Almost two years ago when Europe still felt like a world away we were contacted by a fellow Volkswagen owner and mechanical engineer from Turkey, interested in obtaining a copy of the CAD file that Brad made of Nacho’s body, which he had used to design our cabinets. Eren, after receiving the file, invited us to his home for tea if we ever happened to pass through his city of Ankara on our world tour.
But what were the chances, in a world so big, that we’d ever actually cross paths with Eren? Sometimes the stars do align. Our new friend Altug, in Istanbul, happened to be friends with Eren, and reminded us that Eren lived en-route to Cappadocia. And so it came to pass that just a few hours after departure from our Istanbul apartment we passed by Ankara and then followed the path on our GPS down a long and winding dirt road to Eren’s door step. After we parked we had a good laugh, a serendipitous moment that left us thinking about the influence that seemingly inconsequential encounters can have.
This moment, like many before, reminded us to step back and take note of far we had come. Our last contact with Eren was when we were in South America, and now we were at his home in Turkey. We were making progress, one day at a time, slowly but surely ticking off the miles on our 50,000 mile journey
In the evening we arrived at Eren’s house before he did, and were unsure of which house was his. We parked on the side of the road and waited until a set of Volkswagen headlights found their way to us when as Eren made his way home from work. We passed through the gates of Eren’s childhood home and through a tunnel of fruit and nut trees to our first camp location in Turkey. It was a silent and starry night and we couldn’t have been happier with our five star camp site in a grove of trees near the heat garage. Eren and Brad strung an extension cord across the yard and plugged into it an electric heater to keep us warm through the frigid night. Eren’s girlfriend, Rabia, greeted us at the door with hugs and a bigger than life, warm and welcoming smile.
Eren asked if we had gotten his message, but we hadn’t. “Rabia is cooking tonight. She’s been preparing all day.”
The air in the house was heavy with mouthwatering aromas and while Rabia finished cooking we warmed up next to the wood burning stove in the corner of the living room. A nutcracker and a basket of shelled nuts from the yard sat as a work in progress at my feet. Ah the life.
Tea came soon, as we had expected. Altug had told us that on camp trips Eren’s van was the place to go for tea. A good friend to have around, and as he had put it, “His kettle is always on the burner.” Tea, called çay (chai) in Turkish is the national hot drink, served in small tulip shaped glasses with a cube or two of sugar but never with milk. You’d be laughed at for such a request.
I asked Eren how many cups of tea the average Turkish man drinks per day. He reported that he himself consumes about 20 cups. This gave me great comfort because Brad is constantly harassing me for my two-to-three daily cups of coffee addiction. Now I would have this humbling data to throw in his face at the first sign of harassment next time I felt the caffeine itch. I was free.
Brad and Eren became fast friends; being that they are both engineers, they spoke the same language. They had a small engineering project to work on as well: building an adapter for our propane tank. It had run dry during stay at Wayne’s campground in Mumbai and so far during our search in Turkey, no propane station had been able to refill our American-threaded tank. Altug had given us a piece that would adapt a European thread to an LPG filling station nozzle, but it needed to be fit to our tank. Eren thought he could figure it out in his machine shop at work.
Rabia and I literally didn’t speak the same language but it didn’t matter. We talked in charades and laughter, and when things got really tough, like when she tried to relay the cryptic inspirational quote on the inside of her mastic bubble gum wrapper to me, we used her smart phone to translate.
We woke up the next morning to the sound of an exuberant rooster and the pretty sight of fruit and nut trees outside our pop top window. The heater kept us roasty during the night but it left me wondering what our nights would be like once we left Eren’s house. It was a week day so while Eren left for work with Altug’s propane adaptor in hand, we remained at the house with Rabia. She told us she was an actress and that her most recent theater production had just ended, leaving her with a few weeks of recovery time.
Rabia spent the morning making us one hell of a good breakfast; an omelet made of freshly gathered eggs from her chicken coop, whipped and poured over a healthy dose of thickly sliced local sausage and garnished with dill. The omelet puffed up like nothing I had seen before, the result of the flour she had mixed in with the eggs. Genius! We consumed it with freshly baked bread, a variety of white cheeses, homemade cherry jam (from their cherry tree), hazelnut spread, and coffee.
We spent the afternoon lounging around watching a television series that Rabia starred in as a nurse. In one scene she began to cry in a tense surgery and the surgeon slapped her. “Wait, it is coming!” she would say, “now he slap me! Ha ha!” After the dramatic slap she put on a movie in which she played a prisoner’s wife. “This part funny! Ha ha! Well, actually not very funny. My husband in jail. But that man is very funny!”
We practiced cracking walnut shells, a therapeutic activity I discovered, and we roamed the orchard and played charades to uncover what fruit or nut tree we were standing under. I tasted new fruits like the Asian olive, a small berry indigenous to Turkey, and I learned that not all almond trees are created equal; some produce fine almond specimens while others produce inedible product. The trees were leafless as expected for this time of the year, but like many places in the world the weather was unseasonably warm, causing the ground to be bone dry instead of being covered in its usual layer of snow. Eren told us he had never seen anything like it—winter never arrived in Turkey this year. Despite no fruit picking on this visit we did taste the sweetness from last year’s bounty through Eren’s mom’s canned peaches topped with kaymak, Turkey’s delightful clotted cream.
We toiled away in the kitchen for the rest of the afternoon making a classic Turkish dish of roasted, pureed eggplant topped with a saucy concoction of beef and sautéed vegetables. While I’ve roasted eggplants in the past (a tedious and frustrating task) Rabia’s technique for separating the charred skin from the pulp was nothing short of genius once again. I learned that after a proper roasting (when the skin is charred black and the inside is soft like pudding) the skin can easily be removed by working from the inside out, halving the purple vegetable and scooping out its insides rather than peeling off the skin.
We mixed the eggplant with a concoction of butter, flour, and milk, and voila—we had the most delightfully decadent eggplant puree. We topped each plate of eggplant puree with a healthy scoop of cubed beef and vegetables and made a simple shredded carrot salad dressed with lemon and oil – Turkish people sure love their salads, and homemade bread covered in a generous coating of various seeds to eat with the main. We also whipped up helva from a box, not homemade by any means, but still, my first taste of a common Turkish dessert, made of semolina flour and nuts and topped with more kaymak.
Our visit with Rabia and Eren was much shorter than we would have preferred but our two night visit was far better than no visit at all. Nacho’s visa in Turkey was to expire in less than three weeks, and there was a lot of distance left to cover if we wanted to see Cappadocia and the Mediterranean coast. We all woke up early and ate breakfast with Eren before he departed for work, Rabia this time serving up menemen, a traditional Turkish breakfast of eggs cooked in a tomato, onion, and green pepper sauce, accompanied by fresh bread, black olives, white cheese, and slices of cucumber.
A few hours after Eren left, we departed as well with a freshly baked mastic flavored cake in hand, creatively decorated with a big blob of cocoa powder in the center, a stamp of love from Rabia made with a heart shaped cookie cutter stencil. Brad helped to put on the final touches, gently tapping the sugar sifter over the cake. A few miles after departing from Eren and Rabia’s home we stopped at a gas station to test out our new propane adaptor. We breathed a huge sigh of relief when the burner successfully produced a glowing orange flame. My kitchen was back in business and we were off to Cappadocia.
Fluffy sausage and dill omelet
3 tablespoons flour
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons of fresh dill, chopped
1 5” hard sausage, halved and cut in ¼” slices
1 tablespoon olive oil
Crack eggs into a bowl and whip well. Add flour to egg mixture and salt to taste. Heat oil in a medium sized pan over medium heat and add sausage halves to the pan, browning for a few minutes. Pour the eggs over top the sausage, sprinkle with dill and cover. As the omelet cooks it will began to fluff up; remove from heat when the omelet is cooked through. Cut omelet in pie slices and serve with freshly baked bread, white cheese, black olives, and slices of cucumber.
Silky smooth roasted eggplant topped with cubed lamb
2 to 3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup of milk (or you can substitute for water)
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 pounds lamb, (or beef) cut into bite-sized chunks
1 cup pearl onions, left whole
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups chopped tomatoes
1 cup mushrooms, sliced
1 green pepper, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup water
To make the eggplant puree:
Using a fork puncture the eggplant 10 times or so, allowing the eggplants to release pressure during the roasting process. Next place the eggplants over high heat in an oil-less large pan, turning them every few minutes for 20 to 30 minutes until the skin in fully charred and the insides have turned to mush (the eggplant’s shape will be dangerously unstable). Set aside for 10 minutes or so or until they are cool enough to handle. Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise and using a spoon, scrape and scoop out the insides. Reserve the insides and discard the skin. Using a knife finely mince the eggplant until its consistency is smooth, or better yet throw the eggplants in a blender and puree until smooth. Set aside.
In a medium sized sauce pan melt butter over medium heat and then sift 2 tablespoons of flour into the butter stirring constantly to avoid clumping. Add one cup of milk and salt and pepper (to taste), stirring until the mixture turns thick. Lastly add the eggplant and mix thoroughly. Remove from heat.
To make the stewed lamb:
In a large sized sauce pan heat oil and butter and add meat. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cook the meat for at least 10 minutes or until deeply browned. Remove the meat and set aside. In the same pan cook the onions until translucent and then add the garlic, cooking for a few minutes more. Next add the mushrooms, pepper, tomatoes and one cup of water. Return the meat to the pan and cover, letting everything simmer until the meat is tender, at least one hour. Note: If you are using beef rather than lamb, the cooking time may be less.
To serve: Place a scoop of eggplant puree on a plate and spoon the braised meat over the top. Sprinkle with chili pepper and add a scoop of plain thick yogurt to the top (optional).
Accompany the main dish with a simple carrot salad; grating 2 – 3 carrots and dressing them with lemon, oil, salt and pepper. Serve with freshly made bread.
¼ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 white onion, chopped
Small green pepper, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
1.5 cups of tomato sauced
Heat oil and butter in a large sized sauce pan over medium heat. Add onion and pepper and cook until the onion is translucent. Add tomato and tomato sauce and reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes or so. Gently crack the eggs in separate locations over the sauce (do not scramble) and cover until the eggs have cooked to your liking.
Serve with bread, cheese, and a pot of black tea.