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Wine & Dine
June 16, 2015

Why Istanbul Is Every Foodie’s Paradise

Text by Shirin Mehta

Traversing the lanes of Istanbul is a culinary journey in itself as Ottoman Empire delicacies — inspired by the cuisine of the Sultans — find themselves on street carts and stalls awaiting locals and tourists. Verve enjoys a myriad tastes and aromas and dreams of returning to the city of historic flavours

The streets of the world’s only metropolitan city that is situated on both Asia and Europe, at the place where the continents collide, beckon with colourful carts, flaming barbeque fires and tantalising aromas. Nothing had prepared me for the amazing flavours that line and roam the lanes of Istanbul. Ancient mosques and palaces, churches, hammams and bazaars, yes! This array for the taste buds? Not really!

An evening stroll from the Four Seasons Hotel, at the Bosphorus, takes us into Ortakoy, a bustling area which has the air of a village within the city. It is Friday and we have been advised against risking a car on this heavy-traffic night. The lanes are crowded with Istanbulites and visitors browsing in stores filled with amazing merchandise ranging from wood-framed spectacles to an array of leather goods, pottery, plates, shoes, boots…. More interesting than the shops, however, are the food stalls that we stumble upon. Street food vendors beckon even as we walk past, trying hard to choose from the variety that has come down from the time of the Ottoman Empire, which having spread from Italy to Persia, had access to and covered a diverse range of cuisines.

First off is the row of kumpir sellers, each one trying to attract attention with the display. The kumpir is the ultimate baked potato topped with a choice of myriad stuffings – kasar cheese, sosis, corn, mayonnaise salad, peas, carrots, the possibilities are endless. The potato is enormously luscious and there are rows of people awaiting their delicious serving. We walk on and stumble upon a tray placed on a stand by the side of the lane. Manned by a young boy, it is laden with neatly-arranged rows of mussel shells. The midye dolma, I discover, is deceptive. Pried open, the shell reveals not a mussel but a glob of rice mixed with mussel and spice and this is topped up with a squeeze of lemon juice. The unexpected texture and flavour makes me gag for a moment after which I start to enjoy the snack. In pani puri fashion, the stall keeper will continue opening and handing out shells, until you ask him to stop. By then, you may have overindulged and may land up paying a hefty sum for what seemed like some cheap fare.

Even as I gulp down the last of the rice, my attention wanders to another young man dressed up in traditional clothes of red and gold. He wields a stick and cries out for attention. This is the ice cream vendor who entertains with his tomfoolery with twists and turns of his stick with the laden ice cream cone attached to the end. Even as you reach for what is rightfully yours, he casts it aside with a swing, pretending that it has fallen to the ground. He makes you bend for it, jump for it, keeping it always out of reach. Finally, with a smile, he hands over the dondurma, just when the stomach starts to protest the delay. As it turns out, the performance proves to be better than the pistachio flavour and the texture somewhat unusual, but there is no denying the fun of it!

That afternoon at a marvellous lunch terminated by the most amazing desserts at the Four Seasons Bosphorus, director of public relations, Sibel Benli tells us of the balik ekmek or fish sandwich that can be bought freshly cooked off the boats right on the Bosphorus, on the Eminonu side of Galata bridge. Balik ekmek boats serve mainly mackerel fillets, char grilled and placed in bread with salad and raw onions. This is a favourite late-night snack but due to the constraints of time, I do not get to taste this Istanbul classic. However, walking further down through the streets of Ortakoy, we now pass by large ‘barbecues’ with horizontal spits roasting over charcoal, what turns out to be spiced and skewered sheep’s intestines filled with offal. The kokorec is served chopped up and stuffed into a loaf of white bread with plenty of grease and salt to go with it. This is a meal that goes better after a couple of drinks. With no appetite left for the evening, I mark this down for another time.

The next morning, at the magnificent buffet at the Four Seasons, laden with an array of local cheeses, fruits, breads and pickled fish and meat preparations, I do as the Istanbulites do and eat pieces of bread laden with dollops of the freshest cream and honey. I particularly go for the borek which can also be bought at roadside stalls. This is flaky pastry stuffed with a variety from spinach and cheese to minced meat or potato. I love the layers that seem to peel off effortlessly, making the pastry infinitely light. I am now ready for an afternoon spent at Old Istanbul’s Sultanahmet area where one can get lost in admiration of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace, the city’s main and must-see sightseeing experiences.

But first, a look-in at the snack shops or bufes that line up for the pleasure of locals and tourists alike. You cannot miss the simit cart, painted red and cheerful with its wares on display through a glass front. The simit looks like the American bagel but it seems it has a history dating back to the 1500s. This freshly-baked, molasses-dipped, sesame-encrusted dough makes for a great breakfast-on-the-go or evening snack. Displayed along with the Simit, may be a choice of acma, buttered dough pastry covered with caraway seeds. As we leave the simit stall, we notice a vendor with a tray partitioned into a variety of colours. An enquiry reveals this to be the popular Turkish street taffy offered in blazing red, orange and green. Ignoring the candy we walk to the stall that freshly squeezes pomegranate juice into cool thirst-quenching glasses. Even as we polish off the sweet-sour liquid, we notice the vendor dashing off with his wares, as a policeman approaches. The nearby sahlep cart with its hot samovar of the creamy-sweet beverage, seen only on cold days, also vanishes from sight.

Lunch of course has to be the famous doner kebap, a delicacy that has discovered itself being offered all over the world. The doner consists of tightly packed meat roasted on a large vertical spit (unlike the horizontal spit of the kokorec), and forms the basis of many fast food snacks or even a plated meal. These half-outside/half-inside eateries dot the streetscape, especially in the Sultanahmet and Taksim areas as also near the 500-year-old Grand Bazaar and Spice Market. I indulge in a version that is doused with sauce and served with French fries and discover it to be delicious. Especially with a cup of chilled ayran, an ubiquitous drink similar to chaas. However, questioning our guide Irfan, we discover that this is always salty and never sweet as in lassi. Bottles of ayran, we discover, go very well with street food.

Even as we down the doner, we notice that the Turkish kebap is also being served, coupled with helpings of rice or French fries. Kebap are basically small pieces of broiled or roasted meat. These are totally delicious and, straying away from fast food to the five star version, I eat the best melt-in-the-mouth version of the kebap at the restaurant, Seasons, at the Four Seasons Sultanahmet, which serves traditional food with an interesting contemporary twist. So good is it that it discovers itself proudly misplaced in this feature on street offerings!

It is now 10 p.m. and we are being swept along with the crowds, this cool autumn evening, along Istiklal Caddesi, a broad pedestrian thoroughfare lined with shops and restaurants. People are bustling along, popping into stores that show no signs of shutting; all of Istanbul seems to be here, enjoying the good weather and each other. We explore away from the main street, ducking into one of the side lanes, lined with quaint little restaurants and bars spilling onto the pavements. The aroma of freshly popping corn assails my nostrils even as a man drives his popcorn wagon through the tables studded with beer drinkers. Another young seller pushes through, his tray heaped with candied cashew nuts, a perfect accompaniment for the drinking populance. A sweet and heavy smell pervades, from hookahs and aromatic cigarettes. As we make our way back to the main avenue, we view shops heavy with baklavas and Turkish delight, dry fruit and exotic-looking sweets. Street vendors are crying out their wares, misir or freshly broiled or grilled corn on the cob sprinkled with salt and spices, or kestane, chestnuts baking on a hot plate (candied chestnuts are called kestane sekeri). And as the throngs surround these delicacies, in the midst of all the merriment and gaiety of the evening, a tram car lit up with faery lights blows a loud warning signal and trundles through, as the crowds carelessly make way clutching on to their misir and still-warm kestane kebap.

LOUNGE SNACKS

If you have missed out on Istanbul’s amazing street cuisine, you could catch up on some of it, as a Business Class traveller, in the Turkish Airlines CIP Lounge at Istanbul Ataturk Airport’s International Departures. The lounge has added 2,400 m to its existing 3,500 m with a capacity of 1030 guests at a time. A spiral staircase connects two sections of this wonderful space. Besides numerous facilities like free Wi-Fi, printers and computers, range of local and international newspapers, library, showers, massage rooms, children’s playroom and a wandering masseur who removes the kinks from your shoulders, the live food counters are scattered all over the vast space. Have your fill of lahmacun or Turkish pizza, thin dough topped with minced meat sprinkled with parsley and squirt of lemon juice, rolled into a wrap. Or a selection of hot kebaps, Turkish pide or borek, together with a selection of salads, Turkish ravioli and the ubiquitous bagel.

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