The Tea Guy
Every inch of Istanbul—and, I'm told, the rest of the country—has its own Tea Guy (and they are, it seems, just about always guys). Çay is an all-day, every-day habit, and çay vendors operate out of the tiniest stalls, like the efficient little setup you see here. (Read more about Istanbul's tea culture here.)
Conveniently pronounced "chai," making it one of few Turkish words that's easy for this English speaker to remember. Just about everyone in Istanbul—the guy selling you produce in the market, the guy shining your shoes, the guy behind the fast-food counter—seems to have a little glass in his hand at all times.
The tea itself is generally just looseleaf black tea that's dry-toasted a bit in the pot before it's brewed into a super-strong solution. Teapots are double-decker, one pot just holding hot water, to dilute the tea down to strength.
Seriously, Tea Is Everywhere
You could stop at a more modern-looking cafe for tea—you know, one with waiters, and bills written down on paper. But we had tea in a 13th-century-built caravansaray, where metalworkers lodged and have sold their wares for centuries.
Breakfast with an Armenian family in Karaköy, still a working fish market and metalworkers' neighborhood, despite its prime real estate right on the Golden Horn, across the water from the Old City.
Oh man, kaymak. Easily my favorite food in Turkey—essentially clotted cream, carefully formed into loose rolls that positively ooze fresh creaminess, slathered on bread for breakfast...
... along with honey or, as pictured here, any number of jams. These are all made at Mutfak Dili: a delicate, floral rose jam, bold orange marmalade, one of young green figs, and more.
I'm a huge fan of Turkish scrambled eggs, menemen: onions cooked in sunflower oil until meltingly softed, stewed with tomatoes, the eggs added at the end and scrambled until just set.
Onto the next stop: the fish markets of Karaköy. It's hamsi (anchovy) season, and the markets were overflowing with the little guys.
And One For You
Street cats are everywhere in Istanbul, and very well taken care of. Here, the fishermen flip this guy a hamsi to keep him happy.
Most of the fish stalls have little attached kitchens, serving fish sandwiches (balik ekmek) or frying up hamsi.
Delicious: köfte, Turkish meatballs. More delicious?
Köfte served on top of bread soaked in bone marrow and butter, then griddled... like French toast multiplied by almost unbearably rich meat fat. Yeah. Not for the faint of heart.
The finished product, served with an irresistible sweet-spicy red pepper relish.
A little detour through a Kadiköy produce market. One of the most interesting things about Istanbul markets, to me, was the scale of the produce. Radishes can be the size of baseballs. Some cabbages are four times the size of any I've ever seen in the States.
At first, the bright red projections around these fish heads looked like spiky collars of some kind. But those are actually the gills, popped out to illustrate the freshness of the fish.
They're everywhere, they're cheap, they're beautiful, I love them.
The all-important dolma wrappers.
This several-generation family business pickles everything from carrots to whole garlic bulbs to unripe melons and plums.
Choose what you want in your pickle tub and it'll be plucked out, chopped up, and doused in a brine of your preferred spice level.
Various chilies, spices, and vegetables drying. I love the look of the dried eggplant segments, which are rehydrated and then stuffed as dolma.
Possibly my favorite carb-meat combination of the whole trip.
It's a southern Turkish preparation that's recently become popular in Istanbul. Beef is finely, finely hand-chopped, then cooked with oil on a round griddle...
A thin, stretchy square of lavaş is draped over the top, then rubbed around the cooking surface to soak up all the meaty juices. (You can also use a roll for this purpose, but where there is bread and lavaş, I will pretty much always pick lavaş.)
Chopped tomatoes and parsley top it off...
Before it's all rolled up and wrapped in plastic...
For a tidy but drippy little roll. One of these does not make a meal make. We saw a table of guys order a round of tantuni lavaş rolls, then a round of tantuni as a sandwich, then a round of lavaş rolls...
They also do a great ayran. It's a drink you can get anywhere in Turkey—at fast-food stands, at the supermarket—but fresher, non-packaged versions are something pretty remarkable. Imagine a thin, thin yogurt base that gets frothed, often through an aerator (the way you might see lemonade circulating through a container in the States), so that it's light and airy; in dramatic presentations like this, the froth is carefully scooped out for a rather dramatic presentation. Underneath it's a cold, slightly salty, very refreshing drinkable yogurt, closer to the consistency of milk than, say, kefir.
Gaziantepli Bilgeoglu Baklava
Time for the sweet stuff! The town of Gaziantep, in southern Turkey near the Syrian border, is known for growing some of the best pistachios—and producing some of the best baklava—in the country. So it stands to reason that pistachio baklava from a shop founded and still run by a man from that city would be excellent.
Easily the best baklava I had in Turkey: a barely sweet pistachio filling, flaky pastry so rich that each layer seemed to crunch apart into pure butter, and just enough sugar syrup to tie it all together. Usually, syrup- or honey-drenched baklava is just too sweet for me, and I can barely finish a single piece, but I could put back a tray of this stuff.
Back to Savory...
A visit to a Halill Lahmacun, with just two foods on the menu, both loose renditions on Turkish pizza—lahmacun and pide.
Uniform dough balls rolled out for lahmacun.
They're topped with a spiced ground lamb mixture...
Before they're slid into the brick oven, so thin that they cook in under a minute.
Back to Sweets
What's better than baklava with pastry layers and pistachio? A katmer still hot from the oven: a huge layered pastry of pistachio and kaymak.
Pistachio filling, tissue-thin dough layers, little dabs of kaymak—I can't imagine a better pastry. Apparently, in Gaziantep, they eat this stuff for breakfast. I'm pretty sure I'd be happy in Gaziantep.
For Turkish ice cream, dondurma. It's traditionally made with salep, a flour made of ground orchid root (which is also used to make a hot drink of the same name). In ice cream, it has a rather magical effect...
... of creating a downright elastic texture. Not the stretchy-airy consistency of gelato—stretchy stretchy, like pulls off in long threads as you scoop it up, stretchy. And it doesn't melt quickly, either, keeping its form for quite awhile as you spoon it up.