You won’t find anything good to eat in Turkey, people warned me.
Well, I don’t know how fair or accurate that assessment is. Few things in life can be summed up with such absolutism.
Physically and gastronomically, Turkey straddles East and West. A crossroad for trade, politics, religion, and commerce for centuries, one would think that Istanbul would be the situs of a flourishing cuisinary culture – the original “fusion.”
But, after spending a week in Istanbul and its environs in 2005, I found the sightseeing much more rewarding than the eating.
There was a lot of meat (virtually no pork, of course) and fish, grilled and stewed. To my Westernized palate, all of it was overcooked. With the exception of breakfast, there were very few vegetables. When they did appear, they were either overcooked – stewed to a pulp – or served as a garnish not meant to be eaten.
But what little I did see of Turkish cuisine was not a complete disappointment. (Nor was it a fair and full representation, I am sure.)
The Turkish breakfast is simple, but a thing of wonder.
I stayed in a cozy boutique hotel in the historic Sultanahmet district, a stone’s throw from the cathedral-turned-mosque Aya Sofia. Every morning, they put out a bountiful spread in their glass, rooftop dining room with a breathtaking view of Topkapi Palace and the blue Bosphorous beyond.
There was an abundance of fresh fruits, sliced cucumbers, and tomatoes. There were bowls brimming with nuts and dried fruits – apricots, figs, and raisins. There was fresh feta cheese, glistening with bright green olive oil, and the creamiest goat’s milk yogurt I’d ever had. There was bread, of course, and a rainbow of jams made from rose petals and apricots, orange blossoms and figs. There were just as many juices and teas to match.
There were cold cuts (even from the pork family of products, for the Western and Asian tourists). But I largely ignored them and filled up on fruits, nuts, and cheese.
And I replicated this style of eating throughout the day. Between a dizzying show of whirling dervishes and a ferry ride across the Bosphorus I snacked on almonds and meaty dried figs (that seemed to come in all shapes, sizes, and colors) from the market.
The Turks love their sweets. Flaky phyllo creations abounded, sticky with honey and riddled with nuts. These were great, in measure.
Every sweet shop claimed to have the best Turkish delight. None of them were to believed, in my opinion.
But I did stumble across a stunning poached quince stuffed with candied fruit and pistachios at that not-so-stunning tourist trap, Haci Abdullah, the oldest restaurant in Istanbul.
If sugar isn’t enough of a buzz for you, the coffee in Turkey will be. The Turks serve their famous brew thick and strong. A mid-afternoon jolt kept me wired through dinner and beyond, adrenaline in sludge form.
Food aside, the sightseeing was wonderful.
On the macro level, Istanbul was a tired city, a worn and gritty scene in need of a good power wash. Seen from afar and as a whole, however, the city was nothing short of amazing.
The people there were full of life, animated and passionate (especially the cab drivers). The grand bazaar was a hive of activity, stacked with silk carpets and fake imports. The food markets exploded with colors. The Bosphorous teamed with ships and boats, ferries and fishermen.
The mosques were grand, colossal dinosaurs that dwarfed everything around them. Their minarets shot up like asparagus stalks alongside their wide domes, which hung low, like gentle mounds along the horizon. A stream of tourists and worshipers flowed through them continuously from sun-up to sundown every day.
For my fourth “photo of the week,” I give you a picture that I snapped in a rare moment of quietude outside the behemoth Blue Mosque (the largest in Turkey), when the doors had been shut and no one was around.
There is nothing exciting or excellent about this photograph (in fact, I could prattle off at least half a dozen things wrong with it). But, given the ritual and chaos swirling around the place, I love it for its stillness.
This photo was taken on film with my trusty Canon AE-1.