I must admit, prior to the trip, I'd approached the thought of Istanbul warily, occasionally prodding our Time Out Istanbul guide with a stick from the sofa in case it jumped up and bit me.
This caution began from reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as a child, where Turkish delight, a candy that I'd never previously heard of and whose name gave no insight whatsoever as to its shape, taste or form, took on sinister proportions, its power to entrance so strong that it could sever the bonds of family and lead to the downfall of entire kingdoms.
Later on in life, my imaginings of Turkey involved burly mustachioed men in tiny towels, plotting all manner of dishonourable transactions through the dense steam of cavernous tiled baths.
The real Istanbul (or perhaps the Istanbul outside the bathhouse - I eventually didn't visit one) turned out to be nothing of the sort. Roads between the major historical and tourist sights are paved with cobblestones and sheltered by broad, leafy trees; multi-hued, picturesque guesthouses offer comfortable, if not luxurious, abodes, and restaurants advertise an almost endless variety of fresh seafood. Infinitely more Seville than Slovakia.
An apple tree on the street, just like that! If it weren't for all those Hao GongMing (Good Citizen) classes we took in school, I would definitely have run away with a stolen apple or two. Incidentally, Hao GongMing class also taught me how many squares of toilet paper would be sufficient per trip (e-mail me if you want to know the answer), and to run with a pair of scissors with the blade pointing to yourself - so if you trip you only kill yourself and don't inadvertedly wound others.
View of the Blue Mosque from our hotel's breakfast terrace
As with most holidays in recent memory, the trip quickly became about the food. We breezed through the beautiful and impressive Sultanahment Palace, sped through the admittedly sexy underground waterways, and flew through the world reknown Grand Bazaar in a matter of a couple of hours, and only really slowed down when, in the neighbourhood around the Grand Bazaar, we found ourselves confronted by the smells and sounds of street food. With a kindly proprietor beckoning like this, who could resist, no?
First stop was for lahmacun, a kind of mutton pizza where chunks of grilled lamb mince met a generous sprinkling of fresh parsley on a thin and crispy pita base. Add a squeeze of lemon, and it's just perfect.
Our appetites whetted and courage bolstered, we then ventured to try some mussels being sold by a random uncle on the sidewalk. Here's the "thank God I had my hepatitis shot before coming" mussel tank:
Turns out the mussels have been removed from the shell, cooked, then stuffed back into the shells with a mound of saffron rice. 1 Euro is all it takes to get Mussel Uncle to open one of these babies up for you. These were really yummy - the subtle brininess of the mussels soothed by the cool, delicately spiced rice.
After a bit more of the requisite tourist photo taking and earnest guidebook consulting, we settled on dinner in the Kumkapi neighbourhood.
A brisk 10 minute walk from the major sights of Sultanahmet, Kumkapi is a laidback quarter encompassing 4 or 5 streets just off the coast. Fresh seafood, alfresco dining, fairy lights and the robust music of wandering minstrels is standard fare here. We tried to be a bit scientific about it and scoured the streets for the restaurant that seems to be most occupied by locals, but gave up after a while and eventually chose the one with the prettiest lights - Restaurant Neyzen :)
Most of the establishments appear to offer similar menus - after being seated, a large platter containing all the day's appetizers is laid out in front of you, leaving you to order via the extremely tourist friendly point-and-grab technique. These salads would typically contain tomatoes, eggplant, cucumber, melons, cured fish, calamari and cheese in various combinations.
Day 2 and more food was on the agenda! We boarded the ferry to the Asian shore of the Bosphorus to check out the weekend food market in the Sakerci neighbourhood - it's considered less expensive and more expansive than markets on the European side of the city. Plus, after all our travelling up to that point, it was almost reassuring to be back on Asian shores again :)
Asia sweet Asia!
First stop was the fruit stall, where we succumbed to temptation (that was quick!) and bought a box of strawberries for immediate consumption, and a carton of fresh figs to be handcarried back home. This endeavour actually brought out our best charade skills, as we tried painfully to enact the request "Can you please give us firmer figs as we are BOARDING A PLANE... CARRY... NO EAT TODAY, EAT TOMORROW... HARD GOOD SOFT BAD..."
After that harrowing experience, we went to explore the rest of the market, precious box of figs in hand and lips already stained pink with strawberry juice.
Here's the fish section - the "before" to last night's "after" dinner.
Stallholders enjoying a morning chat while hand peeling the leaves and shells of macademia nuts (insert nut joke with homesexual innuendos here).
A local bakery - words cannot describe how good the smell coming out of this place was.
And something you don't see everyday, the neighbourhood honeycomb store!
Lunch was at a cafe in the same neighbourhood - its perky outdoor patio appearing like a mirage almost as soon as the market stalls ended. Philippe had a shish kebab with fries, grilled peppers and rice, while I opted for a combination of items from the self-serve salad bar:
Most of my items were cold salads involving what seemed to be local wild vegetables, herbs or even some sort of bracken, together with eggplant and grape leaves stuffed with rice. The salads were all strongly seasoned with alternating combinations of parsley, onions, lemon juice and tomatoes, and were exceptionally refreshing on a hot summer day.
Dessert was a slice of melon pickled in sugar syrup and topped crushed nuts (feel free to continue on earlier nut joke here), plus a gooey slice of pistachio baklava.
Our visit to Sakerci ended with what turned out to be an extremely long stay at the local patisserie - Cafe Erol, where we ordered enough boxes of baklava and multi-coloured Turkish delight to feed both our offices, families, all our friends, plus a couple hundred more people (cos you never know who might come to visit right? Might as well be prepared!) I'm sure you'll understand how irresistible they were though after seeing the next few pictures (I went a bit snap happy with the camera as you can tell) - it's really the candy store dreams are made of!
How cute are those little baby sweets? Presumably they're for sending out when celebrating the birth of a child (they come in a blue boy's version too) as opposed to being for satisfying some kind of depraved cannibalistic craving.
A brief stop back at the hotel to deposit our various treasures, and we were off again for more eating, this time along the bustling pedestrian boulevard of Istiklal Caddesi.
First stop was an unscheduled one - we first noticed the crowds of people filing into this cafe, then the numerous frame awards on display on the window, and finally the mounds of chocolate slathered choux that seem to be the only item this store sells. In my book, any eating establishment that can survive on the sale of one product only (see: Singapore hawker stalls) has to be pretty damned good.
We weren't disappointed. The chocolate sauce was dark and silky, the custard cool and firm. Definitely one of the eating highlights of our trip, and we found it ourselves! (Self-congratulatory pat on back)
Perhaps as a result of our new found overconfidence, our next stop didn't turn out to be quite so successful. Don't get me wrong, it was definitely an experience and worth visiting, but maybe we could've been a little more circumspect in our choice of dessert. This stop was Cafe Saray, a brightly lit, bustling cafe filled to the brim with mouthwatering mountains of solid sugar.
Philippe opted for a savoury dish - a slice of the macaroni and cheese pie in the above photo.
I forgot the name of our desserts, but I opted for the brown-skinned roll you can see in the top left hand corner of the menu photo (and also the same corner of the display shelf photo). It was one of those desserts that I'd sold my heart to the minute I set my eyes on it, and nothing was going to get in my way from having it. All the same, to make conversation with our server, I casually asked what it was made of. He replied with a grin "chicken ice-cream, Turkish specialty". My eyes grew wide with horror as Philippe had a good, gut-busting laugh.
"He's obviously making fun of you, and you fell for it! You're such a tourist bwahaha!"
Feeling a bit sheepish, I silently dug my spoon into the ice-cream topped plate of confectionery. It turned out pretty good at first bite - creamy, the sweet vanilla ice-cream contrasting nicely again the savoury chicken flavour.
Hang on, did I say chicken???
IT WAS UNMISTAKABLY CHICKEN.
Turned out the brown "skin" of the roll was none other than chicken floss - gossamer thin strands of dried chicken meat, the same way you'd get pork floss or fish floss. There also seemed to be some chicken floss in the cream cheese-like filling itself, as telltale strands continually appeared on spoon or plate.
Needless to say, after about 4 mouthfuls, the dish went from exotic surprise to just plain weird, and our stay at Cafe Saray came quickly to an end.Dinner, unfortunately, didn't leave me with much to report. The restaurants of Istiklal Caddesi essentially serve the same type of food as Kumkapi, albeit in a buzzing New York bar street setting. But after a couple of days of very fulfilling and non-stop dining, we weren't in a position to complain.
All in, I'd highly recommend Turkey for anyone looking for a slightly more exotic European holiday. Istanbul is good for 3 or 4 days, and the country's numerous islands and historical sights are only a short flight or bus ride away. People are friendly, food and lodging are inexpensive, and the monuments are some of the most impressive you'll find anyway. Oh, and did I mention the food was good?
A couple of parting shots: kids concentrating hard on a game of chess in the neighbourhood of our hotel, and a view of the ceiling of the Blue Mosque, whose tiles gave the mosque its moniker, through the iron frame of one of its chandeliers.
Now I'm depressed 'cos the end of summer holiday blogging means I have to acknowledge that summer holidays are over, a fact I've been in denial over for a couple of months now :)