Category Archives: Turkey

Making Vegan Panna Cotta. Sort of.

Tonight I made Vegan Panna Cotta.

At least I feel like I made panna cotta. I only finished the cooking part five minutes ago and panna cotta needs hours to cool off, so only time will tell. Also, the strawberries for the coulis or whatever are still defrosting in a saucepan.

Nevertheless, I am triumphant and proud of the effort and ingenuity it took to get here. This was a hero’s journey and I would like to share it with you, step by step.

 

Dissolve 2 teaspoons agar agar powder in 4 tablespoons of cold water. Set aside

What is this again? Something about seaweed maybe? Doesn’t matter. All I need to know is that this is the thing that makes panna cotta wobbly and vegan.  

Istanbul is not the easiest place to find agar agar powder because veganism is not something Istanbul has embraced, unlike fidget spinners and man buns. Luckily, this means that there are only five shops to check in a city of 15 million people. I went to three of them asking  “Do you have agar agar?” in Turkish. I left “powder” out of the description because I don’t know how to say powder in Turkish. The shopkeepers first looked confused and then hopeful, waiting for me to expand on what agar agar is so that perhaps they could offer an alternative.

“A vegan substitute for gelatin to make wobbly desserts” is what I could have said if I did my Turkish homework consistently. If it isn’t clear, I don’t do my homework at all, so I just ran out of each shop.

My happiest moment today was walking into a shop saying “agar agar,” and watching the shopkeeper silently move towards the glass jars of spices and herbs, and apparently agar agar powder, without demanding any linguistic displays from me.

 

In a saucepan combine 15 oz. coconut milk and 15 oz. coconut cream

There is no way I am putting the entirety of my coconut cream contraband, smuggled in from Russia into a stupid Panna Cotta that I’ll probably fuck up anyway. I’ll give you 7.5 ounces, Vegan Panna Cotta, 7.5 and no more.

 

Add 1 fresh vanilla pod

Nope. Syrian vanilla sugar is what this Panna Cotta is getting. How much of it? I dunno, I started with half a small paper packet. Then got nervous and sprinkled some more. Then got even more nervous and threw in a couple of tablespoons of maple syrup. And then I licked the spoon. Why did I carefully measure out an ingredient that is not even in the recipe? You tell me.

 

Add zest of one lemon

Alternatively, add all the lemon zest you were able to zest before you got bored with the zesting.

 

Bring everything to a boil before stirring in the agar agar/water mixture

I can do that.

 

Strain the mixture into a bowl

I don’t have a strainer. Aren’t you glad I didn’t zest the whole lemon?

 

Carefully ladle out the remaining mixture into porcelain tea cups

Glazed terra cotta pots okay?

 

Let cool for an hour and meanwhile make the fresh strawberry coulis

First of all, my fresh strawberries are frozen. Second of all, following (hahahaha!) the panna cotta recipe depleted my attention span, so I have no idea what else is supposed to be in the coulis. Also, isn’t coulis just a fancy jam? And is’t jam essentially sugar, berries and water?

I do have one secret ingredient to add- it’s dried basil.

“Hey Masha, you don’t seem like the kind of person who would have dried basil on hand!”

You’re so right!

Two weeks ago I went to Russia and left my boyfriend alone with my healthy plants, including one fine looking basil.

My soon to be ex-boyfriend “forgot the plants were even here.” It’s not like he looked at all the plants and said “you’re all going to die now.” He just forgot that they existed. In the office, the bedroom, the living room, the balcony and literally eye level above the kitchen sink right next to the dishwashing liquid, which judging by the clean dishes, he obviously used.

Tonight, while the panna cotta was bringing itself to a boil, I picked up the carcass of the basil plant, tossed it in the garbage and felt the fragrance of their dying leaves. And then I thought, vegan panna cotta with bits of lemon zest, topped with frozen strawberry coulis and dried basil dished out of the trash sounded quite lovely.

 

A Few Words About Cappadocia.

I hesitate to finish this sentence, but here goes– Cappadocia is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. At least it seemed that way after weeks of the smoke- and traffic-filled streets of Istanbul.  Did you ever see the video of a herd of cows being let out to pasture for the first time after a winter spent indoors? They practically somersault onto the grass, probably squirting milk into the air from sheer excitement. Minus any leakage, that was how I felt when I arrived in Cappadocia.  I got to climb mountains, poke around in cave dwellings and early Christian churches carved into rock, follow paths through cavernous valleys, wander onto private property, with the occasional vineyard completely accidentally and eat grapes that don’t belong to me, also completely accidentally. At night I sat at a restaurant overlooking it all and drank a glass of wine, probably made from an earlier reincarnation of the grapes I had been filling my mouth with all day.

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The region is made up of a network of valleys that got their distinctive look thanks to three terribly active volcanoes, which expelled lava, ash and all kinds of sediment across hundreds of miles.   After millions of years of wind and water erosion, what’s left is a landscape of meringue-shaped ranges, ripples of soft rock that look like confectioner’s sugar, freestanding pillars, cones and chimneys that served as homes as recently as the 20th century.

 

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The town of Göreme is at the center of Cappadocia’s most sought after sites and hiking trails. What used to be a small village is now home to more than 100 hotels and seemingly as many tour companies, souvenir shops and cafés.  I chose my own perch well—high above the town center, Mithra Cave Hotel leans into the side of a cliff, shying away from the calls to buy, eat and drink below.

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It’s quiet up here, with spectacular sunrises and several terraces from which to watch them, curled up in a rocking chair with a coffee, though the sun is not really why anyone’s getting up at dawn.  Every morning dozens of hot air balloons take over the sky and I think it’s fair to say that if you find yourself in Göreme at six in the morning you are either one of the hundreds of people suspended above the town or like me, one of the six people who chose to stay on the ground in their pajamas.

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From up here, the city of Uçhisar, with the two crumbling castles at its highest point, looks like an anthill and autumnal trees weave a fiery path through the valley below.

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The infamous Love Valley! Because no matter your age, education level, or highbrow-ness, no one can resist looking at giant, towering rock penises.

 

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The Rose Valley is blushing, perhaps due to its proximity to the Love Valley.  See above.

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As far back as the 4th century, Christian churches were carved into the rocks. The altars, pillars, frescoes and even graves that made up these spiritual burrows are still here. There is no greater joy than to be able to run around climbing, exploring and touching all of the above.  Easiest way to shave thirty years of that old soul of yours.

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This mountain was gutted into a maze of stairs, rooms and tunnels that can lead to literal dead ends if you’re not careful.

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There is a quality to Cappadocia that has left me unsuccessful in finding the right word for it. The valleys seem timeless, having withstood millions of years of nature’s abuse, and surrounded by them I feel timeless too. Maybe that stoic solitude is what’s left when everything else is gone? Maybe that is why it leaves me speechless, because it’s what remains when even language disappears.

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Pilgrimage to Konya

I stepped off the bus in Konya, one of the most conservative cities in Turkey with my pants falling down. I had bought them the night before in a rush and without trying them on. When I realized, first to my delight and then to my horror that I had underestimated how much weight I’d lost in four months of walking, I was already late for my date with a dead Persian poet in small city in Anatolia.

Fighting a losing battle to keep my butt covered up, I walked from the bus station to my hotel and gave myself a silent talking to. “Why can’t you just get off a bus and walk to a hotel like a normal person? Why does everything in your life have to be an audition for a comedy sketch?” Then I thought about the joy my friends will feel when I tell them this story, a joy similar to what they felt when I told them that I showed up to my job at one of the world’s top fashion magazines wearing one brown and one black boot. My self-shaming took a surprising turn as I began to see what a gift it is that in my life, even the most ordinary act such as getting dressed in the morning, turns into a story worth telling.  Thanks to my inability to just wake up and start my day “like a normal person,” an otherwise unmemorable walk down a wet, grey street in Turkey was now etched in my mind, much like the occasionally visible lace of my underwear is now permanently etched in the memory of the pious citizens of the town where Rumi created his magnificent poetry. I think the Sufi mystic would have been proud of my journey from self-chastising to self-awareness.

“Who could be so lucky? Who comes to a lake for water and sees the reflection of the moon.” 

Konya is said to have been quite a sight during the 13th century, when Rumi lived here, though now his legacy is all that colors an otherwise monotonous landscape of boxy apartment buildings, souvenir shops and expressionless hotels. Luckily, I had ignored the accommodation recommendations of well-meaning travelers and instead followed my heart to a small two-story house with an ornate gate and a garden where an eager black cat let me stroke its soft fur, even as rain fell on us both.

While I waited for my room to be ready, I wandered around the garden photographing dried up sunflowers, the scroll-like curled petals of zinnias and the velvet fringe of marigolds with no real aim except to acknowledge and capture the moment in the same way a much less poetic struggle to hold on to my pants had captured my arrival in Konya.

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In the days leading up to my pilgrimage I was constantly drawn to flowers. I bought a pink scarf tipped with red, blue and peach blooms, a top with swirls and pale carnations and a notebook with a reproduction of Mignon’s painted tulips, bearded irises and red currants. I even packed a bottle of rose oil into my backpack before leaving. Flowers have been an important part of my life ever since I got my first job as a florist at eighteen. They have always been my escape. While writing is more risky and demanding because there is more of me at stake, flowers are my creative refuge, a world where I wholeheartedly embrace myself as an artist, without judgment and let myself play without any policing. They connect me with my past as the appearance of tiny clusters of grape hyacinths remind me of the time I fell in love early one spring. They also put me squarely in the present, as I smell the first paperwhite narcissus flower in November. Flowers remind me of both how fragile and prone to withering life is and how confidently and brilliantly it always comes back.

“The words that make the rose bloom were also said to me.
The instructions whispered to the jasmine.
And whatever was said to the sugarcane to make it sweet.
And to the pomegranate flowers to make them blush. 
The same thing is being said to me.” 

Between Gwyneth Paltrow quoting him on Oprah and his poetry, which can be playfully naughty and includes references to sex outside of marriage, it’s easy to forget that Mevlâna as he is known in Turkey was a dedicated Muslim, given the name Muhammad at birth and who exalted the Quran in many of his poems.  I can’t think of any other man whose words have burrowed into the hearts of Hollywood actresses, lovesick teenagers, veiled women and literary college students alike. Everyone loves Rumi—the Pope, atheists, intellectuals, and even a very smart and sweet woman I met in the hotel who believes we come from a different planet entirely.

“Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river,each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged” 

In the kitchen of the hotel a tall, pencil-straight, grey-haired woman, who was clearly a guest was grating cooked quince.

“What are you making?”

“I’m trying to make my grandmother’s dessert, but I think I’m failing.”

Having been given the rare gift of watching someone other than me crash and burn, I decided to stick around and get to know this lady. Her name was Muriel and she was a French ex-pat living in England who adored the owners of the hotel and has known them for years, which explained her taking command of the kitchen.  She is an expert on Rumi, lecturing and writing about the Sufi mystic and his poetry.

“I wrote a book called ‘Rumi’s Daughter,’ maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s been translated into nine languages.”

I wanted to say “ But can you do this!” and do a back flip off the counter except I remembered that I don’t know how and instead offered to take over the grating for a bit. Despite our efforts, the quince did not resemble the smooth paste Muriel remembered from her childhood so we called it quits and went to the tomb of the teacher we had traveled here to see.

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When Rumi’s father died in 1231 the Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad offered his rose garden as place to bury the well-respected mystic and scholar. Forty years later, after celebrating his “wedding night” as he had asked his death be referred to, Rumi was laid to rest in the same place. Though the rose garden is still there, it blooms in the shadow of a marble and tile complex that has developed around father and son over the centuries.  At first, a sea green, rippled conical tower was built over the two graves. Then the Mevlevī Sufi, an order of Rumi’s followers built a Dervish Lodge where the members of the order lived, studied and prayed. Suleiman the Magnificent built an adjacent mosque in the 16th century and eventually more than forty people, including members of Rumi’s family and prominent dervishes (followers) of the Order were buried in the Mausoleum.

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Muriel and I were approaching the Mevlâna Museum when we heard the first notes of a nearby mosque’s call to prayer. A second muezzin began just behind the first, and then a third, a fourth and on and on until the echoing voices were impossible to separate from each other and the words of praise to Allah became an indiscernible, passionate, pulsating cry that overtook the sound of traffic, tourists and even the endless stream of my thoughts. What is it about this Sufi man that gathers everything that’s magic around him and the nearer you get to him the more magic your own life becomes? Or maybe it’s that he inspires you to see the magic that’s already there?

“You wander from room to room
Hunting for the diamond necklace
That is already around your neck.” 

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The quiet space for reflection that I expected his grave to be was crowded with a stampede of people who were probably seeking the same solitude. While a recording of a mournful ney melody played on a loop over the loudspeaker, Japanese tourists took photos, despite the protests of the guards. A clean-shaven man in a suit prayed quietly next to them and an older Turkish woman turned away her tear-stained face when I accidentally caught her eye.  Muriel sat on her heels in a corner with her eyes closed, meditating. Rumi’s tomb shrouded in black and gold was the only grave I’ve ever been to where I felt like the person was actually still there, hovering and observing. I wonder what he would think of all this, given that he had wanted to be buried under an open sky. I wonder how he’d feel about a million people coming to see him every year.

“Either give me more wine or leave me alone.” 

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When we came out of the mausoleum, the sky was bruised with rain clouds except for one patch, through which a ray of light reached out towards the Mevlâna Museum, singling out the Master as the lucky recipient of its warmth. Despite the cold and the promise of rain, Muriel and I strolled to the Alaeddin Mosque, an ancient place surrounded by a park with views out into the plains beyond the city line. Rumi had attended prayers here, in what I imagine was then a majestic mosque, but was now dusty and worn. In the courtyard we found the grave of the same Sultan who had offered up a patch of his rose garden centuries ago to Rumi’s father. We wandered among the cream and orange dahlias and blue irises  just outside and talked about Rumi.

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“I’ve been thinking a lot about Rumi’s poem that begins ‘Come, come, whoever you are,” I started.

“You know there’s a good chance that it’s not actually Rumi’s poem?” Muriel stopped me.

“Don’t tell me that, it’s one of my favorites!”

“There is a theory that it was written later,” said the Rumi scholar.

“But it’s even in the Rumi book that I have,” I pleaded.

“Who is the translator?”

“Coleman Barks”

“You know that he doesn’t actually translate the books, since he doesn’t speak Persian?”  Seeing the shock on my face, she quickly added “But he’s not without his purpose, he adds some value to the translations, some interpretation.”

“My favorite poem of my favorite poet was not written by him and my favorite Rumi translator didn’t actually translate Rumi. Fantastic.”

“But that’s the essence of Rumi—he confuses you, he makes you lose yourself so then you find your own way back. You have to decide for yourself.”

I understood what Muriel meant.  Rumi isn’t the bones and dust lying below a slate of marble. Rumi isn’t the warm, fleshy thing those bones used to cling to.  Rumi is the inspiration, the love and the poetry that I feel when I read the words. Who wrote and who translated them has no importance.

“In your light I learn how to love.
In your beauty, how to make poems.
You dance inside my chest where no-one sees you,
but sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.” 

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In fact, Rumi might never have become Rumi,  the man that draws more than a million people to a small town in Turkey were it not for a fateful meeting with a basket weaver in 1244. Shams Tabrīzī had been traveling from town to town hoping to meet his spiritual equal, the one person who could understand him fully and his search ended here, in Konya. The two became the closest of friends and that friendship opened up some new divine place in both of them. Though Shams was almost thirty years older than Rumi, it seems their relationship was more teacher and teacher than teacher and student.

Hurry and get out of this wind, for the weather is bad.
And when you’ve left this storm, you will come to a fountain;
You’ll find a Friend there who will always nourish your soul.
And with your soul always green, you’ll grow into a tall tree”

Rumi’s disciples and his sons, jealous and distrustful became weary of Shams and his influence over Rumi. Legend has it, that one night while the two friends sat in Rumi’s home someone knocked on the door and called out for Shams. Shams went to see who it was, disappearing out of view. Rumi heard his friend cry out and ran to the door but found only a drop of blood in the snow. Or so one story goes. Shams was never heard from again and Rumi’s grief was endless. He wrote volumes of poetry dedicated to his Shams. He even said that the poetry was not his, but his friend working through him.

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

On the way back to our hotel, Muriel pointed down a narrow street filled with souvenir shops and jewelry stores, “There is a mosque over there that’s supposed to be where Shams is buried, but I don’t think so.” Officially his tomb is in Khoy, Iran. There is another one in Pakistan. The legend of Shams has spread far and wide, it seems.

That night I dreamt that a sorcerer kept sending wild animals to attack me. Every time I’d fight one off, another one would appear. Exhausted and angry I pleaded with the sorcerer “Why are you doing this to me? Why do you hate me?”

“Don’t you know that I am doing it because I love you most? I am sacrificing these animals so that you can practice fighting. That way, when you have to face the biggest battle of your life you will be sure to win.”

Given how close the hotel was to Rumi’s grave, I am inclined to think that the mystic’s ghost is predisposed to sleepwalking and making poetry of people’s dreams.

The next morning while I loaded up my plate with cheese and olives and cucumber slices, I told the owner of the hotel about my dream.

“What were the animals you were fighting off?” he asked.

“I think they were wild boars.”

“Hmm,” he examined me for a second and walked away.

Alarmed, I looked up the symbolic meaning of boars.  I found that they could mean battle (usually to the death), needing to face a conflict head on and the odd man out—really passionate sex. I am hoping that the dream was not a prophecy of a life spent killing every opportunity for great sex.  Considering that I am on a quest, making my way around the world in search of answers, looking my fears squarely in their serpent-like faces, it’s easy for me to believe that there are more challenges ahead and with them more answers and more beauty. That the battles of today are preparing me for those of tomorrow seems logical, but who is this magician who is training me to fight? Who cares! Did you not hear the part where he said he loved me most? Except for that particular bit that most probably came from my egomaniacal subconscious, I honestly think  the voice of the magician is the same voice that told me to go walking around the world and the same one that told me to not leave the house for three days and write this all down.

“Learn the alchemy true human beings know.
The moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given the door will open.”

On the whole spectrum of my life, there are pockets of time that I fall into once in a while that are filled with such perfectly orchestrated magic, that I begin to think I’ve fallen off the spectrum completely. If you haven’t guessed it, this trip to Konya was one of them.

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Before getting on a bus again I went back to the Mevlâna to say goodbye. It was sunny now and I sat in the rose garden with a volume of poetry translated by someone who doesn’t speak the language it was was written in and read my favorite words from the poet who probably didn’t write them.

“Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, yet again , come , come.”

And he was right—it didn’t matter.

 

 

 

 

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