I, Sultan

I am not cheap, but I love a good value! In my opinion, the legendary and the luxurious do not always have to carry a hefty price tag, and that is certainly true in Istanbul. Here is my list (in no way complete) of Istanbul experiences worthy of a sultan that ANYONE can afford. Most of them are free or cost close to nothing. (I must say it was an especially nice contrast to the meals I am currently researching for our May trip to Japan, – no fair being tempted by $400-600 per person life-changing lunches!!!)

  • Forget the Bosphorus boat cruises with their limiting schedules and a 25 lira price tag! Take in the beauty of the Bosphorus seaside for a mere 3 Turkish lira from a commuter ferry departing every 15-20 minutes (for example, from the Eminonu pier in the historic Sultanahmet area to Kadikoy on the Anatolian side). For a more serene experience, do try to avoid rush hour traffic. Especially recommended on a lazy weekend afternoon.

The only thing that is better than admiring the beautiful facades of some of the finest examples of Ottoman architecture from a boat is to do so while eating arguably the best yogurt in the world. Kanlica yogurt is a unique blend of cow and sheep milk traditionally served with powdered sugar in order to perfectly balance the intense sourness, and create the most refreshing snack.  I am sure one can get a good sized container for a couple of lira in Kanlica proper (a sleepy fishing village on the Anatolian side), but since it was served to us on a ferry, it was marked up to 3 lira :-).

Legend has it, back in the day it used to be so thick and creamy that it was sold in blocks which were cut with a knife.  Today, there is only one place that makes Kanlıca yogurt in the traditional way: Kanlıca Doğa Yoğurdu. The most important aspect of Kanlıca yogurt in comparison to others is that it is natural. There are no additives to increase the shelf life; only the pure, natural milk from the villages of Beykoz.

  • Don’t leave Istanbul without sampling seasonal fruit! Our fruit-eating schedule for September went as follows: watermelon with breakfast, melon with lunch and/or dinner, and figs and grapes as a snack. The voice of reason was telling me that there was no way figs that big could be great (smaller berries and fruit tend to be more concentrated in nutrients and therefore more intense in flavor), but it was wrong. Here is what 2 lira’s worth of amazing fruit looks like (see the picture above).
  • Escape to an island for an equivalent of 3 US dollars! A particularly good choice is Buyukada, the farthest of the Princes’ Islands (Adalar), where time seems to have stopped, and the main mode of transportation is horse and buggy, or a bicycle. It is also a nice place to watch a local “chef” make labor-intensive traditional dishes by hand, such as croquettes, or perhaps, sarma:

It also gives one a wonderful opportunity to eat island-style dishes (some of which will remind you of Greek cuisine), like slow-baked octopus in a clay pot, or my beloved fava,

and of course, the delicious garlicky deniz börülcesi (samphire greens, glasswort, or sea beans) that love the excessive salt and water of the seaside environment. Dressed with olive oil, lemon, and garlic, it is a very popular meze (appetizer), especially ideal for rakı, the anise-flavored Turkish alcoholic libation of choice:

  • Enjoy fantastic freshly squeezed juices available in virtually every part of the city. Nar (pomegranate juice) is the most expensive choice, but you can still buy a good-sized cup for 3-4 lira (that we often ended up sharing).

It is the most refreshing beverage on a warm day, even more so than the ubiquitous ayran (Turkish yogurt drink that tastes like buttermilk), although there is simply no better accompaniment to lamb-based dishes! For example, the incredibly moist and tender sis at Antiochia, or Sultanahmet-style köfte (meatballs) at the legendary Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi:

  • Don’t miss two Turkish staples, – mackerel and Black Sea anchovies (uskumru and hamsi). Eating fresh fish can be pricey, and fish restaurants can be prohibitively expensive if you are on a tight budget.
  • Luckily, from a mere 3 lira balik ekmek (mackerel sandwich), to the 10-lira fried hamsi or hamsi pilav (anchovy-specked rice), there is a slew of options that will allow you to have a proper fish meal on the cheap. It is Black Sea comfort food at its finest!  Turks are crazy about hamsi, and you should be, too.

*****

Perhaps, the ultimate luxury in a super-vibrant city like Istanbul is a few moments of peace and quiet. Luckily, one can duck into a tea and nargile (hookah) shop such as Çorlulu Ali Paşa Medresesi, to find a few precious moments of tranquility:  

If you can spare a bit more time, take a trip to Rüstem Paşa Camii. Far more peaceful and intimate (and in my opinion, just as beautiful) as the Blue Mosque that you have likely already visited with several thousand of your closest friends (after standing in line for a long while). Rüstem Paşa Camii was designed by Sinan in 1561 for Rüstem Paşa, Grand Vizer under Süleyman the Magnificent. It is one of the architect’s most celebrated small mosques (Sinan has been described as “the Michelangelo of Istanbul”), and is nestled nicely into what has been a bazaar for well over 500 years.

And at night, one could look for a quite corner on a roof top terrace (such as the impressive Mikla bar on top of the imposing Marmara Pera hotel) to have coffee, or something stronger, and take in the jaw-dropping panorama of this incredible city…

Istanbul: Redefining Breakfast

It has been a week since we got back, and every day I find myself reminiscing about Istanbul. The trip was so satisfying that it was almost impossible for me to pick what to write about first. Finally, I decided to start from the beginning, as in Turkey, breakfast is definitely in the top 3 most important meals of the day.

We experienced a wide variety of breakfast menus, from a simple but satisfying simit (an iconic Turkish snack of circular bread with sesame seeds) and tea, to the ubiquitous traditional tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and feta plates (plus slices of watermelon in the summer), to the over-the-top lavish Van-style breakfast. One thing stayed the same: it was always made with local fresh ingredients, and it was often savory rather than just sweet.

Çay (tea) is what many Turks start the day with, and drink throughout the day. Contrary to what one might think, they do not just drink Turkish-style coffee; as a matter of fact, the quality of coffee available in Istanbul widely varies, and many settle for the weak, milky Nescafe. Some believe that the best coffee in the city can be found at Mandabatmaz in Beyoglu. I certainly thought that their rich, dense, and aromatic version was pretty close to the Platonic ideal of türk kahvesi :

Now back to Van-style breakfast (Van is a city in the Eastern part of Turkey). A Van-style Kurdish breakfast takes the traditional Turkish breakfast of feta, tomato, cucumber, olives, and bread, and turns it up more than a few notches.

At Van Kahvalti Evi, along with the standards, the breakfast plate comes with an assortment of local cheeses (including the wonderfully grassy otlu and orgu, and string cheese), cacik (thick yogurt), homemade butter, jam, olives, selection of bread, and tahini. Along with the breakfast plates, they also serve casserole-style dishes, such as my favorite sucuklu menemen (scrambled eggs cooked with sautéed onions, green peppers and tomato, with an addition of sucuk, a spicy Turkish sausage):

They also serve excellent gozleme, which are thin sheets of hand-rolled dough wrapped around cheese, beef, potato or spinach; kind of a cross between a quesadilla and a crepe:

One of the highlights of the Van breakfast was an amazing dish that could easily double as dessert: local honey with tiny bits of wax served alongside kaymak, the Turkish version of sweet clotted cream. (Besides the porcine gene, I believe I have always had the ursine gene, as am terribly fond of good honey).

The fabulous kaymak (besides being eaten with a spoon :-)) can also be tasted as a lokum (Turkish delight) filling, as well as in kaymakli baklava, where it gets baked into a luxurious layer, pushing the envelope on perfection just a bit further:

At a place like Van Kahvalti Evi, breakfast can be had throughout the day (one of the many things I loved about Istanbul restaurants is that they are open all day, – virtually any time I might feel hungry!).

Another notable breakfast example was served at Hotel Amira, which, among many, many other things included sheep’s milk yogurt with grape molasses, or rose jam (my favorite!), or dried fruit and nuts. They also offered the best freshly squeezed orange juice I had ever tasted in my entire life. Incidentally, my daily intake of nar (freshly squeezed pomegranate juice) was something one gets used to very quickly.

Whatever the source, after breakfast we would feel sufficiently fortified to go about our day, exploring the secrets of the Ottoman Empire, or just gazing over at the Bosphorus…