Hi Frugalistas! Regular readers will know that one of the key philosophies of frugalfirstclasstravel is enjoying being a temporary local. Eating, lots of walking and mixing with the locals is a key part of that. Regular readers will also know how much I love my food. I was therefore delighted to discover the Culinary Backstreets walks offered by Istanbul Eats courtesy of my friend, Jenny, at A Taste of Travel Blog. On my recent return to Istanbul I savoured the fabulous offerings on their Cosmopolitan Beyoglu walk.
Traditional Turkish breakfast
My tour commences in the trendy area of Cihangir, home to pretty newly-gentrified apartment buildings and a thriving local food and antique scene. My guide for the day, the vibrant and charismatic Senem, kicks off the action by giving me a choice of location for breakfast. I go for the traditional family run lokanta, where we start with a traditional Turkish breakfast of olives, cucumber, tomato, local honey, kamak (Turkish clotted cream), menemen (a frittata with green pepper, onion and tomato) and bread, all washed down with Turkish tea (coffee is strictly for later in the day). We check out the family preparing lunch in the kitchen and bid them farewell, but not before Senem rather mysteriously purchases a “pudding” for us to eat later……
Morning tea in Cihangir
After a short walk to enjoy the local architecture, it’s time for morning tea in the form of borek (a stuffed flaky pastry) and boregi, a soft pastry made with water. We try two boreks – a meat one and a spinach one as well as the boregi.
Delish, but morning tea is far from done, as we hit one of the family-run pickle shops that dot Istanbul. Turks love their pickled vegetables – if it will stay still long enough it seems it can and will be pickled! They also drink the pickle juice as a tonic. I pass on the pickle juice, but am definitely up for a selection of pickled goodies – cabbage, carrot, small cucumber and beetroot (which is a staple of traditional Australian food). It’s all delicious, but the beetroot is the real surprise – gone is the sweetness of the traditional Aussie beetroot, and in its place is earthy, vinegary goodness – I love it!
Brunch, brunch and more brunch round Istiklal Street
We are heading to the Black Sea area for brunch (well, a restaurant just off Istiklal St serving Black Sea cuisine). Fresh anchovy (light, fresh and nothing like the salty friends we know from our pizzas) served with a rice pilaf is a real surprise. Green leaves (we debate exactly what they are, but definitely not vine leaves) stuffed with rice and flavourings are tasty. But the star of the show is without doubt is the melted cheese and butter, served with bread like an Alpine raclette. Rich, buttery and tasty. If our day had been finishing here, I would have loved to have polished it off, and would have been happy, but no, we press onwards……
to a little corner café serving traditional doner kebabs. Except the meat is cooked on individual skewers on hot coals. I’m familiar with doner kebabs – they are somewhat a traditional fast food in Australia, and any shopping centre food court will have a kebab place. But these are completely different. Smaller. Spicier. Just better. The flat bread it is wrapped in is much thinner, and lighter. Paired with Ayran, a yoghurt drink, it makes a fresh second course for our brunch. It’s a humble little takeaway joint with a couple of laminex tables – somewhere I would never walk into.
No brunch is complete without something sweet, so now it’s onto the cakes. We hit the cake shop for a trio of sticky delights. A glace quince complete with more camak is a must try for me. I’m also intrigued by a handmade green baklava, made by rolling powdered pistachio between individual sheets of phyllo pastry, and a “homemade style” walnut baklava. The quince is sticky sweet, and oh so good. The pistachio baklava tastes exactly of sweet sticky pistachio nuts and the walnut baklava is moist and tasty.
Lamb, but not as I know it
We Aussies love our lamb. We eat it a lot and I’m no exception. However, I’ve never eaten brains or tongue. All that changes at our next stop – a stand outside a local butcher’s shop in the market off Istiklal Street, where I’m greeted by the butcher, and a complete, roasted, smiling sheep head. With the delicate touch and precision of a surgeon, and just a bit of theatre, the sheep head is dismantled for us to try.
First the skull is cracked open and the brains sliced up. Next the tongue, skun and sliced. Then the cheeks (apparently the most prized cut), and then he heads in the direction of the eyes…. Oh, dear! This could be a bridge too far….. Relief! Turns out we are not eating eyeballs – just the muscles and fat pad behind the eye. A shake of salt and a sprinkle of oregano, and our sheep head is ready to taste.
The brains taste just like lamb, only with a creamy texture, the tongue tastes of lamb with a firmer texture and the cheeks taste like the best slow-roasted lamb shoulder imaginable…..And the material behind the eyes? Rich, fatty, meaty yumminess!
Coffee and that mystery pudding
Down a tiny laneway we head into a tiny hole in the wall that sells coffee. Just coffee, and just Turkish coffee. Or Turkish tea if you’re desperate. There’s about 10 tiny stools to sit on, and a similar number outside. A kitchen that’s a metre squared (on a good day) pumps out cup after cup. When you only sell one thing, it has to be good, and this is.
I’m familiar with reading coffee grinds in other cultures (a bit like reading tea leaves), so I’m intrigued when I ask Senem about it and she confirms that yes, when Turkish girlfriends are out together, one will often read the coffee grinds left at the bottom of the cup for a bit of girly fun. So we tip our cups up and Senem shows me some of the things to look for in “reading” the coffee grinds.
Now, about that pudding Senem bought at breakfast. During our coffee, out comes the pudding. In a takeaway plastic container, and dusted with cinnamon, it turns out to be a sweet, tasty, slightly gluggy (rather than custardy or milky) confection. Do I like it? Definitely. Do I recognise it? No, it’s like nothing I’ve tried before. “What do I think it is made out of?” Senem asks provocatively. The only thing I can think of is the texture of the Turkish ice-cream, which is due to the addition of mastic gum, but no, that’s not it. Chicken breast. Yes, reader, chicken breast! And it’s sweet, pudding-y deliciousness.
And finally it’s time for lunch in Antalya
Finally we reach our last stop – lunch in a family run restaurant from Antalya in the far south of Turkey. We kick off with a trio of salads, including a fabulous one made from local oregano. Our main course is a clay pot minced meat (similar to what goes into a doner kebab) cooked in a spicy tomato sauce. It’s served with flat bread, so we can soak up all that delicious sauce.
To toast the end of our wonderful day, I treat us to a glass of local red wine. Soft and smooth, it goes perfectly with the food, and caps off the most wonderful of days. We thank the chef (Mum) and the waiter (her son), and say hi to her daughter who’s just arrived, before I head off into the tourist madness of Istiklal Street.
The Cosmopolitan Beyoglu walk was definitely one of the highlights of my two trips to Istanbul. Senem is a knowledgable, fun guide who was tremendous company for the day. She really added to my experience with her knowledge of the Cihangir and Beyoglu neigbhourhoods, and the hidden corners we explored between eating. At US$125 (not including the wine I treated us to at lunch) the Cosmopolitan Beyoglu is not a budget experience, but consider this: the walk goes for approximately 6hours, and you will literally not need to eat another mouthful of food that day. You will visit streets you would never walk down, go into cafes and restaurants where you will be the only tourist, that you would never enter otherwise. Most importantly you will eat food you would never try otherwise and will enter the world of the Istanbul resident, rather than the Istanbul tourist. To me, it is an unbeatable experience that is about far more than just food, and more than justifies the price.
You will be doing a lot of walking – and it is hilly at times. Comfy shoes, loose comfortable clothes (especially round the waistline!) and the capacity to spend most of the time on your feet (with a bit of walking uphill), in addition to a healthy appetite are essential.
Author’s note: I received a media discount from Istanbul Eats for this walk. It was a fabulous day, and you know I’d never recommend anything I didn’t genuinely love.