Turkey: A gusta-Turkey feast!

If there ever was a dream closer to getting caught between the moon and New York City, then it must be to get caught in between two continents. Stepping onto the lands of Istanbul fulfills this fantasy. The 2010 European Capital of Culture is the only city that extends between two continents: Europe and Asia. It felt surreal to be traveling in the city and being in Europe one minute and in Asia the next, literally. Cradled in the Eastern Mediterranean Region, Turkey is – as Plenus DMC&Travel (our host in Turkey) aptly describes it – one country stretching into two continents and defined by thousands of colors. The rich historical heritage that Turkey keeps is evident in the country’s tourism facets, from its diverse infrastructure to the religious landmarks and cultural legacies.

When I first learned about the tour (our airline host was Turkish Airlines), I immediately browsed through the itinerary to pick out the places that I thought I’d enjoy and those which I’d probably wish I skipped. I have always been intrigued by Turkey’s natural landscape and illustrious mosque architecture, not to mention the multicultural traditions it boasts of. As a devout Catholic, I eagerly looked forward to visiting the religious sites. And the poet in me went into full fan-girl mode when I found out we were going to visit Rumi’s gravesite. But what I found most intriguing of all was the Turkish culinary pursuit that I was about to embark on. The tour was, after all, a gustatory adventure. Just before flying via Turkish Airlines, my friend texted me to say “Bring home Turkish delights!” And I wondered if, like the sweets, the rest of Turkish cuisine would be a delight to the palate as well. I have heard so much about Turkish cuisine, and looking at the list of kebab and seafood restaurants that we were scheduled to visit just upped my enthusiasm. And because these things excited me to no end, it seemed impossible to identify a section in the itinerary that I would have chosen to remove.

Looking back, there was one thing I wished we could have gone without in the tour. But it was something so necessary that the trip wouldn’t have been possible without it in the first place: the bus rides. We would spend four to eight hours just sitting inside, constrained to watch the stunning scenery of the countryside. I was so glad I brought my Kindle with me. I had more than enough time re-reading my Harry Potter series in between viewing the citadels and the hills, the vast farming areas, the buildings and residential areas, and everything else that the bus passed by as we traveled around from one tourist destination to another. If only there was a way (perhaps through a broomstick ala Potter sorcery) for us to magically appear from Cappadocia to Ayvalik then back to Antalya! The only time I truly appreciated getting stuck inside the bus was when it was too cold outside. When we got to Turkey, it was cold but it wasn’t snowing yet. Still, it was almost intolerable for a tropical island girl like me. All in all, the Turkey trip could really have been perfect. But with the long bus rides as a major part of the adventure, it’s been demoted to being the next best thing.It was a glorious eight-day trip, eight thrilling days of breathtaking sceneries, awe-inspiring touch of art and culture, and unforgettable gustatory feasts.

Captivated by Cappadocia

Although Istanbul was the first Turkish city we landed on, it wasn’t our first tourist destination. We did save the best for last, after all. The first town we explored was Cappadocia, which was known for the valley of “fairy chimneys”—-gigantic cones of volcanic rock formed mainly due to wind and rains. Sightseeing at the Cappadocian region is like watching postcard pictures dissolve into reality; the views are astonishing: a remarkable blend of colors and shapes. What’s even more astounding is that these picture-perfect sceneries are a synthesis of the hands of God and of man. Some are natural formations, while others – like the caves and citadels – were carved and shaped by humans. Our first official tourist stop was the Underground City. Known locally as Kaymakli Yeralti Sehri, the underground city was registered to the World Heritage List in 1985. It’s impossible not to be impressed with this cave city that spans a shocking eight-floors down. Being a devout Catholic, I had goosebumps walking into the cave and climbing down to find the shelter that early Christians made in order to practice their faith away from persecution and death. The tunnels that lead down to the rooms and common areas were narrow and the path was steep. For once in my life, I was thankful for being short. I didn’t have to bend so much or hit my head as often as my taller tour mates did. I was bewildered by how a thousand families could have survived living under such conditions, literally living under a rock. They had relatively small family rooms, a church, wineries and storage rooms, kitchens, and stables all under one cave. I found it interesting, however, that these carved shelters were said to be cold during the summer and warm during winter. There were arrows that pointed to which direction must tourists climb down and back up to reach the entrance, and as I struggled not to slip and bump my forehead on the roofs (convincing myself that I could be taller than I thought), I marveled at what the underground city reflects. All throughout history, we’ve witnessed success stories about how humans survived seemingly impossible circumstances simply because they had the will to survive, and in the case of early Christians—they had to passion to profess their faith. The visit to Kaymakli’s cave city took only a few minutes, but the path going in and getting out isn’t exactly smooth and easy. Some sections had stairs, but others were just a bumpy trail.

Mete, our tour guide from Plenus DMC&Travel, jokingly revealed that he really schedules the visit to Kaymakli before lunch. By the time we’ve hiked up back to the entrance of the city, we were bound to be famished. And we were! But this didn’t last long because soon enough, we were alighting the bus. And then there it was, our first real taste of Turkish cuisine: Uranos Sarikaya. Most commonly known as the Cave Restaurant, Uranos Sarikaya is both visually appealing and gastronomically satisfying. Upon entrance, you traverse a dimly lit passageway. It’s a rather spacious tunnel with the walls adorned by framed artwork and sophisticated modern furniture. You will even pass by their kitchen. The wooden doors are open, giving you a view of their Chefs busily preparing your meal. At the end of the path is a grand circular area that is further divided into smaller chambers. Yes, it is a cave, but it’s a modern and stylish cave. The subchambers are ideal for tour groups (the entire restaurant itself can cater to about 320 people) because you get to enjoy a bit of privacy while still having viewing access to the center circle where a local plays good music to serenade the diners.

My first taste of Turkish flavor was courtesy of that day’s soup offering, the Mercimek. With lentils as its main ingredient, the soup reminded me of minestrone. However, the tomato taste is not as strong as it disappears into the blend of lentils, onions, salt, pepper, and lemon. It was my first meeting with a lentil soup, and it certainly wasn’t the last. All throughout the tour, we had lentil soup at least once in day’s meal. No complaints though, because the soup is a great prelude to any meal. Along with the lentil soup was a serving of freshly baked bread. Turkey is well-known for its great-tasting bread. The Ottoman culture (which had a massive influence on Turkish cookery) had a belief that after Adam was driven out of Paradise, he had learned how to bake bread from Angel Gabriel. And true enough, Turkish bread tastes heavenly! Thereafter, we were served with another soup—a bowl of what appeared to me as similar to our local pork-and-beans. It tasted quite the same too, but after learning that the pork included in the soup was very expensive, I looked at it differently and placed it way above the canned food pedestal. The main star of our meal, however, was the Çömlekkebabı, or the pottery kebab.

There was even a small presentation as the chef and the servers wheeled in the cart holding the pot. Cooked in an earthenware for two to three hours, the meat and vegetable casserole had flavors reminiscent of our native adobo. The tradition of kebab can be traced back to the days of Turks cooking meat over campfires. The presentation (scoping out the spectacularly soft meat out of the jar) was impressive, but I learned that the good taste of the meat was not dependent on the way it was cooked (the tenderness, yes) or how it was marinated. How the meat tasted depended greatly on what breed of lamb or cattle it came from. Nevertheless, my first main course did not disappoint me. And because like every other Filipino, I considered rice as very important in any meal, i was thankful that they served pilaf to be paired with the kebab. The Turks also have a variety of ways to cook rice, but the most common preparation is mixing rice with butter with salt and sugar (giving rise to plain pilaf). What sets the pilaf apart from our regular rice is that it doesn’t stick or get messily clomped together when you scoop it. It can even roll off your spoon. As culmination to one ambrosial lunch, we were served with three choices of desserts: the baklava, milk pudding, and fresh fruits. Of course, I had to try the baklava. It was sweet and flaky with distinct textures of nuts. It was a little too sweet for my tastes. The milk pudding, Muhallebi, was new in my desserts vocabulary. It looked like a larger serving of our usual crème brulee. At first taste, you can instantly pinpoint the milky flavor combined with what I guessed to be rice bits and cinnamon.

Powered by such a delectable dining experience, we headed to Goreme Valley and visited the churches. It was an open air museum and we climbed up to visit one small church after another (I picked the wrong day to wear two-inch heeled boots). Hollowed out from volcanic ash, the churches fashioned amazingly intact fresco paintings of saints after whom the churches were named. I felt like I was trapped in a documentary show for historical art. It was one experience that delighted both my religious and artistic sides, one experience I wouldn’t soon forget.

In the evening, before we retired to the cozy Lykia Lodge, we visited a local pottery store where we watched the locals making clay pots and painting the same with intricate designs that you can only see in their region. We walked into a huge room filled with displays of pottery products, from teacups and plates to wall clocks and jars. We all had to move carefully so as not to break anything. There were no damages whatsoever on the fragile pieces, but there was quite a few on the tourist’s wallet.

Konya’s Cuisine

I first learned of the Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi when I was studying poetry for my Masters. His poems on love and ecstasy are so brilliant, I was a Rumi fangirl after reading only one verse. Known as Mevlana, Rumi is a highly respected personality and honored as the founder of the Whirling Dervishes (a used-tobe secret society whose sacred dances show how they achieve union with God through body movements). His grave can be found in the center of the Selçuk Empire, the City of Konya. Although we were not allowed to take pictures inside the Mevlana Museum, I decided to be cheesy and just take snapshots with my mind. Apart from seeing the texts that Rumi wrote, one vision I cannot forget is the image of locals lining up to breathe in the smell of a part of Mohammed’s beard which was enclosed in a tall glass case. It’s impossible not to be impressed with the rich religious and cultural customs that Turkey has, and to fi nd myself within that divine presence is simply overwhelming.

Lunch soon followed at Konya Mutfagi Meram where we enjoyed Seljuk cuisine. We were served with the usual appetizers, lentil soup and vegetable salad. We dined at the second floor of the restaurant, surrounded by glass walls. The afternoon sun shone brightly against the tables. Dishes were served on a shiny white plate that seemed to disappear into the white mantle, which gave me the illusion that the food was floating. The pide bread was served not on a plate but on a flat, wooden pan. The flat bread was also sprinkled with sesame seeds. Apart from the pide, another standout in this Konyan restaurant was the lamb roast. The Konya Firin Kebabi reminded me of the same taste (but with so much softer meat) of the crispy pata. Served with large chunks of onion, the roasted mutton tasted so much better when you squeeze lemon onto it. I’m not a big eater of meat, but I finished the entire thing! I paired it off with pide, one of the many preparations Turks do with their bread. It is incredibly thin and tasty! Pide is made to be eaten immediately after it is baked. Most of us were reminded of a thin, pizza crust without any toppings when we first tasted pide. But in Konya, they actually had an offering of pide with a variety of toppings: meat and veggie mixtures with sauce. My tourmates and I baptized it “the Turkish pizza.”

Apart from the lamb roast and the pide, another showstopper on the menu was the Turkish apple tea. Believe it or not, Turkish coffee – although it is famed for its strength and thickness – is not the main source of caffeine for the locals. They brew tea over boiling water for this. Served in a clear, dainty glass that was shaped with a curve which reminded me of the Coca-Cola bottle, the deep red-colored tea was a hot combination of fresh fruity taste and sweet aroma. As you sip the sweet, hot apple goodness, you can feel the warmth radiating through the small glass. Although they do give you a sugar cube in case you wanted to make it sweeter, the apple tea is one saccharine perfection on its own. I always end up asking for apple tea after a meal. However, not all restaurants served it. Oftentimes, it was only regular Turkish tea which was available. But in the event that it could be served after our meals, I always made sure to ask for two.

Enthralled by Ephesus

I was raised by my mom to be a huge devotee of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to be able to be in the same house where the Blessed Virgin spent her last days was an intensely uplifting experience. The bus had to climb up a hilltop to get to the Meryemana. Mete told us that the Blessed Virgin had to ride a donkey to get to the top of the hill, and that was the only other moment I truly appreciated the bus ride. The atmosphere at Meryemana is sublime, everyone seemed quiet and contemplative, saying a prayer or two even before reaching the line leading toward the house entrance. Although it was considered a place of worship, the small brick-walled house is visited by tourists coming from all over the world, believers and nonbelievers alike. Upon entering, I said a quick prayer of thanks for having been given the chance to see for myself and walk inside the house of someone I call Mama Mary. It was small and hollow. There were no rooms, only a side exit. There were fresco paintings of the Blessed Virgin on the walls of the house, and these were protected only by glass frames. They had on display some items from visiting popes, and once again I felt the hair on my arms rising. It was an inspiring moment, and I wished I could have stayed for one whole day in that house—just to touch the same walls that housed the mother of Christ. Outside the house was a trail that led down to the wall of wishes. People wrote their wishes on small pieces of paper (a majority of which were actually tissue paper) and put it right next to a million other wishes from tourists and locals. It made me wonder, how many of these wishes have come true? How many have remained unfulfilled? How many of them still hang on top of another wish, how many are blown away by the wind, how many fall to the ground and get stepped on, shattered? But more importantly, how many of these wishers believed that their wish will someday come true? I didn’t really know the exact figure, but I was sure that they could add one more to that number: me.

It was like time-traveling. That’s how I would describe our afternoon walk throughout the preserved ancient city of Ephesus. This former capital of Roman Asia Minor housed a Great Theater that had a 25,000 seating capacity, the very same theater where St. Paul stood and addressed the biblical Ephesians. It was a long walk, but the path and the charming view of the ruins made it more of a romantic exploration of history rather than a tiring and boring stroll in an ancient city. Marfee told me that her favorite part of the Ruins of Ephesus was the public toilet, and indeed, it was a big hit in our tour group. It was a public toilet, all right—toilet seats were arranged next to each other in a rather small room, allowing the people to catch up will doing their business! My favorite part of the ruins, however, was the library. It was like something out of the history books—a gigantic frontage complete with pillars and ancient letters. I was a little disappointed when I walked inside though, finding nothing but hollow space. I guess I was hoping to see more interesting architecture and carvings, maybe a hint of vandalism or two. All the sightseeing and reacquainting ourselves with history undoubtedly took a lot of our energies and certainly called for some gastronomic replenishment. In Ephesus/Izmir, we dined in two notable restaurants: Ipekyolu and Saglam.

In Turkey, there are about 800 recipes to cook an eggplant, and Ipekyolu Restaurant offered one of the best—it simply combined the eggplant with vegetables and cooked so well that the veggies were soft, almost melting in your tongue. I noticed that in Turkish cookery, eggplants were usually combined with tomatoes and an abundant amount of olive oil. In Ipekyolu, we likewise had an abundance of tomatoes. We were served with a smooth, creamy, and somewhat milky tomato soup followed by chicken meat with tomatoes and herbs. Even our rice had tomatoes and pepper! One of the more interesting dishes I’ve tried is the cucumber with potato filling. The cucumber was a little crunchy and the potatoes were so soft and the potato its taste was almost absent. I could barely taste the potatoes as its flavor seemed to have dissolved and given way to the milky taste of the sauce. I found out that, in Turkey, these vegetable dishes are often considered a second course. The basic preparation would simply be to cut through the vegetable (may it be eggplant or cucumber) and then combine it with other vegetables (tomatoes, pepper, onions, garlic, artichoke, etc.) and then cook it either in butter or olive oil. Vegetable dishes, whether served fresh as a salad or stuffed with rice and other veggies, are always present in Turkish meals—at least, in all the meals I’ve had. I told myself if I stayed a few more weeks in Turkey, I was going to be converted into a vegetarian. They had so many interesting and delicious ways of cooking and mixing their vegetables, that you’ll see them in a whole new light! Not to mention, you’re switching to a really healthy diet. For dessert, the restaurant had pudding—the dark brown pudding was chocolate and the pink one was strawberry. A lot of people in the tour nodded their heads as they tasted the chocolate pudding, so I had to try it to see for myself just how good it was. It was soft and smooth inside the mouth, having the right amount of sweetness. It wasn’t as sugary intoxicating as the baklava, nor did it have morsels of rice to add to its texture like the milk pudding; but, the chocolate pudding was – hands down – one of the best desserts I’ve tried in Turkey.

In Saglam, I was able to taste the best kebab Turkey offered! They gave us the option of having a regular lamb and beef kebab or a spicy one. Of course, I chose the spicy kebab. The reddish brown meat on a stick was superb! It was flavorful and juicy. I don’t really know the restaurant’s secret recipe for their kebab, but I have learned from talking to our local companions that there are a variety of ways to prepare ground meat. Sometimes, they are grilled, fried, or even boiled with special herbs and spices. The meat may have a special marinade—a possible mixture of onion, garlic, salt, and pepper so as to strengthen its taste after it has been cooked. The spicy kebab was paired with plain pilaf. For a moment, I felt like I was back home eating plain rice with barbecue—except that the barbecue was more spicy and far from sweet. The dinner at Saglam was also memorable because we were serenaded once again with Turkish romantic songs. It gave me a picture of how the Turks dine—good food, good wine, good music, and great company.

Traversing Troy

Having taught mythology as part of a Literature subject a few years back, I was really looking forward to seeing the city of Troy with my own eyes. And because the city was mythological anyway, I was also daydreaming that perhaps there was a chance that Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, and Orlando Bloom would greet me when I got there. My fantastic hopes were quashed, as there was only a symbolic, huge wooden horse that greeted me at the entrance. There wasn’t much to see in Troy, sadly. But the knowing all the (real) backstory and the jucier myths made walking through the grassy paths and seeing the stone walls more interesting. We had lunch afterwards at Gelibolu, a seafood restaurant that offered the best calamari; I’m pretty sure that if it boiled down to choosing between Helen of Sparta and the calamari, the Prince of Troy would have gone for the splendid seafood instead.

What’s amazing about Gelibolu (yes, apart from the praise-worthy menu) is its location—right beside the sea, so close to the waters that every time the wave hits, it splashes on the deck. It made outside dining impossible that day, but I didn’t mind. It was too cold for my liking anyways. I liked my calamari hot, and not frozen by the cold weather and made wet by splashing sea water.

Seafood is another one of Turkey’s main cooking specialties. Its landscape, after all, is surrounded by the Sea of Marmara, the Aegean, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea. The coastal cities are the best place to to go to if you’re looking for a seafood trip. Bosphorus fish have been specifically named by travelers to be most delicious! Turkey offers seafood dishes in a variety of ways—grilled, fried, baked, stuffed with vegetables, and – of course – cooked in a lot of olive oil. Fish kebabs are also a common offering in Turkish seafood restaurants. But like I said, the best calamari in Turkey can be found in Gelibolu—golden rings of crunchy, outer layers and a soft, inner squid flesh. I didn’t even need a sauce to boost the flavor. I considered the calamari an entire meal on its own!

In love with Istanbul

Highlighting the trip to Turkey, of course, was the final visit to its capital: Istanbul. Revered as the gateway to the Orient, this European Union candidate is home to beautiful mosques, busy markets and bazaars, and festive culinary hotspots. The day before our flight home, we visited the Peninsula, Sultanahmet. I thought the mosques would be in a huge, spacious area with parking lots filled with tourist buses. I was surprised to find that we had to drive up into this narrow, cobblestoned street that was lined up with quaint restaurants and hotels.

The Blue Mosque, which is a product of Ottoman architecture dating back to the 17th century, is nicknamed as such because of the blue tiles inside, not because the exterior was painted with the same color. Its proper name is Sultanahmet Mosque and it is best known for the six minarets and dome cascades. Like in many other places of worship, we were asked to remove our shoes and women who were wearing skirts had to wear an additional wrap before entering the mosque. Mosques in Istanbul were patterned after Muhammad’s house in Medina. Usually, it consisted of an enormous yard around which cottages were built. Mosques were primarily a haven for private religious worship and political gatherings. Over the years, the style of mosques have evolved into that of an open yard type. However, during the Ottoman reign, the architecture was improved and the result of which are what you see in Istanbul today. The Blue mosque is where most religious celebrations were held and pilgrims likewise began their holy journey to Mecca with this mosque as starting point. The mosque has outer and inner courtyards and a central building.

We also visited the ancient basilica of St. Sophia (Haghia Sophia, which means “divine wisdom”), built by Constantine the Great in the 4th centure and is considered as one of the greatest architectural wonders in history. Once known as the center of relligious life during the Byzantine rule, this domed basilica holds brilliant mosaics and Islamic-Turkish decorations. It also housed an unparalleled set of collections of objects and jewelry that belonged to former Sultans. I was particularly interested in a literal “hole in the wall” inside the basilica. In one of the walls near the exit, there was small circle that seemed to have been carved inwardly, forming a somewhat shallow cylinder. According to Mete, locals and visitors would insert their thumb into the hole and move their hand in a 360-degree turn as they make a wish. The gesture will help in having the wish granted. But he also warned us that, because of the many people sticking their bare thumbs into the hole, it could be full of germs. I agreed. And so I just took a picture of the whole and wished that my tissue-paper list of dreams that hung on the Meryemana’s wall would be enough.

I will go back to Istanbul one day, and when I do, I will make sure to have dinner at the Konyali Saray Restaurant in Topkapi Palace. I wonder how even more beautiful the view from Konyali would be at night. At lunch time, it offers a spectacular view of the Bosphorus. Daintily decored tables and chairs lined up beside a rock-deck, giving diners an unobstructed view. Great food, blue skies, boats, birds, plants, and sunrise—you name every ingredient there is to make for a nice, sunny day in Istanbul, and Konyali will give it to you through the dining experience it showcases. We had dolma for lunch- –which is basically stuffed vegetable. The aubergine, or eggplant, has an irreplaceable role in Turkish cuisine. Throughout my week in Turkey, I’ve tasted several eggplant-based dishes and they were generally all superb. Konyali’s eggplant was moist and succulent, its green color providing contrast with the side dish of tomatoes, lettuce garnishings, and lemon. Lemon is equally important in Turkish cuisine. I put lemon in almost everything and it works like magic! It brought out the flavor in the food like a subtle kick to the palate.

As much as lunch at Konyali was both visually satisfying and gastronomically pleasing, there was one other famed Turkish beverage that hogged the limelight that day: the famous Turkish coffee.

Born and raised in the land of barako brew, I usually drink four to five cups of coffee everyday. I was challenged to hear that Turkish coffee is so strong it was served in a tiny coffee cup and on a few sips could keep you wired and awake for days. I learned later on that some of these Turkish coffee facts are actually just myths. For instance, Turkish coffee is not like the regular brew we have in the Philippines. We drink coffee in the mornings, to keep us awake in midday, and perhaps over small talk to keep the dreariness away. Turks resort to tea for those purposes, because Turkish coffee is actually drunk on special occasions. It is only thick (the little brews still have grounds that are susceptible to getting swallowed) but it is not that strong. Mete told me that the coffee beans were imported from Latin America but were grounded and blended in Turkey. There are three options, he said, when having Turkish coffee. You can have it bitter, with medium sugar, or with a lot of sugar. I took a sip of my coffee and I told him, “So you ordered bitter for me?”

With a straight face, he said, “No, that’s the one with lots of sugar.”

I like sweets, but I like my coffee somewhat bitter. I don’t like it creamy or milky. I like having the strong, bitter aftertaste. Turkish coffee achieved that with flying colors! We had about two more days of stay in Istanbul that time, and I found myself ordering Turkish coffee whenever possible. On my last day in Turkey, I remember consuming about three cups of Turkish coffee. The satiating taste, I guess, is tied to a pleasant experience, making the coffee even more satisfactory. I would have Turkish coffee while talking with the ladies in the tour group to discuss life and relationships, or sip it on my own in some corner café watching the sun dance and the sea sparkle as children ran around feeding doves in the pier. It is also noteworthy that Mete read my future after I drank my first cup of Turkish coffee, just by looking at the left-over grounds in the small cup. The practice is similar to reading tea leaves and predicting one’s fortune.

During our final night in Istanbul, we strolled around the covered Grand Bazaar. It was the ultimate shopping spree. Istanbul is home to a multitude of open street markets and shopping malls, brand shops and boutique stores; but, the Grand Bazaar is famous for its prime offerings of Turkish delights and other delicacies, carpets and rugs, ceramics, embroideries, pottery, leather and suede products, clothes and bags, and whatever Evil Eye-inspired merchandise you can imagine (from keychains to necklaces to table mantles to rings and bangles). It’s easy to get lost in the Grand Bazaar, mind you. It’s a massive collection of souvenir shops, with good looking storekeepers! Yes, these Turkish men are quite charming. Just one smile from them and you might end up buying a dozen boxes of Turkish delights.

At a glance, Turkish cuisine is diverse and it emphasizes the flavor of its main ingredients (meat, seafood, vegetables, grain, etc.) rather than the seasonings. Filipinos are fond of adding a dash of soy sauce or chili powder or what other seasoning we can cook up to satisfy our taste buds. This is where Turkish cuisine is different. I also noticed that everything is quite healthy—a lot of the meals were served with vegetable salads or were paired with vegetables. Turkish cuisine do have meals which are redolent of our native dishes, but they are distinct because of the ingredients they use, and how they are not dependent on seasoning like most Filipino dishes are. Turkish food and beverages are also highly connected to spirituality. Their cooking practices play a significant role in their religion. I noticed this throughout the tour. From the underground cities to the majestic mosques, there were always rooms for kitchens and wineries. Food – cooking and consuming it – is laden with respect and divination. So the next time you try out a Turkish meal, remember that it’s not just about filling your stomach. It’s also about having your spirituality nourished.

There are so many fascinating things about Turkey—their diverse culinary culture, their historical landmarks, the beautiful mosques, the iconic tourist destinations, the religious pilgrimage sights, everything! It really is no wonder that millions of tourists come to Turkey to experience it. But no matter what books you read or what ads or commercials you see about Turkey, none of those would be enough to really give you an idea of what it’s like to actually experience Turkey. You do have to feel its weather on your skin, to live it and breathe it, to taste Turkey with your own senses. So if you’re just about to start planning on where to go for your next holiday escape, put Turkey on top of your list. Eat the spicy kebab and stuffed eggplants, pray in the mosques and underground churches, watch the whirling dervishes as they perform their sacred dances, go shopping to your heart’s content at the bazaars—do everything! If you do all these in Istanbul, I guarantee you won’t regret a single thing. It’s all worth it.