I like a country that takes food seriously, so almost from the instant I arrived in Istanbul I could tell that this city and I were going to get along like a house on fire. The drive into the city from the airport took me past outdoor fish markets and restaurants and innumerable street food vendors – all of which had me pressing my nose up against the car window in hungry anticipation.
Istanbul’s culinary tradition is informed by hundreds of years of the Ottoman Empire and it’s unique geographic position, straddling Europe and Asia, resulting in a cuisine which is a rich and vibrant fusion of Asian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European flavours. Turkish cuisine in general varies widely from region to region and one day I’ll get back there to discover more about it, but for this visit I was more than happy with the food on offer in Istanbul. This impression was largely influenced by the very first thing I did once I arrived – yes, you guessed it, a food tour! Culinary Backstreets offer several culinary walks through the streets of Istanbul and I managed to squeeze into a walk which took in the culinary secrets of the Old City, a tour which promised to take me out of the main tourist areas and into the back streets of traditional neighbourhoods.
Led by English-speaking locals with a long-standing and almost encyclopaedic knowledge of their city, Culinary Backstreet tours are limited to small groups and take in several different areas of the city. My tour began with a 9.30 meet-up with English ex-pat Claudia, who has lived in Istanbul for over 30 years with her Turkish husband, right next to the historic Spice Bazaar. On that day I was recovering from the repercussions of greedily gobbling fresh Bulgarian berries without washing them, so had no choice but to be extra careful about what I ate. A tortuous state to be in when faced with the stuff of my dreams, but one I bravely overcame when the choices before me were too tempting to pass over.
My first temptation came early, as we visited several food vendors around the Spice Bazaar to select some traditional breakfast treats. The streets of Istanbul’s old city are dotted with street food carts and one of our first stops was to visit one to purchase some simit, the traditional sesame encrusted Turkish bread rings. From there we wandered through the stalls, picking up other tempting morsels, before finding ourselves perched on low stools at a table deep inside an old building. With our first (of many, as I was to discover) feed of the day spread out before us, my determination not to compromise the rest of my week in Istanbul by risking my gastric integrity on the first day crumbled in the face of kaymak (pictured above). This rich, ambrosial indulgence is made by slowly reducing buffalo milk over some hours, then skimming off the cream and serving it with jam or honey. Obviously, this is not an experience a greed girl like me was going to miss out on, although I was quite uncharacteristically cautious – a happy state of affairs for the rest in the tour as it meant they actually got some.
After restoring ourselves with sweet apple tea (again, the first of many) we began our tour in earnest, weaving in and out of tight and crowded lanes, pushing past shoppers, other tourists and touts and stopping off at various stalls, small cafes and stores of the lesser-explored and genuinely atmospheric streets of the old city.
And we ate – oh, how we ate. Crisp, honeyed pastries oozing with melted cheese, crunchy, fresh-cooked vegetable pides, steaming, spicy kofte, moist, delicious kebabs on fresh Turkish flat bread, chewy, sweet, genuine Turkish delight, the unusual but hugely popular fermented millet drink called boza and cup after cup of tea – either the sweet apple tea or simple, black Turkish tea.
And once we had done wandering around, absorbing parts of Istanbul that we might never had seen, we sat down to a late lunch at a traditional, family-run restaurant near an ancient Byzantine aqueduct, which served succulent, pit-roasted lamb and a delicately-spiced, crusty rice and chicken pilaf. And we ate that, too.
Almost seven hours after I had left it, I wearily trudged back to my hotel, happy to put my feet up for a bit. I needed a rest as my day wasn’t yet done. I had made plans to meet up with friends – for dinner!
If you are headed to Istanbul and want to know where and how to eat, check out Istanbul Eats for the low-down on every aspect of Istanbul food and Culinary Backstreets for a guided tour that will leave you tired, but sated.
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