It’s red mullet season in Istanbul and these respectable fish in the first photo were so bright and beautiful that I thought I was snorkeling right next to them. I went to the Istanbul fish market (wholesale market in Yenikapi) for the first time this week.
On my explorations in India and Thailand, I followed a simple formula to get the most out of the local food culture.
- Read about the cuisine
- Visit markets; understand the season, the land and the bounty.
- Eat street food wherever you see it
- Eat where the ”people” eat
- Eat at fine dining establishments
- Read about the cuisine
I found that the second step is undisputably the most essential one. I always helped my mother with her shopping growing up but I had not paid a visit to the markets with a trained eye.
I absolutely loved the Balik Hali (the wholesale fish market) in Yenikapi!
I parted from good friends at about midnight after a good (not great) dinner at Karakoy Lokantasi (a respectable establishment) and hookah in Tophane. I walked up to Taksim and walked the Red streets of Istiklal until about 1 AM. There is always something happening there and it’s always interesting to talk to the people on the street.
I got a haircut and a straight razor shave and hopped into the shuttle right after — yes, you can get a haircut in Istanbul at 1 AM. I missed the point where I had to get off and walked back about six miles. Amazing walk by the water, half of it in the rain, listening to NPR’s The Splendid Table.
Well, I got to the Balik Hali at about 2:30 AM. It was buzzing with excitement. Almost literally. Instead of bees they had seagulls flocking all around in an unobtrusive way, waiting their turn at the pick.
Boats were loading off their catch, fishermen were setting up their humble displays of not so humble fish, and procurement specialists were lining up around the displays. Cuddlefish (calamari), sand sharks, monk fish (Tr: Fener), mullets, leer fish (akya), turbot, John Dory (Tr: Dulger), scallops. needlefish (Tr: Zargana)… What a beautiful scene.
The market buzzed for about two hours after 2:30 and then it led to a calmness. Everyone was tired and ready for bed, including myself.
I had great educational conversations — especially the one about Muhammad’s thumbprint on John Dory. Very entertaining. And convincing.
A most successful reconnaissance mission! Also, I think fish are the most beautiful of all proteins. There, I said it!
In the absence of ovens, Thai cooks and street food vendors have become masters of slow cooking over coals. Scales-on, salt-crusted, lemongrass and chili stuffed fish; catfish with a sweet glaze!
The fish stays delicate without overcooking and the flavors infuse through the meat.
Sala Daeng, Suam Phlu and Yaowarat, Bangkok, Thailand
Thai street vendors are masters of slow cooking on a grill. This one was a fish, Thai chili and lemongrass mix that was steamed in the banana leaf to a delicate omelette texture… Unwrap the leaf, place the gem on the fragrant jasmin rice, and top it with the sauce… Thai fish sauce, Thai chili, garlic and lemon… Yumm.
Yaowarat, Bangkok, Thailand
Pick your fish and have it cooked at Fort Kochi!
I started with tiger prawns — stuffed with a paste of freshly grated coconut, turmeric and garlic and seared on the tawa — the convex Indian griddle.
Fish Market, Fort Kochi, Kerala
South Indian cooking generates a lot of deep flavors with use of strong spices and long cooking times, which is different from tropical cooking that I’m used to eating from North and South America as well as the Caribbean.
A fish masala served with lemon coconut rice and a rice paratha.
The fish was a white snapper. It was simmered in young coconut, kokam, mustard seeds, curry leaves, garlic, onions, and red chili powder. Truly delicious.
At Fort Kochi, Kerala, India
Pomfret simmered with a coriander, tomato and onion curry served with rice roti
The flesh of the pomfret is delicate with small flakes. The mild sauce only with a slight green chili kick actually brought the flavor of the fish forward. The flavor of the fish is luxurious like that of branzino (Tr. lüfer, En. Mediterranean sea bass).
Last time I had turbot, I was at an i-banking interview in NYC. It was farm-raised in France. I’ve got nothing against that in particular.
Years passed and I had turbot once again in Istanbul — wild-caught. It was a beautiful animal. Yes, it was a female — no problem, the egg sac was spectacular.
I cleaned it myself about 20 hours after it was brought to the shop.
I regret not having been able to suck on the bones at that dinner in NYC.
I redeemed myself today and bowed to the turbot with respect. It was so delicious — there is nothing like it. Gelatinous, gooey, fatty, fishy and sweet — perhaps even slightly nutty.
I will never put myself into a situation where I have to eat turbot and not be able to suck on the bones.