Thursday, March 31, 2011

Moments from the Ah-mazing Spring Break - Istanbul

Tram ride from Eminonu to Sultanahmet: Tram rides and walks seem to be a more authentic way to get to know the city. You also get to see more of the insanely beautiful Turkish women. Trams are super crowded though, and the internet had warned us about holding on to our belongings. We get down at Sultanahmet and JM calls out to the three of us to make sure we have our wallets and bags. The moment after, he realizes that his camera pouch is empty. We re-board the tram and look around the floor. But it's obvious it just didn't fall off. This time around, the jokes start almost immediately . Fortunately, he had downloaded his London pictures. And the rest of us had Greece covered. I sigh about losing a few awesome Facebook profile pictures.

In front of the Sultanahmet Mosque:  It's a little cold and overcast and the steam coming out of the brass container made it look all the more tempting. The four of us decide to try the Sahlep, a Turkish hot beverage. 3 Liras for each cup, he says and even as HW hands out the money, he tells us that the guy is overcharging. It shouldn't be more than a Lira. We notice that unlike other roadside one-man stalls, he doesnt have the price written down anywhere. We stand there sipping the Sahlep (which I really like, by the way) and see what price he charges other people and to find out if there's any price discrimination. An Asian tourist couple comes by and they dish out 10 Liras for two drinks. Price charged is directly proportional to distance from Istanbul, I make deduction as we move on with a smile that says 'we know you cheated us but it's ok.'

Looking for dinner near Sirkeci: It's a small by-lane and there's hardly any crowd. It's our first night in the city and we are looking for some Turkish cuisine. The restaurant manager comes out inviting us. The menu has a lot of variety and is priced well. The next door restaurant guy also comes out and requests us to come over. The attention is pleasantly surprising. We tell them we will come back soon and walk off to explore more before deciding. A few minutes later, we are back there. We tell the guys to decide where we should sit. 
'Two of you can come here and the other two can go to his place'
'How about all four of us come to your place and we promise to come back later to his place.'
'Ok my friend. Remember, it's a promise. I'll wait for you'

The meal is fabulous. And half the items are on the house - bread, a spicy tomato based paste, salad, and Turkish tea. We order a chicken and a lamb curry based dish (cooked with onions, bell peppers and served with rice). The guy was supposed to close the restaurant at 11 but its closer to 12 by the time we get done. It's a small place and the look of satisfaction on the guy's face makes us happy too. We ask for the check to one of the waiters and he is almost embarrassed that he doesn't know English. At each instant you get the feeling that they are trying hard to make sure you are satisfied. The look on the waiter's face says 'I'm sorry I only speak Turkish. I hope it doesn't take away from your experience here.'
It's a very different feeling from dining in an American restaurant. Yes, it's Istanbul and the restaurant is small and all that. But beyond that, you feel an underlying authenticity about the way these guys go about feeding us. For all I know, it's their job and all of it is a well thought out script. But I like to think otherwise. 

Next day, we come back to the other restaurant. The manager remembers us and shakes our hand. He seems genuinely happy that we kept our promise.

To be continued....

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Moments from the Ah-mazing Spring Break - Greece

Athens (Metro from the airport to the hostel): We get into the train and just as the door closes, AA shouts out, ' Oh shit, my bag!' The train picks up speed as the three of us helplessly watch his bag lying on the platform bench. We get down at the next stop, change sides and within four minutes are standing in front of the same bench. Nothing there. We look around, climb up and down the stairs, report it to the security who tells us very honestly and with a smile and  that even if they find the bad the laptop would be gone. AA is super pissed about losing his laptop, all his data (pictures) and the I-20 which will give him entry back to the US. Luckily his passport is in his jacket pocket. We tell him that the I-20 would be replaced (another friend is coming to Istanbul later and he can get it) and console him about his loss of data. An hour later, we are making fun of him as we go out into the city - 'AA, did you take your bag. Oops, we forgot about your generous donation to the Greek economy!' Friends can be cruel.

Santorini (9:30 AM Breakfast): Sotiris, our host, is phenomenal. He's funny, always ready to help and has an air of genuineness about whatever he does. The night before, he brought us local white wine upon our arrival to the hotel. Over the 3 days we learn more about him - that he used to study Criminology in London, he's originally from Albania, has been trying to get a Greek passport and has a friend in Florida who is setting up a restaurant and is asking him to come. He shows us the hill which is up for sale for a million euros and suggests places to go. Luisa, the very pretty receptionist also points out places on the map that we should visit. All of us are very attentive as she writes down the names of the restaurants and shows us the places by pointing them out from the balcony. 'And this is Oia.', she says as she points out the farthest tip of the island. 'It has very beautiful sunsets. Remember, it's pronounced as Ia, like Ia Ia O'. 
Coming back to the breakfast, when we asked Sotiris what time would breakfast be available he told us he would prepare it anytime we were ready. So 9:30 it was, and we requested him to put it outside.

Athens Sports Bar (St. Patrick's Day Karaoke Night): AA, JM and I sing Stand By Me. The crowd loves it and we don't make a fool of ourselves. Buoyed by this, JM and I decide on singing Last Kiss. Both of us are a little high and really enjoy ourselves. The karaoke guy likes it too and gives us free shots of Ouzo. Nobody has yet taken up his challenge of singing a Led Zep song. A decent performance wins drinks on the house. So JM and I put in our names for Stairway to Heaven (probably the easiest Led Zep to sing!). Afterwards we have some expensive Irish Whiskey which I don't remember. The crowd soon leaves for James Joyce Irish pub. We follow them there. The scotch is too strong and none of us wants to spoil the entire next day by waking up late. So we leave the drink unfinished and head out.  A two euro chicken gyro in the corner tastes heavenly as we walk the streets of Plaka back to our hostel.

Athens (Somewhere near Monastiraki Square): Somebody singing 'Hallelujah'. It's a beautiful voice and the strumming is different from the version I've heard. Of course, I stop. In a secluded by-lane, this guy with a cap is singing. No mic or amplifier and yet his voice is booming.  All of us stop and listen to him for a couple of minutes. He finishes and smiles at us. We drop a few euros in his guitar bag and ask him where he's from. Scotland, he says. He's here to record but hasn't been able to figure out the details with the studio. He's still optimistic, he says and hopes things will work out soon. We tell him that he's got a phenomenal voice. He thanks us and credits the acoustics of the street and the hour of the night. It's pretty late. I wish him the best and we wander off. 'What an amazing life.' I say. 'I would say, its more sad than amazing.'  says my friend. I tend to agree and we walk the next minute or so in silence.

To be continued......

Friday, March 04, 2011

The Great Indian Curry

When was the last time I won an award? Can't remember. Story of my life. Above average but never the best! So it was obviously nice to get the Best Curry prize. The best part however, to use the cliche, was the process. 

It was the Darden chili/curry cook off where around 18 teams were preparing a variety of chillies and curies. Around 3 gallons was the requirement so we decided to start off a day in advance. 

6 pounds of organic chicken breasts, whipped cream, yogurt, milk, spices from the Indian store, coriander leaves, ginger, garlic, lime juice, onions and tomato paste - the ingredients were bought on Wednesday afternoon. We prepared the marination paste by mixing yogurt with chili powder, turmeric, salt and lime juice. Mixing it well with the chicken, it was kept in the fridge to be cooked the next day.

We were pressed for time on Thursday so we decided to make the curry on Wednesday itself. A Bollywood playlist was selected, the volume turned high, and in went the chopped onions, tomato paste and the assortment of spices in the largest pan that we had, as the red curry simmered with intermittent tastings and addition of cream, milk and more masala. Later at night, when the curry was done the three of us decided to go out for a few drinks. A friend came to pick us up and as we entered the car the others said - 'Wow, you guys smell of yummy butter chicken.'

The marinated chicken came out of the fridge on Thursday afternoon as we launched phase two of the project. We medium roasted the chicken in the oven before putting the pieces in the curry. The volume had doubled so we split the curry into two containers and set it on low heat. In the meanwhile, the brilliant poster idea - "FINGER LICKERS Present The Great Indian Curry" was conceived. Of course there was a lot of absolutely hilarious and mindless conversation around this which will not be posted here.

The last bit - garnished the curry with coriander leaves and whipped cream, put the containers in the car trunk, drove as slowly as possible and were just in time for the start of the cook off at 6:00PM. By 6:30 PM, we were scraping the bottom for some leftover curry.

Learning to cook and enjoying cooking has been one of the more tangible benefits for me in the last couple of years. No, seriously. To master chefs AA and HW, strong work guys!