Istanbul Part III: Off the Beaten Path

Turkish Pide cooking in the brick oven

When we first saw the images coming out of Istanbul last week, we were quite dumbfounded.  We looked at one another and wondered, "What the hell happened in the 3 days since we were walking those streets?"

Tear gas? Water hoses? Protests in the thousands?  Was this the lovely, gentle, laid back city on the sea that we just enjoyed?  Just a few days before, we watched people stroll along Istiklal Caddessi chuckling at the theatrical ice cream vendor antics before happily ambling away with a cone.  Cab drivers lovingly rubbed down and polished their yellow cabbies from top to bottom, taking their time and getting ready for the day's fares.  Watermelon carts teemed with the beautiful rich slices of juicy red watermelons as strollers sunk their teeth into this cooling treat. Researching Istanbul took months and I really didn't run across many articles that foreshadowed the events that unfolded dramatically last week.

[Left to Right: Laundry day, streets of Istanbul, Man having a lunch break, vendor selling cleaning supplies]

I really have no qualifications to discuss matters of behind the scenes Istanbul, politics, or the strife now obviously felt by the people.  However, when that many everyday citizens come together in solidarity and sections of the city come to a standstill as a result...the government better heed their voices.  History tells us so...over and over again.

So if one of the issues is that people are trying to slow the mass modernization of their city, so the character of their many overlapping Middle Eastern heritages shine on...I'm all in support of that.

In fact, that is the theme of this article; Part III highlights the small mom & pop eateries that become passed down through the generations, somewhat disinterested in the tourist trade but keenly focused on good quality eats for the locals.

Istanbul: Part III:  Off the Beaten Path

Dough rising for our Turkish Lamb Pides

The day we spent with Conni of Istanbul Eats tour group themed "Culinary Backstreets" was the most insightful, flavorful, and genuine time that we spent in the city.  Moving away from the mass marketed shops, restaurants, and goods in search of a more authentic experience is the aim of this dedicated group of foodies.

Istanbul Eats is a tour company that offers intimate glimpses into the culinary backstreets of the neighborhoods of Istanbul, focusing on small traditional eateries - where some of the best meals in Istanbul can be found.

Back at home:  Turkish Lamb and Roasted Vegetable Pide in Texas

Unfortunately, we don't have a wood fired oven in our kitchen at home or a pizza spade as long as my arm, but we did our best in our kitchen to recreate one of our favorite street foods enjoyed on the tour - Turkish Pide (think crackling crust pizza, wood fired, bubbling with mild Turkish cheese, lamb, and the spices of Turkey)

I cannot express how fulfilling it is to recapture moments in travel through the assembling, chopping, stirring and cooking of foods discovered and tasted in far away lands.

[Left to Right: Shoeshiner, string of laundry, tray of simits, watermelon cart vendor]

Early that morning in Istanbul, as we began weaving our way through narrow cobblestone streets, brimming with morning activity, teeming with tap-tapping of tools, creaking with wobbly wheels of heavy carts weighted down with  mounds of watermelons, or tools, or cherries, or even piles of stones, we knew this was going to be a fantastic day of discoveries and insights.

We all agreed at the end of the day, the walk took us down alleyways and through backstreets that we would probably not have had the fortitude to explore on our own.

Walking the backstreets of the Fatih neighborhood

And all the while...we sampled, we tasted, and we indulged in the varied tastes of an ancient city placed at the crossroads of civilizations that has had centuries of time to bring flavors, spices, and dishes together for us to discover and enjoy today.

We went beyond the kebab and sampled a wide range of Turkish regional cuisines and tiny restaurants that offered hints of Balkan, Caucasian and Middle Eastern cooking.

Left to Right: Turkish coffee,  simits for breakfast, olives at the market, tulum cheese wrapped in goat skins]

After stopping at a local open street market north of the Egyptian Spice Market, Conni, our guide, helped us sample and gather supplies for our breakfast.  As we sampled the food right there at the market stalls, Conni explained their origin and importance to the Turkish people.

A traditional Turkish breakfast consists of olives, cheeses, perhaps some honey with creamy kaymak cheese, simit bread, and tea and coffee.  One particular cheese certainly caught everyone's attention.  It is a goat's milk cheese called tulum

This cheese is made by slowly removing the water of the curd resulting in a crumbly texture.  The crumbled curd is salted and packed firmly in goat's skins (see photo above,  bottom: left) or in cloth sacks and aged for 3 to 6 months. During this period the taste becomes richer and saltier. 

By chance, a delivery man right behind us was wheeling in two goat skins to the market stall where we were standing.  They were filled with this tulum cheese ready to be sold to us!

Neighborhoods and backstreets of Fatih area

We continued our journey with our gathered breakfast, having sampled and purchased many types of olives and cheeses and simit (similar to sesame seed bagels),  to a dingy little back room between two buildings.  We all sat at a long ramshackle table in what appeared to be a rather intimidating gloomy alleyway.  

Backstreets curiosity aside, we glanced at each other wondering, "Why pick such an unattractive out-of-the-way spot for breakfast?"  But there was an interesting reason...

Conni explained to us that we were seated next to the origins of one of the many tea vendors in the city.  This little back alley spot was where hundreds of those petite glass tea cups get filled with hot aromatic Turkish tea and get whisked off on little round etched trays to the many shopkeepers in the city.

We watched the tea being brewed, little pots steaming into the air gave the area even more of a mystical back alley impression.  As we munched on our olives and cheeses, dipped our simit into kaymek (similar to clotted cream) dripping with honey, we watched the tea men briskly flow in and out as they were off on another's day of tea deliveries to all the shops of the work a day world.  It felt as if we were right in the heart of the city's bee hive of activity.

Delighted and fascinated...we watched the world of Istanbul unfold, one brewed tea cup at a time.

[Left to Right: Katmer pastry, Develi Baklava Shop, Turkish tea, Baklava]

There may have been some sampling after the breakfast was enjoyed and we continued on our way, but my mind advances to memories of our stop at the narrow little shop of Develi Kurulus - baklava and katmer bakery.

Baklava traditionally has something like 65 layers of phyllo dough gently stacked one on top of the other.  This little tucked away bakery uses 85 layers of phyllo dough and is considered one of the best sources of baklava in the area.

Katmer pastry at Develi Baklava Shop

As the group stretched out eager fingers to sample bites of this deliciously crispy rich treat that hails from the courts of the Ottomon Empire, I sadly waved my hand in polite refusal.  My sweet tooth is extraordinarily large.  However, the combination of nuts and honey in baklava make my stomach do flip flops with just the tiniest morsel.  I didn't dare go for a sample with the rest of the day ahead of us and so many more rich foods to sample.

But...the baker slid out a plate of something different...something not drenched in honey.  It was a pastry called katmer [pictured above].

Now, katmer, is something I can sink my teeth into and from taste buds to tummy, it's happiness all around.  Katmer is flaky phyllo dough with kaymak (that clotted cream we enjoyed at breakfast) cheese inside.  It is lighter on the pistachios and isn't drenched in any honey.  It comes out crispy on the the outside and deliciously chewy and subtly sweet on the inside.  Here is a little video of a baker in Turkey making the Katmer dessert.

[Left to Right: Preparing the day's kebab; Lokum or Turkish Delights; Red Lentil Soup; Street scenes]

A few stops later, we all sat down at what is known as an Esnaf Lokanta, or a tradesman's restaurant.  These little joints or diners, as we may call them in the US, are simple and unadorned stopping places for workers to enjoy a midday meal that is inexpensive but home cooked.  They are usually run by families and have close relationships with the workers who eat there daily.

We sat down for a delicious bowl of red lentil soup.  Soup is always on my list of favorite meals so this was a bowl of goodness that I relished.  There were chili flakes to sprinkle on top along with chopped mint.  A squirt of lemon juice is added to the bowl and the soup is served with wonderful slices of thick bread.

A cultural difference that we noted over and over was the quaint relationships among men and women in Turkey.  Men  were often spotted walking arm in arm, whether young or old.  There was a wonderful warmth and comradeship as men goofed around with one another good naturedly or simply strolled along contentedly arm in arm.  

This was something I realized we don't see in the U.S.  The women, too, in Istanbul tend to stroll along with arms around each other or embraced at the elbow.

Tour break for tea among the working shops in neighborhood of Fatih

All of my senses were overloaded as I tried diligently to take in all of the sights, activity, smells, sounds, and Conni's explanations of it all.  

The passageways were narrow, the cobblestones wonderfully bumpy, and people were rounding us to the left and sweeping past us to the right as they were moving about their daily activities.  Quickly we picked up words for "sorry" and "excuse me" as we clearly showed that we weren't adept at keeping pace with the activity.

Faces of other cultures that are new to me always intrigue me and leave me staring into the eyes of so many new faces wanting to know their stories of past and present.  It's so true that the eyes are the gateway to the soul.  Even without knowing a language one can see deep into someone soul with a passing glance or a sweet nod.  

Making Turkish Pides in Brick Oven

We came to one of our favorite food tastings on the tour.   This stop [above] was our introduction to the Turkish version of pizza called the "Pide".  

We watched as the charming pide shop owner deftly stretched out his soft pillowy dough into just the right oblong canoe shape.

He appeared delighted that we were so interested in his work.  The aroma of "pides" [pronounced "peed-ay"] coming from his brick oven was smoky, rich, and intoxicating and we eagerly watched him deftly move about his trade with expertise.

After the pide was generously sprinkled with a mild white cheese, vegetables, and lamb, it slid deep into the brick oven.  Within minutes, it bubbled and crackled in the fire as we breathed in the heady mixture of lamb, spices, and fresh dough baking.

We loved the Turkish pides.  In fact, we retraced our steps a few days later, ordered more of these crackly smoky pizza/pides, sat right outside the shop, and enjoyed watching the world go by at its frenetic work a day pace. 

Lamb Kebab stacked with vegetables and spices

With a few more Turkish teas to wash down our tastings, that seemed to materialize out of nowhere, we came across a doner kebab shop owner.  This kebab slowly rotated on its grill and  had peppers and tomatoes added inbetween the layers of beef and fat.  Never again on the trip did we spot another kebab shop with this mixture of ingredients.

It was delicious.  The juices of the meat soak into the thick pita bread; the thinly shaved meat, peppers, and tomatoes are all wrapped up tight in soft warm pita bread, and each bite was savory and flavorful.

Now the next stop [below] had everyone intrigued.  This stop, at the little tavern of  Vefa Bozacisi was to allow us to sample a historical drink of Istanbul called...boza.

I had researched boza ahead of time, and was ready to politely hide the wrinkling of my nose and to feign the "mmm's" and "aaah's" that might be required as polite foreigners.

Boza is a thick, malt like drink made from fermented millet.  (Yes, millet seeds.)  FERMENTED millet.  We were told this is a winter drink for Istanbul locals, however, it was not a hot drink, rather served at room temperature.

Boza Shop; Boza Drink with Roasted Chickpeas

Wouldn't you know it...instead of hiding a wrinkled nose, as I stirred the thick creamy drink and dove in for my first sip...I loved it.  The first taste was a tiny bit sour...only because I was expecting something horridly sour.  However, there was a mild sweetness that quickly takes over that is from added sugar to the millet mixture.

The drink is served in a glass with a spoon.  A layer of sprinkled cinnamon is on top along with a handful of roasted  crunchy chickpeas.  

Vefa Bozacisi is a tavern like boza shop, open and passed through the family since 1876,where this drink, from the Ottomon Era, is still flourishing today.  We all sat back contentedly in the cool shadowy tavern and enjoyed the ambiance of the boza shop.  

The inside was dim and cool, we were off our cobblestone trodden feet for awhile and the slightly sour, thick, creamy drink with its subtle sweetness, hint of cinnamon, and crunchy roasted chickpeas was, for me, entirely pleasurable.

Young pair at the butcher shop on the Fatih Square...goofing around

On we moved at a quite leisurely pace until we reached the last and most delightful part of our walk.  We arrived at a bustling but calm tree lined square in the Fatih neighborhood of Istanbul.

This area had something quite beautiful about it.  We realized what we felt was an authenticity of the place - a  lack of tourists.  This was the real Istanbul.  A simple neighborhood where people sit out, shop, intermingle and live ordinary lives.  Men sat on long benches all around the square, dressed in crisp pressed shirts tucked into quaint trousers and fitted vests in warm colors.

There was a relaxed air about the square.  We all stopped soon, however, and gaped at the structure bordering the south end of the square.  A huge towering Roman aqueduct loomed in front of us.  A majestic and beautiful sight with gently draped arches, crumbling grey stones, and a height that dominated the area in one respect but seemed to entirely blend in at the same time.

Aryan Yogurt Drink; Butcher Shop of Fatih, Roasted Lamb on Pita, Perde Pilaf (Rice, Chicken, Currants cooked in Pastry Dough)

We were in a neighborhood called Fatih and in a square bordered by the Valens Aqueduct.  This structure was built during Roman times in the late 4th century transport water to what was then Constantinople.   

This area is known for its many small restaurants lining the square that specialize in Buryan Kebabs.  We all sat down at one of the restaurants right under the Roman Aqueduct called Siirt Seref Buryan Kebap Salonu

Perde Pilaf, Rice, Currants,  Almonds, and Chicken cooked in Pastry Dough

Little did we realize that this was going to be our best meal of the trip.  Patrick and I even walked back to this location from "The Old City" to dine here again.  The star of the meal was the lamb. Small markets and butcher shops selling honey, cheeses, spices and other goodies from the region surround the square so I am pretty sure the lamb came from the butcher shop a few doors down. 

This type of restaurant is called a buryan.  This means they specialize in lamb that is lowered into a hole in the ground that is filled with hot coals.  The lamb cooks slowly underground and creates a slightly crispy exterior and a melt in your mouth interior.  Succulent is the first word that comes to mind when remembering this lamb.

The lamb was accompanied by a dish called Perde Pilaf.  This was another delightful discovery.  Rice, mixed with currants, almonds, and roasted shredded chicken, is wrapped in a thin pastry shell and cooked in a cone-shaped mold until the outside is crispy and the inside is steamy.

All of this goodness was finished off with 2 desserts.  One is my favorite Turkish dessert...the kunefe.  This is shredded pastry (like filo) that is formed in a small round pancake shape.  A light cheese is spread on top and another layer of pastry covers the cheese.  It is cooked until crisp, flipped over and cooked on the other side.  A little honey, rose water, and crushed pistachios are added on top right before serving.

Turkish Kunefe Pastry; Kunefe Making, City Cats; Turkish Pides 

We also had a dessert called Tavuk Gögsü or chicken breast pudding.  I don't have a photo but basically the plate looked like a layer of Japanese Mochi when it was placed on the table.  In fact, we all agreed that it indeed tasted like mochi!  Historically, it was a famous delicacy served to the sultans in the Ottoman Topkapı Palace. Today, it is considered a 'signature' dish of Turkey.

We sipped on more Çay (tea) and were also introduced to the slightly sour, slightly sweet, oddly refreshing Ayran yogurt drink.  We chatted aimiably with the others in our group about everything we saw and tasted during the day.  

There was the sweet young couple from Switzerland, quiet and kind.  And the convivial and warm couple from Napa Valley, California made us laugh and chatter as if we had known them forever.

We watched the local folk sitting on the benches and everyone else who was going about their day.  The square is quaint, bustling, and with the Roman aqueduct flanking the southern side...very charming and romantic.

I didn't want this day to come to an end.  This was a great experience for us.  I enjoyed hearing Conni's insightful stories of how the many layers of immigrants formed the Istanbul of today, tasting the many types of foods that each culture brought that are off the beaten path of the regular tourist tread, and meeting others who have an insatiable curiosity like us for everything food and culture related.

Thank you "Istanbul Eats" for a Culinary Backstreet tour that was thoroughly enjoyed, savored, and appreciated.

Foods mentioned in this article:

1.  Pide - somewhat like a pizza, savory spiced toppings served on a flat pita in a canoe shape and then baked in a wood fired oven.

2.  Çay - Turkish tea

3.  Kaymak - Turkish dairy product similar to clotted cream.  It might be served with a honey comb and the mixture is smeared on bread and eaten at breakfast.

4.  Simit-  Popular street food which is like a sesame seed bagel

5.  Katmer - a pastry of layers of filo dough and ground pistachios with a layer of "kaymak" cream in between.

6.  Tulum - type of goat cheese that is often aged in the skin of the goat.  Often eaten at breakfast.

7.  Red Lentil Soup - found all over Istanbul.  A nice creamy soup served with chopped mint leaves, paprika, and a squeeze of lemon.

8.  Doner Kebab - shaved lamb, beef, or chicken slow roasted on a vertical spit and then wrapped in a soft pita bread.

9.  Boza - a creamy thick drink, often drunk in the winter, made from fermented millet and sugar.  Served with a sprinkle of cinnamon on top and a handful of roasted chickpeas.  A drink that hails from the Ottomon times of Istanbul.

10. Büryan Kebap - lamb that is slowly cooked over coals that is buried in the ground.  Sometimes compared to Texas BBQ.  Büryan lamb in Fatih was the best dish that we ate on the trip.

11. Perde Pilaf - rice formed in a cone shape and cooked with chicken, almonds, and currants. It is wrapped in a thin layer of pastry and cooked in a mold until the pastry is crisp.  Delicious!

12. Kunefe - A pastry heated with butter, then spread with soft white cheese such as Nabulsi cheese, and topped with more pastry.  A thick syrup of sugar, water and a few drops of Rose water or orange blossom water is poured on the pastry during the final minutes of cooking. Often the top layer of pastry is tinted with orange food coloring. Crushed green pistachios are sprinkled on top as a garnish. (My favorite Turkish dessert)

13. Ayran - a Turkish cold beverage of yogurt mixed with cold water and sometimes salt; served all over Istanbul and sometimes served with a froth on the top.

14. Tavuk Gögsü - chicken breast pudding.  Delicacy served to sultans in Topkapi Palace.

Helpful Words for getting around:

Hello = merhabah
Good Morning = Gunaydin (gew-dahy-duhn)
How are you? = Nasilsiniz (Nahs-sui-suh-nuhz)
Please = Lutfen
Good Evening = Iyi aksamlar (ee ahksham-Lahr)
Goodbye = Allaha ismariadik (ah-lahs=mahr=lah=duk)
Thank you/thanks = Tesekkur Ederim or Sag (sowl) or mersi
How much?  Kaç Lira?  (kahch lira)
Where is = nerede
Toilet/bathroom = tuvalet (too-vah-leht)
Yes = Evet
No = Hah-yuhr
I would like = istiyorum
I would like bill = asab istiyorum
My name is = adim (ah-duhm)
I'm lost = kayboldum
Excuse me = Pardon
Delicious = lezzetli

*** Recipe Change!!  Reduce the 2 3/4 cups of flour to:  2 CUPS of flour.  I've made this dough several times now and the original recipe is too heavy on the flour.  

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