I spent much of the past October eating, feeding and cooking with Anna, a 4 year-old küçük hanım (little lady, how was addressed throughout her time in Turkey). She and her mother Elena came to stay for a few weeks in Istanbul and at our countryside hotel in Sapanca. Elena is blogging at Life is Now (in Russian) on the transformation her family is going through: Elena’s husband gave up his high-flier corporate career to realize a long-cherished dream – to become a chef. He graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and this summer has launched an culinary program in Provence that has become an immediate success. For Elena, an HR-professional with solid experience, it is an opportunity to test a pen on writing and food photography as well as a case study in career transformation, an area in which she has started to coach others. And then there is Anna who is supporting her parents during their bold moves such as coming to live in Turkey for a month.
After week of sharing food with Anna I feel experienced enough to share a piece of advice to the parents planning their visit to Istanbul (and broader Turkey) and wondering whether if it is the right place to travel with young kids and – more specifically – whether the kids will be happy eaters in Istanbul.
Overall, the news are good: your kids will have plenty to experience food-wise in Istanbul and most likely if you grant them a freedom to explore you will be surprised by how adventurous they get in their eating. Children are welcomed in most of the Istanbul restaurants (I have seen kids chairs in the least likely candidates for child-friendly dining in Istanbul) and will be fussed around a lot. The challenges are only few: as a parent you’d need to work out a policy if the fuss becomes excessive and find those delicious activities that excite not only you but your child as well.
1. Spoiled By Turkish Delight: Expect The Fuss
Kids in Turkey are a matter of admiration, attention and lots of fuss. You will understand what I mean when passing the stores in Eminönü just outside the Spice Market that feature hundreds of decoration items in blue and pink used for baby showers held in Turkey after the baby is born. Going over the board with the decorations is rather indicative of the fact that having a child is possibly the biggest deal in the life of every Turk. Children are adored, spoiled, given unconditional love and abundant attention: it does not matter if the kid is your own or somebody else’s.
Now, most Western children with lighter hair and eyes look like a dream for any child-wishing (=any) Turk. Every time we have a blue-eyed kid visiting us my mother-in-law or husband call for me to show the “prototype” we should be working towards. That’s why you should not be surprised that your kids in Turkey will be patted, chick-pinched, hugged and kissed. My husband was astonished when his pinching a cheek of a 3 year old baby girl of my former colleague caused the girl bursting into tears – I told him he absolutely can’t do that to Russian children not used to such signs of affection from strangers.
Now there are serious implications of that food-wise. Chances are high that your kids will be constantly offered sweets and other rather unhealthy snacks: Elena got into shock as so did we when our helper brought Anya 2 bags of chips and few handfuls of sugar candies (along with a hair pin, bracelet and necklace – all in pink). You will not be very popular (neither with your kids nor with the Turks bursting with their love for them) trying to reject those gratuities so you’d better develop a policy upfront. You may want to be like my ex-colleague who labeled my husband as “bad man” for his pinching cheek move. But it is more productive to use such occasions as an opportunity to educate your children on treating strangers and saying no (to yet another offering of Turkish delight).
2. Not Only French Fries: Let Your Kids Be Real Foodies
Most likely your child has got a good sense of what they like and what they don’t (unless you are French and your kids happily eat everything). Anna came here with a strong idea that fondant is a dessert that should be eaten after every meal (when confirmed with her mother it was not exactly the case in their house back in France but nevertheless Anna radiated 100% confidence when stating that). But you know what? While I was wondering how we can make some chocolate-based desserts for Anna she has managed to find replacements. Chocolate milk or ice-cream worked just fine! You should never estimate the willingness of your child to try new foods and develop liking of those.
There is no single reason to stick to French fries. And not even to the typical Turkish kid’s fare either - meatballs which I call a lazy mom dish way too common in Turkey: every time we have guests with children in our restaurant they request that meal which makes me wonder the meatballs s the only food Turkish mothers give to their kids.
You might think that Turkish food is way too exotic but in fact it has plenty of kids-friendly delights. Hotel breakfasts are great since it is always a buffet where you can give your kid a chance to try different new foods. They may not be fans of Turkish feta cheese but rather happy with kaşar (soft sheep cheese). They may not go very enthusiastic about olives (but who knows?) but then sun-dried apricots or hazelnuts can be interesting to them.
Have your kids try pilaf – made of rice and bulgur; see if if they can get into Turkish tea drinking with various sweet and savory baked treats; introduce them to the Turkish ice-cream (Maras dondurması); do not skip the soups such as beautiful ezogelin and definitely try Turkish pizza pide.
If you have a particular idea of a meal you could ask the staff at a hotel or a restaurant to cater. In time we figured that beyond eating bread and rice Anna is rather fond of vegetables – carrots, cucumbers and red peppers so to make her meal more balanced I’d serve a dish of rice pilaf surrounded by altering slices of the colorful vegetables. I am sure that most of the Turkish restaurants will be able to handle that if you ask. And when you don you shouldn’t think that you can cause any inconvenience. It is next to impossible to stress anybody with child so your hotel or restaurant staff would be happy to brief their kitchen for a special meal or fetch it from outside.
3. Skip Guided-Tour And Go Fishing. Really..
I am often asked if my food tours are suitable for kids. Sadly I think they are not – I have seen too many children getting bored with lack of attention as all the adults are excitingly trying strong flavored Turkish cheese and tired with getting from one eatery to another for 5-6 hours. But then cooking classes can work perfectly for kids of various ages because it is a game, an opportunity to help grown-ups and become a member of the group who gets most of the attention and encouragement.
Take Anna who was way too bored with the food tour: she spent most of it being excited about the prospect of getting a new doll and looking out for it. But they she was happily cooking with me and the question of getting a new doll never came up at the kitchen. Instead she liked it when I put an apron on her, pulled a chair she could stand at to reach to the counter and work next to me. She stuffed green pepper dolma with rice, got extremely excited to watch the mixer beating egg whites into a thick foam, diligently brushed potatoes with butter and washed apples. She politely thanked me for “teaching her to cook” at the end of her stay.
So do your child a favor and skip that guided tour you are so interested in and take them for a delicious scavenger hunt instead. Head out to the Spice Market or even to one of those Istanbul weekly food markets – make them search for a big big pumpkin or sweetest strawberries and use the occasion to teach about food and local customs. Maybe you should take them fishing in Bebek where you can rent fishing poles if it gets too serious or just peek into the buckets of the fishermen lined up long the Bosphorus? Or what discovering the small eateries where your kids can watch how food is being made and will be even welcomed to help? I am excited for you to have such experiences in Istanbul and pass the word to the parents who are yet to travel to Istanbul with their kids: little ladies and gentlemen are welcomed to Turkey and will never never will be hungry for food or good time.
Photo courtesy Elena Rezanova