A food lover’s day trip to Istanbul:
When Giraffe Restaurants asked me to take a short trip to Istanbul to find out more about the food culture there I was both excited and intrigued. And, just a little bit hesitant. Not only do parts of Turkey border on Syria, but the country has experienced its own internal political challenges recently. That said, Istanbul is further from Syria than Athens in the top north-west of the country. And, almost every country has moments of political unrest from time to time. I wanted to see for myself – to find out more about the food of a country I last visited when I was twelve years old – a day trip seemed like the perfect option.
What I hadn’t appreciated was just how large Istanbul was. With the arrogance of someone who has lived in London for over twenty years, I tend to assume that our city is one of the largest in the world. Istanbul, with a land mass of 5,461 sq.km is nearly four times the size and the sixth largest city in the world. And, it’s also more densely populated – 6.4 ‘000/sq km vs London’s 5.4 ‘000/sq km. On the rooftop bar of my hotel, the stunning Vault Karaköy House, I began to get a sense of the place where I’d just arrived. Bisected by the Bosphorus, a wide stretch of water which links the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, it’s a fascinating city which spans two continents (Asia and Europe). My previous visit had been a fleeting one, a stop during a schools cruise. I visited the Blue Mosque and the Cathedral of St Sophia – on the other side of the Bosphorus. I had no idea there was more to see. My guide for the day, Çan from TooIstanbul tours told me that many visitors never went outside the Old City. But we were going to explore the food offering of some of the residential parts of Istanbul – where normal people lived and worked.
First, although it was already lunch time, we went to find breakfast, in the form of Börek. Çan explained that this traditional dish made with filo pastry and a whole range of fillings, can be found all around the Mediterranean. Ours, with a classic feta filling was deliciously moreish with crumbly, salty cheese and the lightest flaky pastry – though matched very well with the meatier Pide, a kind of rolled up pizza with meat and parsley stuffing.
We ate sitting on small stools in an open air tea-house. Turkish tea, çay, comes from the Eastern Black Sea coast, where the mild, rainy climate and fertile soil makes for perfect tea growing conditions. The tea comes, dark and sweet, without milk in small glasses. And, because the tea-houses don’t sell food themselves, they don’t mind if you bring your own to eat. Locals were enjoying the sun, playing backgammon or snacking on street food. I was just trying my best not to eat everything because I knew this was just the start.
Walking through the rambling streets, I was grateful for my guide. There was plenty of food on offer to buy and take home to cook. Local fish, apparently wearing some kind of lipstick, had their mouths forced open to showcase just how fresh they were, fresh vegetables tumble down from shop front displays and every store window has an overwhelming assortment of pickles in giant jars.
We were making our way to see something different being prepared. Can explained that one of the reasons it was special was because the meat is cooked in Turkish cotton oil. The scruffy store has a few seats outside and a few inside and the owner is on hand to cook everything from scratch. I was fascinated, more by the curious pan which was used to make tatuni – which is called a ‘saç’ and has a dip in the middle. Making tatuni involves pushing the meat around the dip in the middle in a mixture of chilli, oil, onions and herbs, then moving it to the outside to drain off and cook a little more. The resulting, fragrant steam got me hungry. Very hungry indeed.
The chef heats a little cotton oil up and gradually draws the meat into the oil, cooking it, then pushing it back out before pulling all the meat back in. A thin lavash bread is placed on top to steam in the juices of the meat before everything is spiced well with sumac and paprika. Then, it’s all wrapped up with thinly sliced red onions, chopped flat leaf parsley and tomatoes and served with an assortment of extras including Turkish rocket, chilli and more tomato. Washed down with a glass of frothy, salty yoghurt drink it was VERY moreish and hard to resist. Especially as Çan had promised me a treat next in the form of a sheep’s intestine dish called Kokoreç.
Actually, as a haggis and black pudding lover, I don’t have any great fear of offal. Kokoreç turned out to be quite mild with the intestines marinated in milk before being skewered in layers wrapped around other offal and served with tomatoes, peppers, oregano and salt in fried pide (pizza) bread.
I can’t say it was my favourite of the street food dishes we tried, but that’s partly because I particularly enjoyed the Mediya Dolma – mussels stuffed with rice, cumin and black pepper which Çan explained was a very popular snack later in the evening. I love mussels and these were deliciously fresh and lemony.
A sneaky stop in one of the top Baklava shops in Istanbul, Kafadaroglu Baklava Borekleri. Walk into the shop and you’ll be wrapped in a blanket of honey-scented air. Of course you have to try something! We had a taste of just two delicious melting, flaky, sticky-sweet pastries. They seemed incredibly light, though I am well aware they were laden with honey and nuts. I’m glad we didn’t spend too long here, it’s the kind of place where you could so easily indulge in a LOT!
Next we went to Nişantaşı Başköşe the restaurant that Çan told me was his ‘Canteen’, walking around Topağacı an upmarket, trendy part of Istanbul to get there. There was a buzz, that kind of hipster feel that you get in Shoreditch or Brixton Market. The place to be seen? Istanbul has a strong ‘dining out’ culture and every street seemed to be lined with bars and restaurants, each full of groups of friends. The idea was to eat a selection of meze here before moving on to one of the seafood restaurants which line the Bosphorus. Avoiding over-indulging was quite a hard call.
We ate delicious stuffed cabbage leaves (lahana sarma), confit artichoke (enginar), an oil and lemon preserved artichoke heart that was tender and flavourful, aubergine caviar called patlican ezmesi, which is simply a puree of charred aubergine with lemon and olive oil and a variety of barbecue meats – Adana kebab – ground beef, lamb and lambs tail with salt, parsley and red pepper flakes on a skewer and Çöp Sis – small pieces of beef marinated with olive oil and cooked on skewers.
And we drank the local Raki, a delicious and refreshing alcoholic drink a little like ouzo without the strong aniseed notes.
Then, into a taxi to make our way to the banks of the Bosphorus, to Arnavutköy Balıkçısı, where we were to indulge in a little fish. And a large helping of local salads to start.
Çan ordered two types of sea bass – cooked in a pesto sauce and a raw fish dish, with the sea bass marinated in mustard. I particularly liked this, a creamier and more piquant dish than a ceviche but still a show case for ultra-fresh fish.
Next up, Karides Güveç – a dish of prawns baked with mushrooms, peppers, garlic, oegano and pepper flakes and topped with cheese.
Finally Balık Kokoreç, a fish version of the street food we’d eaten earlier in the day which was like a kind of fish stew with red peppers and tomato.
I actually rounded the meal off with a proper Turkish coffee – and suprised myself by enjoying it a lot. Then a short walk along the Bosphorus to look at the stunning wooden houses and to work off just a little of the day’s feast. Fishing along the Bosphorus is both for relaxation and for food and the banks were scattered with older men, perched on their stools, waiting patiently to catch their supper…
It was a splendid introduction to Turkish cuisine – but what else would you expect from a half French guide who understands so well the value of fresh ingredients and unique local spices.
With many thanks to Çan from TooIstanbul for such a wealth of information about Istanbul. I will simply have to go back! I’ll be writing a short review of the stunning Vault Karaköy House Hotel, which is part of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, it’s the kind of place I love to stay in when I am travelling and I am only sad that I wasn’t able to stay for longer.
Or maybe – just maybe – some of the fabulous food I tried will be on the new Giraffe menu. Looking forward to reviewing that in the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, why not pin this post for later