Beset by recent terrorist attacks, the Turkish capital stands strong as one of the most vibrant, exciting and delicious destinations on earth. Tom Parker Bowles travels to a city that doesn’t want tourists to give up on it yet. Photos by Cenk Sönmezsoy.
It’s just after 6pm when we leave the neon-lit raki bar in Upper Beyoğlu, our breath sharp with aniseed, our spirits wallowing in a happy, half-cut fuzz. We pause for a moment, high up above the city, in the shadow of Galata Tower, to peer through the gloaming, over the Golden Horn, across the bewitchingly bulbous domes and delicate minarets of Sultanahmet, to the Sea of Marmara and beyond. Red lights flicker like cigarette ends in the distance — tiny fishing boats, police launches, ferries sliding from Europe to Asia, great hulking tankers rumbling towards the Black Sea. It’s my third time in Istanbul and this view never ceases to thrill. Orhan Pamuk, the great Turkish novelist, might have seen “an ageing and impoverished city buried under the ashes of a ruined empire,” but for the hungry tourist, it’s one hell of a place to be.
The call to prayer erupts across the city. It’s bewitchingly alien and exotic, an ancient, hypnotic murmur that reeks of pashas and sweetmeats, sultans and souks. The modern, thrusting, industrialised Turkey has no time for such whimsy, but for the traveller it’s impossible not to get carried away with overly romantic visions of the Ottoman Empire long past. The air is sweet with the tang of grilled lamb, and fags, fumes and a bracing whiff of the sea. And for a moment, I imagine myself as Antoine Melling, perhaps the greatest of the European Bosphorus artists, poised with paintbrush over 200 years ago, gazing over those same domes and minarets, noting the camels and dancing bears, the exquisitely decorated piyade caiques cutting through the waves.
I close my eyes, lost in indulgent reverie, conjuring up whirling dervishes and harems, bejewelled scimitars and… “Oi, Tom!” It’s my friend Bill. “Once you’ve quite finished waving your hand around like a nob, can we please go and get something to eat.” Well, quite.
We pass Tünel, at the top of upper Beyoğlu, where, a few hours back, the old fashioned funicular railway had dragged us up the hill. We pause, for sustenance, at Canim Ciğarim (translated as “My liver, my dear”), a tiny kebab house specialising in chicken livers. The pink lobes splutter and crackle over the coals. Moments later, they’re slid off their metal skewer, into a handkerchief of flatbread, and doused with vinegar-soaked tomatoes. One flick of the wrist and it’s ready, the livers hot, ferric and blushing pink.
We wander onto Istiklal, the great central avenue of Beyoğlu, a famed thoroughfare with late Ottoman era, neo-everything (from Classical and Gothic) buildings alongside Art Nouveau and the brutally modern. Trams jingle and jangle down their tracks, while hot chestnuts and simit, a sesame-seed covered, bagel-like bread, are flogged from pushcarts. But this is no nostalgic view of old Istanbul, rather a thriving, assuredly modern avenue, crowded by familiar faces of the new global economy —McDonald’s, Burger King, Mango, Zara and Vodafone.
Sitting on the cusp of East and West, Istanbul has always been a great trading hub. Still is. The facades may be different, but mammon’s never left. And with the fairy lights twinkling above us, and the chatter and hubbub and beep and ring of modern life, it feels familiar and civilised and secure. We could be in any major city on Earth, smiling at the contemporary face of Istanbul, secular and Western-looking. It’s here, though, on Saturday, 19 March, just two weeks from now, some vile, hate-crazed IS terrorist detonates a suicide bomb, killing five people and injuring 36.
It wasn’t the first time. Two months earlier, on Tuesday, 12 January, at the epicentre of tourist Istanbul, IS had struck with a suicide bomb in the great wide-open space of Sultanahmet Square. They killed 10, eight of whom were German tourists. That they chose to maim and murder mere yards from the Blue Mosque, one of the great symbols of Islamic beauty and art, is an irony presumably lost on them all. We’d been there earlier today and it was all but deserted; great for agoraphobics, less so for the traders who depend on the tourist dollar. The city, usually so cacophonous, seems uncharacteristically muted. “No tourists,” we’re told again and again. “Please tell them it is safe.”
I can’t vouch for the safety of anyone. Obviously. Wherever you travel, even across the road, there’s always an element of risk. We all know IS are the bad guys. But when it comes to the war the Turkish government are waging against Kurdish militants, things become less clear-cut. In a particularly fierce spate at the end of 2015, over 200 militants were killed and, according to human rights groups, 150 civilians. In retaliation, on Sunday, 13 March, the Kurdistan militant group Freedom Falcons (Tak) strapped a bomb to a 24-year-old woman and sent her into Kizilay, the student district of Ankara, the Turkish capital. She murdered 37 people and wounded 125. A terrorist, albeit with different aims.
Whatever way you look at it, it’s a brutal, bloody mess. But to travel to Istanbul now is not some form of tasteless “holiday in hell”, any more than it would be to travel to Paris in the aftermath of the attacks there, or to Brussels, New York or London. The threat may be ever present, but downtown Homs it ain’t.
We’d arrived early on a February Monday morning, and whizzed from airport to hotel in record time. I’ve never seen the streets so clear in a city where the traffic jam is elevated to high art. I was last here in the summer of 2015, and the traffic was as viscous as pomegranate molasses. Today, we sail through, our bellies girded for the oncoming assault. In A Turkish Cookbook, Arto der Haroutunian points out that the “food of Turkey” is different from “Turkish food” just as “there is a great deal of difference between “Jewish food’ and the “food of Israel.'”
So the borders can be pliant and opaque, the influences endless and never-ending. Southern Turkish tucker shares much with that of Syria and the neighbouring Arab states, while the food of the east has Armenian roots. It also borrows from other neighbours, both European (Greece, Macedonia and Bulgaria) and Eastern (Syria, Iran, Iraq and Georgia), plus the edible echoes of the past, from the Ottoman and Persian empires. But the food of Turkey, although resolutely regional, is Middle Eastern at heart.
Like meze, chosen from a large tray: soft octopus with sun-dried tomatoes; walnuts with white cheese and pistachio; lentils with walnuts and pomegranate. Our first lunch is at Cibalikapi Balikçisi, a traditional meyhane, or restaurant that serves booze, overlooking the Golden Horn. Our friend Aylin Tan, a food writer and author with an encyclopedic knowledge of her country’s cuisine, suggests the spot, opened by a former journalist and, according to Aylin, “one of the places reviving the traditional meyhane.”
The restaurant is near empty and the service sweetly somnolent. But it’s good to see the Galata Bridge once more, wearing its fishing lines like braids, as dozens of men smoke, sleep and chatter, hoping to fill their buckets with small, silver fish. The room is decorated with photos of old Istanbul. And cats. Lots of cats. The meze are light, and blessedly simple, but mopped up with fresh bread and washed down with raki, dear raki, a tipple more sinned against than sinning.
It’s still the national drink of Turkey, despite President Erdoğan’s attempts to change it to ayran, the ubiquitous, yoghurty and assuredly non-alcoholic alternative. Erdogan’s views on free speech, and the dissent of his opponents, are hardly democratic, to say the least. And to describe him as socially conservative would be an understatement.
But back to raki, and its not-so-hidden punch. It doesn’t so much creep up on one, as batter one around the chops with an aniseed-packed cosh. But once you have a taste for the stuff, it’s difficult to resist. In moderation, of course. We finish with mullet, grilled, and more octopus, dressed with oil and lemon, with just the right amount of chew.
“If the city speaks of defeat, destruction, deprivation, melancholy and poverty,” writes Orhan Pamuk in his exquisitely lyrical autobiography, Istanbul, “the Bosphorus sings of life, pleasure and happiness. Istanbul draws its strength from the Bosphorus.” The yali, the great, wooden waterside mansions of the 18th and 19th centuries, are mostly gone; like their owners, relics of a fallen empire, eroded by the salt winds of change.
The secular, western-gazing Turkish Republic was born on 29 October, 1923, and had little time for musings on an exotic past. Arabic script was replaced with the Roman alphabet, the state sundered from the mosque and in 1926 European codes adopted — Swiss civil, Italian penal, German commercial. “Decades later,” Pamuk mused in 1987, “Turkey still stands alone, surrounded by historic enemies and unsure of her position in the family of nations.” Nearly 30 years on, the song remains the same.
In Istanbul, though, the Ottoman Empire is dyed indelibly into the very weave of the city; in the crumbling city walls, and ornate ceilings of the Spice Bazaar; with akide, bright, hard-boiled sweets, once used as a means of stamping a contract of loyalty to the Sultan; and rosewater, minarets and sweetmeats too numerous to list.
It’s getting late now and the chicken liver sandwich does little to dull our hunger. We stop for another glass of raki, plus strong black tea, before perching on stools beneath a vast bronze hood at Zübeyir Ocakbasi, a metre from the coals, watching a cook work two dozen skewers like a concert pianist; a tiny twist here, a pinch of salt there. He works with hypnotic grace, every movement pithy and precise, cooking adana kebabs (minced lamb), lustily fatty; böbrek (lamb kidneys), fresh and pert; and charred long peppers, all wrapped in more of that diaphanous flatbread. The fat dribbles down our chins, staining the fronts of our shirts.
We eat on, wreathed in smoke, succour and spice, until our bellies can take no more, revelling in the unmistakeable glory of good grilled meat. We stumble into a taxi and whizz through the cool, quiet night, to collapse into our hotel beds, into a deep, dreamless, raki-drenched sleep.
Istanbul is big. Huge. Immense, with over 14m people, spread across two continents. To try and take this in as a resident, let alone a fleeting, soft-bellied tourist, is nigh-on impossible. What I offer, as ever, is the merest nibble, a slice of spiced börek, if you will, to chew upon and digest. But one of the city’s most obvious thrills is the ferry from one continent to another. OK, so it takes a mere 20 minutes from Old Istanbul to Uskudar, on the other side of the water in Asia. And it’s not as if you leave Paris and disembark in Bangkok. The differences between the two shores are negligible — at least ostensibly — but it’s just one of those things that must be done. Like ringing one’s wife to say you’re in Europe but will ring again in half an hour once over in Asia.
Last time I was in town, it was with Claudia Roden, culinary legend and author of A Book of Middle Eastern Food (1970), a bona fide classic, and The Book of Jewish Food (1999). Aylin Tan was our leader, and we tramped the pickle shops and markets of the Asian side, ending up at Ciya Sofrasi, as everyone invariably does. Its owner-chef, Musa Dagdeviren, collects traditional recipes like others hoard stamps and it’s here where you can eat your way around Turkey. We munched sour cherry kebabs, various intestines grilled over charcoal, stuffed artichokes, sheep’s head soup (surprisingly well behaved), and endless other ways with bulgur wheat, and minced lamb, and aubergines, roasted, stuffed and everything else. As ever, I started scribbling endless notes but as plate after plate appeared, then was cleared, I gave up. But Ciya Sofrasi is a cracker, no doubt about that.’
But today I’m back on the mainland with Aylin and Bill and we’re off to Aslan. Not the lion with the Christ complex, rather a traditional workers’ place, offering non-tourist grub to the workers of the nearby Spice Bazaar. The room is small, smart and functional. Old wooden panelling and white, picture-covered walls. “This is all about cheap home cooking,” Aylin says. “Although here, it’s a little more upmarket. They have tablecloths for a start.” We sit down in a corner and watch as the place starts to fill up. No bookings, first-come, first-served.
“Lunch can be as simple as beans, rice and pickles,” she says, as a plate filled with soft, earthy celeriac, mixed with dill (a staple Turkish herb) and blood orange. It’s subtle but quietly exciting. Just like the smooth white soup, sharpened with a generous squeeze of lemon and filled with gently spiced kofte (meatballs). “People think Turkish food starts and ends with kebabs,” says Aylin between bites. “But it’s simply not true. The kofte is far more Turkish than the kebab.” I take a spoonful of Ezogelin red lentil soup, better known as Ezo the Bride soup, rich with paprika, dried mint, tomato paste and pepper.
The story of this dish is every bit as delectable as the pottage itself. True, too — or so they say. Ezogelin Zöhre Bozgeyik lived from 1909–’52, an incandescently beautiful maiden, forever besieged by besotted suitors. But her parents insisted she marry a rich man. So she did. He turned out to be an ocean-going shit. Cruel, twisted and debauched. He cheated on her endlessly but by some miracle she was finally granted a divorce and then fell in love with a fine and upright Syrian gent. But there was a catch. There always is. His mother. Apparently impossible to please. So, Ezo made her soup, which was all the proof the mother needed. They married, had nine sprogs and lived happily ever after. A true life, erm, soup opera.
Aslan is just the start. In fact, we can barely walk a few feet without stopping to fill our gobs. Doner kebabs at Donerci Sahin Usta, a backstreet staple since 1969. The pide bread is billowing, the lamb charred and unapologetically bleating, the chillies vinegary and fierce. It’s what your
late-night London elephant-leg horror wants to be when it grows up and learns a little about life.
We wander down Hobyar Mah, a road which has smelt of coffee since 1554. Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi is a world famous operation, with great red grinders rattling and humming and young men in rust overcoats shovelling brown coffee into brown paper bags. Queues stretch on forever. I take a polite sip and grin uneasily. I just don’t understand Turkish coffee. Too sweet and I can’t get past all those gritty grounds. Every time I refuse a cup, Bill simply shakes his head and slurps all the more deeply. I’m missing out — or so he says.
At Meshur Filibe, an old school köftecisi, we sit , outside on plastic chairs and eat soft, silken kofte made with just lamb, chilli and onion. The owner, whose family have been here for four generations, stands beside us, talking to Aylin, smoking and smiling. A plate of white beans with raw onion is plonked down. “Add chilli,” she says, miming the shaking action. Again, it’s clean and pure, the perfect foil to the richly seductive kofte. The recipe has always been the same, she tells us. I can see why. Simple, but absolutely sure of its own worth. Just like the kebabs from Sehzade Erzurum Cag opposite. Here, the lamb is cooked on a horizontal spit, and carved with élan, ensuring you get a ribbon of frazzled fat running through the meat. They’re served on skewers, with thick, warm bread and blackened, blistered, long peppers. Shit, it’s good. One thing done blessedly well. That’s what I love. And judging by the queues, I’m not alone.
It’s time to face the Spice Bazaar, that ancient tourist trap but a place the residents of Istanbul do visit, in search of old watches and rare fabric. Once under that wonderful roof, we move with steely intent. “This way, sir, very good price. You want rug? We the best. You come with me, change money, caviar, Gucci, real good Gucci, you like fake? Saffron, Iranian, very, very good.” And so it goes on, the age-old sales pitch of old Istanbul. Head down, hands at side, don’t stop for anyone. To do so could be fatal — for your wallet, at least. But it’s quiet today, with shopkeepers playing backgammon, drinking tea and wondering if the blasted tourists will ever return.
We reach Ucuzcular, and its owner, the lovely Bilge Kadioglu. Now this is a serious spice shop. As we sip our tea, Bilge tells us of her recent marriage. “Who’s the lucky guy?” we ask. She gestures across the way, to a handsome man in a shop selling various ornate fabrics. “Him,” she smiles. “Sometimes, we have lunch together. Otherwise, we work too hard to speak in the day.” She grins.
We leave the bazaar, and go out into the winding warren of streets surrounding it. We talk about increased Islamisation, and the president and his macho talk. “Turkey is becoming more conservative,” Aylin says, “less secular. We can’t, for example, mention alcohol brands in our newspaper columns, or even descriptions of wine or beer. They can’t ban alcohol, so go after the brands.’
Aylin shrugs her shoulders. We stop for pide (a sort of Turkish pizza from the Black Sea region) at Hocapasa Pidecisi, another tiny canteen, with a huge domed oven, churning out baked dough topped with lamb, egg and basturma (dry-cured spiced beef). The pastry is light and golden. “It should be dripping with butter,” says Aylin, “otherwise it’s not the real thing.” These are drenched.
By Galata Bridge we manage a quick crusty bread mackerel sandwich, cooked on a tiny grill with grilled pepper and tomato. I ask the fisherman how business is. He shrugs and looks to the heavens. Then shakes his head. He exudes melancholy, an emotion seemingly shared by many in the city. They have a word for it: hüzün, a sort of communal melancholy that, perhaps because it is shared, is somehow comforting, at least according to Pamuk. “For me,” he sighs, “it has always been a city of ruins and end-of-empire melancholy. Hüzün brings us comfort, softening the view like the condensation on a window when a tea kettle has been spouting steam on a winter’s day.”
We say goodbye to Aylin, and, infused with a hüzün-free sense of excitement, go to dinner at Karaköy Lokantasi, over the bridge behind the docks at Karaköy. With its turquoise tiles, throbbing buzz and men in Savile Row suits and Tod’s slip-ons, this could be Mount Street in Mayfair. It offers a glimpse of a very different Istanbul: moneyed, slick, but still filled with people who take joy in that great Istanbul duo, meze and raki.
The moment we walk in, we know we’ll love this place. A bottle of raki, then cold lamb brain, soft and beautifully bland; beetroot-stained artichoke hearts; smoky bulgur with a vinegar kick; gently smoky cured bonito; Armenian topik, which tastes like meat but is really walnut in a chickpea crust; tarama, as good as it gets, roe gently singing of smoke and deep seas. Liver sliced paper-thin is fresh and blissfully tender, with chilli and onion salad. Buttery prawns, and an octopus coated with thyme. Everything is spot on, poised, the product of a proper kitchen.
Evening melts into night, as we inhale modern Istanbul in this most wonderful and understated of restaurants. We walk back over the Galata Bridge. A few fishermen linger, their lines hanging slack.
The next day dawns, fuzzy. We pass Lale Restaurant, the legendary “Pudding Shop”, once the hippy heart of town, where bearded peace-lovers would leave scrawled messages on the communal board, some plaintive, others funny. “John, sorry about missing you. See you in Kabul”… “Frank, had to leave”… and “Joe, sorry about the Greek incident.” They still sell chicken puddings but the Pudding Shop is notable only for what it once was, a vestige of Sixties Istanbul, as remote as any Ottoman tale.
Then, the final hurdle, the hammam bath. Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan in Sultanahmet Square is purposely expensive and tourist-friendly because when it comes to being washed and beaten up in a hot room, authenticity can go take a leap. Massages really aren’t my thing. And I’m worried, in a spectacularly English sort of way. Will I have to show my bum? Worse still, my balls. What if someone catches my eye? Do I smile coyly, and turn away? Or run for the safety of the door? Plus I don’t like pain. Or other people bathing me. So what the hell am I doing here?
I tiptoe in, first to the cool room. Mardy, my masseuse, is Filipino. He leads me into the hot room, my bottom half wrapped in a scrap of cloth, sits me down and turns on the hot tap. And I sit alone, mildly fearful, for 10 minutes, working up a sweat. Then it’s into the main room, under a vast marble dome. Next thing I know, I’m oiled like a porn star’s strap-on, adrift in a cloud of bubbles. I’m scrubbed to within an inch of my life, like a dog that’s rolled in fox shit. Hell, Mardy must have unearthed dirt from early Nineties raves. But this is all right, I think, drifting off.
And then the pain begins. Slowly at first, with my fingers clicked and elbows cracked. I’m flipped over like a cheap burger, onto my front and the hot marble. Then Mardy actually walks up and down my back. I scream, inwardly first, then outwardly. He turns me over again, a hard glimmer in his eye.
“You OK?” he asks, rhetorically. I stutter that it’s all fine and lovely.
“So what do you do?” he asks. “Write about food,” I whisper back. He nods, wisely, then points to my tummy with his eyebrows raised. “Too many puddings, eh.” I’d blush, if I had any blood left in my face. Once it’s all over, though, I float out as if surfing on a cloud, quietly ecstatic and buzzing with glee.
One last lunch, of ethereal lahmacun (spiced meat pizza), and Turkish ravioli stuffed with herbs, and artichoke wrapped in vine leaves at the wonderful Four Seasons Hotel with its high-end take on regional tucker. Then to the airport. The roads are clear once more. We fly out, and I look down over Istanbul’s sprawl, and think back to Pamuk. “The people of Istanbul simply carry on with their lives among the ruins,” he writes. “Many Western travellers find this charming. But for the city’s more sensitive and attuned residents, these ruins are reminders that the present city is so poor and confused that it can never again dream of rising to the same heights of wealth, power, culture.”
Maybe not. It’s seen it all, many times before, not least the rise and fall of three empires. Times may be tough and the future insecure. But Istanbul will endure. Istanbul always does.