Monday 7 November 2016

A Food-Lover's Guide to Turkey

Any good travel guide to Turkey will give you a mesmerizing list of the highlights of the ancient city of Istanbul, the only city to straddle two continents – both Europe and Asia.The choice will be overwhelming so be warned, like me you’ll find yourself wanting to return over and over again, I’ve fallen head over heels in love with Turkey.

On a first visit, don’t  miss Hagia Sophia -  an awe inspiring expression of religious faith and one of the world’s most extraordinary architectural  wonders, a museum since 1934. Blue Mosque, another of the most celebrated religious buildings in the world, completed in 1616. Known as the Blue Mosque because of the more than 20,000 blue Izmuk tiles that embellish the interior.

Try to take in the Suleymaniye Mosque, also known as the Sunken or Basilica Cisterns – it’s close by the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. It may not sound very inspiring but I was gobsmacked by this vast underground cistern probably build in the fourth century and supplied with water via aqueducts from Belgrade Forest. The huge Yerebatan cistern held 80 cubic metres of water and was supported by 336 columns, many with Corinthian capitals which look as though they were recycled remains from other historic sites – don’t miss the two Medusa heads, restored in 1987. There are still carp swimming in the water. Part of James Bond’s “From Russia With Love” was filmed here. 

The Grand Bazzar, a vast covered Ottoman bazaar dating back to 1640. The largest in the world, full of Eastern promise, over 4,000 shops with hand painted arched ceilings and beautiful lanterns. Selling just about everything you can imagine from carpets, slippers, susani, spices, jewellery, furs, antiques to alarmingly good fakes – bags, watches … It's absolutely vast, there are 61 streets, 22 gates, resign yourself to getting lost and enjoy. Both locals and tourists shop here – don’t forget to haggle!

The Bosphorus Strait divides Europe from Asia; over 50,000 cargo ships, oil tankers and ocean liners pass through this vital transport artery every year. It’s one of the very best ways to enjoy superb views of the city’s skyline, imperial palaces, ancient fortress, waterside mansions and villages. 

A Cooks Culinary Tour of Istanbul is bliss for someone like me who ferrets out street food wherever I travel from South America to Asia.

I found Claudia Turgut through Unison Turkey,( who took me on a culinary skite around Istanbul. Six action packed hours later, I had walked about six miles through narrow alleyways, spice markets and bazaars, tasted over 20 different street foods and learned a ton about Turkish culture, food and traditions. 

We ambled through the narrow cobbled streets, peeping into ancient Karavanseri  where the nomad merchants and their camels rested when they came to trade in Constantinople.  We wandered through Balik Pazarı fish market on the edge of the Bosphorus, watched and licked our lips at the fish stalls making balik ekmek. Filled with fresh Norwegian mackerel or Black Sea salmon grilled right there in front of us then sandwiched into a roll with lettuce, sliced onion and peppers... 

 We crossed the famous Galata Bridge that spans the Golden Horn, where over 100 hardy men in anoraks and woolly caps fish for whatever they can catch over the ornate iron railings, lots of tiny spanking fresh fish which I later enjoyed just dipped in seasoned flour and deep fried at a cafe in Sultanahmet. 

What cooks should bring home: 

Pekmez - fruit molasses made from grapes, mulberries, pomegranates and cherries, reduced slightly fermented syrup, brilliant in dressings, salads and for drizzling over yoghurt. 

Zatar– commonly known as dried thyme but usually hyssop and sometimes savoury. For sprinkling over a lahmacun, pide or flat breads or just to mix with oil. 

Sumac –  berries from the sumac bush, dried and ground, a lovely wine coloured, citrus flavoured astringent spice, sprinkle over everything, salads, grilled meats….

Kermizi Biber flakes – red pepper flakes, sundried chilli ground into flakes, – there’s hot, medium, gentle, also a great paste called biber salçasi.

Tahini– a paste made from sesame seeds,  yes,  I know you can get it here but you'll find much better quality for a fraction of the price.

Dut – dried mulberries, a delicious snack or add them to cakes or

Where to Stay 

The Vault Karaköy, (part of The House Hotel group) used to be a bank but was restored by the Agha Khan award-winning Turkish architect Han Tümertekin. The classic contemporary interiors were designed by Sinan Kafadar who was inspired by the imposing bank vaults which gave rise to the hotel’s name. Located in the up and coming hip neighbourhood of Karaköy with its chic café culture, a brilliant launching pad to explore bohemian Beyoğlu, historic Sultanahmet and the Galata port, an in-house curator organises constant exhibitions and events. Charmingly helpful staff and great breakfasts.

Where to Eat

Ciya, don’t miss this lokantas or tradesmans’ restaurant. Chef owner Musa Dagdeviren collects unusual regional dishes from all around Turkey. It’s not a fancy place but you’ll find the food, particularly the vegetable dishes memorable. There’s a kebab shop on one side of the street and a restaurant on the other, try both – great value.  To get there you take a twenty minute ferry ride to the Asian side of the Bosporus.


Hayvore, another local haunt introduced to me by an insider Antony Doucet – gorgeous freshly cooked food, much with influences from the Black Sea area. Hizir Keskin and his team  are passionate about sourcing superb raw materials. So many wonderful dishes but don’t miss Hamsili  Pilav and Şeker Fasülyesi, plump tender heirloom beans from Artvin also in the Black Sea area. The succulent Dolma, Karalahana, wrapped in a special black cabbage with yoghurt spoiled me from ever tasting any other Dolma. Ridiculously affordable and maybe the best Turkish food I ate on my trip. 

Mikla, the dazzling panoramic view around the Golden Horn from Mikla, the restaurant on the top of the Marmara Pera Hotel is truly breath-taking. Mehmet Gur’s cheffy food is a delectable example of the Young Turks, New Anatolian kitchen movement and it tastes as good as it looks. Great Turkish and Scandinavian influences and an international wine list, don’t miss the hampi (anchovy) wafers. 

Yeni Lokanta, another stunning example of the new Turkish kitchen, pirated European dishes are not for Civan Er, this exciting young chef, who uses local ingredients and traditional Turkish cooking techniques and wood burning ovens to deliver his menu of many small plates – very good food at very reasonable prices. 

Mezze by Lemon serves mezze and raki – a marriage made in heaven. Here passionate young chef Gençay Üçok re-interprets the traditional mezze for his cult following and serves some of the most creative and delicious food in town until 12pm at night. Also, check out his food stall Beyaz Izgara in the Grand Bazaar. Gençay has led a campaign in Turkey against the global fast food companies to highlight the variety of superb traditional Turkish fast food options. Gençay does culinary tours of Istanbul, check out KD Tours  

Kantin in the super chic Nisantasi neighbourhood is another gem. A proper 'farm to table' eatery, with a ground floor gourmet shop and bakery, the smell of crusty loaves of natural sourdough bread wafting from the wood-burning oven. 

Owner Semsa Denizsel writes the menu of beautiful seasonal food on a blackboard in the upstairs café. There’s an adorable garden behind, Semsa showed me how to enjoy Turkish coffee in the traditional way with a spoon of mastic in a glass of water, Tell her I sent you and don’t leave without tasting her tahini biscuits and thin crust pizza of the day and cucumber and mint Ayran.