Food (ever so slightly) off the Beaten Track in Turkey

Original article written for The Vancouver Sun Blog.

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As I climbed up the jagged streets towards the centre of Şirince, there appeared on the side of a small alleyway a stone oven, it’s “out-of-placeness” making it seem slightly magical. Like a guardian statue, it sat at the edge of the town overlooking its small centre, burning olive wood from local orchards, and filled with dense, nourishing bread. Beside the still-warm loaves wrapped in newsprint, lay baskets of freshly-picked olives, homemade pomegranate molasses and tincture of St. John’s Wort. It was this precise moment that I knew I had reached the pearly gates of foodie heaven. I was just about to peer, unnoticed, into a culture through their sacred kitchen door.

I was guided through narrow alleyways covered with confetti-like tarps, each path lined with “men only” barber shops, tea shops, fabric stalls, and little restaurants feeding the town like small veins. As we reached the heart of the marketplace, life bubbled over. I stood still, observing the lively sputtering of vendors selling walnut jam with whole walnuts clunking in their jars, sunflower seeds dried on the blossom and sold like large, grey pincushions, olive oil soaps scented with bay leaves that grow wild on trees with impossibly thick trunks.

I moved unconsciously, as if by habit, to the Turkish ice cream, a version thickened with orchid root, sticky and creamy like marshmallow on the tongue. I “investigated” the local olives with concentration, tasting each variety, some like the salty mineral stones they grew in, their texture dense and meaty. But when I was offered the chance to make my own Turkish coffee atop a copper stove, my inner food-nerd betrayed me and I squealed like the proverbial “little girl”. I dipped the coffee pots into the sandy heat, and when it bubbled up, the aromatic grounds scented with Mastik and cardamom infused me, and I was happy.

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Our exploration brought us to a dark kitchen, thick with the smell of onions, meat, smoke from the cast-iron stoves and hot red pepper stew simmering on top. I came to understand that the locals dined almost exclusively on ingredients coming from the immediate area, putting our attempts at 100 mile eating to shame.

A restaurant kitchen in Sirince, Turkey

We sat on the terrace and ordered almost one of every dish. The eggplant was complex and smokey from the char, soaked in fresh olive oil with an intensely fresh aftertaste of their herbaceous stems. The braised sea asparagus was simple and briny. But best of all, slightly candied pumpkin, creamy and sweet, drizzled with smooth, fragrant tahini and crushed walnuts from trees scattering the town.

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When it was time to leave Şirince, I still had the sweet taste of sesame lingering on me. This little town reminded me of the reason I love traveling: exploring, discovering and being delighted by something I didn’t know existed. In my experience, I find it usually happens when we allow ourselves (and our inner food-nerds) to stray off the beaten path, just ever so slightly.

Meal in Sirince, Turkey

Detours from the beaten track:

Next time you are visiting one of the popular sites in Turkey, consider making a small detour to a small neighbouring town if your palate is craving something a bit more adventurous.

When in Ephesus, detour to Şirince just 8.5km East.

When in Pergamon, detour to Bergama just 3km South.

When in Çeşme, detour to Alaçatı just 14km Southwest.

Credit: Partial tour cost were subsidized and itinerary was arranged by Indus Travels and Alp Arslan Global Travel Group.

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