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Istanbul Quick Eats: Kumpir, Çiğ Köfte & Soggy Burgers

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Hustling from mosque to mosque, museum to museum, climbing steep hills, darting across traffic to catch the tram, or leaping onto an Asia-bound ferry at the last minute, you can work up quite an appetite while navigating Istanbul. While on the go, we’re often in the mood for something more substantial than a simit, but have no time for a real meal. Luckily, Istanbul has plenty of cheap ways to fill up on quick energy. Here are a few of our favorites:

Kumpir

I think we can all agree on the tastiness of the classic baked potato. Perhaps a dollop of sour cream, and some chives. Go ahead and add some bacon bits, since you’re feeling so crazy. That’s a good American-style baked potato, but in Turkey it’s merely the start.

The first time I ordered a kumpir, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The cook marched over to what I had mistakenly believed to be the salad bar, and began piling everything imaginable onto my potato. Until I could no longer even see the potato. Olives! Tomatoes! Sausage! Peppers! Pickles! Couscous! Onions! Potato Salad! Yes, that’s right: potato salad on top of a potato! Why not?

By the time my kumpir was ready, I felt almost as deranged as it looked, and could hardly wait to get my hands on it. From the first bite to the last, this monstrosity was wonderful. How could it not be? Every type of food I enjoy was on top of it.

CigKofte-Istanbul

Çiğ köfte is another popular quick meal — joints specializing in only çiğ köfte can be found on almost every corner of Istanbul. “But what is çiğ köfte?” you might ask. Who cares? It looks delicious, and everyone seems to love it. “We’ll have two, please!”

[Munch munch] ohh, mmm… delicious! Thin bread generously smeared with some sort of dark red substance, then garnished with fresh lettuce, drizzled with pomegranate syrup and rolled up for easy consumption. For less than two euros! “Hey there, Jürgen, what’s that you’re googling?”

“The Translator says that çiğ köfte means ‘raw meat’. And Wikipedia says ‘Çiğ Köfte is a raw meat dish in Turkish cuisine’. And Image Search returns… ”

At this point, he abandoned further research due to sudden dry heaving. I would have assisted him, but already had both hands halfway down my throat, trying to provoke vomit. The other guests in the shop watched us huhrking and hahking until a girl who could speak English guessed at the reason for our panic, and helped calm us down. “Don’t worry! It’s illegal in Istanbul to serve raw meat. What you’re eating is a vegetarian substitute made of walnut paste.”

Taksim-Wet-Burgers

Before arriving in Istanbul, we watched Anthony Bourdain’s visit to the city. It’s an entertaining episode, and well-worth forty minutes of your time. Of all the incredible food he sampled, there was one dish that lodged itself unshakably into our minds: tiny, soggy hamburgers.

I have no idea why these were so appealing to us. They look hideous, like McDonald’s burgers that have spent a few hours bathing in a pool of sweat and grease. Maybe it was Bourdain’s groans of pleasure as he ate them. Maybe we’re just cursed to crave that which should repulse us.

It didn’t take long for us to appear at Taksim Square’s Kizilpaylza, and order up a couple of sloppy, soggy hamburgers. Each one takes about thirty seconds to finish off. Thirty seconds filled with nearly as much pleasure as shame. Istanbul’s mini-burgers are not the kind of culinary conquest you’re going to feel particularly proud about, but lord almighty, do they taste good.

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April 30, 2013 at 1:17 pm Comments (0)

Istanbul’s April Showers

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We had been suffering through some rough weather for weeks, but spring finally arrived toward the end of April. The bad weather had us a bit of an emotional rollercoaster — overcast days are not normally our thing, but somehow the clouds struck a melancholic note appropriate to Istanbul.

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April 29, 2013 at 3:15 pm Comments (3)

Up the Coast to Kanlıca

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After visiting the neo-baroque Küçüksu Pavilion, we walked north along the Asian shore of the Bosphorus to the pleasant town of Kanlıca, where we treated ourselves to yogurt by the seaside, and then lunch at an amazing hilltop restaurant overlooking the strait.

Anadolu Hisarı

It took almost no time to walk from the Küçüksu Pavilion to the Anadolu Hisarı: a fortress built by the invading Ottoman forces in 1397. By connecting a chain from this fortress to the Rumeli Hisarı across the Bosphorus, the Ottomans were able to blockade Constantinople from the north. Today, Anadolu Hisarı is almost entirely in ruins; it looks cool, but there’s nothing to visit, unless you count the comfortable waterfront cafes which have sprung up in the fortress’s shadow.

We continued walking north, passing underneath the Fatih Bridge which, at nearly a mile in length, is one of the world’s longest suspension bridges. We would have loved to walk across it, but the bridge is unfortunately closed to pedestrians in order to discourage suicides. But no preventative measure can thwart the determined self-killer! The day after our visit, there was another attempt. Luckily, the guy survived the fall and was fished out by policemen waiting in a boat.

Our walk along the Bosphorus wasn’t the most pleasant stroll we’ve ever embarked on. The traffic was heavy, and the sidewalks difficult to negotiate. Even worse, the views of the Bosphorus were consistently obstructed by fences protecting new townhouses and upscale restaurants. So we were relieved to arrive in Kanlıca: a cute neighborhood centered around a small port. Kanlıca is famous around Istanbul for its yogurt, which we sampled at the restaurant Asırlık; mine came topped with ice cream, and Jürgen’s with honey. It was the best yogurt we had in Istanbul, and provided exactly the energy boost we’d need for the final stage of our journey: a hike up to the Hıdıv Kasrı.

Set atop a hill just behind Kanlıca, the Hıdıv Kasrı (or Khedive Palace) was built in 1907 for Abbas II: the final Ottoman governor of Egypt and the Sudan. Today, the palace is owned by the state and used solely as a restaurant. Its location is magnificent, in the middle of a garden decorated by tulips of every conceivable color. We assumed that a restaurant set in a former palace might be out of our usual price range, but needn’t have worried. This was an affordable place to eat, perhaps because it’s run by the state. The food wasn’t memorable but worth the price, and the views over the Bosphorus were unbeatable.

Locations on our Map: Analodu Hisarı | Kanlıca | Hıdıv Kasrı

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April 28, 2013 at 8:32 am Comments (3)

The Küçüksu Pavilion

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Built in 1857 as a lodge for Sultan Abdülmecid I, the elaborate facade of the Küçüksu Pavilion looks out over the Bosphorus Strait from the Asian side of Istanbul. Though its days as a summer retreat for Ottoman rulers may be a thing of the past, the pavilion has been meticulously preserved and now serves as a museum.

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As is evident from the first glance, the pavilion was built during the Ottoman craze for all things European. The architect, Nigoğayos Baylan, had studied in Paris and the pavilion’s highly-stylized facade belongs to the Rococo style which was, at the time, très à la mode. Baylan was of Istanbul’s Armenian minority, reflecting the trend among the Ottoman court to eschew Muslim architects for Christian, and western-oriented, points of view.

After the establishment of the Turkish Republic, all palaces and royal lodges were possessed by the state. The Küçüksu Pavilion underwent a long period of restoration and was re-opened in 1983. Happily, the government proved to be a top-notch caretaker. The building is in splendid condition, with original furniture, and looks brand new both inside and out. It’s hard to say whether the pavilion is more impressive for its exterior, with its ostentatious and finely-wrought detailing, or for the baroque elegance found within.

The pavilion consists of four equal-sized rooms on each floor, decorated with colored glass which casts a strange light across the floors and furniture. Heat was provided by fireplaces, each of which is individually designed and built from a different-colored Italian marble. The Küçüksu Pavilion is often referred to as a “palace”, which is certainly in fitting with its opulence, but not quite correct: it was never intended for sleeping and was designed without a single bedroom. (I’d have been fine on the couch.)

Before we visited, I had glanced only briefly at a brochure describing the pavilion as an “Ottoman hunting lodge”, and hadn’t seen any pictures at all. So arriving at the gate, I was blown away. The fact that this incredible building appears only very rarely in “must-see” lists of the city just underlines the ridiculous abundance of sights in Istanbul.

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April 27, 2013 at 7:17 am Comments (2)

The Aqueduct of Valens

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Despite the tumult of centuries, the ravages of war, fire and earthquake, and the construction of a megalopolis around, along and even through it, the Aqueduct of Valens is standing tall. Built by the Roman Emperor Valens in 378 AD, the aqueduct is among Istanbul’s most amazing ancient relics.

Aqueduct-of-Valens

The Greek settlement of Byzantium was never able to truly flourish, despite its strategic position, for one important reason: a lack of drinking water. It’s surrounded on all sides by salt water, but no river flows into the city. After the arrival of the technologically-advanced Romans, a network of canals and aqueducts was built to pipe water in from the outlying hills, and deposit it into hundreds of underground cisterns, such as the Yerebatan Sarnıçı.

The water was still flowing when the Ottomans took possession of Istanbul, and the city’s new Turkish rulers did an excellent job conserving the aqueduct and making necessary repairs. Let this be a lesson to all you other crumbling, ancient wonders — as long as you stay useful, people will take care of you! Today, of course, the aqueduct serves no purpose other than aesthetic, but what a sight it is. For many visitors, ourselves included, it’s the first awe-inspiring scene presented by Istanbul; the shuttle bus from the airport to Taksim Square passes directly underneath.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the aqueduct is how it’s been woven into the fabric of modern Istanbul. In other cities, such a historic wonder would be cordoned off and observable from afar, but Istanbul has neither the time nor the patience for such niceties. Istanbul must get on with things. And so, Atatürk Boulevard, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, is built right through the middle of the aqueduct.

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April 25, 2013 at 1:30 pm Comments (3)

The Military Museum and Mehter Band

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Whether fighting for the Ottoman Empire or the modern Republic, the Turkish war machine has a long and storied past, and it’s all breathlessly recounted in the Military Museum near Taksim Square. While visiting the museum, it’s almost compulsory to take in a performance of history’s most famous military musical squad: the Mehter Band.

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The Military Museum is huge. That’s the first thing we noticed during our visit — the collection of weapons, paintings, stories, artifacts, and dioramas is overwhelming, and only the most dedicated army enthusiast is going to be able to fully appreciate the museum’s depth. For us, it was enough to amble through, stopping when an especially cool gun or painting caught our eye.

If you limited your knowledge of history to the information provided by the museum, you’d probably conclude that the world has never seen a fighting force like the Turkish military. Undefeated throughout the ages! The museum revels in one glorious victory after the other… and only the victories. We couldn’t find a single word about any defeat or setback.

But were it dedicated to a sober and accurate analysis of the past, the museum wouldn’t be as popular. We were shocked by the number of people visiting, almost all of them locals. We eavesdropped on a guy relating the magnificent details of the 1521 Battle of Belgrade to his non-Turkish (and visibly bored) girlfriend, and tailed two older gentlemen who were perhaps a bit too fascinated by the pistol collection. And when we sat down in the auditorium for the Mehter Band’s performance, I could scarcely believe my eyes. The hall seats at least 1000, and was completely full.

Mether-Band-March

Established in the 13th Century, the Mehters were history’s first military band, formed to inspire Ottoman forces and instill fear in their enemies. They’re the inspiration for a musical style in Spain called “a la turca“, as well as Mozart’s famous Turkish March, and led to the formation of similar military bands throughout Europe.

But the days of marching into a field of battle are long since past, and the Mehter Band now exists only to thrill the crowds at the Military Museum. Their performance was pretty good, even for those of us without much interest in martial music. Very loud. The crew which marched out onto the stage was 55 strong and consisted of only a few flutes and trumpets. The rest were drummers and singers. And every man in the band had a full, bushy mustache, although half of these were glued-on.

Even if your interest in Turkish military history is lacking, the museum is worth the price of entrance just for the spectacle of a standing-room-only crowd thrilling to marching music performed by guys in fake mustaches. Not something you’re likely to see anywhere else.

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April 23, 2013 at 3:42 pm Comments (2)

The Kalenderhane & Şehzade Mosques

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Within the immediate vicinity of the Aqueduct of Valens are two worthwhile mosques: the ancient Kalenderhane and the enormous ?ehzade Mosque, built on the order of Süleyman the Magnificent in 1548.

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The Kalenderhane Mosque was originally a Byzantine church built towards the end of the 12th century. After the conquest of Constantinople, it was granted to the Kalender Dervishes as a tekke, or lodge. The Kalender dervishes are an Islamic sect whose beliefs demand a life of endless wandering, so it’s unsurprising that they eventually abandoned their tekke. Today, it’s been converted into another of the city’s mosques, popular with students from the nearby Istanbul University.

The Kalenderhane is small, and impressive for both its marble panels and its age. Inside, the oldest known painting of Saint Francis d’Assisi was discovered in 1966. The fresco, which depicts the saint preaching to the birds, is believed to have been painted shortly after his death in 1266, and can currently be seen in the Archaeological Museum.

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Near the humble Kalenderhane, we came upon the much larger ?ehzade Camii. A jaw-dropping structure, but that was a given. It’s not as though an “adequate” mosque was going to satisfy a sultan who calls himself “Magnificent”. The ?ehzade Camii (or “Prince Mosque”) was built to honor the untimely death of Süleyman’s oldest son to smallpox, and was one of Mimar Sinan’s first major constructions in Istanbul. According to a plaque outside, the master architect was unsatisfied with the result, calling it an “apprentice work”, but we think he was being too hard on himself. Unlike many of the larger mosques in the city, visitors here are allowed to wander here at will.

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April 22, 2013 at 4:00 pm Comments (3)

Two Turkish Delights: Rakı and Boza

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Perhaps my favorite part of visiting new countries is discovering new sorts of drinking. Whether it’s soju in Korea or arrack in Sri Lanka, the existence of a new kind of alcohol provides a wonderful reason to imbibe. It’s work! Research, I tell you! So let’s have a toast to the miracle of convenient excuses!

Cinnamon-Boza

We’ll start the evening slow… very slow. Although it does contain alcohol and was once banned in Turkey under anti-drinking ordinances, Boza is safe enough to give a child. The thick, sweet drink made primarily of fermented wheat has an alcohol content of about 1%.

We first tried this popular winter treat in Istanbul’s oldest boza shop: the Vefa Bozacısı. Established in 1876, entering this bar is like stepping back in time. The floors and walls are tiled, the bartenders look straight out of the 19th century, and ancient bottles of vinegar and syrup line the wall. Atatürk was a fan of the shop, and his favorite drinking glass is proudly displayed in a shrine. The boza is served with a sprinkling of cinnamon, and is so thick and viscous that it’s best consumed with a spoon. Boza is said to be quite healthy, both effective against cholera and helpful in the production of breast milk.

Yeni Rakı

Turkey’s national drink, rakı, ups the alcohol ante significantly. Made from twice-distilled grape residue, this beverage is normally served with cold water and ice. A shot of rakı is poured into a small, narrow glass. Then, when water is added, the clear liquid instantly changes into a cloudy milky color. It has the flavor of anise, like black licorice. Sweet and cold. The innocent flavor belies rakı’s strong alcoholic content, around 45%.

We’ve had rakı a number of times, always with food. It’s usually drunk with meze and fish dishes, and goes down with frightening ease. A popular t-shirt slogan we’ve seen around Istanbul honors the drink’s potency: “Rakı is the answer. What was the question?” We never got quite that catatonic off it, but came close. Regardless of how we’d spent the day, the idea of long drinking sessions on the terrace of our local meyhane was always an appealing one…

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April 21, 2013 at 7:39 am Comments (6)

Laleli: Istanbul’s Little Moscow

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Despite being in the center of the city, the neighborhood of Laleli just doesn’t feel like the rest of Istanbul. Maybe it’s the curious absence of döner joints. It could be the shops with names like “XXL ??????? ??????” and “???????? ???????”, or the giant blonde women shouldering past with icy attitudes more befitting the tundra than Turkey. When you’re in Laleli, there’s no mistaking that you’ve arrived in Istanbul’s Russia Town.

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Laleli isn’t going to win any awards for its striking historic beauty. It’s almost all shopping here. Large, forgettable buildings crammed with equally forgettable stores that sell clothes, cheap shoes and fake Yves Saint Laurent handbags. Still, Laleli is an interesting place to see if just for the oddity of its Russian atmosphere. And it has a couple mosques that are worth the trouble of seeking out.

It took some effort to find the Bodrum Mesipaşa Camii, hidden like a jewel behind ugly modern buildings. Built as a burial church in 922 by the Byzantine emperor Romanos Lekapenos, this small brick structure was converted into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest. Given its diminutive size, we planned to spend about ten minutes inside, but hadn’t counted on meeting Mustafa Alpoy, the mosque’s amicable Imam. We were in Mustafa Bey’s office for a long time, looking at pictures of the mosque’s restoration, helping decipher some German scribbled in his guestbook, and listening to the stories of previous illustrious visitors.

Bodrum-Mesipasa-Camii-ImamUs and Imam Mustafa Alpoy

Not far away is the much larger Laleli Mosque, or the Mosque of the Lily, built in 1780 when the Baroque style was fashionable in the Ottoman Empire. Colorful marble, instead of tiling, is the dominant element in this mosque, which features a huge central dome and stained-glass windows.

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Laleli Camii

Outside the mosque are burial halls of two important Ottoman rulers, Mustafa III and his son Selim III. Selim III is a particularly interesting figure. Well-educated, multi-lingual and accomplished in poetry, calligraphy and music, he was an exceptionally modern ruler. During his regency, Selim hoped to modernize the languishing Ottoman Empire, starting with its army. Of course, reform will always find an enemy, and in this case, it was the powerful Janissary Corps — the bloated and powerful elite branch of the army. Rather than see itself obsoleted, the Janissaries revolted. They deposed the Sultan and had him executed, stabbed to death in the harem by the Chief Black Eunuch.

(I’m considering pitching “Clue: Ottoman Edition” to Parker Brothers. Chief Black Eunuch in the Harem with the Knife is incalculably more thrilling than Mrs. Peacock in the Kitchen with the Candlestick.)

We ventured into the vault beneath the mosque, and were returned immediately to the shopping spirit which truly defines Laleli. This beautiful basement centers around an old fountain and the heavy pillars which support the structure above, and is occupied by clothes sellers. The dark vault beneath a huge mosque complex might seem an odd place to shop for, say, a denim jacket with fur frills. But somehow, here in Laleli, it makes sense.

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April 20, 2013 at 7:51 am Comments (2)

Easter Sunday on Burgazada

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Burgazada is the third-largest of the popular Princes Islands, found just off Istanbul’s southern coast in the Sea of Marmara. Around 2000 people live there permanently, but its population swells considerably in the summer… and on sunny Sundays, like the one we stupidly chose for our visit.

Istanbul-Islands

While boarding the ferry at Kabataş, we were shocked by the crowd. When the sun is shining, a single idea pops into the collective mind of Istanbul: “Princes Islands!” This was the first truly warm weekend of the year, and we had expected a mob, but not like this. We crammed on the ferry, lucky to snatch a seat, then watched with increasing dismay as it filled to capacity. And then continued filling. 30 minutes past the scheduled departure time, people were still squeezing on, occupying every conceivable inch of space: the floors, aisles, railings, laps.

And this was just at the first stop! The ferry also picked up passengers at Kadiköy, where hundreds more people somehow managed to find space on the already-overflowing boat.

Despite the crush, the atmosphere on the ferry was festive. After a long period of rain and cold, the sun was finally shining, and people were in good spirits. In the aisle, a guy jammed on his guitar while friends and strangers found room to dance. A group of Turkish students challenged each other to backgammon. And despite my distaste for dangerously overloaded ferries, I found myself curiously content. I wouldn’t say the boat ride was “fun”, but it was certainly entertaining.

Any stress began to evaporate the minute we arrived in Burgazada. Friends of ours were visiting, and we wasted no time in finding a four-person phaeton (a horse-drawn carriage) to carry us off to the far side of the small island. By the time our rickety journey ended at Kalpazankaya Beach, we were rejuvenated and ready for some amusement. “What should we do first?” I asked.

“Drink rakı”, came the immediate, unanimous reply. Exactly the answer I’d been hoping for!

So we sat down to a great meal of meze and grilled fish at Kalpazankaya Restaurant, where we had a lovely view over the Sea of Marmara, Asian Istanbul looming surprisingly close on the horizon. (We had to fight for a table here — be sure to make reservations if visiting on a weekend.) After eating, we relaxed on the beach a bit and then began a slow, leisurely walk back to the port, about two kilometers away.

There wasn’t much to do on Burgazada; the island’s only museum, dedicated to novelist Sait Faik, was closed for renovation. But I suspect that “doing things” isn’t really the key to enjoying the Princes Islands. We admired the sea, played with stray cats, took pleasure in the lack of cars and city-noise, and wandered around the lively port area before boarding the ferry back home.

Location on our Istanbul Map

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April 17, 2013 at 6:57 am Comments (6)

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Istanbul Quick Eats: Kumpir, i? Kfte & Soggy Burgers While on the go, we're often in the mood for something more substantial than a simit, but have no time for a real meal. Luckily, Istanbul has plenty of cheap ways to fill up on quick energy. Here are a few of our favorites:
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