Exploring the Culinary Backstreets of Istanbul
It has taken me nearly four months to write about Istanbul. I have meticulously avoided it and skirted around post-edits feigning a busy schedule and lethargy. To be honest, I’m afraid I’ll do a bang-up job of trying to put the whole experience in words. In truth, Istanbul exceeded my wildest expectations, and not sharing it with you would be unfair.
I am often asked why Istanbul, and why
My first few days in Istanbul were miserable, it was hot and I was an overconfident backpacker in a city wary of tourists. In order to understand a demographic, it’s important to gauge its political and economic environment – why people were the way they were, what made them different. Having been on the verge of a civil war, in a country where refugees and immigrants shape the map, the locals have become possessive of their roots and naturally, wary of outsiders. It’s a strange juxtaposition, an industry that relies heavily on tourism, cashes in on its legendary Ottoman history and cultural landmarks to survive but does so begrudgingly. I suppose one has to respect hustle in all its forms, after
My first night turned out to be a comedy of errors with my flight landing at 3:00 am and the hotel
I returned to Istanbul with a skeptical attitude, but the people and the experience that waited for me this time made me see this gorgeous city with a new lens – all I needed was some sleep, strong Turkish coffee
This city which is as much a part of the Eastern Hemisphere, as it is the Western, it is diabolical not only in its geography but also in its social landscape. On one side of the Bosphorus river, the construction boom is feeding the demand of the consumerist population, and on the other side, the service industry and local tradesmen are fighting with all their might to hold on their livelihood and traditions. And if you happen to be here, you are sure to be exposed to this beautiful, human side of this city. As with most old cities, small, traditional eateries – where some of the best meals are cooked – are often overlooked. It is these places, rarely explored and celebrated, that I sought after. Through some time-consuming research, I happened upon Istanbul Eats, the folks who walk the talk with serious food for serious eaters, no frills.
Beyond the kebab lies a wide range of unique Turkish regional cuisines and restaurants with hints of Balkan, Syrian, Caucasian and Middle Eastern cooking. My trusty guide Benoit Hanquet not only shared the secrets of the Spice Market but also took me to some time-honored spots known only to local tradesmen and shopkeepers.
The day started with a breakfast with shopkeepers in a traditional teahouse and then set off through the atmospheric, lesser-explored market streets around the Egyptian Spice Market. This breakfast was unlike any other I’ve had, and it was an inordinately thoughtful spread put together by Benoit.
It was thoughtful and deliciously organized. It was the perfect Turkish breakfast because it really told a story, a story of amalgamated cultures, and ended on a beautiful note with tea. After introductions, we sat on foldable chairs, under a decadent old staircase, by one of the oldest tea-stalls near the Spice Market. Accompanied by ‘Simit’, we ate tasting portions of fresh Oregano leaves drenched in oil, Tulum cheese (aged in leather), Olive oil, Za’atar, Olives, Yogurt, Crudite cream (Water Buffalo milk), Communist Honey, apricot jam, rose petal jam, Tahini with grape molasses and Sirou Dolyesh (apple/pear jam from Old Belgium – owing to Ben’s heritage).
There was just this authenticity about this breakfast – served on newspapers, in little plastic containers – it was all about tasting the food over a seriously good conversation, in the din of a working day, in the middle of the old bazaar.
After a brief walk through the Egyptian Spice Market, we headed into the non-touristy Fatih district, but not before stopping for some delicious morsels along the way. Most eateries are tiny shops frequented by day-workers and local tradesmen who want a quick hot meal without any bells and whistles. Beyran, a lamb and rice soup, is one such stew popular amongst the working class. The lamb is cooked overnight and turned into a stew in tin vessels, placed directly on flame.
Soon after, we stopped by a corner shop where a man was making Pide
We ate them piping hot, with an accompaniment of Isot (black pepper) and Salet (
As we wandered deeper into the alleys of
Istanbul has plenty of kebab joints, but places serving Cağ (pronounced Chag) are sadly hard to find. Cağ is the Turkish equivalent of the Argentinian Asado, or Brazilian Churrasco – a kebab for serious meat lovers. Our Cağ pitstop was at a busy restaurant with a handful of tables outdoors, all within
The Old City is full of hidden gems, places that are visited by local Istanbulites from across town. After visiting a Spice Grinder maker, an abandoned Bath house and several coffee houses later, we arrived at a building with an open quad inside. Patches of sunlight streamed through the open sky and a large coffee roaster stood in the center of the courtyard. Several shopkeepers were gathered over cups of tea, regaling each other with local news and scores of the latest match.
It was here that I met Ahmad, a Pide shop owner, who also happens to be a celebrated local hero who is an active participant in the community and has an opinion on everything from politics to sports. It was one of the best conversations I’ve ever had – he didn’t speak or understand any English, and we’ve already touched upon my incompetent Turkish. Thankfully Benoit came to our rescue. We took a quick coffee break outside Ahmad’s Pide shop (which seemed to manufacture 50 Pides a minute for lunch orders alone).
Turns out Benoit had brought some more personal treats for us. As we sat down over a cup of strong cardamom coffee, Ben produced a special, made-to-order tasting portion of Tawouk Geusuk. It was creamy, slightly sticky with a cinnamon garnish; it was positively
As a special favor, Ben took me up to meet Ahmad # 2. This Ahmad repaired rifles for a living and operated out of the second floor of the old building we were in. This Ahmad was shy, all smiles, and didn’t mind me taking pictures of him and his life’s work.
Life moved another inch and we walked through the backstreets of Istanbul up a steep slope all the way to the gorgeous Suleimani mosque. Ben regaled us with tales from the bygone era. Here’s an interesting fact – turns out Eunuchs were considered important pillars of the society. To become someone important, climb the ladder or hierarchy, one had to have the blessings of these powerful individuals. The Forbidden City in China was run much the same way. History lesson firmly under our belts, we passed through Teriyaki Gileb (the street of opium addicts, now a popular restaurant strip).
Behind the Suleimani mosque is a back alley containing shops selling metal sheets, tiles and furniture. We duck into a popular esnaf locantasi (tradesmen lunch spot) that serves quick, efficient vegetarian lunches. We taste a variety of humble dishes consisting of lentils, beans, greens and yogurt. With time, tradesmen restaurants are getting harder to find, where you can get classic homestyle meal of traditional flavors.
An Ottoman-era Bozaci was naturally our next stop. Ben thought it best to stop for some liquid fortification, but not before he picked up some roasted chickpeas from a stall outside as accouterment. Vefa Bozaci is a tavern-like Boza outlet, where this Ottoman culinary tradition has been protected with a flourish since 1876. The place remains carefully preserved down to the worn marble doorstep and antique wooden bar.
Boza is a fermented drink made with millets. It’s thick, fortifying and vaguely reminiscent of a popular Indian drink called ‘Sattu-Doodh
Kadinlar Pazari, a pleasant, pedestrian-only square in the Fatih neighborhood is the closest the city has to ‘Little Kurdistan’. Small markets and butcher shops selling honey, cheeses, spices and other goodies from Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish south-east region surround the square. Numerous restaurants in this square sell Buryan kebap and
Perde pilaf is a fragrant, peppery dish made with rice, chicken, almonds and currants wrapped in thin pastry shell and baked until golden and flaky. It is delicacy sent to newly wed couples in Kurdish traditions.
Finally, finally, we ordered some Kunefe with Turkish tea. Just like that, whilst slicing into the molten dessert, stirring a lump of sugar in my clear brew, Istanbul was committed to my memory in this singular experience. A day spent unraveling the secrets of an old city through food and conversation.
Technically, our day had come to an end. But Ben and I went on to the famous Wednesday farmer’s market in Fatih and walked on to the Syrian neighborhoods where immigrant and refugee population was highly concentrated. As the sun set, we sampled some more coffee by the street, this one different, more mellow than its Turkish namesake. After a quick stop for mint Limonata, the day came to a full circle and we ended it at an Olive shop. The same olives Ben had brought for our breakfast that morning.
So listen, if you happen to be in Istanbul, look up the good folks from Culinary Backstreets. These guys are passionate about what they do, and the entire experience will give you the kind of perspective no tourist can gain in a short time.