Friday, November 26, 2010

A foodie in the UAE: eating my weight in Turkey

The coincidence of visiting Turkey right before Thanksgiving has been the brunt of many a joke around here. The title of this post will be the last one.

In preparation for our trip I read a novel written by a Turkish author (translated into English) and set in Istanbul. I thought this would be a fun way to learn more about the sites and culture we would encounter. What I didn't expect was how intimately food is woven into the fabric of the society. This was a delightful surprise in the novel, and it led me to do a great deal of internet research before we left to determine which restaurants and foods we needed to try. I ended up with a very long list! We weren't able to try them all but you'll see from the pictures below that we gave it our best effort. 

Upon arrival, lunch was our first priority, so we stowed our bags in the room and immediately ventured into the nearest square. We landed at Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi, which has just one item on the menu: köfte (meatballs), served with peppers, pepper-sauce, and bread. Köfte is one of the most common dishes in Istanbul - you find it everywhere, though prepared in a variety of ways (apparently there are nearly 300 kinds served in Turkey). 

We spent the afternoon seeing the major landmarks of Sultanahmet and then wandered through the Arasta Bazaar, a pleasant if contrived venue for tourists to buy local arts and crafts. Just outside was a three-story establishment called Tamara which had a rooftop terrace. The sun was beginning to set so we thought we'd have a snack and see what kind of view we could take in. For reasons we cannot fathom, the terrace was deserted except for us and the waiter, who served us freshly-baked puffy bread, oozing with salty cheese yet somehow not greasy at all. We were sad to see they didn't serve beer or wine, but in fact the bread was perfectly paired with fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice. And when we looked up from this--

We were rewarded with this--

In my opinion fantastic atmosphere cannot make up for bad food, but it can make good food taste fantastic.

Later that evening we went looking for the positively-reviewed Paşazade Ottoman Cuisine. Located on a cozy, cobblestoned street lined with elegantly-restored historic buildings, we felt we had stumbled into the set of a romantic comedy (French Kiss, perhaps?). We started with a round of meze, the small appetizers traditionally served before the meal. There were 6 items on the plate, every one of them a new experience of flavor and texture, and all of them outstanding. Anyone sitting near us would have heard the sounds of happy chewing with the occasional interjection of "I usually don't even like eggplant!", "these green beans are like candy!" or "how did they get the zucchini to taste so good?" Parents, if your kids won't eat their vegetables, perhaps you should send them to Turkey.

Every morning our hotel put out a beautiful spread for us to eat on the terrace. All manners of fresh fruit, yogurt with homemade honey, half a dozen different cheeses and several kinds of bread awaited us.

And we got to eat it out here--

Feeling we had eaten a bit too healthily for vacation standards, on day 2 we stopped at an outdoor cafe called Konyali, on the Topkapi Palace grounds overlooking the Bosphorus, and ordered the most decadent thing we could find--

Thinking this was the most chocolatey eclaire I'd ever seen, I dug in with gusto and was startled to find it was actually topped with a chocolate-dipped banana! Istanbul was determined to keep us healthy.

Moving on to the Grand Bazaar, a shopkeeper helped us find a highly-recommended hole-in-the-wall called Aynan Dürüm, for a traditional Döner kebab, made from lavaš (tortilla-like bread) wrapped around meat sliced from a rotating spit and stuffed with tomatoes and parsley. Wrapped conveniently in a paper sleeve, it's a satisfying lunch on the go!

Worn out after completing all of our Christmas shopping in the Bazaar, and with the air turning a bit chilly, we were ready for comfort food. We found the Turkish equivalent at a restaurant located in the shadow of the Suleymaniye Mosque. They didn't have a menu, so you just pointed to whatever looked good from the pots bubbling behind the counter. Waiting for our food I noticed that all the locals around us were lapping up dishes of flat white-beans, so we ordered one of those as well. Of all the colorful food brought to our table, this was my favorite. The creamy beans stewed in spicy-sweet tomato base warmed me right down to my toes.

The next morning we ventured over the Galata Bridge to explore the modern side of the city. Before attempting the hilly streets of Beyoğlu, we stopped at a bakery for a mid-morning coffee break. We had been noticing bakeries everywhere with lovely display cases, so we could no longer resist.

We asked for baklava, and the man behind the counter smiled and quickly filled a plate with five different kinds, not really asking, or caring, if we wanted five different kinds. How could we ever eat them all?

Like that, I suppose-

We made it to Taksim Square right at lunch time, and stopped at Kizilkayalar, recently made world-famous by a feature on Anthony Bourdain's show, No Reservations. They serve up something I've never seen before and will be perfectly fine never having again: it's called the "wet burger," and it's pretty much exactly like it sounds. It's a hamburger patty that has been fried, put in a bun, basted in tomato sauce (bun and all), and then steamed in a box like this--

And this is what you get--

Supposedly this is the perfect food to eat after a wild night of drinking; fortunately the place is open 24-7.

That evening we went 180° the other direction in terms of food and ambience, to a restaurant called 360°, a yuppy-friendly establishment on the top floor of an apartment building and the kind of place you have to know about (I had read about it in the New York Times but actually finding it was pure luck). As the name suggests, solid floor-to-ceiling windows provide a lovely panoramic view of the city.

The food was decent, trendy fare with a bit of a Turkish twist, but nothing to get excited about. What was odd about this place was the decor, which reminded me a bit of senior prom, with sporadically hung disco balls inside and oversized plastic chairs dotting the terrace, all serving to compete with the view. The longer we sat the weirder the atmosphere became - they began projecting on two walls what must have been a Turkish version of Star Trek (the sound was muted), some of the light fixtures began to glow red, and a ticker started to run above the bar broadcasting the evening's drink concoctions like they were stock reports. We left at this point. Back home Sam looked up the place online and discovered that in the evenings the restaurant transforms into this--

Courtesy of 
Apparently we were watching the metamorphosis as we ate. This picture had escaped me when I read the article the first time, so luckily we escaped before it came to this.

Istanbul is lousy with simit-vendors, reminiscent of hot dog vendors in NYC. But somehow we managed not to have our first taste until our last day. Unfortunately, it did not live up to the hype we had built in our minds. Though it looked good, it tasted like a stale bagel. Hopefully this was just a fluke, but we'll have to wait until our next trip to Istanbul to confirm.

Our final day was all about the sea. We spent the day aboard a ferry sailing up and down the Bosphorus, and ate lunch at this quaint little village--

Having sea bass, probably the freshest fish I've ever had!

And that night we braved one of the fish sandwich restaurants lining the Bosphorus shore. See those colorfully-lit boats? They are grilling fish right there on the water, slapping it in a piece of bread and throwing it out to customers.

We weren't feeling quite that adventurous, so we settled on Balik-Ekmek (translated: "fish in bread"), a surprisingly clean, bright and modern establishment for being literally underneath the Galata Bridge. It was packed to the gills with locals (pardon the pun), and was either a family-run affair or an egregious violator of labor laws (the bus boys were about 10 years old and the barmaid maybe 15; Dad was at the grill, Mom was running the books, and Grandma seemed to be mopping the floor). They were serving the same fare as their counterparts outside - fish fillet sandwiches - but on plates and with napkins, a side of fries and a frosty beer.

And how did they taste? Well, they were fishy.

Thus ended our tour of Turkish cuisine, my overall impression being that Turks love to eat and they love their own food. What I mean is that we saw very few restaurants serving cuisine from other countries. In this way it differed heavily from other big cities we've visited. Turks seem to have specific tastes and find they can satisfy themselves best. I can relate. It's the same reason that, when in Abu Dhabi, we usually eat at home.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad I stuck with the book. I thought of you as I read each and ever chapter named after a spice or food, as well as the various Turkish dishes described by the author. Did you have any ashure? If you try the recipe in the book (pg. 272) I want to know how it turns out!

    Sounds like an amazing culinary adventure. I loved reading about it, and I enjoyed the exotic pictures.