Category: Travel Planning: Where to Eat

What and Where to Eat in Istanbul, Turkey

The fastest way to my heart is through my stomach; feed me while we’re in a place I’ve never been before and we’ll forever be friends. Certainly the fastest way to learn about a culture is through its food, and often that begins on its bustling streets.

Francine, Lucy, Justin and I spent a long winter weekend in Istanbul, Turkey earlier this year to get to know the only country that sits on two continents. We had to be efficient and see as much of the most popular tourist spots within our time frame and all the walking we did allowed us to graze in different neighborhoods and try a variety of food.

Outside the mosques and museums were the vendors that sell simit and sahlab. Simit resembles a pretzel covered in sesame seeds, but is lighter and more fluffy. It’s a bit bland without butter or jam, but it was a good bite when we were in a pinch to keep me from being grouchy. Sahlab is a hot milk tea served with cinnamon. Traditionally, it’s made out of salep, or orchid water, but the drink’s popularity had led to the decline of wild orchids, and cornstarch is now more commonly used. I loved how a thin layer forms at the top and you have to risk a burnt tongue to slurp through the rest of it. Once cool enough to drink though, it’s subtlety sweet and warms the bones.

In Balik Pazari, or the fish market, I ate mussels stuffed with rice, pine nuts and currants called midye dolmas. The vendors have the mussels arranged in several rows, and at first glance they look raw, but all you have to do is pick and open one up to pop the contents into your mouth. It was my favorite snack in Istanbul and if we didn’t have to keep moving, I would have stayed standing next to the cart and have eaten more than a dozen! The vendors also served battered mussels deep-fried in a skewer and then slathered with white garlic sauce.

In Taksim, to get away from the sea of people, Justin and I stepped aside to eat shawarma, or meat roasting on a vertical spit, (kebap means “roasted”) and then shaved to fill a pita with some lettuce, onions and tomato. It didn’t need any sauce because the meat was so fresh, juicy and cooked just right. Köfte, or meatballs, are not ball-shaped at all but are flat like hamburgers, and oh-so-tasty even from the small restaurant next to the tram. As nomads, the Turks were limited with what they could cook over an open fire, so it’s not a surprise that the two are the most familiar to even those who have not been to the country.

The Turks also eat their meat raw, inspired by the same nomads who carried spiced and raw meat in their saddles. A bit of bulgur is kneaded with some spiced ground lamb and served with cilantro, supposedly to keep stomach problems away. I absolutely loved these çig köfte because they reminded me of steak tartare. Its spiciness was kept at bay with a squirt of fresh lemon juice and some lettuce leaves.

Lahmacun is another version of the pizza, only this time the bread is as thin as a crepe and lightly covered with chopped lamb, onions, and tomatoes. From the same restaurant, Sur Ocakbasi Restaurant near Arab Street, we also had a crusted dome stuffed with rice and more pine nuts and currants. It would make any Filipino rice-happy. There was a large sizzling plate topped with roasting lamb chunks and red and green bell peppers; warm, fresh pita bread that looked more like nan because it was so big, and an assortment of mezes I just wanted to bathe in because I was excited and happy to eat.

There are these roasted corn kernels in the streets of Vefa that reminded me so much of the Filipino cornick that all I wanted was a sprinkle of paprika and lime juice to make the taste pop–pun intended–out more. They put your order in a paper bag printed with red and white stripes reminiscent of carnival popcorn.

In the town of Kanlica on the Asian side of Turkey during a quick excursion across the Bosphorus River, we tried their special yogurdu, or yogurt, with confectionary sugar. Look at how happy I am here with the fur hat I scored from the Grand Bazaar:

When we weren’t eating on the streets, we were sitting down on carpets. The worst meal we had was from Han Kebab House outside the entrance of Gülhane Park by the Topkapi Palace. Later during our stay in Istanbul, we came across more than one branch and realized despite the Turkish fez that the waiters were wearing, that it probably was not the most authentic representation of Ottoman cuisine. Right by the window were three women massaging and rolling out dough for the crepes they sold inside. Their marketing tool worked because we walked in and paid double for overcooked cubed beef in tomato sauce and a sizzling beef plate that quickly fizzled. Funnily enough, the crepes were the best of the lot stuffed with cheese and spinach.

A typical Turkish meal begins with a selection of mezes, or appetizers. I can make mezes a meal in themselves but there are so much Turkish food to try that I didn’t do any of that sort during our trip. Mezes often include several types of eggplant, called patlican; ezme, a fiery hot salad of red peppers; and dolmalar, anything from peppers or vine leaves stuffed with rice, pine nuts, cumin and mint. Sound Greek enough to you? I know; just don’t say that out loud! Though we had a lot of meat, what I loved most about Turkish food are these touches of vegetables with our meals.

My traveling companions may disagree with me here, but the best meal I had was at Balikçi Sabahattin Fish Restaurant in Old Town. From a menu of fish illustrations, we picked the red mullet and the red snapper to be grilled, while they suggested for us to order the John Dory fried. Everything was done simply with just the most subtle of seasonings, but because the seafood were freshly-caught, they were the best I’ve had in a very long time. We spent a couple of hours plowing through our small plates of octopus and anchovies and drinking our wine. Our servers were very pleased at how we schooled everyone else on how to eat.

The aftermath. Guess which plate was mine:

All that food needed to be pushed down to make room for more. We visited a couple of ceramic shops to buy souvenirs where the ritual of accepting tea from the shop’s owner is unavoidable. Every time the owner asked us if we would like some tea, a younger runner would appear out of nowhere with hot tea in small tulip-shaped glasses on a silver tray accompanied by sugar cubes before we had a chance to answer. The size of the glass ensures that the tea gets consumed while hot, and before you slurp your final sip, a new hot glass will arrive. It became one of our running jokes during the trip that we would not even respond anymore when offered tea; we would just wait for someone to appear next to us whether we wanted tea or not.

On a side note, the tulip is Turkey’s national symbol because of Sultan Ahmed III’s peaceful reign. This period, interestingly enough, brought the bulbs to Holland which resulted in the Dutch Tulipmania. So the next time someone insists that tulips come from The Netherlands, you now have an appropriate trivia to bring up.

As for liquor, there are two national drinks: raki and ayran. Raki is an alcoholic drink distilled from raisins and then redistilled with anise. At the Four Seasons Hotel by the Bosphorus, they served it with a bottle of water so you can mix it and make a cloudy concoction that packs a licorice punch. It wasn’t my favorite, but it certainly cleansed my palate and made way for martinis and a lot of the national beer, Efes.

Ayran is a refreshing beverage made by diluting yogurt with water and adding a pinch of salt. The salt was a little off-putting, but it traditionally helped the nomads during dehydrating and shadeless afternoons. Here I am slurpinp it from a beautiful hammered silver bowl:

While we were in the district of Vefa, we walked in Vefa Bozacisi to drink the locals’ winter favorite, boza, a thick fermented drink that uses bulgur as its base. Because street sellers shout “boooza” at night to sell them, tourists have referred to them as booze. It was apparently the preferred drink of the Islamic soldiers since they were forbidden to drink alcohol, but fermented and consumed enough, it gave the same effect. I don’t know how else to describe it besides that it’s yellow and sour and comes in large vats.

We thankfully didn’t see any Starbucks in Istanbul, but the coffee culture is steeped in Turkish tradition as well. It was difficult to get a cup of decent coffee to-go in the morning before we started our rounds, but we ended our dinners with the thick Turkish version to prolong our nights. Indeed, we saw a few people just sitting around long after eating their desserts.

But we’re not done eating yet. At Saray, a multi-level bakery and coffee shop, Tansel, who rented us the apartment we stayed in via AirBnB, helped us order like queens to familiarize us with the Turkish sweet tooth. From the top of this photo and then clockwise: Ayva tatlisi with kaymak, Kazandibi, Kunefe with pistachio and more kaymak, and Sakizli Muhallebi, or mastic-flavored rice pudding. None of them look appetizing, I know, but if you like sweets, these are for you.

And the ubiquitous Turkish delights? Also known as lokum, the sweet candies are made of cornstarch, nuts, syrup, and a variety of flavorings to form a chewy Jell-O-like consistency. If you know someone who has visited Turkey, I would bet that you received a box of them as a present. The hawkers in Grand Bazaar talk a lot to try and get you inside their shops. I finally relented and turned into a Brooklyn mom after hearing “organic” from the fast-talking vendor who quickly packed a few ounces of pistacchio and pomegranate-flavored powdered delights for me before I had any chance to say no.

But when someone tries to win my heart through my stomach, why would I say no?

Where to eat in Bangkok, Thailand: Damnoen Saduak Floating Market

My Bangkok trip this past summer was a reunion for me and my old friends from my first high school. (I say first because I moved to the States to start sophomore year.) The last time I was in the Philippines was almost three years ago when my older brother got married. I saw my good friends then but have not been back to Asia since. When the opportunity came up to visit a mutual friend living in Bangkok, we all knew we had to make our separate flights and meet there. They schlepped from Manila and I made the long trek from New York City via Frankfurt and Singapore.

You know when people say good friends just pick up where they’ve left off even after it has been a long time since they’ve seen each other? This was true with Krisan, Ria and Pat–we chatted, laughed and squealed like it’s only been a week. Sure, Facebook has made it possible now to keep each other updated, but nothing beats gathering around a table, eating and drinking in a new country. I love my girls, and this post is dedicated to all three of them.

One of the most touristy things I did during my four-day stay in Bangkok was the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, but it was also the only thing on my list that I knew I had to experience. We were already eating pretty well, visiting public markets, tasting everything that looked good and trying out several restaurants that were recommended by other friends. At the floating market, I was like a child on Christmas morning. I couldn’t contain myself every time I saw something I haven’t tasted before. I was overwhelmed with the choices, so I ate everything.

While on a slow-moving boat that squeezed through the narrow canals avoiding collisions with other vessels, I pointed at every seller that looked like they were cooking and selling something interesting. Most of them were! Each point was followed by a vendor who rowed towards us or hooked their long canes to our boats to bring us closer and to keep us both steady so we could do some business. We spoke English and they spoke Thai, but we all understood the language of food.

I expected prepared goods to be on sale, but I didn’t expect boats outfitted with kerosene gas tanks deep-frying vegetables and hot coals grilling skewered meats. There were boats filled with fruits I grew up with but haven’t had a chance to eat again since I left Asia: balingbings or star fruits, lanzones, rambutans, atis or sugar apples, chicos, mangosteens and guavas. I also didn’t expect the best coconut ice cream from a boat with its own creamery on board. There were boats selling Pad Thai noodles that don’t even compare to the laughable version they have here in America, vegetable salads sprinkled with the most fresh and fragrant basil and mint leaves, sprouts and spring rolls up the wazoo with killer Thai chiles in different kinds of dipping sauces, sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves you eat by cupping it with the small palm of your hand… I could go on, but my mouth is watering just trying to remember how my stomach grumbled at every sight of food, mysterious or familiar.

You can only imagine how hot and humid it is in Thailand during the month of August. It was sweltering when we visited and we were drenched in sweat while trying to keep up with all the food around us. The vendors were mostly covered in straw hats and long-sleeved shirts, but funnily enough, with caked-on makeup to look good (or scary) in photographs.

The heat didn’t stop me from buying hot soup from the lady who expertly chopped duck meat off a carcass and assembled bowls after bowls in less time than I could set my camera to shoot. Indecipherable Thai was thrown from vendor to vendor and everyone efficiently served those of us with bottomless stomachs. You’d order from one lady and walk around with your camera to take more photographs, and in a few seconds, she’d motion for you to come and sit down to eat even if there were hundreds of other people there ordering at the same time. Thai baht were exchanged as if in a rowdy stock market, but I always somehow got the correct change.

The entire market was a blow to all my senses and I mean that in the best way possible. Thai food will never be the same for me ever again.

Related post/s:
Damnoen Saduak Floating Market photos on Flickr

Where to Eat in Singapore: Golden Mile Food Centre

Okay, let’s divide and conquer. As soon as Ari said those words, I immediately knew I was with the right people to eat with at Singapore’s Golden Mile Food Centre. I had done my online research before I flew to Singapore fron New York City and noted the stalls that were must-visits and the dishes that were must-tastes for several bloggers. Without prior knowledge of the Centre’s floor plan, Golden Mile could be overwhelming. It was during lunch hour and the place buzzed; queues sometimes stretched 10-people deep, which is pretty long for a stall that could only fit one or two cooks inside. For such a minimal staff, though, they worked like efficient conveyor belts setting up bowls after bowls and distributing just the right amount of each ingredient with precision.

Past the altar with incense burning and plates of food being offered to Hungry Ghosts for the month of August, my friends saved a table as I doled out assignments: Hainanese chicken rice from Stall B135 to Ari, beef noodles from Stall 01-89 to my brother and lormee from Stall 01-100 to Thalia. I owned the fried fish with bihon from Stall 01-101. We had char siu and kway teow on the list from Stalls 01-70 and 01-91 respectively, but both stalls were closed. To make up for those dishes, we tried the Indian-Muslin sup tulang on the basement level. To wash everything down, we drank the ubiquitous Tiger beer and tried the fresh sugar cane juice.

Are you sitting down? Check out the photos below and try not to lick your screen.

Lor mee
A complicated-looking bowl of soup that includes flat fried dumplings, fish cake and hard-boiled eggs in a thick and starchy gravy made out of cornstarch. The lor mee, or the yellow flat noodles, actually get overpowered in this dish, and to me, the sauce was much better with white rice.

Fried Fish with Bihon
No one at our table was excited about this dish as much as I was. When I was in line waiting for my order, the lady asked me, Meer? I didn’t understand her until she pointed to the can of evaporated milk on the counter. (Throughout my stay in the country, I had problems understanding the locals’ English with Chinese and British intonations.) I asked her if she recommended milk and she poured just enough in the broth to make it cloudy. The fish pieces were airy and crisp, and the bihon, or rice stick noodles, were a good addition to the lightness of the soup.

Beef Noodles
Don’t be fooled by its boring name. The soup is not as thick as the lor mee‘s, but the pieces of thinly sliced beef made this so nice and hearty. The fried fish balls with the crumbled peanuts and chives completed the look. It’s a beauty:

Hainanese Chicken Rice
If I have access to this good of a Hainanese chicken rice here in New York City, I wouldn’t mind eating it everyday, but I don’t. The Nyonya restaurant version in our Chinatown is bony, and the rice tastes and looks like chicken bouillon was involved instead of cooking the rice in a master stock. In Singapore, the rice is oily–as it should be–and the flavor has more depth.

Sup Tulang
The bright red-dyed mutton bones that gained notoriety on TV after Anthony Bourdain sucked the marrow out of them using a straw. I prefer getting the marrow out by holding a bone with my left hand and then tapping my wrist with my right. But then again, I also prefer my marrow served with finely chopped red onions and parsley on a nicely toasted baguette.

The Golden Mile Food Centre is at 505 Beach Road and is open from 10am until 10 at night. You must go on an empty stomach.

Related post/s:
Golden Mile Food Centre in Singapore photos on Flickr

Where to eat in Boulder, Colorado: Jax Fish House

I was coming off eating a lot of burgers the few days before my flight to Boulder when Jax Fish House was added by Michelle to my list of places to eat because I had expressed interest in eating more seafood. Seafood! In Colorado! A land surrounded not by water but by the snow-capped Rockies, the Plateau and the Great Plains! I saw four deer on the side of a downtown street!

Soft-shell crabs season had begun–one of my favorite food-eating times in New York City–and specials the last few days have involved them in sandwiches and salads. I had soft-shell crab sandwich the day before my flight, but I still had room for a few more. If I was going to miss the rest of it in the city, I was going to get my fill in Boulder.

I was warned of the wait at Jax–that it would be longer than usual because of the upcoming long weekend–but we decided to try scoring bar seats anyway. The restaurant was definitely crowded for 6pm and the maitre d’ told us the wait would be for half an hour. But not even 10 minutes into our first drinks that we were called to follow her to our table! We were almost unprepared to eat as we were still enjoying our first drinks after my four-hour bumpy flight.

We started off with half a dozen gigantic oysters before their special of, sure enough, soft-shell crab salad with frisée in wasabi aioli. We also split the main of crispy skinned striped bass on top of a beautiful chive spaetzle with roasted carrots and fava beans. Everything on their menu evoked spring vegetables and I fell in love with all the choices of greens. My least favorite dish though was the spearfish sashimi with noodles. I don’t remember the beet-red sauce that accompanied it (could it have been beets?) but the noodles didn’t do anything for me. They took away from the buttery texture of the sashimi. I could have simply eaten the fish unadorned. There wasn’t any room for dessert but we couldn’t resist the key lime tart. I don’t even remember if it was a good key lime tart, only it was what I needed at the time. (I know I use that line every time I order food with my eyes instead of my stomach.)

We sat under the sunroof so we were surprised to notice that the space had gotten dark. We realized that we had been eating for three hours! For two walk-ins, we never felt rushed. Our server left us to catch up with barely any interruptions and our bill for two didn’t break the bank. As a New Yorker, I will never stop feeling amazed at how much less other people have to pay for good food. Boulder’s one of those places: fresh produce, good cooking, affordable prices. I was in Colorado with an already satisfied stomach enjoying the crisp summer night without the humidity and it had only been five hours. I could already tell my weekend was going to turn out really well.

There are two Jax restaurants in Colorado. This Boulder one is at 928 Pearl Street.

Related post/s:
Boulder, Colorado Instagram photos on Flickr

Where to eat in San Francisco, California: flour + water

I will never understand why San Franciscans stand in line to eat at any restaurant, but it seemed to me that if you wanted to eat at a highly-regarded place in the Bay area, waiting for a seat was just a given. Everywhere I went, there was always at least ten people ahead of me and another twenty behind. In New York, we have a lot of dining options; a lot of them are mediocre, sure, but we also boast a lot of good eatings that there’s always another option if you can’t get in your first choice. Call me impatient but I found all the queues unacceptable in San Francisco. It didn’t matter if we woke up extra early for Tartine Bakery’s morning buns or opted to eat a later Vietnamese lunch at Turtle Tower–we waited in line.

We arrived at flour + water around 7pm and we were told by the maître d’ that the next spot for two would open up in the next two hours. We left and drove around looking for alternatives but of course, all our other options required the same kind of waiting. We ended up driving back to the same neighborhood where flour + water was. By 8pm, I walked in again and asked if the wait time has changed–we were seated at the bar in less than 10 minutes. Just like that! Now, I don’t know if it was because those ahead of us dropped off or if it was because of the holiday weekend, but trying for prime time worked at flour + water rather than at 7pm.

For appetizers, we started with the steelhead crudo with roe, pickled beets, lemon aioli and potato cracklings. It was an impressive combination of textures and tastes: the fish melted in my mouth like butter and the pickled beets had that perfect touch of tartiness.

The sardines salad had a lot to say with mâché, leeks, baby fennel, cauliflower, pine nuts and capers. I kept finding baby vegetables at every bite. I thought it was beautifully crafted.

We loved the crispy trotters shaped like chicken nuggets. The bitterness of the chicory and radicchio offset the richness of the trotters. I thought the squid ink corzetti was subtle in taste. It was definitely a notch down from the saltiness of the trotters with squid, fennel and some chili.

It was also the tail end of San Francisco Beer Week, so we opted for the beer ice cream from Humphry Slocombe which, thankfully, didn’t taste like beer. The honey was stronger than the beer flavor that it almost tasted like vanilla with a touch of lavender.

One thing that I will give San Francisco, though, is that none of the servers I dealt with were in any way sour or bitchy. It was always like: The wait is looking like two hours (smile). Yes, we can make sure that dish is gluten-free and we can substitute the scrambled egg with fried (smile). I never felt bad about asking for anything because I knew that they would be very accommodating. To me, that level of service was refreshing, even if I had to wait for it.

flour + water is at 2401 on the corner of 20th and Harrison Streets. There’s Homestead on Folsom Street for drinks while you wait for a table.

Related post/s:
San Francisco photos on Flickr
Where to eat in Big Sur, California