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Addicted to Döner

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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

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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

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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)

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)

Lunchtime in Eminönü

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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 (4)

Simits, Pide and Künefe: Familiar Turkish Favorites

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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 &#350imşek 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 | &#350imşek Pide | Hocapaşa Pidecisi

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

Ciğer &#350iş – Liver Shish Kebab at Canim Ciğerim

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At the last second, I nearly lost my nerve and ordered chicken. But I stayed strong and, in a confident voice, ordered the “Ciğer &#350iş”: the Liver Shish Kebab. At least, I think I sounded confident. I might have whimpered a little, but if the waiter caught it, he didn’t let on.

Turkish-Feast

Jürgen and I travel a lot, but that doesn’t exactly make us Anthony Bourdain. We love trying out the cuisine of different cultures, but neither of us have too wild a palate. When backed into a corner, I’ll steel my resolve and do something like schluck down wriggling, raw octopus in Busan, or munch cow tongue in Bolivia. Generally, though, I stick to offal-free dishes made of normal cuts of meat I can identify.

But I’m trying to evolve. Istanbul has an insanely varied and world-renowned cuisine, and I swore not to be a culinary wimp during our three months in the city. So when we chose to have lunch at a restaurant named “My Liver, My Dear” (Canim Ciğerim), I knew I was going to order the liver. I had to. (“No you don’t!” hissed my inner-coward).

Our meat took a while to sizzle on the shish but when it arrived, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had been expecting three, possibly four skewers of liver. This was one of our first meals in Turkey, and I was unaccustomed to the serving sizes. The waiter plopped onto our plates twenty skewers full of meat. Ten liver shish kebabs for me, ten chicken for Jürgen.

God help me, I ate all of it. After a quick lesson in the art from our waiter, I was ready to attack my liver. You hold a piece of flat bread around a skewer, and pull the meat off into it. Then, you pile whatever you like onto the bread. With the colorful condiments crowding our table (pink radishes, yellow peppers, red sauce, green leaves) this felt a little like painting on canvas. Except that it’s a delicious painting made of food which you immediately roll up and consume.

The liver was rich, chewy and tasted only slightly of iron, and any nervousness I’d been feeling evaporated with the first bite. This tiny restaurant in Beyoğlu was an excellent find, and although I don’t know if liver will make it onto my Favorite Foods list anytime soon… at least it can be removed from the list I’ve labeled “Terror/Puke”.

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March 13, 2013 at 6:00 pm Comments (0)