It’s dusk in Istanbul. Men and women line the bridges and drop fishing lines into the waters of the Golden Horn. Small makeshift cookers serve grilled fish to passers-by and mobile stalls sell deep-fried, sticky-sweet lokma (doughnuts) to those heading home from the mosque.
In the rooftop bar where we’re seated, the north wind is threatening to whip the rows of bottles over the glass wall. From the top floor of the Marmara Pera Hotel in the “new city”, the sun’s sinking beyond the edge of the city, while a dark blue sky grows in the east. Strings of lights, like burning beads, illuminate the Galata and Attaturk Bridges and the prayer calls of the muezzins rise up over the sweeping wind.
On the Bosphorus Strait, the inky-black waterway which separates Europe from Asia, dark vessels cut through the choppy swells. Down below, the city’s alive with the smell of grilling fish and roasting corn.
“The identity of a region, the life and personality of its people, are reflected through their food,” says celebrity chef Mehmet Gürs. He’s doing delectable things with traditional Turkish ingredients at his Mikla restaurant on the top floor of the Marmara Pera Hotel: meat from curly-haired Karayaka lambs, eggplant, sumac, tarhana and spices such as cumin. He uses long-forgotten techniques learnt from traditional farmers to create wonders such as braised lamb cooked in tail fat and cinnamon served with an apricot purée, as well as a variation on balik ekmek (traditional simple fish-bread): sardines encased in a square of paper-thin batter, served wedged in a pebble.
Musa Dağdeviren, chef of the Ciya restaurants, adds more traditional Turkish ingredients to the world’s menu: pomegranate molasses, red pepper paste, sun-dried tomato paste, almonds and hazelnuts, as well as heaps of spices and grains such as bulgur and green wheat.
Turkish ingredients travel well, as was discovered during the wars and missions of the Ottoman Empire, when a wealth of foodstuffs were gathered and distributed to soldiers. The army also spread the country’s traditional dishes to the regions it invaded.
Constantinople, as Istanbul was known during the Ottoman regime, was the seat of the vast empire stretching from Hungary in the west and Egypt in the south to Russia in the north. It was during these military expansions that many new ingredients (together with a number of attractive, young female slaves) were brought to the Topkapi Palace. Here, “Ottoman cuisine” was refined. Staples such as yoghurt, phyllo pastry, breads, offal, kebabs, manti (pasta shapes filled with minced meat) and stuffed delicacies – from vine leaves to unripe melons – all originated in the test kitchens of the sultan.
However, visitors to Istanbul needn’t dine at the palace to sample these treats. There’s indeed a difference between traditional home-cooked and fast or street food, but the best way to experience Turkish cuisine is by eating where the locals do.
For a quick bite, try grilled corn, roasted chestnuts or simit (a sesame-crusted bagel) at a food stall. For an early-evening snack, grab a plastic chair on the “old city” side of the Galata Bridge. Here locals sit round knee-high plastic tables and fill up on balik ekmek. Add salt or lemon juice from industrial-sized containers or sample pickled ginger and cucumber from a plastic cup. Not elegant, but an authentic taste of Istanbul culture. Döner are ubiquitous: huge, vertical rotating spires of beef, lamb or chicken. Slivers of meat are carved and served in a pita with salads and yoghurt or on a bed of rice.
FOR THE SWEET-TOOTHED
Buy huge plump figs, a pistachio-flavoured ice-cream or freshly squeezed pomegranate or orange juice when you crave something sweet. Talking about fruit, it features extensively in the Turkish diet. Watermelons, plums, apples, pears, grapes and apricots (fresh or dried) are eaten at breakfast, while currants and raisins are used in dolma (stuffed vegetables) and pilaffs.
Bazaars and markets are the best places to get a real taste of Turkish sweets. The perception of “Turkish Delight” (lokum) as overly-sweet, gelatinous lumps of rosewater covered in chocolate is fantastically altered with the gems found in Istanbul. Kiwi fruit- or saffron-flavoured, cranberry and pomegranate-studded, pistachio-crusted blocks of heaven are displayed like jewels; stall-owners will let you taste, but often expect a purchase.
For dessert, choose from sweet olives in tahini, green walnuts, rice pudding or baklava – honey-dripping, crispy layers of phyllo pastry with nuts is a sugar overload. Serbets (fruit cordials) often accompany meals.
Kazandibi is a traditional Turkish dessert made from caramelised milk and chicken breast. Try it at Yanyali: this restaurant is over a century old and originally employed a Topkapi Palace chef. The tiny neighbourhood lokantasi of Özkonak, near the Cihangir Mosque in the “new city”, serves an equally good one as well as decent manti in a cafeteria-like setting.
For real home-style cooking, head to Kadiköy. This neighbourhood lies across the Bosphorus on the Asian side, just 20 minutes away by ferry. Ordinary Turks live, eat and shop here, selecting fragrant, blood-red tomatoes, deep purple aubergines, lettuce and onions. Fish stalls glimmer with scales and aquatic species from prawns to crabs and anchovies the size of a man’s hand. Delicatessens sell varieties of honeycomb still packed in tree trunks, olives, meze, cheese and meats. Kadiköy is a veritable stew of colours and flavours.
One of the best spots to taste authentic Turkish home-style cooking is at Ciya Sofrasi in the fish market district. For a variety of flavours, order four or five tasting portions: sour stew with pearl onions, bread, lamb and beef mince balls and pomegranate sauce, a stew with cucumber, chickpeas and delectable morsels of lamb cooked in a yogurt sauce or deep-fried battered meatballs in a bulgur and tomato sauce. Finish off your meal with the restaurant’s delicious, pale red slivers of candied tomato with cream cheese.
THE GREAT KEBAB
Turkey has over 40 styles of kebabs, mainly region-specific and broadly divided into two styles: one made with minced meat and the other with blocks of grilled meat or vegetables, explains Ibrahim Acarca of Ciya Kebab, the sister restaurant of Ciya Sofrasi just over the road. Adana and urfa are made of mince, lamb tail fat and bulgur. Adana is e spicier and flavoured with dried red chilli (pul biber).
Ciya’s meat kebabs menu changes weekly. Typically, it will include mind-blowing options like lamb with pistachio, veal sirloin, aubergine (when in season) and roasted tomatoes grown on its farm.
Here, pide and lahmacum (thin, pizza-like breads topped with a spicy mince mix, spinach or cheese) are served directly from a wood-fired oven. Add your own herbs, such as flat-leafed parsley, and wash it down with an ice-cold Efes or Bomonti beer.
Beer isn’t served in all restaurants, particularly those close to mosques. Instead, coffee would be patrons’ beverage of choice. Just ensure you ask for “Turkish” coffee, or you might be served a weak, powdery broth. Drink it straight up or try it with a mastic-flavoured lokum.
Istanbul’s food – as representative of the entire country’s cuisine – doesn’t lean heavily on Western influences. It doesn’t need to: it’s replete with its own, inimitable, mouthwatering dishes. The Ottoman Empire is alive and once again conquering the world with its ingredients – rediscovered or long-used – and we can’t imagine who’d object to that invasion!
WHERE TO STAY
Marmara Guesthouse: Akbiyik cad, Terbiyik Sok No 15, Sultanahmet. This is a simple, family-run establishment within walking distance of Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque. Huge, home-cooked breakfasts are served on the roof terrace overlooking the Bosphorus Strait.
The Four Seasons: Tevkifhane Sok No 1, Sultanahmet, Fatih. This is around the corner from the Marmara Guesthouse and is ideal for travellers seeking luxurious lodgings.
Portus House: Mumhane Cad No 31, 34425 Karaköy. This modern and quirky hotel is excellently located near the Galata Bridge and boutique restaurants in the “new city”.
WHERE TO EAT
Ciya Kebabi: Caferağa, 34710 Kadıköy.
Ciya Sofrasi: Caferaga Mah, Güneslibahce Sk No 43, Kadiköy
Mikla: Meşrutiyet Caddesi 15 34430, Beyoğlu
Özkonak: Kılıçali Paşa, 34433 Beyoğlu, +90 212 249 1307
Yanyali: Osmanağa Mah, Yağlıkçı İsmail Sok No 1, Kadıköy