Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Gulab Jamun Recipe

At one of the dinner gatherings at Adnan Bhai’s house, the dessert afte the main course was gulab jamun. Those unfamiliar with this mouth-watering South Asian sweet, allow me to introduce you. Gulab Jamun is a ball of deep-fried milk-solids and boiled in a sugar syrup. Gulab means “rose” in Urdu, and jamun is a type of purple, grape-looking fruit (known as Java Plum in English). The dessert gets its name form its rose-like smell and taste, and jamun-like shape.

Below you will find a recipe that I have taken from Madiha Bhabi. Disclaimer: there are many ways to gulab jamun and as such, you’ll find many YouTube videos and recipes out on the net. However, this is the easiest and most delicious one in my biased opinion. Before trying this at home, one should note that gulab jamun can sometimes take a few practices before they turn out “perfect.” I know this from first-hand experience, unfortunately; two weeks ago, my gulab jamun were a complete mess…they broke apart as soon as I deep-fried them. A big part of this failure is because I used coffee creamer in place of milk powder which I could not find in the local market—but I have found the correct milk powder now! Anyhow, without further adieu, here is the recipe!

Gulab Jamun Recipe
Makes 20 gulab jamun

½ cup milk
¼ cup butter
2 tbsp semolina (suji)
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 heaping mug of milk powder
1 egg
2 cups sugar
A pinch of baking soda
A pinch of ground nutmeg
2-3 cups vegetable cooking oil (depending on size of frying pot)
Pistachios as a topping (optional)

  1. On low heat, create sugar syrup by pouring 2 cups sugar in 2 cups of water. Do not stir; let the sugar dissolve by itself.
  2. Warm the milk, butter, and milk powder in a pot. Be sure to stir consistently so that there are no lumps.
  3. Soften the semolina by letting it soak in warm water for 2 minutes. Add the semolina (drain if too much water) to the milk mixture on the heat.
  4. Let this milk/semolina batter cool down by spreading it on a platter or tray.
  5. Add 2 pinches of baking soda and 1 pinch of nutmeg to the spread batter. Mix well. Then add flour and knead well.
  6. In a separate bowl, beat the egg with a whisk or fork. Then add 2 tablespoons of egg to the dough. (This helps keep the gulab jamun together.)
  7. Once the dough is well mixed, make small round balls with your hand.
  8. Warm up the oil in a deep-frying pot. Be sure that the oil is not too hot! This is critical because you want your gulab jamun to cook well from the inside; cold oil will not cook it while hot oil will burn the outside but leave the inside raw. The correct way to tell if your oil is the right temperature is to put a very small tester piece of dough in the oil and see if it takes time to rise to the top—if it does, then the oil is perfect. If it rises too quickly, then lower the heat or add more oil to keep the temperature warm.
  9. Place the dough balls in the deep-frying pot of warm oil and stir slowly as the balls rise to the top.
  10. When the balls have turned a golden-brown color, take them out and place them in the sugar syrup which should be ready now.
  11. Once you have fried all the jamuns, turn off the heat from under the syrup and let the dessert cool down. You may add crushed pistachios on the top.
  12. Serve when slightly warm. Enjoy with family and friends!

    Monday, December 28, 2015

    Christmas & New Haircut

    Christmas Eve
    My roommate Alex loves Christmas, and we have been playing Christmas carols in our house for the past two weeks. I was equally looking forward to a church service on Christmas Eve at the St. Paul’s Cultural Center in Kaleiçi. The service included singing, storytelling of the Three Kings, candle lighting for hope and peace, and a sermon about the miracles of letting stars guide you. I was touched to learn about the church’s efforts in assisting Syrian refugees in Antalya. Alex and I both signed up to get involved with this initiative. After the service, we enjoyed hot cider and Christmas cookies, and mingled with English-speaking expats from around the world. During this time, I made a unique connection. Pastor Dennis apparently worked at Wheaten College when Dr. Luke Cutherell studied there. Dr. Luke is my family doctor and close friend from Pakistan; I was born in his Bach Christian Hospital. What a small world! Who would have thought my two worlds, Pakistan and America, would come together in Antalya, Turkey? It’s as if my personal statement goals are becoming a reality…

    Christmas Day
    I’m sure Christmas was not the same for Alex, but we had a pleasant day nonetheless. She got to talk to her family a lot via technology, so that helped bridge the distance of being away on this holiday. We spent December 25th at the hairdresser and Kaleiçi…
    From raven black to ombré caramel hair. Time for change!
    This year has been filled with adventures, and in this adventurous spirit, on Christmas Day, I decided to dye my raven black hair to ombré caramel. For those unfamiliar with hair styles, "ombré" means going from darker to lighter as the hair grows out. I first dyed my hair one tone lighter than black, so a super dark brown color. Now, my rich, dark brown hair flow down into a warm caramel brown/yellow. Change can sometimes be a tough transition, but I welcome this change with open arms, especially with 2016 around the corner. Cheers for new beginnings!

    Christmas dinner with expat in Antalya.
    Later that evening, Alex and I met up some friends for a nice dinner by the harbor in Kaleiçi. I had a çipura (bream) fish for dinner and Alex had curried shrimp, both of which were very fresh and delicious. We met these friends on a Facebook “Expats in Antalya” group. These ladies were from Ireland, Canada, USA, and Tunisia. The girl from Ireland, Grace, is interested in becoming our third roommate, so we will see what happens with that. When we got home that evening, Alex surprised me with a Christmas present. I was totally not expecting this! She gifted me pastel paints, paint brushes, and drawing paper and said to me: “Remember that day you stared at the sky and said ‘I know exactly how I would paint these clouds?’ Well, now you can.” How thoughtful! She knows painting is my childhood hobby and I don’t give it much time or attention; but now that I have supplies, maybe I’ll give the paintbrush a few strokes. Maybe I’ll paint a few landscapes from Turkey and bring them back to the USA with me. Overall, it was a lovely Christmas Day.

    Weekend After Christmas
    With some of our newly-made friends from the St. Paul Cultural Center, Liz, Alex and I attended the “Nutcracker” ballet on Saturday, a day after Christmas. Our friends kindly picked us up, and we drove to the theater, about a 15-minute drive. The new friends friends include an American girl, Nicole from Oregon, married to a Turkish man who spent 8 years in the USA, and their Turkish friend who could not speak English. It’s a nice group. The ballet was beautiful—there was more dancing than the story plot, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. I really loved the props on the stage and the orchestra playing in the pit. It was a perfect activity for Christmas spirit. For those unfamiliar with the Nutcracker, here’s a short synopsis stolen from Wikipedia:

    Watched the "The Nutcracker" ballet after Christmas.
    The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is a story written in 1816, by E. T. A. Hoffmann in which young Clara Stahlbaum's favorite Christmas toy, the Nutcracker, comes alive and, after defeating the evil Mouse King in battle, whisks her away to a magical kingdom populated by dolls.”

    On Sunday, we invited our Pakistani family to our house for a dinner meal. I am so blessed that these people are in my life; they are such a lovable, enjoyable, and caring group of people. I met this group through Suhaib Bhai, whom I met at Akdeniz University one day. The group includes: married couple Adnan Bhai and Madiha Bhabi—they usually host dinner at their house—and their one-month old daughter, Auj; Qasid Bhai from Swabi doing a Master's in Turkey; Saba from Rawalpindi, a recent high school graduate studying for her bachelors at Akdeniz; four artists Khadija, Nasneen, Usman, and Zainab who are doing a semester abraod from their master's program in Pakistan and specializing in various art forms such as carpet making, painting, and pottery. Typically once a week, we gather at Adnan Bhai’s house to enjoy a home-cooked Pakistani meal and play Ludo, which can become aggressive at times because we have many competitive players, myself included. We split the costs of groceries at the end, so that they do not have to foot the bill every time. I love spending time with such warm company. Alex and I are also learning to make delicious Pakistani dishes from the ladies in the group, which I’m sure my mom is happy about. Alex is even picking up Urdu phrases such as "aja aja" which means "come come" and can count up to 6 (because the Ludo dice have 6 sides). We've also learned to make sweets, such as Gulab Jamun, whose recipe will be posted on the next blog post...stay tuned!
    With our Pakistani family at Adnan Bhai's house.
    Merry Christmas to friends and family back home! And Happy New Year to friends and family around the world!

    Saturday, December 19, 2015

    Guest Lecture

    December 11, 2015

    Last Friday, Alex and I were invited to guest lecture at our university representative, Meltem’s English classes. We skipped our Turkish classes that morning and were excited at this opportunity to actually ‘lecture’ since we don’t get to do that through our speaking clubs. Meltem said we could lecture about any topic we wanted, she wanted this exercise to strengthen her students’ English listening skills.

    Alex decided to create a PowerPoint about Christmas, as she loves the holiday, and I decided to lecture about American government, as I love America and government studies. I think it’s important for students to understand American vocabulary that they might see or hear in the news, such as “Congress,” “Supreme Court ruling” and “Secretary Kerry.” I wanted to them have a basic understanding of how our government is set up and how it works. In order to understand why our government is a democracy, I whizzed through early American history and lectured about colonialism, “no taxation without representation,” and the war for independence from the British monarchy. When we got to the slide about Presidential Elections, kids shouted out "Is Donald Trump really going to win?" They were also confused about why we have 2-term limits on presidents..."if it's a democracy, people should be able to reelect a president if they want, right?" I told them while that is true, we prefer diversity of ideas to tyranny. They also asked a lot about Native Americans, much to my surprise. Needless to say, it was an engaging discussion and very much enjoyed by me. At the end of my lecture, I shared some photos of growing up in the DC area and my White House internship. On my timeline slide, I told them I empathize with their struggle to learn English, as it is also my second language.
    After our lectures, kids played a trivia game and enjoyed being competitive with one another. For example, we quizzed them with questions such as “What are some Christmas traditions?” and “What do the stars and stripes represent on the American flag?” I felt like a true cultural ambassador on this day, because I was quite literally sharing with them American history and government. I could tell students were enlightened to learn that the stars on our flag represent the 50 states of America, and the stripes represent the 13 original colonies. Sometimes the best part about teaching is the moment you see your students enlightened by knowledge.

    Videos from Istanbul

    Here are some videos of various structures from my Istanbul trip. Enjoy!

    Inside of Ayasofya

      Inside the Sultan Ahmed/Blue Mosque

    After seeing the Süleymaniye Mosque

    Istanbul: City on Two Continents

    December 3-6, 2015

    Where does one begin about one of the most amazing cities in the world? I had the privilege of visiting the New York of Turkey this past weekend: Istanbul. While I only saw a very small portion of what the city has to offer, it was enough to take my breath away. I know I will be returning here again to explore more of the city. Here are the highlights of our experience.

    Airbnb Rental
    Airbnb is an online service through which people all over the world put up their houses/apartments for short-term rentals to visitors. We found a cozy and cheap place near the city center. The room was warm and toasty, and our host was very hospitable. He served us herbal tea, dates, and cookies upon arrival. While the accommodation was just what we wanted, it did have interesting décor. For example, stuffed elephants and chained dolls hung from the ceiling. No doubt the host was a hoarder.

    Juxtaposition of Christianity and Islam inside Ayasofya.
    On our first day in Istanbul, Friday, we waited for our friend Elizabeth to fly in from Antalya. When she arrived at noon, we all hit the city together. Our first stop was the magnificent Ayasofya. Also known as Hagia Sophia, which means “Holy Wisdom,” this museum was once a Christian patriarchal basilica and converted to an imperial mosque when Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmet II conquered the city of Constantinople in 1453. This is a very important date in Turkish history, as it symbolizes the start of Ottoman rule in Anatolia. According to Wikipedia, the Ayasofya is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have “changed the history of architecture.” Indeed, the beauty of this structure lies in the juxtaposition of both Christian and Islamic art, Byzantine and Ottoman designs. When staring directly at the dome for example, I saw a painting of Jesus Christ as well as Allah and Muhammad’s names written in large, golden calligraphy. In the photo of Alex, myself, and Liz, you can this beautiful juxtaposition.

    Sultan Ahmed Mosque/Blue Mosque
    Situated across from the Ayasofya (about a 3-minute walk) in the Sultanahmet Square, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is an equal gem. It has one main dome, six minarets, and eight secondary domes, all of which have a light blue color. Its overwhelming size, majesty and splendor can be attributed to the fact that this structure was more than a mosque: it housed a madrasah (religious school) and served as a hospice. While open to tourists from around the world, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is still popularly used as a mosque today. It also houses the tomb of Sultan Ahmed I, who purposefully built this mosque on top of the vaults of the old Grand Palace (Great Palace of Constantinople built by Byzantine emperors).

    I think the true beauty of the mosque lies in the interior. The stained glass windows with intricate designs admit natural light while the large glass chandeliers further reflect the light, making the inside truly a place of noor. The wall and column decorations include verses from the Quran, many of them made by Seyyid Kasim Gubari, regarded as the greatest calligrapher of his time. Above all, the interior of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the “Blue Mosque” for this reason, is lined with more than 20,000 handmade İznik style ceramic tiles, made at Iznik (the ancient Nicaea) in more than fifty different tulip designs. Did you know that the cultivation of tulips began in Persia and was introduced to Anatolia via the Seljuk Turks? My host mother Wanda, who is widely read on a number of interesting topics, told me about this before I left for Turkey. I find this to be very interesting; my research on this topic led me to find this on Wikipedia: “Tulips are called lale in Turkish (from Persian word "lale" لاله). When written in Arabic letters, "lale" has the same letters as Allah, which is why the flower became a holy symbol. It was also associated with the House of Osman, resulting in tulips being widely used in decorative motifs on tiles, mosques, fabrics, crockery, etc. in the Ottoman Empire.”

    Topkapı Palace Museum
    The Topkapı Palace was one of the major residences of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years. We roamed through the royal study rooms, imperial kitchens, treasury offices, courtyards, imperial stables, dormitories, baths, harems, and many chambers, among other special rooms. Alex, Liz, and I explored as many rooms as possible before meeting our Fulbright friends Anand and Sarah in the Grand Bazar. We saw a lot of artifacts such as swords, clothing, jewelry and documents. Almost everything was dazzled with jewels like diamonds, emeralds, and rubies—boy did the sultans live a luxurious life!

    Dazzling Spoonmaker's Diamond!

    My favorite parts of exploring the Topkapı Palace, however, were seeing the eye-catching Spoonmaker’s Diamond (Kaşıkçı Elması) and Prophet Muhammad’s holy sword. Since we were not allowed to take pictures of these items, I took a picture of the Spoonmaker’s Diamond from a bookseller in the courtyard, and encourage you to look up images of Prophet Muhammad’s sword on Google. I was awe-struck when I saw both of these items in person; I couldn’t believe my eyes. Legend has it that a poor man found the Spoonmaker’s Diamond in the rubble, and then sold it to a jeweler for a small sum of money. When it was later discovered that the rock was in fact a diamond, a dispute arose and both the commoner and the jeweler were brought to the sultan’s palace. The resolution? The sultan kept the jewel for himself and paid the two off! Ha!

    Grand Bazaar & Rooftop City View
    We met our friends Sarah and Anand at the Grand Bazaar, which truly is grandiose. Before walking around this Bazaar, Sarah took us to some rooftops where we saw the breathtaking, panoramic city view of Istanbul, both the east and west sides with the glittering Bosporus in the middle! It was almost sunset time, so we were able to take only a few noteworthy photos. There was a long line for one particular rooftop dome, where people posed against the brightly-lit city backdrop—I’m sure many of those photos will become people’s Facebook profile pictures soon! After sunset, we walked around the colorful and bustling bazar, which everything you can image—scarves, board games, jewelry, pottery, clothes, home goods, trinkets, kitchenware, etc. Tourists flock to this inside bazaar and enjoy coffee and meals in between their shopping. Shopkeepers murmur “hello, how are you?” to lure you into their stores and you have to be strong not to make eye contact with every shopkeeper. Later that Saturday night, we had Indian food, which was amazing! I had been craving chicken curry, vegetable biryani, and samosas, since there is no ethnic food available in Antalya. The night before, we had eaten Chinese food to satisfy our noodles and spring rolls’ craving.

    Süleymaniye Mosque
    So, while the Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque were both spectacular, I have to admit that Süleymaniye Mosque was my favorite mosque. It is located on the Third Hill of Istanbul, is the largest mosque in the city, and one of the best-known sights of Istanbul. Built by chief Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan at the order of Sultan Süleyman, this mosque blends Islamic and Byzantine architectural elements. For example, it combines tall, slender minarets with large domed buildings supported by half domes in the style of Hagia Sophia. It is my favorite because upon entering the tall gates, I was awe-struck by its splendor and holiness. It is located away from the city center, and therefore draws pious worshippers. The red and beige color scheme of the interior felt more like a church than a mosque. Check out striped semi-arcs, it’s so unique.

    Galata Kulesi
    Before catching our flight on Sunday afternoon, we met Sarah at the Galata Kulesi ("Tower"). It is a high, blue cone-capped cylinder that dominates the skyline and offers a panoramic view of Istanbul’s historic peninsula. We had breakfast at a rooftop restaurant next to the Galata Tower, and enjoyed the gorgeous view of the Bosporus and the peninsula. We then sipped some cappuccino and taxied to the Havataş bus stop, where we caught our bus to the Sabiha Gökçen International Airport. We got home around dinnertime. It was a fabulous first trip to Istanbul!

    Wednesday, December 9, 2015

    "Trabsgiving" at Trabzon

    This year I spent another Thanksgiving away from my family. Thanksgiving is a special holiday in American culture; it’s not just about eating turkey and stuffing our bellies with lots of food, it’s about spending time with loved ones and creating memories. I have been fortunate to spend Thanksgiving multiple times with my host family from Bowdoin, and this year, I missed both Brunswick and Alexandria, places I call home.

    Nick, Samer, and Christian.
    Two groups of Fulbright students hosted Thanksgiving dinner this year: Lily and Casey hosted a “Konyacopia” and the three boys in Trabzon hosted a “Trabzgiving”. Since we had already visited Konya, Alex and I decided to travel to Trabzon this time. We caught a 6:30pm flight from Antalya airport and arrived to Trabzon at 8:10pm. This was our first trip to another city by plane. I guess the week must have been very busy for us, because we forgot to jot down important information such as our Trabzon hosts’ address and phone number. This, as you can imagine, posed some challenges after we landed. After drinking some elma soda (carbonated apple juice), we began ask strangers if we could use their phones to log onto Facebook so that we could contact our friends. After a few rejections, one nice young man let us borrow his phone and we were able to contact our hosts, get an address, and taxi to Arzum, a market near their house. Alas, we were saved!

    There were about 20 Fulbrighters who traveled to Trabzon this weekend. It was a full house! It was nice to be around native English speakers again, it gave a sense of home and belonging, which is what Thanksgiving is about. Some Fulbrighters got an Airbnb apartment nearby to sleep comfortably in a bed, while majority of us found spots on couches or the floor to spend the nights. Samer, Christian, and Nick—the three boys stationed in Trabzon and hosting “Trabzgiving”—were very kind and generous to allow so many people in their house. They provided snacks and took on the burden for majority of the food and accommodations. They even gave up their beds to their guests and didn’t mind sleeping wherever they could find a place.

    On Friday and Saturday mornings, everyone roamed and explored different parts of Trabzon. Alex, George, Caileen, her boyfriend Gordon, and myself formed one group. We ate a late lunch, drank Caribou coffee (what an American delight!), and visited the main meydan (square). We also visited a little ‘Ayasofya’, a mosque that was once a church. The cami (pronounced “jami”), Turkish word for mosque, had two back doors: one for devout Muslims to enter and pray, and the other for curious visitors to enter and observe. Since I did not have vudu (proper cleansing before praying), I did not pray and instead entered through the foreigner door. I observed Jesus paintings scratched out in the stone domes and walls, and instead adorned with large frames with Allah and Muhammad’s names in Arabic. When we returned home after dinner, we learned some folks went to Riza, the famous Turkish tea fields.

    Even though Thanksgiving was officially on Thursday, we had our big Thanksgiving meal on Saturday evening. Everyone cooked something or contributed in one way or another. In the end, we had lots of food! There were deviled eggs, Turkish rice, fried chicken, sarmi (rice wrapped in grape leaves, a Turkish appetizer), mashed potatoes, chicken gumbo, salad with pomegranate seeds, spinach dip, hummus, and of course, lots and lots of etmek (bread). We even had apple and pumpkin pies for dessert! Talk about feeling at home. Everything was so delicious and it was so filling. Samer, Nick, and Christian had also invited some of their Turkish friends to this Thanksgiving meal, so the house was unusually full, with well over 30 people. Our Turkish guests served first, so we could show them American hospitality for once and share with them a piece of our culture. After all, food brings everyone to the table.

    More than 30 people were at Thanksgiving in Trabzon.

    At Boztepe with Caileen and Gordon.
    The next day, people left at various times to catch their buses or planes back to their home cities. Some Fulbrighters ventured out to Boztepe, a hill with a gorgeous city view of Trabzon. Since our flight was at 4pm, Alex and I decided to have warm çay with Caileen and Gordon before taxiing to the airport. When we got there, we ran into other housemates who had arrived to Boztepe before us. It was a chilly morning, so a big bubbling teapot was perfect. Boztepe had a colorful view of Trabzon, a city known for its natural beauty. It is typically cloudy and gloomy in Trabzon, and this weekend was no exception. Every time I see a breathtaking view of cities, something overcomes me. I find myself holding my breath and staring out in the distance, amazed by the both humankind creations (houses, roads, towers) and God’s creations (mountains, trees, seas, the sky). Both creations blend into one another, like paint colors on a canvass. Maybe the feeling I get when I experience these heights is a longing to return my childhood hobby of painting. Some of the photos I have captured with my phone, I hope to turn into paintings when I return to the USA. 

    That’s all for now, thanks for reading. Next stop: Istanbul!