I love Middle Eastern flavours; deep, wholesomely flavoured eggplant, sauteed tomatoes and heavy on the olive oil. Rich casseroles filled with minced lamb and spiced sauces, dips and pastes made of roasted and pureed vegetables. Paired with freshly baked turkish pide, a broader range of tea than the standard deep black fare, a healthy dose of baklava and Istanbul, you’ve got me hooked. The food. Oh my, the glorious food. It’s perfectly balanced cuisine, with a distinct Eastern flavour that I love so much. Even if I don’t get to stay in Turkey forever, it’s going to take a lot of convincing to get me to leave the Middle East.
I love you that little bit more, my dear Istanbul.
Each day would start simply in our guesthouse; sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, black and green olives, sheep’s milk feta and fresh sliced bread with jam, washed down with oaky black tea or a strange, nutty black coffee I came to appreciate. It was simple, distinctly European, light and enough to fuel the feet for a day out on the streets. It felt like being at home with my Omi, eating from her German spread each morning.
It’s not far into the day, however, when we would break away into a cafe for that sweet, cardamom-infused, luscious and thick-bottomed turkish kahvesi (Turkish coffee) that I have come to love with the removal of cow’s milk from my diet. I loved it before, and I loved it all over again when paired with gummy rose infused Turkish Delight. I never before appreciated just how perfectly these cubed delights, dusted in powdered sugar, complement the aromatic flavours of the coffee that finishes off heavy and thick, as the grounds stay in the cup. Small cups, small moments and small escapes- just enough to recover from the cold or the chaos of the Grand Bazaar as the crowds of the day build up.
Then there’s the sweets – the real sweets. Baklava and every variant of baklava makes my heart melt. Sweet, dense, flaky, nutty and dripping with honey, once you give in to having some, you won’t stop eating it through the day until you’re on board the plane and leaving the country. Even then, you’ll be scoping out the nearest place to access fine filo or vermicelli pastry layered with walnuts, hazelnuts and honey. More commonly, these are doused with pistachio, tinted green from the crumbled nuts garnishing the sweet delights. One portion is, thankfully for my tastebuds, four full pieces, and I may have found myself regularly skipping dinner in favour of more kahvesi and baklava.
I think Ali, who owned our favourite sweet shop in Sultanahmet, noticed this as he would smile and laugh each time we returned, making fun of Andrew picking out “too many” and warning me away from anything with pistachios once he knew I had an allergy. By the fourth visit, he was sending Andrew off to Starbucks for his soy cappuccino with his contraband stash of Turkish delight for a single lira (US$0.50) and our talk of returning was responded less with insha’allah as it was “ok, ok, see you!”
When not pushing blood sugar to its limits, the best flavours were to be found in the Ottoman kitchen-styled cafeterias. I am not the biggest fan of mixed grilled meats or grilled kebaps, simply because it’s all a bit too “meaty” for me, but these homely restaurants make you feel like you’re eating something that someone’s grandmother whipped up that morning. At one stage, my plate piled high with moussaka and full grain cous cous (potentially bourghul), I thought my eyes were far larger than my stomach. After inhaling the entire plateful in about three minutes flat, I was warmed from the inside and still moaning about the sweet, rich tomato flavours that just graced my plate. Not too salty, not too heavy, this was comfort food at its best, and it left you wanting more, salivating over the glass countertops, leaving fingermarks across the windows just to get closer to the deep, earthy flavours of the East.
We did partake in hommus, Turkish-style pizza and Anatolian-style fried kibbeh in restaurants along the tourist walks, however all of these paled in comparison to sitting once more, on steel-edged chairs at linoleum tables eating hot, hearty local food from passionate old Turkish men explaining every single thing they have to offer before they usher you to a table and rushing off to ply you with tea. If it’s not for the food, it’s for the people and their love of their food. Whether it’s a sandwich under the Galata Bridge, filled with salad and a whole deep fried fish, a boxful of baklava or a doner kebap, every morsel of goodness made me want to stay longer.
And as we sat, on our last evening in Istanbul, sipping tea and eating more baklava at the end of the Arasta Bazaar, Aslan, or Italian Al Pacino as he preferred to be called, refined my Turkish, correcting the awful thank yous I had been uttering and making sure that our time in Istanbul finished on a perfectly sweet note. You need to be there, now. No diets allowed.