At a cramped little shop on the edges of the Grand Bazaar, I balance a small white plate and fork in my hand. Rain pours outside while people keep pushing in the front door, a mass of humid, damp bodies all waiting for caramel custard called trilice. Men shout sharp orders. Money is exchanged. Forks clink on the white counters.
I manage two bites. Delicious.
“Now we go to another favorite place for sage tea,” says Senem Pastoressa. She opens the door to the rain, then speeds off down the winding cobblestone alley, five tourists hurrying after her under their insufficient umbrellas. We turn the corner to a covered open-air tea shop. Men smoke hookah water pipes along one wall. A middle-aged couple kisses in a far corner. We sit on red sofas under an awning and drink sage tea lemon out of tulip-shaped cups.
Whew. After 51/2 hours and 11 stops on the streets of Istanbul, it is a quiet coda to the culinary walk offered by Istanbul-based Culinary Backstreets.
The company was started by Americans Ansel Mullins and Yigal Schleifer five years ago as a food blog, Istanbul Eats (www.istanbuleats.com), to find authentic, tasty local restaurants and share them with visitors. Now, its culinary walks have spread to Barcelona, Spain; Athens, Greece; Rio de Janiero, Brazil; Mexico City, and Shanghai.
Appealing to younger travelers and foodies, walks take you to hidden spots in one of the most culturally rich cities in the world. Along the way, you absorb Turkey’s many influences from the Mediterranean, Asia, the Black Sea and the Middle East.
Although Turkey’s tourism as a whole is growing quickly, with a record 30 million visitors between January and September (an amazing number considering the instability of its regional neighbors), Pastoressa says culinary tourism to Turkey is still in its infancy.
“It’s becoming a thing, but tourism here is mostly cultural,” she says. “People want to come to Turkey because it is a place that is different but not difficult.
“They come and are surprised.”
Culinary Backstreets offers several different food tours of Istanbul. I took the one focusing on hidden dining spots near the Grand Bazaar. The Bazaar dates from 1461 and is a warren of 5,000 shops. Some describe it as the world’s oldest mall. On its red tile rooftops was filmed the opening sequence of the 2102 James Bond movie “Skyfall.”
So what do we eat? Everything.
We climb curving flights of stairs, go through secret tunnels, cut through little shops, and meander through backstreet courtyards called hans. We crowd into restaurants so small they have only three tables. We even eat breakfast with a group of porters – men who cart and carry most of the goods into the winding bazaar lanes too small for vehicles.
At one street stand, we eat grilled meat made of sweetbreads – tasty. Another restaurant serves us flaky borek – phillo dough pastries with meat, spinach or cheese.
At the restaurant Guvenc Konyali, it’s beef and baby okra soup, a recipe from central Turkey. Then it’s on to another spot for hummus and for manti, a white dumpling-like ravioli in a yogurt sauce. We eat pak pide, a type of Turkish pizza, covered with minced meat and Turkish cheese. At another place we have kadayif, a dessert of sugar, lemon and shredded phyllo. Some tourists try Turkish coffee, thick, with grounds in the bottom of the cup.
Along the way, we see the back streets of the Grand Bazaar, the historic wholesale gold district, bridal district, silver district and leather district. We stop at a copper pot-making shop, Soy Turkiye, which is so famous it even makes pots of pure silver for royalty and billionaires.
Turkey is a grower of apricots and figs, hazelnuts, pistachios and olives. These and fresh vegetables – tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini – are featured in many dishes. Spices commonly used are red sumac, red pepper, oregano and cinnamon, but spices will not overwhelm you in Turkish food.
Just one thing: This tour is not for vegetarians, vegans or people with food allergies. It is a sampler, so there is some meat – lamb or beef; many dishes may use meat-based liquids, and many desserts include every sweet thing and wheat and dairy. But the tour is offered up with a happy stream of conversation from Pastoressa, who has been a guide for many years. She grew up in Turkey and has seen the food scene change a lot. You can get anything in Turkey these days, she says. The world is changing. The only thing her husband brought with him from Italy? His cappuccino maker.
Eats in Istanbul
Tourists walking around Istanbul can be forgiven if they come away thinking that Turkey’s main foods are Turkish Delight, roasted chestnuts and corn-on-the-cob.
Chestnuts and corn are common street vendor snacks, while Turkish Delight – a sugary, chewy confection – is sold everywhere from fancy bakeries to airport gift shops.
“Doner” kebab shops are common, with spit-grilled meat sort of like the Greek meat kebabs called souvlaki.
Tourists near the Old City also may see restaurants where women are preparing food right in the front window. It’s a successful marketing tool, not a common practice.
Besides the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul has an elaborate public Spice Market, selling everything from Iranian saffron to live parakeets.
Istanbul has an estimated 13 million to 15 million people, so the city spreads out for miles, and each district has its own cuisine. A short visit will barely give you a taste – literally – of the place. But you have to start somewhere.
Culinary Backstreets tours, Istanbul, offers group tours of about five to seven people. “Culinary Backstreets of the Bazaar Quarter” is $125 per person; other tours are similarly priced (www.culinarybackstreets.com/culinary-walks/istanbul/).
Read: “Istanbul Eats: Exploring the Culinary Backstreets” by Ansel Mullins and Yigal Schleifer (Boyut) has a brand new 2014 edition. It’s not yet for sale on Amazon, but soon.