Thursday, October 11, 2012


If the Greek islands were all about seafood, then Turkey is certainly centered squarely on the kebab.  Not the kebab that we generally think about in the west (the shish kind).  The specialty here is donner kebap (not a misspelling).  This involves compiling thin cuts of seasoned lamb or chicken to form a meat tower sometimes three feet tall. The whole thing is put on a huge skewer and then spun vertically next to a red hot heating element that slowly cooks the outer edges to a beautiful crunch. They use a ridiculously long carving knife to slowly saw off just that crispy outer ring, right into a waiting piece of warm flat bread, like a new mother lovingly cradling her infant. This version will make you just as happy with less cleanup.  (It's a food baby! Get it? Anyway, you add some veggie toppings and spicy sauce and you have possibly the best street food ever invented. We literally ate one every day in Turkey. My world has been changed and I'm now seeking out a relatively decent version in Philly.  Holler back if you have any suggestions.

Breakfast in Turkey can be as light as a cup of tea and a baklava pastry or as heavy as Turkish coffee and a dish of menemen - a wonderful hangover killing mix of scrambled eggs, tomatoes, onions, peppers & paprika.  Not in the mood for eggs? Try a gozleme instead - layers of hick filo dough stuffed with feta cheese and spinach (or other ingredients) then cooked on a flat top grill till the dough just starts to brown and the cheese starts melting. Think of it as a Turkish quesadilla, except much better and minus the guacamole.

breakfast baklava with crushed pistachios


Tea & coffee are rituals here. Coffee is prepared the old school way in a single serving pot with the ground up powder added to cold water and brought to a boil. No straining for the Turks. They pour the entire thing, grounds and all, into your cup and you let it settle at the bottom before drinking. The amount of sludge you're willing to down at the end is a measure of your manhood.  I am the equivalent of a 12 year old girl apparently.  Tea is a whole other matter. The Turks drink tea like it's going out of style, like 15 to 20 small cups a day (so says or cooking class instructor ).  They use a special tea pot that works like a double boiler.  The intense tea concentrate sits in the top to stay warm.  When you want some tea you pour a shot worth into your glass and then fill with hot water. The result is a beautifully rich cup of tea that is not bitter or puckering at all. It is so flavorful that you want to just keep drinking more.

Turkish tea

Turkish coffee w/ some Turkish delight

tea delivery! 
One of the most fun sandwiches I've ever gotten has to be the Balik Ekmek (grilled fish sandwich) from the boats floating in the Bosporus just next to the Galata bridge. Apparently dating back a few decades when fishermen used to sell them right off their boats, the tradition has lived on and been standardized a bit.  The boats bob up and down in the wake of the ferries, with the huge flat tops grilling up dozens of fish filets at a time. The cooks assemble the sandwiches (fish, lettuce, onions) and toss them to a guy on the dock who sells them for 5 lira ($2.75) a piece. There are tons of little barrel shaped tables with bottles of lemon juice & salt for your seasoning. It is a tasty sandwich, although a bit boney.  Apparently for 5 lira they don't bother so much with the quality control. The experience alone was so much fun though - a must-do when in Istanbul.

the scene by the Galata bridge and the balik ekmek boats

cooking up the balik ekmek

i am a happy man
Probably our best meal (for the money) in Turkey was on the Asian side at Ciya Kebap. This is in the Kadikoy neighborhood - a nice alternative to the stream of people on Istiklal street.  Taxis are very cheap here so paying for the 25 minute ride over didn't cost us more than $15. The neighborhood is not touristy at all. Mostly locals out for a fun night and enjoying an outdoor café, a beer and some hookah. There are three different Ciya Kebap restaurants but they are all located on the same corner. We of course picked the only one that doesn't sell alcohol. Doh! No worries, the food more than made up for it.  A huge piece of flatbread with some spicy garlic & white bean dip. Perfect kebabs all around. Afterwards we made our way down the street and scored a table at a busy bar for some Efes beers and a great hookah of apple flavored tobacco. I could have sat there all night. Live music pouring out onto the street, lovely smells of the sweet hookah smoke drifting in the air, a cold beer that the servers would not let go empty.

biggest. flatbread. ever. 
garlic and bean dip

kebap with flat bread

spicy kebap 

Nevizade street is the place to go to party in Istanbul. It is absurdly crowded (like the city itself). The street itself isn't even paved - there's just dirt & gravel with plywood running down the middle. Not sure if this is due to construction, or they just never bothered with the concrete. The entire stretch of 3 blocks is lined with restaurants and bars that fill the narrow street with outdoor tables. Servers constantly call you into their place as you stroll down the block taking it all in. It reminded me so much of Brick Lane in East London, just replace the curry with kebabs. There is live music everywhere.  Acoustic guitars and fiddles make up the majority of instruments, and they all seem to be playing local folk songs that everyone knows the words to. Bars don't close till 4am, so the party goes late here. If you can handle the smoking (everyone loves to smoke here) it's a great scene. Making friends is easy and the beers are cheap.
Nevizade street
On your stumble back from Nevizade street you are bound to run into the guys with muscles. Not the kind you see on Jersey Shore, but guys selling muscles, on the street, raw, without refrigeration. They don't do much business early on, but after a few drinks people work up enough courage stupidity to start downing them. The muscles are huge and served with just a slice of lemon to squeeze over them. I am an adventurous eater, but I'm not a masochist. This is food poisoning just waiting to happen. Also of note are the random men carrying around trays of almonds for sale. The almonds, in a strange sense of irony, are covered in ice. So in Turkey you ice down the almonds but leave the sketchy shellfish at room temperature.  Right.
sketchy muscles on the street
Our best meal of the trip (regardless of money) was at Topaz in Istanbul.  It is not cheap. But the food, service, and view of the Bosporus is nothing short of incredible.  Situated on a cliff overlooking the river and a beautiful mosque below it, one entire wall of the restaurant is open air - letting you take in the stunning view of the bridge to Asia and it's light dance all night. The menu is a mix of traditional Turkish dishes executed with western influence (and vice-versa). We learned from our waiter that the olive oil they serve with bread is produced in Turkey. We subsequently learned that most of the olive imported into the US is actually from Turkey. If it says "bottled in Italy", check the back of the label. More than likely it's made from olive oil produced in Turkey, then simply bottled and relabeled in Italy. Fun fact for the day!

view from our table at Topaz
Another trip to a foreign country and another cooking class! We've turned this into sort of a tradition after Thailand. Such a great way to get a sense of the culture and tradition of a place. Being able to replicate the tastes of somewhere you've been at home instantly brings you back. Unlike Thailand, this was not a very formal class. There were only four of us, and instead of individual stations we all took turns helping to make a few larger dishes for everyone to share. On the menu were "spring rolls" which was filo dough rolled around a local cheese similar to feta mixed with parsley & seasonings; bulgur salad with peppers, scallions & cucumbers; eggplant puree with sautéed chicken; and lastly a strange jello like desert made with rose water. The jello was a bit weird, but everything else came out great. Our instructors were helpful and friendly, even if they didn't have written recipes to give us.

making the spring rolls

mixing up the bulgur salad

fruits of our labor...

Another highlight of Istanbul is shopping the markets. The Turks love to haggle and they've apparently never heard of the supermarket concept.  The Egyptian market is a busy, noisy display of hundreds of different herbs, teas, spices, pastes and boxes of Turkish delight. It's a bit touristy inside and the prices aren't great. On the plus side they will vacuum pack anything you buy so you don't get a suitcase full of harissa. On the outside of the market you can walk amongst the cheaper priced stalls that the locals actually buy from. There are tea guys, spice guys, dessert guys, nut guys, and cheese guys. Piles of a local string cheese (free samples!) that is super cheap and makes a great snack while walking around. Pistachios that are roasted red, salted and better than anything you get in a bag at Superfresh. The Turks are apparently known for the pistachios and it's big business for them.  Bonus - more free samples! We skipped breakfast one morning and just grazed on all the samples that the vendors are offering, plus we were there early enough to avoid the massive crowds later in the day.

dried mushrooms

americans buying spices

piles of string cheese

our spice guy. home of the world's spiciest harissa. 
I wasn't surprised by how good the food was in Turkey. I had been looking forward to it for weeks after splendid reviews from friends and family that had visited. Turkey certainly lived up to my expectations and then some. I'd go back just for a donner kebap. Or some of that olive oil. Or one of those fish sandwiches. Or an Efes beer. Or a cup of that Turkish tea. I would go back to explore more of the country. See where that olive oil is made, where they grow those oh so yummy pistachios. I would go back to experience the hookah cafes in Bodrum and the thriving night life in Istanbul. I would go back for more. Much more.  

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