Istanbul

You’d think it might be easier to be a good Muslim in Turkey during Ramadan. Away from the seductive belly baiting on twitter, the forgetful friends who bolt bacon sarnies in front of you and the socialising that flabbily lurches from breakfast to lunch to dinner and drinks. And in a sense it is easier, what with everyone around you abstaining, the only people eating in the restaurants during the day turn out to be the other tourists, women on the rag and the sick.

However, I am on holiday and the long, sticky days tick luxuriously over. In Istanbul there are sweetcorn vendors, pide hawkers (the national version of pizza) and of course kebap shops at every turn. The bazaars are stuffed with folk offering Turkish delight in a rainbow of banana, apple, pistachio, lemon and coconut. Little boys shrilly advertise ice cold watermelon juice for just a lira (40p). The Turks know how to do mystical things to beef and lamb. I try not to gawp at the salamis and sausages, the ones that taste fiendishly porcine.

They say that fasting without the vertebra of spirituality simply equates as not eating and not drinking, very good for you physically but that’s pretty much it. Standing in the majestic Blue Mosque soaking up the reverberating call to prayer I feel ethereal and overwhelmed by waves of cleanliness and strength. Or maybe I’m just spun out from the lack of food? Either way, it’s a pretty special feeling.

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@Gastro1, @MathildeCuisine, @harjmurria and @Istanbul_Eats offer some fantastic recommendations, all of which are way better than anything my crappy guide book proposes. The Lonely Planet rates a kebap joint near our hotel, which basically renders it rubbish – herds of tourists flock there for miniscule portions of fatty mutton and prices that have shot up to rival London’s. Next door however, it’s a fraction of the cost and sublime. The lamb heavily soused in garlic and herbs, toned by the thick, salted salve of the yoghurt and the crisp pickled chillies kicking in with a vinegary bite.

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There are special Iftar (the fast breaker) menus everywhere. We dine outdoors at Antiochia as the sun descends. The menu is incredible, the mixed mezze slips down a treat. We eat fresh tzatziki, dreamy home-made yoghurt forked through with dill and cucumber, spooned up with chips of oven-fresh lavash flatbread. A portion of kerik salatasi – crushed olives with tangles of fresh thyme, oregano, garlic and pin pricks of chilli is outstanding. A dish of muammara, a scarlet slurry of walnuts, red peppers, spices and pomegranate is smoky and deep. The tender imam bayaldi* very nearly has me passing out with pleasure too.

We split an elegantly spiced veal chop, peppered with garlic, sumac and chilli and I sip on Şalgam Suyu – a spicy fermented turnip/carrot drink, just to register the expression of sheer disgust on my fiancé’s face when he catches a waft of it (it’s an acquired taste). He cries out as if physically attacked when I convince him to sample a bit. The owners find this hysterical. It’s a sibling run place, Jale Balci the sister is a well-respected food writer. One of the brothers sports a proper handlebar moustache, the sort that wouldn’t look out of place on a Friday night in Dalston.

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After wandering the humming late night streets of Beyoglu we fall into a tiny speakeasy down a narrow side street. The top floor is a tiny, heaving room, saturated with the city’s beautiful young things partying the night away. Everyone’s smoking hookahs and the DJ spins some demented folk choons set to an obese bass line, the Troggs, Chamillionaire and Heaven 17. There’s no self-consciousness here though and no attitude – just a serious mission for good times. There’s a little fat man in the corner who’s clearly coming up. The rain seeps in through the cracks in the makeshift roof and mingles with the sweat as our senses are nourished with tune after tune and everyone gets on down.

*literally means “the Imam fainted” due to unfeasible deliciousness.

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8 comments

  1. Oh my! How lovely. Great post.

    I’ve still not been to Istanbul but am more than inspired by the gorgeous cuisine. As well as devouring the food, I’ve also devoured Orhan Pamuk’s books. I’ll be back to you for tips once I get my act together.

    Looking forward to introducing you to my favourite Turkish restaurant in Green Lanes!

  2. Dan

    Great travel writing Reginald. I really fancy Istanbul, and the food you describe sounds delicious. Oh, got to add – that handlebar moustache is cracking.

  3. Brilliantly evoked. What lovely writing. I’ve got to have a go at making kerik salatasi – it sounds amazing.

  4. Now I can’t wait to go to Istanbul! Better shift it higher up on the travel list…

  5. minttea

    Can’t believe I’ve not been either.. nice write-up. And Eid Mubarak!

  6. I know what you mean about a place getting mentioned in a guide book and just been wrecked – insider tips from people who have already been (or even better actually live there) are always the best

  7. Istanbul is a terrific city. Glad you enjoyed it too.

    However, isn’t the Turkish version of a pizza, lahmacun? :)

    @Niamh: You have great taste :P – Pamuk’s books are excellent, no?

  8. gastrogeek

    Niamh – thanks so much!
    Dan – cheers, the moustache was pretty special!
    Ollie – thanks, it was incredible and a dish I’d never come across before…
    Helen- I’d totally recommend it.
    Mint Tea – It’s gorgeous! A belated Eid Mubarak to you too!
    Gourmet Chick – insider tip-offs definitely rule over the books, am tempted to solely stick to the net-recommendations for my next sojourn…
    Food snob -As I understand it, they are both the same thing, the difference lies in the dimensions – lahmacun is round and pide is long. Pide is related to the famed bread of the Franks and Armenians (as mentioned in the great eleventh-century cookbook of Al-Baghdadi- a cracking read, if you haven’t read it I’d highly recommend it).

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