The decision to go to Istanbul for a food weekend came very naturally – after weeks of hard work I needed a bit of happiness and a lot of good food. The guy who picked me up at the airport asked only two questions: “First time here?” and “What is your favorite food in Istanbul?” His was manti, small dumplings, and I took it as a clear sign for arriving to the right place.
Istanbul was full of generous sun – it caressed the blossoming tulips that looked like tender plump lips of a capricious beauty. The taxi was taking me along the blue Bosphorus which powerful waters have been shaping this city for centuries. I immediately felt at home.
As Sultanahmet was packed with the tourist buses I sent the driver with the bags to the hotel and got off to walk to the venue where a cooking class was scheduled. When asking for directions I got into a chat with a resourceful shopkeeper who when learned that I was going to a cooking class replied that his mom could easily teach me to cook best Turkish dishes. Now, how not to admire Turkish men and their deep love for their dear mothers?!
Health to Your Hands
or Elinize sağlık, say Turks when praising a person that cooked a meal for them. And it was my turn to hear those words. After a few years of various takes on the Turkish eating I decided to get a formal introduction to the Turkish cooking. It is exciting to think about the cuisine that had soaked in every bit of the Byzantium and Ottoman history and hence the influences of the Central Asian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Caucasian and Balkan cuisines. This historic heritage resulted in a wide range of meat (kebabs) and fish dishes, immense variety of vegetable salads and starters (with eggplant being possibly the king ingredients), a wealth of dairy products such as ayran (a yoghurt drink), kaymak (clotted butter) and selection of cheeses seriously rivaling that of many established cheese nations. Do not forget the profound tradition of desserts based on dairy, pastry, sugar, nuts and fruit juices. All that multiplied by the regional varieties gets you an unlimited number of meals to sample. Hence my options were clear – relocate or learn Turkish cooking so I could make it at home. I opted for learning to cook. For the time being.
There is a bunch of cooking classes in Istanbul catering to foreigners and I signed up for Cooking Alaturka. I first got to know Eveline who runs the class through her feature in Expat Harem, a fascinating collection of short stories written by foreign women who found their peace of mind and happiness in Turkey. Eveline graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris (recent movie Julie and Julia has quite popularized that premier culinary institution), then made her way to Istanbul where she ran a boutique hotel and then started teaching a cooking class in Turkish cuisine.
As I arrived late the work at the kitchen had already kicked off: chopping onions and tomatoes to stuff eggplants, preparing grape leaves to make dolma, chopping coriander and mint with a huge knife that used to replace food processors, boiling lentils for the soup. I immediately volunteered to help with the filling for Imam Bayıldı, or Imam Fainted, a mouthwatering dish of stuffed eggplant. If Turks had done nothing else but inventing this dish their contribution to the world food heritage would have been already immense. Squeezing the freshly chopped onions, coriander and mint sprinkled with lemon juice, salt, pepper and Turkey-special tomato paste and bell-pepper paste was like getting to heaven: the onions and herbs were so fresh and fragrant and I kept mixing those different aromas and textures into the unity of the ultimate taste. Afterwards I helped to stir lentil soup so it doesn’t burn, make an eggplant into a beautiful canoe ready for stuffing, package neat wraps of rice in the soaked grape leaves, make sekerpare, cookies grow in the sugar syrup and prepare Turkish coffee. Bon appétit, or Afiyet olsun!
When I have eventually arrived to the hotel I was greeted as a long-awaited relative. Moreover when Mehdi, the owner of my favorite boutique hotel in Sultanahmet, learned about my culinary plans for this stay he provided me with a stack of cooking books and winked at me saying that he would be eagerly waiting for the delicious results of my studies. He also mentioned a farmhouse on the hills in Sapanca, an hour drive away from Istanbul, where he goes for amazingly delicious food turned by an Egyptian-born lady. She would be the one, he said, to pick up some culinary wisdoms from. This is amazing how you start meeting like-minded foodies and get useful tips by simply mentioning your passion!
Istanbul Food Shopping
The moment of truth came as I got close to the Grand Bazaar area. A lane leading towards the bazaar looks like the City of London which is in the City of Istanbul: suited up man walking along the posh jewelry shops and banks. A small difference though is that here in Istanbul they walk proudly, not very rushing and not burdened with laptops and latest news from the stock markets. These are jewelry sellers and gold always sells.
From the calm of the upscale jewelry trader quarters I moved to the spot of the frantic food trade nearby Yeni Camia (please, appreciate the fact that a 16th century mosque is called new in this city). I know that I will never be understood and possibly forgiven by my countrymen for that choice, but instead of stocking up with Gucci and Prada imitations along with the authentic rugs and pottery I headed to the food markets. of Istanbul There are people who travel to do extreme sports, there are sex tourists, there are shopping maniacs and I am food traveler who goes places to eat and take home all the leftovers.
Saturday is the last day of the week when the markets are open and the trade is as lively as ever. Crowds of people, screams of the vendors and their Olympic customer-handling skills are impressive. I took my time moving around, sampling, choosing, deciding how much to buy – olives, cheese, dried fruits and nuts are of superb quality here and (God bless vacuum packing) would provide a good material for my nostalgic breakfasts for some time once I go.
As done with my food shopping I proceeded to lunch at Hamdi Et Lokantasi with its wonderfully white table clothes and pure blue waves of Bosphorus seen down from the terrace. While the name of this place is “House of Meat” it should not by any means be overlooked by the vegetarians. This time I enjoyed a victorious lentil soup and superb starters of ezme salatasi (Turkish take on gazpacho) and artichokes in olive oil served with piping-hot flat sesame bread.
After lunch one needs a short walk and my walk as I deliberately planned brought me to a small shop called Hafiz Mustafa which is a sin house for a sweet-tooth. Be warned: you would be lured in with month-watering deserts in the window displays, hospitable smiles and free rounds of lokum, or Turkish delight and there will be no escape.
I stepped in this sheer decadency and asked for a piece of walnut and a fig soaked in sugar syrup. I was brought all that with a soaked orange skin as a complement and I surrendered when offered kaymak, clotted cream, to my sweets. I then polished it with Turkish tea in a tulip-shaped glass and in a complete euphoria outside I went to kiss and hug my beloved city, my Istanbul in the soothing afternoon light. The afternoon air smelled roasted chestnuts and corns, grilled freshly caught fish and kebabs sizzling on the grill – all eaten just as small snacks before dinner.
Dine like Ataturk
In the evening we have joined forces with a freshly befriended traveler Armin to do another Istanbul must – dine at a meyhane in the side lanes of Istiklal Cadesi in Beyoglu. As we were choosing a place in Nevizade we have become one with a flow of people making their way through the two lines of tables placed outside, dining crowds, bars with life music and Istanbulites of all sorts – eating, drinking, talking and singing aloud. We ended up in a more quiet and old fashioned meyhane. The waiters were quick to bring a demonstration tray of starters and we pointed at our selections – patlıcan salatasi (roasted eggplant salad), haydari (thick yoghurt with garlic, gried mint, salt and olive oil) and dolma (rice mixture stuffed in the grape leaves). We then picked up our fish from a separate display. As we were sitting and chatting I noticed a wall with lots of photographs with seemingly celebrities who once visited the place. On a black and white photo I spotted that huge handsome man whom I know so well from my Republican-from-the-bottom-of-their-hearts Turkish friends. Ataturk, the Father of the Turkish Republic! So we got to dine at the very place he used to. Gastronomic bingo!
The swan song of my trip was börek, layered pastry with cheese filling, that I bought to eat on the plane – it was so homey, nearly kissable and moist and my eyes were full with tears. For a dessert I had a delicious orange which sweetness was not enough to outweigh the bitter taste of parting with the beloved. I know this sounds like an arabesque, old-fashioned Turkish love song, but that’s how I become in Istanbul – sensitive and sensual, open-minded and open-hearted, permanently happy and hungry – a true myself.