I do that more often that I wish I had to. I sort of hate to ruin excitement of the first time Istanbul visitors they get into at the sight of the sizable boxes with a label ‘Turkish saffron” and equally impossible price tag ’5 Turkish lira’. I dislike politely explaining that technically there is no such thing as the Ottoman spice mix. And I know I will be forever cursed for revealing the secret of the apple tea which really is .. just an instant powder. But at the end of the day this is why people join my Istanbul food tours: they do want to go beyond the tourist scams which means that at times I have to – rather cruelly – dethrone some of the myths created by the smooth-taking Istanbul spice sellers.
Yet it is not fair to put all the blame on the enterprising Istanbul spice sellers as they are only one part of the demand-supply equation. The other is Oriental fantasies and somewhat outdated ideas from the old times of the Pudding Shop glory. And Istanbul does not hurry to prove you wrong and moreover – gives you all the reasons to stay deceived especially if you are planning your shopping at the Istanbul Spice Market. The choice is yours and I have made mine – in this post I am going to crush 5 biggest conspiracies of Istanbul Spice Market.
Ah those boxes with orange and red threads – way too big for the 5 lira worth of saffron! ‘Turkish saffron’, the label boldly states which in the coded language of Istanbul Spice Market means “not-saffron-at-all”. There is only small saffron production Turkey which is not supported neither by great know-how nor by the strong domestic demand: used a lot during the Ottoman times nowadays saffron can be found just in one dish know to the majority of the Turks – zerde pudding. If you walk past the 5 Turkish lira boxes and delve into the depths of a spice store you will find a glass jar with red threads and a label: ‘Iranian Saffron. 1 gram = 25 Turkish lira’.
Each spice vendor has both: real deal from Iran and cheap saffron imitation which in fact is safflower, plant with dying properties so strong is had been used to dye textiles already in the ancient Egypt. I sort of understand the spice vendors. Even more so after witnessing a dialogue between my favorite Istanbul pide maker and a young traveler who tried to beat down the price of a pide on the premise it was more expensive that a kebab he had (which was 2 TL, an absurd for anybody who cares to learn meat prices in Istanbul and do simple math). So the vendors want to offer something to you if you say you are not paying 25 Turkish lira (about US$14) for a gram of saffron. So here is box of ‘Turkish saffron’ for 5 TL. Deal of the year!
It is useful to know that saffron threads are stigmas of a crocus flower. Each flower has just three stigmas which makes for rather laborious picking and results in a high selling price. Real saffron threads are dark read in color, brittle and have a fresh smell. Sometimes other parts of the crocus flower can be added to the stigmas to make a more attractive price but all those additions are effectively a dead weight. Also there are many ways to imitate the threads (colored strands of gelatin, for instance). And finally there are powdered versions which one should stay clear off since it’s impossible to establish the origin and components of that powder. Buying a powder called ‘Indian saffron’ in Istanbul you run a risk of getting turmeric – hugely beneficial spice that gives a color too but simply does not cost that much.
Real deal: Get your saffron in Istanbul from a trusted vendor – I can’t recommend Arifoğlu highly enough, they have two stores at the Istanbul Spice Market and a reputation of a business with 500 employees at stake.
Mesir macunu (Turkish Viagra)
Aphrodisiac qualities of many traditional foods is the most favorite tale of the Istanbul Spice Market folks. Which is half capitalizing on the Oriental fantasies of the Westerns taking the idea of harem much further that its true historical circumstances. And half self-perception of the Turks: masculinity and its indispensable attributes is a rather cornerstone concept in Turkish culture so when the spice vendors wink at you as they offer some kind of Turkish Viagra (may be just dried figs stuffed with walnuts) they are king of pulling your leg about something which in fact is a rather serious matter to them.
So here comes Mesir macunu, paste of 41 spices which – as one of the producers boldly states – “the Sultans used .. before taking part in harem activities”. This wonderful paste apparently does boost one’s well-being, gives energy and improves sexual performance. What’s interesting is that the references to the aphrodisiac qualities of mesir macunu can be found only in non-Turkish sources. During the first months of my stay in Istanbul I was taken aback by the scene at a local herbalist. An Istanbul hamineffendi browsing the store addressed the shop keeper, “I have a slight cold, do you have something like Mesir macunu?”What? She was not buying it for her husband but to boost up her immune system?
Mesir macunu was first was made of 41 spices to treat a sultan’s mother from a serious disease. The lady was wonderfully cured and became a evangelist of the treatment which she started spreading to the masses. There was no better way of doing it than throwing tiny packages of the paste once a year from a mosque rooftop which is still continues to be an annual festival in Manisa. And 9 months after the festivals thousands of Mesir macunu babies get born in Turkey. Only kidding (wink)..
Real deal: Go for plumb dry figs..stuffed with walnuts, if you must. You’ll have plenty of energy to continue browsing Istanbul food markets and exchange joked with the witty store keepers.
Spice vendor with the most picturesque (and educational) stall outside of the Istanbul Spice Market makes a theatrical pause and looking like a true conspirator tells, “And this is lemon salt. For chicken, for fish, for apple tea (see below) and <he pauses again> for gin and tonic”. To my questions I asked him at numerous occasions about how this particular salt can be produced he gave me a vague answer. Or often times even left me to pitch his precious to the less curious customers.
When I saw a small package of the same white non-transparent crystals at Arifoğlu, respectable spice vendor with a large retail network and a mass-market product range found in all major supermarkets things got cleared. Under the name ‘Limon tozu’ (lemon salt) on the package in much smaller font it wrote “Citric acid”. The price was 4 times lower than that of the lemon salt by my conspirator spice vendor.
In Turkey citric acid can be found almost in any kitchen pantry. First and foremost it helps scale heavy duty double tea pots that tend to run boiling for long period of times. Second it is used in making jams and pickles as a natural preservative; you can also use it in cooking instead of lemon juice. And well, if you really have to .. in your gin and tonic. Just do me a favor – don’t pay 100 TL (US$36) for a kilo (2.2 pounds).
Real deal: This is where you can save yourself some luggage spice and probably best buying ‘lemon salt’ (aka citric acid) at home if you ever need it at all.
Turkish Apple tea
Turkish apple tea is possibly the biggest conspiracy of Istanbul Spice Market. Otherwise how could you explain the strong opinion shared by many first time Istanbul visitors that apple tea is a Turkish national drink? The great conspiracy behind it is that being a foreign traveler in Turkey you are most likely offered apple (pomegranate as a variation) tea at the many hotels, cafes or shops around the popular tourist sights. And I could see why one can like this apple tea. Its composition – sugar, acidity regulator: citric acid (E330), antioxidant: ascorbic acid (E300), anti-caking agent: tricalcium phosphate (E341), natural identical apple flavor, coloring: caramel (E150 – sounds rather likable. You can’t go wrong with a few acids and artificial flavorings. Apple tea is a beverage that most locals have never tried and most tourists drink during their stay in Istanbul and upon their return report on the fantastic ‘Turkish national drink’. How come?
Offering tea to visitors is a long-standing tradition which in situation of a market makes even more sense: a cup of tea you will keep you in a store longer and increase the likelihood of sale. Yet in time Turks have figured that flavor of Turkish tea (=black tea) comes rather strong for most foreigners (probably besides Russians who drink glass of Turkish tea after another and get nostalgic about the Georgian tea we had during the Soviet times). The strength comes not so much from the tea leaves but from the prolonged brewing of the tea over the steaming water. So instant apple tea came to service to continue the tradition of hospitality but offer something that most travels would like.
Real deal: Get a bag of dry apple pieces (with no artificial perfume added – they should smell as humble as dry apples do) and throw them in your regular tea – black or green to add that subtle taste of Istanbul to your tea.
Ottoman spice mix
Ottoman has been very popular topic. Especially after the start of the Turkish soap Muhteşem Yüzyıl (Magnificent Century) now broadcasted at over 20 countries besides Turkey which made the realities of life at the Sultan Palace (include the harem and its “activities”) more understood even by a primary school children. Ottoman sells well. Because it is still so mysterious and any tale can be created, packaged and sold. Such as the Ottoman spice mix.
Call me a snobbish purist but I don’t buy the spice mix idea. First, spice sellers always push them hard as a high margin product (God knows the exact proportion of the spices in the mix). And then speaking of the Ottoman spice mix specifically – what’s the value of clubbing together dry thyme or mint, saffron, red chilli flakes, fennel, sumak, black pepper, coriander, cumin, allspice, ginger and cinnamon. Besides that were are only 30 spices away from creating a panacea and aphrodisiac in one - mesir macunu. Probably, if you have no idea about spices it all it may sound interesting otherwise you pretty much have a good idea of which exact spices to put.
If we stick to the facts there is no such thing as the Ottoman spice mix. When paging through the book of Ottoman recipes ’500 Years of Ottoman Cuisine’ by Marianna Yerasimos, researcher of Ottoman food culture and habits, you can’t find a single dish calling for more than 4-5 of the listed above spices at once. Generally, Ottomans may have been lavish as they used the most expensive spices of the world but then were not so keep to stack them all in a single dish. So just combining most frequently used spices in the Ottoman cooking does not do the job any besides of providing living for the Istanbul spice vendors. But maybe it is just worth learning that allspice, cinnamon, black pepper and dry mint were typically used in dolma. That cumin, coriander and black pepper are most often used for meatballs.
Real deal: Pay a visit to a local spice vendor and stock up with some locally grown and used spices – such as variety of red peppers specifically – which would serve as a great inspiration for your cooking experiments.