Thursday, March 4, 2010

Ankara and Street Vendors

Last week I was spending some time in Kızılay (the city center) before and after my Turkish class, and I was reminded how much I like Ankara. To be honest, in terms of attractions per capita, Ankara ranks last among Turkish cities. This was something that weighed on my mind a good deal when I first got here. After all, there are two good (though not as good as METU) universities in Istanbul, and there would be tons to do in the city. I am learning now that attractions can be pretty serious detriment in addition to a benefit. In Ankara, I am a foreigner rather than a tourist. The city has tons of foreigners, both businessmen and students, and they are treated like mildly entertaining oddities.

In the interesting parts of Turkey though, everyone is out to get money from tourists. Since tourists are easy to mislead, one always has to be on their guard not to be fleeced or at least held up in a carpet shop for a couple of hours of patiently refusing to buy anything. Attempting to blend in works until I have to speak, at which point everyone switches to their “English used to sell things.”

Meanwhile, in Ankara, people are genuinely friendly to foreigners. Last week, I was with a friend attempting to find an office when a man stopped us and asked in English if we needed any help finding our destination. Apparently his daughter was heading to Los Angeles and he wanted to get our email so he could give it to her. He invited us over for a tea and chat sometime and we went on our way. The funny thing was that we were on our way to have tea and a chat with another guy that stopped me on the metro in a strangely similar scenario.

This brings me to the other point of this post: street vendors. They are tons of fun in Ankara. Yesterday, after buying some textbooks, I decided to supplement my light dinner with a çiğ kofte durum from a street vendor. The vendor asked where I was from, and when I told him he got very excited. He gave me excessive amounts of free food while I was waiting, and asked me all about myself. I had some trouble answering, since Turkish people don’t understand that it might help to talk to foreigners slowly, but the conversation was pretty good. On top of that, I got some great çiğ kofte for two lira. This thing happens every other time I buy food off the street, and combined with the eclectic food choices, I am pretty enamored with the street vending system (especially since nobody I know has ever gotten sick from it). Because the selection is pretty strange, and I am in the mood to type, I figured I might give an introduction to Ankara street food:

Çiğ Kofte – Red pasty stuff served in meatballs or in roll-ups. It took us about a month to figure out what çiğ kofte is. The confusing part is that çiğ means “raw” but isn’t really used that way in food. For instance çiğ borek is cooked as much as regular borek, but shaped differently. Only half of çiğ kofte has raw lamb meat, and I am not sure how much they usually include. The other half is “etsiz” or meat free. It is mostly made of bulgur wheat and served with pomegranate and spicy pepper sauces.

Kokoreç – Tripe-ish sandwich. The only thing grosser than the name (sounds like a cross of cockroach and retch) is thought of eating stomach lining. These problems aside, kokoreç might be my favorite street food. It’s salty, spicy and fatty all at the same time and served in a roll. To top that, the kokoreci are some of the friendliest vendors since it takes them a while to cook and prepare the sandwich.

Bardakta Mısır – Corn in a cup. It took me a while to appreciate corn-in-cup, since de-cobbed corn reminds me of school lunch in elementary school. The beauty is that you get to decide what sauces to put on your corn. Better vendors have 20 or so options. My best combo to date has been pomegranate sauce, spicy sauce, crushed red pepper, lemon juice and mayonnaise (everything in Turkey has mayonnaise).

Simit- The Turkish answer to the sesame seed bagel. There is a simitici on every corner in Ankara. The food is good, but the interesting part is the price scheme. Customers can either buy one simit (50 kuruş or about 35 cents) or one lira of simit. The one lira deal gets better as the day goes on. In the morning you get 2 simit, changing to about 3 after noon. After that thing get crazy. Late afternoon deals hover at about 5 simit per lira, while the simitici that haven’t sold out by 8pm generally give a 7 for 1 sale. At that point, it gets hard to skip on such a deal, especially if there are people to share with.

Medya Dolma – Raw mussels with rice. This one is not on my to-do list. Raw mussels sold on the street should be a bad idea all the time, but given that Ankara is six hours from the nearest ocean, I am unconvinced of the freshness. The Americans that have tried them say they are pretty bad, but nobody got sick. I think it is sort of a social thing, since you generally buy five, and eat them one by one at the stand.

Also available are fresh juice (the pomegranate juice is superb), roasted chestnuts and make-your-own rice pilaf.

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