I was watching an episode of Shane Delia’s ‘Spice Journey – Turkey’ series on the Travel Channel one night late in 2014, and every time he tried a new dish in an urban eatery or rural village home, I would think ‘but I’ve never seen that’.
And so it was that after a few episodes I decided that Turkey was worth at least one more visit, since I had not tasted anything on my previous trips that was even remotely memorable or noteworthy, and had all but written off Turkish cuisine as bland and mostly unpalatable, except for the baklava and Turkish delight.
Six months later I found myself on my way to Istanbul. By the time I left Dubai I had already booked two culinary walks and a cooking class with Culinary Backstreets LLC and was excited about eating real Turkish food.
I stayed at the Hotel Miniature and you can find my review here.
During my first culinary backstreets tour to Istanbul I embarked on two days of walking tours with Culinary Backstreets Istanbul and a walk and cooking class with Cookistan Turkish Cooking classes. The walks and cooking class were amazing and I saw and learnt more about Turkish produce and food culture in those three days than I did on all my previous visits to Istanbul. Gone was the bland overcooked tourist fodder…
I realized on my way down to the Sirkeci station one morning that I love Istanbul and keep going back because the combination of blue skies, mountains and sea remind me of my hometown, Cape Town. Now I may go back because my recent trip opened my eyes and tastebuds to the delicious flavors and textures of fresh produce and ingredients cooked in traditional Turkish methods.
The first walk was the Culinary Backstreets of the Bazaar Quarter with walk leader Ugur ‘Adam’ Ildiz, and it started at the Sirkeci train station with an authentic Turkish breakfast. We went on to explore an Ottoman era han (trader inn) around the Grand Bazaar, where craftsmen still ply their traditional metal smith trades in tiny workshops.
At each stop along the way we were offered delectable tidbits including freshly baked borek; Konya wedding soup made with dried baby okra; refreshing freshly squeezed fruit juice of mulberries, banana and apple; freshly baked pide eaten on the rooftops overlooking the Bosphorus; perfectly sweet and crunchy kadayif served with Turkish coffee; elegantly spiced kebabs and a selection of mezzes in a two stage lunch; and lastly dessert of Tırlıçe (milk soaked cake) followed by Turkish tea.
The second walk was the Born on the Bosphorus: Exploring Three Distinct Waterside Neighborhoods with walk leader Ipek, and started at the Naval Museum in Besiktas before moving on to the neighborhood streets with breakfast salons serving breakfast all day long.
Our first meal was an authentic Turkish breakfast after which we explored the fish market, and had a short introductory lesson on Raki drinking etiquette and customs, sans the Raki.
After a short ferry ride across the Bosphorus to the Asian side we spent much time immersed in Üsküdar’s traditional food culture and covered markets and surrounding shops tasting 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 walk ended in the residential neighborhood of Kuzguncuk where Jews, Christians and Muslims lived side by side in days gone by. We visited a small neighborhood restaurant for a final meal of fish soup and Turkish tea.
The final leg of my culinary tour was the Shop, Cook, Feast: A Hands-On Istanbul Culinary Adventure in the Kurtuluş neighborhood, with the very knowledgeable and helpful chef Iris.
The meeting place at the Ramada Plaza, opposite the Osmanbey metro station, is one stop away from Taksim. We started with a walk through the neighborhood that had once been home to religious minority groups during the Ottoman empire and still maintained it’s soul. We visited a bakery for morning tea goodies, a bountiful deli, tandir bread baker, a butcher, a spice and herb shop and an artichoke specialist shop along the walk to the class venue.
After a leisurely ‘getting to know you session’ with the rest of the group, drinking tea and eating cookies and simit, we commenced our 6 course cooking class. On the menu was Sulemaniye soup, bulgur salad, Circassian chicken, borecik, stuffed dried eggplants, courgette and vine leaves and lastly pumpkin dessert.
By end of my trip I felt exhilarated, albeit a bit exhausted, and in my mind’s eye I was already wondering about my next culinary excursion abroad. Would I return to Istanbul to further expand my knowledge and experience of Turkish cooking, or will I find somewhere else to tantalise my tastebuds?
After writing this blog post I was looking for the origins of Kayseri cheese online and found this website of the Turkish Cultural Foundation with a detailed guide to the culinary culture and historical development of Turkish cuisine. It also has recipes for numerous Turkish regional dishes that are loved throughout the country.