Monday, February 18, 2008

Kadıköy: a gourmet’s one-stop shop

Kadıköy: a gourmet’s one-stop shop

Kadıköy was in Ottoman hands long before the city of Constantinople fell. It predates Byzantium and was settled by the Megarians (Greeks) in 675 B.C. and named Chalcedon.

Chapters of İstanbul's history often tell the story of Byzas, the founder of Byzantium, consulting the Oracle of Delphi, who advised him to establish a colony "opposite the Land of the Blind." The suggestion was that the pioneers on the Asian side at Chalcedon must have been blind not to recognize the superior position of the peninsula across the water.

In İstanbul today the debate continues. Where are best places to live, work and shop? The Asian or European side? Üsküdar or Beşiktaş, Kadıköy or Beyoğlu? The argument goes on and there seems to be no winner; those that shop for all things food related in Eminönü vow of the superiority of the Spice Bazaar and its surrounds. Those that shop in Kadıköy adamantly state that they can get whatever they want from their immediate neighborhood. But are the shoppers of Kadıköy ignorant, "turning a blind eye" to everything the peninsula a boat ride away has to offer? Are they subjected to inferior produce and choice because of their insistence that the Megarians of Chalcedon started something that has survived to this day? Absolutely not! Today Kadıköy's very modern pedestrian mall sits on the old market site and a couple of blocks away from the ferry stops is one of İstanbul's most colorful, vibrant and accessible shopping spots.

Güneşlibahçe Sokağı (Sunny Garden Street) is the place to head to, although other shops on the way are worth a visit. Many traders have been in business since the early to mid 1900s and the more famous ones really need no introduction. Baylan Pastahanesi (patisserie) has been famous for almost all of its 47 years, and both Cafer Erol and Hacı Bekir Şekercisi (sweet makers) need no introduction, their presence in Kadıköy dating from 1945 and 1937 respectively. Kadıköy's own Mısır Çarşışı (Spice Bazaar), a tiny shop on the way up to Güneşlibahçe Sokağı has been operating since 1916. The interior has retained the décor of old, and the products available reflect all that a spice bazaar would traditionally offer -- spices, herbs and concoctions for both the kitchen and the home pharmacy.

But if the street's name does not draw a serious foodie up to the colorful, bursting strip of gourmet food shops, then nothing will. The intersection just past the Mısır Çarşışı is where the buzz begins. The fish sellers advertise their wares out loud, the constant throaty hum adding to the noise of a busy trading place. One is visually bombarded with every color from the perfectly displayed fruit and vegetables of the grocers dispersed throughout the marketplace. But the curious gourmet will turn right at this corner and meander along the next couple of blocks, visiting a number of smaller places along the way:

The muted vinegar aroma of Özcan Turşları (pickles) at No. 7 Güneşlibahçe hits you as you near their door. Inside the usual fare of pickled anything and everything awaits, but lined along the walls on narrow shelves are a range of sauces and vinegars that have only recently regained popularity in kitchens around the world. Verjuice (verjus), the extract of unripe grapes, was well-known in the Middle Ages and used in most sauces. Labeled as "koruk ekşisi," this pale golden-green viscous liquid may be the next gourmet accessory.

Over on the right hand side of the street on the next corner is Gözde Şarkuteri. Always busy with never less than half a dozen people lined up to place an order on a Saturday, the variety and quality of their produce acts like a magnet for customers. Seasonal sweets fill the front display cabinet, perhaps bright burnt oranges of kabak tatlısı (pumpkin dessert), ruby red of ayva tatlısı (quince dessert) or the molded un helvası (flour helva) -- all an irresistible attraction. Whether to buy for a snack on the run or as inspiration to try making it at home, Gözde is worth lingering over.

Cross the street and continue to Petek Fırın (bakery) and Çarşı (market bakery) on the left and stop and buy from their ranges of sweet and savory offerings. In between the two is Tariş Ayma, a trading company for the expanding Tariş brand. In the food lines the company produces very respectable vinegars (üzüm sirkesi), some aged in casks, olive oil (zeytinyağı), pomegranate sauces (nar sosu), sultanas and raisins (kuru üzüm) and dried fig (incir) products.

Immediately across the road is the welcoming Altınaoluk Zeytinyağlı at 24-26 Güneşlibahçe. They sell much more than olives and olive products. Cheese helva, a cake-like alternative to the traditional sesame helvas, contains walnuts and is baked in the oven. The shop assistants testify to there being no better dessert. Any number of unusual products are available, both local and international, but the most interesting include sumac ekşisi (sour sumac juice) and carob, date or mulberry pekmez (molasses).

Walking further along the market street, the Dicle fishmongers on the left house a very impressive selection of fish, with a tank from which one can choose the freshest, firmest flesh for dinner. The opposite corner is a good place to stop for a rejuvenating snack. Borsam Taş Fırın will serve hot, crispy lahmacun within minutes, so you can crunch it down with a side of ayran while thinking about the last few shopping stops.

Before the next corner ahead on Güneşlibahçe, Eta Bal offers yoghurt and honey to go for YTL 4. Yoghurt and honey complement one another perfectly, but the quantity of each is crucial. At Bal, in an effort to sell the honey, they will drown the yoghurt and a mouth-watering thought can turn into an overly sweet sugar rush. Catch them before they fill the cup to savor the creamy tang of yoghurt mellowed rather than drenched by honey.

With appetite sated and blood glucose restored, the scent of tea and coffee wafting from Brezilya Kurukahve will refocus wandering senses. Since 1920 this establishment has been grinding coffee; the ancient looking press still sits proudly by the front door. Inside, teas and coffees from Turkey and around the world assault the olfactory sense, but the array of dried fruits and related products will dazzle your eyes. The dried fruit pestils tempt with their heavy, caramelized colors and the desire to try them all is difficult to control.

At this point, the choices for what to do next are numerous. Go back and visit the same shops and pick up that verjuice you were unsure what to do with, head down toward the marina and check out the activity on the water, wander on to Çiya, probably Kadıköy's, if not İstanbul's best-known restaurant amongst gourmets, or just go home and cook up a storm!

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