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Easter Sunday on Burgazada

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Burgazada is the third-largest of the popular Princes Islands, found just off Istanbul’s southern coast in the Sea of Marmara. Around 2000 people live there permanently, but its population swells considerably in the summer… and on sunny Sundays, like the one we stupidly chose for our visit.

Istanbul-Islands

While boarding the ferry at Kabataş, we were shocked by the crowd. When the sun is shining, a single idea pops into the collective mind of Istanbul: “Princes Islands!” This was the first truly warm weekend of the year, and we had expected a mob, but not like this. We crammed on the ferry, lucky to snatch a seat, then watched with increasing dismay as it filled to capacity. And then continued filling. 30 minutes past the scheduled departure time, people were still squeezing on, occupying every conceivable inch of space: the floors, aisles, railings, laps.

And this was just at the first stop! The ferry also picked up passengers at Kadiköy, where hundreds more people somehow managed to find space on the already-overflowing boat.

Despite the crush, the atmosphere on the ferry was festive. After a long period of rain and cold, the sun was finally shining, and people were in good spirits. In the aisle, a guy jammed on his guitar while friends and strangers found room to dance. A group of Turkish students challenged each other to backgammon. And despite my distaste for dangerously overloaded ferries, I found myself curiously content. I wouldn’t say the boat ride was “fun”, but it was certainly entertaining.

Any stress began to evaporate the minute we arrived in Burgazada. Friends of ours were visiting, and we wasted no time in finding a four-person phaeton (a horse-drawn carriage) to carry us off to the far side of the small island. By the time our rickety journey ended at Kalpazankaya Beach, we were rejuvenated and ready for some amusement. “What should we do first?” I asked.

“Drink rakı”, came the immediate, unanimous reply. Exactly the answer I’d been hoping for!

So we sat down to a great meal of meze and grilled fish at Kalpazankaya Restaurant, where we had a lovely view over the Sea of Marmara, Asian Istanbul looming surprisingly close on the horizon. (We had to fight for a table here — be sure to make reservations if visiting on a weekend.) After eating, we relaxed on the beach a bit and then began a slow, leisurely walk back to the port, about two kilometers away.

There wasn’t much to do on Burgazada; the island’s only museum, dedicated to novelist Sait Faik, was closed for renovation. But I suspect that “doing things” isn’t really the key to enjoying the Princes Islands. We admired the sea, played with stray cats, took pleasure in the lack of cars and city-noise, and wandered around the lively port area before boarding the ferry back home.

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April 17, 2013 at 6:57 am Comments (6)

A Southern Turkish Feast at the Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası

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Serving up traditional food from Hatay, Turkey’s southernmost province, the Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası is a family-owned and operated restaurant which has won a lot of press and gained a loyal following since opening in 2007. We were invited to sample some of their best dishes one early Monday evening… and that’s not the kind of invitation we’re ever going to turn down.

Tuzda-Tavuk

Hatay, squished between the Mediterranean and Syria, has always been an object of contention. Syria argues that Turkey stole the province by rigging the 1939 referendum in which Hatay’s citizens voted to join Turkey. Today, the matter is mostly settled, but Syria has never officially withdrawn its claim to the province. Hatay’s climate is warmer than the rest of Turkey’s, and their cuisine more Middle Eastern.

We met Mehmet at the doors to the Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası, in the neighborhood of Askaray. The son of the restaurant’s founder, Mehmet spent the afternoon with us, introducing us to the food of Hatay and even allowing us into the restaurant’s kitchen to take photos. The Akdeniz is consistently crowded and employs a huge staff, but despite the congestion, the chefs didn’t seem to mind our presence, and it was a lot of fun to watch them work.

The restaurant’s claim to fame is the Tuzda Tavuk — a chicken stuffed with rice, packed in rock salt and then shoved into a huge wood-fired oven to bake for two hours. When ready, it’s wheeled out to the table and set on fire. After the flames are extinguished, the waiter chisels at the rock-hard salt shell until the chicken emerges golden brown and perfectly cooked from its igloo-like prison… and not all that salty. But the highlight is the rice, which is mixed with allspice, currants, crushed almonds and pine nuts. You can also order the same thing with lamb instead of chicken.

We were also able to try the Cerra Kebab, which is a leg of lamb baked inside a clay pot, with garlic, onion and spices. At the table, the pot is smacked open and the steaming contents poured out into a bowl. Just as delicious as the chicken, and more succulent. I could have eaten two pots full.

Meze-Restaurant-Istanbul

Before the main dishes appeared, Mehmet had selected a few of his favorite meze, including humus, muhamarra (a spicy red chili paste with walnuts), tebbuli (white thyme salad), mütebbel (yogurt eggplant sauce) and kısır (a reddish salad of wheat, parsley and tomato paste). I had assumed humus would be a normal part of Turkish cuisine, but it’s actually more Middle Eastern; this was the first time I’d seen it in Istanbul. The mütebbel was possibly my favorite of the bunch, or perhaps the white thyme salad. Or the perfectly spicy muhamarra. It’s hard to say.

We had polished off enough food to sustain a camel for months, and our stomachs were bursting. So when dessert arrived, I suspected that Mehmet was deriving some sadistic joy out of torturing us. But if the torture is being “forced” to eat künefe, you can’t complain too much. You just sit there, endure your punishment, and enjoy every last bite of it. Künefe is Hatay’s most famous dessert: layers of flour and goat cheese, caramelized on top and served with a big glass of milk.

Considering how long the main dishes need to bake, you should call ahead well in advance to both order and reserve a table. But don’t miss out on the best place in Istanbul to try some of Turkey’s most distinctive cuisine.

Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası – Website
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March 20, 2013 at 6:05 pm Comments (4)
Easter Sunday on Burgazada Burgazada is the third-largest of the popular Princes Islands, found just off Istanbul's southern coast in the Sea of Marmara. Around 2000 people live there permanently, but its population swells considerably in the summer... and on sunny Sundays, like the one we stupidly chose for our visit.
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