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Turkish Delights in Istanbul

Words and pictures by Julie Lythgoe

Istanbul offers a fusion of Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Balkan cuisine resulting in a diverse and expansive variety of luscious delicacies, it is easily possible to bombard oneself with a culinary feast. Like Thailand food plays an important role in the daily lives of Turkish people, everywhere you go in Istanbul there are restaurants, cafes, shops and street sellers offering a mouth-watering selection of traditional Turkish dishes, foods and snacks. It is certainly very tempting to try them all but it is virtually impossible to sample everything. I passed on a couple – the roasted lambs’ head and the lambs’ brain were just a little too much for me! Lamb is an extremely popular meat in Turkey but be aware as it tastes quite different to what is available in Thailand, it has a very earthy strong taste and it is sometimes quite heavily salted.

Like any other big city Istanbul has its fair share of trendy eateries, traditional Turkish restaurants (Cicek Passage is well worth a visit for the architecture alone) and cafes. Eating out in Istanbul is more expensive than eating out in Thailand but it is still quite affordable. The menus tend to consist of meat-based dishes and vegetables are used extensively as is olive oil and mixed salads. Seafood is also widely available with an excellent variety of fish on offer – some are even caught in the Bosphoros Strait. Fresh, grilled anchovies are delicious as is the seafood casserole which is served in a clay pot, really enjoyable with a glass of Turkish beer.

Like Thailand, Istanbul has a great many street food vendors offering roasted chestnuts, Turkish bagels (simit), barbequed sweetcorn and fresh almonds to name but a few. Baked potatoes are also very popular in Istanbul, the potatoes are enormous and are filled with as many fillings as you can pack in, including chicken, ham, beef, cheese, coleslaw and a variety of sauces and salads – really delicious!

No visit to Istanbul would be complete without sampling one of its famous kebabs - beef, chicken and lamb are all widely available and unlike many that I have seen, the ones in Istanbul are packed with large pieces of meat threaded onto the skewer, during cooking they offer an alluring aroma and an appetizing view. Also not to be missed is a Turkish breakfast, to say it is substantial is an understatement. It consists of white bread and croissant type pastries accompanied by a selection of small dishes: scrambled eggs, meat salami, green and black olives, feta cheese, sliced tomatoes, yogurt, honey and strawberry and sour cherry jam. This is not for the faint hearted and it will certainly set you up for a day’s sightseeing – that is if you can move after all that food!

Turkish meze is another traditional dish that is worth trying. Meze is usually an appetizer course consisting of hot and cold, fresh and fried dishes accompanied by fish, meats, pickled vegetables and dips and sauces. Try the local Efes beer with your meze, they complement each other very well.Fish bread (balik ekmek), as it is known is alsovery popular in Istanbul and consists of a generous piece of white baguette loaded with salad and freshly caught barbequed mackerel. The elaborate, colourful boats that sell the sandwiches are moored close to the Galata Bridge and I would say that it is definitely worth a visit to try this Turkish favorite.

Turkish, like Thai people have a very sweet tooth, they adore cakes, desserts, chocolate and especially Turkish Baklava which is made from thin layers of filo pastry with chopped nuts such as pistachios, walnuts and almonds. The mellow, sweet smell of Turkish delight (Lokums) will set your mouth watering in anticipation. There are countless flavours to choose from but it is possible to sample before you buy, shops are only too happy for you to try as many as you wish. I chose a small variety box which allows you to buy different flavours without buying too much.

Ice cream in Istanbul is wonderfully creamy and comes in a variety of flavours. When you order you also get a sort of magic come juggling show from the street seller who is dressed in traditional Turkish dress, it’s very entertaining. Well worth buying an ice cream to watch how nimble-fingered they are with a cornet! Homemade lemonade soon became my favorite after the local Efes beer, Turkish lemonade has a clean, crisp, slightly sour taste and is extremely refreshing, perfect during a days shopping or sightseeing. Fresh pomegranate juice is also very popular.I have to say that I have never been a lover of black tea but I really enjoyed the Turkish tea. It has a smooth mellow taste and is not bitter at all, you can add sugar for a sweeter taste if you prefer. It is consumed by the gallon and you are offered it all over Istanbul served in small glasses.

Turkish Raki is a very popular drink amongst the locals. It is similar to Greek Ouzo and is made from various grape varieties and aniseed. Turkish people dilute it with a little water before drinking which is probably a good idea due to its strength – take your time with this one! Another popular non-alcoholic drink is Ayran which is cold yogurt drink mixed with a little salt, I know this sounds very unappetizing and it’s certainly not at the top of my list but it is consumed in copious amounts every day by the Turkish people – certainly a healthy option!

It is possible to find Thai food in Istanbul if you get the craving for something spicy. Just off Istiklal Avenue close to the Mamara Pera Hotel is an authentic Thai restaurant which boasts its own Thai chef. I tried the som tdam, yam wun sen talay and a massaman curry. Overall the food was good especially the massaman, the other two dishes could have been a little more spicy, probably a good idea to let the chef know your preference if you like really spicy food.

Istanbul is as exciting for the palate as it is for the eyes and like Thailand it is possible just to live off street food alone such is the quality and the variety of what is on offer. I hope that it will not be too long before I can enjoy authentic Turkish food once again!