Isabel Conway travels across Istanbul to uncover a satisfying journey of culinary discovery.
Ottoman ruler Sultan Mehmet 11 did nothing by halves. A legendary gourmet, he employed more than a thousand chefs in a string of kitchens, churning out dishes so innovative, artistic and painstakingly assembled that Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver might have fallen foul of him. The story goes that on discovering a cucumber was missing from one of his beloved kitchen gardens the Sultan had all the gardeners disembowelled to locate the guilty party!
Conquering Constantinople at the tender age of 22, his new empire transformed it into a dynamic Port and trading centre, a place of refuge for Spanish and Portuguese Jews and other persecuted groups and a melting pot for culinary diversity.
The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, the largest covered market in the world, whose spice stalls and other sections are a ‘must visit’ attraction is spread over 50 acres with up to 4,000 shops. The Kapalicarsi (Grand Bazaar) was first built in the mid 1440’s by Mehmet the Conqueror to boost international trade.
The Ottoman Empire and Turkey’s turbulent history has since shaped an equally rich culinary atlas, stretching from Ancient Persia to the Arab World, and North Africa and the Balkans to the Mediterranean.
Istanbul, one of the world’s most intriguing, historic and colourful cities, a favourite short break destination is making a slow comeback despite turbulent times – notably the June 2016 suicide bombing at its airport.
Though far removed from terrorist attacks beautiful coastal resorts such as Antalya where I spent an idyllic September weekend, exploring its old town and eating fantastically well, felt calm and safe. Yet, tourists continue to stay away while other countries – the UK, France, Belgium and more recently Spain – which have also been targeted have seen few similar signs of a dramatic reduction in visitor appeal.
The hope now is that tourists are starting to trickle back, realizing that the Syrian War is 1,000 miles away and they can again be lured by Turkey’s friendliness, great value for money, amazing shopping and vigorous anti-terrorism measures. In the meantime look forward to bagging some of Europe’s most luxurious lodgings at well- known coastal resorts at a fraction of what you would pay in other sunspots, plus the draw of uncrowded beaches and terraces.
In Istanbul for a short early autumn visit my friend Ed’s mission was singular…..to hunt down the world’s best Kebab while we both looked forward to getting inside ’the other Istanbul’ exploring a melting pot of culinary legacy of Europe and Asia. Cooking with the locals, meeting Istanbullers,shopping for exotic spices and eating with the locals was our remit.
We meandered through laneways crammed with the best and freshest spices and herbs, with cominations of flavours to enhance any casserole back home while admiring exotic foods and glistening fruit and veg and other products from all over Turkey, while mingling with the locals.
Our ‘foodie’ adventure with exuberant culinary expert Taciser (Taci) Ayvaz took us from the baroque splendour of our lodgings at the famous hotel Pera Palace Jumeriah a true Grande Dame, presiding over the fashionable Beyoglu district since 1892, onto the packed ferry crossing the fabulous Bosporus to the Asian side . Here at the waterfront, a taxi sped us past bustling laneways, uphill into leafy suburbs and wide streets of upper middle class apartment blocks.
Under Taci’s watchful gaze and guidance we learnt about unfamiliar typically Turkish spices like dolma (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg all spice) while chopping heaps of market fresh herbs like bunches of flowers, stuffing aubergines,mixing the ingredients for meze including Taboulee and Shepherd’s Salad (Coban Salata) among the selection of delicious and easy to make dishes. Thankfully I was not called on to produce a Baklava – that syrupy multi layered filo pastry concoction though.
The attractive working kitchen area of Selin’s spacious apartment, crammed with interesting artefacts and antiques, was a fascinating location. Lovely Taci made numerous forays to the fridge to replenish our excellent Turkish white wine (yes we were allowed a tipple to assist our culinary endeavours) A dynamo of a tiny woman named Daria with roots in distant Georgia was also on hand to prop us up with things we forgot to do while Taci provided culinary ‘first aid’ on the journey.
Later we all sat down for a jolly good authentic multi dish Turkish dinner whose centrepiece was crispy Borek, a filo pastry main course of melting Feta and herbs along with our beef and garlic stuffed aubergines with lots of side plates.
Next day our continuing culinary odyssey took us back across the rippling deep blue ‘Bos’ with views of spectacular Topkapi Palace from where the Ottoman empire ruled for nearly 400 years and Hagia Sophia illuminated against the sky.
Passing stalls overflowing with fresh leafy herbs, pungent spices, juicy figs, plump olives and all manner of fish and other edibles we met Hulya, a well known Istanbul food writer, great conversationalist and guide.
We had lost our way coming from Kadikoy’s fish market in a warren of small streets crammed with food stalls, cafes and restaurents again in the Asian side. Ciya Sofrasi, is a by-word for superb and surprisingly affordable dining. The chef owner Musa Dagdeviren (who has two other ajoining restaurants)is known internationally for his outstanding Tukish cuisine, many of the recipes coming from the cradle of good food his native Antolia. The walls inside the no- nonsence restaurant where a lady cashier is positioned behind a mahongany desk is peppered with accolades from the New York Times and leading food magazines around the world to his kitchen genius.
Hulya chose a selection of small dishes originating in Anatolia, considered to have the most authentic original Turkish flavours– each delicious, tasting of aubergine and other vegetables, minced lamb, yogurt and various herbs and spices.
The Ottomans persuaded the Spaniards to return from the New World via the North African Coast enabling chili peppers, tomatoes and maize to be brought back to Constantinope. Without these exotic newcomers Turkish cuisine might have taken a very different route, she reflects as we sip non alcoholic sherbet that is the perfect accompaniment to a memorable lunch……..Then just when Ed was wondering about whether that world class Kebab would make an appearance….it arrived. A perfectly grilled and spiced kebab made from finest lamb mince,speckled with fresh pistache pieces …the best we’d ever tasted anywhere. Turkey’s gift to the rest of the world may have been the doner kebap (lamb grilled on an upright spit and thinly spliced) But we instantly voted for the Ciya version of a kebab!
That evening, still billeted at Istanbul’s historic Pera Palace Jumeriah Hotel we enjoyed their head chef’s elegant so modern colourful Turkish starters and an outstandingly fresh sea bass that looked like a piece of art on the plate. Even the Ottomans would have been deeply impressed. And it was all served under a full moon and twinkling stars overlooking the Golden Horn of Istanbul.
Tell me more about a food odyssey in Istanbul
Turkish Flavours who specialize in cooking with the locals itineraries and Context Travel (who led us to a sublime kebab that had nothing to do with ‘Doner Kebap’) Both are experienced culinary specialized tour companies and have been lifting the lid off Istanbul’s foodie secrets, led by culinary experts and food writers who know all the best spots for many years
If you ever doubted Turkey’s ability to serve amazing cuisine then Turkish Airlines in- catering will leave you wondering what went wrong with some fellow airlines! We enjoyed some of the most succulent lamb chops I’ve tasted either on land or in the air with delicious beautifully assembled fish starters, a perfect finale to our week long Turkish food odyssey.