Friday, November 14, 2008

An Insider’s Guide to Eating Like a Turk

An Insider’s Guide to Eating Like a Turk

Originally Published October 2008
The culinary customs of Istanbul can be confusing—to begin with, every type of food has its own restaurant—but once you figure things out, you’ll be rewarded with a culinary paradise.
Istanbul restaurant

When my parents came to visit me in Istanbul in the 1980s, they took one look at the tiny apartment I was sharing with another student and insisted that we go out for dinner. The conversation with my mother went something like this

“Where are we eating tonight?”

“Well, what kind of food do you want?” I asked. “Meat? Fish? Something with sauce?”

Mother, irritably: “I want to sit in the restaurant, look at the menu, and then decide.”

“Sorry, but you have to decide now. Each type of food has its own restaurant.”

“Okay, something with gravy.”

Duly instructed, I led them to my favorite lokanta.

“I’d like a beer,” my father announced when we had settled in.

“Sorry, the lokanta doesn’t serve alcohol.”

Despite the proliferation of foreign-style restaurants and chains in Istanbul, most Turks still insist on maintaining the authenticity not only of their food but of the entire eating experience. This can be confusing to the newcomer, but with even a little knowledge you will find the city a culinary paradise—which makes sense given that, as the capital of two successive empires and the cultural capital of the modern Turkish Republic, it has been the site of serious eating for thousands of years. The foods and customs of Istanbul’s traditional restaurants are also a window onto the tug-of-war between religion and secularism that permeates Turkish society. What is eaten where, and how, is not a casual matter here.

Alcohol, not surprisingly, is a primary indicator of a restaurant’s place in the social fabric. Those that serve wine and beer, in particular, are associated with Istanbul’s diverse ethnic and religious history and with today’s urban secular elites; those that don’t cater to the pious Muslim part of the population. This demarcates a fault line in Turkish politics and society so deep that some secularists won’t dine in a place that doesn’t serve drinks, and the pious won’t enter a restaurant that does. You can spot the difference right away by the presence or absence of women in head scarves. Lunch is less ideological than dinner—something like the Christmas Truce of 1914, when British and German soldiers shared cigarettes and a song in no-man’s-land before returning to their trenches.

In Ottoman times, Greeks (called Rum, a corruption of Rome) and other Christians were the merchants and tavern keepers, while Muslims kept to the barracks and the bureaucracy. The prominence of hard-drinking Christians in the city’s culinary history is reflected today in the meyhane (literally, “wine house”), an emblematic urban dining locale that serves primarily fish and raki, a clear anise-flavored alcohol that, with the addition of a splash of water, turns into white “lion’s milk,” drunk throughout the meal as other cultures drink wine. Dining on fish while drinking alcohol is the quintessential hallmark of being urban and secular.

The custom in meyhaneler is to first choose from a variety of cold appetizers (mezes) displayed on an enormous tray, then hot appetizers, followed by a fish, then fruit. In a precise culinary pas de deux, the classic meyhane starter is sweet melon with tart white cheese, followed immediately by raki with a water chaser. The variety of other mezes is endless but usually includes seasonal vegetables in olive oil or yogurt, morsels of seafood, bean pâtés, hot pockets of cheese in flaky pastry, calamari, and spiced liver.

There is no more classic meyhane than Refik, located in Beyog˘lu, Istanbul’s vibrant nightlife district. The food here is delicious—the grilled “Albanian liver” sprinkled with tangy spring onions and the börek (savory grilled pastries stuffed with cheese or minced lamb) are particularly good—but even more important is the atmosphere. For more than half a century, owner Refik Arslan, now 85, has overseen the nightly transubstantiation of food, drink, and fellowship into keyif, a condition that British explorer Sir Richard Burton once described as a feeling of intoxication derived from a social state of connection.

My own quintessential keyif experience happened some years ago. My friends and I were working our way through a glorious array of mezes and several bottles of raki when suddenly a rug merchant named Hasan began to sing. As his voice rose and fell along the complex scales of Turkish classical music, a hush settled over the room. When he finished, the laughter and clinking of glasses resumed, fish was ordered, more raki was poured. Before long, the next table—an amateur singing club out on the town—broke into song. When they were done, a man at another table piped up, and so it went the entire evening. We heard the shutters go down at the restaurants next door, but no one was willing to break the spell. Even the waiters stood entranced until two in the morning, when we spilled out into the deserted street. There’s a Turkish saying that goes, “What the heart wants is intimate conversation, the rest is an excuse.”

Fish restaurants tend to be more sedate than meyhaneler, although there’s no rule against spontaneous singing. Ismet Baba is an airy shack perilously suspended above the water next to the ferry landing in the charming Asian village of Kuzguncuk, a famously tolerant neighborhood that’s home to artists and writers. Enormous windows give diners a view of the Bosporus Bridge and a parade of cargo ships, ferries, and fishing boats. There is no menu; the fish available that day and their prices are listed on a blackboard. Among the best are barbunya, red mullet flash-fried in cornmeal, and simple, grilled kalkan (turbot). The restaurant is always full, so come early in the evening and bring cash to pay your bill.

Fish rarely appear on the menus of so-called “meat restaurants,” which don’t lend themselves to song, but rather to conversation and serious eating. These places tend to specialize in kebab, a cuisine from eastern Anatolia, the skewered chunks of lamb rotating over a glowing charcoal fire that evokes the Central Asian nomadic heritage of the Turks. A few meat restaurants serve beer, but the traditional accompaniment is ayran, a refreshing, lightly salted yogurt drink.

The Develi family from eastern Antep province has been in the kebab business since 1912. There are now several Develi restaurants in the city, but since a good view is an important ingredient of Istanbul eating, I recommend the one situated inside the Kalamı¸s yacht harbor, on the Asian side, near a seaside strolling path shaded by oleanders. Among the appetizers, a favorite is ali nazik, a smoky eggplant purée swirled with yogurt and topped with succulent lamb cooked in butter. You must also try the restaurant’s famed version of çi˘g köfte—spiced raw beef ground to a paste with bulgur, parsley, and Maras and Urfa peppers, then shaped into patties decorated with the imprint of the cook’s fingertips and served in a crisp leaf of romaine lettuce with a squeeze of lemon juice. The kuzu tandır, tender lamb cooked in a sealed clay jar, is also excellent, as is the fıstıklı köfte, grilled meatballs of lamb ground with pistachios. Kebabs come with a mound of arugula leaves, parsley, grilled long green peppers, and a juicy grilled tomato, and waiters circulate continuously with trays of delicacies newly hatched from the oven—tiny pizzas, stuffed eggplants, and balls of spicy ground lamb and walnuts.

Alcohol is not usually served in lokantalar, old-school restaurants that specialize in the sort of food mothers laboriously make at home in sturdy pots and casseroles: soups, stewed lamb, rice-stuffed squash, vegetable casseroles. Thirty years ago, lokantalar were the workingman’s kitchen away from home, located in the poorer parts of town. On a winter morning, behind steamed-up windows, you could make out men spooning up their breakfast soup or, in the wee hours, downing tripe soup to conquer their impending hangovers. Recently, “home-cooking” lokantalar have spread, in part to serve the tourist trade, but also because more and more Turks are eating out instead of making the time-consuming dishes at home.

By far the best lokanta in the city is Hacı Abdullah, in Beyog˘lu, the neighborhood built by the Genoese and Venetians during Byzantine times. Chattering crowds teem along Istiklal Avenue, but step around the corner and the noise drops away. Old men sell shoelaces and blue beads to ward off the evil eye beneath Hacı Abdullah’s modest sign. Inside, men in suits have taken off their jackets, families are chatting, and women are lunching beneath the stained-glass dome that crowns the back room. Founded in 1888, this place follows the old Ottoman custom of turning ownership over from masters to apprentices in each generation. The present manager, Hacı Abdullah Korun, is a sprightly man in his late fifties with a neat salt-and-pepper beard. “We use only the best ingredients from the same suppliers,” he explained with the enthusiasm of a man who has devoted his life to good food. “Butter from Urfa, olive oil from Balıksesir, lamb and veal delivered from Thrace.” The tradition here, as in all lokantalar, is to eat a variety of appetizers in olive oil—tart grape leaves stuffed with rice, pine nuts, and currants; rice studded with dill and pistachios and wrapped in cabbage leaves; a stuffed eggplant or green pepper—then move on to one of the several dozen meat or casserole dishes, such as braised lamb shanks wrapped in eggplant. Dessert might be a fruit kompostolokanta’s specialties, along with kes¸kek, coarsely ground mutton or chicken mixed with boiled and mashed wheat and chickpeas— a traditional meal served at Anatolian village weddings. such as spiced stewed quince, ruby red with a fresh, citrusy flavor. Compotes and pickles are among this

In Turkey, even the desserts are divided. Milk-based puddings are found only at shops called muhallebiciler; baklava has its own shops; and European-style cakes are sold only in pastahaneler (patisseries).

Down the hill from Beyog˘lu, a stone’s throw from the Galata Bridge, you will find Turkey’s best baklava. Elderly, bearded Hacı Mustafa Güllü sits behind the cash register at Güllüog˘lu while his son Nadir, a third-generation baklavacı, fields questions from the many foodies who make the pilgrimage to his shop and nearby baklava factory. So popular is his baklava, he told me, that a shipment on a bus was once stolen by passengers. In his cramped office, Nadir leads me through the baklava equivalent of a wine tasting. After handing me a plate with a single large piece of walnut baklava, he instructs me to look at it: “All five senses must be brought to bear. First the eye. Then smell. Then a sound like ‘kish’ when you bite into it. Then the palate. Then the stomach two hours later.” It had never occurred to me to smell my baklava, and I was taken by its rich, nutty scent. Fresh baklava is not overly sweet, but light and complex.

There are many muhallebiciler specializing in milk-based desserts, some quite old and well loved, but the memory of a place often doesn’t live up to the reality, especially when the shop has become a chain in the interim. That is not the case with Sütis¸, established in 1953, whose large, well-lit restaurants serve an enormous variety of milky desserts, as well as chicken dishes and doner kebabs. Emirgan, where the shop is located, is an easy bus ride up the European coast of the Bosporus, lined here with old Ottoman villas, tiny villages, and parks. From the outdoor terrace, there is a stunning view of the water to be enjoyed while you spoon up such sweets as baked pudding (fırın sütlaç), smoothly creamy under its scorched skin. After eating you can take a walk up the hill to Emirgan Park, where the sultan’s summer villas have been turned into cafés. No more sultans, and more choices, but the old rules still apply.

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