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Addicted to Döner

Before our arrival in Istanbul, we had no idea how much döner we were about to eat… Ach, who am I kidding? We knew exactly. Scarfing down plate after heaping plate of delicious döner meat was our plan from the very beginning. It’s part of the reason we chose Istanbul in the first place.

Iskender Döner

We had become addicted to döner during the five years we lived in Berlin. Packed into a bun with salad, and slathered with sauce, the German variation of döner makes excellent hangover food. But in Istanbul, it’s served completely differently. Over the course of our 91 days here, we’ve had to open our minds and mouths to unexpected new döner horizons. Oh, how we have grown!

The vertical, spinning cone of meat is found on nearly every corner throughout Istanbul. The apron-wearing cook slicing off thin strips of meat is a beautiful sight, and just might be the quintessential image of Turkey. If you listen attentively, döner falling onto a plate sounds suspiciously like a chorus of angels. Or like the joyful laughter of children.

Usually, the meat on a döner cone is lamb, but you can also find beef and chicken. The standard plate, a porsiyon, is nothing more than slices of meat served with a bit of salad. You can also get it piled on top of rice. My favorite, though, is the İskender variation, which is a specialty of Bursa. This is döner meat served atop heavily-buttered pita bread, and then drenched in yogurt and tomato sauce. With a helping of french-fries mixed in. I just heard your stomach growl! Don’t be ashamed, mine is growling, too.

Çağ Döner

Another interesting variation is the Çağ Döner, where the meat cone has been laid on its side, and is being rotated over a pit of coals. The cook pierces the meat with long skewers, and then cuts the döner slices directly onto them. This is usually served with flatbread and salad.

For a quick bite, we frequently ordered Dürüm Döner, which is like a döner burrito. Just wrapped up meat with salad and tomato, these cost less than the porsiyon, and provide a good fix when you’re in need.

Ah, döner. I love you, but to be honest, it will be good for our relationship if we take a break for a while. It’s not you, it’s me. I can’t control myself when I’m around you, and fall into fits of violent jealousy when I see others eating you. I want you all to myself. And when I look in the mirror, I don’t like the shivering, smear-mouthed mess staring back at me. So for my own good, farewell. But despair not… I doubt it will be long before we meet again.

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July 7, 2013 at 1:07 pm Comments (4)

Breakfast in Turkey

During our first Turkish breakfast, I surveyed the table with fear and doubt. Every conceivable inch was occupied by a plate, bowl or cup. It was a ridiculous amount of food! Had the waitress misheard our order? When I said “breakfast for two”, had she understood “A merry feast for my hungry horde of Vikings”? Because this… this couldn’t possibly be right.

Turkish Breakfast

But no, it was a normal Turkish breakfast. Bread, olives, honey, jams, eggs, cheeses (old and new, cow and goat). Fluffy, filled pastries called börek. Omelets, sausage, tea. Everything you could possibly want. Turks really enjoy their kahvalti (literally, “before coffee”), and can sit around the table for hours. Newspapers are read, friends pass by and sit down, politics are discussed, more is ordered, and a lot is eaten.

We had a few wonderful breakfasts during our time in Istanbul. Aşşk Cafe in Nişantaşı, for example, served us a meal we’ll be fondly remembering for years. It was the first time I’d eaten chunks of sweet, chewy honeycomb. And did you know you can mix tahini and grape molasses? Well you can, and it’s delicious.

Another great experience was at Cafe Privato, where a view of the Galata Tower competes with an overflowing table of deliciousness for attention. As opposed to Aşşk Cafe, where we selected a variety from the menu, here were ordered a set breakfast, adding cigar-shaped börek filled with cheese. The jams were homemade, as were the breads and lemonade, and everything was delicious.

We had scored an excellent table near the window, and stayed for at least an hour after we’d finished, ordering cup after cup of tea. I felt a little bad about hogging one of the restaurant’s best views, but lingering seems to be the norm. Above all, Turkish breakfast is about slow, relaxed enjoyment. It’s hard to put a better start on the day.

Locations on our Istanbul Map: Aşşk Cafe | Cafe Privato

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June 29, 2013 at 11:54 am Comments (4)

Turkish Sweet Tooth: Baklava, Lokum and Dondurma

After a couple months in Istanbul, I started avoiding my reflection. But one morning, I accidentally caught a glimpse. Yep, a little chubbier than normal. And I was thrilled! Considering the rate at which I had been shoveling Istanbul’s infamous sweets into my honey-smeared mouth, “a little chubbier than normal” was perfectly acceptable.

Turkish Baklava

Baklava is the most famous of Turkey’s desserts: a wonderful, honey-drenched concoction invented by renowned sweet-tooth Lucifer, Lord of Hell. Of course, we’re all familiar with the Biblical parable in which baklava was created by the devil to tempt Jesus from the path of righteousness. Jesus had been able to resist the first three temptations, but one whiff of baklava and he was undone.

(Maybe that’s not exactly how it went. But if the devil had thought to tempt Jesus with baklava, the Bible might have had a very different ending.)

Baklava is the quintessential Turkish treat, invented in the kitchens of the Topkapı Palace for the enjoyment of sultans. Layers of flaky dough separated by melted butter are filled with crushed nuts and baked, then drenched in honey or syrup. But such a spiritless description of this wonder-treat does it no justice. Allow me to try again. Baklava is the Beethoven’s Ninth of sweets; a perfect symphony of pleasure in which every ingredient comes together so harmoniously that upon finishing, you want to immediately experience it again. Baklava is so flawless, so beautiful, that it should be banned.

Cutting Tirkish Delight

Lokum, better known as Turkish Delight, is another popular treat Jürgen and I consumed far too much of. These flavored, powdered, gummy cubes were invented in Constantinople in 1776 (the same year, I’ll proudly note, that America was invented), and immediately became a hit around the Ottoman Empire.

It can be made in a limitless number of flavors, with rosewater the most traditional. The best (and most expensive) lokum use honey as the sweetener, flour and water to create the gel, and then a wide variety of ingredients to finish the taste and give it color. We’ve had creamy walnut lokum, orange and lemon lokum, mint lokum rolled in coconut, hazelnut lokum, swirly chocolate lokum with a pistachio coating. And a lot more.

While eating baklava and lokum, I prefer to be at a table by myself, with one arm arched protectively around my plate. So they don’t provide anywhere near the fun factor as my favorite kind of Istanbul dessert: Turkish Ice Cream, or dondurma.

Dondurma

When you order a cone of the extra-thick, extra-creamy ice cream from a street vendor, prepare yourself for some teasing. The sellers, dressed in Ottoman fashion, are experts in the art of trickery. They’ll give you your cone, swipe it away, replace it with an empty cone, spin their stick to make you grasp at air, bop you on the nose with the ice cream, prick you in the side with the cone’s point, and all you can do is play along. I never tire of watching their antics, and have never seen them fail to coax a laugh out of whomever they’re teasing.

And the ice cream? Delicious. It’s the thickest, heaviest ice cream I’ve ever tasted; the kind you can actually bite into. In fact, it might be best eaten with a fork and knife.

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June 24, 2013 at 3:55 pm Comments (6)

Mant More Manti!

Manti are best understood as Turkish tortellini. There’s very little to distinguish them from their more famous Italian cousins. Pockets of dough stuffed with meat, potato, cheese, spinach, or anything else, this delicious Turkish staple immediately won a place in our hearts.

Spinach Manti

The classic manti are tiny, peanut-sized dough pockets filled with meat, usually lamb, and served in a bowl with a healthy wallop of yogurt and garlic sauce. Their diminutive size makes it easy to scoop up four, five, ten at a time. We most enjoyed manti, though, because of their versatility. I never had two plates which were the same. Wheat-flour manti filled with lamb, green manti made of spinach. Potato manti. Large, dumpling-sized manti filled with fish. Fried manti.

The best spot we found for the dish is Hingal Manti, at the foot of the Büyük Çamlıca in Üsküdar. It’s a small restaurant, with just a few tables inside, but they serve up some very large manti. These bigger “hingal” dumplings are a traditional dish from Dagestan, and they come in a variety of flavors, from salmon to walnut. We each ordered sampler plates, and found it difficult to decide upon a favorite type.

Another excellent spot to try the dish is Bodrum Manti, in the charming village of Arnavutköy, where we first sampled fried manti. Like Hingal, Bodrum has a wide selection to choose from, but also boasts a great seaside location in our favorite Bosphorus neighborhood. And when our waiter brought out a plate of ice cream on the house, Bodrum won our eternal approval.

Locations: Hingal Manti | Bodrum Manti

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May 29, 2013 at 3:50 pm Comments (0)

Istanbul Quick Eats: Kumpir, Çiğ Köfte & Soggy Burgers

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)

Two Turkish Delights: Rakı and Boza

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…

Location of Vefa Bozacısı on our Map

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

Lunchtime in Eminönü

Hungry for lunch? Then join the throngs heading for the semicircular Eminönü Plaza, on the western side of the Galata Bridge. “Why? What’s there to eat?” you might be asking. Well, try not worry about that quite yet!

Galata-Tower-Storm

This plaza between the Galata Bridge and the Bosphorus Ferry Terminal is one of the most popular places in the city to grab a quick and cheap lunch. Three restaurants floating on the riverside offer the exact same thing — fish sandwiches. Just step right up, hand over 5 TL and grab a seat at the first available stool. Lather your sandwich with diluted lemon juice and salt, and dig in!

Don’t walk over to the edge and peer into the murky river from which the fish are caught… stop that! Instead, look around you. Look at the funny little waiters dressed in Ottoman-era costumes! Isn’t this fun? Look at the other customers, mostly locals, happily enjoying their fish sandwiches. Hey, I said to stop looking at the water! Just close your eyes and concentrate on the fish. It’s good, right?

Chowing on a grilled fish sandwich really works up a thirst, doesn’t it? You know what sounds really delicious right now? You got it: neon-red vinegary pickle juice. You’re reading my mind! Yes sir, put a cup of that sweet stuff right here. So vinegary, so full of pickles and radishes… so bright! Mmmm, that’s the taste of a new, slightly disturbed, generation.

So, a meal in Eminönü is kind of an adventure, but in truth the pickle juice is not totally undrinkable and does complement the fish sandwich — which is just as delicious as a grilled fish sandwich should be. The experience is fun, and the price is great. You can also find non-fishy foods in the plaza, such as chestnuts, simits, corn ears and döner, and with the boisterous, almost carnival-like atmosphere and the view of the Galata Bridge, it’s an excellent place to grab a quick bite.

Just make sure to save room for dessert. There are stands offering Halka Lokma Tarifi, which are freshly-fried donut balls topped with ground pistachio. Or those with an even sweeter tooth can try out the Tarihi Osmanlı Macunu (Traditional Ottoman Candy): five different flavors of thick taffy spiraled deftly around a stick, creating a delicious lollipop.

Location on our Istanbul Map

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April 15, 2013 at 10:01 am Comments (3)

Simits, Pide and Künefe: Familiar Turkish Favorites

While in Istanbul, our taste buds were exposed to a lot of new sensations. But some of our favorite discoveries were familiar standards, common to every country, given a slight Turkish twist. Simits are Turkish bagels, a pide is a Turkish pizza, and künefe… well, that’s just Turkish heaven.

Istanbul-Simits

Simits are usually purchased from roving street vendors who are either pushing carts or balancing towering stacks on their heads. But we were lucky enough to eat them in the best way possible: early in the morning, straight out of the oven. The Tophane Tarihi Taş Fırın bakery was found conveniently between our apartment and the tram, and their freshly-baked simits quickly and firmly established themselves as our preferred on-the-go breakfast. These sesame-covered bread rings strike the perfect balance between crunchy and chewy.

Mixed-Pide

Some foods, such as liver kebab, require working up a bit of bravery. And then there’s the pide, which requires no courage at all. It’s just a canoe-shaped pizza, packed with familiar things like meat, sausage, cheese and egg, buttered and baked to crispy perfection, then sliced into horizontal strips and served. Delicious. We’ve had excellent pide at Şimşek Pide near Taksim Square, and especially at Hocapaşa Pidecisi by Sirkeci Station.

Sweets-in-Istanbul

Another immediate favorite was künefe, which we first tried at the Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası, but later sampled in many, many other places. Layers of cheese and flour cooked in a copper dish and then drenched in syrup and covered in pistachio sprinkles. Doesn’t that sound delicious? Yes it does, and although we always feel an acute sense of shame while shoveling syrupy, stringy bites of cheese into our faces, we were never able to resist.

Locations: Tophane Tarihi Taş Fırın | Şimşek Pide | Hocapaşa Pidecisi

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April 8, 2013 at 11:46 am Comments (9)

Black as Hell, Strong as Death, Sweet as Love

An old Turkish proverb perfectly describes the country’s unique take on my favorite caffeinated beverage: “Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love”. Turkish coffee is a thing unto itself, and although I initially found it disgusting, it didn’t take long to win me over. Exactly two weeks, in fact.

Turkish-Coffee-Framed-Art

[March 6th, 2013] “This is just stirred-up sludge!” That was my first judgement, after I’d foolishly emptied the espresso-sized glass into my mouth. With the mud-like coffee grinds sticking to my teeth and back of my throat, I growled. “Who wants to drink this crap?” And then I ordered an Americano.

[March 12th, 2013] “If you like your tiny shot of liquid tar with a ton of sugar, then this is your drink!” By now, I’d learned to leave the sludge at the bottom of the cup alone, but still scoffed at the idea of Turkish Coffee as a pleasure to be greedily anticipated. More like a chore.

[March 15th, 2013] “The foam is my favorite.” Capitvated by the rich layer of foam found on top of every well-prepared cup, my mind had started to open to Turkish coffee’s charms. I had learned how to order it with “a little” (bir az) sugar, which helped, and had begun sitting back in my chair, drinking in small, dainty sips. Like I’d seen cool-looking Turkish guys do.

[March 20th, 2013] “Other countries are so stupid! Turkish coffee is so much better than their stupid coffees, why doesn’t everyone drink this?” It took fourteen days, but I had embraced Turkish coffee with the obnoxious enthusiasm beginners tend to bring to every new thing they’ve just discovered. I had even bought a Turkish coffee pot (a cezve) and taught myself how to make it at home.

Oh yes, I can be very annoying. Excited by my new obsession, and eager to use my cezve (how I loved saying that word! Cezve!), I fell into the habit of making another round of coffee every hour or so, each time ceremoniously presenting it to Jürgen on a tray, and secretly hurt if he didn’t notice or comment upon the layer of foam I’d so painstakingly crafted.

Mine was alright, but the best Turkish coffee we found in Istanbul was at Café Mandabatmaz, just off İstiklal Caddesi. Just a tiny room with enough stools for maybe eight people, and a master who’s been perfecting his craft for decades, the cups of coffee you get here are out of this world. Thick, rich, sweet and strong. Just like it should be.

Location of Mandabatmaz on our Istanbul Map

We also enjoyed Turkish Coffee in the Közde Türk Kahvesi, in front of the Yeni Camii, and the Nano Cafe, near the cruise terminal. Any other great recommendations? Let us know.

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March 24, 2013 at 5:44 pm Comment (1)

A Southern Turkish Feast at the Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası

Serving up traditional food from Hatay, Turkey’s southernmost province, the Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası is a family-owned and operated restaurant which has won a lot of press and gained a loyal following since opening in 2007. We were invited to sample some of their best dishes one early Monday evening… and that’s not the kind of invitation we’re ever going to turn down.

Tuzda-Tavuk

Hatay, squished between the Mediterranean and Syria, has always been an object of contention. Syria argues that Turkey stole the province by rigging the 1939 referendum in which Hatay’s citizens voted to join Turkey. Today, the matter is mostly settled, but Syria has never officially withdrawn its claim to the province. Hatay’s climate is warmer than the rest of Turkey’s, and their cuisine more Middle Eastern.

We met Mehmet at the doors to the Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası, in the neighborhood of Askaray. The son of the restaurant’s founder, Mehmet spent the afternoon with us, introducing us to the food of Hatay and even allowing us into the restaurant’s kitchen to take photos. The Akdeniz is consistently crowded and employs a huge staff, but despite the congestion, the chefs didn’t seem to mind our presence, and it was a lot of fun to watch them work.

The restaurant’s claim to fame is the Tuzda Tavuk — a chicken stuffed with rice, packed in rock salt and then shoved into a huge wood-fired oven to bake for two hours. When ready, it’s wheeled out to the table and set on fire. After the flames are extinguished, the waiter chisels at the rock-hard salt shell until the chicken emerges golden brown and perfectly cooked from its igloo-like prison… and not all that salty. But the highlight is the rice, which is mixed with allspice, currants, crushed almonds and pine nuts. You can also order the same thing with lamb instead of chicken.

We were also able to try the Cerra Kebab, which is a leg of lamb baked inside a clay pot, with garlic, onion and spices. At the table, the pot is smacked open and the steaming contents poured out into a bowl. Just as delicious as the chicken, and more succulent. I could have eaten two pots full.

Meze-Restaurant-Istanbul

Before the main dishes appeared, Mehmet had selected a few of his favorite meze, including humus, muhamarra (a spicy red chili paste with walnuts), tebbuli (white thyme salad), mütebbel (yogurt eggplant sauce) and kısır (a reddish salad of wheat, parsley and tomato paste). I had assumed humus would be a normal part of Turkish cuisine, but it’s actually more Middle Eastern; this was the first time I’d seen it in Istanbul. The mütebbel was possibly my favorite of the bunch, or perhaps the white thyme salad. Or the perfectly spicy muhamarra. It’s hard to say.

We had polished off enough food to sustain a camel for months, and our stomachs were bursting. So when dessert arrived, I suspected that Mehmet was deriving some sadistic joy out of torturing us. But if the torture is being “forced” to eat künefe, you can’t complain too much. You just sit there, endure your punishment, and enjoy every last bite of it. Künefe is Hatay’s most famous dessert: layers of flour and goat cheese, caramelized on top and served with a big glass of milk.

Considering how long the main dishes need to bake, you should call ahead well in advance to both order and reserve a table. But don’t miss out on the best place in Istanbul to try some of Turkey’s most distinctive cuisine.

Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası – Website
Location on our Istanbul Map
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Turkish Cook Books
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March 20, 2013 at 6:05 pm Comments (4)

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