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 solo, when I have a perfectly good travel partner willing to go places with me. This is one of those inexplicable things, something I had always wanted to do by myself, for myself – with the sole purpose of exploring these cities on foot and eating my way through their seedy underbellies.

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 all survival and resilience is the name of the game, yes? However, this didn’t make things easy for me. Language barriers have never pinched me as much as they did in Istanbul, and I was swiftly grounded to rely on basic instincts and common sense – something I take for granted when traveling elsewhere.

My first night turned out to be a comedy of errors with my flight landing at 3:00 am and the hotel having made an error with my arrival date. Not wanting to miss the morning light, I made the cardinal error of stepping out without any sleep. I was greeted with throngs of tourists heading to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The crowds at Blue Mosque are managed through a rolling turnstile and the precious 5 minutes I got were redolent with the smell of sweaty socks and construction noises. After an entire day on the streets of Old City, all I had seen was a city with an old soul and a new facade, steeped in manufactured culture, with fast-food franchises on every street corner. Disappointed, the next day, I left for Cappadocia.

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 and a better attitude. First, and foremost, if you ever go to Istanbul, stay at Peradays – you won’t regret it. It’s this Loft like space with exposed concrete walls, wrought iron stairs, a bunch of cats, and the friendliest, kindest people you will ever meet. With a great sense of humor and a wicked taste in music (think Janis Joplin, Floyd, The Doors etc.), they will take good care of you. Murat (the owner’s son), ordered pizza for me at some ungodly hour in the night, while I chatted with his crew on the rooftop over a pack of smokes and Google Translate. If that isn’t the best damned hospitality, I don’t know what is.

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 to order. Apparently several orders are hand-delivered or picked up around lunch time for the various workers and shop owners in the many alleys of the old city. Pide is a calzone of sorts, an efficient vehicle for ground meat, cheese and garnishes of tomato, jalepeno and herbs.

We ate them piping hot, with an accompaniment of Isot (black pepper) and Salet (root of white Orchid). It burned my lips a little and I can’t forget the taste of molten cheese and spicy ground meat on a bed of warm Fatayer bread.

As we wandered deeper into the alleys of the the old city, the sights and sounds and smells slowly transported us back to a previous era, a time where Caravans transported goods and Gypsies would roam from town to town coating copper with tin. In the less trafficked areas, the architecture and age-old infrastructure haven’t changed much and it’s easy to imagine godowns, stables, and travel-inns. One such old-world story is about Akide, a rock candy of sorts composed of large sugar crystals. Back in the day, influential politicians, Mercenaries of the Mafia would send Akide şekeri to new Sultans, to welcome them after their coronation. It was a subtle message of sorts, and the Sultans would send back Baklava as a gesture of gratitude. Learning about Turkish folklore and findings little tidbits about its food history, while standing in the middle of an old Caravanserai (ancient era trailer park), converted the entire experience to more than just a food tour. After visiting a district In Kantarcılar, that has been selling weights and measures since the Ottoman times, we visited a local confectionary where Turkish delight has been made and sold for four generations and meet the family upholding this tradition.

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 whiffling distance of the spit, where cuts of expert marinated lamb slowly cooked over charcoal. As the horizontal spit slowly turns, the meat continuously bastes itself, occasionally flaring up with a sizzle and a pop that chars an outlying corner of meat. Cağ is different from the vertical doner kebab (popularly misnomered as Shawarma) in that it requires patient cuts with steady hands and a sharp knife. The result is a thin skewer threaded with a precious collection of tender yet crispy bites of meat. We chose to forego on the lavas bread in the greed for keeping room for more food to come.

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 delicious, and gone before we could guess the main ingredient. Chicken pudding. Tawouk Geusuk is boiled chicken breast pudding. Don’t ask! After a small mental-barf, I chalked it up to experience and washed it down with some coffee.

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‘, if you’re familiar with it. At first, I wasn’t quite ready to sing praises of it, but it definitely grows on you after a couple of sips (thick gulps in this case). The first few spoons are beguiling, the palate fooled by the cinnamon and utterly sidetracked by the crunchy chickpeas, but the taste is sure to haunt you long after, much like the call of the itinerant Boza vendors who wander the streets of Istanbul during the winter months, calling out a long, mournful “Booooo-zaahhhh“.

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. Buryan is the side of a small lamb, slow-cooked in a deep hole in the ground. It is buried with coals overnight and unearthed the following morning to retrieve chunks of exceptionally tender morsels of meat with a crunchy, crackling film of fat around it.

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.