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In food of Istanbul, echoes of the past

The bazaars and restaurants of modern Constantinople hold many delights for gourmets and students of history alike.

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 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

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.”