On Monday I paid for the pleasure of taking a culinary walk in the oldest part of Istanbul. I wait for my comrades on the steps of the Yeni Cami (what does it say about a city when its “young mosque” dates to 1663?). Listen folks, if you’re going to erect a semi-permanent sign with English translations, hire an editor. For 10 lira I could have saved you years’ worth of snickers.
My fixer is Angelis. As a Greek Christian, he’s something of an anomaly in Turkey, prone to empty chattiness and determined to make sure you know he’s gay. Nobody cares, dude. But he introduced me to some amazing stuff.
We’re joined by Doug and Ruth from Houston, and Stephan from Bielefeld, Germany. We pick up some simit, some string and other white cheeses, a few varieties of olives, some pickled golf-ball-sized things with a dense, crunchy texture, and squat on stools deep in the Spice Market, getting to know one another over coffee and tea. You couldn’t ask for more genial company. Doug works in finance, his wife is busy taking care of her ailing parents, and Stephan is a fundraiser for a children’s charity. They all give careful thought to what they have to say. What a concept!
The walk gets off to a slow start. We look at some cow stomachs and hear Angelis describe a spicy soup made from them that … wait for it … wait for it … is good for hangovers! Never heard of such a thing!
It’s like a Vegas casino, the Spice Market. You can’t tell what time of day it is and the outside world slips away. At a baklava shop, the descent into madness begins. The green morsels are made almost exclusively of pistachio paste. We eat these and some squatty Roman columns of fried dough, coming dangerously close to a tipping point — I could go home and take a nap already. Eating-wise, the walk will approach death-march territory, but Angelis has been at this for seven months and knows when our stomachs need a break.
Pardon the rough cuts.
Istanbul has the most descriptive street names of any place I’ve been. There is a Street of the Leather Tanners and a Street of the Cymbal Makers, and so forth. I’m staying on Akbiyik Cad., which is White Mustache Avenue.
We make a stop for lokum, or Turkish delight. Not my cuppa tea, though there’s a pale version with no flavoring containing a few nuts. The greatest pleasure derived from this “food” is the sensation you get when you press it between your thumb and forefinger. Boing!
How to describe it? If you were a long-haul trucker in the 15th- through 18th centuries, this would be your Motel 6. Say you’re on the Spice Route and need a place to sleep and store your stuff. That’s a han. They were trade-specific (this one was for iron makers, farriers, and the like) and they were located next to mosques, so all your prayin’ needs were met, too. Off the beaten track, utterly authentic, and I feel privileged to be here.
Our next stop is for doner kebab (yay!) and what a unique doner stack this is, interspersed with tomatoes and peppers. I’ve never seen anything like it.
These old wooden houses, dilapidated remnants of the dying days of the Ottoman era, can still be seen, and the preservationists have made sure they’re less likely to be torn down. Wouldn’t want to live next to one, but as a tourist, I appreciate being able to see one up close.
We enter the Vefa neighborhood, and I am introduced to one of the most amazing things I have ever tasted. This is boza, a fermented millet drink adorned with roasted chickpeas. It looks like banana pudding, but once it rests on your tongue, it does a bubbly belly dance, similar to the sensation you get when you drop a bit of White Labs yeast in your mouth. (Wait. You haven’t done that?) Slightly sweet, non-alcoholic, best consumed with a spoon. I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind.
To my mind, the best is yet to come. We enter a place called Siirt Seref, at Itfaiye Caddesi 4, and if you ever go to Istanbul and don’t visit, you are insane. It may help to have a speaker of Turkish with you, but it’s not necessary. At right is Stephan, a former journalist and all-around good guy who traveled through Turkey as a teenager in 1978, when the country was a pariah among nations and had virtually no diplomatic contacts with the outside world.
We start with a simple salad and some soaked-bulgur pancakes filled with meat and spices. Arriving next are some salty bulgur pieces that have been massaged into bacon shapes. We are invited to wrap these amazing creations in lettuce leaves. Astounding.
What follows is a hot phyllo pastry shaped like an overturned flower pot. Inside is a steaming combination of chicken, rice and nuts. Squeeze a little lemon, and you’ve died and gone to heaven. Hey, I’m a poet!
Next up is flatbread sprinkled with cured lamb that has been in a smoldering pit for 24 hours. This is the good stuff, probably from eastern Anatolia, I’m not sure. At center left is this amazing condiment called, and I’m going phonetically here, ezmay, a spicy tomato mixture I would love to have in my kitchen. I realize the word “spicy” has lost any meaning in my last 500 words. If something can be piquant, savory and fragrant at the same time, I’ve done my job. If not, come to Istanbul.
Dessert consists of fried noodles wrapped around a sugar-and-cheese melange. Sounds strange, but when you bite into it, and its crispiness grabs you, and your palate catches up to the cheese, you never want to leave.
Outside, Angelis hugs it out with everyone. He’s an annoying little fuck, but you know what? He provides a wedge into places you wouldn’t think of. And once he provides the wedge, well, you’ve got the edge. Ten thousand miles away from home, you can’t ask for more than that.
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