Singapore Storms

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In the two blocks between our hostel and the streets of Chinatown it began to rain. Big rain. The kind of rain that comes down in sheets and soaks through your skin, never mind your clothes, in two seconds flat. In the humidity of Singapore evenings it carries the smell of palm oil trees on the back of it, just to remind you that there is no doubt that you are in South East Asia. The low rumble of thunder echoed the hollow rumble of my jet-lagged stomach and rattled through my bones as we slipped and skidded across sleek pavements in cheap flip flops.

Flourescent lights attracted puffs of tiny insects as we crossed the threshold from towering grey skyscrapers into the wooden pagoda-roofed shambles of Chinatown. Ducking under canopies bulging with rainwater, we tried to ignore the gentle caw of women reclining behind rows of knicks knacks, eyes glinting with the hope of commerce. We were not there for souvenirs – we were there to find our first dinner in Singapore.

Temple Street was lined with little restaurants and Mark began his slow, methodical assessment of every single menu on display. The rain was still coming down fast so I grabbed him by the arm and into the closest little eatery with the two most recognisable words on the street. Dim sum.

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Me, proud of my 7-11 umbrella in the Singapore rain.

Plumes of steam rose from wicker baskets behind a dull metal counter, the smell of meat and spices added to the humid rain. The gentle “click click” of plastic chopsticks marked time amidst a medley of chatter in Malay, Mandarin and Cantonese. A serious-looking pair of elderly ladies rolled, tweaked and shaped white dough at lightning speed before placing the parcels neatly and carefully in woven baskets for steaming. Glancing around the other tables, Mark quickly assessed the situation. He snatched up the tiny pen and what looked like a Bingo card from the table. We always fight over who gets to look at the menu first. I had swept in before him but, seeing it didn’t have any pictures, handed it over – defeated. Mark scrutinised it like a trainspotter over a timetable and ticked off four little boxes on the bingo card, tongue out in concentration. He let me choose the beer though.

Sipping on a couple of expensive bottles of Tiger beer we surveyed the scene outside. The rain was still coming down in sheets and neon lights with foreign characters shone through steam billowing from hot-wok noodle stands. It looked like the opening scene from Bladerunner. Without a minute to contemplate where we were and how we had got there, the waitress placed our dumpling baskets on the table. She laughed at us looking outside at the rain.

“It is the same everyday,” she said, giving us a crinkly old smile “The same time everyday. Good appetite.”

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Photo by KaiChanVong, Flickr

As we tore into fat dumplings with piping hot centres, char sui quickly became my favourite. Fluffy and sweet with slow-cooked pork in the middle. I burned the roof of my mouth trying to eat as fast as possible, not wanting to wait another minute for second helpings.

We lived on dim sum in Singapore. The low rumble of thunder became more than an announcement of the daily evening storm, but a dinner bell that my stomach would reply to. Sheets of rain brought the promise of Char Sui, not just clearer skies. Now, when I need my dim sum fix and pop to Stack just around the corner in Edinburgh, I don’t just taste fluffy Char Sui and sweet pork, but Singapore storms in each bite as well.

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Siem Reap, Cambodia

A picture of my fishy feet on the Toemail blog.

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Tsagaan Sar

The Ger Camp

The Ger Camp

Click, one sheep’s ankle bone smacks against another during a round of Shangai in the Ger tent in Mongolia. Outside the sun shines deceptively over a world of ragged mountains and the vast snow swept plains of the Terelj National Park. Since going outside would result in frozen hair and near loss of fingers, we stay huddled by the stove.

Nobody else is at the camp so the Caretaker invites us with a toothless smile to his Tsagaan Tsar (New Year) feast. ‘Feast’ conjures images of wild roast carcasses and wine, so we apply our seven layers and trudge through knee-high snow to the Caretaker’s tent. It feels like a thousand tiny fingers pinching my cheeks while a thin film of frost from my breath has settled on my scarf.

The Tsagaan Sar feast

The Tsagaan Sar feast

Everyone has crammed into the tent; his three daughters that cook, his wife that tends the fires and our driver. The Caretaker himself, in a Mongolian silk purple smock and little black hat sweeps a proud arm around the tent. The family sit on beds that surrounded the canvas walls, smiling as we enter. His daughters click away on pink, outdated mobile phones. The table is laid with small offerings of sliced meat, dried fruit and the Mongolian staple – soft pork dumplings. In the centre is a Jenga tower of sweet bread covered with sugar cubes and solidified mair’s milk pellets. The Caretaker waits for our approval. We only take a few bits because, even though we’re starving, there’s hardly enough for three people, let alone eight. Biting into a solidified milk pellet, I nearly lose a tooth, which brings smiles to the faces of our hosts. The Caretaker gets out several large bottles of Mongolian vodka. We accept each one with our right hands, a cry of ‘Toktoy!’ getting louder as each shot goes down.

Ten shots in and we’re giggling and red faced. The caretaker stands up and the room falls silent. He begins to sing in Mongolian, staring straight ahead at the wall, a tear creeping to the corner of his eye as he places a hand on his heart.
“The Mongolian national anthem,” the driver whispers.
Even the youngest, sulking teenage daughter has a hint of pride on her face. I’m finding it hard to focus, but I understand how important this song is and how proud he is of his country. Unaccustomed to straight vodka, I clap the loudest.

Vodka glasses are topped up and The Caretaker gestures to me. Panic rising in my chest; I can’t remember the words to the British National anthem. There is one song I do know though.

“Oh flower of Scotland…”

It’s not the delicate ballad the Caretaker had offered, it’s not sung with a tear in my eye, but definitely with a drunken hand on my heart. I even do the audience participation…by myself. I slump down with a proud, lopsided grin on my face and accepted another shot of vodka with my right hand screeching “Toktoy!” to the happy, blurry faces around me.

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The Streets of Sofia

Arriving in Bulgaria

Arriving in Bulgaria

We wandered through the pot-holed streets of Sofia in our pyjamas. It was summer and the overnight train from Bucharest had been hot. Nothing was open, but lurid neon signs flashed “sex shop” and “strip show”. It was 5am, dark and only one flickering streetlight was working. Every shadow seemed like a threat and the Cyrillic signs more foreign to me than any South East Asian language.
My friend Anna and I just grunted at each other, the need for full sentences lost 3 countries before. We were tired. And hungry.

Anna had met Martin in Dubrovnik the year before. He now lived in the suburbs of Sofia teaching at a Hogwarts-style private school up in the pine-clad mountains surrounding the city. He was a good friend to have. In the centre of town, still under the cloak of darkness, he met us looking just as bleary-eyed and confused as we felt. We were his first guests in Bulgaria.

Right in the middle of all the pleasantries and greetings my stomach let out the long hollow moan of an empty chasm that’s only seem 45 minutes of jolted train-sleep.
“Hungry?” Martin asked, laughing.
I nodded through a sleepy daze.
“I know a place open this early,” Martin assured me.

I was so glad we met him, because we never would have found the little bakery by ourselves. Down a maze of side-streets and dilapidated buildings the glass case out on the street was crowded and fizzing with early morning life – a far cry from the shady area we had been met with around the train station. Golden pastry glistened under the fluorescent lights in the cabinet and the smell of fresh baking and cheese made my stomach do another noisy summersault in anticipation.

Banitsa

Banitsa

We fought our way to the front, taking no prisoners and Martin shouted our order in Bulgarian. Somewhere from the jungle of arms we were each handed a banitsa, Bulgarian cheese pie. Layers of flaky pastry with a salty white Bulgarian cheese in between, it had the taste of halloumi, but with the crumble of feta. As we munched, we wandered back to the centre of town where light started to creep into the streets and chased shadows to sulk in doorways. The banitsa left little grease stains on the paper napkins, but at 6am after an all-night train journey, it wasn’t the time for calorie
counting.

The sun rose over the golden domes of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the neon lights faded into daylight. With the sun shining and a full belly, Sofia was nothing like the Daily Mail fear-mongering would have us believe back in the UK.

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Turkish Tea Tour

Typical Turkish tea...and some cakes.

Typical Turkish tea…and some cakes.

In the sunken courtyard behind the Süleymaniye Mosque Turkish chatter and the trickle of an ancient fountain replaces the noisy froth of cappuccino-making and dulcet tones of Katie Melua track that signify coffee shops back home. Students of Istanbul drink black tea after black tea from ornate glasses and saucers, papers spread out like a canvas on squat tables in front of them. Some chat in clusters on bright-cushioned chairs, lazily passing a waterpipe between sips. Business men, shop keepers and stall owners from the Bazaar gesticulate wildly – lost in grand political debate and a haze of apple tobacco.
The first sip of black tea scalds my tongue and I nearly spit it out. Perhaps it’s paranoia, but I’m sure I hear a group of students giggle. When the waiter appears with our own nargile Mark and I look around nervously, hoping that the seasoned pros reclining in self-confidence don’t notice our huffing and wheezing attempts to smoke the waterpipe. The waiter looks in pity at us trying to relax Istanbul-style. Taking the pipe from me hand and inhaling deeply, he gets the water bubbling for us. When the coals burn deep amber he lets us have the pipe back, like a parent spoon-feeding a couple of children.
After a few spluttered attempts at smoking, our draws become smooth like everyone else around us. The tea has cooled to perfection. A noisy gaggle of cruise ship tourists pool at the courtyard entrance. Not wanting to get caught up in the crowd, we decide it’s time to leave.

Black, no sugar - not for the faint-hearted in Istanbul.

Black, no sugar – not for the faint-hearted in Istanbul.

Past the cries of street vendors selling cheap cookware, mosaic lamps and coils of waterpipes the smell of the Spice Bazaar floats on the air. We are engulfed in a maze of bright yellow, burnt sienna and rust coloured powder. Mark dons his chef face, tutting and hmm-ing at various spice stalls. I’m not a chef – I’m an eater, a sampler. I spot a brass coffee machine and through a cloud of steam the mustachioed barista catches me looking.
“You like to try? For free?” he shouts across Bazaar to me.
I nod and shuffle over, leaving Mark bartering with a spice merchant. Coffee is my domain.
He pours the coffee from a long-handled brass jug into a tiny cup and looks taken aback when I decline sugar. I see why as the bitterness hits the back of my throat. I like it.
Mark waves a bag of bright yellow turmeric in my face – a victory – and I match him with a bag of Turkish coffee.

The steam punk vending machine.

The steam punk vending machine.


Like all great cities, Istanbul claims to be built on seven hills, and it feels like we climb every single one of them on our tea quest. Halfway up a steep cobbled street a clattery old cart sells tea from another brass contraption – like a steam punk vending machine. The gnarled old man beams as he hands us scalding hot dirty glasses of tea, poking in fresh mint leaves.

Our final stop is a ramshackled old house on the edge of the Bosphorus. The wooden floorboards are wonky and the much needed trip to the toilet is like crossing the galley of an old ship, a tea-clipper perhaps. Another tourist couple have found their way to this tea house. We watch as a Turkish man lights the vanilla-scented coals of their waterpipe, and they both wait until he’s turned his back before inhaling, coughing and spluttering.
I take a smooth draw of our nargile and patiently wait for my tea to cool. Tomorrow we might see that same couple in the sunken courtyard, reclining amongst bright cushions like they’ve been in this city for years while a bustling tour from a cruise ship looks on in admiration.

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Turkish Tea tour by Suzy Pope is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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The Lokanta

Trekking through the backstreets to find some local flavour

Trekking through the backstreets to find some local flavour

We had asked our guide at Aya Sofya for somewhere local, somewhere in real Istanbul for lunch, and Imren Lokantasi certainly ticked the boxes. Bells tinkled as we entered the little neighbourhood lokanta hidden half an hour from Sultanahmet behind the streets lined with dilapidated shops selling designer shoes from collapsed cardboard boxes. Tables and chairs were laid out canteen style, the entire room populated with elderly Turkish men sharing tables, but hardly talking, grunting approval to no one in particular and staring intently at their dishes. They only looked up to grab more flatbread from the communal baskets.

Mark and I looked at each other, shrugged and sat down opposite a shaking man with soup in his beard. I scoped the room for a toilet, but apart from a dirty sink in the corner and a beaded curtain that lead to a steaming kitchen, there was nothing. The two of us looked uncomfortable for a couple of minutes until the beaming Turkish man behind the counter beckoned us to come up to him. The food was laid out in dishes in front of us, like the hot section of an Ikea café, and I felt a slight twang of disappointment. I wanted sizzling kebabs cooked in front of us; that was my misguided idea of local flavour. The man behind the counter pointed at each dish in turn, dark meats and darker aubergines swam in deep red sauces and I couldn’t even pretend to pronounce any of the dishes except one.
We both chose the Moussaka.

Settling back at the shared table, feeling more part of the community now that I had a dish in front of me, I was really enjoying being far from the gaggles of cruise ship tourists around Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque. I was having a lovely time people watching, until I took the first bite of the Moussaka. The chatter of shoe shop attendants on their lunch breaks fell to silence, the Turkish shouts from the kitchen melted away and time stopped. Well, that’s what it felt like. I’ve eaten in the side-streets of Athens, Tavernas on Greek Islands and up-market restaurants in Bulgaria, but none of the Moussakas I have eaten come close to the one from Imren Lokantasi. I looked at Mark for expert approval. Just like the elderly men around us he was immersed in his food, grunting approval with sauce in his beard, only looking up to take another flatbread.

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The Lokanata by Suzy Pope is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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Flavours of Istanbul

The spice market

The spice market

The call to prayer floating from minarets that rose through a light hazy fog dripping from the Bosphorus provided Istanbul with a backdrop that made me feel as though I was standing in a film. It was April and swollen grey clouds hung ominously over the iconic skyline.

We took the little rickety tram along Istiklal Avenue to Taksim square where we would meet Annie, our guide on a gastronomic odyssey through the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul. Five minutes before the tour began it started pouring with sheets of rain.
“Well, at least we’ll be spending most of our time in restaurants,” Mark said.
“Um, it’s a street food tour,” I mumbled to the ground, now shining with rainwater.

Annie was waiting by the Starbucks, huddled under an umbrella. She beamed at us despite the pouring rain and Mark’s scowl and handed us each an umbrella of our own. This lifted our spirits slightly, but didn’t put a stop the rumble of our stomachs, we had been told not to eat lunch and obeyed.

When Annie started talking about the history of Taksim square, the meaning of the statues and took us into an art gallery that used to be one of the city’s many water cisterns, I have to confess, we could only feign interest through chattering teeth, sodden feet and rumbling stomachs. This was a food tour and I was desperate to sample some authentic fare.

Istanbul Fish Market Stall

Our first stop was at a vender selling roast chestnuts and I couldn’t help but feel a rock of disappointment in the pit of my empty stomach; we had walked past a million of these carts and this was supposed to be a tour that delved into the back streets. I wanted to eat until my guts burst open, not snack on chestnuts that grew cold and soggy as soon as they hit the paper bag. The rain was only getting worse.

Just as I was about to ask if the tour would ever take us to the safety of indoors, Annie lead us down a little alley round the back of Istiklal Avenue and into a steamed up little eatery which consisted of a clusters of chairs and tables and a one giant hot plate sizzling with spiced beef mince. The two guys behind the counter greeted us with smiles and loud Turkish banter. The smell of the beef cooking made my mouth water and I was so glad to be in the warm watching sodden passers-by. Within minutes we were each handed a triangular wrap full of meat.
“Here,” Annie said squeezing lemon juice and stuffing mine with coriander and chillies.

It was so divine that any thoughts of soggy feet and numb hands melted away. I could have eaten ten of them.

We popped in to a little Kurdish restaurant with brass dish-like tables where boat-shaped cheesy Kurdish pizza (or pide) was cooked in front of us in a stone-fired oven. Washed down with a frothy bowl of the traditional yoghurt drink Ayran drunk from a brass ladle, we felt like proper locals.

Other stops included a butcher that sold cooked chicken in a bag that you shook up with a secret spice mix, a paper-table cloth fish restaurant that offered crispy little white bait and a shop that let us taste approximately six billion different types of nut and dried fig. Once I had reached my goal of feeling so full I thought my guts were going to explode, we were offered a small respite. We were only half-way through the tour and I was positively sweating with the effort of digestion. Even though it was an alcohol-free tour, Annie invited us to her own home to share a glass (or two) of wine with her.

Right in the centre of all the foodie action Annie’s house, a nineteenth century grand townhouse, stood towering above us. The entrance hall was furnished with dark mahogany ottomans and the walls covered in rich oil paintings.

“My day job is restoring Greek Orthodox icons,” she explained, showing us the treasures of her study. Mark’s eyes lit up; as a student he was a historian with a penchant for the Byzantine Empire. The two of them discussed the fall of Constantinople over several glasses of wine while I played with the various limping or blind street cats that Annie had taken in to her home. It was a win win situation.
<Istanbul Mussels

A little wine fuzz hanging over our heads, we left her house and engulfed ourselves in the throngs of Beyoğlu’s bustling fish market. Sleek fish on ice beds lined the shimmering alleys and locals shouted in loud Turkish, bartering and laughing over lira. We stopped at a mussel stand where they deep fried mussels on a stick in front of us and I forced them into my already bursting belly.

Istanbul Baklava

Of course, no food tour of Istanbul would be complete without a taste of honey-sweetened baklava, but we were so full that we took ours from the 18th Century shop and saved it for breakfast the next day.

“Perhaps you will join me for some tea,” Annie suggested, high praise of our company.
“Of course,” I replied, not wanting to miss out on anything.

Dreadlocked students and sweaty businessmen with loosened ties sat on the squat wooden chairs that made up the outdoor tea garden. Bulging pools of rainwater built up on the canopy overhead which looked dangerously close to spilling over. Twisting spools of smoke wafted sweet apple aroma from waterpipes passed between make-shift philosophers. It was the perfect way to end a tour; watching a microcosm of Istanbul society, all sharing tea and nargile without another tourist in sight.

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Flavours of Istanbul by Suzy Pope is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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