Every city has its monuments, its churches and palaces, its prominent squares and avenues—and every visitor can easily learn how to find them. That’s true, too, for the most famous or most tourist-oriented restaurants as well. But it’s not as easy to wander off the beaten path and find the truly typical local foods, and especially not so easy to know what’s what when you find it.
So, on our recent trip to Istanbul, we were happy to take the advice of a traveling relative and look up Culinary Backstreets, a company that operates in several cities and specializes in small-group walking tours through…the culinary backstreets, the neighborhoods where typical local foods are sold, prepared, eaten and treasured.
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We signed up for two of their Istanbul tours; this blog covers the first, in which we wandered with our guide, Katerina, and another visitor through Beyoglu, an area north of the Golden Horn on the European side of Istanbul. Traditionally a cosmopolitan mix of Turkish, Greek, Jewish and other ethnic groups as well as the residences of diplomats and merchants, it still retains a lot of its old character even as populations have shifted.
The day was complicated by a snowfall starting the night before our tour; it turned out to be the heaviest in 50 years, and we thought the tour might be canceled. But no…the walk was on (and so was the snow, off and on throughout the day).
The tours start at 9:30 in the morning and run to 3 or 4 p.m. with plenty of walking…but plenty of stops between to see, sample and eat. The cost of the walk includes everything eaten along the way. At each stop, Katerina ordered a variety of that restaurant or store’s specialties for us to share, and each dish came with discussion of its origin and its place in Turkish cuisine.
Kaymak, bottom left, at our breakfast. Note the typical tea glasses as well.
Our tour started with breakfast, and one of the key discoveries of the whole day, kaymak. If all the mosques and palaces of Istanbul were gone, it would still be worth a trip for kaymak. No, really. It’s a variation of clotted cream made from the milk of water buffaloes. Spread a little on a piece of simet, the halfway between pretzel and bagel bread that’s everywhere in Istanbul, perhaps add a touch of honey or preserves, and, well…that's heaven. Hard to come by, these days, it seems: Here's a LINK and a picture of the source.
And here's the source of simet. Vendors like this are everywhere in Istanbul; most simets are flavored with sesame seeds, but other varieties are occasionally available. They appear to be similar to the obwarzanek of Poland, described by another Gumbo blogger last week.
Our meal was at a small neighborhood “lokantasi.” Literally, a tradesman’s restaurant, they cater to workers in the neighborhood and local families. They don’t serve alcohol; the license to do so costs so much that the food would be priced out of range. Usually they offer a limited range of house-made food, sometimes cafeteria style.
Along with the kaymak, our breakfast included cured olives (we were surprised to find that olives are mostly a breakfast food), tomatoes and cucumbers, honey, preserves, and menemen, a Turkish dish of eggs, tomatoes, onion, green pepper and spices.
And tea. We had already been told that Turkish coffee is not for breakfast; in fact the Turkish word for breakfast can translate as “before coffee.” The tea deserves a space of its own. It’s not just a beverage, it’s a tradition—even a ritual. Always available, always served in distinctive narrow-waisted glasses, always a rich, warm color. No herbal tissanes, no flavored teas (including the not-really-Turkish apple tea).
The tea lady and her machine
We were told that Turkish tea, from the Black Sea region, is of “lower quality” than tea from India or Sri Lanka, and must be brewed in boiling water and left to steep as a hot concentrate. When it’s time to serve, fresh hot water is added to the strong brew; the glass allows knowing when the “right color” is achieved.
After breakfast, we began our roam through the neighborhood, led by Katerina. Some of the local sights she had planned to show us were down steep streets where snow was a problem, but we got an extra treat in return: Istanbulis clear some of their snow by making snowmen. But our next goal was pide and pastry.
Despite the similar name and despite some books calling it that, pide is not “Turkish pizza.” It does use a flattened (b ut not so much) dough base, and it is loaded with meat, or cheese. But it’s different in consistency as well as flavor, and once baked is kept hot on a grill until served. We sampled several kinds; the lamb and the cheese were my favorites.
We also sampled several varieties of borek, or water pastry. The borek looks very noodle-like, flat like lasagna noodles, but is actually boiled phyllo dough, cut in strips and filled. Cheese and pumpkin were our favorite fillings.
Our next stop was at a pickle and olive store. I’ve always been a fan of pickled tomatoes and cucumbers, but there’s a lot more to be brined, and this store seemed to have it all—topped off with a glass of pickle juice to drink. Surprisingly refreshing! Turkish pickles, by the way, lean to salty more than sour.
After more walking through the neighborhood, looking in windows and at street displays, accompanied by Katerina’s knowledgeable description of the area and its development, we stopped at a store selling cheeses, meats and oils. This was mostly a look-see, rather than a real snack stop.
And now, it was time for another serious stop, at another lokantasi, noted for its dishes from Turkey's Black Sea region. In fact, that was its name! They were getting ready for a lunchtime rush with displays of their specialties, ready to serve.
Anchovies, not my favorite at all, figured prominently here, and were enjoyed (just not by me). But the stewed chickpeas, the stuffed grape leaves and the stewed beans made me very happy indeed.
Amazed that we could still eat, we walked a bit more, browsing stalls, and wondering if we'd have the appetite for anything more.
But, of course, the answer was YES!, and we moved on to our next stop, which specializes in durum, which in a concession to simplicity, I will call a Turkish wrap.
It starts with a lavash, a thin flat bread, and meat that looks sort of like a gyro on a horizontal rather than vertical spit. The lavash gets its crispy edges and lots of flavor from being reheated at the grill. It’s then wrapped up around the meat, with tomato and onion. I almost didn’t remember to take a picture before I ate the last bite.
But something was still missing. We’d been nibbling and noshing on all kinds of savory treats while ducking in and out of the snow…but we hadn’t had our sweets yet. That started next, with a visit to a store whose purpose was clear the minute we saw these glistening treats in the window, although we didn’t actually taste them. Instead, we sampled the house-made preserves, dished up from large metal vats into smaller containers.
But the main reason for this stop was Turkish Delight, whose real name is "lokum." I have to admit I wasn’t especially anticipating wonderful; even though friends have gushed about it, none of the ones I’d sampled before amounted to much more than flavored jellies of no particular character. OK, I admit it, I was wrong. I had been judging the world of chocolate by a Hershey bar.
These were different, and in perhaps a dozen subtle flavors: rosewater, pistachio, apple, citrus, hazelnut, date, and more.
And the other sweets were tempting as well. But not enough to distract me from the Turkish Delight for very long. We bought an assortment...and some of it actually made it home.
After all that there was only one thing left: Turkish coffee, and with it, a last piece of pastry. A word here: I’ve always hated Turkish coffee…I hate any kind of grounds or powder in my coffee. Little did I know until I started research before this trip that I was drinking it wrong. The word is: when you get to the sludge in the bottom, get a fresh cup. Good advice.
We headed off for what Katerina assured us was the best coffee in the entire city. Sadly, I can’t verify that; the owner had apparently looked at the snow and decided it was time for a day off. So we walked a couple of blocks more to what might be the second best. I’m not competent to judge that, but I’ll recommend that quince pastry to anyone.
That was our last stop; we said goodbye to Katrina and our fellow traveler and headed off to a big dinner. NOT.
After all, we had to be ready for another day of all-day noshing on our other Culinary Backstreets tour, only two days later. I'll report on that soon, including the elusive chicken-breast pudding.
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