Let’s Talk Turkey
August 29 – September 2
…or rather, anything but. Turkey quickly emerged as a frontrunner for our best meals of the trip, but you won’t find the popular white meat on any menu. Lamb, spices, bread and veggies dominate Istanbul’s culinary landscape, and we weren’t complaining.
I had expected lots of flavors due to what I knew of Istanbul’s famous spice bazaar and the tasty mezes they are known for, but the mere barrage of options blew us away. That being the case, Turkish food clearly earned its right to its own post (for a taste of Istanbul’s inedible offerings, check out Dave’s post here). I’ll highlight a few culinary experiences and mouthfuls as I recall my favorite tastes from our time in this beautiful Bosphorus-side city.
But I must first give credit where credit is due. To the kebab. It’s everywhere, served from the grill, a spinning spit or the oven, and it’s ALWAYS good. Take it from two recently-dedicated experts. However, I also must take a moment to thank Anthony Bourdain for making our acquaintance with the very best of the best. The kebab platter from family run restaurant Sur Ocakbasi in the Fatih neighborhood was everything we wanted it to be and more. Spicy, juicy, and served on a plate the size of a small toddler with toasted flatbread on the side, we left swearing we’d never eat again. Which we didn’t. For 4 hours. Not to be outdone, Dürümzade in Beyoglu found us drooling at the spit for their durum kebabs (EDITOR’S NOTE: That’s right. Even our drool was drooling.). We see you Tony. And we like it.
That said, any notions that THIS is the ONLY food worth visiting Turkey for should be abandoned as you indulge me a stroll down Mouth-Watering Memory Lane.
– As I mentioned, meze is big in this part of the world. Which, roughly translated, pretty sure means, “same plate space, more variety of stuff.” With up to 10 items to try at a meal (which for indecisive diners such as ourselves is a gamechanger), we were never left wanting justonemorething (EDITOR’S NOTE: Objection. Technicality. I never wanted “justonemorething” after these meze plates, but just about every time I wanted justonemoreofeverythingwejustate.). One of our favorite (and accidental) meals was at a tiny nameless (literally) place where the handful of tables are cozied up around the kitchen as the chef prepares your meals upon order.
– Dave was up for August date night and found an incredibly cozy, delicious 5-table, 2-man restaurant in Sultanahmet neighborhood, where we were staying. The man who kept the place running was approximately 100 years old, complete with grandfather tendencies, like making sure we ate while the food was hot and insisting we needed more to eat. The chef, a man full of personality (and seemingly, himself), brought the food from the kitchen to our table, anxious for our applause. We gave it to him. First over the grilled calamari, and next over the cold eggplant salad. As a finale, a full, deboned-at-the-table fish dripping in its juices stared back at us, daring us not to drool. We lost. Following dinner (and a standing ovation), we strolled a few streets over, climbing to the rooftop for stunning views of both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, nursing an overpriced martini. Worth every penny.
– While we didn’t necessarily dine here, we certainly exercised our scent palate at the spice bazaar. With rows and rows of Turkish and Indian spices, we risked the crushing crowds filling the aisles for the chance to check it out.
– Baklava! Need I say more? Okay, fine. Sticky, gooey, flaky baklava. With dozens of variations of this tiny sweet treat that packs a punch, you could piss off Jenny Craig just stepping into a sweetshop anywhere in town.
– I never thought I’d try a Turkish Delight. Despite being in the cubed candy’s namesake, the thought of putting the seemingly-slimy, expensive “candy” in my mouth had always turned me off. But after realizing that they give FREE samples of the damn things everywhere, my standards evaporated. And thank you to the bakery gods that it did. YUM! The trick? Try the newer, honey-based concoctions. A bit firmer (thus losing the slippery look of it’s sugar-based relatives), and infused with pistachio, rose, pomegranate or almonds, the “free sample” plate became a sudden point of interest as we roamed the streets (EDITOR’S NOTE: Best served with a side of guilt after sampling just about every variety without splurging to buy any of the overpriced packs).
– Fish sandwiches, bones and all, are a common sight near the water, as are the fishermen who catch them. Lined up along the Galata Bridge railing, men (and a few women) young and old toss their poles in hoping to catch a meal. Freshly caught, seared on a grill and tossed on a huge chunk of bread and voila! Lunch.
– Turkish coffee. No. Just No. Unless you’re a martyr like myself and “can’t leave without at least TRYING it,” then fine. But get ready for the sludge. Don’t let the cute mug fool you.
– TURKISH BREAKFASTS. If you take one thing from this post, let it be this. Turkish breakfasts are absolutely-freaking brilliant. Olives, cheese, jams, veggies, chocolate, hot pepper pastes, and a loaf of bread to serve as a shovel to your mouth. I haven’t even mentioned THE VERY BEST PART. The heap of clotted cream doused in honey-goodness they call bal-kaymak. If you can ignore the sound of your arteries clogging, you’ll find yourself in a blissful state that would make any yogi jealous.
– Lahmucen, a flatbread topped with minced meat, veggies and herbs is the fast food of Turkey. It’s a quick, spicy snack that, served hot and doused with lemon, can make your afternoon.
– Kumpir stands litter the Ortakoy neighborhood. What is a kumpir you ask? Some exotic Turkish wonder you must run out and try? Not so much. It is a giant stuffed baked potato that provided one evening’s filling, on-the-go dinner as we strolled along the Bosphorus. Disregarding our carb limit warning sirens, we capped the meal with a chocolate and fruit filled waffle.
– …And everything else…like salted cucumber-esque street food, “wet sandwiches” that taste like sloppy joes and are actually extremely tasty PRE-1 am (EDITOR’S NOTE: Nineteen…. err 21-year-old me would have thrown a dozen of these back per weekend. So good.), the weird bagel-like carb, Simit, topped with sesame seeds and sold on every street corner, the national yogurt-based drink, Ayran, whose sour taste made Dave a one-time sipper and black tea, the ever-present beverage that we learned to crave.
We miss you, Istandbul. As do our tastebuds. Write soon.