Written by William Dobson
Hasan Usta, his face lit up by the merest suggestion of a smile, nonchalantly lowers his metal spoon, filled with black sea anchovies, into a vat of boiling oil. So natural is the process, from start to finish, it’s as if he’s been doing it all his life. That’s because he has. Arriving in the city as a 14 year old from a village in eastern Turkey, back in 1960, Usta – meaning master – has been honing his skills for over 50 years, repetition after repetition rendering his art second nature.
Yet, that doesn’t mean he has ceased to take pride in his work. After serving us the fried fish, the soft flesh contrasted with the crispy batter, so light it resembles tempura, he is insistent on squeezing just the right amount of lemon and sprinkling just the right amount of salt, bringing out the delicate taste of freshness. As consensus around the group agrees that these are the best anchovies we’ve tasted, Usta looks at us with a stony expression. ‘Of course they are,’ he replies, without the merest suggestion that he expected us to say anything else. Megan, our guide, instantly exclaims ‘that’s why ‘I love this guy!’
Halfway through Istanbul Eats, a backstreet tour of the Beyoglu district of Istanbul, Megan has been leading us a merry dance through some of the city’s best kept secrets, places which you won’t find in the guidebooks but that the locals flock to. After an early start, we meet in Cihangir. This once poor, conservative area, off the tourist trail, has transformed, through the process of gentrification, into a trendy neighbourhood, full of artisans and a café culture. At Ozkonak, utilitarian in décor, plastic tables and chairs letting the food speak for itself, we breakfast on strong Turkish coffee, kimak and memenem. Here in Istanbul, the locals have a saying that ‘the less effort to make it decorative, the better it will be,’ and this little cafe is proof of that.
The kimak, or clotted cream, is made from fresh water buffalo milk, giving it a unique richness, almost buttery in both texture and taste, while sweet honey is drizzled on top, cutting through the slight tartness. Meanwhile, the memenem, much like shakshuka, consists of eggs baked in a thick tomato and pepper sauce, the bright yellow yolks oozing into the deep red of the sauce as we break them. When we finish, we are taken for a tour of the kitchen, miraculously lacking in fridges as everything is prepared fresh from the market, four burly men in vests steadfastly withstanding the heat.
After, we wend our way through traditional streets and tiny alleyways, stopping off along the route. At Datli Maya, a tiny and quirkily decorated baker, we taste freshly simit, a local circular bread topped with sesame seeds, cooked in a wooden oven, described by our guide as ‘the platonic ideal of this delicacy’; we eat pickles in Arsi Tursucusu, the glass jars stacked high behind the counter reminiscent of a 1930s sweet shop yet, here, filled with everything from green cherries, gherkins, chillies and anything in between – a place which reflects the Turks belief that ‘innovation is a sign of weakness’; in need of something sweet after a shot of beetroot pickle brine, we march onwards to Inci, just off Istiklal and, reputedly, home to the very first profiterol back in 1944.
As Megan states, ‘this tour isn’t just about eating but it’s about giving guests a launch pad to explore the city, allowing them to develop a taste for their own intuition.’ After being exposed to the cuisine specific to the Black Sea region at the interestingly named Hayvore (‘I am here’), with their black cabbage and corn soup a particular speciality, we’re led down Istiklal, the city’s main tourist thoroughfare. However, there aren’t many tourists who would think to stop off at Orhan Senin, an Albanian offal butchers which has been operating for the last 53 years. Those of us with more intrepid stomachs are served an entire sheep’s head, eyeballs and all, slowly roasted for four hours, with the tongue, pleasantly gamey in taste, a revelation.
With our bellies now severely distended, we’re afforded a good 15 minute hiatus from eating to try and rediscover our flagging appetites, as we’re shown some of the area’s most beautiful churches – almost hidden from the outside but ornately decorated within, the wafting scent of incense reminding us that we’re in the East. From there, like errant school children, we’re marched straight to Durumzade. It may just be a kebab stall which are about as common in Istanbul as sheep are in the Falklands, but this one is extra special. Originating from the Hatay region on the Syrian border, the homemade lavash is fresh and soft, and filled with spiced beef made moist by being mixed with the fat from the tail of a sheep, before being grilled on an open flame.
By this stage, our belts unbuckled, and our trousers loosened, we sit down for Turkish coffee at Mandabatmaz (after a quick stop for some quince and clotted cream of course), a tiny hole in the wall hidden away down a market alley. Blacker than black, and syrupy both in sweetness and texture, the name, meaning the buffalo won’t sink, reflects just how thick this coffee really is. Here, Megan tells us, ‘while Turkish coffee might not be to everyone’s taste, you won’t find a better one than this.’
Not quite finished with us yet, we end our tour at Ficcin, a restaurant serving exquisite ‘home-cooked’ Caucasian food. So popular has it become, they’ve expanded to take up almost an entire street yet still only have one kitchen, rendering the sight of waiters walking up and down the cobbled road a common occurrence. Here, manti – a Turkish style ‘ravioli’ served in a thick yoghurt sauce and liberally sprinkled with dried mint, paprika and sumac – is the dish of choice and a wonderful way to end a concurrently filling and eye-opening day!
That is, until Megan produces a chicken pudding for each of us! This strange sounding connection, a milk dessert thickened by painstakingly boiling and stirring chicken breasts into it, had been picked up from Ozkonak first thing that morning. As foul (get the pun) as it may sound, the result is perfection – sweet, creamy and ever so slightly fibrous – and just another weird and exotic memory to add to our already wonderful collection.