Tuesday, December 27, 2011

2011 in review

From fine dining and dance subcultures in Istanbul to camel wrestling on the Aegean and hiking through 10,000 years of history in Southeast Turkey, I covered a lot of ground with my writing this year.

Updating part of the Fodor's Turkey guidebook took me from Roman ruins to World War II battlefields, with days chock-full of chatting up hoteliers, restaurant workers, and tour guides in between.

Stories about my adventures watching camel wrestling, a traditional sport on Turkey's Aegean coast, and exploring Hasankeyf, an ancient city slated for submersion by a dam, found a home in the pages of Time Out Istanbul.

In Istanbul, I wrote about garden tours on the Princes' Islands for Time Out Istanbul, lavish Bosphorus weddings for J Magazine, local lindy-hoppers for Dance Gazette, and the Contemporary Istanbul art fair for Selections (the last two to be published soon). I also updated Istanbul restaurant listings for the Zagat guide and penned a guest review of one of my favorite dining establishments for Istanbul Eats.

On the environmental front, I continued chasing down green developments in Turkey and elsewhere for TreeHugger, worked as a local fixer for CNN's "Road to Durban: A Green City Journey" climate-change program, investigated corporate social responsibility in Turkey for Ethical Corporation, and contributed a chapter to the book "Barefoot Bloggers: Write to Save the Planet."

It wasn't all work, work, work this year, of course I also spent five days touring Europe with a friend's rock band, ran a 10k race on the beautiful island of Bozcaada and a 15k here in Istanbul, ate (and cooked) lots of good food, further explored Turkey's Lycian coast, and poked my head into some new corners of the ever-fascinating city I call home. Here's to more of the same in 2012.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The year's best bites

Crispy, buttery trout, fresh out of the pond at the Has Bahçe motel in Hasankeyf, served on a cold, rainy night and simply but perfectly prepared.

A breakfast table heaving with sweet and savory pastries, homemade fruit preserves, pungent olives, and the freshest cheeses at the Panorama Otel in Bozcaada.

Plump khinkali and rich, cheesy khachapuri with a view of buses pulling in and out of a poorly lit station at Cafe Euro.

Spicy stir-fried beef with kimchi and all the right trimmings, eaten upstairs from a Korean karaoke bar near Taksim Square.

Melt-in-your-mouth custard-filled Laz boreği at the Black Sea meyhane Mohti.

Stuffed mussels and garlicky greens on a cobblestone backstreet under hanging vines in the seaside town of Ayvalık.

These are just a few of my "perfect little dining moments" in Turkey this year, the ones that came back to me while deciding which experience(s) to choose as my Best Bites of 2011 for Istanbul Eats. My guest submission, "Beating the Meyhane Blues," was published today, putting me in the esteemed company of food writers Robyn Eckhardt from EatingAsia and Katie Parla of Parla Food. Here's to more good eating in 2012.

Photo of the decadent Bozcaada breakfast by my traveling companion Tracey H.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Weekends at the office

Unlike any office in which I've ever worked, the headquarters of Borusan Holding is eerily tidy. Nary a stray piece of paper mars the crisp white interior, where the few framed family photos and coffee-table books placed just so seem more like movie-set props than actual personal belongings.

"Everyone has to gather up their things before the weekend," a security guard explains, confirming my suspicions. I wondered if the owners of the one pad of Post-It notes and the one empty water bottle I spied on desks would get their pay docked this month.

On the weekends, this corporate office turns into a museum, allowing visitors to walk through its hushed hallways and executive suites to peek at the company's contemporary art collection and -- no less a draw -- inside one of the most distinctive buildings along the Bosphorus.

Built beginning in the 1910s, the Perili Köşk's red-brick turret soars alongside the second Bosphorus Bridge, affording sweeping views across the strait that, strikingly framed in the building's many windows, often threaten to overshadow the art on display in what Borusan touts as "Turkey's first office museum." Seven new acquisitions, all video/multimedia works, are given their own screening area, while the current selection from the Borusan collection (dubbed "Segment #1") is spread throughout nine increasingly vertiginous floors of offices and meeting rooms

A smartly chosen mix of works in different mediums, the collection appears to contain very little that could potentially offend workplace sensibilities, though many pieces are bold in color, size, or placement, and generally pleasing to the eye, if not particularly challenging to the mind.

With no more than around 15 works on any given floor, the nine stories of art aren't nearly as daunting or exhausting as they may sound, but just to be on the safe side, fortify yourself first at one of the many all-day breakfast places lining the road below nearby Rumeli Hisarı, which are packed to the gills on weekends.

At Rumeli Kale Cafe, a tea server squeezes through the crowd as voices echo off the wooden walls and metal ceiling in the narrow dining room, its tables overflowing with little plates of cheese, olives, cucumbers, and tomatoes; single-serving frying pans with eggs and halloumi cheese; baskets of olive-studded bread; and dishes full of tahini paste and big slabs of thick cream soaking in honey. It's the kind of breakfast that will keep you full until well after dinner time.

TO VISIT: The exhibits "Segment #1" and "Seven New Works" are on view until December 11 at Borusan Contemporary in Istanbul's Sarıyer district. The museum is open Saturday and Sunday only, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. General admission is 10 Turkish Liras. Bus 42T will get you there from Taksim Square.

Rumeli Kale and the other breakfast places are just a few meters south along the water. Go as early as possible to avoid the rush, and bring a good book for when you inevitably get stuck in traffic on the way back.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Drinking with the enemy

Upon returning to San Francisco after my first trip to Istanbul, I had an impossible time convincing anyone how hard it was to find decent coffee in Turkey. "But what about Turkish coffee?!?" they would say, incredulously. "Didn't the Turks practically invent the stuff?"

"Fine, fine," I thought. "If you like having half of an itty-bitty serving end up as sludge in the bottom of the cup, go right ahead. But I'm talking about coffee -- a nice warm brewed cup of Joe that you
can put your hands around and sip every last drop. Besides, Turks all drink tea anyway. They think 'kahve' translates as Nescafe! That's what it said on all the little kiosks in Sultanahmet: 'Çay (Tea) | Kahve (Nescafe).'"

Since that trip 10 years ago, Starbucks has surged into Istanbul, with three outlets on İstiklal Caddesi alone, and been followed by a Turkish imitator, Kahve Dünyası ("Coffee World"), as well as other coffee options. But Nescafe is still ubiquitous, with a "cappuccino" mix and 3-in-1 packets with "extra cream aroma," "extra coffee taste," and chocolate and hazelnut versions. Never having managed to acquire a real taste for either Turkish coffee or tea, I would grudgingly opt for my old nemesis when offered caffeine-related hospitality. When drowsily waking up in my seat near the tail end of a night bus ride, I actually even enjoyed it a little bit. The sweet artificial taste started to mingle in my mind with watching new landscapes go by as the sun rose.

It wasn't until I started working at a local newspaper, though, that the relationship began to get out of hand. To get me through the afternoon deadline crunch, I started stocking Nescafe packets in my desk drawer -- all I had to do to get my fix was run down the hall and get some hot water from the dispenser. I no longer begrudged it its bad taste and god-knows-what ingredients. I started to look forward to it, just like the equally (and rightfully) maligned Efes I couldn't wait to drink after the madness was all over.

I don't work at that job anymore. I could just break up with Nescafe (and Efes, for that matter). But when I went to buy a cup of filtered coffee at an event yesterday afternoon and was told there was none left, I just shrugged and shifted over to the Nescafe line. It sure as hell ain't coffee, but sometimes (there, I've said it) it hits the spot.