You can’t possibly resist the pyramids of white sugar-dusted Turkish delight piled high on silver trays offered to all who wander through Istanbul’s noisy, colourful Spice Markets.
Stepping into the 350-year old trading place, also known as the Egyptian Bazaar, is all about sensory overload.
The heady aromas of brightly coloured spices are almost overwhelming as you pass by stalls that also sell apple tea, China flower tea and Russian caviar.
You will also find fine linen, beautiful striped hamam wraps and soaps, pretty ceramics, woven rugs and cushions and, of course, souvenirs.
But it’s the Turkish Delight that demands most attention. Known as ‘lokum’ in Turkey, it was once considered an after-dinner digestive in the Ottoman days and is still loved by locals and tourist alike.
We pass a stall with trays of the gem-coloured sweets laid out in neat rows studded with pistachios and walnuts and are invited to taste – not the good ones, but tiny bits from a basket reserved for tourists.
A portly stall-owner whispers in a gravelly voice that he makes his lokum from recipes handed down through five generations and nothing is as good as his sweet treats.
Then, the stall holder opposite shouts robustly, ‘No, mine is definitely the best’. His assertion automatically sparks a war of words that spreads like wildfire along the confectionery stalls, but it’s all in good fun and encourages a Turkish Delight shopping spree.
One thing is for sure – you will never go hungry in Istanbul and everywhere you wander becomes a culinary adventure. Street vendors sell fruit and tasty treats outside top tourist attractions including the Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque.
Ruby-red watermelon, bags of bright cherries, barbecued sweet corn and carts stacked with simit, a ring of flaky bread topped with sesame seeds and baked a golden brown, are guaranteed to keep hunger pains away. Simit is usually enjoyed with Turkish tea, known as cay, which is served in small ornate tulip shaped glasses. You see cay being delivered by tea-servers to shop owners and workers who often pay a monthly rate to have their welcome beverage delivered hot.
A culinary walk explores the food offerings on the two sides of Istanbul, the European side’s Karakoy neighbourhood and the Asian side’s Kadikoy that are tied together by the Bosphorus.
We take our first cay in a small Ottoman-era caravanserai in the historic Persembe Pazar of Karakoy near the ancient mariner section, where anchors and heavy chains are for sale. A breakfast feast follows at a esnaf lokanta or tradesman’s restaurant, where locals go for fast, fresh home-style cooking and a lively atmosphere.
We dine on spicy scrambled eggs with slices of grilled beef sausage served with Turkish pide bread. Bowls of plump black and green olives, plates of sliced cheese and ripe tomato and fresh fig jam served with kaymak, a type of unpasteurised clotted cream made with buffalo milk, appear on the table.
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The Turks love fresh bread served with every meal and you are never far from a bakery. A wide variety of flatbreads, or lavas, including ones that are puffed up like balloons, are often displayed at the front of restaurants. The balloon breads are broken up and great for scooping up meze and mopping up sauces.
Pide is canoe-shaped bread served with different toppings such as spiced minced lamb, cheese and tomato, grilled bell peppers and the traditional lahmacun, which is similar to pizza base. They are often topped with spicy lamb and finished with a squeeze of lemon.
Mouthwatering mezes have become a symbol of Turkish cuisine and there are always plenty of dishes to choose from.
Most mezes are served as appetisers in restaurants with waiters showing all that’s available on a big plate so diners can make a selection. Favourites include chilli tomato paste known as ezme, mint yoghurt dip or haydari, grilled eggplant salad, fava bean mash and artichoke dip.
Meze go well with the popular raki, an unsweetened, anise-flavored alcoholic drink that can take your breath away, while ayran is a savoury plain yoghurt-based drink – another acquired taste. One of Turkey’s most famous culinary dishes is doner kebab, which literally means ‘rotating grilled Meat’ and it’s popular the world over. You will find a doner kebab cafe on what seems like every street block in Istanbul where it is a popular take away.
Fish is also a staple in Istanbul and you only have to head to Galata Bridge, at the entrance of the Golden Horn and Bosphorus, to see Turkish fishermen trying their luck. Tasty fish sandwiches cooked on traditional boats tied to the nearby quay are a delicious snack accompanied with cold beers delivered in a bucket. Locals and tourists sit at small tables enjoying the fresh fish while waiters yell ‘Balik ekmek’ (fish in bread) as the sun sets over the Bosporus.
As our culinary walks winds up, we head to a traditional coffee house at Fazil Beyin Tark Kahvesi. A narrow staircase leads to a cosy room on the second floor where coffee is served in a small cup with thick foam on top that seals it to keep it hot.
We are advised to sip it and don’t drink the remains – our guide then tips the dregs up on the saucer and says if we can see any imagery in the coffee leftovers it will provide a hint of our future. You also can’t leave Istanbul without buying a Turkish ice-cream and having a bit of fun with traditional ice-cream sellers who frequent the old city tourist area.
It is certainly not a matter of opening a freezer to get a scoop of ice-cream in Istanbul – it is all about showmanship. Ice-cream sellers are entertainers, with a great flourish they twist and turn your purchase on a long rod making it difficult to grab.
Even if you don’t like ice-cream the experience is well worth it and adds to the memories of a great city.