In the center of the world there´s a city split in two continents. There are street markets, breakfasts for warriors, places where turists don´t want to go, tea overdose, the best puff pastry, abundance of pistachio.
Istanbul is the center of many regions, and that is why its gastronomy is the result of a mixture of influences: on one side the Balkans, on the other the Caucasus, Greece to the west, the Arabic culture to the south, the Iranian to the east. There are also minoritarian regional cultures, Armenians and greeks. A century ago, 40% of the population wasn´t muslim: it was jew, greek, Armenian. The mediterranean influence in Turkish cuisine can be recognized through fish. And from the island of Crete, through many recipes of vegetarian dishes with herbs.
On our first day in the Turkish city we met Benoit, a Belgian who had lived in Istanbul for 20 years. He told us that he left the textile industry to devote himself to be a tourist guide. He had been a gardener en Greece, a fisherman in the south of Turkey, interpreter for a Human Rights ONG and he had also worked for the Belgian TV. Today he enjoys his passion and invites everyone to travel to Istanbul from a different point of view.
“Much has been said about the English breakfast, but it is nothing compared to Turkish breakfast. Turkey might be the only country near the Mediterranean Sea with such a consisting breakfast”, says Benoit before beginning our walk along the neighborhood of Karakoy. We go to Haci Hasan Fehmi Ozsut, a hundred years old bar where we find a table full of food: goat cheese, rose petals jam, pide (Turkish bread), pine tree honey, olives, chorizo, eggplant, peppers and pickles.
To our surprise, they didn´t serve us coffee in the bar of high roof, wooden tables and white floor. Behind the refrigerator, which is also a counter, there´s a picture that we would see repeatedly during our days in Istanbul: a picture of Ataturk, first President of the Republic. “After WWI the Ottoman Empire lost Yemen- where coffee came from- so the infusion had to be imported. Prices rose and Turkey had low resources. That´s why they had to switch from coffee to tea.” explains Benoit.
Not only Turkey is famous for the Blue Mosque, but also for its sweets. Right away we realize that we are in the country of pistachio, so coveted in Argentina, it abounds in Turkey. We go to a shop to try Baklava, a puff pastry pie filled with a walnut paste and a bath of syrup. Next we try Gullac, almost the same pie filled with pistachio.
FYI: you can have the best börek –puff pastry filled with cheese, meat or chard- in Güllüoğlu, founded in 1820. But look carefully, that are many other shops with similar names. The original is in Rıhtım Cad. Katlı Otopark Altı No: 3-4. Without exaggerating, the Turkish make the best puff pastry in the world.
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Around noon we hear one of the prayer calls. Loudspeakers in mosques call their believers in a melody that seems to be stretching vowels. All of them are very passionate, and some of them are more attractive than others, we think that they sound better as days go by, although we don´t understand what they say. Benoit tells us that the closeness to a mosque- which would translate in hearing the prayer call five times a day- is an important factor when deciding where to buy or rent a house.
We walk along a colorful port market. At a side, a street stall dishes out grilled fish sandwiches -balik ekmek-. The grill cook eats what he sells: good sign. Fish wait for a miracle and try to jump out of the bowls. A group of guys are sitting around bowls full of fish: they are cleaning them to sell them to the restaurants of the area. We move on to the pier to take a ferry to the least touristic part of Istanbul: the Asian side of Istanbul. “Usually tourists don´t come to this place because there aren`t famous monuments” our guide says.
After sailing across the Bosphorus, we arrived to Kadikoy a quaint borough, the place where young people, artists and hippies choose to live. There are many places to eat and it is as vibrant as bustling. The only ones who seem to be abstracted are a group of men playing dominoes in the street. We go to a local bakery to watch how they make simit -similar to pretzels-. There are big murals which remind us of the Turkish neighborhood in Berlin. We visit some Mehane, restaurants like our “bodegones” where groups of friend meet to share a meal and drink Raki.
We made a tasting of regional specialities as the famous Tantuni from Mersin -southern Turkey-, very similar to the Mexican burrito, yuvarlama Turkish yogurt and mint soup from Gaziantep -central southern region-, anchovies from the Black Sea, smashed chickpeas –remnants of the Armenian cuisine-, and melted cheese with wheat flour.
Pickles are very important in the Turkish diet. “During the winter vegetables are scarce, so they eat this preserved food”, explains Benoit. They sell it in the street like salads and there are shops that sell pickles made out of any vegetable and fruit you can imagine. For a moment we remembered the few species we use to cook in Argentina and we multiplied them by a thousand. The street market gets crowded, full of loud sellers, Turkey flags, spice smell, and tea cups everywhere. Benoit stops to buy olives and pastrami. Benoit is acquainted with the olive seller, so he gives Benoit a few free olives .
This city is not alien to the show business: Salt Bae, the most famous Turkish butcher at the moment, is a renowed chef, famous because of “throwing salt” in a big way. He owns a very famous restaurant in Istanbul and Dubai. “When I went for the first time, he wasn´t so popular. Now he has become very famous and the prices in the menu are very high” regrets Benoit.
After a seven hour frenzy, thick coffee, and chicken breast pudding -yes! CHICKEN BREAST PUDDING-, we ask Benoit to define Istanbul in one word: movement, he says. “A big saucepan with boiling water, there´s always something happening, something new and unexpected, surprises”. That´s how we felt eating in the center of the world.
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