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!
Achatz and team have figured out a way to infuse dishes with the aroma of fragrant spring flowers. A bowl within a bowl is the gist of it. Here is the dish. I wanted to see if the same worked for two of my favorite flowers. Mimosas and jasmine.
I boiled some water and poured over. The quanitity needs to be managed with jasmine as the aroma that emanates can be very strong. Mimosas are less obtrusive even in large quantities.
Spring has sprung in Istanbul this week and it’s mimosa season. My favorite flower. The fragrance is elegant and very distinct. The branches are strong and the flowers are delicate. It’s ephemeral. The season lasts only a couple weeks.
Melisas are probably my third favorite flower but I have too much of a history with Melisas.
I have an emotional attachment to Filibe Koftecisi at the beginning of the Cagaloglu Yokusu in Sirkeci. It might have been chosen the best Kofte / Meatball shop in Istanbul a dozen times but my fond memories stem from coming here on the way to the boat that took my father and me to Kinali Island after work. I make a stop at least once each time I come to Istanbul.
These meatballs explode with umami, they’re rich but well balanced. So comforting.
Filibe Koftecisi, Sirkeci, Istanbul
Rough chop kokorec / kokoretsi with oregano, crushed peppers and cumin
Kokorec is lamb small intestines wrapped around sweetbreads and slow-grilled to a crispy perfection. The textural gradient that leads to the melt in the mouth sweetbreads is fascinating. Varying degrees of crispiness on the intestine from the crispiest to the soft to the slightly chewy… and to the sweetbreads.
I cannot imagine a world without Kokorec.
Buyuk Postane Caddesi, Sirkeci, Istanbul
Those pieces of paper neatly organized between the glass cover and the tabletop are love letters. Love letters that convey passion, lust, contentment, gratitude, satisfaction, and yearning. Love letters to Kunefe…
During my late teens, I played waterpolo with people who became some of my best friends. We were serious contenters in the 2nd league but we were the best in the nation when it comes to eating. My favorite eating companion, Roy, was the pivot defense of our team and always inspired an extremely enthusiastic attitude towards food.
A tournament took us to the Syrian border to the historical city of Antiochia / Hatay. With an amazing food culture, the city is studded with amazing shops where you can buy some of the freshest Kanafeh / Kunefe. The vermicelli (i.e. Kadaifi) is made in the back of the store; the cheese and the butter are great local varieties. Ahh! And they serve it with fresh, whole milk.
Walking the streets of Hatay was probably the closest I ever came to a sugar coma — that was after the third Kunefe. If I’m not mistaken, Roy went for his fourth.
The photo of the Kunefe here was taken in Tahtakale, Eminonu — it’s right at the Tahtakale exit of the Egyptian Bazaar. It’s an Antep restaurant but I’m not cultivated enough to say I know the difference between a Hatay and an Antep Kunefe. They’re both crunchy, cheese, and rich with butter. They’re both doused with gallops of warm syrup and topped with some of the greenest, most flavorful pistachios there is.
My favorite pickle store in the world — complete with pine cones, whole heads of garlic, carrots, fermented turnip juice (Tr.: Shalgam)…
Balik Pazari, Taksim, Istanbul
Another mussel classic — a diluted version of the homemade stuffed mussels of my family with no pine nuts, currants and dill but complete with a black peppery, cinnamony sweetness. A squeeze of lemon brings the whole thing together.
Balik Pazari,Beyoglu, Istanbul
What’s different about these deep fried kibbes is everything. The bulgur is fried to a perfect golden brown. The stuffing (with caramelized onions, garlic, walnuts, Aleppo peppers and ground beef) is light, flavorful, sweet, and comforting.
Sabirtasi is an ageold institution at the heart of Beyoglu, near Galata. They’ve been making these koftes the same way for decades!
Skewered, dusted with flour and deep fried, mussels are at the center of the Istanbul street food / after-party eating scene. The white ”tarator” sauce is a mixture of breadcrumbs, walnuts, lemon juice, vegetable oil, and garlic. The crispy fried mussels need to be consumed immediately after it’s been topped with the tarator sauce.
Balik Pazari, Taksim, Istanbul
Steaming burger buns doused with tomato sauce and more, stuffed with an elusive piece of beef burger strongly flavored with garlic. Arguably the epitome of Istanbul street food. I like mine with pickles.
Kizilkayalar, Taksim, Istanbul
When you dine out in Istanbul, the view of the restaurant becomes the seasoning on your plate. The flavors blend into the emotions the mighty city invokes and you fall in love. You fall in love with life, with your dinner, with the city, and with your friends. Similarly powerful past experiences manifest themselves in the moment and they become the aggregate that is you.
This is a particularly beautiful angle to look at the Bosphorus. A peek at the sea from Cihangir or Gümüşsuyu will include the watch tower at the Palace, t he Minerets of the Dolmabahce Mosque, the Bosphorus Bridge and the shimmering lights of the Asian side.
Click here for my taste notes from Topaz (A Reina Group restaurant)
Gumussuyu, Istanbul, Turkey
Grilled sweetbreads (Tr.: Uykuluk) with oregano and crushed Aleppo peppers
Sütlüce is a district of Istanbul on the Golden Horn that is also referred to as the sweetbreads district. A dozen sweetbread restaurants line the shore over a mile long stretch of the lagoon.
Uykuluk is an old tradition in Istanbul, especially in this district. While it’s out of the way, it’s worth a visit if you’re an aficionado. Parboiled and finished on the grill, it has a sweet, nutty as well as gamey taste, which comes forward very well with the ubiquitous oregano and Aleppo pepper combination.
I must say, folks who work with sweetbreads in other parts of Istanbul claim that in this district other glands of the animal are used as sweetbreads, replacing the saught after pancreatic and thymus sweetbreads. I am a big fan, regardless.
Having been on the move for most of the last 10 years, I always found myself in situations where I had to move on before my feelings for someone were ready to do so. I’ve often revisited relationships on a continuum. I recognize that this can be emotionally taxing sometimes and that it always requires what I call ‘emotional flexibility’.
After a couple cups of chai at the Chennai Airport with fellow travelers, I Armenianed (i.e. ‘Jewed’) down the price of the tuk tuk to the bus terminal. Of course, he took me to a spot a mile away on the same route as the buses to Pondicherry. All the while, I was negotiating the price for a 6 mile distance. After drinking a couple more chais with the tuk tuk driver’s son and friend, I finally got on the bus with the bright moon.
The ECR (East Coast Road) is beautiful — Pondicherry is a straight shot from Chennai, no windy roads. Unlike the mountainous Mumbai - Goa route.
Everyone was asleep and the windows were open when I got on the bus. The ocean shimmering between the trees, the strong wind, and the moonlight, made me feel as though I was on a late night boat in Istanbul, a sensation that I often try to rejoice whereever I can. That’s why late night commutes in Mumbai from the restaurant were no bother!
As I was going through all this in my head, I realized my relationship with Bangkok was such a love affair, one that will continue when paths cross again. Great preperations, unique flavors, fresh and fermened ingredients, and people passionate about food… Yes, Bangkok, this is no goodbye.
I didn’t know about this until it popped on my google news feed but Turkey is participating in this year’s Bocuse D’or. This is the most intense and hyped culinary competition in the world. I’ll be in Istanbul for the last day of the Turkish elimination rounds! I cannot wait! Let’s see if I can get tickets!