Muz and I weren’t sure what to expect before we arrived. We wanted to try local wines but figured that the secular but mostly Muslim population wasn’t concerned about wine availability. As it turns out, that shouldn’t be anyone’s concern. Wine is plentiful but the local brands we tried left little to be desired. It was also more expensive than we thought it would be (much like Istanbul in general).
We decided to try local beer instead. Most places offered Efes Pilsner, a Turkish brand headquartered in Istanbul. Once we tried it, we knew that this was a better choice.
We were in the airport on our way home when I realized that we hadn’t tried the true drink of Istanbul: raki. Raki is a liquor made from grapes, figs or plums. It’s flavored with anise seeds and has a distinctive black licorice taste. Muz hates black licorice, so I didn’t mention it to him. And my experience drinking raki taught me that it’s best sipped on a long, hot afternoon when sightseeing is not a priority.
Still, we had to try it in Istanbul. Since we were about to board a plane, we ordered a Raki and a beer in the airport lounge. Muz was surprised by how smooth and light the Raki tasted. He even drank most of it. Next time we travel, we’ll be sure to try the national drink before we’re headed on a flight home. We may have even found our new motto: travel globally, drink locally.
Thanksgiving was our first full day in Istanbul. We decided to avoid eating a Turkish version of a Thanksgiving meal and hit the streets for inspiration instead.
After giving thanks at the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, we slaked our thirst with fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice outside the Topkapi Palace. It wasn’t quite cranberry sauce, but we didn’t mind.
We then ate corn on the cob that was grilled by a street vendor, pilgrim-style.
Later, we passed by a café displaying heaps of baklava and other treats. We went in for dessert but realized we needed lunch first. We ordered the most (Italian) American thing of all: pizza and beer. We topped off the meal with an embarrassingly large selection of desserts and walked on to the Spice Market.
The Spice Market is a tourist trap; don’t think otherwise. But it’s still fun to walk through the aisles, get a sales pitch every five seconds, and sample wares. I loved the spices, but the Age of the Internet means that I can order them easily. Fresh Turkish delight was another matter. Yum.
After mezzes in the Pera District, we ended the evening with the most American treat we could find: Starbucks. We don’t have Starbucks in Belgrade, or large drinks in general. I caved in and ordered a grande chai latte. We walked through the streets drinking from massive cups like proper Americans. We usually try to fit in with the crowd when travelling, but not on Thanksgiving. Even in Turkey.
Muz and I know little about mosques, and what we knew about this one was based on a page in our guide book. So we agreed to a tour offered by an older local. Who, it turned out, also knew little about the architecture or history of the place. We decided to go to Wikipedia for the hard facts and asked him about services instead.He graciously answered our unsophisticated questions, such as: Do men and women have separate entrances? (Yes.) Where does the imam preach? (The minbar, atop a carved staircase) How do people pray in perfect lines? (Subtle aisles weaved into the carpet). After our well-intentioned interrogation, he spoke to a mosque volunteer and brought muz up to the front of the room (reserved for worshippers) to show him details up close.
We walked away 10 lira poorer and no smarter about the Blue Mosque, but with a richer understanding of daily prayer for most of Istanbul.
On one of my many trips to Aca Bakery, I noticed a small basement restaurant across the street. Despite my limited Serbian skills, I realized I had hit the Holy Grail of Belgrade: a vegetarian restaurant.
I heard a rumor of vegetarian restaurants in Belgrade, but no one could confirm it. It seemed I had a better chance of running into the Easter rabbit than a vegetarian restaurant. (I certainly had a better chance of eating rabbit.)
So after some cajoling/bribing Muz with Aca, we went to Joy Vegetarian Restaurant on Svetogorska 18. It’s got an Indian/Middle Eastern vibe with samosas, falafel and tempeh on the menu. The salads were delicious and the portions, as always, were huge.
I’m definitely going back. Muz…maybe not. He liked his meal, but was disappointed that there is no alcohol served on the premises. I would have liked a beer, but was all too happy to forego it for a healthy and tasty meal.
I’m still on the meat kick, though. Between our new habits of cevapcici and Jelen with dinner, we’re acclimating fatter, I mean, faster than I thought we would.
Thanksgiving is over, which officially makes it Christmas season in the U.S. Here, not so much. Serbian Orthodox Christmas isn’t until January 7th, and it’s not a big gift-giving holiday. People traditionally exchange gifts with friends on New Years’ Eve, but they’re not getting up before 8 am to do it. (Late risers, Beogradjani. No wonder I like them.)
So instead of focusing on Christmas gifts, I’m thinking about working off some of the food I ate yesterday. Regular readers will recall that my running regimen was cut short by the lack of paths and general shock of passerby. Fortunately, on a trip to Zemun, Muz and I found a great path along the water. Though technically, it was not a running path. The majority of people on it were…rollerblading.
I don’t really understand why, but people in Belgrade rollerblade like it’s 1989. There’s even a rollerblade race here in the fall. Of course, Belgrade is a city of extremes. I’ll bet there’s a Serbian expression along the lines of “go big or go home.” While many people are content to rollerblade casually along the river, others are doing stunts. On rollerblades. Why walk down stairs…when you can skate down the rail?
In any event, don’t worry about me trying this. I’m too old, too smart, and too cheap to buy a pair of rollerblades. I can only imagine trying this and ending up in the hospital, trying to explain, in Serbian, how this was my alternative to running and Black Friday shopping. I’ll just embrace the spirit of 1989 exercise some other way…like listening to Neneh Cherry and dancing in legwarmers…
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’ll let you in on RHOB’s secret to successful holiday dinners: wine. Lots of it. This worked wonders during the first Thanksgiving I hosted, when the turkey took hours longer than I thought it would and we wound up carving around the less-than-done parts. I like to think the alcohol also prevented us from getting salmonella poisoning. Twofer!
If you’re not a drinker, you can always start the meal with rolls, corn bread, or biscuits. And if you can’t break bread in the U.S., being in Serbia is the next best thing.
Serbian bread is divine. There are bakeries on every corner. The bread is so fresh, and so tasty, that there’s no need for butter or olive oil. The only “negative” is that there are no preservatives, so you must eat it as soon as possible and buy it several times a week. (The things I put up with around here…) Which brings me to what I’m thankful for today: Aca Bakery.
Pekara Aca (pronounced Atsa, on Svetogorska 25) is supposedly one of the oldest bakeries in Belgrade, but I can’t find much about it online. Serbian friends have told us that it is where their parents buy baked goods for special occasions. Based on the lines outside the door every day, I’d say there are a lot of special occasions in Belgrade.
I think they’re known for their sweets, but I haven’t tried them yet. I am so addicted to their bread that I am truly frightened for what would happen if I started eating Aca cakes. So thank you, Aca, for showing me what great bread tastes like. And happy thanksgiving, everyone!
Don’t worry, this blog isn’t turning into babble gushing over Muz. (I’ll babble about entirely different things instead.) But I will say this: when you ask Muz for sweet potatoes, you GET sweet potatoes. Behold, one of the largest ones I have ever seen. Lest you think a dwarf is holding it, I’ve included a photo of said sweet potatoes on my new cooking bible, the large and updated “How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman.
Despite the abundance of potatoes here, sweet potatoes are a rare find. I told Muz that I was surprised about this, and he was a man of action. I got a call from him a few days later, telling me that he ordered 10 pounds of sweet potatoes. For two people. Let’s just say cooking is not his strong suit.
Thanks also to our pal DB, who sent a surprise package of canned candied yams just in time to make pie…yum.