The flavours of Istanbul

By
Rebecca Seal
Added
28 November, 2013

Rebecca Seal and photographer Steven Joyce take us on a food tour of Turkey’s ancient former capital.

No matter how many times I visit, Istanbul remains a fascinating place. A city of 17 million people covering 2000 square miles and straddling the border between Asia and Europe, it is an incredible mixture of the very old – traces of Neolithic settlements were recently discovered near the Old Town, Sultanahmet – and the very new, as shiny modern towers leap up next to domed mosques or stone churches.

Istanbul’s food culture is as diverse as its architecture, with influences coming from the Persians and Ottomans of the past; its Middle Eastern neighbours, the Greeks, Armenians, Turks and Kurds; nearby Asian and European countries; and Christian, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish communities. The result is a riot of tastes, in dishes cooked using the best of local and seasonal ingredients from both the surrounding countryside and the sea.

tea and fruit

Whenever I visit Istanbul and start to ask questions about Turkish food, someone always reminds me that it doesn’t really make sense to talk about ‘Turkish’ food as every dish is connected to the specific place it came from.

A particular meal may be made different ways in different streets in the same neighbourhood, depending on where the cook or the cook’s family come from. Like the Turkish language, food is seen as a carrier of culture. What each community here shares, however, is a love of strong flavours – whether it’s the heat of spice, the tang of salty pickles or the sticky sweetness of honey.

Food is at the centre of everything here, whether in upmarket areas like old-money Nişantaşı, where you’re perhaps more likely to catch a whiff of truffles than charcoal-grilled meats, or on the waterfront at Galata Bridge buying a fish sandwich and beer taken from a bucket of ice.

turkish spices

Celebrations and meals out usually start with a selection of meze dishes, some hot and some cold, for everyone to share. Many restaurants don’t have menus, but instead bring round huge trays laden with mezes for you to pick from, or beckon you to choose from the counter. They can be anything from dishes of pickles and dips to fried vegetables, salads, cheeses, fish, meat and poultry dishes. Meze are not meant to be rushed – have two or three per person, plus some breads for scooping, and nibble them alongside some excellent Turkish wine, a cold glass of aniseed raki or a Turkish beer.

In Istanbul you are never far from a bakery. Wherever you are in the city, there will be a neighbourhood store close by, and people visit two or three times a day so as to have fresh, warm bread with every meal. As well as bread, Turkish cooks make wonderful versions of pizza, lahmacun and pide, one thin and one softer and thick, topped with spiced meat, buttery melted cheese or sucuk sausage.

turkish bread

Turkish food is almost always served with garnishes, like little bowls of flaked chilli pepper. But other extra flavours are also much loved, like the mild green peppers that are grilled and served with meat, or the white onions that are salted and dusted with sumac to go in wraps, alongside kebabs or with chops. Even more important are the sharp-sweet pickles, served with rice, vegetables or even alone, and the deeply flavoured red pepper paste, used in every possible dish.

In Istanbul, there’s always time to stop for something sweet, whether for a late night snack, a pudding or a mid-morning treat. On the streets you can buy anything from wedges of melon, sharp green plums and bags of ripe cherries, to boxes of sticky, flaky baklava, filled with pistachios. Here you’ll find rich semolina cake and traditional sweet pastries and puddings, all perfect with a cup of thick Turkish coffee, or for something fresher, a light melon sorbet.­­­

Cook the recipes from Istanbul.

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