My mom returned to the U.S. yesterday. The ten days she was here went by in a blink of an eye. Or, rather, in a swallow of the throat. Because that is what we spent a good amount of time doing: chewing and swallowing. Especially when we chose to exchange the traditional sightseeing methods of bus and guided tours of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks for something a bit more intimate and flavorful: a culinary walking tour.
Apparently such tours are nothing new, but just as the little green, guiding parking lights at the mall were such a novelty for me, so, too, was this tour. The culinary tour we chose is run by Istanbul Eats. Istanbul Eats is a website dedicated to discovering and sharing great, but mostly unknown (at least to us ignorant foreigners), eating spots around the city. The website was created by two guys, one from Chicago and the other from New York. Our guide was from San Francisco.
(Which goes to show you how enticing a city is Istanbul. It’s the city where I have met the most number of people who have, after having been seduced by the city via a work or recreational visit, decided to return to it and make it home, if not indefinitely then at least for a long while.)
In any case, Istanbul has many delights, and food is definitely one of them. The day of our tour dawned sunny and was the perfect temperature for walking and eating. We met up at 9:30 in the morning with a fellow “groupie” and our guide. It wasn’t long before we were sitting and chatting comfortably with each other over our first meal of the day. The tour lasted until 3:30PM and in the six hours we toured, we feasted literally and figuratively on the culinary and visual treats of the Beyoğlu area, including:
- At the pudding shop in Cihangir, Özkonak, we dined on fresh bread served with rich, creamy kaymak (the Turkish version of clotted cream) and sweet strawberry jam. This was followed by menemen, a buttery omelet-like dish with tomatoes and peppers, served to us in a piping hot skillet. We took with us to go the famed kazandibi, or “bottom of the cauldron” pudding, to savor at a later point in the day. During our visit, the owner also let us feast our eyes on some of the sweet and savory dishes being prepared in the kitchen.
- At the blink-and-you-miss-it little bakery, Datli Maya – that had the most lovely mosaic-tile-framed oven and, as it turned out, several levels hidden in Mary Poppins carpet-bag style – we devoured delicious almond and pistachio cookies and took a perfectly crusty-on-the-outside-soft-and-buttery-on-the-inside roll to go.
- Our third stop introduced us to a pickle shop that has been around since 1913, Asri Turşucu. A vast and bright array of pickled items filled the shop’s windows. We drank pickle juice and ate mouth-puckering Kelek, unripe melon pickles, as well as pickled beets, stuffed, pickled eggplant, and pickled green beans. Suffice it to say, our roll from Datli Maya was a welcome chaser.
- After the tangy, tart pickles, the cream-filled, rich chocolate-covered French profiterole we inhaled next at a little French pastry shop, İnci Pastanesi, went down too easily (and quickly!).
- By our 5th stop, you might have thought we had eaten enough food, but, no. Not at all. Plus, does soup even count? It should. Because the deep-south-reminiscent flavors of Hayvore’s – a restaurant specializing in Black Sea fare – karalahana corbasi, or kale soup, were divine.
- We ignorantly thought that the soup couldn’t be topped, but then, as we wandered throughout Beyoğlu’s charming fish market – balik pazari – we stopped at Husan’s little fish stand. Here we ate a traditional dish, Hamsi (anchovies), fried whole and served sizzling hot, straight from the oil vat. A bit of squeezed lemon and we were in heaven (again).
- Never underestimate one’s capacity for pleasure because despite stomachs that were starting (ya think?) to get quite, um, satiated, we had no problem devouring every morsel of our standing-ovation-worthy adana kebab. Durumzade was the place that produced such a wonder. I hadn’t really tasted adana kebab until I had theirs: perfectly grilled, spicy minced meat, onions, tomatoes, and parsley, all lovingly wrapped in the best lavaş ever tasted – perfectly crispy and soft at the same time and enhanced by a red pepper, spiced rub. A glass of cool, creamy ayran yoghurt drink topped the meal.
- As we wound our way through the narrow streets with stalls full of bright vegetables and fruit, stores with cow tongue and sheep heads on display, and antiques sitting street side, we paused at one Turkish-style-convenience-like place that also served çiğ köfte. Ciğ köfte means “raw meat patty,” though most versions sold in stores have no meat at all. Rather, they are made of bulgur, lentils, walnuts and spices. You can wrap these little “meatballs’ in bread, but we enjoyed our small, spicy treats on a dual-purposed “saucer” of iceberg.
- After all our savory goodies, we were ready for something sweet. Sakarya Tatlicisi offered just the thing: baklava (there were a dozen variations, but we picked a special green, pistachio-flavored, rolled type and chocolate; both were divine) and another Turkish specialty, ayva tatlisi (candied quince), topped with the ever-delectable, rich and creamy kaymak. Of course, we bought some goodies to take home to share with our families (or, at least, that was our excuse).
- What is better than dessert? The coffee that follows. Especially if it’s a tiny cup of thick, strong, and black-as-coal Turkish coffee. Made without a filter and often accompanied by a glass of water, this straight-to-the-point coffee is often cut with some amount of sugar. One of the master makers of this special coffee is Mandabatmaz, the tiny shop we visited. “Mandabatmaz” means “so thick even a water buffalo wouldn’t sink in it” if that gives you any clue about Turkish coffee. The kazandibi pudding we had brought along with us – reminiscent of bread pudding in terms of being gently sweet but with a sticky, stretchy consistency – complimented our coffee.
(You are probably feeling full just reading this, so I hate to tell you that we stopped one more place and, yes, we ate! In our defense, the tour was over six hours so we were not – quite – the gluttons we appear to be. Plus – adana kebab and kale soup notwithstanding – we normally tasted vs. inhaled. Well, minus the hamsi, too. And the pistachio cookies. And the roll. And and and….
- Our final stop was Sahin Likantasi, a home-style restaurant where local workers go for a hearty, quick and affordable meal. We tasted (cross my heart and hope to die) kuru fasulye (stewed white beans), taze kasulye (stewed green beans), and, my favorite, the oh-so-delicious karniyarik (stuffed eggplant).
And, in between all this fabulous food, of course we absorbed the sights, sounds and smells of the charming area of Beyoğlu.