by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Live to eat rather than eat to live and you'll come to regard the soi-disant Bulgarian cusine as an insult to your stomach

iskembe salonu istanbul.jpg

“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.” Two hundred years later Alphonse de Lamartine's words still ring true – especially when talking about food. Istanbul is the nearest place you can take refuge from the kebabcheta experiments in Bulgar restaurants, the heartburn caused by underbaked bread and doughy pastry, the Shopskas with tomatoes that taste like apples, the yoghurt with preservatives and the depressing yet inevitable absence of sea food.

For 16 centuries Istanbul was the capital of the Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman empires and the cuisine that originated there is in a league of its own. Unlike Saint Sophia, Kapalı Çarsı or Topkapı, it is not the creation of one or several architects, builders or rulers, but of the uncoordinated combination of people and events. These include, but are not limited to, the import of oriental spices by Italian merchants, the work of fishermen in the Black and Mediterranean Seas, the herdsmen in the nearby Rhodope and the mountains in Asia Minor, and the farmers in Thrace, as well as the relentless pursuit of a prodigal lifestyle in the royal court of Byzantium and the harem of the sultan.

In Istanbul, it is dangerously easy to disregard Topkapı for the pleasure of eating börek (filo pastry cakes) with minced meat, spinach or cheese while contemplating the reflection of Anadolu Hisar in the turquoise waters of the Bosporus. This is why any prudent tourist will start with a hefty breakfast, which is an expanded version of the bread, olives and cheese that Jelal, Orhan Pamuk's hero from The Black Book, snacks on. At first glance, the Turkish hotels offer the same kind of breakfast as their Bulgarian counterparts, but the very first bite will convince you that the similarities are ostensible. The white and yellow cheeses are of the type that the Bulgarians claim to be their own invention, despite their absence in even the best supermarkets. The hard-boiled eggs have yellow yolk, the olives do not resemble last year's leftovers, and the tomatoes and cucumbers taste like... tomatoes and cucumbers. The yoghurt is so thick that you can cut it with a knife – quite literally.

Fresh fish

Fresh fish ready for hungry patrons of Istanbul's restaurants

Coffee is one of the few things not worth mentioning. But it is only tourists who drink this in the homeland of Turkish coffee. Its absence is, however, more than made up for by the tea – of which you can drink unlimited amounts.

“The city which has everything” can't be seen in a day and even careful planning in order to avoid going to the Blue Mosque at the time of the great Friday prayer will not be of much help. Whatever you do, however, the walks by the Hippodrome, in the dank Cistern of 1,001 Columns and the secret corners of Topkapı and Saint Sophia are so exhausting that however large your breakfast might have been, your body will be craving a new portion of calories by noon. The cafés in the Sultan Ahmet area are just what you're looking for – if you are prepared to drink tea at prices three times higher than usual. Avoid going to establishments in the overtly touristy Divan Yolu Street. The food in its glitzy restaurants will put you to sleep and the only thing that will wake you up is the bill.

Dried okra is used in Turkish soups

Dried okra is used in Turkish soups

This does not mean though that you are destined to spend a long, hungry day wandering the streets. Going hungry doesn't seem to be possible in Istanbul, especially if you try to do what the Turks do. Go downhill, and you will soon find yourself by the gridirons of Galata Bridge where they grill fish fillets for sandwiches, or in front of a simit, or bagel, street stand. The bagels look like the ones sold in the streets of Sofia, but they're tasty. If you care to look around, you will notice a street vendor selling halka tatlı. This is similar to Bulgarian tolumbichka, with a hard, sugary crust and a soft, syrup-soaked core, though it is shaped like a bagel. Eat carefully to avoid dripping it on your clothes.

This light snack will charge you with enough energy to enter Kapalı Çarsı and resist the sweet-talking vendors who will try to sell you a carpet, a blue evil eye to bring good luck, a gold bracelet, a five-pound pair of shoes, a “cashmere” scarf, a Made-in-Turkey Prada bag, a waterpipe or a tea set.

In the nearby Mısır Çarsı (did you stop for a quick cup of tea in some of the sidestreets of Kapalı Çarsı, which are inadvertently left out by most guidebooks?), your self-control will soon fade away and you will leave with at least two kilos of sweet and salty peanuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, almonds, chickpeas and lokum, or Turkish delight. Bulgarians generally believe that the best lokum is on sale in Yablanitsa, on the Sofia-Varna motorway, but anybody will see through the delusion when they face the piles of white, pink, yellow, orange, red and green lokum with or without nuts, caster sugar or coconut flakes in Istanbul. This variety came as a result of a sultan's whim. “Hard candy! I'm tired of hard candy!” the sovereign declared angrily. “I demand soft candy!” Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir, the imperial court confectioner, had no choice but do something about it.

Kokorec is a traditional dish consisting of lamb offal

Kokorec is a traditional dish consisting of lamb offal

“Whoever says Galata means taverns,” Turkish 17th Century traveller Evliya Çelebi summed up the atmosphere on the other side of the Golden Horn. Foreigners settled in Karakoy, Galata and Beyoglu as early as 1261, when Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos allowed Genoese merchants to establish a colony on the Pera Hill, as the north shore of the inlet was known then. Gradually, it became the seat of European embassies and the Jews and the Greeks added to the ethnic diversity. During its modernisation in the 19th-20th Centuries the Orient Express terminated at the station across the Golden Horn and a lot of contemporary buildings were constructed in the Cité de Pera, including the Tünel underground which still functions today.

Beyoglu became the centre of night life and constant traffic jams, a role it continues to play with an equal passion at the beginning of the 21st Century. Each night is full of people partying as if it were the end of the world - or so it seems from the zeal with which the crowds fill the restaurants in the narrow streets between the Sezession houses. They rush into the bars overlooking the Bosporus, encircle the carts selling roasted chestnuts and kebabs, goggle at the street musicians, squeeze through the street tables of the small restaurants in Çiçek Pasajı (the Flower Passage) and Balık Pazarı (the Fish Bazaar) or consume kokoreç, a sandwich of flat bread with grilled sheep intestines.

If you are persistent, you may find a free table. Just don't be put off when you learn that the main dishes on the menu are mostly izgara, which is the Turkish for grilled meat. The chicken, beef or lamb kebapcheta, kebabs and rissoles are so tasty that you will forget what you've become used to in Bulgaria. This seems to be the real thing.

All kinds of peanuts are sold throughout Istanbul

All kinds of peanuts are sold throughout Istanbul

If you don't take care, however, you may never get to the Adana kebap or Arnavut cigeri (liver fried with spices and onions). Meze is one of the strongest features of local cuisine and restaurateurs are well aware of it. A smiling waiter carrying a huge tray piled with appetisers will appear the moment you sit at the table. Some of them will be the indigenous versions of foods you have already tried in Bulgaria: white cheese, marinated anchovy, tarama salata of red-fish roe, cold aubergine purée, fried courgettes, meatless sarmi wrapped in vine leaves and cacık, a yoghurt and cucumber salad that resembles Bulgarian Snezhanka. The comparison between Turkish and Bulgarian appetisers, however, won't be to the favour of the latter.

Dinner in the fish restaurants in Çiçek Pasajı or Balık Pazarı starts with mussels. Midye tava, wooden skewers of fried mussels with egg, and midye dolma, which are stuffed with rice, allspice and pine nuts, will beguile your hunger while waiting for the fish which you have chosen from the stand in front of the restaurant. Kalkan (turbot), palamut (bonito), barbunya and tekir (red mullet), kolyoz (mackerel), sardalya (sardine), mezgit (herring), and in autumn lüfer (bluefish), are sold by the kilo and are not the cheapest of foods. However, you can devour every bit of your fish without a shadow of doubt that it has spent no more than a few hours on land – in the restaurant they will point at the discarded red gills as undeniable proof of it's freshness.

But even the most enjoyable dinner ends at some point, and then comes the time for something sweet. Since the 19th Century the best place for this has been the pedestrian Istiklal Caddesi. This two-mile stretch which runs from the upper underground station, romantically named the Tünel (The Tunnel), to Taksim Square attracted a lot of European intellectuals interested in the Orient during the Ottoman period and still attracts about three million people every weekend in the 21st Century. While standing in front of the patisserie windows lining up Istiklal Caddesi, you will deeply regret that you have only one stomach. Small baklava, large baklava, triangular, rectangular, square, rhombic or oval baklava, with pistachio or walnuts, with more rose water or more honey: when you look at them you begin to realise why the sultan tried to entice the unruly janissaries on the 15th day of Ramadan by presenting them with baklava in a ceremonial procession called Baklava Alayı. If the Ottoman sovereigns had used the Bulgarian equivalent of the pastry, which usually has the taste and texture of cardboard, for this purpose, Turkey would have become a republic centuries before 1923.

The A boy sells Halka tatli out of a wheelbarrow stand

A boy sells Halka tatli out of a wheelbarrow stand

The patisserie windows contain much more than baklava. Arranged alongside it, you can see as¸ure of cereals, fruit and nuts; syrupy kadayif, kadın göbegi and kemalpas¸a; chocolate süpangile and rose water muhallebi puddings; keskül egg cream with vanilla and almonds; and tavukgögsü and kazandibi desserts made from chicken breasts, milk and semolina. If you do not intend to go to Karamanmaras, where salep dondurma, the orchid ice-cream, comes from, you'd better not order it, otherwise you may have a quick change of plan. Besides such decisions, the morning may start with something else too: a hangover.

Bulgarians claim that they are the ultimate experts at concocting one of the most efficient hangover cures, tripe soup, but in Istanbul you will find plenty of places where you can scoff a portion of this with a lot of garlic and a glass of ayran (yoghurt with water and salt). They range from the unassuming Cumhuriyet eatery to the posh Lale Iskembe Salonu, where the waiters wear bowties and the toilets are alafranga (seated), but you can be certain that you will enjoy the food they serve – even if, after witnessing the classic scene of drunken Bulgarians guzzling soup in a dubious tavern, you had decided never to touch tripe soup.

Half an hour later, with a clove bud in the mouth (to neutralise the garlic odour), you are ready to swear that Istanbul, the city that has everything, is the best refutation of Socrates' “Thou shouldst eat to live; not live to eat”.

Içkiler vs Içkisiz

Turkey may be a modern, secular state, but do remember that it is overwhelmingly Muslim – and good Muslims do not drink alcohol. Beer counts as alcohol. Many restaurants will advertise themselves as içkisiz, which translates as “alcohol-free.” Do not expect beer there even though some owners will gladly send the waiter to buy you a couple of bottles from around the corner, leading us to believe their reluctance to stock beer has more to do with taxes, not religion. Içkiler means “fully licensed”.

Turkish delight shop

Turkish delight shop

Some Advice

  • Certain areas of Istanbul are obviously touristy. Avoid eating there.
  • Go where the Turks go. In this way you will experience the real thing, not the bland concoctions designed for tourists.
  • Starbucks is getting increasingly popular. In most other places, however, unless you like Nescafe, stick to tea.
  • You are in Turkey – haggling is part of the game. Demanding to see a menu with prices will produce a piece of paper written in English and possibly German with tourist prices that no Turk would pay. In the better establishments, look out for a Tarife poster pinned on the wall. A little Turkish will take you a long way.
  • Beware of appetisers served from a tray the moment you sit down. Politely refuse unless you really want them.

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