Standing in front of a restaurant in the tourist enclave of Sultanahmet (the old town), Istanbul, gazing through the window at a mouthwatering display of food. The chef (he’s wearing a white kitchen uniform) beckons us inside. No need to wait for a menu or a server. No need to try and figure out what the menu says. We can make our selections from the array of goodies in front of us. We ask, “What is this, what is that.” He tells us. We choose several. A waiter directs us to a table, and within two minutes, our selections are in front of us. I like this concept. The food is delicious. I become particularly fond of the eggplant, cooked in olive oil and spices, and topped with a mountain of mashed potatoes.
This country knows how to cook veggies, and especially eggplant. I rarely eat it at home—probably because I’m not the greatest cook on the planet. I tried making moussaka once and somehow over-salted the eggplant. My dinner guests said it was very good, but I could see their mouths puckering around the edges.
There were many other gustatory delights, too. Spicy soups complimented by cooling and creamy yogurt. And heavenly bread. My favorite has to be guzleme—a flat bread that looks a lot like a giant tortilla but is sprinkled with bits of cheese and spinach. It’s rolled out by hand and warmed on a dome-shaped oven, which makes the cheese melt into the dough. Then it’s folded and rolled into the shape of a burrito. I couldn’t get enough.
For you meat lovers, there’s that, too. No pork, but plenty of beef, lamb, fish and chicken. At the fast-food emporiums in Sultanahmet, we sampled a lamb kebap (or kebab). Lamb is sliced from a vertical spit and layered into a bun, with a few French fries and some lettuce shavings thrown in for good measure. Cost: about 4 or 5 Turkish lira. It was good but a bit dry. Could have used some olive oil.
I was a bit put off fish after a stroll through the morning fish market, where the turbot, or flatfish—covered with red welts on its underside—looked scarily unappetizing, although I hear it’s quite good. But it did come from the Bosphorus. And looking at all the ferries, fishing boats and other boat traffic on that busy waterway, I can only imagine all the oil, diesel fuel and other detritus that comprises the fish’s living environment.
We only had one really bad meal: chicken in soy sauce. Now, I like salt as much as anybody—probably more. In my youth I had no trouble consuming an entire large bag of potato chips in one sitting. And I live in Hawaii, where salty soy sauce is as much a staple as ketchup. But this meal was like chewing on a salt lick (not that I’ve ever done that) or spooning heaps of salt directly into my mouth (haven’t done that either, but I can imagine). I’m sure the chef was catering to what he thought was American taste, but I couldn’t finish it and had to drink what seemed like the contents of Lake Superior to compensate.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the ice cream. Turkish ice cream is heavenly. I still dream about the stretchy, elastic stuff. Ice cream vendors in tourist areas will not just hand you a filled cone but get a big kick out of putting on a show for you, pretending to drop it or steal it back from you. It’s quite entertaining the first couple of times. Ice cream tip: pile up your cone with several different flavors mashed together. You won’t regret it.
One final note: Food prices are very reasonable, but the same can’t be said for drinks. To buy anything alcoholic (beer, wine) at a restaurant you’ll need to pawn the crown jewels. Perhaps they’re trying to discourage us and steer us to tea. But by all means do try Raki, the licorice-flavored, high-octane national drink, and the favorite beverage of the country’s beloved first president, Ataturk. More about him in a future post.
I know some of you have visited Turkey or are living there now and you know the food better than I, so please feel free to tell me if I’ve misstated something, and to add your favorites. I can’t remember everything I ate, but other than the salt lick, it was darned good.