Posted by: acooksca | 05/13/2011

Istanbul and Its Food

Turkish Coffee

Turkish Coffee

“Mr. San Francisco! You said you would come back to see our carpets!” It is our last day in Istanbul. The first person we spoke to when we arrived five days earlier is calling to us as we attempt to slither down the street unnoticed. We relent and enter the luxurious world of two of Turkey’s prime art forms, fine carpets and hospitality.

This is mid-April and the beginning of a season that will bring 1 1/2 million tourists to Istanbul. The locals are still fresh, greeting visitors with humor, patience and innumerable cups of dark, sweet tea. The historic center of Istanbul is compact and on several occasions the swell of gawking, bewildered visitors in long entrance lines foretells what June will bring. We are happy to be here now.

We learn to visit the “big sights” first thing in the day before the 10:30 tour busses get there: Hagia Sophia, built 537 as the grandest church in early Christiandom with its expanses of opulent mosaics and decoration, the imposing and elegantly tiled Blue Mosque, the vast forest of dimly-lit stone pillars in the cavernous Underground Cistern, the Ottoman’s sprawling Topkapi Palace on a cliff commanding the Bosporus.

Turkish Delight

Turkish Delight

It is a busy, modern, visitor-friendly city…most of the monuments and shopping areas are accessible by foot if you are a good walker, and refreshments are always close by. Tea is the favored beverage and we seldom see a shop keeper without a delicate glass of tea in hand, but the Turkish coffee is more unique.

We order coffee in a pastry-coffee shop. It is one of hundreds which are often packed (the Turkish have a serious sweet tooth.) Our barista begins a complex process of repeatedly frothing boiling water, finely ground coffee and sugar. Served in an espresso sized china cup with a tiny silver dome, we enjoy the intense flavor and sip slowly, trying to leave the fine grounds in the bottom. With it we order a traditional dessert of shredded pastry, and pistachios, heavy with honey. We also order an assortment of Turkish Delight, beautifully soft and haunting little confection tasting of roses or honey or orange or nuts.

Lamb Manti

Lamb Manti

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, Old Spice Market, prized museums, serene mosques, cruise on the Bosporus are all wonderful but the intoxicating smell of grilling lamb fills the streets and commands my attention. Everywhere, kebabs in many sizes and styles sizzle over charcoal grills. Two-inch cubes of marinated lamb as Sis  Kebap (shish kebab) , lamb off a vertical spit called Donor Kebap, ground lamb blended with spices for Kofte Kebap. This isn’t the mild flavored lamb we buy from American agri-business. These small wool- bearing sheep have grazed the Asian Steppes for thousands of years and earned their full, gamey glory.

Gozleme being made

Gozleme being made

Restaurants that claim a Cappadocia kitchen have dishes from the central high plains of Anatolia and we find this food particularly interesting. These dishes are echos of The Silk Road. Manti, lamb filled dumplings made from Istanbul to China, are made in miniature and topped with garlicky yogurt. Thin spinach filled pancakes, called gozleme,
are particularly delicate and fine in Turkey. We are told it takes five years to get the feel of rolling the dough ultra-thin. Country women find work in Istanbul restaurants making gozleme to order. In the 15th century Turkish tribes swooped into Anatolia from the east, establishing the Ottoman Empire and adding their dried fruits and nuts to the cuisine. Lamb braised with dried apricots, figs and almonds is a treasure of the Sultan’s kitchen.

Istanbul also offers a high-end Turkish-global cuisine in dining rooms at the best hotels. We dine one night surrounded by stylish young professionals, European businessmen and families celebrating an occasion. We are seated in the Mikla Restaurant at the top of the Marmara Pera Hotel. One enjoys the spectacular 360 degree view of Istanbul while sipping designer cocktails made with Turkish gin or sparkling wine from central Turkey. The Euro-trained chef highlights locally-sourced products in international preparations: Bosporus mackerel is smoked, whipped into a mousse and chilled, then served with curried apple chutney and micro greens. For wine our waiter suggests a Syrah-Bogazkere blend from a top Turkish vintner and it pairs well with the sophisticated cuisine.

Turkish fruit juice stand

Food through out Turkey is never far from the field. Even in a city of about 12 million (it could be 9, it could be 15 million, the figures vary widely) ingredients are fresh everywhere. There are street carts of warm bread products and pomegranate juice squeezed to order. Displays show enticing stuffed vegetables and glistening kebabs ready for the grill. Preparations are done with a light hand, from delicate fresh anchovies on crisp flat bread (see recipe below) to most anything from herbs and mild cheese to ground meat baked in a few leaves of Phyllo. Food surrounds you and it is dished up with a refreshing dose of hospitality. You will never hunger for great history, friendly people or good food in Istanbul.

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