I have fallen a bit behind in my blog entries, but my vacation is going by so quickly, that it is hard to stay on top of everything. Last night we went to a concert at Aya Eirene, a Byzantine church in Topkapi Palace that was never converted to a mosque. I did not get to visit the church, so my knowledge of its history is limited. What I do know is that it is called Aya Eirene, which means Holy Peace, and it was never converted to a mosque, because the mother of Mehmet the Conquerer was Greek, so he left it for her. It is also the only Byzantine church with its apex and nave fully intact. Please correct me if I am wrong about any of that information. We saw Rufus Wainwright perform in this Byzantine church, as part of the Istanbul Caz (Jazz) Festival, sponsored by the Istanbul Culture Foundation. It is not so often that one gets to sit in a fully intact Byzantine church inside the grounds of Topkapi Palace, and listen to beautiful music. Anyway, afterwards we went over to the Seven Hills hotel, which is in between the Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque, but set back in the quieter streets of the area. They have a lovely rooftop restaurant, and the view of the crescent moon shining between the minarets of the Blue Mosque, complete with birds flying in the moonlight, was one of the most spectacular views I have ever had. We ordered a few mezes (eggplant for me of course!), and drank raki. The food was simple and delicious, but it was the view that made that meal memorable. During the day the Sultanahmet neighborhood is crammed with tourists and shop owners trying to lure you to see their goods, but at around 6-7 o'clock in the evening, locals go out to the cafes and play backgammon and drink tea. It is so pleasant to be in that neighborhood of the evening, enjoying the monuments in the peace and quiet.
The night before I had dragged my family across the Bosphorous to Kadikoy, where we ate at Ciya, a restaurant whose chef I have been reading about for a few years. Musa Dagdeviren travels around Turkey gathering recipes from different regions (usually learning from home cooks), in order to compose his interesting menu. I knew that it was going to be great when a giant puffed up bread arrived at the table, inflated to make it resemble a blow fish, covered with black and tan sesame seeds. We went inside and put together a little plate of meze: sea vegetables, smoked eggplant in yogurt, wheat in yogurt, humus, muhamara (red peppers with walnuts), and lahmacun (ground lamb baked on a very thin dough). For my main dish I had little meatballs stewed with cherries in a light tomato broth. The rest of my family ordered lamb kebabs of different sorts, and I think that everyone was pleased. Turks know how to cook meat. And to my relief, it is never covered in some heavy sauce, or paired with a pound of mashed potatoes. The meat itself is of good, natural quality, and the juices are enough of a flavoring.
For dessert we ordered a variety of the offerings on the menu. There were tomatoes, which were candied with sugar and lemon, and actually tasted quite like guava paste. We had pistachio baklava, and a semolina cake filled with pistachio, served with a meringue cream. But the most interesting dessert was the candied walnuts. It was made with young whole walnuts, including the shell, which were cooked in a sugar syrup along with other aromatics. It basically was a dark ball, that once cut through the center, had a light brown outline of what we recognized as the walnut.
Getting to the Asian side in the early evening can take a long time with traffic, but Istanbul has a long history without the bridges connecting the two continents, and has used ferry boats in some form or another for too long for me to even guess. Crossing over the Bosphorous at sunset, facing the Golden Horn, it was hard to imagine that my daily routine involves being crammed on the 6 train listening to the monotonous voice of woman telling people to stand clear of the closing doors, rather than the echoes of the call to prayer that ring out across the rolling sea.
I put up some photos from these experiences on flickr, so please check them out: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kitchencaravan/2651675069/in/photostream/