My second culinary walk in Istanbul was ‘Born on the Bosphorus: Exploring three distinct waterside neighborhoods’ with Ipek, the walk leader, an American couple, an Australian couple and a Japanese American solo traveler.
I had no idea where the meeting place for the walk was located and was assisted by Leo, the Concierge / Front office staff at Hotel Miniature, where I was staying during my trip. The Sultanahmet tram stop was a 2 minute walk (or less) down the road from my hotel and I took the tram to the end of the line at Kabataş.
Leo had recommended taking a taxi to the Naval museum as it would only cost 10-15 Turkish lira from the tram stop. However, an encounter with a taxi driver who didn’t understand English changed my mind, and I took a brisk walk down the seafront road to the museum. It only took about 15 minutes at the most.
After meeting Ipek and the other members of the walk who had arrived at the museum, we proceeded into Beşiktaş for a pre-breakfast appetizer of meat, cheese and potato borek at Kafadaroglu borekci. At this place the early bird catches the worm as they are often sold out by midday.
We walked through the Beşiktaş neighborhood and gravitated to a narrow street where the simple restaurants serve Turkish breakfast all day. Our feast consisted of scrambled eggs with cheese or socuk and mixed peppers; sheep’s and goat’s cheeses; kaymak (clotted cream) with honey; olives; sliced tomato and cucumber salad; sour cherry jam; grape molasses with tahini; Turkish bread and tea.
After breakfast we visited the Beşiktaş fish market where they also had a variety of local vegetables; had a chat about Turkish anti-government protests in the past few years that centered around Taksim and a small square in Beşiktaş now overlooked by a giant election poster of the opposition candidate; and a lesson in Raki drinking etiquette and customs.
After a visit to the mosque named after famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, we took a ferry ride across the Bosphorus and spent much time in open markets and surrounding shops in Üsküdar tasting the traditional honey, sweets, nuts, fresh fruit and pickled vegetables, cheese, fish and meat. Ipek, the walk leader, was very animated and engaging and well loved by all the vendors.
The first stop in Üsküdar was the honey vendor from Eastern Turkey, and Ipek, the walk leader, mentioned later that he refuses to charge her for any of the honey consumed during her tours. We tasted wildflower honey, chestnut honey and a queen bee honey mixed with ginger and other good stuff. A few meters further down we had some tasty cheese and olives.
The area after the Mihrimah Sultan mosque was a series of covered markets. Our next stop was at a dried fruit and sweet shop with a neon sign screaming Kalite Kuruyemiş. We tasted nuts and dried fruits including dried Malatya apricots without sulphur. The color was almost black but the taste was sweet as honey.
On the way to our next stop we passed by shop after shop of dried fruits, nuts and herbs and one that caught my eye had strings of dried peppers, aubergine and baby okra. I had tasted soup made with baby okra the day before and would be cooking with the rehydrated dried aubergine the following day.
Further on we stopped at the store of a third generation candy maker. I finally knew what the saying ‘like a kid in a candy shop’ meant. Tall glass candy jars filled with every type of boiled candy imaginable, and trays of soft turkish sweets in all colors and flavors.
We stopped by Kardesler Sarkuteri, a local charcuterie shop, for a taste of homemade pastirma (pastrami). The long lengths are backstrap and the oval shapes are butt cheeks encased in a spicy paste containing tomato paste, garlic and other herbs and spices and pressed to compact it during curing. This was a welcome respite from all the sweets we had consumed thus far.
He also sold fresh phyllo sheets every day. They are unlike the rectangular ones available in supermarkets in rest of the world. These are the size of a huge round tray (the pan they are baked in) and they come in different thicknesses depending on the use.
We followed the pastirma with salty and sour pickles at another nearby shop. I had come to realize by this time that there is not much that the Turks don’t pickle or preserve thanks to the ancient nomadic and seasonal lifestyle of their ancestors. The pickle shop did not disappoint and we tasted pickled beetroot, unripe plums , unripe melon and green tomatoes.
The neighborhood had lovely parks, squares and open areas where retired men and women spent the morning together. We passed through a converted Ottoman era hamam that was now used as a retail clothing hub.
On the walk to the Butcher section of the market we passed by many fresh fruit and vegetable stalls with the most beautiful selection of seasonal local and imported produce. The colors seemed brighter than I recall from my local supermarket and I found myself compelled to capture them all. I hope you like them as much as I do. I can assure you that the taste of the fruits are as vibrant and fresh as their colors.
We stopped at a small confectionery shop on the way to Butcher street for some Turkish glaced fruits and hot and cold beverages. The fruits reminded me of the glaced fruits and preserves that were served at Cape Malay wedding reception dinners when I was young. It seems to be another one of our traditions that is slowly but surely dying out.
By this time everyone was feeling giddy with all the sugar consumed and we were craving something salty. So onward we traipsed to Butcher street with counters full of offal (tripe, trotters, liver, kidneys, tails and hearts of oxen and sheep). You have to see this to believe it, as I have never heard of it sold anywhere else for normal household consumption than in South Africa.
Our next treat was slow roasted sheep head, expertly sliced and diced with surgical precision by the butcher. The sheep heads are roasted on a low heat for hours once a week only. They sell like out quickly and should ideally be pre-ordered. I had never tasted sheep head before but found the cheeks delicious and the flesh of the eye socket meltingly tender (we knew this from Andrew Zimmern on the Bizarre foods Travel channel series). I tasted a bit of the brain and that was creamy and not what I expected.
Our next stop was at a small seafood restaurant called Balikci Barinaği serving simple and tasty dishes of deep fried sardines coated in semolina served with rocket salad and fat tasty mussels stuffed with rice and spices.
Our last meal in Üsküdar was at Cafe Menesse, a restaurant specializing in Black Sea cuisine, where we were treated to Mihlama (a butter Turkish take on cheese fondue) served with fresh home made cornbread and meatballs. The restaurant was small and homestyle with seating for at most 16 customers. The smell of the roux while she was preparing the fondue was so buttery and nutty and the taste of the Mihlama was cheesy, stringy and delicious. It went well with the cornbread and meatballs.
The last of the three neighborhoods on our tour was Kuzguncuk, a charming residential neighborhood that is attempting to recapture the multicultural spirit of it’s earlier years. To get there we boarded a bus and took a ride a few minutes down the road. We passed family bakeries, pharmacies, community gardens as well as countless feeding stations for the stray cats and dogs. I have never seen any city where the people are so concerned for stray animals that they put out food and water daily and even build houses for them on the sidewalk.
Our last meal of the day was fish soup at a neighborhood cafe. Thereafter Ipek took us back down to the ferry station at Üsküdar with directions on how to get back to Sirkeci by the Marmaray line undersea metro.