Istanbul: bazaars, boza, fish bread, palimpsest

The good thing about the time change, of course, is that we wake up consistently at 7:00am, and sometimes before with the muezzin calls that jump around the city like iron filings in a pulsing magnetic field. And then four more times throughout the day. This is a thing I love.

We arrive at Beyazıt-Kapalıçarşı station just before 8; the Grand Bazaar itself doesn’t open until 8:30. We walk slowly and semi-purposefully get lost in the winding streets of clothing stores, carpet dealers, and hair salons that radiate outwards from the centuries-old building.

We find our way to the south entrance, and loiter gracefully. Then we fall into a line of in-the-know Istanbullus queueing up for something sweet and golden and fragrant. Breakfast is, after all, the most important meal of the day.

Börek – baked layers of eggy dough, plump and fluffy on the inside and crisp on top, the layers peeling away, steaming, a sifting of powdered sugar melting into the buttery folds. Like a distant cousin of the croissant, twice-removed.

The man at the cart pulls whole sheets up from the warming compartment, and cuts them into small squares with a mezzaluna, deft, trimming away edges so each square is stackable, turnable, interchangeable. There is a geometry and a process.

The gates open. The wandering begins.

Somehow we gravitate immediately in towards the centre, the old core of the original bazaar. You cross a threshold and then all of a sudden the ceiling lifts to twice its prior height, and the light shifts, and every surface is plaster and tile and the floors stone.

Someday, when I have a place of my own, I will return here and buy my dishes.

All around us, young men flit here and there with large trays of tea, each holding six saucers. The bazaar will not function until each vendor has their tea in hand. This is a tea culture. I am very enamoured.

But for now, I am intent on coffee. We walk in concentric rectangles, following the street signs to Kahveci Ethem Tezçakar, a small café just outside the central square.

The man brings a coffee and a tea for Charlotte.

It is small, thick, and intense. There is a delicious sediment, a texture that is unknown in ‘the West’. There is spice, earth, and a sweet, rooty aroma.

We are the only non-vendors in sight, and certainly the only clear foreigners. The man comes over, breaks his roll with us, places it on a plate with part of his butter and soft-brined cheese. We find ourselves in a sort of peri-commercial sphere, a liminal space between unoccupied structure and place of trade. Such a beautiful human interaction. This is one in a long series of simple acts, each unassuming itself, but together comprising a powerful education in hospitality.

We linger and thank him with smiles and our first attempts at Teşekkürs.

Exiting to the west, we pass by a bead store and are entranced, naturally, the both of us.

And there was a dove sleeping in a hanging bag. We woke it.

We skirt the University, finding our way to Vefa Caddesi and, more particularly, Vefa Bozacisi.

Boza is a popular drink throughout the Caucasus and the Balkans. It is fermented from different cereals (usually some combination of wheat, millet, or corn), water, and honey or sugar. First made around the tenth century, it subsequently spread around Central Asia and now occurs in all sorts of different varieties.

Vefa has been making Boza continuously since 1876. They have become something of an Istanbul institution in that way. Their boza is made from millet, and has a mild, tart flavour and delicious, thick consistency. Ours comes in a glass, topped with freshly ground cinnamon.

Incredibly creamy and unctuous. If you didn’t tell me I would guess it was made with eggs and maybe cream. The wonders of fermentation. And the colour – a beautiful, soft yellow. And a lingering, almost lemon-like note from the lactic ferment.

We sit for a while, admiring the old floor tiling and the mirrored walls.

Onward. We venture back up toward Suleymaniye Mosque, another large one, commanding a presence in the cityscape of hills and water and minarets.

So much blue tile. And those are my favourite.

Taps for cleansing.

We make our way back down the other side of the hill, towards Eminönü and the Spice Bazaar.

A bazaar that sells almost exclusively edibles. My kind of place.

Everything is in piles and boxes and arrangements that beguile and stymie. Heaps of spices, whole and ground and in every colour and shade of the natural world; plants, leaves, fruits, nuts, fresh and dried; confections of all variety and then some; and the repetition, if nothing else, is the most overwhelming part.

I buy some figs (incir) and sun-dried apricots (kaysi), shelled pistachios (antep), and what I am told are ‘wild olives’ (iğde) to take home. The owner of the stall does not neglect to make us sample everything before we go.

Exiting towards the New Mosque and the Golden Arm. Sacks of alliums, most of which I’ve never seen.

And now for some real food.

Balik Ekmek – lit. ‘Fish Bread’, the freshest of fish, grilled, stuffed into a crackly bun with onion, lettuce, salt and lemon. Fresh, bright, gilly, grilly, good.

I can get down with this.

They also hugely milk it as a spectator sport. There are two or three boats, moored to the land, and they rock side to side much more strongly than if it were just the waves and an even keel, which makes me think that they’re engineered to maximise their roll factor without actually capsizing. There is one man on the land who takes orders, and shouts them across to the boatmen who grill, flip, crackle, stuff, and wrap a sandwich in a minute or two. It is, I’m told, a tradition.

So basically, not only do you get fish this fresh but you also get to drop in on a huge day-long rockin’ marine grill party.

Along the wall of the New Mosque there are more wash stations. I’m tempted to try one myself.

We continue along to Haci Bekir, the original (or so the story goes) Turkish Delight confectionery, opened in 1777 and still going strong. Their lokum is some of the best in town, as is their halva, which is my not-so-secret pleasure. Charlotte and I each buy some of the former, and I indulge in a neat little case of the latter. I have the urge to buy some in bulk, where they cut off huge blocks for you from a piece the size of a bluefin tuna, but then I remember that I have barely any free room in my tight little pack and I’d better not. Plus we’ll be around for two more weeks, I can eat myself silly on halva, right?

Making a sort of return, we circle back to the eastern tip of Sultanahmet to check out the Aya Sofya, the famously palimpsestic religious site and one of the seven Wonders of the World (as if there weren’t more).

Originally built as a Byzantine cathedral, it has since been appropriated by the Catholic Church, again by the Eastern Orthodox Church, then the Ottoman Turks who turned it into a mosque, until it was ‘secularised’ as a museum in 1934. This history leaks out of almost every surface, at every turn.

From afar, it looks mostly Byzantine, affirming its Roman inheritance upon closer scrutiny as well.

As you make your way inside, things start to shift and compound.

Byzantine colonnades and domes, Catholic naves, Muslim ornaments. Friezes are painted over and over each other, tiled mosaics fall away to reveal other pictures beneath. It is a building that bares fragments of its whole story, and also therefore leaves no part of its story intact. Or rather, even, it challenges the simple idea of a ‘unity’ of history.

The Byzantine dome, repainted with Arabic calligraphy.

There is nothing that is not juxtaposed.

After exploring the first floor in silent awe, we tread the cobbled glow of the interior passage, thousands of years old, up to the second level.

The gradual upward movements of the ramps, rather than stairs.

The function of perspective: permeation of Christianities and Islam from below, becomes Islamic ornament on Christian space from above. The disjunction of Resurrection and Mecca alignments of the altars.

We also remark on the roles of stone versus carpet in churches and mosques respectively. They create such different sonic and tactile landscapes that both directly and impressionistically alter the interiority. Sound, presence, and mental states.

And then the visible layers of work, the craft of one century overwriting that of another. The shifting values of different materialities and media, in the mosaics, friezes, slabs of floor and wall. Mediation at its finest and most deliciously interwoven.

This entry was published on Wednesday, July 4, 2012 at 12:29 am. It’s filed under adventures, food, general, restaurants, travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

4 thoughts on “Istanbul: bazaars, boza, fish bread, palimpsest

  1. Pingback: Crete: Knossós, Skalani « hearthstrung

  2. Pingback: turkish treats « hearthstrung

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