If you’re looking for a destination that will satisfy culture vultures and foodies alike, Istanbul is the place to go. I just spent a week in the city where east meets west and am very excited to report (and relive) some gastronomic highlights.
Istanbul is a city of intoxicating beauty whose sensuous impressions stay with you long after you have left. Right now I vividly recall: the smell of sea and of fish being prepared along the Bosphorus strait. The beep-beep of travelcards being swiped in the ferry/tram/metro terminals mixing with prayers from Minarets and the cries of seagulls. Bold colours, from dazzling Ottoman-style lamps to a rainbow of Turkish delight. Most of all though, I recall the kindness and generosity of the locals, not least that of the Altuntas family who welcomed me with such warmth they made me feel like one of the family.
Of course part of the kindredness I feel with the Turkish derives from our shared appreciation of good food.
These guys take their food seriously. I have never eaten so much and so well as I did that week in Istanbul. Take a look at the heading of this post and let me tell you, it is a lie. I was fed so insistently and round the clock that, in fact, in Istanbul I was never hungry. Too much good food around. Now let me take you through the Turkish metropolis, bite by bite.
A Turkish-style breakfast is an elaborate affair, a spread consisting of bread, various cheeses, olives, honey, jam, and perhaps a boiled egg. Washed down with plenty of cay, Turkish black tea. Mind you this is not an indulgence reserved for a lazy Sunday, this is everyday breakfast.
On my first day Öykü took me to the Grand Bazaar where we haggled with vendors and marvelled over intricate Turkish carpets and decadent jewellery. To Öykü’s amusement I didn’t buy anything at all, instead we enjoyed sahlep, a hot milky drink sprinkled with cinnamon and deliciously creamy. A perfect winter-time treat.
Before heading to the Blue Mosque we ate köfte, Turkish meatballs, at a nearby eatery favoured by locals. And by celebrities, as dozens of framed pictures on the walls testified to. The buzz is justified: these spiced meatballs which are often dry and unremarkable were juicy and moreish. They came with a spicy sauce, a crisp bean-salad, and bread (everything comes with bread – even pasta dishes). Also Ayran, a salty yoghurt drink which may be an acquired taste but is refreshing nevertheless, and perfect with köfte.
The next day we stayed on the Anatolian side of the city which is the less touristy one. For lunch we headed to Sahan, a chain of restaurants noted for their kebabs. It was a virtual snow blizzard outside and locals stayed indoors, as a result we enter an empty restaurant and are greeted heartily by five idle waiters. Needless to say, the service was perfect. We try lahmacun, a Turkish pizza variant with mincemeat and fresh herbs, parsley mainly. Delicious. Then comes the mixed grill with tender lamb kebab, döner kebab, and two types of köfte. Served with bread, obviously, and a side salad of tomatoes, peppers and walnuts which was absolutely outstanding – these guys sure know how to pull together a salad! I suspect it was the pomegranate dressing that made it stand out.
Finally, near the magnificent Aya Sofia we ate gözleme, a Turkish savoury pancake filled with various toppings – ours had spinach and white cheese. This was the dish that made me exclaim ’Oh my God. Oh.. My.. God!’ in the manner of overexcited American tourist. Such a humble dish, such sensational flavours. Of all the delicacies I have sampled this is probably my favourite. The pancakes were made to order by scarf-clad women sat at the front of the shop, cooking non-stop while gossiping idly.
I’m so lucky to have Öykü, my Istanbul born-and-bred friend, who could and wanted to introduce me to all these local gems.
Tesekkürler, Öykü, the Altuntas family, and Turkey – I miss you already and hope that we will soon be together again!