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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Istanbul: Affordable eating on Princes' Island

While Istanbul is a lovely city filled with adventure at every turn, the Sea of Marmara is equally astounding.  The sea surrounds the city and is home to several clusters of islands.  Our destination for the day was the famous Princes’ Island known as Adalar in Turkish.  A tourist destination for locals and tourists alike.  After quick round of coffee and tea prepared the Turkish way, we started our day.  
The ferry from Kadikoy Terminal took us across and it was an extremely scenic journey.  It was not after 30 minutes through the ride that I realised how big Istanbul really was. From afar, the city seems to be going on and on!

The boat also had street peddler selling some pretzel like bread.  It was the most uninteresting piece of bread but the locals enjoyed it.  

But enjoying it more than the locals are the sea gulls that took every opportunity to scavenge fallen crumbs. The would follow the boat every way of the journey before occasionally settling the ocean for a break before surging back towards us again.
After about an hour and a half, we finally arrived at Princes Island. Out first pit stop? Lunch! Considering this is a tourist hot spot, the food prices here can be astronomical.  Seafood is an obvious rip off.  Very similar like Lantau Island in Hong Kong where every thing is double the norm.  But within close proximity to the city centre is a restaurant called Kosem Restaurant.  This restaurant is super popular and has a couple of branches across Istanbul.  Also note that there is no service unless you order a fish dish. So grab a food tray at the food counter and pick whatever you wanted to eat.  The food is rather affordable so do not hold back:

Kebab w/ Fries & Rice - This mediocre looking dish was definitely tired from the time it has spent sitting on the Doner machines.  The meat from what I can remember was a little tough but in terms of seasoning it was OK.  The surprising highlight on the plate was the rice that was very tasty! I think it had butter in it.

Beef Stew - The world simple might often be reinterpreted as boring, unenthusiastic and plain, yet there is an unsuspecting pleasantry in indulging in a stew that simple and tasty. This was one of those moments.
Shredded chicken with Chili and Cheese - This almost American dish caught our eyes and it was our pick.  The flavoursome sauce was more tomato than chilli and had heaps of other slowly cooked vegetables in it.  So wait, perhaps this is a Ratatouille Chicken? haha.
Mac n’ Cheese - Ok, at this stage maybe I was no longer in Istanbul.  Perhaps I was taking a trip to America haha.  But hey it was good and cheap, so what is there to complain about?!
The total bill for all of us probably settled around $30.  Considering the restaurants right by the jetty were trying to charge us $30 for a seafood dish each, we were chuffed to be fed without having our pockets shredded.  After finishing the meal, we ventured around the island.  But as I cannot cycle like most people know, venturing far on foot was almost impossible. However, with the help of a certain creature I had no issues.  I got myself, a Ferrari and it has 2 horsepower. 
Up and down, through the hills of Princes Island was a nice sight.  The beach-side villas on Prince Island were really rustic.  Set on the terraces, some looked quite poorly maintained but I can imagine a lovely living space beyond the facade.  Some though looked like they were own by an ex-dictator or some imprisoned cronies.  Of everything, the nicest part of the trip would be the tree-line street throughout the island.  It makes you feel forget that you are just an hour away from Istanbul, one of the most populated cities in the world. Its an isolation that I thoroughly enjoyed.
The ride would have been comfortable if not for the smell of manure floating round the cabin.  This is caused by a poop-bag like mechanism between the horses and us! More interestingly, horses like birds have the ability the defecate while on the move.  Not the most gracious of behaviours but these beasts were strong.  However, I do wonder whether these rides are humane.  Sure the horses did not struggle, but carrying passengers up and down the hill is no simple chore.  While it was a great experience I am not so sure whether I would sit these horse carts again.
Our tour ended around 3pm, and since our ferry was not scheduled to depart till 5pm or so, we had some time to sit back and relax.  We chose a nearby cafe for some snacks.  The snack of our choice were Lokmas or deep fried dough coated in sugar syrup.  It is almost like an American doughnut but the texture differed significantly.  Doughnuts are generally fluffy inside from the first bite but the Lokmas had an outer shell with a very airy inside.  Interesting texture but extremely sugary.  One piece was enough for me!
The ride home was fun.  There were so much lesser people on the last boat and the sunset was amazing despite the chilly evening breeze.

Before we reached home, we got to see Maiden’s Tower which is another popular tourist attraction.  
While I cannot understand the fuss, the purplish blue backdrop did accentuate the impressiveness of the lighthouse.


Friday, April 22, 2016

Istanbul: The best Turkish desserts in Istanbul at Grande Kafe.

What does fried wheat strands, rose syrup, endless supply of pistachios and the famous Turkish delight have in common?  They are all delicacies of Istanbul’s history as the melting pot of European and Eastern cultures.  While I am not a dessert person, one place in Istanbul has made me proclaimed that “this is one of the best dessert places I have been to in a long time”, a statement which I have not made for the entire 2014/2015 period till then.

After a trip to the Basilica Cistern, we were craving for some food and the tempting colours of the Grand Cafe or Grande Cafe as the Turks call it lured us in.  

Sugar, sugar, everywhere sugar.

There are plenty of sweets here but majority of the ready to go desserts were Turkish delights, Baklava, Lokmas and such.  Very inviting!  Note that the Turkish delight in Turkey seemed less artificially sweetened compared to the ones I had tasted before coming to Istanbul!

In a true  East meets West fashion, the four of us ended up with three desserts and some tea or rather "chai" in Turkish.  Two were Turkish staples the Kunefe and a Trileche while the other was an American style cheesecake.  What is a Trileche?  It is the pinnacle of simplicity.  consisting of a sponge soaked in mildly spiced milk topped with a creme caramel style burnt syrup.
The soaked spongy cake was a reminiscent of a childhood where I enjoyed dipping everything in my cup of hot Milo.  Biscuits, cake and breads!  And at the very top the Trileche was a very fine tasting caramel layer.  It was sensational.  The Trileche looked like a dessert that does not contain complex techniques or sophisticated flavours but yet it pleased the palate so very well.  I am amazed.

What is a Kunefe?  It was essentially baked cheese topped with intertwining wheat strands that is baked until crisp. Once cooked, it is doused with syrup and topped with crushed pistachio.  
The result is a combination of texture, flavour and visual pleasantry that help produce an outstanding dessert.  The crisp of the wheat strands, fragrance of the pistachio and subtle syrup worked together to make a mildly savoury cheese taste sensational.  It was warm and absolutely pleasing for that cold-rainy day.  It was super good.  I have never had a Kunefe before and having is this once is making me want to have it again (unfortunately other Kunefe that we had in town did not even come close).

Last but not least is the Berry Cheesecake which I believe needs no introduction.  With the Kunefe and Trileche stealing the limelight, there was no space for error with the Cheesecake if it wanted its own 5 minutes of fame.  
Unfortunately, it did not pass my requirement for a good cheesecake.  Whilst everything looked really pretty, it lack that melt in your mouth feel.  A sensation one gets from when the baker properly fine tunes the addition of gelatine, agar or other hardening agents.  This one was really hard which I did not enjoy.  Needless to say, it was the wrong dessert in the wrong place haha.  Still edible nonetheless!


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Istanbul: Popular Sights of Istanbul and a Classic Kebab.

Istanbul, is one of the places that I have always wanted to go since I was a kid.  There is something about this city that is so enchanting. Whether its the never-ending stretches of bustling bazaars,  or the mystical landmarks of the city, I was sold.  Like every other new city I have visited, everything seemed quite normal yet so very foreign.  Our lost faces often earned the glares of the local.  Being ripped off too, soon became part of the experience. Despite all these down sides, I was liking it.  It was an adventure! So much that walking through a deserted street in the middle of the night became a thing of fun rather than an element of concern.

With 3 day and 3 nights, was it possible to travel the city?  The itinerary for us was rather simple.  On the first day, we took in as much of the city basic as we could.   This includes (rather unsurprisingly) the tourist attractions like the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia,  Basilica Cistern, and the Topkapi Palace area.  

These sights are amazing, some more than others.  There is always a queue to go in and for me who tried going into everything, I soon learned that not everything was worth going into.  Which was the best and worst tourist attraction to go into?  

The Best:  Basilica Cistern.
This Basilica was once a source of water for the local community and served the community for many centuries.  Now a converted tourist attraction, the soaring pillars are bragging rights of age old construction done right.  Everything in the Basilica was simply amazing! Peer into the water and also notice some zombie looking fish that has been put into the Basilica to mitigate any mosquito breeding activities.

The OK: Blue Mosque
I have been longing to see the iconic Blue Mosque ever since I was a kid.  For some odd reason I even thought that Aladdin was related to Turkey rather than the Arabs!  But be warned that this icon looks far better on the outside than on inside.  The historians might disagree but for the commoner in me, a long gaze from outside was all I needed to embrace the greatness of the Ottoman Empire.  For the ladies, always remember to cover up as a matter of respect.  Head to toe.

The Worst: Hagia Sophia.
On one end is the iconic Blue Mosque with free entry and on the other end is the “pink” mosque named Hagia Sophia with paid entry.  From the outside, the building marvellously s the skyline with its warm pink tones making it inviting to those seeing it from afar.  But the inside tells a different story.  It was mundane, unfinished and perhaps unmaintained.  It was definitely not worth my dollar.

After all that walking, I was ready for a proper Turkish feed.  For lunch were some good old kebabs at  Sehzade Cag Kebap.
 I can already imagine people frowning and saying “Its like the one I had outside my house”.  Not all kebabs are made equal and the ones at Sehzade Cag Kebap reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend in the Netherlands before; that original Turkish food is very minimalistic and often only used salt and pepper for seasoning.  

The skewers of thinly sliced lamb were a reflection of that.  It was hard to understand it at first but the gamey-smokey lamb skewers were a sign of simplicity rather than a lack of creativity.  I enjoyed it as there were a mix of textures.  Some of the edges were crispy while the middle pieces were a lot more tender.  But in saying that, I think two skewers with several sides was all I could handle.  Anymore and I would have gotten bored!

We also ordered a few other things like the curdled cheese which tasted like solid yoghurt, and the “very spicy” chilli sauce which tasted like salsa. Great accompaniment which lifted the flavours of the lamb kebab!

The very "spicy"  chilli sauce which was more of a Turkish salsa!

The yoghurt condiment:

Part. 2 coming soon!