I’m a bit of a picky eater. I want to say that it stems from only eating halal but that’s only part of it. I can usually masquerade as someone who is open to all types of food until the times when I have to ‘fess up, like when folks want to get Thai food. For some reason, I don’t really like Thai food. This has led to some awkward conversations/situations with people once they find this out:
- When I once visited my cousin in NYC, she contemplated kicking me out of her apartment upon the realization that I didn’t like the Thai takeout she ordered
- I was told by someone that they would have to rethink their friendship with me
- I was asked if I was dropped on my head multiple times when I was an infant
Therefore, I would definitely categorize myself as someone who is not too adventurous when it comes to food. However, when I came across a culinary backstreets tour of Istanbul, I thought I would give it a try, especially since I would be able to eat the meat in Turkey.
My friend and I signed up for the “Cosmopolitan Beyoglu” tour. We would be exploring the backstreets in the “New” part of Istanbul, in the Cihangir district and and around Istiklal Street. We met our guide Anna Maria in Cihangir, along with the rest of the people who made up the group. There were 7 of us total, all American.
Anna Maria, a native to that area, started us off with breakfast at a small restaurant. We had “kaymak”, which is clotted cream, on bread, which was then covered in honey. We also had eggs cooked in a traditional manner. This was of course accompanied by tea. We had all of this while our guide explained the importance of breakfast and that people make it a point to have this meal. She also talked about the ritual of tea. I thought it was pretty cool when she explained why tea was served in a clear glass, that it was a form of etiquette so that your guest can see that the tea is fresh and the right color.
And that was just the first stop.
By the end of the six hour walking tour, we walked in and around Istiklal, taking side streets and coming across cafes and restaurants that tourists like us probably wouldn’t have come across.
The cool thing about the walk was that we also got a history lesson of the area as our guide navigated us through the backstreets, a narrative that eventually put the recent protests in Taksim Square in context. I hadn’t realized how rich the history in that area is. Istiklal, for example, means “freedom” and the area has always been filled with revolutionary types. I definitely need to read up on the history of that area and the rest of Istanbul when I get back.
Throughout the day, I stepped out of my food comfort zone again and again by eating whatever it was we were served without once saying “No thanks”. I had dishes like anchovies cooked with rice that was seasoned with fruit from a restaurant that specializes in sourcing from the Black Sea. Just eating that was a huge deal for me
The day also brought a few other food adventures that I never would have had on my own- I ate meat from a lamb’s head and drank pickle juice, the latter which was meant to have an energizing effect (and it did!)
As we finished up our tour, sitting in a circle on low stools outside of a cafe, Anna Maria brought out the last part of our tour: the desserts, which she had picked up from reputable spots throughout the day. She unwrapped the first one, a pudding that was white in color and sprinkled with cinnamon on top. She told all of us to take a spoonful and so it was passed around with everyone getting a taste. She then asked us what we thought was in it.
“Cinnamon?” I said stupidly.
“Yes but what else?”
I ventured with an actual guess this time: “Chicken breast?” I had seen that listed as a type of pudding in a few places.
“Yes!” She confirmed and talked a bit about why it was used. We also tried quince topped with kaymak and bread soaked in syrup, also topped with kaymak. There was no question that I was full but I enjoyed the dessert and was all over that last one. I am officially all about kaymak.
It was most definitely a day well spent. A few other highlights:
- Going to Durumzade as part of our lunch. This place was featured in the episode of “No Reservations” when Anthony Bourdain goes to Istanbul. They specialize in meat wraps called durums. They were nothing short of awesome.
- Drinking Turkish coffee at Mandabatmaz, which is supposed to have some of the best Turkish coffee in Istanbul. The name translates to “so thick a water buffalo wouldn’t sink in it. [A separate blog post on Turkish coffee to come later]
- Going to the cafe Avam Kahvesi, a former bookstore turned soda pop cafe that specializes in sodas produced in Turkey. Besides raspberry and strawberry sodas, we had a lemon-lime soda that easily blew 7-up and Sprite out of the water.
- In addition to the food aspect of the tour, I also came away with an appreciation of the “new” part of Istanbul.
In the end, I don’t know what was more surprising, that I tried everything or that I liked it all. I’m sure I have missed out on good food experiences before but now maybe I’ll be a bit more open-minded to the new and unknown. If you’re like me and hesitant about moving beyond your food barriers, Istanbul is a great place to expand your culinary boundaries.
Added bonus: my jeans still fit at the end of the day.