the Greeks and Romans ruled over this space.  Many famous and influential ancent Greeks and Romans were vegetarians: Pythagoras, the mathematician; Socrates, the philosopher (as described in Plato's The Republic); Zeno, the founder of Stoicism; Epicurus, the philosopher, and founder of the school of Epicureanism; Seneca, Caligula's minister; and Plutarch, the philosopher.  (source)

Of these men, Pythagoras was the first and most famous advocate of vegetarianism.  Pythagoras was born off the coast of Turkey, in Samos, today one of the Greek islands, separated from mainland Turkey by only a one mile strait.  He traveled extensively in his youth and ultimately founded Pythagorean schools in Italy, where his disciples lived according to Pythagoras's principles, part of which required vegetarianism.  In Metamorphoses, Ovid presents Pythagoras impassionately arguing that in order for humans to metamorphose into a better and more harmonious species, we must become more humane and understand that human and animal lives are so intertwined as to be inseparable:

      Everything changes; nothing dies; the soul roams to and fro, now here, now there, and takes what frame it will, passing from beast to man, from our own form to beast and never dies...Therefore lest appetite and greed destroy the bonds of love and duty, heed my message! Abstain! Never by slaughter dispossess souls that are kin and nourish blood with blood!

Seaweed

Turkish cheeses
Dried vegetables


Besides these philosophical principles which led many ancient Greeks and Romans to abstain from meat, meat was also expensive for the average working man.  Vegetables, grains, dairy, and seafood were cheap and easily renewable resources.  In Lysistrata, Aristophanes wrote that a piglet costs three drachma, or three day's salary for a public servant. 

Interestingly, gladiators also were vegetarians, not for poverty or for animal rights reasons, but because they realized that carb bulking would best serve them in the arena.  An archaeological excavation of a gladiator graveyard near Ephesus, Turkey, revealed that gladiators had huge layers of subcutaneous fat to help cushion injuries and shield nerves and blood vessels from fatal injuries.  Bulking up on carbs via barley and legumes meant that the gladiators needed extra calcium, which they took in the form of charred wood or bone ash, both which are rich in calcium.

As time went on and the Turks and Ottomans took hold of Turkey, vegetarianism grew less, especially because eating meat is an essential part of Islamic culture.  However, Francis Bacon noted in the 16th century, when discussing animal rights in the Advancement of Learning: "[U]nder the old laws, there were numerous precepts (not merely ceremonial) enjoining mercy [toward animals] - for example, the not eating of flesh with the blood, &c. So, also, the sects of the Essenes and Pythagoreans totally abstained from flesh, as they do also to this day, with an inviolate religion, in some parts of the empire of the Mogul [Hindustan]. Nay, the Turks, though a savage nation, both in their descent and discipline, give alms to the dumb animals, and suffer them not to be tortured." (source)

Because of the long Islamic and Ottoman rule, vegetarianism as a concept is not well-understood in modern-day Turkey.  But, the ancient Greek and Roman history has ensured that certain vegetarian staples live on, such as the eating of mostly vegetarian mezes and vegetables to be served alongside any meat dishes.

What can a vegetarian eat in Turkey?

For breakfast

Simit Simit
Simit

Doughy bagel-like simit topped with sesame seeds and found everywhere.  Perfect on the run, as a snack, or dipped in some tahini. (Vegan)

Menemen

Menemen

Menemen, that is, scrambled eggs Turkish style with plenty of tomatoes and peppers thrown in.

Turkish breakfast

 Turkish kahvalti, or Turkish breakfast, which consists of a huge platter of cheeses, vegetables, olives, pastries, jam, kaymak (clotted cream), and bread.

For lunch

Turkish pide

Turkish pide with a thick doughy base and cheese and vegetables within, similar to a thick flat-bread pizza.

Cig kofte

Cig kofte, one of the best snacks for the vegetarian traveler to Istanbul, is a mixture of spicy pepper paste, tomatoes, and bulgur.  Traditionally, cig kofte is made with ground meat but, due to sanitation reasons, the vast majority of cig kofte sold on street stalls is vegetarian and you can buy it either wrapped in lettuce or on a flour wrap with spicy sauce or without.  Love this dish!  (Vegan)

Borek and baklava

Borek is the savory cousin of baklava, made by sandwiching white cheese and vegetables between layers of phyllo dough.

. . . keep reading vegetarian food in turkey after the jump

28 comments

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