Magical Za’atar

My first time tasting za’atar was in Tripoli, Lebanon when Walid, my self-elected host in the city, took me to eat a freshly baked za’atar man’oushe. Man’oushe is a flatbread baked in a special oven and topped with various odds and ends—cheese, meat, tomatoes, and in the only vegan case, a paste of za’atar mixed with olive oil. Now, I don’t normally eat much bread, preferring instead to fill up my stomach with veggies, fruits, nuts, and legumes, but after two bites of the za’atar man’oushe I was hooked. The bread was like the perfect artisan pizza dough—crispy but with soft, pillowy pockets and air bubbles—and the za’atar was an explosion of flavor unlike anything I’d ever eaten before—savory, herby, salty, with a bite of citrus.

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What exactly is za’atar? Magic. How else can I explain its deliciousness and its myriad applications? Magic.

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Apparently, it also refers to both a fresh wild herb and the dried mix commonly found throughout the Middle East (you can read more about it here and here and here). It often contains some herbs from the thyme family, sesame seeds, salt, and sumac, but every woman is said to have her own fiercely guarded za’atar recipe and every region has a slightly different take on the mixture.

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From left to right: Jordanian, Lebanese, and Syrian varieties of za’atar

Knowing I would need more za’atar in my life, I bought three different kinds when I was in Beirut. According to the store owner, each kind is popular in a different country—the dark green is from Jordan, the light green from Lebanon, and the brown from Syria. They each taste subtly different. The Syrian za’atar has hints of cumin and a more hevily spiced flavor, while the Jordanian za’atar tastes more green, more herby, and the Lebanese variety is a bit more sour and nutty.

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I’ve been cooking with the za’atar, adding the mixture to roasted veggies and beans, dipping fresh bread into olive oil then the za’atar. But I still think longingly of that first man’oushe I tried in Tripoli—a first taste of magic.


Tales from Vietnam. Cycling over Mountains and in the Dark

The following is a flashback from my time cycling in Vietnam. It recounts the time I was nearly stranded on top of a unpopulated mountain at dusk with no tent, no water, no warm clothes, little food, no sleeping bag, and no flashlight.

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So I pressed on, thinking, if necessary, I could flag down a bus. Almost immediately the road began to climb. And climb. I optimistically expected the road to reach the peak around every corner. No such luck. I don't know if there is any way to impart the experience that afternoon. The uphill seemed endless, and in fact, it continued uphill, often steeply, for 20 km and those 20 km took me at least 4 hours to complete. When the grade was too steep (it was quite often 10%) or when my legs were simply jello-like and sore, I got off and pushed the bike until my arms were jello-like and sore; then I either took a break or switched again to riding.

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It was the hottest part of the day and the sun was merciless. I can say, on the bright side, that the scenery—the surrounding mountain view—was stunning. Cliché! My breath was taken away from the climb and then again from the view! ;)

Despite the view, though, I was exhausted and when I looked at my cell phone to check the time after noticing the air around me was chill, I saw it was getting on to 3:30 p.m. and the mountain, the uphill, had no end in sight. "Give it some time," I thought. "I can always flag down a bus in a half hour or so."

So I continued up and up and up. Soon it was 4:20 p.m. and the road ahead had a sign declaring a 10% uphill grade. So I flagged down a bus that was going to Da Nang. But they wanted 20,000 VND which struck me and still strikes me as exorbitant. So I waved goodbye to them, wondering if I'd regret it later. (Spoiler alert: The answer is yes. And no.)

So I continued on—nothing to do but move forward. And lo! What's this? A downhill! Yes!

I cruised down the hill, thinking, "This is it! The crest of the mountain." Exuberantly, I used my newly defined phrase: "It's all downhill from here!"

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I passed through a tiny village and three boys lined up and held out their hands to high five me as I rode by. I felt joyous, unconquerable. I passed two policemen; they tried to say something to me. Wary, I smiled and waved and kept going. I passed a waterfall, right in the nook, the armpit of the road's curve.

And then I turned the corner. "Motherfucker!" I thought, along with other obscenities. Another uphill sign!

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This sign indicated only 150 m, but I knew all too well that those 150 m could drag on for kilometers. I felt completely dejected. I ate a tangerine. Now I had no water and only two tangerines. It was late, past the time when most minibuses ran and it was cold. I waited, hoping to flag down a minibus, but none passed. I had no tent, no sleeping bag, no sweater, no flashlight, no water. The situation was feeling a wee bit desperate.

I gave myself until the end of the tangerine, then when no minibus had passed or could be seen approaching, I had nothing left to do but keep moving. The white and red stone kilometer markers on the side of the road indicated a town 9 km away. Even if it was uphill the whole way, surely I could make it around dusk and find a home to sleep in! So I trudged up the hill. And it was, blessedly, the last!

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It really was downhill from that point on, which was lucky because I soon found out that the "town" the kilometer markers were counting down to was not a town at all. It was a waterfall.

So I kept going. The going was easy now—all downhill. Not to mention, there was absurdly beautiful scenery at every turn. It seemed once I had reached the crest of the mountain, the climate suddenly and very noticeably changed. On the way up, the mountains had been arid, often with exposed patches of red dirt and patches of dry, brownish grass. Once on the other side of the pass, the air became absurdly thick with moisture. Every breath I took was like drowning in warm water and the mountains had no dry patches, no exposed dirt. Instead they were filled to bursting with ferns and palms and vines and greenery of every sort. I could hardly believe the lushness. At every turn there was a waterfall.

I stopped often to take pictures but soon realized I had no time to dawdle. I saw a kilometer marker for Kham Duc—my original destination—for about 25 km away. It was already dusk, but I was making great downhill time, so I decided I would try to make it. I might have to cycle a bit in the dark, but so what?

So I pushed on, as fast as my legs and the hill would take me. And the kilometers quickly ticked by. It was just that time of evening when the bugs are out in full force. This fact, coupled with the extreme humidity, soon meant my face was speckled with little black bugs.

With 10 km to go, darkness fell completely. I cycled on, using the weak flashlight mode on my cell phone and holding the phone in my left hand so I could try to make out the road in front of me. The traffic was not too thick, but I still feared some crazy driver (of which there were plenty) would swerve into me in an inattentive moment. But luck was on my side and a little after 8:00 p.m. I finally made it into Kham Duc and though I entered the town slowly and with little fanfare, I felt as if I were in a one-woman parade. I felt like celebrating.


Power Snacking in Vietnam and Cambodia

I often tell people that Southeast Asia, especially Vietnam, is tailor-made for cycling. All right, so the roads aren’t always great (see this post as proof), but the drivers are accustomed to cyclists, the hotels are cheap, the scenery is phenomenal, and the food is amazing and very suitable for vegans. The snacks especially are plentiful and healthy, providing the perfect source of long-lasting energy.

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In Cambodia, if you see a roadside grill like this, pull over. Immediately.

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At first I was too shy to buy any of these little packets as I wasn’t sure what was inside them. But soon I realized that at about $0.12 each, I could afford to take a gamble and open one up, hoping for a vegan filling! There’s something remotely Christmas-like about peeling away the charred layers of banana leaf to reveal the treat inside.

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This particular variety (called something like An Som or Anksom) are popular near Kratie. The most common type is as pictured above—sweet sticky rice boiled with coconut milk and a hint of salt wrapped around a banana and then grilled. The rice becomes chewy and a bit crunchy while the banana practically melts and caramelizes. Beautiful. I also found these stuffed with taro and (my very favorite) shredded jackfruit.

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Here’s a snack I was only able to find once in Vietnam, though I searched for it many times as it was truly the perfect cycling boost.

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I’ve searched for more information in vain, but here’s what I can tell you about it. It was a chewy confection made from black sticky rice, black beans, fresh ginger, a bit of sugar, and topped with white sesame seeds. It filled me with energy and protein without weighing me down and the fresh ginger was an unexpected and invigorating touch.

Another one of my favorite cycling snacks in Camboda is krolan—sticky rice with coconut cream and black beans stuffed in a bamboo tube and cooked for hours over low heat. It’s labor-intensive work, as the tubes must be constantly monitored and turned to prevent burning. But the result is unique and delicious, and as with the above snacks as well, the packaging is sustainable and biodegradable—perfect for when you’re on the bike!


Bedouin-Style Oud in Petra

When Abdullah approached me as I walked toward the cliffs near Petra in Jordan, I just wanted to be alone. I was tired of smalltalk, tired of being hit on, and tired of the energy required to exert myself. But I didn't want to close myself off to anyone or anything. I reminded myself that just because yesterday had been a shit day shouldn't mean that I retreat into myself and ignore the world. So I chatted with Abdullah and when he invited me for a drink, I joined him. He then joined me as I walked through the rocky terrain though it soon became clear that he was more interested in sitting and drinking gin and telling stupid jokes just to see me smile.

I soon tired of his company and his alcohol-loosened behavior towards me, but he spotted some friends of his--five Bedouin men drinking and singing in a cave--and we joined in. I couldn't resist the siren call of the music.

A master oud player, Isa, explained to me that Bedouin-style oud is very similar to the Arabic-style and he demonstrated some basic techniques. Soon he was playing a popular old song and everyone was singing and clapping along.

Isa made up one or two verses about me, and we all smiled and laughed and danced, but through it all I couldn't quite stomach the sheer amount of liquor being consumed. ("Tea is Bedouin whiskey," is a common saying in Petra. I'm inclined to say that in Petra at least, whiskey is the Bedouin whiskey.)

As I left, Abdullah bade me a sloppy and prolonged goodbye, speckled with pleas to see me again and anger at my refusal. And though I yet again felt exhausted by the interaction, the joyous music and singing buoyed me through and the strain's of Isa's oud lingered with me.


In the Kitchen with Fatoş

Fatoş is another mother to me, and every time I come to Adana, in southern Turkey, she cooks my favorite vegan Turkish foods. Most recently, I spent an afternoon in the kitchen with her as she prepared homemade ıspanklı börek.

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There are many different types of börek, which makes it a difficult food to describe. It consists of thin savory pastry dough and a filling—whether meat, cheese, potatoes, or spinach. Some börek is stuffed and rolled into crescents or circles, another is tightly layered and baked in a water bath, but Fatoş’s börek is more like a stuffed flatbread.

She starts with fresh chopped spinach and onions, adds some salça (see this post for more information on this staple of Turkish cuisine), oil, salt, and a touch of cumin. Everything is raw, as the filling will cook inside the bread.

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Here you can see the workspace. On the left is the dough—a simple dough of flour, water, yeast, and salt which has risen once—then some flour for rolling, two rolling pins, and the spinach filling. In this part of Turkey it is very common to prepare food and eat on a checkered cloth like this one on the floor. When eating, you simply make sure that your feet and body are next to or under the cloth, often tucking the cloth into your lap. I once made the mistake of walking across the cloth the first time that I ate like this, but the cloth is like a table. You wouldn’t put your feet on the dining table!

In the following video you can see how the dough is rolled out into the perfect thin circle in preparation for stuffing.

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Here you can see Fatoş arranging the filling in the very thin circle of dough, folding the dough over and sealing the börek.

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Next we cooked each piece of börek in a special flat, wide pan, snacking and chatting as we did. Normally, many women would gather together to make börek, as it is a time-intensive dish. From preparing the dough and letting it rise, making the filling, rolling out the dough until it is paper-thin, then stuffing, sealing, and cooking each piece of börek, the process often take an entire day. And when you make börek, it would be a waste to only make a small batch, so as you can see in the picture above, we made a little mountain of börek and I was happily eating it for the next two meals.


A Stolen Wallet, a Missing Condom, and a Notorious Criminal.

Downtown Amman looks like no other downtown I've ever seen. It is a mix of Roman and pre-Roman ruins, narrow streets, cheap clothing vendors, portable carts selling seasonal fruit (currently green almonds and strawberries), and sidewalks crowded with fully covered women, men wearing the red and white Palestinian-style headscarf, and a sprinkling of tourists. I walked through this jumble of people, greeted every few minutes by a friendly, “Welcome to Jordan!” to which I always smiled in return. I made my way past the old Hussein mosque and into a maze of narrow backstreets filled with fruit and vegetable sellers. There I spotted a man selling Jordanian sweets from a portable wheeled cart and one of the sweets caught my eye—a croquant-like bar of sesame and peanuts. I stopped to ask for one and we began to chat in a mix of English and my very limited Arabic. “You speak Arabic?” “Hafif, schwey.” He asked me to eat my sweet there with him and we continued our conversation. As we talked, someone bumped into me and so we moved the cart a little ways down the sidewalk. As I reached for my wallet to pay, the sweet seller insisted that it was free. Touched, I thanked him warmly and continued walking down the street.

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A View of Downtown Amman

As I walked away, I reached into my bag to get my sunglasses and quickly realized my wallet was gone. I ran my hand through my entire bag again. No wallet. I had just been to the ATM because I needed money for my Thai visa and had about 230 JD ($328), as well as my ATM, credit card and drivers license in my wallet. In a little surge of embarrassment I realized I had a spare condom in there as well. Then I remembered that someone had bumped me from behind, jostling me and my purse and I immediately knew what had happened. I doubled back to the seller to ask if he had seen anything. Surely the thief could not have gotten far. I managed to explain that my money was stolen and the sweet seller's first reaction was to proclaim it wasn't him. I told him I knew that, but was just wondering if he saw anything. He made it clear that he hadn't and as I stood there, unsure of what to do next, he offered me, despite my strenuous objections, 5 JD so I could at least catch a taxi. I called my host, Mohammed, told him what had happened, and found that he was now on his way downtown. We agreed to meet at Hussein mosque. I thanked the sweet seller again then walked toward the mosque to wait for Mohammed.

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Shortly after, a man approached me and told me that he had seen what happened—he saw my wallet being stolen. It was the man behind me, the galabeeyah seller, he said. I should go immediately to the police and tell them what had happened, and he pointed me in the right direction. He had been scared to tell me before because he didn't want the thief to make trouble for him. A minute later, another man approached me and said essentially the same thing. He had seen the galabeeyah seller take my wallet from my bag and he advised that I go to the police; he would accompany me but wouldn't make a formal complaint because he was afraid of the repercussions from the thief and the thief's well-connected family. “I hate to see this in my country,” he said, explaining why he had immediately come to me. “But I know who did it, and the man is a well-known thief.”

When Mohammed arrived he was steely and determined, upset that this had happened to me, but completely focused on resolving the problem. We went quickly to the police station—just a five minutes' walk away and were quickly ushered into the chief's personal office. Mohammed explained everything that had happened in rapid Arabic and when he finished, the chief asked me to explain. I recounted everything and soon a few police officers were sent to retrieve the galabeeyah seller and bring him in for questioning.

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A covertly snapped photo of the police station

The chief of police, Colonel Alquran, spoke perfect, unaccented English. He was handsome and trim and carried himself with authority and confidence. I felt relaxed in his office; I felt in good hands. He asked what action I wanted to take and I explained that I simply wanted my wallet back; I had no desire for retribution. “Officially, we have no witnesses,” the colonel said, though he had spoken to the second witness who approached me. “No one wants to make an official complaint because they are worried about what might happen to them.” I assured him that I understood completely. “So you will make an official complaint against this man, explaining that you have reason to believe he stole your wallet, you felt him bump into you, and a few people told you it was he. You naturally can't remember much about these witnesses—where they work, their names, what they look like. Okay?” I agreed.

I hadn't gotten a good look at the galabeeyah seller, but within fifteen minutes of our arrival at the station, a man was brought into the Col. Alquran's office. Mohammed and I left the room for a few minutes, and as we walked back in, the seller spoke to me angrily in Arabic, asking me, “Why do you accuse me? Have you ever seen me before?” His question planted a seed of doubt. I didn't recognize him. Maybe he was the wrong man.

“Bad news,” the chief told us. “The man denies everything even though I told him that you didn't want to sue him; you just want your wallet back. Now negotiation is over and you will fill out the paperwork to make a formal complaint.” I could see he was disappointed. A formal complaint meant court visits, meant weeks of trial and paperwork until I could potentially see my money, my credit cards, my ID again.

But I still felt in competent hands. Mohammed told me about the last time he had been in a police station. His friend's car had been stolen in Amman and they went to report the theft. Three weeks later, the car was found near the Dead Sea, over 100 km away. A six on the license plate had been changed into a nine—a feat possible in Arabic—but the police had tracked the car down nonetheless.

As I debated aloud whether I should get to a computer to cancel my credit card immediately, I babbled something that one of the witnesses had told me. He had mentioned the galabeeyah seller's brother, implied he might be involved somehow. The colonel's face and demeanor immediately changed. He made a call, then turned to me. “We might get your wallet today after all. This man's brother is a well-known criminal, but he is also my eye. He provides information for me. He'll come here and I think he might be able to convince his brother that it would be best for him to return your wallet.”

The brother soon arrived—a muscular and tenacious man who spoke only to the chief and never once looked at me. I didn't know where to direct my eyes. If I stared at the brother, would he think I was being confrontational? If I didn't make eye contact, would he think I was a coward? I focused my attention on the chief instead. They spoke and though I couldn't understand what was said, I was again impressed by Colonel Alquran. His manner was strong, but fair. He spoke evenly and smiled once or twice, all without losing his authority or gravitas.

The brother left to try to find my wallet, charging out of the room like a bulldog. The chief and Mohammed seemed confident of success. When the brother returned empty handed, my heart sank. I had gotten my hopes up. But he raised his shirt and there I saw, tucked into his pants, my primary-colored Laotian wallet. He handed it over and the chief's assistant began to look through it thoroughly. My stomach churned as I remembered the condom stashed away in the back pocket. I leapt out of my chair and crossed the room, but I was too late. The assistant had opened and was searching through the zippered pocket. He emptied everything out, money, credit card, ATM card, drivers license, papers, receipts. I shuffled through them. Where was the condom? Everything was there except my emergency condom.

The mix of emotions I felt then was quite a cocktail. I was happy to have my wallet back, impressed at the efficiency of the police force, relieved the condom was not turned out on the chief's desk for all to see, and confused. Mainly confused as to what kind of a thief would have the delicacy to remove the condom before returning my wallet to the police, where many eyes—conservative male eyes—would ogle it.

Colonel Alquran explained that the galabeeyah seller and his brother had claimed to have seen the wallet being stolen and found it, but didn't know who the thief was. They were happy to return it to its rightful owner. This was the end of the matter. There was to be no paperwork because officially nothing had happened. Officially, my wallet had never been stolen.

The colonel gave me his phone number before we left, saying if I had any more problems, I should call him. He advised me to be careful, to carry less money, and to leave my valuables somewhere secure. All good, common-sense advice which I fully intend to follow. Until I become complacent and lazy again.

There was one last thing I wanted to do before we left downtown Amman, so Mohammed and I walked toward the Hussein mosque. I quickly spotted the sweet seller and thanked him for his kindness, Mohammed explaining that my wallet had been returned and that I was grateful for his generosity, but wanted to return his money as I really didn't need it. “Shukran,” I said. “Ma'a salaama.”

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Jordanian sweets

Mohammed and I walked away and I thought how strange it was. Only two hours ago I had been in this same place. Two hours ago I had walked down this street, my purse full, my heart light. And here I was again, purse full, heart light. It was almost as if nothing had happened—nothing had changed. Well, that wasn't entirely true. I now walked with my purse in front of me, clutched in my hand.


Falafels of Beirut. A Love Story

On my first night in Beirut my host told me of the best falafel in Beirut—a falafel from a restaurant so historic, so popular, so delicious that Charbel could barely form sentences as he talked about it. He was near-speechless and suddenly possessed of a strong craving. Needless to say, I could hardly wait until the next day to eat this famous falafel.

Beirut 037 Apparently, the original shop, Sahyoun, was owned by a man with two sons. It was widely known that he made the best falafel, but when he died there was a bit of a falling out and so the two sons opened two falafel shops, side-by-side, both continuing to use the same name, Sahyoun. The story had me hooked, so on my first full day in Beirut, Charbel and I walked to Sahyoun for lunch and there I got to see the shop in action.

Sahyoun is a well-oiled (excuse the pun) falafel-making machine. There is always one man working the fryer, using a special falafel scoop which has a quick-release lever and forms perfect falafels every time. Meanwhile, a separate employee works the cash register, taking your order when you arrive. A third worker prepares and assembles each sandwich, slicing radishes and tomatoes in quick and even strokes. I was awed by their efficiency and by the number of customers I saw duck in and out in only a few minutes’ time. Charbel was clearly not the only person who thought Sahyoun has the best falafel in Beirut.Beirut 007

I found the falafels to be a bit different from what I’m used to. They were pure, simple, understated. No specks of green, no herbs, lightly spiced. Perfection. Instead of the falafel being the main source of flavor, it was the components of the sandwich which combined to create a wonderful, tasty whole.

Each sandwich had a layer of roughly chopped parsley and mint, sliced radishes and tomatoes. All these veggies were then topped with three smushed falafels, a drizzling of optional spicy pepper sauce, and a liberal dousing of tarator (tahini, lemon juice, garlic) sauce. The sandwich is traditionally eaten with a few pickled spicy green peppers.

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Now, according to Charbel, the shop on the right is always crowded, always full of people, while the other brother's shop is often near-empty. He speculates that this means the first brother has the better recipe or the better technique—something that makes his the better falafel of the two. Not content to take his word for it, I knew I needed to eat from both Sahyouns and finally settle this important issue. Which brother has the better falafel?

After trying the shop on the right, I went back the next day to try the other brother’s falafel. I would love to say that there was an obvious answer to the question: Which is better? But the only difference I could distinguish was in price. The shop on the right charged 3,000 LL while the shop on the left only 2,500 LL (about $1.70). Other than that, both sandwiches appeared and tasted identical—perfect.

Beirut 051 Having tried the best, I decided it was time to try the rest. I continued my falafel quest at Barbar, a popular fast food restaurant with two branches in Beirut. Barbar has all the favorite Lebanese snack foods, including fatayer (a calzone-like bread stuffed with spinach), manoosh (flatbread with any number of toppings, my favorite of which is zaatar), schwarma, mezzes (including tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves, and fattoush), and falafel.

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Barbar’s falafel differed from Sahyoun’s in a few ways. The first and most obvious was the falafel itself. Barbar coated each falafel in sesame seeds before frying—a delicious touch I approved of. Unfortunately, the sandwich itself was inferior. The tarator sauce was not evenly distributed, resulting in an overly dry wrap. And though it’s traditional, I found I’m not a big fan of the pink pickled turnips that Barbar includes in their falafel sandwich.

OnBeirut 055 another day, I tried a falafel from a nameless shop near Hamra and the American University of Beirut. This wrap was big and each falafel was speckled with parsley and more heavily spiced than usual—a change which I enjoyed. However, like at Barbar, I found the tarator sauce applied too lightly, resulting in a very dry and inferior sandwich.

What I discovered on my falafel tour of Beirut is that, as with orgasms, there’s no such thing as a bad falafel. But given a choice, I know where my next falafel in Beirut is coming from.


Hitchhiking to Konya and the Flute that Tells Allah’s Secrets

The rides that brought me to Konya were all pretty good, though there was some confusion (to put it kindly) with the first driver (a truck driver, I feel compelled to add because the stereotype is sometimes true). While trying to explain that I sometimes had problems with drivers misunderstanding my intentions, he began to compliment me. “Çok güzelsin.” And soon he was asking me for a kiss or to lie in his bed. Oh great, I thought. Here goes. But once I said that I was a good girl, and that if there was a problem I would leave the truck (“Eğer sorun var, o zaman ineceğim.”) he quickly cleaned up his act and was actually decent for the remainder of the trip. He even had a little self-conscious sparkle in his eye when he advised me against getting in trucks because it would be too dangerous.

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A dervish statue in honor of the Mevlana (Rumi) in downtown Konya

The last ride was with a very sweet Kurdish man who traveled around Turkey selling or distributing medicines and supplements like omega three and six. He was easy, so easy to talk to. I think he had had experience in the past talking with people who understood little Turkish because he was able to use almost entirely words that I could understand.

It was a good day for communication. With the first driver I was even able to have a political conversation, talking about Obama and how I thought he was good at first but he hasn't seemed to do much at all since he's been elected. I asked about Erdoğan and gave my opinion on the improved state of Turkish economy since he's been elected.

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Outside a Madrasa in Konya

When I got into Konya I quickly noticed a difference from Ankara, where I had just been. I have never seen so many young girls and women wearing the headscarf as I did in Konya. In many other Turkish cities, it is almost exclusively older women—mothers and grandmothers—who wear the headscarf, but in Konya even the university students wore the Turkish conservative “uniform” of a long tan button-up coat and vivid floral headscarf.

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The tiled roof of a Madrasa in Konya

I want to relate a parable that Huseyin, my host in Konya, shared with me about the type of flute he plays, called the ney. One night, the prophet Mohammed was called up to speak with Allah and while there, Allah told him 90,000 words—sacred secrets. When Mohammed came back down to his bed, he found it was still warm from where he had left it. Time had ceased to pass while he was gone.

In the next days, he found himself deeply troubled by the words and the secrets that Allah had shared with him, and Ali, Mohammed's closest follower, noticed Mohammed's pensiveness and asked him what was wrong. Mohammed didn't want to burden Ali, but told him that he had some secrets that were weighing on him. Ali encouraged him to ease his burden.

“Why don't you tell the secrets?” he asked Mohammed.

Mohammed agreed that it might help, but couldn't bare to give Ali such a heavy load, so he only told Ali 30,000 words. But even these words and these secrets were more than Ali could handle, so one day Ali leaned into a well and shouted the words to the bottom of the well. But the well also couldn't contain the words, and so the water inside began to bubble up and rise and soon the water flooded the entire plain around the well. And around that well, weeks later, a unique kind of reed began to grow and when it grew and the wind blew around it, the most beautiful sounds could be heard. A passerby, who loved the soft sounds, had the idea to fashion a flute out of one of the reeds.

A few weeks later, Mohammed and Ali were passing this field and heard someone playing the flute, the ney. Mohammed heard the sound of the ney and immediately understood that the flute was telling the secrets Allah had shared with him, so he turned to Ali and asked, “Who did you share the secrets with?” But when Ali explained, Mohammed couldn't be angry, and in fact, he well understood the burden of those 30,000 words.

It is said then that the ney sings Mohammed's sacred secrets from Allah, but the secrets are told with Ali's breath.


In the Kitchen With Ayşe

This is the first in my new “In the Kitchen” series. With “In the Kitchen”, my aim is to observe home cooks in action as they prepare a signature vegan dish from their culinary culture. I’ll begin with the beautiful Ayşe preparing a traditional Turkish dish called kısır, which is a bulgur and veggie salad flavored with salça and nar ekşisi, two staples of the Turkish pantry.

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I still remember clearly the first time I ate kısır. My brother and his wife, Ayşe, had just moved to the States from where he was stationed in Turkey and it was my first time visiting them in their new home. Ayşe asked if I would like to try a dish she often made back home called kısır. She assured me it was vegan, so of course I was game. I watched as she chopped up veggies, steamed and seasoned bulgur, then combined them all in the largest bowl they had. The bulgur took on a beautiful reddish hue, speckled through with bits of green. The flavor was like nothing I had ever tasted before and I kept going back for bowl after heaping bowl.

Now, just about every time I visit them, I ask Ayşe if we can make kısır together. The truth is that no one makes it like she does—it just never tastes as good!

She graciously agreed to let me into her kitchen to watch and document how she makes this delicious Turkish dish.

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First, Ayşe steams the fine bulgur by pouring boiling water over it then covering the bowl with a kitchen towel. The bulgur will plump and soften as it absorbs the hot water. Next, she carefully washes the veggies. She thoroughly washes the parsley and lettuce with some water and vinegar, peels the tomatoes, half-peels the cucumber so it has alternating stripes of light and dark green, then washes and chops the green peppers and the green onions.

Now, Ayşe has told me that every cook makes kısır differently. Some add minced garlic, purple cabbage. Some even add sauteed white onions. The only constants in kısır tend to be the green onions, parsley, tomatoes, and green peppers. Even the quantity of each is a matter of taste and preference.

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The next step is to season the steamed bulgur. This is the crucial step with gives kısır its unique and uniquely Turkish flavor. For this, Ayşe uses homemade (never store-bought) salca, nar eksisi, and oil. She seasons by sight and taste. When I asked how much salca to use, she said that she uses enough to turn the bulgur the perfect shade of red. As for how much oil, she uses just enough to make each grain of bulgur shiny.

Salca is an intensely flavored sundried red pepper paste. In the village where Ayşe’s family lives, women work together once a year to make this essential item in the Turkish pantry. In groups of ten or more, starting with about 100 kilos of sweet, long red peppers, the women remove the stems, deseed, and chop each pepper. Then a man comes by whose one job during this time of year is to grind the prepared peppers into a paste with a special machine. This paste is then sprinkled with salt, spread thinly, and left to dry in the sun for a few days. For these few days, every balcony, every suitable surface in the village is used for drying the red pepper paste. After the paste has dried, it is once again passed through the special grinding machine to make an even finer paste. This salca will be used throughout the rest of the year, and with a little oil and onions, will form the base for almost every dish.

Nar eksisi is another common ingredient in the Turkish kitchen. It is made from pomegranate juice which has been boiled for hours and hours, if not days, until it reaches a thick, syrupy consistency. It has a pleasant sourness which is often used in salads in addition to, or as a replacement for, lemon juice.

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After seasoning the bulgur,  Ayşe adds the finely chopped veggies, mixes everything together, and checks the flavor. Does the kısır need more oil? Does it need salt? (Because salca contains differing amounts of salt, a taste test is necessary.) At this point, if she wants to add some heat, Ayşe sometimes sprinkles some spicy red pepper flakes into the kısır.

Kısır can be eaten as is, but is often scooped into lettuce leaves and eaten with pickled spicy green peppers. As they say in Turkey at every meal, Afiyet Olsun! May it bring you health!

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