Robin Gauldie takes an end-of-year culinary journey through Turkey and finds you don’t have to spend much to eat well.
Turkey’s autumn harvest
Istanbul dwellers will make a special trip to Edirne just to sample the city’s signature dish, tava ciger – meltingly tender calf’s or lamb’s liver fried in lots of butter and spiced up with deep purple flakes of pepper. I’d chosen to make this journey in autumn – harvest season. So it makes sense to start in Edirne, only eight kilometres from Turkey’s western border with Greece, before heading east to Istanbul and beyond. At Niyazi Usta (Alipasa Ortakapı Cad 9, 0090 284 213 3372; www.cigerciniyaziusta.com.tr), a vast and bustling emporium adorned with dozens of photos of famous patrons to testify to its popularity, I sample Edirne’s signature dish. It’s as delicious as my Istanbullu friends had promised.
Turkish food is always great, even when it’s less than gourmet, as connoisseurs of the late-night kebab will attest. This is one of the world’s great kitchens, with more than 200 recipes just for aubergines. Turkey is lapped by four seas and blessed by an amazing variety of terrain and microclimates, from the Mediterranean coast to the fertile plateau of Anatolia and the plains of Thrace, the forested mountains of the Black Sea coast and the semi-desert steppes of the far south-east. Every region has its key crop or dish.
The plains around the brooding, dark-walled fortress city of Diyarbakir are famous for enormous karpuz watermelons. Konya produces fine wheat flour, Tosya the best baldo rice for pilav. The herb-scented hills around Lake Van are famed for their aromatic honey, and the fertile plains that surround Gaziantep for fistic, the pistachios that are the essential ingredient in some of the best baklava in the world. The Dalyan delta has its prized blue crabs. Trabzon, on the Black Sea, is said to produce the best hamsi (anchovies). The Black Sea region – greener and cooler in summer than the Mediterranean coast – is famous too for its cherries, apples and tea plantations.
A three-hour ride from Edirne brings me to the big city. Istanbul is at its most authentic and user-friendly in autumn, with cool weather, cleaner air, fewer visitors and shorter queues to enter its great mosques and museums. More than a million people have moved to this vast metropolis in the last four years, taking its population to some 14 million. Many are recent migrants from the provinces, and they have brought with them the flavours of the remotest parts of the country. Street foods abound.
The best place to start exploring Istanbul is the Misir Carsisi – the Egyptian Market, which is also called the Spice Market. Inside this labyrinthine, covered bazaar, an entire lane of stalls is devoted to loukoum – “Turkish delight” – in every shape and form, flavoured with rose water, bergamot, orange, lemon or mastic. There are overflowing sacks of pistachios, hazelnuts, almonds, pine kernels, melon and sunflower seeds and pistachios, canisters of herbal or fruit-flavoured teas, strings of scarlet peppers, and heaps of herbs, colourings and spices. Saffron from Iran is the most precious of all. Most other spices are priced by measures of 100 grams. Iranian saffron is priced by the gram, and a single gram costs about Dh28. Another alley is lined with pasturma sellers, and fat pink-and-brown cylinders of this spiced beef – a staple Turkish snack – dangle from their ceilings.
Across the road from the Spice Market, hundreds of anglers line the Galata Bridge, which crosses the Golden Horn, the inlet that separates the old quarter of Istanbul – the former Constantinople – from the heart of the modern city. They’re casting for istavrit (horse mackerel), palamut (bonito) and, above all, the prized lüfer (bluefish). Each year, vast shoals migrate through the narrow Bosphorus from the Black Sea. The unlucky ones end up on the fishmonger’s slab, their frilly gills spread open like crimson carnations to show that they are freshly caught. City-dwellers cross the Bosphorus to the Asian shore to eat in the seafood restaurants at Beylerbeyi and Çengelköy, village-like suburbs where some of the wooden mansions that once lined every street in the city survive in the shadow of the towering Bosphorus suspension bridge.
Appetite whetted by the savoury aromas of the Spice Market, I board one of the old-fashioned vapur ferry boats that chug from the quayside next to the Galata Bridge to Büyükada, the largest of the “Princes Islands” in the Sea of Marmaris. This car-free island is piscivore heaven. Along the waterfront, red gurnard, scorpion fish, mullet, snapper, steel-blue lüfer, silver bream and sea bass are laid out for inspection on trays of ice. I’m tempted by the bluefish. But Istanbul’s annual Lüfer Bayramı (Bluefish Festival), held every year in mid-October, has alerted me to the fish’s plight. Commercial fishing has taken a heavy toll. In an effort to build up stocks, the Turkish government recently introduced rules banning anglers from landing bluefish smaller than 24 centimetres long. If you don’t have a ruler handy, look for restaurants with the yellow sticker that shows that their bluefish are the legal size. Or do as I do, and settle for the sole and a side order of anchovies at Alibaba (Gulistan Cad 20, 0090 216 382 3733, www.alibababuyukada.com), which is my favourite place on the row of restaurants along the waterfront.
You can eat very well in Turkey without ever venturing into an upscale restaurant – you’ll find some of the best, authentic Turkish food at street level, in the simple lokanta and ocakbasi eating places that cluster around market areas and bus stations all over Turkey. Turks love soup, and in villages, small towns or big cities, everyone has their favourite soup restaurant. It’s not unusual to see sleek-suited businessmen seated next to truck drivers and market traders as they spoon up a bowl of mercimek, the spicy lentil soup which is to Turkey what porridge is to Scotland. Turks consume this, and other soups, for breakfast, dinner and tea. This is partly, so I’ve been told, in keeping with Islam’s emphasis on letting nothing go to waste, so ingredients such as sheep’s head and cow’s tripe put in an appearance. The ubiquitous boreg is found in neighbouring countries, too, but Turks claim it as their own. These small filo pastries may be filled with cheese or vegetables, minced lamb, beef or chicken. They’re delicious, moreish and filling. Other street foods include kokoretsi – organ meats wrapped in lamb’s intestines, spit-roasted and spiced with flakes of chilli – and fluffy flatbread topped with minced meat, egg or cheese. I have the chance to sample most of them on the way to Izmir, on the Aegean coast.
This is Turkey’s third largest city. Devastated by fire in 1922, it’s short of memorable sights – bar the pretty, blue-tiled Konan mosque, an Ottoman clock tower and a dour hilltop citadel – and sees only a trickle of foreign tourists. It’s a bustling, modern place and it has its own signature street snacks. And I find something here that seems to be truly unique to Izmir. It’s called “sogus”, and it’s a snack of cold, sliced tongue, cheek and brain, spiced up with cumin, mint, parsley and pickled chillies, all wrapped up in flatbread. I have to try it, but I’m not sure that I’d try it a second time.
Less challenging is the city’s take on kofta. In Izmir, these spicy meatballs are flavoured with mint and cumin, bound with egg and cooked in a casserole with potatoes, tomatoes and green peppers. Another good reason to visit Turkey in autumn; hearty dishes like these are more appealing in cooler weather.
Seafood restaurants line the Kordon, the city’s waterfront, but when Izmiris want to eat really fresh fish they head for Çesme, 90km from the city and within a stone’s throw of the Greek island of Chios. For centuries, the island supplied the Ottoman Empire with mastic, the fragrant gum used to flavour sweetmeats and drinks – as well as the breath. Known in Turkish as sakiz, it’s still imported from Chios to flavour Çesme’s famous ice-cream.
Çesme is a rags-to-riches fishing village-turned-smart holiday spot. Most of its visitors are well-off Turks from Istanbul and Izmir. They’re willing to spend well to eat well, so Çesme’s fish restaurants have raised their game to meet rising expectations. At Dalyan Restaurant (Liman Cad 161, 0090 232 724 7045; www.dalyanrestaurant.com), I lunch on barbunya (red mullet) and cipura (gilt-head bream) that I’d watched being unloaded and auctioned on the pier nearby just a couple of hours earlier. It doesn’t get much fresher than that.
Çesme’s claim to street-level food fame, however, is kumrusu, a sesame-seed bun stuffed with melted cheese, grilled slices of spicy sucuk sausage, tomatoes and pickled peppers. Munching one as I walk along the harbourside, I reflect that the international fast-food chains face some tough, home-grown competition in Turkey.
Izmir province is said to produce the juiciest figs in Turkey, and there are plenty to be seen on roadside stalls as I head out of town. Turkish food sellers have an innate talent for display. The simplest local greengrocer’s stand is laid out with an artistry that couldn’t be beaten by a professional window-dresser. Tomatoes, pomegranates, oranges, scarlet, green and yellow peppers, purple aubergines and watermelons halved to reveal their vivid pink innards create a rainbow of colours, all lovingly arranged and regularly spritzed with fresh water to bring up their sheen.
From Çesme, I head south down the coast – bypassing the fleshpots of Kusadası, Altinkum, Bodrum and Marmaris, where tourism has reduced Turkish food to its lowest common culinary denominator – to the Dionysos Estate. Perched above Kumlubuk Bay, this collection of stylish guest cottages around a gorgeous infinity pool is the brainchild of entrepreneur Ahmet Senol.
“There were just six families living in this valley when I bought the land,” Senol tells me. “Some people said I was like a cuckoo in the nest.” But the original owners were happy to sell, he insists. “Most of them have their own pansiyons on the coast now. It’s a better living than making honey.”
There are still hundreds of blue-painted beehives scattered around the rocky, pine-covered slopes and herb-scented goat pastures above the Dionysos Estate, and among Senol’s 1,500 olive trees. The estate’s own organic brand, Amos, has won acclaim from the Flos Olei guide to the world’s best olive oils, which describes it as “ample and rotund” with “elegant, fruity notes”. I join the hotel’s gardener, Isa, and a team of olive pickers as they harvest the succulent green fruit using nets and small, wooden rakes. Isa explains that the olives must never touch the ground, and that for the best oil they are pressed within three hours of being picked. It’s hard work (my back needs a session in the hot tub later), but I’m rewarded with a tot of almost luminous, pea-green oil, fresh from the press.
The next and final stop is Antalya. Like many Turkish cities, it has a boom-town feel. Swathes of new buildings surround the ancient ramparts that surround Kaleiçi, the old town, and its ancient harbour. There are lots of trendy spots along the quayside, but instead I seek out a well-kept secret, on one of the cobbled lanes a short distance inland from the harbour. Gunlubol (Imaret Sok 30, 0090 242 244 4334) is locally renowned for a meaty menu that brings its patrons every version of the kebab that Turkey has to offer.
Some people go to Turkey for its summer beaches. Some go to be awed by its great mosques, its Ottoman palaces, its museums and the relics of half a dozen vanished empires. These aren’t sights to be ignored – but go for the food, too. You won’t be disappointed.
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