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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

What's for dinner?!
March 18, 2000


We've traveled from North to South America, through Africa to Europe, and the Middle East into Asia Minor! Through it all, there's been one question you students have invariably asked us: "What do you guys eat, anyway?" What fuels the mighty trekkers, as they cross rivers and climb mountains, haggle in the markets and tour ancient ruins, ride on buses and type endless dispatches?

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Fresh produce from Turkey and around the world.  Yummy!

Good question! We all love to eat, so food is always an issue, no matter where we are. These days food is traded around the world. In the markets here in Turkey, Chiquita bananas from Ecuador sit next to apples from France and Turkish hothouse tomatoes. Think about it! Never in the history of the world have people had as much variety in their diet as we have today. Still, imported foods can't be found everywhere, and they're more expensive, so many people in the world still exist on the staples of their area. In Central America, for example, it was beans and tortillas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In Zimbabwe, it's cornmeal mush called Sadza- In China, it's rice.

So, even though Jasmine has been spotted with a tube of Pringles, and there are McDonald's chains in all the major cities, we mostly eat local foods. Since first coming to the Mediterranean (all the way back in Morocco!), the food scene has been great! This is a very fertile part of the world, so there's a lot of variety, even in traditional food. Olives and olive oil are everywhere. There are different kinds of cheeses, and fruit grows here, too!

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<em>Ekmek Fabrik</em>s (Bread factories) like this are everywhere, just follow the smell of fresh bread!

The basic "starch" of the diet here is wheat bread, or ekmek. Usually, it's white and fluffy, but some places have a really tasty sourdough, too. You dip it in soups, use it to wipe up the sauces on your plate, spread it with the local salty cheese made from sheep's milk, or with butter and jam made from the cherries that grow along the Aegean coast.

If you've been following along on our journeys for a while, you'll be familiar with a lot of Turkish foods, which are similar to the Arabic and Greek foods we raved about. Take sis kebaps for example. Sounds like the Arabic dish you all know, the shish kebab, which is meat grilled on a stick, right? Well, it's the same, only sis kebap is the Turkish word. Since the Ottoman Empire ruled all the way from here down through Egypt, it's no surprise that many of the foods are the same. Here in Turkey, there is a kebapci-a person who cooks kebap-on every block.

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Osman the kebapci smiles from behind the fresh parsley.

In the bustling market in Izmir, a friendly voice called out to me from a kebapci, trying to tempt me with his assortment of meats, carefully displayed to show their freshness. Peeking out through the display window, from behind a bouquet of parsley, Osman offered me chicken, liver, ground lamb, fishes, and other strange bits of meat that I really didn't want to ask about. "I'm a vegetarian!" I told him, laughing.

"Come in, anyway! Have some tea!" he said. Turkish hospitality is always like that. Everyone is very friendly and very curious about foreigners. I've been told that the Koran, the Muslims' holy book, emphasizes being hospitable to strangers, but I think that it goes deeper than that. The Turks are just friendly people!


invariably - constantly, in an unchanging fashion
staple - the sustaining or principal element of something; substance

So I sat down with Osman and his friend, Ali, inside the tiny shop. Suddenly, a boy showed up at the door with a tray of three hot teas in tiny, tulip-shaped glass cups. I laughed. I will never get used to seeing waiters carrying tea and coffee through the streets, as if the world is one giant café! The amount of tea that is consumed daily in Turkey must be staggering, because sitting around like this is the most common past time.

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Ali's <em>tatlici</em> tempts the taste buds with baklava and other treats.

It was a slow afternoon in the market. No one came up to the little stand the whole time I was in it. Ali, as it turns out, owns the tatlici, or sweet shop, across the street. I suppose he was keeping one eye on it the whole time we were drinking tea, but no one came there, either.

Mmm, sweets! Now that's something I eat! Ali showed me around his shop - cookies, baklava, and lots of syrup-y gooey things whose names I can't remember. I got confused when I first came here, because the word 'pastry' in Turkish is pasta, so I thought all these stores sold spaghetti, in addition to the tasty treats in the window display. But Ali set me straight, and shared with me his sugary wares-the sacrifices I make for the Odyssey World Trek!

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Turkish delight lives up to its name--it's gooey and delicious!

One thing Ali didn't have, though, was the world famous Turkish delight! They are often sold at the same stores that sell dried fruits and nuts. Turkish delights remind me of jelly candies, or huge jelly beans! Usually, they start off in thin, round "logs," and then are sliced into bite sized pieces, like a sushi roll. They come in dozens of colors and flavors, and most of the shops will let you taste them before you buy. I, of course, have to try ALL of them before I can decide!

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Brian's favorite doner stand in Istanbul is always waiting with freshly grilled meat.

The meat eaters on the team love the doner, which are just like what are called shwarmas in the Arab world. They're layers of meat (either lamb or chicken) charcoal grilled on a stick that spins in front of the fire. The men who sell them stand on the street, outside the shops, in aprons with huge long knives. Then they cut off small strips and put them in a sandwich, along with salad and sauces.

For us vegetarians, there are lots of tasty soups and salads, and often I can find dolmas, which are stuffed grape leaves, without meat. There are also Turkish pizzas, called pides, that are shaped like boats, and made to order in wood fired ovens. Yummy! They don't use tomato sauce, just lots of fresh cheese, veggies, meat, or even eggs. You wash it all down with a drink called ayran, which is made out of plain yogurt and spring water. It's bitter, but I really like it!

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Nuts and dried fruit are popular here, too, especially hazelnuts!

Today is a rainy, cold day, so, as soon as I finish sending in this dispatch, I'm going to the guy on the street who sells sahlep. This is a warm, thick white drink made of milk, orchid-root powder, and cinnamon. That, along with the strong, bitter Turkish coffee, can keep me happy all day! I can't wait, so I think I'll stop typing right now!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at
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