Cigarette Borek

In Turkey, when I lived there as a little girl, it seemed to my childish mind that everyone and everything smoked.  Men flicked ashes onto the sidewalk outside a spice stand with hues of orange spice like pyramids held in burlap sacks, women in headscarves, taking a break from the day’s work, exhaled snaking clouds, smoke curling in front of a wide grin and a belly laugh, old men played backgammon and took turns puffing on a hookah.  Even the vehicles smoked, diesel trucks belching into the flow of traffic, taxis honking and puffing black as they nosed into the flow of traffic, an arm slung out the window holding a pinched cigarette, the men yelling “Allah” and ignoring the color red on the traffic lights.

Yes, smoking seemed as embedded into Turkish life and culture as coffee is in America today.  So it’s no surprise that there is a food called sigara borek.  Translation:  cigarette borek.  I have no doubt that such a dish with such an off-putting namesake might not be embraced whole heartedly in my country.

Sigara Borek: Crisp phyllo rolls filled with feta and scallions - a delicious Turkish appetizer recipe

But, trust me, despite the name, it is delicious and not cancer-causing (at least as far as I know–but if you smoke a pack of these babies a day, all bets are off).  So, what is involved?  Phyllo dough, feta cheese, scallions, parsley, eggs and pepper–all part of my list of foods I can’t live without.  Here’s a great recipe with some lovely pictures of cigarette borek from a site called (photo courtesy of this site).  Check out this old favorite of mine and maybe try making it at home.  Trust me, they’ll go fast! 

But keep an eye on the boreks once you pop them into the oven, or you might find your oven smoking like a big, blue, Turkish worker’s bus.


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Scene in Blank Verse

The palest morning blue sky greets me

Gulls gliding over like white m’s,

crying against the wind that moans through the shutters of the houses

clinging for dear life to the cliff-side

The clouds are crystal clear white but they try to

Define their edges with silver light

He hands the warm mug to me, offering a grin and eyebrow raise

That says he knows how I handle mornings and is proud I’m here in front

Of the window watching the sky before the small hand has reached the six

His skating-pond-grey eyes dance with light and

He lifts his coffee to his upturned mouth

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Isleham road winds like a cobblestone ribbon, dropping off

to ribbons of white, dipping on a ribbon of sea-glass blue ocean,

My ancient castle tells ancient tales and laughs at my own age,

so devoid of words like wisdom and experience,

snaking a ribbon of fear against ribs extended with the climb

salt tickles my cheeks and tells me a story about a queen standing here, hair flying,

on a cliff that gives way to hostile grey rocks below,

hammered by navy blue hands and feet

She stands there and looks out at her opposition and smiles

And a stout woman, here and now, sits on her chair, knee-high hose sausaging

below her plump knees

and she cackles and gossips and flicks a spark off her cigarette

A folded Globe newspaper spreads its wings and flaps against the stiff breeze

smelling of kelp and decay

Fish and chips folded in newsprint crinkle in my hands and I pinch off the briny gift

soaked in malt vinegar and history

A ribbon of courage turns my head to the sea

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The Ride to School

The kapici sags in his plastic chair,

“guarding” the lives–stacked high in the shabby building–with boredom

and indifference

He is not a bad man, just old and beyond a time when he might have been heroic


He flicks his cigarette onto the ground, then takes a drag,

his eyes squinting at me as I pass

and the smell tickles my nose and burns my eyes


Cold glass cools my palms as I press the see-through door

to go out to the sidewalk and then the street

My footsteps ricocheting on pavement

And I hold my breath as dad starts the car,


a roar of sound jerks my nerves like a prod

I saw him from above, looking down from my vantage of the living room window,

As he knelt to reflect the underneath of our very American van with a hand mirror


But we are alive

as we drive the new route to the school on base,

at the new time

we fight to live through this old fight

Chinning the air with our false courage


I swallow the fear that creeps up my throat like battery acid,

the road blurring beyond the blunt nose of the Chevy

until the guard shack comes into view

And I breathe relief,

Back sinking a fraction against my seat


Dad salutes the MP wearing navy blue at the gate

And I smile through the tinted window

Nothing was stolen today,

Save the childish sense of security that can’t be retrieved,


But that flew away the day the war began

A million years ago

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Tasting Roses

Ankara was a place of smells that I drank for two years

I was quickly intoxicated, and now remember, especially, the scent of miniature roses

The woman with the head cloth and dark skin and plastic sandals

Would bring bunches of them

In big, blue buckets,

Carrying them down to the market-place early in the morning

Before competing smells could intrude

Roses were cheap, and often I would treat myself ,

For just 1000 Lira a piece to four or five,

And would press them to my nose as I walked through the city

I would grip the long stems, inhaling that first clean breath, thorns in my hands,

Not even feeling them burrow there,

And I would let the leaves caress my cheeks, nose, mouth,

The centers opening like clams as I walked,

Revealing the pearl–a pink, soft center

Day after day, I would wander through the crowds going nowhere in particular,

My roses replacing the old familiar smells of ekmek, Delight, exhaust, and body odor

All the time I was breathing in the centers, the petals kept falling back further; still

Nothing could stop me from drinking the smell of miniature roses,

Nothing could make me loosen my hold and release the thorns from my skin

Sometimes, I would even return to the market-place as it was closing down,

Out of breath, roses hanging limp heads over my white grip,

The sound of the man in the minaret calling everyone to worship,

Just to see if the woman with the blue buckets had thrown any unsold roses on the

Pavement that I could collect and walk away with,

And again, pull my air from their life

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Memories spring up from the strangest of places, of moments and hideaways I’d temporarily forgotten.  One is the view from our maid’s roof.  I could see the whole village from there.  Dirty rooftops, laundry lines pulling from roof to roof, as if the line was never-ending and connected, with little blue sweaters and head scarves hanging there.  Women sat on the roofs and made bread or bulgar and chattered or sang that familiar Turkish song that sounds like crying.  Men’s voices sang too, from the tops of minarets (they sang in rounds, it seemed) the sound traveling too slowly from minaret to minaret to be in sync.  On the dirty streets, children played soccer in little plastic sandals.

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Sleeping over at Aynur’s House


Sleeping over at our maid, Aynur’s, house always thrilled me and sort of scared me at the same time.  I remember having to take three buses to get there.  Get on, ride deeper into the city.  Get off.  Wait.  Get on again, the security of the Air Force base moving the other direction.  The last bus was small and beat up and the people bounced around inside with blank faces.  I tried to act brave and would stare at their faces out of the corner of my eye, trying to imitate.  Aynur was close by but quiet this evening and somewhere else in her thoughts, and I wondered if maybe this was my fault somehow and then wished I didn’t look so American and wished that Aynur would laugh and grab my cheeks like she usually did.  The bus stopped, the hiss of the breaks ascending above the silence, then lurched forward and we all shifted and staggered, then found our footing again as it barreled carelessly down the small streets.  It smelled like body odor and bread and my stomach growled.

Aynur’s house was a second story apartment–peeling white paint and chickens running around out front.  She kicked at them and said, “Git!” and we walked up the steps, that had no rail, up to her dirty metal-doored home.  Her son Mustafa and her daughter Cheedem came out grinning and Aynur asked them something in Turkish and she frowned as they answered shortly staring up at her; then they went inside.  I guessed it had something to do with her husband, only because that was the only time she frowned that I could recall.  She had shown me their wedding pictures the last time I was over and all of the pictures had finger sized holes poked through above some man’s body.  They were pictures of Aynur smiling, beautiful in a white dress and hair piled on her head, held there by shiny pearled pins, make-up on and nice shoes (I had never seen her like that) beside some body wearing a suit but no head.  In her broken English, Aynur said something about him being bad and we laughed about the holes, but I knew we didn’t think it was funny, neither of us.  I didn’t really understand it all and was a bit annoyed because I never had seen his face and he was never there those nights I slept over.

Aynur put me to work helping to prepare dinner.  I was to peel the potatoes.  She scolded me for peeling so much off and grabbed the potato out of my hand, picked up one of my thick peels from the bowl, then threw the peel in and showed me how to peel it close and thin.  I angled the dull knife against the skin and looking at her paper-thin peels, then began again, determined to do it as well as she had.  Aynur chopped tomatoes and cucumber and smiled at me now and then as she watched my peels get thinner and thinner.

Later we sat together on the floor and ate quietly, me, Cheedem, Mustafa and Aynur– all greasy-lipped and chewing.  They sometimes talked in Turkish and I pretended to understand but really just guessed from their faces and the way their voices moved.  When I wanted to speak, I signed and used facial expressions and sometimes I jumped around the room and acted things out.  I knew how to say  “yes” and “very good” and “very bad” and remember feeling sure this night when I said, “Very bad!Çok fena!”  Looking at those poked out heads, “Çok fena!” and made a face of disgust at Aynur’s very bad husband.

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Ayran: A Turkish Yogurt Drink


It’s simple. Only 3 ingredients.

And it is very traditional in Turkey, served alongside a savory dish like Iskender.

It cools you off and it cuts rich food, and it’s good for you too!

I have memories of sipping ayran, a lip of foam skirting the edge of the clear glass, the smell of doner and cumin and history criss-crossing the hidden room perched at the top of a restaurant in Bursa.  From the outside of the hide-away you’d have no idea a place so lovely existed within the wood and plaster walls.  I recall my friend pointing the way, through a crusty outer gate, up the stairs and into the second story restaurant known by locals.  I don’t even remember the name, probably because there was no sign, no indication that the building was anything but someone’s home.

I tried the drink for the first time there, skeptical that it would deserve a re-order next time around but it was lovely and refreshing, tangy and salty and ice cold.  Here’s how it’s made:

Blend together equal parts Greek yogurt & ice-cold water with a pinch of salt (to taste).  If you would like it less watery, just reduce that part a little.  That’s it.  Try it with a savory dish or just on its own on a hot day.  I hope you’ll like it as much as I do!

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Iskender: Food of the Gods

Having grown up all over the world, I have a love for trying the food of different cultures.  I lived in Turkey in elementary school and then again in high school and a favorite dish emerged for me.  Whenever we went to the local Turkish restaurant after church on Sundays, every one of us in my family of eight ordered a platter of iskender.  Picture it:  pillowy flatbread cut into cubes, layers of thinly sliced doner meat all slathered with a rich tomato sauce, drizzled with melted butter and served with a side of cool yogurt.  The most perfect dish I’ve ever eaten, though if you’re calorie counting this isn’t for you.

Iskender has literally haunted my dreams and I’ve often woken with a craving that I can’t fill.  Well, not until I researched recipes and found that I could create a close second to the meal only fully satisfied at a cafe in Turkey.  Here’s a recipe I found that I’ve tweaked a little.  If you can buy the doner meat from a local Greek or Turkish restaurant, you totally should.  But if not, I’ve really liked a few versions made in my own kitchen.  The first created by making a sort of meatloaf using ground beef and the spices included in the beef marinate of this recipe and then slicing that as thinly as possible.  The second would be thinly sliced steak, as is found in this recipe.  Also, unless you’re going to make your own flat bread, the pide bread found in grocery stores is not at all like the bread used in iskender.  I’d suggest cubing up some naan bread or another soft flatbread.  Iskender can be served with a roasted green chili on the side if you’d like–I never had iskender that way when I lived in Turkey but have seen it served with a mild, roasted green chili at restaurants in the U.S. and it’s YUMMY!

So, be transported with me to the beautiful, rich culture of Turkey and try making this meal for yourself, your friends or your family!  You won’t regret it!!


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The Field Strip, I Mean, Trip

Front Cover Tile orange facing upper right jpg

I read a hilarious blog post recently made by a woman who experienced a Turkish bath house for the first time and it reminded me of a field trip I’d burrowed deep in my psyche.  Picture it:  1983, Adana, Turkey, a hamam, or bath house off base with, gasp and sob, my 3rd grade class!  Such a thing could never take place today.  No.  There are rules to be followed, chiefly, never, under any circumstance, should students and/or teachers be naked on a school sponsored field trip.  So what if it was an experience any visitor to this former Roman Empire stronghold should have? Some things are sacred.  Some things should never be.

So we arrived and I found to my horror that I was expected to completely strip down.  No barriers to confine the overweight woman with a loofah and an attitude from meeting her mark!  And she did.  She scrubbed me until I’d lost my tan and my skin burned like I’d applied Ben Gay to every square inch of it.

And if it weren’t horrifying enough to be nude in front of the other eight-year-old girls in my class (thankfully the bath house was divided into a male-only and female-only section) my mind could not escape the searing horror of seeing my teacher–the woman who taught me multiplication, and who helped me memorize Shel Silverstein poems, who directed our class in Paddington–seeing THAT woman 100% naked!  No, there was no going back.  No casual, spontaneous hugs from that moment onward.  No eye contact in class after the fated bath house misadventure.

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