Three years ago I found out about the Istanbul Cultural Center in Hoover. I was participating in the FBI Citizens Academy that fall and I met fellow classmate, Umut Gunebir, Executive Director of the Center. The following year, Umut invited me to visit the center to learn more about Turkish culture and events they conduct there. So, of course, I liked their Facebook page so I could stay current with the center’s activities.
Last year, I heard the Turkish Food Festival was being planned and I was really looking forward to attending. Unfortunately, the date turned out to be the same as my daughter’s wedding so THAT didn’t happen! This year, no wedding, so I got an early start and headed over to the Center at 10:45 a.m. to check things out.
There was already quite a crowd when I arrived. The smell of food was permeating the area and I was pretty hungry since I had skipped breakfast. Turkish music was playing over loud speakers. I wasn’t sure if I should go ahead and get food tickets right then or make my way around to see everything and take photos. I chose the latter and landed at the vendor tables and started clicking away. All the pretty hand painted bowls pulled me in and every single one was unique! Achmed, the vendor did not speak much English so the young lady at the next booth did some interpreting for us. I had all kinds of questions about the ceramics and he was pleased to share details about how the pieces were created and how time-consuming the process was for the artists – from kiln to painting to kiln again. I told him I would be back before I left to buy some of the items and he smiled and said he would give me a “good deal.”
Next I walked around checking out all the food. It was a food festival after all! Each table had signs describing the food being sold which was a nice touch. The first food items included things like yaprak sarmasi (stuffed grape leaves) and kisir (Turkish tabooli). Next came the big-ticket items – gyros and kabobs – served in pita bread with lettuce and tomatoes on top of rice. Along the last line of booths you could find Turkish coffee or tea to go with some scrumptious dessert items. Things like baklava, cezerye – a carrot and coconut delicacy, elmali kurabiye (apple cookie rolls with powdered sugar), rice pudding and Turkish cinnamon cookies. I think they need to create a sampler platter for next year!
One of the longest lines for food was at the gozleme (Turkish flatbread and pastry) table. A young man and his mother were hard at work making this tasty and traditional dish. When I read there was feta in it, that’s all I had to hear! Like a woman said behind me…”they had me at feta!” I had to agree! (Here is a recipe I found online for gozleme.)
As I waited for my gozleme to finish cooking on gas-fired sac griddle, I told the young man that his mother was the hardest working person at the festival. He translated for me and she gave me a smile. From the time I arrived, she was rolling the dough with the “oklava” – a very long and thin wooden rolling-pin. As she finished rolling out each dough piece, she would hand it off to her son who would paint it with butter and add a feta and Turkish white cheese mixture before sealing it to cook. I found out that the son was attending the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and majoring in Physics. His mother had just arrived in the US and was staying with him for several months which clearly made him happy. I loved how seamlessly they worked together making the gozleme. It was well worth the wait and my last 3 food tickets. Plus, I really enjoyed the conversation.
Activities for kids included inflatables and face painting and plenty of kids took advantage of this. I was very interested in the henna tattoos. I didn’t have time to get one myself but I was able to photograph a few people who did. I asked the young woman who was in charge of the henna tattoos what purpose they served and she explained they are a way to adorn the body for special celebrations, just like wearing jewelry. She had several designs to choose from at her table. On my list of things to do one day – get a henna tattoo! They are so beautiful!
By the time I left two hours later, the festival was packed! The lines were long every where you looked and it pleased me to see this for the organizers. A young man by the name of Huseyin saw me taking photographs shortly after I arrived and introduced himself saying he was the Social Media Director for the festival. He asked how I found out about the event and I told him through Facebook. The festival continued on Sunday and from the pictures people were posting, it was another packed house! Huseyin mentioned they may be looking for a bigger venue next year because of the growth they are experiencing. Food and cultural festivals definitely bring in a crowd!
Oh…and as I promised Achmed, I returned to his vendor booth and bought several of the Turkish ceramic bowls. And as he promised me…he gave me a good deal!
Here are a few more photos from the event…