Just before Christmas I spent two solid months travelling and Istanbul was the starting point of a surreal journey that in the following weeks took me to Latin America, Miami, around Europe, and back to the States again for another visit to one of my favourite cities in the world, New York. I was in Istanbul in October during the riots against the Turkish government, with Kurds calling for military intervention in defense of the Syrian town of Kobane, near the Turkish border. I found out about the protests after I landed at Ataturk airport on my way to the city centre, when just a few hundred metres away from my hotel my taxi got stuck in traffic. I couldn’t help but notice, with my big surprise, walls of police wearing gas masks, and flames shining in the distance around Taksim Park.
As soon as I checked into my room, I switched on the TV to watch the news. The fact my room was on the 20th floor with a spectacular view over Taksim square – at the time full of army vans and heavily armed police – didn’t quite help. I decided to go for a quick exploration around the hotel to assess the situation. Cautiously walking around the block I started noticing relaxed locals heading back from work, friends chatting away in cafés, mums taking children to the park, and suddenly felt better and brave enough to head out for dinner.
Istanbul is a charming and atypical city steeped in history, with a stunning and iconic architecture but still a few rough edges and inequalities, where behind the magnificent multi-million mansions overlooking the Bosphorus there is a not so hidden favela housing rural Turks who have moved to the city in search of a more affluent life, which, despite a pulsating economic growth is still hard to achieve. The Turkish metropolis for centuries has been the gateway to the wonders of Central Asia and the Silk Road, travelled by merchants, explorers, religious for over 2000 years, connecting East and West, Europe and Asia; and I am not only talking about Bosphorus bridge, the first spectacular suspending link across two continents, but of its warm and welcoming blend of cultures and cuisines that captivates your soul.
Istanbul is not a gentle or refined metropolis, it hits you on your face with an assault on all the senses. The monotonous call to prayer of the muezzins, the crazy and noisy traffic, the sharpness of spices, the intensity of the skyline, sharp smells, vibrant local foods, multicolour fabrics, rainbows of rugs, vibrant glasses, hand-painted plates, and handcrafted shiny metals. A city that can satisfy any greedy mind and greedy palate. Turkish cuisine as we know it today is a fusion of Central Asian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Balkan cuisines. From the tribes of migrants from Central Asia who moved to the coast bringing yoghurt, mutton, goat meat, and beef, cooked in a tandir – an underground oven similar to the Indian tandoori – or barbequed on charcoal fire as kebabs – originally from Persia – to Mongolian homemade noodles and dumplings. The Ottoman Palace kitchen, where hundreds of chefs recruited from all over the Empire specialising in different regional cuisines and cooking techniques worked hard to please the sultan palate, introduced new vegetables and herbs such as cabbage, cauliflower, parsley, Asian spices and perfected the richness of Turkish Cuisine. This is what makes it so unique.
Riots aside, during my stay in Istanbul I was determined to learn about the real hearth of Turkish cuisine and decided to keep high-end restaurants to a bare minimum and concentrated on local family run eateries, street-food and markets. My first discovery was Fatih, a middle class neighbourhood off the beaten track, home to Sur Ocakbaşı, a casual restaurant famous for their büryan kebab, a Turkish version of the Texas pit barbecue, tender lamb slowly cooked over coals in a tandir and sur tatlisi, their very special semolina based dessert – with a secret list of ingredients that our Syrian waiter didn’t want to reveal – where we ordered a delicious feast for 2 for a mere £20.
We kicked off with Perde Pilavi, a delicious crispy baked pie filled with rice, chicken and nuts; and Lahmacun, also known as ‘Turkish pizza’ a thin flat bread topped with ground meat – and no cheese surprisingly – from the Southern and Eastern parts of Turkey.
Juicy lamb büryan kebabs were next, served with sides of bulgur pilav, a traditional central Anatolian dish made of bulgur, tomato paste and onions, a few very spicy grilled red and green peppers – which I was challenged to try – topped with tandir baked bread sprinkled with black sesame seeds. We then shared Sur Ocakbaşı’s signature dessert, a soft creamy pudding made with semolina, thick cream, cinnamon and some dried fruits.
The following night we explored a regional cuisine, from the Hatay area, close to the boarder with Syria, with a more Middle Eastern influence in their specialities, at Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası, in Askaray. This family run restaurant is famous for Tuzda Tavuk — salt baked chicken stuffed with rice served on fire. We visited after a long day spent in meetings and a quick last minute visit of the Grand Bazaar. Before we demolished our mains, we ordered some appetisers, humus, muhamarra or acuka – a spicy dip that I tried for the first time when I travelled to Aleppo in Syria ten years ago and my favourite of the trio, made of peppers, walnuts olive oil and pomegranate molasses – and Haydari, a simple yoghurt, garlic and dill mix.
I was tempted by the chicken on fire dish, but then my eye was caught by the kebab menu. I ordered a pistachio, pine nut and cheese kebab served with fragrant grilled vegetables and a very thin crepe like bread – where you can roll it in if you like – and ic pilav – a special Hatay rice made with almonds, cardamom and basil. All washed down by the worst drink I have probably ever tasted, Şalgam, a fermented juice of red carrot pickles, salted, spiced, and flavoured with aromatic turnip and ground bulgur. You can’t always win :).
Dessert was incredible – pistachio künefe – a sort of cheesecake served on fire and one of their specials, honey pastries topped with a rich kaymak, a Turkish version of clotted cream, and crumbled pistachios. I would fly back to Istanbul just for that.
Keep following me for a little adventure around Istanbul street-food