I have to say that there is no other city like this anywhere else on Earth. Being a city which encompasses both Europe and Asia really does represent a fusion of east and west, with traditional Islamic values standing side by side with those from neighbouring Europe. It is also a harmony of old and new, with a slick new tram system riding amongst the archaic monuments of the magnificent Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. Istanbul is fast becoming a slick metropolis with every modern comfort, and whilst this city spoils you with every international cuisine you could think of, I’m going to write about the local food which really encapsulates the spirit of this city.
I’ll start with a Turkish classic, Turkish delight. You’ll find this everywhere, and whilst most shops and market stalls will produce those of quality exceeding what we’d find on our British shores, in my opinion, it’s worth checking out a chain of shops which go by the name of Gulluoglu, whose produce will really get your tastebuds dancing. Try their double pistachio delight, whose partnership of pistachio pieces enrobed in a classically sweet, sugar-dusted jelly creates a wonderful textural balance of crunch and chew. It’s also worth giving their baklava a try, a pastry-based dessert found throughout Turkey and the Middle East. Turkish baklava differs from Lebanese baklava in the sense that it is richer and a tad sweeter. (This is solid evidence that it is possible to load something with more butter and sugar than Lebanese baklava). More importantly, it is vital to eat Turkish baklava fresh, for even a few hours on the plane will ensure that their crunchiness is hastily converted to sogginess. A must try is their green diamond shaped baklava brimming with pistachio tones.
Describing the street food in Istanbul in one word is not easy. Amazing, divine, brilliant, all these words don’t quite do it justice. Stroll around the tourist or nightlife areas and you won’t have to walk far for a treat to come to you. In winter, freshly roasted, beautifully sweet chestnuts are on display, whereas in summer, a slightly chewier version of ice cream known as ‘dondurma’ is a crowd pleaser. Mussels, stuffed with rice and herbs are also a must try at just 50 cents each. Or try these shell-dwellers in deep fried form on a skewer, whose juicy bodies covered in an ever-so-light crispy batter, laden with an aromatic but not overpowering garlic sauce, makes for an exceedingly mouthwatering combination. And then there’s your classic kebabs, where the average doner is something truly tasty and far less greasy than what you’d find at your local kebab house. But something you really cannot afford to miss out on is a simple fish sandwich known as ‘balik ekmek’, which can be found in Eminonu on the European side and in Kadikoy on the Asian side. Sold in sandwich stalls, they are pretty hard to miss, for your nose will be alerted to their presence by picking up the sweetly seductive whiffs of pan-seared fish hovering in the air. Amazingly fresh mackerel (you can even see it being fished on nearby bridges) is pan fried, placed in a wonderfully soft ciabatta-like bread roll, with onions, lettuce and lemon juice added to it. Fish sandwiches don’t get better than this.
The variety of Turkish restaurants will keep you entertained for days on end. Gastronauts should pay culinary homage to Ciya Sofrasi in Kadikoy, where the proprietor (who is known locally as a culinary Indiana Jones) gathers unique flavours from the frontiers of Turkey and delivers them straight to your plate. Some of their vegetarian options really did stand out, such as their stuffed dried vegetables, which incorporated eggplant, rice, peppers, mint and garlic into a uniquely entertaining combination. Also try some of their desserts; their ‘sobiyet’ (green baklava shaped as triangles) was memorable and their pumpkin dessert was, well, interesting. For a fine dining experience, head to the restaurant inside the Topkapi Palace known as Konyali Lokantasi, where, whilst the prices could be a tiny bit kinder to your wallet, the quality of their traditional Ottoman food is certainly worth it, particularly if you’re a fan of lamb. If you’d like some alcohol with your cuisine then head to the side streets off Istiklal Caddesi, where if you eat in a type of restaurant known as a ‘meyhane’ you’ll find ‘meze’ (small tapas-like dishes) aplenty accompanied by even more ‘raki’ (an aniseed flavoured spirit).
A hard day’s eating should be rewarded with some relaxation, so after satisfying your stomach, why not head into Tophane where you can have shisha (known as ‘nargile’ in Turkey) with friendly locals and enjoy some indulgently sweet pistachio coffee. Or head to a hamam, where you can get a traditional Turkish bath and massage. I’d recommend Cemberlitas hamami, whose stunning stone baths are the perfect setting for a thorough cleaning by their firm-handed staff. Just a word of warning, such a meticulous cleaning can hurt just a tad. To conclude, this city will not only bring some truly sublime tastes to your palette, it will also ensure your other senses don’t feel too left out either.