Last night I talked on the “phone” (aka Skype) with my Aunt Mary Ellen, who was eager to hear what I thought about our study trip to Istanbul. Distilling a week’s worth of sensory and mental overload, I replied, “It was chaotic. Every street is as crowded as Times Square.”
That’s partly the truth. I don’t think I have ever been in a place as consistently jammed with people, taxis, stray cats, sidewalk food vendors, and rapidly-approaching tram cars.
Quite frankly, I have never been in a place even remotely similar to Istanbul. My globe-trekking has been confined to Western Europe, namely France and Italy. I haven’t even been to most of the major cities in the U.S. outside of the East Coast and Chicago. Visiting the largest city of a Eurasian country was a shock to to the system, complete with a whole new set of sounds (the Islamic call to prayer ringing out from mosque loudspeakers five times a day, the unfamiliar lilt of Turkish, with its often umlaut-ed vowels and cedilla-tailed consonants), smells (goat carcasses hanging in the butcher shops of the Kurdish Kadinlar market, the pungent tang of sumac in the Spice Bazaar), sights (the millenias-old Hagia Sophia, countless fisherman casting off into the waters of the Golden Horn from the Galata Bridge), and tastes (endless iterations of kofte, kebap, dolmas, pilaf and baklava, with eggplant every which way, even in Sephardic Turkish cookies).
Every once and a while I came up for air and focused on one frame—turning onto a narrow street and glimpsing the Galata Tower at the foot of its steep hill, stopping to watch a vendor clean artichokes in a crowded street market, peering up at a woman dropping down a basket from a fourth-floor window for her morning simit delivery. But there was too much to look at, too much I wanted to notice, for freeze frames to suffice—I needed to come at it from all angles. It’s no wonder I am exhausted this weekend.
Our itinerary for this trip was quite different than those of our previous two Italian stages. We didn’t see the production of any particular foodstuffs, or have much of an opportunity to cake mud onto our farm boots. Instead, we focused on lectures about Turkish food culture, visits to markets, and multiple course didactic meals. Here are some highlights, in thematic rather than chronological order:
We kicked off the stage on Sunday morning with a lecture on the historical background of Turkish food culture with Professor Ozge Samanci, which helped to contextualize later bites. As Professor Samanci explained, Istanbul cuisine reflects the city’s storied past and is influenced by Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Central Asian, Byzantine, and Ottoman cuisines. Our class focused on Ottoman cuisine, specifically that of the Topkapi Palace (the Sultans’ residence for the large part of the Ottoman empire’s six century reign). Between the sultans’ family, harem, and servants, the palace fed as many as 10,000 people a day, and purchasing records and menus give us hints at the food culture of the era. Some things have not changed much—onion was the most important ingredient in Ottoman cooking, and it still appears in most Turkish dishes, along with parsley, dill, mint, and garlic. The nutty and delicate baklava existed back then, too, as a symbolic offering to soldiers at the end of the Ramadan period. The ubiquitous rice pilaf also appeared on Sultans’ tables, and lamb was, then as now, the most common meat. Some things have changed, of course: tomatoes, unknown to the Ottomans for the large part of their reign, are now used in almost every dish, and tea (çay), now drunk 24/7 in Turkey, didn’t exist in the Ottoman era.
On Tuesday, we discovered that for Professor Artun Unsal, yogurt is “not just a food but also a way of life.” I have never seen a man more obsessed with a single food item, and I just completed a cheese course with a professor who got starry-eyed when discussing pecorino. Yogurt pervades the Turkish cuisine; I am a huge yogurt-eater normally, but I think I ate more yogurt this past week in Istanbul than I normally consume in a month. It is present in most meals in the form of ayran, a salted beverage of 50-50 yogurt and water. From Professor Unsal, we learned that although no one knows for sure where yogurt was born, it was likely first produced millenia ago in Central Asia, where people had an excess of milk that they needed to preserve. Unsal described yogurt as a tango between two necessary bacteria: Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, which are added to milk after it has been heated to near-boiling (to kill unwanted bacteria and prevent curd-forming) and cooled. The bacteria cause lactic acid fermentation, which allows the milk to coagulate and come together, a lovely process to Unsal, who said, “Maybe for the world peace we need something like that. We need some bacteria to bring people together.” I’m not sure about that, but the cow milk, sheep milk, and buffalo milk artisan-produced yogurts we tasted were certainly something special.
We hopped a ferry to the Asian side of the Bosphorus on Tuesday for a stroll through the Kadiköy market, which hosts a smattering of cafés and specialty food shops: pickle vendors, spice stores, fishmongers, etc. We visited a bakery and candy shop, located side-by-side on a sunny square, both producing a mixture of traditional and modern treats, and both open since Ottoman times. The bakery, Beyaz Firin, is in its 5th generation of family ownership, and has expanded to produce over 400 different pastry, bread, and chocolate items a day in each of its five locations. We were in the flagship store, a narrow, four-story building with two separate baking areas (one for savory items, one for sweets), where workers start cranking out specialties like kandil simidi, small simit-like cookies traditionally made for religious feasts, at 6:00 AM. I bought a palm-sized acibadem kurabiyesi (Turkish almond meringue) as a mid-morning snack, and loved its combination of crispy shell and chewy, nutty center.
The candy store, Şekerci Cafer Erol, has been turning out a wide array of handmade Turkish delights, running the gamut from rosewater-scented and pistachio-studded to coconut-crusted and buffalo-curd-crowned, since 1807. As a girl with a serious sweet tooth (which disturbingly seems to get worse as I get older), I found this old-fashioned shop’s jars of bonbons and trays of halva charming and tempting. We nibbled on pistachio pastes (literally just ground nuts and confectioner’s sugar), Turkish delights, and cinnamon akide, hard candies that were given to soldiers in Ottoman times to represent their dedication to the Sultan (those soldiers got a lot of candy bribes, amiright?), as the 6th generation owner explained their product range.
On Wednesday we hoofed it across the Galata Bridge to Eminönü for a hectic visit to the Spice Bazaar, Istanbul’s second largest covered market after the Grand Bazaar. Open since 1660, the Spice Bazaar was originally constructed as part of the complex of the neighboring New Mosque; its narrow arched passageways are lined with 88 different rooms, home to an array of spice and souvenir vendors who start their seller’s cries at you the moment you step in. Before we entered the Spice Bazaar proper, we checked out some of the shops on its perimeter, visiting our local guide’s favorite fishmonger, cheesemonger, and deli (where we tried Turkish pastrami, which is nothing like the stuff they cram into sandwiches at Katz’s Deli, let me tell you). Then we joined the wave of shoppers inside and beelined for Ucuzcular baharat, aka stall #51, the best spice purveyor in the bazaar. Open since 1886, this shop is still family-run (see a theme here? a lot of the lasting food vendors in Istanbul are family businesses), and carries everything from traditional Turkish spice mixes like dolma spice (an allspice and cinnamon-spiked mixture used to season the filling of stuffed grape leaves) to modern concoctions like BBQ spice, which the current owner got a taste for while studying in the States. They buy all their spices whole and grind them in-store, everything they sell is freshly replenished throughout the year, and they vacuum-seal all your purchases. After dropping some Turkish lira on za’atar and Turkish tea, I made my way over to Istanbul’s best coffee shop, Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi, located on a corner facing the bazaar proper. This purveyor has been around for 141 years and sells thousands of freshly-ground-and-wrapped packets of Turkish coffee every day.
Simit is ubiquitous in Istanbul. There is a simit seller on every street corner, hawking these bagel-like breads from carts or trays. Simit is generally a breakfast food, but I saw people eating them at all hours of the day. During a cab ride from lunch to lecture one day, our driver even stalled on a corner to order a simit—the seller tossed one through the window and grabbed his turkish lira payment. We tried the real deal on Sunday morning at Tarihi Boğazkesen Simit Fırını, a bakery that still uses a traditional wood oven to get the crunchy, sesame-speckled crust on their breads. Simit differs from bagels in that it is dipped in water and molasses instead of being boiled before baking. It is also not as dense on the inside, making for a bit of a less jaw-straining chew.
On Sunday night Chef Maksut Aşkar treated us to a specially-crafted menu at his restaurant Sekiz, which is located just off İstiklal Avenue, a major shopping corridor in the Beyoğlu district where we stayed. Chef Maksut gives dishes he learned at his grandmother’s stove a modern twist, brightening up a hot pepper and walnut dip with a swirl of parsley-infused olive oil and injecting the classic crispy pumpkin dessert with clotted cream. My favorite dish was the smoked bonito and lentil salad, which was all savory barbecue-y perfection. We also got to sample house-made sherbet (a syrupy-sweet chilled Ottoman drink, not the rainbow-colored ice cream we know in the States) and ayran.
After our bakery and candy shop morning in the Kadiköy market, we lunched at Çiya Kebap, Chef Musa Dagdeviren’s much-acclaimed restaurant that is known bringing traditional Turkish dishes back to the table in their most authentic forms. Dagdeviren’s mezze (cold antipasti) were the freshest we tasted in Istanbul, with bites of pomegranate-and-parsley-salad with chives, smooth hummus, and meatballs atop a garlicky yogurt as standouts. At the end of the meal, the chef greeted us with a cinnamon-sprinkled pillowy dessert that translates literally to “paradise mud,” which is made only for a few weeks every year.
A final dinner at Kantin was both my favorite meal and the only one I didn’t photograph (due to some lousy Turkish batteries). Run by one of Istanbul’s only prominent female chefs, Şemsa Denizsel, this 13-year-old restaurant gives Istanbul cuisine a fresh and simple face. Chef Denizsel talked to us about her views on cooking in Istanbul the day before in a sunny room at SALT Galata, an art research building: “Good food is good, but there is something called home cooking, and it’s something you miss. After a long trip, you don’t miss sushi. Home cooking is where you return at the end, so it’s where you should start as well.” Denizsel works with the ingredients of the season (she is the only chef in Istanbul who doesn’t use tomatoes and eggplant in the winter), changing the menu every day. My table sampled the quinoa with shrimp appetizer (which was sesame-oiled and brightened by lime juice reminded me of the flavors of one of my favorite summertime recipes), the deep-friend cauliflower with yogurt sauce, the Turkish flatbread “pizza” with swiss chard, goat cheese, and red onion, and the chicken-and-saffron-pilaf, washing it down with homemade ginger ale (!). At the end of the meal, Chef Denizsel sent out two complimentary desserts: a sour cherry-topped mastic pudding, and warm semolina halvah with vanilla ice cream, which reminded me of something unnameable from my childhood. It was a comforting note to end a chaotic trip.