Turkey and I celebrated our two week anniversary with a meal which has shot to the top of both CMJ and my Turkey highlights list. Maybe it is just the honeymoon period but Turkey and I seem to be doing quite well so far, it’s given me plenty of fresh salads, kebabs with succulent meat cooked over hot coals and more cay (tea) than the Scots or the Brits could even dream of mustering.
Turkey has shared with me its east and south east coastlines, allowing me to laze on both pebble and sand beaches, jump off wooden boats into perfectly clear waters and to hike across mountain ridges down to places like the one above. Last night though, Turkey and I were in travel survival mode, or so I thought.
It was to be night in Antalya, a city of 1 million people so that we didn’t have to combine flights eastward with a long bus ride today. Antayla itself might not have much to see except for a few ruins (but so does pretty much everywhere in Turkey), its chaotic, has burger kings and shopping malls. Tourists cling for dear life to the old town, Kaleici, with cobbled streets, soft lighting at night and a plethora of B&B’s and restaurants with menus in English.
I’ve had plenty of good meals at restaurants with menus in English so far this trip, nay, even ones with pictures of the food on the menu but last night CMJ and I decided to ditch our B&B’s recommended eats, not even look at trip advisor (how I love/hate/mostly hate you) and head out of the quaint old town into the commercial district.
We passed about six shoe shops and I didn’t go in, a row of bridal boutiques and about four empty kebab shops. It wasn’t looking good on the food front. Then we spied, below street level, a small restaurant, brimming with people. We asked in our best international sign language to look at the menu and were waved inside to view fresh fish and an array of mezes, the Turkish share plates that arrive before every meal. “Is ok? Fish fresh” we were asked when the staff pointed to a dish of uncooked fish. “Fish, good, ok” we responded and sat down and waited.
We had no idea what was coming. Around us sat tables of turkish men, smoking and drinking raki, only grazing on the dishes of fish and dips before them. As our food arrived we adopted the approach of two people who have spent almost 3 months only in each other’s company, polite conversation disappeared and as the dishes arrived one by one, we ate. Greedily and quickly.
I was won over by the salad. Simply cabbage, scallions, tomato and some bitey vinegarette. Then dolma, rice wrapped in vine leaves but served warm in a tomato broth.
By this time, CMJ and I were buzzing. Perhaps it was the man sized beer in front of CMJ but the closest thing to alcohol I had was the salad dressing and I couldn’t keep my feet still under the table. If the mezes were this good, what would they bring us next? I scanned my neighbours tables for clues, some had what seemed to be pickled fish fillets, others rows of grilled fish. It was going to be good whatever it was.
And it was. Small bluefish (a popular fish here in Turkey), I think dusted lightly in breadcrumbs and then wrapped around rice, flavoured with spices so that it balanced on the fine line between sweet and savoury. Leaving the skins on the fish meant that it had a bit of the crunch factor, balancing the soft rice perfectly. CMJ and I were glad that we had learnt how to say “very good” in Turkish and repeated it enthusiastically at the staff.
Then, when we thought it could not get any better, we were brought cinekop, another type of blue fish, fresh from the Black Sea. Grilled and served with a simple salad, it was just great. The fish was tender and sweet and I thought I was enjoying myself until tapped on the shoulder by the owner who insisted that I down tools and eat them with my hands. Then I was really enjoying myself.
We finished up with the obligatory cay. This is probably a good time to explain that the Turkish love cay their tea is bitter and served black with two or three lumps of sugar on the side. Milk or honey would be tea heresy. Don’t even think about lemon and if you think you don’t need that extra sugar in your diet, think again, put it in, stir and vow to walk up more stairs to burn it off.
With our tea came one more surprise, findik ezmesi, a paste of hazelnuts, sugar and I think butter. Spread thinly on a plate and served with only forks, it was like nutella served in a form suitable for a dinner party.
Over our chai we chatted to the chef, Dagistan and scribbled words in our respective languages down for each other then we were offered cigarettes (which I think meant we were now friends) . It was, in spite of the excellent food, my favourite part of the night, a reward for venturing past the safety of the kaleici.*
Genclik Mah, Isiklar Cad 2
Gokhan Apt No 15/B
* The restaurant is only about 500m from one end of the Kaleici, near the stadium and the bus station (there are many in Antayla) on Ataturk Cadesi.