Istanbul’s food has been refined over centuries of recipes handed down from one generation to the next, and is often treated more reverently than any museum collection. Turkish food is comforting, honest and simple – much like the Turkish people themselves. It has a rustic yet sophisticated base, with flavours that seem to explode in your mouth. Like the city, the cuisine is a blend of eastern and western flavours; an eclectic mix of European, Arabic and Asian cuisines. From the uncomplicated pide to the simple stuffed mussel let me take you on a tasting tour of Istanbul…
When I landed at the airport, my nose was immediately assaulted by the smell of bread, cheese and some kind of fried meat. Instantly hungry, I couldn’t wait to get some pide into me. I wasn’t bargaining on that pide being as delicious as it was, nor was I expecting the marriage proposal that came with it. I chose to focus of the cheesy, sausage filled delight that was that first bite of pide. Savouring it, I stay in the small cafe, and watch the city unfold for the evening before me. Tomorrow I will have an adventure in food, but for right now all I want is to sit and watch. Old men come to restaurant doors and begin their patter to bring in the hungry masses, women sweep storefronts, children play soccer in the side streets, ducking in and out of traffic.
Sanem meets me in my hotel lobby early the next morning, and she is excited to show me the food of her city. We wander along the river front to the Spice Market, and she nabs a table at a small cafe out the front. She yells loudly at a young boy serving tables, and while I can’t understand a word of Turkish the signs for TEA, NOW! are pretty clear. Cups appear in a made flourish and pretty soon I’m contentedly sipping the strongest tea I’ve ever tasted. It’s is hot, sweet and fucking delicious. Sanem asks me questions about myself, we find we have quite a lot in common. While we are chatting, smalls plates arrive at our table, plates of layered pastry with different fillings. Sanem explains, this is borek, a traditional Turkish breakfast. It’s like Turkish toast. One is filled with a savoury mince, another with sweetness. Two more arrive, one with cheeses and the other with potato and spices entwined with the layers of soft pastry. I try them all, relishing the different flavours. This is definitely a breakfast I can get used it.
I’m already full of borek and tea when Sanem announces we are moving on. We wander through the Spice Market to visit a stall where there are hundreds of different teas for sale. Love tea, diabetes tea, heart tea, brain tea… you can get a tea for almost any ailment. The owner comes out to chat to us, and I am immediately delighted by his enthusiasm for his wares. He thrusts different things into my hands to try. Smell this tea, taste this baklava. We leave, and continue to wander through the market and I feel like I’m going to burst from all the food. I’ve eaten a days worth of food and it’s barely 10am.
Next up is the oldest coffee roaster in Istanbul. We don’t sample anything here, but I watch as the young boys pack the grinds for sale. They move faster than anything I’ve ever seen, quick as lightening the bags they are packing are filled and onto the delivery carts ready for the drop offs later that day. The line of customers winds out the door and down the laneway, as far as I can see. We follow it around a bend, and settle into yet another cafe for some morning tea, because I’m not full enough apparently. Sanem orders a sweet dish for us, and we sit to enjoy. It’s delicious, but very sweet. More pastry, this time soaked in a sugary syrup and then cooked over a flame.
Finally, Sanem decides to give my stomach a break and we wander up to a mosque for a history lesson. I sit in the peaceful inner courtyard and listen as Sanem explains about the architecture of the building, the symmetry and the tiles and the meaning behind certain aspects of the structure. She has chosen a working mosque, and I watch women and children come in for their morning prayer. I don’t get a break for long, before I know it Sanem is leading me to a busy restaurant opposite the mosque for lunch. Every table is crowded with people, mostly groups of friends catching up. We find a space and sit, and food appears in front of me instantly. I look at Sanem for an explaination – it’s white beans in a tomato sauce. I can smell garlic and lemon, and I tuck in. The beans are soft of fluffy in the middle, and the sauce is lovely and light. This restaurant serves one meal a day, and every patron will eat the same thing. Before I know it, I’ve inhaled my beans and I’m looking around for more food. I can’t believe how ravenous I am, the food is just incredible.
After lunch Sanem takes me to her favourite second hand book store in the Grand Bazaar, and we spend some time chatting about our favourite books and perusing the shelves. The English texts are hard to find, but I do stumble across an old copy of Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa, which I absolutely must have once I’ve got my hands on it. From here we wander past the university and down to Aya Sofia. Sanem guides me inside, and proceed to show me all the things she loves about this iconic building. There are stories of battles and family rivalries written in the art, she explains the building was traded from Christianity to Islam and back again a few times. Currently it is under restoration, so much of the art is hidden behind scaffolding but I’m overwhelmed by the sheer size. I wasn’t expecting to walk in and feel so small. We look around together mostly in silence, reverently watching the tourists following their guides around and listening to the stories.
Later on, I’m waiting in the lobby of my hotel again and Sanem appears to collect me for dinner. She tells me she has organised a surprise for me and that I will LOVE it. She is very excited, she has obviously been planning this during the afternoon while I went into a food coma. We walk down to the river again, and as I look out over the mighty Bosphorus, Sanem is chatting to an older man who is just an actual Turkish cliche in a person. She is wearing a captain’s hat, and has a cigarette hanging from his mouth. They laugh and Sanem winks at me. “Time to go. We are going in the boat!” she laughs.
Now, originally I had planned on walking across the Galata Bridge with Sanem, so she could show me the other side of the city. I wanted the old and the new from my Istanbul experience, and Sanem decided that walking was for chumps. I get in the boat and before I know it we are zooming away from Sirkeci. I have the most wonderful sunset view of the Blue Mosque, standing proudly above the city. The call to prayer rings out over the harbour, and I grin. For someone I have just met, Sanem has nailed this day tour. She has a sixth sense for making sure her clients get the best of the city, no matter what their interests lie in. I am so pleased I found her. The boat bumps into the shore on the other side, and we jump off the nose. Laughing like old friends, we meander through the emerging fish market and watch the guys shout and throw things to each other. Fish are flying, and backgammon boards are appearing from no where. Istanbul really is a city like no other.
For dinner, Sanem takes me on a street food crawl. We eat stuffed mussels and battered meatballs, wash it down with raki and finish with the best Turkish delight in the city and coffee. Today has left me inspired, stuffed, footsore and delighted. I cannot wait to come back to Istanbul, and when I do I will be looking up Sanem again. I owe the most perfect day to her.