Published: May 12th 2006May 10th 2006
Before we left on our travels we'd discussed the prospect of eating out - everyday. Well, 4 months down the road, I can assure you it's been all good - we haven't missed doing dishes and there's one less thing to squabble over. There has been the odd day when we wished we had access to a kitchen to whip up some decent pasta or some spicy Malaysian curry but on the whole we have been quite happy letting someone else do the drudgery of cooking and cleaning whilst we lounge away on divans laden with food and drink like nobles in a persian miniature. ho ho ho.
The eating out possibilities on this trip have been endless (until we arrived in Iran that is - more later); we have eaten and drunk across a range of settings - off the street in teahouses (chaykhana) and regular lokanta (no frills casual dining), al fresco with the Bedouins in Sinai, under the stars in the Karakum desert, upmarket restaurants where we dined like kings, and, of course, Burger King in Ankara. Variety of cuisine, however, has not been a strong point. With the exception of Lebanon which has a good mix
Streetfood in Aleppo
Pancake-like snack fried in chilli infused oil
of local and international/ethnic cuisines in Beirut (and even the odd ethnic restaurant in the smaller towns - we had better than passable Chinese in Byblos), flatbreads, kebabs, and vegetables - stuffed, stewed or mushed - is king across the Middle East, Iran and Central Asia, with slight regional differences and additions as we venture further east.
Anyway here are some of the country-by-country food highlights . Egypt
If anything stood out foodwise in Egypt it would be the rotisserie chicken (or 'roll chicken' as the egyptians call it) and koshari. The former is widely available, quick, cheap and done to perfection (nicely seasoned and crispy on the outside whilst retaining all the juiciness in the meat - no mean feat i can assure you). Best place was the un-touristy Bedouin Chicken in Dahab run by a real Bedouin nonetheless.
Must try: Koshari - a mixture of pasta, rice, chickpeas, lentils, noodles, deepfried shallots, with a tomato-based sauce. Comes served in a metal bowl. You mush it all up adding chilli sauce and a vinegary (lemon juice?) dressing to taste. The best place to try this is Abu Tarek on Champillion Street; known universally in Cairo as
the best koshari in town. Almost as fascinating to watch the hungry hoardes who jostle for seats, put in their order, shovel the stuff down and roll out with alarming quickness. If that doesn't hold your interest you can always watch the rolling videoclip of their claim to fame on national news including clips of English tourists enthusiastically tucking in and giving it the thumbs up. Jordan
Well, we were only in touristy Petra really so all we can say is that it was very middle of the road Middle Eastern. All done very well but nothing really jumped out. We were introduced to a bedouin dish called a mensaf - lamb or chicken cooked and served with some special pilaf rice with almonds and pistachios. We were to come across many varieties of it in Syria subsequently.
Must try: pack a picnic to Petra and have it on the roof of the cave cafe facing Ed Deir (the Monastery). Bread and cheese never tasted so good! If you stay on till late afternoon you will likely be invited for a chat and tea with the friendly Bedouin guys who run the cafe. They also allow tourists to
do an overnighter in the cave if you are so inclined - though I think the chances are probably better if you are female! Syria
We ate well in Syria and came to understand what fine dining in the Middle East was all about. I am struggling to remember if we had a dud meal at all actually. From streetfood to the fanciest restaurants, the food was always tasty and freshly prepared from good quality ingredients. And it was affordable. Rob's birthday dinner at one of the poshest restaurants in Aleppo, where we ate till bursting, only cost us something like 9 quid in total. Most of the time, we paid between 200 - 400 Syrian pounds for a meal for two - about 3 quid.
Must try: the unforgettable experience of dining in some of the lovely merchant houses in the old cities of Damascus and Aleppo, now renovated and updated into graceful dining rooms. Most of these houses are based around a pretty central courtyard often ornamented with a fountain, citrus trees and various plants. One of my personal favourites was Beit Jabri in Damascus which was less glitzy than some of the dolled up old
houses and was more like an old coffeeshop with dark wooden furniture and panelling, old Victorian mirrors and huge potted plants. We sat in the covered courtyard which had a gently trickling fountain and surprisingly, orange trees laden with fruit. I was wondering how that came to be. Duncan later told us that the roof covering the courtyard was just a tarpaulin which could be rolled back in the summer months so that diners can enjoy their meals under the stars. He assures us it's even better then. I totally believe him. They know how to live well here.
Other must dos: bird's nest pastries with crushed pistachios in the middle and drizzled with syrup; deepfried samosa-like things with cream cheese in the middle and drizzled with orangeblossom-flavoured syrup. Lebanon
Beirut is about the only Middle Eastern city on our travels with an international dining 'scene' to speak of. One is spoilt for choice in the downtown area amongst the beautifully rebuilt shops and houses.
Don't miss an offer to share a meal with a Palestinian family if you have the chance. Our introduction to Palestinian home cooking was Hassan's mother-in-law's fantastic dish of lamb with
warak ainab (wrapped vine leaves). This was served with lashings of yoghurt and fresh salads. Her warak ainab is without a doubt the best I have eaten on our travels. We were also lucky enough to taste lamb intestines stuffed with rice and chickpeas which is a dish prepared only very occasionally at home as it is an extremely time consuming dish to prepare.
There is a thriving cafe culture in the eastern suburbs of Beirut and trendies will like the funky little bars and cafes in the Gemmeyzeh neighbourhood. We had some very good, overpriced pancakes in a place decked out in purple velvet and a cute waiter (I will try to remember the name of the place for you, Jody). There is even a branch of the ubiquitous PAUL so that the Londoners and Parisiennes don't miss out on their tart tatin.
Must try: Completely over the top, pint glass serving of fruit cocktail/smoothie at the many juice bars. Leave it to the guy behind the counter to whip something up for you. You won't regret it although your belly might. Turkey
Turkey was a turning point - we had the opportunity to depart
from grill meats and kebabs (even though they were just as widely available) as there were lots of casual dining places called lokantas which did really good vegetable and meat stews and, our favourite accompaniment, bulgur pilaf. The best place in Istanbul for this type of food is the Hoca Pasa area and the best restaurant in our opinion was Kacap Osman. Rob is still raving about their aubergine moussaka till this day.
Turkey is also where we discovered that it was possible to cook something quite tasty with the humble lentil other than dal bhat. One of the best lentil dishes we had in Turkey was piping hot lentil soup (mercimek corba) with fresh bread for breakfast. This is served with a wedge of lemon and the locals normally sprinkle some chilli powder in as well for a bit of a kick. really fantastic on cold mornings (and it was pretty freezing most of the time we were in Turkey) and a thousand times better than having cold cheese and flaccid tomatoes for breakfast.
Novelty foods, i.e. something to try once but probably won't make our regular dining list:
- Cappadocia stew where meat and
Sumptous iranian meal
Iranian meal of dizi with bread, salad and fermented milk drink
vegetables are cooked in a tomato-based sauce in a sealed earthenware jug. The pot is brought to the table and then ceremoniously cracked for you. Full marks for visual interest and drama but I'm not sure if it actually does anything for the taste.
- Mackerel sandwiches served up in fishing villages on the Bosphorus. One gets a whopping half of fried mackerel served on crusty bread with fresh salad. It was quite greasy and mackerel, being the oily fish it is, can be fishy too. Luckily, mine was served freshly cooked and piping hot which is the only way to eat mackerel. The hot, salty flakes of freshly fried mackerel meat was surprisingly tasty. I've seen stacks of cold mackerel sandwiches sold on the piers in Istanbul since but I wonder who is tempted to have a cold, fishy sandwich in the dead of winter?
Must try: Profiteroles from their original birthplace, the Inci Patisserie, on Istikkal Caddesi (Istanbul). Who would have known that the beginnings of the humble profiterole came from a Turkish kitchen?? I always thought they were French! Their lemonade is the best ever - subtly laced with orange blossom water.
next time: We were told of a good restaurant next to the Chora Church serving dishes cooked in accordance to the recipes from the kitchens of the Topkapi Palace. We would have liked to have eaten there but unfortunately the prohibitively high cost of living in Turkey meant that we were maxing our daily budget just on accommodation and eating at lokantas. If we were still working in London it would have been a different story but since we are now officially unemployed we have to curb such frivolous tendencies (or so my husband tells me). Iran
After more than a week in Iran we were beginning to think this whole thing about Persians and their love for fine dining was nothing but a myth. For a start, we were beginning to wonder what Iranians actually ate for lunch before the advent of american style fast food joints serving pizzas and hamburgers (Iranian style with lots of pickled cucumbers and tomatoes only). There was a distinct lack of streetfood and finding a place to eat was proving to be the hardest thing we had to do most days. There were days where we had pizza for three consecutive
It was fortuitous then that we ran into Bihar and Leila, a couple about our age, in the bazaar in Shiraz and were invited home for a home-cooked meal which totally transformed our understanding of how the locals really ate (yup - just like that. Iranian hospitality is just as mind boggling as Arab hospitality. Total strangers like us are invited home to share a meal with a family just from a chance meeting). Leila cooked up some delicious chicken with grape and pomegranate juice and we had this served with some special rice which is prized for its distinctive smoky taste. One thing which did surprise us was the mountains of rice that accompanied most Iranian meals. There was even a newspaper report suggesting that Iranians should look at modifying their rice intake as rice imports were far surpassing the previous year's numbers.
What we also learnt from them is that Iranian restaurants are not usually well-signposted unless they are of the tourist variety, e.g. former hammams turned into fancy restaurants with comically costumed waiters. One of the places they attempted to bring us to (we ran out of time as the restaurant was not serving
until a certain time and we had a bus to catch) had it's entrance deep in the bowels of what appeared to be a warehouse for dried goods - no signage whatsoever.
Must try: Dizi - if only once. Essentially a soupy stew of fatty lamb with vegetables, cooked and served in a tall cylindrical thingy. There is quite an elaborate ceremony to eating it - one first fishes out the pieces of lamb fat floating at the top, put them in an empty bowl , mush it all up with the pestle supplied and then drain the soupy bits from the cylinder into the bowl. you then proceed to mush the rest of the meat and vegetables up in the cylinder before eating it with bread dipped in the fatty, soupy mush. Tastes better than it sounds but such a lot of fiddly work beforehand.
The Iranians, like the chinese, have a yin yang thing going with their food so a balanced meal would be one where there are both hot and cold foods. Dizi is considered a 'hot' food so it is always served with lots of fresh salad greens as well as a drink of
Sheep intestines for stuffing with rice or cous cous, chickpeas, spices. Really good deep-fried.
fermented milk which is said to counter balance the 'heatiness' We could handle the salads but I think the drink is best enjoyed if you are Iranian. As much as we tried we just couldn't get the hang of the taste which I would describe as something between milk that has gone off and toddy (fermented palm sugar drink).
Novelty food: Faludeh or paludeh (?). Ice-cold, chopped up strands of what appears to be rice vermicelli served up with lemon juice and syrup. It's a specialty in Shiraz and is best tried from the teahouse situated in the beautiful gardens of the Hafez mauseoleum.
Maybe next time: There was no Shiraz wine to be found in Shiraz and all the fun of wine drinking seemed to be happening only in the persian miniatures - or so we thought. After we left Shiraz, we met someone who said it was still possible to have Shiraz wine as there were people making it but you would have to know where to look and whom to ask. Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan)
As we venture further east I am happy to report that bread is becoming less of a staple
and rice and noodles are making a very welcome addition to our diets. Hurrah! I am flat-breaded out....
Before we arrived in the stans we didn't know what to expect of the food. what little we had heard about the cuisine sounded extremely limited and consisted of lots of fatty mutton kebabs called shasliks and greasy pilaf called plov (also known as men's food as only men are supposedly good enough to cook it or something like that). You could hardly blame us for not getting excited but do blame that Alexandra Tolstoy whose lack of appreciation of the local fare was our only guide to central Asian fine dining until then. ( to be fair they were doing a horse trek and besides, she was far more interested in their guide than food)
Anyway, we have been surprised so far. The range is not great - most local places will serve a mixture of the following and nothing more: laghman - noodles in a meat broth; plov - rice cooked with carrots, meat etc whatever the plov master deems fit; samsa - like a samosa with meat and onions; pelmeni - ravioli with meat; manti - like
chinese dumplings or jaozi. The larger cities have been surprisingly good though. We have had very good quality Indian, Russian and our favourite cuisine, Korean, in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat; better known for its eccentric Turkmenbashi (Father of the Turkmen peoples) than its fine dining . This is a greater range than many other cities we have been in on this trip.
It is not a lie to say fatty mutton reigns in these parts of the world and is found in everything from plov to soups, kebabs and stuffed in ravioli. But contrary to what we think (we thought it was poor quality meat), the Central Asians actually love fatty mutton and fat-bottomed sheep are much loved and prized. There are skewers of kebab consisting of nothing but 2 inch chunks of fat....mmmm.....The cardiologist we shared a taxi to Tashkent from Samarkand mentioned that this love of fatty meat was a key contributor to many of the serious health problems the Uzbeks faced. Actually, she looked like she had partaken one too many kebabs herself which was a bit ironic given her occupation.
Must try: Korean food in Tashkent. OK so we are biased - Korean
food is one of our favourites afterall.
Early into our trip my mother was afraid we were going to lose weight what with the lack of home cooking and the "ardours" of travel (yes poor things us). Well, as you can see, we are in robust health, eating well and our appetites have been waxing rather than waning (with our girthlines following suit). Shanghai is where we are looking forward to food-wise on this trip - we have been told so much about how good the chinese food is and where the best cooking in China happens - I hope we are not disappointed; looking forward to it like the promised land.
NB: the latest from us is that we are going to follow the Silk Road to it's logical conclusion - going through Kyrgyzstan across the Irkeshtam pass into Western China and onwards to Beijing. Our original plans were to cut up to Moscow via Kazakhstan and catch the TransMongolian to Beijing via Ulan Bator but I'm afraid Russia and Mongolia will have to wait for another time.
There are more photos below