Posted on December 6, 2011 in Travels


Thanksgiving in Istanbul

It’s only an hour-long flight to Asia from Sofia. Neither Mikel nor I had ever been to Turkey, and the only place in the Orient where I had been was Sri Lanka (Mikel has lived in both China and Indonesia). Thanksgiving in Istanbul seemed to us the perfect, easy, exotic getaway for a few days. The only problem? Four days is hardly enough time to scratch the surface of this fascinating ancient city that straddles two continents. I rarely tweak my photos very much before posting them, but my manipulation of the mosque image, above, better conveys the mysterious, other-worldliness of this great city on the Bosphorus. The city’s layers and layers of civilization, I’m sure, have been often compared to the rich strata of baklava that is ubiquitous throughout the region, but it’s a good analogy. Like baklava, Istanbul has elements of the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. Roman emperors, the Genoese, and Ottoman sultans all ruled for centuries. World War I effected modern day Turkey, a member of NATO with aspirations to join the EU. With 15 million people living in Istanbul, which is no longer the capital, it is a truly multicultural, world-class city, with efficient rapid transit (including continual ferries across the waters), fascinating historical sites, and some of the best food I’ve ever eaten.

We rented a penthouse apartment in Sultanahmet, in the heart of the Old City. Our rooftop deck overlooked the Small Haghia Sofia (mosque), just a couple of blocks from the Sea of Marmara, and a couple of blocks from the Blue Mosque. We spent four days mostly just meandering around the alleyways and boulevards. The array of street foods is captivating, and we marveled at how inexpensive fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice was. Our friend Tom Sietsema, who is the restaurant critic for the Washington Post, had been to Istanbul earlier in the year, and had paved some paths for us, particularly with the gang at Istanbul Eats, whose culinary walk through the Old City we booked for the day after Thanksgiving. Tom covered the tour in depth in his Postcard from Tom: Istanbul article back in July, so I’ll try not to repeat what he said. The tour hasn’t changed.

Lokum, or Turkish Delight, really is everywhere. That and baklava. And dried fruits. We kept wondering how on earth anyone could stay in business — and not just in the candy shops and stalls, but everywhere — hundreds and hundreds of stores that sell nothing but, say, brooms and dust bins, or nothing but socks, or nothing but sweatshirts. My only guess is that with 15 million people, plus 10 million tourists each year, there’s a shop for everyone.

We arrived on Wednesday night and got a good night’s sleep before we began pounding the pavement on Thanksgiving day. We had no plan, but it wasn’t long before we could stand the call of food no longer, and we wandered through the arches of this old Ottoman han — a complex of warehouses with a central courtyard — looking for the Vezir esnaf lokantasis (“working man’s restaurant”), which we had had recommended to us.

The hans were an important part of Ottoman culture. They began as inns along the east-west trade routes. Typically, the buildings were two or three stories built around a square central courtyard. Large doorways allowed horses and camels packed with goods to enter, but doors were shut at night. A tavern and stalls for animals were below, and rooms for rent above. Travelers could rest, eat, and do business. There was typically a mosque in the center of the courtyard, paid for by the workers’ guilds. Eventually, the hans became more like warehouses for the goods of the particular guild that predominated. As the city grew, those trades spread out into the streets, and the streets were named for the guilds — the scale maker’s street, the rug maker’s street, the blacksmith’s street, etc. To this day, the streets of the Old City are, for the most part, dedicated to one or two types of business. We even walked on a street that was almost entirely filled with barbershops!

Vezir restaurant is nothing to look at, and the food is nothing fancy. We began, as one is wont to do in Istanbul on a chilly day, with lentil soup. Delicious.

Vezir has a loyal clientele, so we were advised to arrive early. The chef prepares what he thinks will be enough food for the day, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. When you enter, you walk past the steam table and order from the chef himself. It being Thanksgiving, we went for the turkey. How could we not have? (And in Turkey, no less!)

And the overcooked green beans, of course! I was starting to feel right at home!

We knew we would be walking all day and that we would be going out for a fine dinner that night, so we purposely kept it simple at lunch. It’s a good thing we did, for dinner was not to be believed! 

Long before the dinner hour, we visited three mosques, our guidebooks in hand, reading aloud the astonishing bits of local history, but always aware of the omnipresence of food. After visiting the famous mosque, the Hagia Sofia (photo on the left, below), I noticed the marbleized halvah in a shop (below, right). Not just a coincidence.
Food is everywhere, not just in the market areas. Restaurateurs stand outside on the sidewalk and all but chase you down the street to coerce you to come in and eat. Rule Number One: NO EYE CONTACT! Rule Number Two: Don’t eat in a place that is begging you to come in! Though I love to discover places myself, in such an enormous and exotic place as Istanbul, it’s foolish not to take the advice of other professionals when it comes to eating. In one very touristy section of town, we were walking down a pedestrian street filled with outdoor seating on both sides. The hawkers were very pushy except at one restaurant, where the maitre d’ was cleaning the windows. I turned around and noticed that he had a sandwich board out that showed the many guidebooks, newspapers, and magazines that had recommended the place. We sat down and had a delcious meal. I do NOT, however, pay any attention whatsoever to the public, unmonitored postings on such sites as TripAdvisor. We have had crumby lodging in places that we later went back and saw were raved about (by the owner’s relatives?) on TripAdvisor. And we’ve seen downright cruel restaurant “reviews” that always seem to me to be written by disgruntled former employees or jilted boyfriends. On the other hand, I do listen to Tom Sietsema, because I know how he works — visiting a restaurant anonymously at least three times before he writes a critical review. If he says a place is good, it probably is.
You would be hard-pressed to escape food in Istanbul if you tried. There are street vendors everywhere, and there are oranges for sale in the shop you have to go through to get to what you’ve been told is the best lighting store.   
Tea is delivered all over the city, at all times of day, but if it’s lunchtime, you’re bound to smell fragrant trays of foods passing by you before you see them in the madness that is the streets.
People set up stands in the middle of the sidewalk to sell you mussels on the half-shell (photo on left, below). There are elaborate carts and simple wooden wheelbarrows offering culinary delights. Some of the foods are somewhat familiar, such as the doners sold in the stand behind the mussel vendor (a doner is what we would call a gyro: both words mean “to spin”). Others are downright bizarre-sounding and, frankly, -tasting as well. Take Salgam suyu, for example: dark turnip juice, very salty and very vinegary (and full of minerals and Vitamin C). The vendor in the fancy cart down on the waterfront in front of the Spice Market (middle photo, below) was selling just that — and pickles. I don’t know of a single culture that doesn’t have some type of ring of dough that is popular, but nowhere have I seen people line up for such plain fare as simits — the sesame-seed-topped, bagel-like roll that is as common as the chestnut roasters that you find at this time of the year on streets from London to, well, Istanbul (photo on right, below).
Not that we needing reminding that we were at the crossroads of East and West, spanning two continents and overlooking the Marmara, where the nets of the fishing vessels out beyond the mosque outside our window caught the setting sun as we regrouped before heading out for dinner.
We knew we would be traipsing through alleyways and the rabbit warrens that are the market areas of the Old City the next day, and we had been walking all day long on Thanksgiving Day, so we decided we wanted white tablecloths and a relaxing meal with really good food for dinner. Without reservations, we strolled down along the waterfront inside the old citadel wall to the Cakurtaran/Ahirkapi section of the neighborhood where the charming Giritli Restoran is housed in a restored, grand 19th century home. Across the street is a lovely garden room where the mostly local clientele dine under trees and twinkling lights when the weather is warm. At 100 lira ($70) per person, it is described by several guidebooks as a “splurge,” but there is unlimited food and drink (they keep your water glasses filled as well as your choice of wine, beer, or raki). And what a lot of wonderful food it is! Inspired by her ancestors, Chef Ayse Senilay recreates the foods of her native Crete, typically serving two dozen different dishes of her fish- and herb-based cuisine. (“Giritli” means Cretan.) The first that is brought to the table is perhaps her most famous, the “seafood rice zeytinyagli,” or seafood rice (it’s actually orzo) cooked in olive oil, about which the folks at Istanbul Eats say they “really get worked up for.” (Sorry for the poor quality of the photos here. The dish is pictured at left.) Chef Senilay says that she “open[s] the ceremony with this…[to] prepare your stomach for the spirits! Then we have at least 12 tasting dishes.” The night we were there, 17 meze — appetizers — were brought to the table, and they were just what the doctor (I had a cold!) ordered! There were four types of greens — purslane, black cabbage, baby white cabbage, and radish greens. There was raw — pickled, that is — fish, not unlike ceviche. There was a salad of gigante beans and a puree of favas. There were pickled beets and cucumbers, a delicious eggplant salad, and a potato dish with an enormous depth of flavor not usually associated with those tubers. There were mushrooms and peppers, a pepper and tomato spread, and two dishes of fresh cheeses, including one made with chopped hot olives, garlic, walnuts, wild herbs, and olive oil. I could have eaten just that. I scribbled notes on a map I had folded in my back pocket, but, alas, I forgot about it and it went through the washing machine. Thank goodness for photos, even bad ones!
After the meze, a perfectly grilled octopus tentacle, a perfectly fried piece of squid, and eggplant-filled filo arrived, with a delightful walnut sauce that I could have spread on the excellent bread and wolfed down. They made us actually choose what we wanted for our main course, and how we wanted it cooked: hamsi (fresh anchovies from the Black Sea), red mullet (one of my favorite fish), or a filet of locally farmed sea bass. We couldn’t resist the fried anchovies, and I’m glad we got them, so perfectly cooked they were –though neither of us could finish. Of course that didn’t stop us from chowing down on the hazelnut-filled pastries or the grated apple pudding! All in all, a perfect dining experience.
PS. I had an awful cold, so I held off the red wine, but I did drink the delicious local white, the fruity and crisp Sultaniye.
Day Two in Istanbul: A Culinary Walking Tour with Istanbul Eats 
As I noted above, Tom Sietsema and others have already described in detail the walking tour of the Old City with the folks from Istanbul Eats (hot links, above). I recommend the tour for non-professional foodies, but, as a food writer and inveterate, fearless traveler, I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that I was disappointed. I have written extensively in the past about the inherent pitfalls of anticipation (which can ruin everything from relationships to dining experiences), so I know that my expectations were mostly what caused my disappointments. That said, I will use my photos here to guide you through the parts of the tour where I actually learned something that I didn’t already know.
There were 6 of us on the tour ($125/person) that begins in front of the New Mosque and the Spice Market on the waterfront in Eminonu. There we met the ebullient Angelis Nannos (left), who is one of the guides who conduct these 6-hour-long tours six days each week. The website advertises: “Our Culinary Secrets of the Old City walk takes you beyond the major monuments and into the backstreets where all of the serious eating is done. We set off through the atmospheric, lesser-explored market streets around the Egyptian Spice Market and deeper into the untouristed Fatih neighborhood. In Kantarcilar, a district that has been selling weights and measures since Ottoman times, we visit a local confectionary where Turkish delight has been made and sold for 4 generations. From there we visit all but abandoned caravansaray, a couple of hidden historic sites, an old school pudding shop, an Ottoman era bozaci and finally a full lunch of traditional pit-roasted lamb in a very local, family-run place next to the Byzantine aqueducts (with lots of other edible treats along the way). These are the quintessential culinary backstreets.”
Our first stop was a street vendor of simits (above, with Angelis), a sesame-seed-coated, bagel-like roll, and brioche-like rolls whose name I don’t recall. I didn’t much care for either of them, so I didn’t write them down. It was very cold, windy, and humid, so we were all ready to get to the warehouse where we were served coffee and tea on a newspaper-covered make-do table amongst the coffee merchants. It seemed spontaneous, but I knew better: the same thing had happened on Tom’s, and others’ tours. Along the way, we had stopped to pick up olives and — of all things — string cheese. There were dried eggplants, dried sheeps’ intestines (which are rehydrated and used for sausage casings), cases and cases of offal and sausages of all sorts hanging about, but we were to taste none of those.  We saw a vast array of pickles, including an unripe plum said to be the best food for pregnant women, and mounds of mounds of spices, which, ironically, were conspicuous in their absence from nearly everything we ate. The plum is the second item in the middle row of the items in the photo at right, below. That’s the eggplant on the left, which we would have two days later,   and the dried intestines in the middle, below.
One of the most interesting things to me was the dried okra (pictured below, on the left), but I don’t recall either dried or fresh okra in anything we tasted our four days there — and I’m a huge okra fan. When I was working on my lowcountry cooking book (the 20th anniversary edition of which, by the way, will be published next fall), I conducted extensive interviews with Lucille Grant, the granddaughter of a slave and one of Charleston’s great cooks. She told me that her family used to string okra pods and shrimp heads and hang them under the tin roof to dry — the only place hot and dry enough in the humid lowcountry. They would then pound them later for gumbo. Next to the okra are some of the dried pepper and tomato pastes available, though these fundamental ingredients of Turkish cooking were never revealed to us in a dish.
There were some delicious finds along the way. Just before we entered the warehouse, we bought some fresh water buffalo clotted cream drizzled with honey from a street vendor (below). It was one of the best things we tasted, but I’ve had that here in Bulgaria, with better honey from the mountains, so even that was a bit of a letdown. This is the lemon-sized piece we had for the 7 of us.
There were huge displays of dried fruits everywhere — dozens of varieties of apricots, for example, but we were offered none of them, either.
And fish, too: hamsi, the Black Sea anchovies, and cinekop, immature bluefish, were in season, but if I hadn’t insisted, we would not have had a taste of either. Unfortunately, the fry shop we entered to sample the hamsi fried them in sunflower oil that wasn’t nearly hot enough. We were glad to be inside, but the fish were greasy. In an email exchange with Ansel Mullins, the co-author of Istanbul Eats: Exploring the Culinary Backstreets, he sent me a link to an environmental site that stated that the taking of young bluefish has led to a decline in their populations, so the eating of them is discouraged. I stopped eating tuna years ago because of the endangered status of bluefins, so I am glad to know that I didn’t contribute to the downfall of the bluefish, one of my favorites. Incidentally, Alan Davidson, the great British culinary historian and seafood expert, noted in Mediterranean Seafood that “There are five Turkish names for this fish, bestowed according to size, thus: — tiny: define yaprak (bay leaf); small: cinakop; larger: sari kanat (yellow wing); at its prime: lufer; very large: kofana.” At the time of Davidson’s writing (the early 70s), he noted that the fish caught in the fall migration are landed with “line and lamp.” I doubt that’s the case nowadays; hence, the overfishing. (Photo, below: anchovies, right; bluefish, left.) Fortunately, we had had expertly fried anchovies the night before at Giritli (see above).
On we walked through the winding streets that snake amongst the old warehouses, mosques, and baths, the streets lined with shops, street vendors, pushcarts, people, and cars. We visited one of the city’s major sellers of baklava, where Angelis donned the shopkeep’s hat as he had during Tom’s tour and where we ate several sweets drenched in sugar syrup, which is used in Turkey in lieu of the Greeks’ honey. The more pistachios and the fewer filo leaves, the more expensive the pastry. That I didn’t know. The single-layered, almost solid pistachio baklava on the right, below, was twice as expensive as the ordinary ones.
One of the best things we ate was kokorec, which to non-offal-eaters probably sounds disgusting but which was really tasty: sheep’s intestines wrapped around sweetbreads, skewered, and grilled on the rotisserie (photo, below). A young Turk manning the little stand in an alleyway carved thick slices of the wood-fired delight and then placed them on a griddle to further cook. On the skewer went hollowed hoagie rolls to warm while he chopped the grilled and skewered lambs’ innards, doused with a bit of hot sauce, and served to us in the bun, cut up. One was plenty for all of us. I think it cost a dollar. I, frankly, could have eaten an entire one, but we had hardly begun, and we had two more sandwich-like stops, I knew, before lunch.
There were diminutive tables and chairs in the alley, which I asked about, because I knew that earlier in the year, they had been banned, much to the chagrin of the Turkish people, who have been eating in the streets since time immemorial. Angelis said that it was really the Turks’ fight for the right to eat kokorec that was their concern. I found it hard to believe that the very Eastern marketplaces would be willing to adapt to very Western standards should Turkey continue to strive for EU membership: taking seafood markets indoors where fish must be displayed on ice, removing the thousands of open grills from the streets, requiring the wearing of gloves and the use of plastic cutting boards. (I’m not going into the political hindrances, not the least of which is the Armenian question. Since our return, I see, Turkey is backing down on their intent to join. I guess Greece and the state of the euro scared them away!)
Everywhere I saw things I wanted to know more about: what are those pale berries there with the pepinos (!), I wondered, but Angelis had his shtick that we were stuck with. Thank goodness for these photos, so that I could do some research when I got home. Pepinos, it turns out, are one of Turkey’s big new cash crops (who knew?!); and those berries, labeled mersini, are two types of bilberries, similar to our blueberries or huckleberries. But why are they so pale? Are they for medicinal uses? Would love to have known more, to have tasted them if they were ready to eat, or to have had a tea made from them if they, indeed, are good for improving night vision. I’ve always had a fear of not being able to see at night, so I’ve been eating two carrots/day since I was a teenager. (It hasn’t done a damn bit of good: that was the very first part of my vision to go, many years ago.)
On and on we rambled through the streets that circled around the old hans and mosques, one street featuring kitchenware; another, woodworking; another, weights, measures, scales, and thermometers.
At the 146-year-old Alta Sekerleme, I had to ask about mastic. Though the tour stops at this traditional candy shop on a daily basis, 4th-generation Hakan Altan (pictured) seemed surprised  when I asked. The gumlike substance is a major ingredient in lokum, or Turkish Delight, but its peculiar flavor is also sought after by aficionados. I bought some mastic-flavored lokum for one of Mikel’s coworkers who believes in its homeopathic qualities. Mastic — also known as “arabic gum” (not to be confused with gum arabic, something entirely different!) — was once so valuable that wars were fought over it. It is derived from a rare plant native to the Greek island of Chios. I don’t know why I even know this, but it’s the sort of stuff that I love. That’s what I wanted more of: the culinary and cultural significance of these Turkish delights. Across the street from Sekerleme, there was bath built in 1460. That put things in historical perspective! (Photo at right, below.)
Our next stop was possibly my favorite, though it had little to do with food. The first floor of the 17th-century Ali Pasa Han is still occupied by blacksmiths, the way it has been for centuries, but it is now owned by a Turkish actor. With its intimate size and its charming arched balcony overlooking a central courtyard, it has all the possibilities to become a boutique hotel or B&B. I cannot imagine that the actor won’t have it developed before too long. We sat down and had some hot tea and halva with the blacksmiths pounding away on a metal box. I was freezing so I got up and walked around the building, fantasizing about it.
At the pudding shop, right, we bought a sweet pudding that includes the pureed white meat of chicken breast. You would never know that it has chicken in it. No textural or gustatory clues whatsoever. Now, that was interesting!!! We were starting to collect items to take with us to the restaurant where we would have lunch and end the tour, but we still had another hour or so to go. Everywhere, carts filled the streets — men pushing huge fruit displays or handtrucks filled with boxes or mattresses balanced on backs. We bought mushy ripe persimmons that we would eat after lunch; they made me realize that I had missed the season of the superior wild ones back home in the States. One man with housewares resembled a clown — or a circus act.
Our next stop was Tom’s favorite, and it was indeed a bright spot on the tour, with delicious fare. Besir Ete’s Bereket Doner shop is being copied throughout the city, though we were told that he was the first to elevate the humble gyro to gourmet status. (Doner and gyro both mean “to spin.” The word refers to the vertical spit.) Most doners are downright awful. They’re all over Bulgaria. Some are made from chicken, some are made from lamb, some are made from beef, and most, I fear, are made from frozen mystery meat. Not at Bereket. Besir marinates lamb in a mixture of grated onion and onion juice overnight, then layers it on the spit with tomatoes, onions, and peppers. The lamb all but melts in your mouth. Tom’s article is framed and hangs on the wall. The place is a corner shop in disrepair, but the doner is scrumptious. They also take great pride in their hand-squeezed fruit juices. We all chose pomegranate. If you could find it in the States, the juice would cost you, I would imagine, $4 or $5. It cost pennies at Bereket. And the sandwich? About a dollar! The seven of us shared one.
Istanbul is fascinating at every turn, and I was glad to have been led through these streets that I may not have discovered on my own. But I was ready to sit down and eat a real meal, not just snack. I would have been happy to finish our tour there at Bereket. But I would have missed a couple of more interesting sights and foods.
If you’ve ever been to Bulgaria, you may have seen people drinking what appears to be chocolate milk. It’s called boza. Chocolate milk it ain’t. It’s a malt; that is, a drink made from fermented grains. In Bulgaria, it’s made from wheat or rye. The better commercially available ones are made from whole grains, natural sugar, and soda. I haven’t had the nerve to try one yet. In Istanbul, however, where they’ve been making boza for a thousand years, it’s a drink of a different color and flavor. Made with millet, it has a creamier texture (and color), much thicker than the Bulgarian version, and is slightly fizzy, tart, and sweet. Most boza has an alcohol content of about 1%. In the 17th Century, prior to Sultan Mehmed IV’s ban on all alcoholic beverages, there were over 300 boza shops in Istanbul. Now ,Vefa Bosacisi, which opened in 1876 (below), is the only producer of the peculiar drink that also operates a boza bar. Resembling a Viennese coffeehouse, Vefa is frequented by people from all walks of life. A real institution, if an aquired taste. I actualy liked it, garnished, as it was, with roasted chickpeas.
We headed up the hill towards the Valens Aqueduct that overlooks the old Women’s Market and an Ottoman mausoleum in a neighborhood that is now Kurdish. We had been walking for more than 5 hours, and though we had had little bites here and there, we were looking forward to the “clean bathrooms” and the “full lunch.”
I’m glad I insisted on stopping at the Cigkofteci — the seller of uncooked meatballs, whose little red spheres of delciousness I assumed were kibbeh, which I love. Angelis told us that the cigkofte were vegetarian meatballs, but Nese Zinn, a Turkish rug merchant in Charleston, SC, told me that the word means uncooked, not meatless. In fact, they can be made with meat or without. On my Facebook page, Nese wrote: “cigkofte means uncooked meatballs, and cigkofteci is the man who sells the uncooked meatballs. When one kneads the bulgur, the twice or thrice ground meat with the hot spices for at least half hour or more, the friction of the meat against the metal tray and the palms of the hand cook the meatballs, without them ever seeing the top of a stove, or an oven. Absolutely delicious. You can eat them just like that, or put them on a single leaf of lettuce, squeeze some lemon juice on them, and you are ready …”
I was ready, all right! These were vegetarian, made with bulgur and spices, and I insisted we buy some to take with us to lunch. They were my favorite thing we ate all day. (And Mikel and I took the leftovers home for supper.) But again I let my anticipation spoil things: I had envisioned a lamb’s head for lunch, not the dry, nearly tasteless bits of flank that were served up on equally tasteless bread. The chicken pilau was lackluster. We had an innocuous salad. I did order salty, pickled turnip juice, a national favorite that had somehow not been mentioned all day. I liked it. Perhaps it just matched my mood.
We ended the tour at the worst of rush hour and TWO taxis we entered wouldn’t take us home. We started walking, freezing all over again, and somehow overshot our neighborhood and wound up walking down to the water through Kumkapi, the old fishing village that has become, according to the folks at Istanbul Eats, so “touristy” that they “usually steer clear” of it. They recommend only one of the dozens of restaurants there — and it’s a tiny, working class restaurant run by a husband and wife team. I’m sure it’s wonderful, but I can’t believe that there’s not at least one good place to eat in the charming little spot on the water.
We were NOT “accosted by aggressive maitre d’s from overpriced fish restaurants,” as IE warns. The fish displays looked wonderful, and the heaters underneath the canopies made for a very inviting setting. Twilight gets me every time. Again, Nese wrote: “Locals eat at Kumkapi also, where every restaurant sells dishes made from every imaginable morsel of the seas..You can even have musicians come to your table and play whatever music you want them to play, and have sing-a-longs too.”
Neither Ansel nor Angelis are Turkish, though their decade-long love affair with Istanbul is evident in every word. I wish the book and the tour hadn’t been so damn exclusive.
I didn’t mention the pida joint we visited because I found it mediocre (Mikel thought it was very good). I also didn’t mention our stop at the “best coffee” shop because we didn’t have coffee there and Angelis told us he doesn’t buy it. Hmmm… wonder why we even bothered to stop?
If you are interested in food and find yourself in Istanbul, and want to tour the back alleys and are not one who would do it on your own, I’d say go ahead and take the IE tour. But go with no preconceptions, or take the other tour, of the New Town, or, better yet, the NEW tour, which Angelis was planning when we were there.