I am absolutely delighted to tell you all that I did not write this post! The one, the only Victoria Rittinger is my first guest author! She and I participated in this crazy, supposed-to-be 6-but-turned-into-7 hour food tour. As she has such great food knowledge, and an eye for food photography, I asked her if she would be willing to write a recap of this amazing day we shared. Luckily, she agreed, wrote a great post, and provided her photography (and has not even sent me a bill!). We had so much fun, laughed a lot, and created great memories. Enjoy!
I think I could spend years eating in Istanbul and never fully explore all of the variety that comes from it being at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Jessica had just moved here a few days before, I only had a couple of extra days before departing, so we decided we both needed a professional exploration to at least begin to scratch the surface. We joined up with the folks at Istanbul Eats to break away from the mold of the typical tourist chow that involves plenty of familiar hummus and dolmas and döner kebap. Off we go!
Behind the steam table
First breakfast: Özkonak, a typical working-class breakfast & lunch steam-table joint, cooking mama’s comfort food. It’s really not that different from a good American diner breakfast. The role of eggs is played by menemen, a scramble of tomatoes, peppers & eggs (served here with a runny yolk on top). The role of bacon is played by suçuk, sliced spicy sausages. Instead of a fruit cup there’s sliced tomatoes and cucumbers with salty feta cheese (beyaz peynir). There’s soft sliced bread, and instead of topping it with butter you use the greatest gift Turkey has given the world: kaymak. Kaymak is an incredibly rich and smooth clotted cream that you eat for breakfast with either honey or the amazing homemade jams that every restaurant seems to make in abundance (at Özkonak it’s a delicate rose jam).
Second breakfast: Özçağdaş Börek Salonu, more of a grab & go pastry place where you might find lahmacun pastry with cheese, tomato & minced meat or a simple round ring-shaped simit bread topped with sesame seeds. But the real deal here are the various types of börek pastry, all starting with the same paper-thin rolled sheets of yufka dough (very similar to phyllo). At top is the standard börek, which can be stuffed with feta, spinach, or minced meat (or all three!) and baked crispy. At right is su börek where the pastry sheets are soaked in water, making it rather lasagna-noodle-like, then layered with cheese and baked. At left is sade börek where the pastry sheets are soaked in sugar syrup, baked, and the whole thing is topped in powdered sugar. The yufka dough makes a lot of appearances in Turkish cuisine in a variety of forms. It’s used in the “Turkish pancake” dish gözleme,
where it is wrapped flat like a crepe around a huge variety of fillings, from the typical feta/spinach to minced meats, even to sweet ones like banana and honey. It’s cooked in a tandir oven that sounds suspiciously like the Indian tandoor (and probably the inspiration for the oven, if not the dish). To further the Indian connection, gözleme can often be accompanied by a frothy salted yogurt drink called ayran that isn’t too dissimilar from a salted lassi.
Additionally, one of my favorite Turkish desserts, kűnefe, has the same yufka dough, but is shredded super-finely and sandwiched around a layer of cheese, then cooked until crispy all around and soaked in sugar syrup and sprinkled with pistachios. Gooey cheese surrounded by sugary crispy pastry? Yes, please. Back to the tour. We were now on to “snack stops”, with the first at Asri Turşucu, which has probably every type of pickled product known to man, using primarily salt & lemon juice for the pickling agents. They even serve a couple of varieties of colorful salty pickle juice drinks that will set your mouth a-pucker.
We drank pickle juice. And discussed the merits of adding vodka, with fabulous guide Angelis.
Another snack stop found us walking through the market streets with their heaps of fresh fish. The proprietor of Vera Kokoreç makes good use of them, parking himself next door to the fishmongers and frying up heaps of sardines served with a pungent and creamy garlic puree. The flaky sardines are enclosed in a crisp semolina-like crust and a perfect snack for fueling your market shopping. There’s also a bar district close by, and where there are bars, there are snack shops with hangover foods. The Turks take a different view than we do, believing the best medicine is to slurp down bowls of işkembe çorbasi. Tarihi Cumhuriyet serves the tripe-broth soup with garlic puree and lemon juice, along with dried red pepper sprinkled on top. It looks innocent, but is extremely pungent and earthy. While we tried it, none of us actually finished the thing (but so proud of Jessica for even trying a spoonful!). The Turks can have this one.
Tripe soup. Blech.
Editor’s note: Jessica tried two spoonfuls, after Victoria said it was much better with bread. Foul, foul, lies. We needed a sweet snack shop to offset the lingering tripe flavor, and got a real treat at Sakarya Tatlicisi. They make a delicious ekmek, bread soaked in sugar syrup and baked, then topped with the delicious kaymak to “cut the sweetness”. They’ve also got ayva tatlisi which is a sugar-poached quince, also topped with kaymak – but it really pales in comparison to the sumptuous ekmek.
Sugared-up and in need of caffeine, our next stop was naturally at Mandabatmaz for Turkish coffee. The name implies that a water buffalo can walk on top of the coffee without sinking, so that gives a clue as to the potency of the Turkish coffee served here. It’s so thick it’s almost chocolate-y. The proprietor has been making coffee for almost 50 years, and is undoubtedly one of the coolest guys in Istanbul.
The real Mr. Coffee.
We fortuitously brought along a snack to have with our coffee, from our first stop at Özkonak, where they make an Ottoman dessert called tavuk göğsü which is… chicken milk pudding. It tastes like a thick creamy pudding, but on closer examination you see thin shreds of chicken breast meat, which are added for body and consistency. During Ottoman times it was probably considered a luxury to fritter away valuable protein on a pudding dish. Enough with the snacks, let’s get to lunch! First lunch: Ficcin restaurant specializing in Circassian cuisine (from the Caucaus mountains), for ficcin dumplings. They’re are stuffed
Colorful and delicious.
with minced meat and topped with a simple yogurt sauce. At first they’re a little boring, but then we realized the dumplings are served with bowls of mint, sumac, and red pepper to doctor them up. Condiments: not just for decoration. Second lunch: another steam-table lunch joint, Şahin Lokantasi for a dizzying array of small plates, including ezogelin, where the simplicity of the bulgur-lentil base is utterly comforting; Arnavut ciğeri fried peppery cubes of earthy beef livers; a hearty beef stew called kavurma; tender kofte meatballs stewed with vegetables; and my favorite, karnıyarık, baked eggplant topped with minced meat (similar to the famous imam bayildi dish which has vegetables instead of meat).
Second lunch also involved some tasty desserts, again heavily involving sugar syrup. (Noticing the sugar-soaked theme of Turkish desserts yet?). There’s the traditional sütlaç rice pudding with a caramelized top, semolina cookies soaked in sugar syrup, and finally kadayif with the shredded yufka which is layered with pistachios & covered in sugar syrup, similar to the popular Turkish baklava.
Second lunch goodness.
My favorite part of the lunch is the pride and seriousness with which the employees served and discussed the food. When asked to take a photo, the whole kitchen staff came out to pose and smile, and when asked about how a dish was made, the waiter launched into an animated 10 minute discussion to ensure that we completely understood.
Famous Turkish hospitality.
Third (and last) lunch: Akderiz Kokoreç for their delicious kokoreç sandwiches, served fast food style, and definitely worth a break
Intestines, in a pretty package.
away from the ubiquitious döner kebap sandwiches that all of the tourists eat. Kokoreç is made by wrapping skewered seasoned sweetbreads with lamb intestines, grilling it rotisserie-style, then chopping it up with peppers and tomatoes and tucking into a soft baguette. Heavenly and a totally worthy conclusion to our tour. While our tour was a fantastic exploration of the variety of foods in Istanbul, there was one Turkish meal that was even better: two friends sharing a last pide (Turkish pizza) and an Efes beer before saying farewell. Şerefe (cheers)!