Today was quite a day, so this will be a long blog post…
It’s now 6 PM and we are still recovering from a 6 hour food tour in the Old City. The tour took us to places in the city we never would have found on our own and introduced us to a ton of interesting food as well.
We booked a tour thought Istanbul Eats, and our guide was Connie, a German journalist who has lived in Istanbul for 9 years. She writes for the Guardian and is a tour guide on the side. The tour was only 6 people, which is their maximum. The size is perfect, as it allows her to have a table set up for us wherever we go, and also lets us visit small shops that a larger tour could never go to.
I don’t think I’ve ever taken a tour like this before – I’ve always avoided them, thinking tours are for tourists and I wanted a more authentic experience. This was great – she led us down tiny alleys, into tiny shops, to small food carts, and more. There were 4 others on our tour – two older couples from Australia. This was also their first visit to Istanbul so we were all beginners.
I am sure I won’t be able to remember every place we visited, but I have photos of most of them and will try!
We met outside the Spice Market and walked up a flight of stairs to the only kosher restaurant left in Istanbul. Our guide didn’t know that all 6 of her guests on this tour were Jewish! We didn’t go in for some reason – there was a guy sitting outside eating a turkey sandwich, kind of yelling at the guide. For some reason they said he or some other guy has to be there at all times – maybe they’re rabbis or something? Regardless, we didn’t even go in – I think she just wanted to show it to us.
From there we walked along some of the food stalls outside the Spice Market. The shops inside the market are pretty touristy – they all sell Turkish Delight, nuts, teas, etc – but outside there are the food stalls that the locals shop at. Cheese, fish, spices, nuts, fruit, vegetables, meat, olives, etc. As we stopped at each place, we were given samples and were able to ask the shopkeeper questions. One of the stops was a butcher where they were selling hooves and other body parts in a case. We were invited inside the shop to see more and I’m glad I didn’t go in. Rachel came out and told me how I missed seeing a head with eyeballs still in it and some kind of brains. I’m feeling ill just thinking about it.
Connie bought a little of this and a little of that, and eventually she led us down a hallway in an old run down building, where they laid out some newspapers on a table and set a table for our breakfast, which consisted of bread (kind of like bagels), clotted cream with honey, assorted cheeses, olives and either tea or turkish coffee. There we sat and talked about food and tasted everything. None of us realized how much more food was to come.
So what was this table, we asked… and who was the man who was helping to set it up for us? It seems that tea (called chai here) is such a integral part of the culture here, that there are tiny tea shops throughout the city, especially in the market areas. They carry trays of hot tea to the vendors all day long, and people can walk up to the little shop (basically a cabinet under a flight of stairs) and buy tea right there. There are a couple stools, boxes, a table and some chairs in the hallway where people can sit, and it’s OK to bring your own food. The man who helped to set up our table and brought us our tea was a “tea master”, having done this for many years.
After breakfast we continued walking through the shopping streets in the area. First they were all kitchen and restaurant supplies, eventually hardware supplies. There were no tourists at all here.
We stopped at the shop where roasted coffee was first packaged and sold. Supposedly roasted coffee was invented in Istanbul. We stopped at a doner stand (the rotating spit) where a man makes what is supposedly the best chicken doner, marinating each piece of chicken with spices and roasting it to perfection.
We stopped at a baklava shop where they have been making baklava for generations and they are so skilled there are 85 layers of phyllo in some of their baklavas. We had tea again there also.
From there we continued walking and stopped in a small restaurant for workers, where old fashioned traditional, Turkish comfort food is made every day for lunch. We tasted only a lentil soup there and moved on.
Our next stop was a pide shop owned by a man who has been making pide for 30 years. Pide is like a Turkish pizza, cooked in a woodburning oven. We watched him make a couple pides for us which only needed to bake for a few minutes, and then we sat outside to sample them. These all had meat in them, which I wasn’t crazy about, but the bread and cheese was delicious.
From there we eventually moved on to a candy store where they have been making Turkish Delight for 4 generations. We had samples there – this candy was much softer than others I have tried here, and half the price.
At one point we asked about the small green fruits that people sell from carts, so Connie bought a bag – they were tiny sour plums. One bite was enough for me. I should note here how well money was handled on the tour – Connie just bought and paid for food throughout the day. At no point did she ever discuss what was or was not included, and if someone asked about something, she bought a bit of it. Some foods she bought without mentioning to us and brought them out next time we stopped for tea.
Our next stop for tea was an interesting one – it was a big open courtyard where a couple small groups of men were sitting and talking over their tea. It seems to be a ritual of life here, at least for working men. We set up a table and had tea and halva while we learned about the courtyard. It was very old, hundreds of years old, and it is being converted into an open air theater. Tomorrow night is their first performance.
Here’s someone drinking tea on a random street, nowhere near a tea shop.
From there we stopped in a tiny pudding shop where Connie went in to buy a chicken pudding for us to try later. Yes – chicken pudding. Sweet. Delicious. You’d never know there was chicken in it – I asked why they put chicken in and Connie said it was for the texture.
Then we stopped at an amazing doner restaurant – we stood outside and had fresh cut doner (lamb meat) on a lavash pita with some vegetables inside. This was perhaps the best thing I’ve eaten in Turkey – the meat was so tender and flavorful. Others in the restaurant were eating a white bean soup that looked good, and the doner meat over rice. I made a note to go back for dinner before we leave here. Everything looked soooo good.
After that we walked more – it felt like 10 miles – and ended up at a boze shop. Boze is like a pudding made from a grain called millet. It’s another of these shops that has been around for generations – over 100 years. Neither Rachel or I were crazy about it.
A cute cat I saw on the walk to the boze shop. There are stray cats everywhere in Istanbul and no one seems to mind them.
Our next stop was a stand where they used to serve raw meatballs. Raw meat is not allowed to be served here now, so now he makes a vegetarian version that looks and tasted like raw meat. You eat it wrapped up in lettuce. I don’t think I was the only one who pretended to like it.
Our final stop was a restaurant that Connie said was more Armenian than Turkish. We sat outside and had a dish that was rice, shredded chicken, dried currants and almonds baked in a dough outer casing (delicious).
We also had bread, lamb ribs (eh) and a couple small salads. For dessert they brought out something that looked like a flat baklava (but wasn’t) and the chicken pudding.
I’m sure I left out a stop or two, but that’ll give you the idea. We were tired and full by the end of it and caught a taxi back to the hotel to rest. Overall it was a fascinating tour – not just for the food but also to go through some streets and parts of town we never would have discovered on our own.
While Rachel slept a little, I went out to the Grand Bazaar to explore a little bit. It’s fascinating – over 4000 stalls. I could spend a full day exploring it, especially trying all the little tea shops, tiny restaurants with 1 or 2 tables hidden in hallways for the workers, etc. We are going to go back soon together and I will write more.