Keeping up with the series of exploring Istanbul through the senses, here we will talk about the flavors of Istanbul. Every culture has its own dominant flavors that define its history. Food has always been the door to the heart. Imagine you’re traveling to a new place and walking down a street with houses and someone stops you, asks you about yourself, or invites you in for food, won’t you remember that person forever? And mention them in your tales of travel?
Offer someone your bottle of water on a warm day and they’ll be eternally grateful to you. Share a candy with the person sitting next to you on a bus and they’ll smile. Food brings the heart closer, sharing food is always the best way to connect with anyone. So what is unique about the food of Istanbul? It is the kind of “warm” that connects you with the city.
I am a foodie by heart so bear with me if I write just too much about the flavors here. But the food was one of the main reasons I wished to travel to Turkey. In fact, before I flew out, I spent about a month and a half researching what we could do in Istanbul and a major part of my list included eating different things there. And while the other girls with me were planning on shopping for things, visiting certain places, and planning other adventures, my list of what things I will try eating there was growing longer.
So let’s begin my journey of the flavors of Istanbul… the first taste I got of Istanbul was on the Turkish Airline flight we took. We were served sandwiches, they were plain cheese sandwiches and cheese is one dominant ingredient of Turkish cuisine. They have a variety of cheeses made in Turkey and the types differ from city to city. Cheese is served with breakfast, it’s cooked in different dishes, it’s eaten as a side dish, it’s added to salads, sandwiches, and whatnot. Cheese of any kind is sure to find a place in any form in Turkish meals.
Tomato is a dominant vegetable/ fruit, typically served as a whole for breakfast along with olives and cucumbers. You’ll also notice tomato sauces served as a side with mains for lunch and dinner. The use of olive oil is very common in all Turkish cooking. And so is Olive as a whole, served with breakfast, served as a side, served as a salad. The tiny olive has many uses in Turkish flavors.
Besides these items, eggplant is a vegetable that is widely cooked, baked, or roasted, The flavor is enhanced by adding spices such as dried pomegranate seeds
Fruits that I noticed were pomegranates, grapes, pears, apples, and figs. I also got to try fresh figs for the first time. Prior to this experience I’d only ever had dried figs to eat. There was a fruit shop close to our hotel and every time I crossed it, I thought I’d take figs with me back to Karachi. But by the end, I was so over my allowed weight limit for the luggage and ran out of space, I was unable to and ended up asking the shopkeeper to sell me 1 fig so I could at least try how the fresh ones tasted. And the nice man just gave it to me, even though I insisted on paying.
The meat that Turkish people enjoy is lamb. You’ll find lamb in shawarmas, or other dishes grilled, baked, or cooked to perfection. Nothing too spicy, but every time you take a bite of it, you’ll feel the powerful flavor of lamb melting in your mouth.
They love fish too, and I’ve seen people fish for a sport as well so I know fish is a staple, however, I’m not a big fan of seafood myself so didn’t try it out anywhere. Though my research prior to travel did tell me to try out the mussels, and fish sandwiches commonly available on the streets of Istanbul. But I was not daring enough to do that.
They serve chicken very commonly too, but there’s rarely anything novel about a chicken, or its eggs which are a must – boiled or fried for breakfast. I was more taken away by the lamb which became my preferred protein as that is one item not as easily available in Karachi. So I skipped chicken for most of my meals and focused on the guilty pleasures of Lamb meat.
Speaking of guilty pleasures, the one that gave me the most satisfaction was the Kunefe. This came up several times during my research and I had even pinned it down to the restaurant I was going to try which was Hafiz Mustafa a renowned spot with multi-national cafes around Turkey and other cities of the world. Fortunately, there are so many of these cafes in Istanbul that I was able to find one soon after our first lunch in Istanbul. Although we were stuffed, I still dragged everyone in to give the Kunefe a shot. They all agreed, maybe not as excited as I was but the first look wooed them and the first bit sold them to pleasure!
The next thing that the Turkish are very proud of is their Coffee, which is something very different from the usual coffee I have. Turkish coffee is strong, and you can taste the coffee grounds. Before they prepare the coffee they will ask you if you want it with sugar or without and they usually prepare it with sugar if you want any.
The first day we landed in Istanbul, I had coffee with dinner, and was the only time I had Turkish coffee. My hot beverage of choice in Istanbul was the Chai which became my favorite drink. We had a local cafe close to our hotel and I visited it frequently. It was my favorite as it allowed me to study the local culture as well as enjoy my Turkish cuppa tea and I read my book in peace.
Istanbul is a city rich with flavors and this is just not enough, do continue to read about the Flavors of Istanbul Part II