When a friend suggested we sign up for a food tour of Istanbul I was instantly intrigued but also slightly hesitant. I’m used to sniffing out my own food trails when I travel, but given that neither of us speak Turkish and with the fervent hope we’d not be taken to places we’d easily access on our own, I got on the Culinary Backroads website and picked the old Bazaar quarter tour. While Istanbul is packed full of street vendors with traditional foods, knowing which one serves the best version of their product was impenetrable, we didn’t have the time to taste test our way through town on our own. Fingers crossed this tour would open up the more modest side of the local food culture and give us a bit of context along the route.
Starting point was the old Orient Express train station, maybe my favorite building in the city with its rosy pink facade and stained glass windows. Instantly, I imagined the posh, well-dressed crowds that once disembarked after their long journey through Europe, and the amazing city they were about to explore. Sadly, now it’s terribly neglected as the train tracks no longer extend this far into the city – a faded monument, now home to a tea room which serves men who are on the street corner haggling over prices for carrying their goods by truck all over Turkey, through a window on the front. This is where we had a traditional Turkish breakfast of honey with clotted cream, olives, pastrami, sheep’s milk cheeses, simit (sesame bagels), flat bread, and strong tea. Our Belgian-Turkish guide, Selim, warned us to pace ourselves as we’d be eating little morsels here and there throughout the 7 hour excursion, but those simit, which he’d brought from the man selling them on the street near his apartment, were just too good.
Onward though an abandoned hammam, or Turkish bath, around an obviously business-oriented part of the city. Within minutes we stopped to try some borek, infinitely different from the kind I learned to prepare from our Turkish housekeeper Taiba in Ankara all those years ago. These were huge spirals of flaky phyllo dough filled with a ground beef mix or cheese and then chopped into bite-sized chunks. It’s eaten by local workers for breakfast, a fast-food of crispy, hearty deliciousness. Down another side street and we stopped at another hole in the wall, this time to try the very unappealingly named, Head & Foot Soup or Kelle Patcha. A sheep’s head and feet are boiled in a yoghurt broth which, because of the gelatin in the feet and head, thickens it to a wallpaper paste-like consistency. Then cubes of beef tongue are added along with a slightly spicy, garlic oil. Sound terrible? Nope! It was delicious. Selim explained that this was a popular breakfast dish for workers during the cold winter months….and it made sense. While I might not have eaten an entire bowl, I was happy to have enjoyed something that I would have NEVER ordered off of the menu on my own. The proprietor distributed cloves for us to chew on after we’d finished, to ward off the strong garlic and gamey taste as we waved gulle gulle (goodbye) and set off again.
Through the next alleyway, making our way closer to the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul was slowly coming alive with workers pushing handcarts laden with boxes full of fabric and clothing through this local shopping district. Up one step into a tiny space to try little spicy bulgur lettuce cups. Originally this street food was made with raw beef, stirred and pounded until it’s sticky and tender, but because of safety concerns this has been outlawed in Istanbul. While the bulgur version left me cold, I can imagine that the meaty one is a delicious, refreshing mid-morning snack.
Then, into a han which is an ancient traders’ inn, multi-storied buildings arranged around a courtyard where merchants from around Turkey used to come and do their business. Nowdays each room is occupied by a craftsman of some sort or another, working by hand with copper, silver, thread. We peeked inside several of the workshops, watching men skilfully work on projects that I’d thought had been long ago left to machines. It was up here that we stopped for pide, ship-shaped Ottoman pizza, topped with ground beef. We watched as the bakers formed the dough and stoked their wood-burning ovens and Selim showed us an ancient painting which showed men making pide in exactly the same manner hundreds of years ago.. We went to sit on the roof of the han while our pides baked and then ate them overlooking the Istanbul skyline.
On the way back down into the han we stepped into a closet-sized room where mechanized bobbins were weaving gold thread (you’d go deaf if you worked there long), and then around the corner to another little spot with trays of sweets in the window. I thought we were going to get knafe, a cheese filled shredded phyllo dish soaked in sugar syrup that we often eat in Jordan, and it was similar, but without the heaviness of the cheese. Selim explained that this is a little shop that the local merchants will eat in, nothing fancy, just good, homemade treats. Just upstairs we drank traditional Turkish coffees, watching as the tiny shop pumped out cup after cup of the thick, sweet liquid for delivery on trays to the workers in the han who used an intercom to place their orders. It was here that Selim pulled a little treat out of his bag, a white sweet dessert, Tavuk Gogsu. It’s a traditional Turkish sweet served to the sultans in the Ottoman Topkapi Palace made from chicken breast, milk, a rice starch. Another surprise, another delicacy I’d never heard of before, but would most certainly go back for again (I took a photo of the bag where he’d bought it so we could visit later).
We spent the next hour or so going up and down precarious staircases to watch more men at work in their dark, airless spaces, and then finally, into the fringes of the Grand Bazaar itself where the finished products: silver trays and copper platters, gleamed in the brightly lit shop windows. On one corner Selim stopped us at a mussel street vendor (I’d been yearning to try these but had been warned against getting a bad mussel…and we all know how that ends). This man had stuffed each mussel with a chilled herby rice, he then pulled the shells apart, working the empty shell under the mussel to fully release it, and then handed the morsel over. At about 50 cents apiece, I could’ve stood there and happily eaten a dozen!
It was now the tail end of lunch for the workers at the bazaar and we were able to get seats at the florescent-lit counters of the kebab shop. Long skewers on hot coals, chicken and lamb wrapped up in flatbread with lettuce, cold ayran (a salted yoghurt drink) to wash it down. This is what I’d been hoping for! Young boys ran bags of orders for delivery out of the doors into the Bazaar, men sat alone munching on their lunches. The food was fresh and delicious and authentic.
You’d think I’d be about to burst by now, but we had three more stops to make. The first was at a postage stamp-sized stall where we climbed up the steepest spiral staircase I’ve known, into a room that made me feel like Alice in Wonderland, much too big! Up came plates full of thin crispy cow’s liver. Prepared in the Erdine-style, the huge liver (we saw one being brought in from the butcher and it was disturbing) is sliced very thinly, floured and plunged into hot oil. Topped with oregano, lots of salt and lemon juice, it’s addictive. I loved the crunch and the rich liver taste. Back down the spiral staircase (which was harder than going up) I gave the chef, who was still frantically frying for his eager eaters, the thumbs up.
Finally, some vegetables were on the menu at a little restaurant run by a woman (very unusual here) who makes food like she would cook at home for the many market workers. Mezze included artichokes with fava beans that she brought from her own garden, hummus, eggplant and a chilled, candied butternut squash dish that I’m going to have to try and prepare myself. This is food cooked with love and is probably why the workers keep coming. Outside again and a short walk to the shady courtyard of a mosque where we waited for Selim to bring us our final mouthful of the tour. He came bearing a milk-soaked cake that’s related to the more familiar tres leches cake. Up on the nearby rooftop there was a cat standoff taking place, and across the road a shop selling hardware to repair machinery. I felt I’d seen just about everything, had reached capacity both in my stomach and my brain.
Now, I’m leaving out all of the wonderful history Selim shared with us along the way, but I can only repeat so much….and plus, you all need to sign up for a tour with Culinary Backstreets when you visit Istanbul yourselves! My fear of being on just another food tour was utterly dismissed as I learned more about Turkish history, culture and the modern-day lives of its people through the access Selim gave us. I’ve always believed the best way to learn about a place is through its food, and the stories and immigrants and wars behind it. Turkey, with its abundance of people from all over the region, bringing with them their ingredients and customs, has made this the most exciting place I’ve ever eaten.