Christmas Eve in Cihangir

“Muslims can say Merry Christmas!  We revere the prophet Jesus, whom we call Isa, and it is good to celebrate his birth”, said our friend Emre as we celebrated with a meal Christmas Eve in our little flat in Cihangir.

Some Turks are not used to dogs in homes.

Some Turks are not used to dogs in homes.

Pre-December 24 shopping included no time for food buying. So, Christmas Eve day, Jim and I made a return visit to the Cevahir mall, two Metro stops away. We had cleaned the flat the day before, although it needed another go over to clear out Lucy’s hair.  The vacuum is weak, and our invitation to our friends had been prefaced with, “if you are willing to hang out with Lucy and Rita”.  Being cat people, they were keen to meet Rita, and since she has always disliked our friends, I actually had misrepresented my roommate situation as well as the menu.  Nearly all of our friends only know Rita by photos.

Rita Pantea, 4 years old.

Rita Pantea, 4 years old.

At the Migros supermarket, we got serious, buying foods for salata, two varieties of dolmas, hummus, pickled carrots, olives and European cheeses for meze.  We were heavily laden for the return Metro trip and decided to take a taxi, until I realized I’d removed the city map from my purse.  Without it, we could not tell a driver how to get to where we lived.  So, we trundled our wide loads onto the crowded subway, and read our thoughts on the faces of the passengers sitting opposite – “those yabancı (foreigners) always buying so much!”  In Manhattan I had, what as a young person I called,  a wire “old lady” cart.   We need one now, but we have seen only one person with one, and none for sale.  Maybe they aren’t cool, or maybe Istanbul’s streets and sidewalks are just too rutted, uneven, steep or stepped to make them feasible.

The shy queen.

The shy queen.

Arriving home around 4 pm we hurried to string the colored lights around the interior doorways, walk Lucy and go order our dinner from the fish restaurant and kebap salonlu.  Jim took care of the fish and dessert, ordering 2 grilled medium sized unnamed firm white fish, grilled anchovies and fish soup. From his favorite Pasta and Café, Elif’li (earlier post he picked up baklava.  I climbed, breathlessly, up to Taksim Square and was sold the mixed kebab platter – a huge amount of food.  They offered to deliver it, but I wanted it in my hands so it would be there when our guests arrived.  Medi Şark Sofrası sent their runner carrying a big tray behind me anyway.  I couldn’t speak to him, but feeling rushed, I dodged crowds on Istiklal and then scurried down the many sets of stairs and steep streets going the back way to Bol Ahenk Sokak.  Our friends had just arrived when I got home.

Ottoman style Turkish coffee cups and dish for Turkish Delight.

Ottoman style Turkish coffee cups and dish for Turkish Delight.

We feel so lucky to already have Turkish friends. Our guests  Emre, Serpil and Kamer are smart, lively, fun, and speak great English.  They enjoy regaling us with stories of Turkish customs, and brought with them an old style Ottoman Turkish coffee set – a gift that is just perfect! Unfortunately, our kitchen lacked both Turkish coffee and the long-handled coffee pot called a cezve, so Turkish coffee is a lesson for another date.  Keeping the coffee hot while drinking is important.  They explained how the heavy ceramic fincan (cup) which used to be heated directly on a wood stove, and the zarf, (envelope) fitting snugly over the cup are designed to conserve heat.  The small dish holds Loküm (Turkish Delight), in this case the gel type which may be flavored by rosewater, lemon or mastic.


Boza is carried in the big urn, and ladled out into customer’s cups or bowls. The vendor went to fetch cinnamon.

Eating dessert and çay (tea) after dinner we heard a man call on the street – which we now recognize every night.  I asked what it was and they said “Boza!”  Emre opened the window and called out, with a back and forth a few times, until the vendor located us.  Our flat is on the ground floor, just inside the building’s main door. He arrived and poured us some big cups to take in and drink, setting his boza vessel down to go to the bakkal (ubiquitous neighborhood grocer) to find some cinnamon for us.  Emre and Kamer got into it, remembering the boza of their past – I guess boza isn’t peddled in their neighborhoods.

Boza, with cinnamon and leblebi.

Boza, with cinnamon and leblebi.

Emre fetched sarı leblebi, yellow roasted chick peas, from the bakkal and we were now ready to assemble and drink. Kamer said this drink signified winter to her. It is a bit of an acquired taste, but pleasant. Thick, cool from the night air, and somewhat sweet, with cinnamon and crunchy leblebi in each sip. Its seasonality, and the way it looks reminded us of eggnog.  It is hearty and filling.  The Ottoman Empire was said to feed its army boza because it is rich in carbohydrates and vitamins.  If we don’t drink more boza, Emre said the remaining leblebi makes a great snack when eaten with raisins.


Boza in Turkey (regional variations of it are also consumed in parts of Eastern Europe, some of the  “stans”, the Ukraine and Lithuania) is made of fermented wheat, other regions may use maize or millet. I think we are lucky we initially landed in Cihangir.  We get to learn about the numerous traditional street vendors here (subject of a future post).  They may not exist in the more modern Moda.

The cinnamon is packaged in a tube, about the size of a pencil.

The ground cinnamon is packaged in a tube, about the size of a pencil.

What a rich evening of good food, exceptional company and wonderful cultural exchange.  Very fitting, we felt, for marking the birthday of Jesus.

Prelude to Entertaining for the First Time in Turkey


Photo op at Cevahir Mall. Turkey is the home of St. Nicholas, who apparently didn't have a beard.

Photo op at Cevahir Mall. Turkey is the home of St. Nicholas, who apparently didn’t have a beard.

When we were together nine days earlier, I had impulsively invited Emre, his wife Serpil and his aunt Kamer to an American Christmas dinner.  My family’s tradition is to cook the same menu for Christmas as Thanksgiving.  The menu includes as appetizer, Jim’s boiled shrimp and homemade cocktail sauce.  Roasted turkey stuffed with a bread oyster dressing (including mild Italian sausage, apples, celery, onions, canned oysters, water chestnuts, raisins and walnuts); gravy; mashed potatoes; minced sweet potatoes baked with marshmallows, lime and ginger; fresh green beans with sautéed onions and bacon; and cranberry sauce follow.  Dessert is freshly baked pumpkin pie with whipped cream, augmented by whatever sweets our guests have brought along.

Poinsettia at IKEA, the majesty of this bush is lost in translation.

Poinsettia at IKEA, the majesty of this bush is lost in translation.

I thought the challenge would be fun – and it will be, NEXT YEAR.  After all, we had 5 chairs, 5 sets of dishes and flatware…it could work!  We had nine days to find a turkey – they can be found, but not everywhere – and other substitutes.  Maybe we would find turkey Italian sausage but not bacon; celery root, but not the stalks is available, and I quickly realized seeking out canned oysters and water chestnuts felt overwhelming, since I’m still looking for a comforter to sleep under.

Zzzz?  The big yellow bag holds all of our sweaters and coats -- the mall is HOT!

Zzzz? The big yellow bag holds all of our sweaters and coats — the mall is HOT!

In these same nine days we also had to source, shop and buy “white furniture” – a dishwasher, washing machine, refrigerator, vacuum, microwave and TV for our newly leased apartment in Moda, in the hopes of moving over there right after the New Year.  A later blog post will deal with shopping, but a couple of comments here…imported goods are expensive, buying Turkish is the way to go.  IKEA, which is underwhelming is more expensive than the much more impressive and better quality TepeHome, a Turkish home furnishings store.


Mall food courts are fancy. Stick to the Turkish shops for a good meal.

We are seriously motivated to leave Cihangir, because on January 2 we begin Turkish lessons M-F from 9am-1pm in Kadiköy, and we’ll be commuting an hour each way until we move.  Also necessary to move in is a bed and internet.  All of this is straightforward, unless you have no idea which stores have stuff you like, and their locations.

Shopping for lights...

Shopping for lights…

These were in a pretentious store where they wanted no photos!  How can one shop without photos?

These were in a pretentious store where they wanted no photos! How can one shop without photos?

One night about six days before our début, we were at the American Women of Istanbul Christmas party and I was telling Joy ( my worries.  She’s worked out a lot of the substitutions and shared how to cook pumpkin in lieu of Libby’s canned.  She told me to find a Turkish tatlı (sweet) pumpkin, cut it up and roast it in a plastic roasting bag called a fırın torbası .  About all I got of that was the sweet pumpkin part (I did know the word tatlı).  My brain did not compute roasting in plastic, or how I’d ever find those bags in the grocery where I’m always on my smart phone trying to figure out what something is, or its Turkish name.

Jim loves meeting new people.

Jim loves meeting new people.

We were looking for baggies, and I did see the fırın torbası.  By that time, I’d decided that what I was making for our Christmas Eve dinner was reservations – or rather, paket (takeout).  On Christmas Eve morning, worried that I’d sold the American theme too convincingly, I texted our friends telling them we were looking forward to seeing them and the menu was Turkish.  It wasn’t just the ingredients, it was what we had, or didn’t, in our kitchen to cook with, including a cook top and oven that uses propane—and was the tank even full?  In another post, I’ll talk about gas tanks.

All this Santa and Christmas stuff is for New Year's celebrations.

All this Santa and Christmas stuff is for New Year’s celebrations.