Istanbul: Asia and Europe

Our third day found us venturing to the Asian side of the city, on the eastern part of the Bosporus. This was exciting. Would it be completely different? Would it be completely not different? Plus, we got to take a boat.

Most people would tell you that boat is the most efficient way of getting around town, and they’d be right, especially when you need to go further than a few stops on the tram.

Starting the day off right: up with the muezzins, down to the pier at Karaköy to catch the ferry to Kadiköy.

Almost no one sits on the outside deck upstairs, apparently.

A quick stop on the other side of the Golden Arm at Eminönü.

As we set out into the Bosporus, an old man comes around the upper deck with a tray. Tea, of course. Oh yes we would like some.

Seriously. What higher heights can civilisation aspire to? Tea on a boat? Unprompted?

The Kadiköy market is, in a word, extensive.

So many beautiful, fresh, whole foods.

First stop: Baylan Pastanesi, a pâtisserie and café open since 1923. A charming interior with tiled floors, warm lighting, and garden patio out back.

Coffee and macarons.

Just look at that beautiful china.

It’s thick, espresso-y, and with this great buttery thing going on.

They make their macarons with sahlep, giving them a delicious unctuous consistency underneath the crisp crust and spongy body.

This one is apricot.

They also serve their coffee with a little bite of chocolate-covered pistachio lokum.

A perfect little bite. Mine got a little too cozy with the cup and started to melt. No one was complaining.

The coffee thickens as it cools. It was the most rich and succulent sediment. I may have scooped up some of the dregs with my finger. Gleefully déclassé.

Lunch was another treat. Çiya Sofrasi, a local eatery that’s gained a lot of attention for its exploration of regional cuisines of Turkey and the Caucasus, using local ingredients, and “as a center of culinary research and application”. They’ve become so popular that they’ve opened up two other kebab places all along the same block in the Kadiköy market.

Charlotte and I are both vegetarian (though I favour the occasional gastronomic exploration over deontological rigidity). We both like our plants and this was exactly the meal we needed.

We enter; to our right is a large spread of mezes, small plates served cold; to our left is a curved bar of burnished copper, housing all manner of hot dishes in large pots and clay dishes. We sit an order juice.

The green is sprouted barley and honey, the red sumac. They are both delicious, the sumac tasting almost of tamarind but more floral, the sprouted barley like wheatgrass and chlorophyllic sweetness. We love the green one especially.

For lunch we can make a plate of mezes ourselves and pay by weight. This strikes me as an exceedingly great idea.

And this is only about half of what they had:
spicy red hummous
tahini hummous (soo smooth and flavourful. just the best)
pickled tarragon
olive salad with herbs
bulghur, garlic, tomato
wheat berries in yoghurt
cacik (yoghurt with mint and sometimes garlic; cognate with the Greek tzatziki)
savoury, herbs, peppers, alliums
sprouts, herbs, pepper
parsley, radish, pomegranate
stuffed sun-dried red pepper
stuffed mushroom with sweet rice
fresh bread
strained yoghurt

Charlotte and I are plunged into another state of being, a deep awe and a very visceral wonder and gratitude that all of these things exist and that they are all in front of us on one plate at the same time.

Each bite is fresh, not just in its ingredients but in its conception and existence. Everything is sort of like something we’ve had before but nothing is quite familiar either. Each taste satisfied both desires, for memory and for the dissolution of everything but the immediate moment.

A recurring highlight is the completely different attitude towards the use of fresh herbs. Why do we only ever really think of them in North America as a garnish or a seasoning? They can be salad just as easily. Incredibly aromatic salads that burst with flavour. Like tabbouleh – I hear that in Morocco and throughout North Africa (and it’s equivalent here) it has a much higher ratio of fresh herbs to bulghur. It is more of a vegetal dish than a grain one, certainly more than it is interpreted in North America.

In the end, my only regret is that I should have taken just a tad more yoghurt. And that, as far as regrets go, is pretty easily remedied.

Once we’re even able to mind ourselves outside our bodies and the square perimeter of our wooden table, I begin to notice writings on the walls, posters, covers: this place has been written up by almost everyone, it seems – Food & Wine, The New Yorker, a Japanese food mag called ‘Food Terrace’.

We contribute to each other’s wonder, certainly, but we still can’t get over how good this food is, how good it feels in the body. We are both thrumming with a deep, calm excitement. That makes no sense but is how it feels.

Our server presents us with a dessert menu. Everything sounds just as new and old as our mezes. We settle on an interesting one, described only as “tomato, almond, sesame, cream, lemon, sugar”. It is paired with oregano tea.

What comes.

It looks simple enough. It is some sort of tomato, carefully peeled and preserved whole in syrup, with a little beaten cream. The colours lift off the plate as readily as the aroma of the tomatoes: sweet, tangy, savoury, complex.

We break into the flesh with our spoons, cutting with the slowest movements, savouring as each softened fibre yields beneath the blunt metal. I think our body pace has slowed, everything is going more slowly, and our sensory faculties are bathed entirely in the apprehension of this dish.

The smallest taste goes the longest way.

Morsel by morsel, we linger, we sip the tea (which, as it turns out, is indispensable). I don’t think either of us have had a dessert so fundamentally satisfying, so perfect in its grace, its ratios, and its ability to conjure immense complexity from a few simple ingredients treated well. This sort of thing takes great knowledge and formidable skill.

Inside each tomato is one almond, a single nut quietly perfuming the flesh from within. They themselves have turned soft, retaining a silent crunch under the teeth but immediately giving way to a buttery, heady sigh.

The tea is really what makes it. Earthy, spicy, coloured light yellow and tasting dark green. This dish wouldn’t be half as satisfying without it. It is the necessary bitter note, the herbaceous counterpoint. It is what allows the whole dish to be eaten and enjoyed til the end. Tomatoes and oregano, makes complete sense.

The meal was also very reasonably priced for the quality of the food, and the breadth and depth of knowledge and craft it behind it all. Charlotte and I walked back out into the street very very pleased and inspired.

It was time to head back to the European side. We wanted to explore Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), the famous walk street that cuts through Beyoğlu from Galata to Taksim, to visit some of the galleries and antique bookstores that line the boulevard.

We pass back along the freightyards.

And take the funicular from Karaköy up the hill to Galata.

More chestnuts. I would but I’m still full. Though I had to admire these pyramids.

Gypsy children play melodicas for blithe money. They are smart.

This particular store was called ‘Old books, Rugs, Big Maps, Art Objects, Ephemera’. I spent time here and could have spent more. They had some seriously serious stuff: volumes and tomes of all sorts from the past few centuries, in French, Turkish, German, Arabic, Greek, all written and printed in Istanbul; old civic and military maps of the city; all matter of miscellaneous ephemera. A very serious rabbit hole.

We also checked out Galerist, a collective of contemporary art galleries in a converted apartment building right around the middle of the avenue. They were photographing some of the art in one of the galleries. It all looked like sculpture itself.

We walk all the way up, and turn of the main road just before Taksim Square, the hub of the ‘modern’ part of the city on the European side. Instead of the hustle and bustle of the main square, we opt for dondurma and a walk back down through the small side streets of Beyoğlu.

The dondurma guy is really annoying. He has this big long metal pole that he uses to scoop and pat the sticky ice cream, and then he sticks the cone to the end of the pole and holds it out for us, turning it upside down and right-side up just as we reach for it, tapping it against our noses , pulling it back to put more on, patting it down, tapping our faces and hands. Granted, he is doing his job and the tourists in the summer must get a huge kick out of this, but Charlotte and I just sort of want our dondurma. In retrospect, though, it is sort of hilarious and silly, both the performance and our frustration.

But soon, we regain our calm off the main road.

We stop into Leyla Antiques to look for old textiles. Charlotte has a penchant for fabric and any sort of woven material. They had some beautiful stuff.

A little more antiquing leads us to a respite at White Mill – a more modern café-bar tucked away in the side streets. We take full advantage of the big couch, the tea, the wine menu, the time to read and write, before heading back up to Istiklal to meet Dominic, a friend we met on Couchsurfing who’s going to have us for dinner.

It is a wonderful night, with many new friends, group cooking, and multiple overlapping and shared conversations. Just my sort of party.

We talk and eat late into the night. It is beautiful because it is effortless and grows serendipitously. The trams shut down; Charlotte and I stay over. A long and full day.

This entry was published on Friday, July 6, 2012 at 4:03 pm. 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.

2 thoughts on “Istanbul: Asia and Europe

  1. I love everything about this.

  2. Pingback: mission: the mission « hearthstrung

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