Back now in Germany for a few days, I have to say that I miss warm and sunny Istanbul a little bit at least. We had a few hours of sun yesterday in between the thundershowers, but by the time I left work, the rain was back. Somehow I am a bit gloomy today, maybe a combination of things…the rain, the news that I will finally roll off my New York project next week (although maybe on to an interesting new one doing a mobile app), who knows what. But i can reflect with some smiles on the morning spend in Istanbul with Olga walking through the city and tasting many Turkish favorites.
We started out with tea and that breakfast sandwich I posted last week. The man who made them for us was serving breakfast up out of his cart simply parked in a little alleyway off a road. He seemed to be very popular – there was a line of people waiting for his sandwiches, which were stuffed with cheese, meat, olive paste and herbs.
Olga explained to us that generally eating from the carts in Istanbul is perfectly safe (I wasn’t at all worried) because of the intense competition. If someone gets a reputation for serving up food that makes you sick, he/she won’t last long. Therefore, the produce and meat have to be extremely fresh or your crowd of hungry consumers will go find another place to eat.
After the sandwich we headed over to one of the local shops that sell sweets.
I will forever associate Turkish delight (only one of the many types of Turkish sweets, with the book, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” There is a scene in there where Edward gets drugged by the queen when she feeds him Turkish delight which somehow magically puts him temporarily under her control. Then I had no idea what Turkish delight was and I could only imagine the sweet chewy stuff. I don’t think Olga had any evil intentions, however, when she offered us some to taste.
After we had been thoroughly doused in sugar, the next few stops along the way to the spice market included nut and spice vendors, a taste of Ayran – the well-known Turkish yogurt drink (I think I like the Afghan version even better, “Doogh,” more or less the same, but with herbs and shredded cucumber mixed in as well. ). At one of the spice vendors, I finally bought something the vendor introduced to me as “lemon salt.” But I actually don’t know exactly what it is. It looks like salt. But it is not at all salty. It tastes like lemon juice when you put a crystal on your tongue. The vendor suggested it could be used on fish. I sprinkled a bit on a piece of chicken last night while it was cooking in the pan with other turkish spices, which was quite good. Olga and the vendor talked about how the stuff was made briefly – drying out lemon juice in the sun or something like this – but I am not sure exactly. There is no salt flavor at all in the crystals. Would lemon juice crystallize like that?
Then we continued on to the Spice Market, where before we walked in we were reminded that the market was really more or less for tourists. Even so, the market overwhelms (as it is supposed to do) with its play on your senses – the bright colors and cacophony of vendors yelling at you, the smells of the teas and coffees and herbs. It’s hard not to be drawn in to some extent, you want to buy a little bit of everything to try, the stranger, the better – like this sheep cheese which is stored in goat skin (you can vaguely make out the hair on the skin…versions we saw later in the day that were still closed looked like big hairy balloons). But I didn’t.
There were a few “real” vendors in the spice bazaar, as Olga pointed out – shopkeepers who really do focus more on selling to the locals. They are more recognizable because of two things. First of all, they don’t sell a little bit of everything. They tend to specialize much much more in their area of competence. Secondly, they don’t have piles of spices and teas and such just lying out to get stale. Their wares are carefully put away to keep them fresh. Here was one such vendor. You would need to ask for what you want from these guys.
Out the other side, we made a dash for the ferry (ok, not really much of a dash, more a slightly brisk walk), enjoying the sun on our heads and faces. It was supposed to have rained the entire time we were there, but we got truly lucky.
The ferry ride to the Asian side of Istanbul was too quick – a mere 15 minutes later we disembarked and walked over to the local market in Karaköy.
Here Olga explained, was the real deal. Not at all a tourist market, it becomes obvious walking around that while the vendors are interested in you, they are not hawkers like in the spice bazaar. Sure, they like it when you buy something, but they are not reaching out to grab you into their store or stand.
We passed by the fish vendors first, selling a huge variety of fish, large sea bass and tiny sardines, turbot proudly displayed on the walls, some bright pink in hue and others paler. To demonstrate the freshness of the catch, the gills of many of the fish are turned inside out. The bright red color means there is still oxygen enriching the blood – still fresh. Grouped together, it often looked like the fish were covered in roses.
We stopped after that for some refreshment – a bite (or more!) of a Turkish pizza – lahmacun – which I eat all the time in Munich. But this one had an incredibly thin crust. They came fresh and steaming hot out of the wood-burning oven – a cheese version and a meat version. A perfect lunch. The next day I had another perfect Turkish lunch and another classic – manti – the little Turkish ravioli, which is traditionally served with a cold yogurt sauce. Olga told us the Turks eat manti as a comfort food. It would be something your mother would make for you when you come home from school.
As the tour approached the end, we naturally had to finish with some Baklava and Turkish coffee. Olga offered us a lesson in eating Baklava properly with a fork, something I still need to master. The coffee was delicious, mild, smooth and a little smoky. Served traditionally with a little glass of water and a small piece of Turkish delight. You need to tell the waiter in advance how much sugar you like in your coffee because the cooking process already incorporates the sugar, you don’t add sugar after you receive your coffee to drink. This was actually a photo of coffee from the following day, but almost all the presentations of coffee were similarly elaborate and sparkling.
Our tour came to an end and we got on the boat to go back to the European side of Istanbul. A couple of musicians came and sat down right next to us to perform and they were really wonderful. A sweet ending to a lovely tour.
But today, in addition to lovely memories of our tour, I have a very cute cat to keep me company.