January 2009

The Food of Istanbul, Turkey

My family and I very recently went on a trip to Istanbul, Turkey and it was one of the most intriguing places I have ever visited. If any of you have the luck and grace of traveling the world, definitely make a stop at this gateway to the East where so much religious history went down. We happened to go during a religious holiday so the city was crowded with people celebrating what is commonly called “the feast.” Many locals were in the mood to celebrate and eat and it was such a pleasure to watch people with their families and in high spirits. There is too much to say about the trip so this post is dedicated to the food of Istanbul. Ah, the joys of eating in a foreign country!

First off, the much anticipated tasting of “Turkish delights,” a.k.a. “lokum,” was a tiny bit disappointing. I was expecting something so beyond scrumptious, as the little boy in the “Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” thought they were. They’re actually just O.K. in my opinion. The texture of these delights is very much like jujube candies and moderately sweet with flavors like rose water, vanilla or pistachio — sounds great but somehow the flavors did not translate well. Despite the lack of taste, they were gorgeous to look at.

The bread there was wonderful and fresh and good. Very much unlike a French baguette, which can be chewy and tough. Every morning when we stepped outside we breathed in the yeasty smell of fresh-baked bread! Can you imagine it? Mmm.

Here is a man piling the vertical spit with seasoned chicken breasts, getting ready for hungry customers. These “kebap” spits roasted and sizzled all day, through the afternoon and into the evening while the man carved out the tasty roasted parts as they cooked, slabbed them in-between aforementioned crusty bread and served them as sandwiches. Later that day when we got back from the boat ride we saw that the chicken kebap shrank in size after many carvings.

Okay. By far, the tastiest and most fulfilling thing I ate at Istanbul was the mackerel fish sandwich. While we waited for the boat to take us to the Asian side of the city, throngs of people crowded around seaside vendors selling what I’m guessing is typical street food. In addition to kebap sandwiches, sesame-encrusted bread and roasted chestnuts, were these bomb mackerel sandwiches. The aroma wafting from the grilled fish was so tantalizing, we just had to sample one! At first I was a bit skeptical, since it did not look as great as it smelled. Buy we, especially my brother, were determined to try. We saved it for the later part of our trip like dessert and ohhh lordy, it was so worth it. I don’t know how many of you are fish fans, particularly “fishy” fish fans, but my family and I love the oily, salty fish (we eat it often at home).

For about $2, you get one of these suckers served with shredded lettuce, sliced raw onions and sprinkled with salt and lemon juice. Truly a memorable and surprising experience. As we ate them along the sidewalk, I watched how everyone crowded around the fish waiting for a sandwich and enjoying them as heartily as we enjoyed ours. Those things sold fast!

What amazed and delighted me was the way in which everyone savored the food. One such place I witnessed this was at a little restaurant that served a few choice items like mussels and one type of sandwich. We ordered what everyone was eating, which were these mussels packed with spiced rice. It was good but I found myself not enjoying it as much as the surrounding diners who ate them slowly and washed it all down with milk — yes, milk!

A cup of Turkish coffee. It was indeed very strong. Imagine a really strong, unfiltered cup of espresso. As you finish, the silty sediment of coffee beans sink to the bottom in a muddy pile. I didn’t enjoy it too much. In fact, the tea was far better.

This is a cup of strong, black tea at breakfast. I found that most locals drink tea instead of coffee, at least from what I observed. I don’t have a photo of the tulip-shaped glass that most people drank it in; I almost never saw people drink from a cup. Instead, they drank tea from small, short glasses.

Grilled sea bass that was also so bomb. The squashed wedge of lemon you see there was also unexpectedly different. Sort of like a cross between a lemon and an orange.

Another example of street food. People walked around munching on roasted corn.

The breakfast buffet at our hotel. A typical Turkish breakfast comprises sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, plain yogurt, olives, hard-boiled eggs, cheese and bread.Even though we ate this breakfast six times in a row, I never tired of it because it was so good and the tomatoes and cucumbers so fresh.

A common sight was this combination of oranges and pomegranates. They were literally everywhere! Here, we see a juicer waiting to take its next victim.

I will never forget this fantastic trip. I have never been to a predominantly Muslim country and it’s the closest I have been to the Middle East, though Istanbul being a much Westernized city felt both European and Middle Eastern at once. This only added to its appeal. It was also my first time in Asia, technically.

For more photos of Istanbul check out my Flickr set.