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Çarşı Balık: Fish, Rakı and Turkish Football

Where to eat in Istanbul

Çarşı Balık: Fish, Rakı and Turkish Football post image

Beşiktaş football team may not enjoy such a wide support as the two Istanbul giants Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray, but its supporters are not less furious and a way better defined. Honestly, you can’t tell a Fenerbahçe fan from the Galatasaray’s just by looking. But you can often identify an avid Beşiktaş supporter – young, educated, free thinker and slightly anarchic. It was Çarşı, the hooligan organization of the Beşiktaş fans, that fearlessly led the recent protests at its home base, in the heart of Beşiktaş district also called Çarşı.

Çarşı, a commercial quarter that usually acts as a center of a neighborhood, in Beşiktaş is a curious place. It undividedly sympathizes Beşiktaş football team yet tolerates other teams’ supporters.  Say, at the Kadikoy market every single shop owner would put out Fenerbahçe flag on a match day, and you would not see many walking around in the Galatasaray jersey. But you can wear a non-Beşiktaş jersey in Beşiktaş, even if your team is playing with theirs that day.

How to explain this difference? Is it the abnormal hatred between the Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe or the outstanding tolerance of the Beşiktaş fans?As far as I am concerned the latter wins, yet another proof of which was the gathering of the retired Galatasaray hooligans (= my husband’s friends) that was set at Çarşı Balık, a fish restaurant at the Beşiktaş Fish Market.

I like Çarşı Balık a lot. And respect even more. They are a popular place to get together before the match or even watch the match they broadcast on a big screen. It means most of their customers drink and not what was described as our national beverage by the PM. And lets face it: when people drink they become less critical about their food . This is why most of the restaurants that host football crowds don’t try hard in the kitchen department focusing on the logistics and cleaning instead.

I had to put up with many mediocre meals for the opportunity to join my husband and other Galatasaray fans in a pre-march drinking or watching the match (tickets are almost impossible to get because most of the stadium capacity is sold out to the seasonal ticket holders, and the premium commanded at the black market is hefty). My first experience was an absolutely surreal gathering before the end-of-the-season derby in 2012. As much as I was impressed by the numbers (hundreds) and the spirit (chanting and singing since 11 am into 7 pm) I was outraged by the food. Probably, you can’t expect too much from a circumcision salon where the event took place, but I could not believe we were suppose to feast on a plate of beans and tulum peynir for a good part of the day.

Galatasaray ring by Olga Irez of Delicious Istanbul

Later I understood that less than decent food was a norm at such gatherings, even at the sights owned by the club. Galatasaray has a land on the Marmara Sea and in the middle of the Bosphorus so in both places they operate restaurants where fans often gather for the match or other occasions. I was encouraged by the decent food we had at the Marmara Sea spot but completely disappointed by the cheap wedding fare served at the Galatasaray island (while I don’t think it is cheap to have a wedding there). You’ll say this is just Galatasaray, right? Nah, I have eaten mediocre meals at the places where FB fans gather too.

I guess this is why off-season Tülay, a 50 something well-groomed and well-connected woman, gathered her GS brothers-in-arms on the neutral territory where some decent food could be found. Çarşı Balık is your typical fish restaurant with an expected ritual to observe. Extensive selection of meze that can satisfy both a rakı drinker and a demanding foodie. Default kavun-peynir, a combo of melon and pungent ezine cheese, is brought nearly without asking to anyone with a glass of rakı in hand. Another favorite rakı companion is salted tuna lakerda, a multicentury-old Istanbul delicacy. Tülay exactingly asked the head waiter attending to our table, “Is the lakerda good? Tell the truth”. She was right: there is nothing worse than a delicacy done not so well.

Çarşı Balık Besiktas Fish Restaurant  by Olga Irez of Delicious Istanbul

The rest of the selection was left to me (a good side of being known as a food snob among your friends or friends of your husband for that matter). I selected smoked eggplant puree, semizotu with yoghurt, börülce piyazı and barbunya pilaki to start with. Eggplant was beautiful, well strained, pale, garlicky and creamy. Semizotu (purslane) stirred in the strained yogurt was bright green indicating that this simple salad was put together just before the dinner service. Barbunya beans stewed in the simple tomato and olive oil sauce were huge and flavorful. Yet the surprise of the night was the börülce piyazı – a simple dish that can be fixed with any legumes (black-eyed peas in this case), just a bit of onion, parsley, dill, tomato and the minimalistic dressing of olive oil, lemon juice and vinegar. A plate was shared between me and Tülay, and soon Tülay asked for another one: “No, not like this – bring a full plate”, she insisted.

Bean Salad by Olga Irez of Delicious Istanbul

Black-eyed pea salad by Olga Irez of Delicious Istanbul

Summer Vegetable Salad by by Olga Irez of Delicious Istanbul

Around 8 pm the whole street filled with the fish restaurants and bars got packed with those who finally made it after a day at work. Signs “Reserved” got replaced with the full glasses and soon there was no single empty seat left. Zabita, police unit that deals with the commercial activities, parked their van nearby and started promenading creating resentment among the diners who had learnt this summer not to trust the presence of police too much. As they passed by our table Tülay addressed the officer, “Excuse me, is your presence here explained by the Gezi events?” The officer got confused and said no. Tülay continued, “You make us nervous by promenading here without need. Don’t come again”. The rest of the evening continued undisturbed.

Raki drinking by Olga Irez of Delicious Istanbul

Rakı was flowing, and so was the conversation, and 2 hours after arriving we placed the order for the hot starters, the known suspects of the deep-fried calamari (squid rings) – tender and addictive, shrimps luxuriously bathing in sizzling butter in and midiye, mussels dipped into the thin beer batter and deep-fried. Not surprisingly 2 bottles of rakı later we never get to the main. A fruit platter, a typical compliment, came to the table as we declared to the waiter that we could not do the dessert either. At the fruit platter the things started getting interesting.

Waiter Istanbul by Olga Irez of Delicious Istanbul

Every toast at our table got accompanied by a brief (and I admit very innocent) Galatasaray chant until the table behind us politely addressed Özgür: “Brother, we are in Beşiktaş. It’s not so nice to mention another football team”. My experienced in these matters husband immediately got it: “Are you a Fenerbahçe fan?”, and his guess was confirmed with a nod. Tülay, known for the little tolerance for any opinion but her own, got up, turned to the table behind us and launched into a speech on why they were so wrong with their comment. The tension rose but because the hooligans at our table had long retired no one was up for a fight and after a brief quarrel things eventually relaxed.

“Have your realized that none of the Beşiktaş fans that are probably majority around cared, yet it took one Fenerbahçe fan to make a fuss?”, my husband concluded. Really, what not to love about Beşiktaş and Çarşı Balık!

Beşiktaş Çarşı Balık. Address: Köyiçi Caddesi Leşker Sokak No:4 Beşiktaş. Phone: (0212) 258 1841, (0212) 258 5566. Reservations are a good idea for dinners and a must on a match day. Check the match schedule before going!

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{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Nora July 29, 2013, 10:28 pm

    I have two very distinct memories about my wonderful, but brief, time spent living in Istanbul: food and football. Thank you for bringing me back!

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez July 30, 2013, 9:11 pm

      Really? So great to hear: food and football are def two easiest gateways into understanding Istanbul and its people!

      Reply

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