In food of Istanbul, echoes of the past

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Napoleon said that if the world were a single state then its capital would be Constantinople. Even today, amid the traffic-choked streets of modern Istanbul, among the steep alleys and ancient mosques, you can still feel what he meant. The air is thick with centuries of civilization — and nowhere is that more apparent than in the food.

But though the city's lively restaurant scene offers a dizzying array of Turkish cooking styles — with hints of Balkan, Caucasian and Middle Eastern cooking — it’s easy to get lost in the maze-like crush of kebab joints and overpriced fish restaurants.

This is where IstanbulEats.com comes in. Founded by American ex-pats Ansel Mullins and Yigal Schleifer, friends with more than 12 collective years of experience eating their way through Istanbul, the site is dedicated to ferreting out the city's hidden culinary treasures.

Guided by the eyes (and palates) of these chowhounds, GlobalPost spent one perfect day of eating in a city that has been home to Islam and Christendom; East and West; old and new.

As they say on the blog: “We’re talking about serious food for serious eaters, hold the frills.”

Plate of kaymak and honey and glass of warm milk at Karakoy Ozsut.
A plate of kaymak and honey, and a glass of warm milk, at Karakoy Ozsut. 
(Nichole Sobecki/GlobalPost)

Our first stop was Karakoy Ozsut for the classic Turkish combo of kaymak — the region’s own version of clotted cream — served with honey and crusty white bread. Ozsut translates roughly to “essential milk” and one taste of kaymak, made from the restaurant’s own herd of water buffaloes, leaves no doubt as to its significance.

“In our imagination, kaymak … is the only food served in Heaven, where angels in white robes dish out plate after plate of the cloudlike stuff to the dearly departed, who no longer have to worry about cholesterol counts and visits to the cardiologist,” write Mullins and Schleifer in a review on IstanbulEats.com.

Kaymak, like the restaurant itself, is as simple as it is superb. And that is the essential idea of what IstanbulEats is trying to achieve.

“I find that people are traveling more and more with their stomachs,” explains Schleifer. “We’re trying to talk about the authentic food culture here, and to help direct people to that.”

From Karakoy we crossed the Galata bridge, intent on meeting not only the restaurateurs but also their vital counterpart, the humble purveyor.

Just up the Golden Horn from the Egyptian Spice Bazaar we reached Kadem Salepcilik. Cemal, a rugged supplier from Turkey’s southeastern city of Siirt, sat surrounded by piles of salep. Salep is to Turks what ginkgo biloba is to Westerners. Except, of course, that it is much more delicious. Made from ground orchid roots, the power is mixed with warm milk and rumored to cure everything from heart ailments to blood pressure to “the women’s disease.”

Winding our way through Kucuk Pazari — a rarely explored warren of market streets and Ottoman-era caravanserais — Altan Sekerleme beckons us next, with all the charm and magic of the Wonka factory. Decorated with candy canes and Turkish Delight built to mimic small, psychedelic log cabins, Atlan has passed from father to son since the Altanoglu family opened shop in 1865.

“Don’t come this way looking for a bag of gummy bears or any Pop Rocks, or grandpa behind the counter might have a heart attack,” write the IstabulEats team. “This is a place for traditional, artisanal Turkish candies.”

After emerging from the sugar-dusted candyland, it was time for something different: boza. I wasn’t quite prepared for just how different it would be.

Following Mullins and Schleifer into Veza Bozacisi, a tavern-like outlet where the Ottoman culinary tradition of boza has been protected with a flourish since 1876, everything looked normal. Worn marble doorstep? Check. Antique wooden bar? Check. Glass case holding a glass from which Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, enjoyed a glass of this strange brew? Check.

Then I tasted it. Drinking boza, a thick, almost Gerber-like drink made from fermented millet, is one of those rare gastronomical moments when something hits your pallet that you know has never been there before.

I declined the offer of seconds, while the server dramatically regaled us with the story of a local taxi driver who could down over a dozen glasses of boza in a single sitting.

I’m still holding out judgment on the drink, although the team makes a convincing point: “Like other obligatory cultural experiences, say the opera or a visit to a science and industry museum, you are allowed to sigh with relief when your glass of boza has finished.”

After passing through the Kadinlar Pazari — the closest thing Turkey has to a “Little Kurdistan” — we make our way to the last stop of the day: Siirt Seref Buryan Kebap Salonu, the Istanbul Eats team’s favorite of the square’s many joints selling buryan kebap and perde pilav. The dishes are a specialty of Siirt, a city that’s home to both Kurds and Arabs.

Buryan is made by slowly cooking a small lamb over coals in a deep hole in the ground, creating melt-in-your-mouth, fatty deliciousness.

“It’s a bit like Turkey’s version of Texas pit BBQ,” quips Mullins.

Perde (the word means “curtain” in Turkish), on the other hand, is all about the crunch. Made of rice, chicken, almonds and currents, the spicy pilaf is wrapped in a thin pastry shell and baked inside a mold until the exterior turns golden and flaky. It’s the best kind of meal, simple and full of flavor, and a chance to taste some of the best Turkey’s East has to offer without ever leaving Istanbul.

“What is so great about this city is all the people coming in from the country,” remarked Mullins as we tried our best to walk off what had been an extraordinary day of eating.

“You can really visit all of Turkey, culinary-wise, just in Istanbul,” finished Schliefer.

Where GlobalPost ate:

Karakoy Ozsut

Address: Yemisci Hasan Sk. No: 9/11, Karakoy

Telephone: 212-293-3031

Altan Sekerleme

Address: Kiblecesme Cad. No: 96, Kantarcilar (Kucuk Pazari)/Eminonu

Telephone: 212-522-5909

Vefa Bozacisi

Address: Katip Celebi Cad. No:104/1, Vefa

Telephone: 212-519-4922

Siirt Seref Buryan Kebap Salonu

Address: Itfaiye Cad. No: 4, Fatih

Telephone: 212-635-8085

www.serefburyan.com