Sometimes we go to places that bring us memories we didn’t know we had; places that teach us more about who we are and what we are meant to do. Travel could not have a more important purpose. My most recent culinary journey was to Turkey, where I was taken away by the energy of a vibrant society.
Istanbul is a magical city – a historical crossroads of civilizations full of beauty and intrigue. It is a bridge between Europe and eastern Asia; a land where old and new, modern and traditional, religious and secular, coexist. It is also a melting pot shaped by its surrounding lands and rich history. It is difficult to be there and not feel the footprints of its previous inhabitants. The city’s culinary heritage is reflective of this. From traditional Levantine dishes such as dolma and kibbeh to manti and lahmajun, Istanbul’s gastronomy is a fusion of various cultural cuisines.
A look inside Turkey’s food will give you a glimpse of the country’s people and a bygone era. A look inside other Levantine cuisines, such as Syrian and Palestinian, will tell tales of the Ottoman occupation of those lands. It is a ricochet of influence. From filo desserts drenched in sugar syrup to lamb dumplings simmered in yogurt sauce, the influence is obvious. Turkish cuisine, especially in Istanbul, is influenced by Arab, Armenian, Persian, Circassian, Greek, Caucasian or Eastern European, and Balkan cuisines. Many staple dishes were brought to Turkey by nomadic peoples. I came across a few restaurants that displayed this rich intermingling of cultures.
One of my favorite culinary experiences was at Çiya, a lovely restaurant in Kadikoy, a busy district in the Asian side of Istanbul. The journey begins the moment you enter the street market where Çiya is located. The walk to the restaurant is so enticing – a galore of food stalls selling fresh fish and seafood, vibrant olives in their many shades, the freshest produce, and spices. Upon reaching your destination, you’ll find a lively eatery displaying the kinds of foods cooked in a Turkish or Levantine grandmother’s kitchen. Some of the usual suspects include kebab, lahmajun, mezze dips and starters such as fermented yogurt and herb dips, stuffed grape leaves, muhammara (roasted red pepper and chili dip), ezme (finely chopped pepper, tomato, herb, garlic, and onion salad with sumac and olive oil), thyme salad with pepper, olive oil, and pomegranate molasses, and various bulgur and tomato salads.
The food at Çiya was so familiar to me. The selection included exotic herb salads tossed in fruit extracts, rolled chard leaves stuffed with goat’s cheese, spring artichokes stuffed with spiced rice or meat, opulent meat and vegetable stews reminiscent of Ottoman times, sour lamb chops with quince, and the list goes on. Then there was dessert, a weak spot for me. The options were candied aubergines with cloves, vanilla and lemon, candied pumpkin with tahini, kerebiç or mamoul (pistachio and semolina cookies served with clotted cream, teleme (sun-dried fig pudding), katmer or mutabbaq (a thin dough filled with ground pistachios and sugar and topped with fresh cream and cinnamon), and sweet walnut shells processed with limestone among a few others.
The plates filled me with nostalgia and memories of my Palestinian grandmother. The experience was a pleasant departure from the kind of food one usually eats when traveling. It feels as though you’re eating at someone’s home. And indeed, that is the result of the passion that Çiya’s chef and founder, Musa Dagdeviren, has put into the work he does. As expressed in his episode on Chef’s Table, “Musa is a food archeologist.” He excavates long lost dishes from small villages throughout Turkey and revives them in an attempt to preserve Turkish culture. So if I could summarize Turkish food in one post, I would choose my experience at Musa’s restaurant. Because it is a reflection of the abundant diversity found in Turkey.
Istanbul has a dynamic culinary scene. The entire city is meant to tantalize the senses. In the center, there is plenty of variety. You can find food items from various surrounding countries. In one colorful day at the Grand Bazaar, I bought items from Turkish, Syrian, Kurdish, and Azeri shop owners. Colorful Iznik pottery, fragrant Iranian saffron, pomegranate and rose lokum (Turkish delight), copper kitchenware from Syrian and Kurdish business partners, a handwoven carpet, spices such as ras el hanout from Morocco, the best Kirmizi pul biber or Aleppo pepper, and a variety of fruit molasses – pomegranate, carob, and grape.
In Istanbul, one is constantly reminded to live in the moment and enjoy the little things. The Ottomans refined the art of living beautifully. Simple and mundane tasks such as eating breakfast or taking a bath became opulent. And one did not have to belong to royalty to enjoy such luxuries. To this day, the tradition of living splendidly lives. Turkish breakfasts, are the common way to start the day. The lavish spread consists of simit (Turkish bagels), Turkish tea, seeded breads, olives, olive oil, a variety of fresh farmer’s cheeses, eggs with pasterma, sujook (a kind of Levantine sausage), borek (pastry rolls stuffed with cheese, pasterma, peppers, or other vegetables), various fruit jams, garden vegetables, and my personal favorites: kaymak (clotted cream) with honey, and a grape molasses and tahini dip.
There are many superb breakfast restaurants throughout the city, many of them being delis. A memorable spot, for me, was in Karakoy, a harbor-side area in Istanbul with a sophisticated artsy vibe. On the same street where some of the most popular baklava shops are, there are local delis serving every Turkish breakfast staple you can dream of. It is a great place to pick up some local jams, marzipan, lokum, candies, and spices to take back home as well.
I found Istanbul’s culinary scene to be so diverse and vibrant. The foods, people, and places that I came across reminded me of forgotten memories of my own background. I was also reminded of how small the world can be. As a researcher constantly connecting the dots, Turkey’s gastronomy enlightened me. It filled some gaps about my understanding of Eastern Mediterranean food culture. And most importantly, it showcased the beauty that results from various cultures coming together.