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Guest blogger: Dolly Ahmad, Program Assistant at the Illinois Study Abroad Office
Food tourism is defined as “the exploration of food as the purpose of tourism.” It has recently started being considered an integral part of the tourism experience. What’s little known about it, though, is if you look the phrase up in the dictionary, you will find a picture of me. I’m holding some sort of Turkish food in my hand, face shining with a smile, somewhere in the streets of Istanbul. Yes, I am the long unknown mascot of food tourists across the globe and Istanbul is my kingdom.
All ridiculousness aside, there is something about food tourism that I find so thrilling. And it’s not that my whole life and reason for existence is about food when I am being a food tourist, or at least I hope. I like to think that it just means that when we food tourists embark on our adventures for the day, we like to designate a particular food as the end goal. At the end, however, the day was not about the goal; it was about the path taken to reach that goal. When I set out at 7am one morning in search for Kemalpaşa tatlısı, I ended up not liking the dessert. But that was not a failure of a day because the thing about food tourism is that it is not about the food under pursuit; that was just a fraction of the day’s adventure. It was about the friends I made by asking “want to wake up and get Kemalpaşa tatlısı with me?” It was about the shopkeepers and bus drivers to whom we talked in order to find a café that sold it. After finding the café, it was about the feel of the café’s quaint little street with the street cats playing and the elderly Turkish uncles having their tea. We food tourists are not just children chasing the ice cream truck just to eat the ice cream, but adults using ice cream as an excuse to run. Indeed, we are a tasteful and classy bunch of adventurers [gulps down an entire ice cream cone Homer Simpson style].
There is no place better for a food tourist than Istanbul with it’s, what I like to call, “cay [tea] culture.” Think about cay culture as the extreme opposite of fast food culture. It is about taking a break from your day and sitting down with friends instead of eating for convenience and speed. It is about dipping each piece of your morning toast into a different jam instead of slathering one type on the entire slice so it can be eaten on the go. It is about finishing off the meal with as many glasses of tea as it takes for the conversation to die down instead of pouring it in a to-go mug. (It is also about my professor coming in late to lecture so he could finish his tea). In short, cay culture is heaven for food tourist. While Turkey is not the country with an eminent cay culture, its one of the most unique. Its location across two continents lends a unique blend of European, Middle-Eastern, and Central Asian tastes to the cuisine.
With that, I begin my foray into the top 5 foods I have pursued in Turkey and the best locations to have them. Keep in mind as you read that this is not simply a list of foods, but a list of experiences.
1. Ortakoy Waffle by the Bosphorous
Here in the US, we traditionally have waffles for breakfast. In Turkey, you could have it for breakfast, but it’s a bit like having ice cream for breakfast. You would have a bellyache all day. This is not a limp, lifeless freezer waffle. This is a waffle topped with your favorite spreads, and you get to pick them. Think of your favorite ice cream flavors – now imagine them as Nutella spreads. Yup, it’s real. Now add your favorite fruits. You’re not done yet buddy; you still have to pick your favorite nuts and chocolate chips. Want share the bellyache with a friend? Have it served to you at a rooftop café in Ortakoy. Want to sit on the stair steps by the shore and eat it? Get it wrapped into a cone and grab it to go. That, my friends, is the Turkish waffle that calls to me in my dreams.
2. Ortakoy Kumpir
Now across from the waffles stands in Ortakoy are Kumpir stands. It’s traditional to get a Kumpir before and a waffle both when you visit the Bosphorous-side area, but hats off to you if you can stomach them both. What is a Kumpir you ask? Oh you know, you’re average baked potato. NOT. It’s anything but average; it’s a baked potato on crack. You know those award-winning potato and pasta salads that your aunt brings to family barbeques? Those are your options for the fillings. There are peas, corn, and other vegetable-y delights as well to balance out the fat if you dare. I was never a baked potato buff but my friends who were told me it is heaven. To be honest, I was usually too busy looking forward to the waffle when I was in Ortakoy to shower the potato with the love that it probably deserved.
3. Sahlep from in the Spice Bazaar
Honestly kids, forget about hot chocolate. Trust me and trade it in for an orchid-infused steamed milk drink with a sprinkling of cinnamon on top. If it makes you feel better, think of it as white hot chocolate and chug it down. And thank me for introducing it into your life. This drink was my personal favorite and can be found year round in most cafés. I, however, far prefer to order it at on a cold day in the midst of a shopping expedition through the Grand Bazaar. Careful not to burn your tongue! It happened to my friend and she refused to drink it again. What a shame.
4. Eminonu Balikli Ekmek
Picture from baycc.org
Eating fish right after it is caught is only a dream for us chummy Midwesterners. Alas, we will always have to frozen fish imported from somewhere off of the East coast. In Istanbul, however, a town famous for its fishing, frozen fish is not an option. Especially when there are boats where you can buy freshly made fish sandwiches from. Even if you are not a fan of fish, which I am not, you have got to eat a balikli ekmek sandwich in Eminonu for the experience. Do it just because you will never get to eat fish so fresh. You might get to eat the eyeballs too if you’re lucky.
5. Maraş Dondurması by the Blue Mosque
I know you. You think that you’ve eaten ice cream. Listen buddy; you haven’t. You’ve only had the watered down, artificially flavored lifeless remains of what ice cream could be. You will only have experience ICE CREAM when you’ve had Maraş Dondurması. And you will only have experienced ice cream when you’ve had it on the courtyard of the Blue Mosque with the prayer call sounding and pigeons landing around you. Let me tell you what makes Maraş Dondurması special; it comes from a special region in central Turkey where the goats are sent from heaven (kidding about the last part) and is infused with mastic. Mastic is the same ingredient that gives chewing gum its chew, so as you can imagine, the Turkish ice cream has a very thick consistency. It stretches like melted mozzarella when you take a bite and, if you get it served on a plate, requires a fork and knife to eat. If you could only try one food in Turkey, his would have to be it. Try it as the traditional orchid or pistachio flavor, the better.
Guest Blogger: Alicia Daniels, Program Assistant at the Illinois Study Abroad Office
“We should come home from adventures, perils, and discoveries every day with new experience and character.” –Henry David Thoreau
Before I stepped a toe into any airport to fly solo to the United Kingdom, I spent months combing over blogs, government sites, and even Pinterest – I’m ashamed to reveal that last source – in failed attempts to piece together clues about what my study abroad experience may look like. Although I have lived in several countries in Europe before I never visited the city my program was being held. I was finally bursting out of the “campus-life” bubble and, even though that feeling was invigorating, the idea of not being around familiar surroundings was terrifying!
However…I made it sixth months “across the pond” and returned home –for the most part- unscathed (sorry for those impromptu ear piercings in France, Mom and Dad)! The most rewarding moments I had abroad were the times that I traveled off the beaten path and explored the cities I was so fortunate enough to be in. Here are three tips that helped me make the most of my time outside of the classroom:
Talk to the locals. “But what if they realize I’m a foreigner?” Well you are, so embrace it! Don’t worry if you think a native will judge you; chances are they will find you to be a novelty and will want to know more about you too. Plus, you may even pick up a few new friends along the way. Locals are a great resource to understand a city’s public transportation system, the best eateries, and the coolest places to blow off steam after long nights of studying.
Don’t be afraid to look like a tourist. Grab a map, your camera, and just go! Your study abroad program will go by much quicker than you think. Before school starts and things really pick up try to map out some tourist locations you would love to visit around town. You may think you’ll have 4-6 months to see it all but between finals, making friends, and traveling you may miss out on some hidden gems located in the city of your host university.
Travel light on the weekends. If you study in Europe, you’ll soon find out that historic towns with cobblestone streets – although completely gorgeous – are not great for rolling around luggage. If you are taking weekend trips to a neighboring city try limiting yourself to a backpack. You really only need the essentials and it will be much easier to carry if you have to wait for a train or need to pass time outdoors until your hostel room is ready.
Fear of the unknown is absolutely normal but don’t let that deter you from exploring something new! Let’s be honest, you’re most likely going to get lost at one point during your journey but you’re also going to come back with memorable experiences and tons of pictures that will make all of your Instagram followers terribly jealous.
Guest Blogger: Lauren Andraski
I didn’t title my post with easily translatable Spanish, but with a few words in Basque, that translate to “Gracias, País Vasco” or “Thank you, Basque Country.” I could not have asked for a better place or better people to spend our first vacation with. Our original attempt to plan our trip for Semana Blanca was in vain, and kept changing from Barcelona to Florence to Nice to Bologna…until we finally asked our program director for advice, who suggested we go to Bilbao and San Sebastian. At that point, we were so frustrated with booking tickets that he could have suggested going to the US and we almost would have considered it.
Luckily, the US was not his suggestion and luckily we were willing to put up with an 11 hour bus ride to the northern-most part of Spain. We knew that we would spend the first part of the week in Bilbao, but feared going to San Sebastian because we heard news of intense waves and flooding on the news. When we would ask a Spaniard, they told us how terrifying the weather was only before proceeding to tell us that we have nothing to worry about. While in our hostel in Bilbao, the receptionist (probably the 9th person we had solicited advice from) reassured us that it was in fact very safe to travel there. Our minds were put at ease and we couldn’t be more excited to explore the basque country region!
Almost everyone says that the only reason to visit Bilbao is to see the Guggenheim Museum (pictured above). Despite only seeing it from the outside, we were perfectly content with the rest of our trip there. The first morning, I did my absolute favorite thing to do while traveling. I got ready early so that I could sneak away for my very necessary coffee (yes, I have an addiction. Let’s not talk about that). I like wandering around a new town and peering in coffee shops and wading through the ones that are too crowded and too barren until I find the one that is just right. There, I can strike up a conversation with the barista and ask for their suggestions of the best things to do in town.
San Sebastian has to be one of the best places I have ever visited. World famous for its cuisine and lovely beach, I would recommend a trip here to anyone. Though surely the beaches are nicer in the summer, they are also likely more crowded.
As promised, our friend from Bilbao invited us out with her friends for pintxos (pictured above) and drinks, where they introduced us to the term “bote,” which is where every person contributes a small amount of money in order to buy larger plates of food instead of individual servings. They also introduced us to the term “sobre la marcha,” which essentially translates to “play it by ear,” which was exactly what we did. We would wander around, see something pretty, sit and stare at it for half an hour, and do it again.
Everything in San Sebastian was wonderful. We stayed at a wonderful pension, Pension Goiko, where we met wonderful travelers, cooked wonderful food (eggplant and spinach pasta, to be exact), and spent time with wonderful people.
Universal rule #1: Don’t trust strangers.
While the majority of strangers who offer to help you find your way or with your things are legitimate, it can never hurt to be too careful when you’re en-route. Never leave your stuff with someone you don’t know, and always keep an eye on valuables. Some veteran traveler techniques include keeping your backpack in front of you or your hand on your purse or pocket while standing on the bus. You may feel silly at first, but you’ll soon notice that many locals travel like this.
Universal rule #2: Always stay more attentive abroad to what’s around you than when you are at home or on campus.
You may have taken public transportation before, but being an American in another country brings a lot more attention to you than in the States (or your home country). Always be monitoring your surroundings and look alert (i.e not lost!), whether in a taxi, bus, train, or walking.
Universal rule #3: Never arrive to a location at nighttime
Sometimes this cannot be helped because of the way train/bus schedules work out, but arriving to a location at night puts you at risk for criminal activity simply because there is typically less foot traffic and more dark or poorly-lit areas that make you an easier target, especially if you aren’t attentive. Always know how to get from the point of arrival to the final destination before beginning your journey, whether it be to and from class, or to or from cities in your host country.
Universal rule #4: Sign up for the US Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Plan.
This free program provides you with the latest updates on travel warnings and alerts in the country you’re in. It is highly recommended for anyone abroad—especially study abroad students.
In the end, the absolute best way to be safe is to ask trusted locals for advice (such as your housemates, Resident Director, International Student Office, etc). Some good questions to ask include:
- What modes of transportation can be dangerous?
- How do I know if a taxi is legitimate?
- Are there certain bus stops and neighborhoods I should avoid?
- What is conspicuous to have out in the open on a bus/train? (ie credit cards, cell phone, iPhone, iPod, laptop, etc.)
- Will a photocopy of my passport instead of the original suffice for identification?
Learning how to get around while abroad is a wonderful experience, so don’t be afraid to dive in. Just be smart!
~Jeanne Zeller, Illinois Study Abroad Office Peer Advisor
While abroad, most people will have to make use of local public transportation at some point or another. Whether you’re going to or from the airport, finding your hostel, or just going across town to class, you will have to maneuver your way through bus and train systems. In some places public transportation works in much the same way as it does in the US–you buy a ticket on the bus or at the train station and take it as far as you need to go. The process is different in many other places, though, and foreign languages make it difficult to get help from the locals. In order to avoid confusion and hefty fines, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Sometimes you will be able to enter a train or bus without presenting a purchased ticket. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean your ride is free. In these cases, transit workers will occasionally walk around and ask to see each passenger’s ticket. If they ask to see your ticket and you don’t have one, they can give you a citation worth hundreds of US dollars. Don’t step on a bus or train unless you have purchased a ticket or you know that you can buy one on board.
- Additionally, some transit systems require you to present your ticket in order to exit the station only, so if you’ve managed to get onto the train/bus without a ticket, and no one from the transportation authority has fined you, keep in mind you’ll still need a way (i.e. a purchased ticket) to get off, so don’t throw away your ticket once you are on the train.
- Often times tickets are purchased based on how far you are traveling, as measured by the number of “zones” you pass through. For example, if you are caught having traveled through 3 zones with only a 1-zone ticket, you may also get an expensive citation. Before purchasing your ticket, map out exactly where you’re going and make sure your ticket covers you for that distance.
- In some places bus tickets are purchased at street kiosks rather than on the bus, try to ask the locals for the proper protocol.
- Catching a bus may require that you flag it down, especially if at the bus stop, there is more than one route designated to stop there. If you don’t do this, the bus may just pass right by you. Arrive at the bus stop early and see how the locals indicate that they would like the bus to pick them up.
Finally, here’s a tip for minimizing difficulties with using public transportation: plan ahead and bring a pocket-sized notepad. It is best to plan out your transit itinerary using the internet/transportation book or other resources before leaving home because it can be difficult figuring it out on the fly, especially if you are not comfortable with the local language. If you are going somewhere from an airport and haven’t devised your route yet, ask for directions there; virtually all airports have informational booths where employees can tell you in English how to get to your destination via public transportation, if it’s possible. Also, it is very helpful to write down notes for your trip (such as the address of your destination, the names of the train/bus lines you’ll be taking, what stops you’ll be getting off at, etc.) on a small notepad and keep it with you while you’re traveling. It may come in handy if you get lost or confused and makes it easier for locals to help you when you don’t speak their language. Also, an actual notepad is preferable to an electronic device because they draw less attention to you and are not dependent on battery life or finding a signal.
–Eli Kliejunas, Illinois Study Abroad Office Peer Advisor