Eating through Istanbul
You don’t have to live in London for long to become an avid appreciator of Turkish food and cooking, and Istanbul, Constantinoupoli, or as it’s still affectionately called by the Greek diaspora ‘The City’- is clearly the place to go to get the most mileage out of a heady mix of mediterranean, middle eastern and asian cuisines.
The domes of Istanbul
Istanbul had been on my list for a long time. I’d been there as a kid and remembered only a handful of things- snow falling in the square outside our hotel when we arrived, the great dome of Agia Sofia, and the more modest cast iron domes at a gozleme place we managed to eat at every day as far as I can remember. In my child’s memory we sat on arabic style cushions whilst exotic mustachioed men glided and twirled around calling out orders to the gozleme makers, bringing them fresh and hot to our table. The whole process was fascinating.
I’m sure I’d much romanticised that place but having returned back to i Poli as a card carrying adult I still see Istanbullians’ relationship with food that way- a whirling affirmation of life. Food is everywhere and deeply ingrained in the urban infrastructure- less sustenance than nourishment, more pleasure than necessity. People seem to have a healthy enjoyment and interest in food, and despite the amount of kaymak we managed to eat, the Turkish metropoles look healthy - maybe sometimes a bit robust - but not the size of a house.
Breakfast at Van Kahavaltı Evi in Beyoglu included a pile of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs, an enormous basket of freshly baked breads, clotted cream with honeycomb, nutella, tahini with pekmez, muhammara and about 8 other small plates.
Greens to discover by the kilo
Food is not gourmet or artisan, it is full of fresh and unusual local vegetables, and simple, savoury flavours. I saw many similarities with Greek cuisine but also many differences. A lot of things that were once-common in Greece and are now hard-to-find, were on every street corner in Istanbul- the turkish coffee kiosks brewing their kahvesi over hot sand fires, the milk bars selling fresh farm yoghurt and syrupy pastries, borek shops where they hack the borek into bite size pieces and sell it to you by weight.
The salad bar at Ciya Sofrasi is a panoply of aromatic bitter herbed salads, unidenitiable nutty grains, rich and artisanally crafted dolma and spreads- you piled it all onto a plate which was then weighed and priced accordingly
Is it Turkey’s exclusion from the EU which protects it from westernisation? Is it the melting pot of cultures and continents which defines Istanbul? I am far from qualified to answer but it was exciting to see a place where these age-old favourites are genuinely popular, and not an occasional ‘nod’ to past traditions.
In my very limited time there, there was much inspiration to be found- small plates for breakfast, thick yoghurt at every meal, special slow cooked beans and pulses, flatbreads, oh the flatbreads… all will find its way to my table soon!