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Lingering over coffee and mezze in Turkey

If you linger by a palace or a mosque or upon a boat or under a bridge or anywhere really; looking even vaguely hungry, a genuinely concerned bystander is likely to offer you a snack.

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A young Turkish bride confides with a giggle as we cruise down the Bosphorus together, “The food is so loved and such a big part of life here, that at my wedding reception, my food was more photographed than me.” I tell her that I’m not surprised. For just about everywhere I go in Istanbul, the most tantalising aromas accost me. So much so that by my third day here, I absent-mindedly nibble on the upholstery of the hired car and am astounded to find it inedible. Behaviour such as this is almost predictable when, in no matter which direction you wave a spoon, you’re guaranteed to find something delectable to munch on.

The other revelation about Istanbul is that if you linger by a palace or a mosque or upon a boat or under a bridge or anywhere really; looking even vaguely hungry, a genuinely concerned bystander is likely to offer you a snack. I accompany one such generous soul to ‘The World Famous Pudding Shop’ in the Sultanahmet neighbourhood of the city. We go up to the steam tables where food is displayed. I select tavuk gogsu, a seldom- found pudding whipped up from pounded chicken breast, rice flour, milk, sugar, cinnamon and a typically Turkish coffee to go with it.

Later, my samaritan insists on buying me ice cream, reinforcing my already firm belief in Turkish hospitality. The ice cream seller, who is dressed like a monkey, is juggling balls of surreally-coloured ice-cream of an elastic texture — born of the fact that the cream is thickened with salep, a powder milled from wild orchid buds grown in the Anatolian mountains.

I decide that the Konyali Lokantasi Restaurant at the Topkapi Palace will be my next halt, for I can imagine little as lovely as a meal framed by views of the magnificent Palace on one side, and the sinuous Bosphorous on the other. With the profusion of water around three sides of Turkey, it’s easy to understand the abundant availability of seafood. I can smell fried fish, see stuffed fish and hear someone ordering fish soup. A waiter swoops towards us balancing a tray heavy with mezzes or appetizers. There’s kebabs, hummus, baba ganoush, assorted savoury pastries and stuffed melon — which we are told was traditionally served at circumcision parties for the sons of sultans.

It’s unlikely that you can bite into anything in the markets here and not have a story to go with it. While buying a box of lokum or Turkish delight, I am told that an abundance of this sweet is served when the bride-to-be visits the groom, with the hope that this sweetness will reflect in the marriage. Through the rest of that day, we let our noses lead us from one fresh produce market to the next: wild greens, mushrooms, dried fruits, spices and very green veggies vie for our attention.

Suitably impressed, I arrive that night at a meyhane with a group of friends. Meyhanes, for those who came in late, are little inns appearing in clusters in areas like Kumkapi and Beyoglu that serve food and alcohol and music. Seduced by the atmosphere and the young Turks, we order raki, an anise-flavoured alcoholic national drink by the jug, eat our way through platters of white cheese, fried eggplant and peppers, purslane salad with walnuts, crumbled tulum cheese, and lakerada or pickled fish with red onions and mountains of baklava. Some of the recipes are traditional; others are contemporary but make use of local ingredients. And the closer I look at the food, the more I see an image of Turkey — retaining its traditions, but not closed to influences of the world.

Over the sounds of people enjoying life through eating food, as well as through making it, I call home and tell my mother, “I’m extending my stay in Istanbul, I need another week with the food,” “With the food?” she repeats in a quizzical manner. I quote Ayla Algar to her,  “One should not pass over these things, simply saying they are food. They are in reality a complete civilisation.”

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