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Istanbul: Food Culture, Turkish Delight & Whirling Dervishes

September 28, 2013

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Our guide for a tour of Istanbul’s food culture was Hasan. We were lucky when he arrived at our hotel to learn we were his only travellers for the day. A mini bus would take the four of us – including Hasan – across the Galata Bridge to the Asian side of Istanbul and our walk would begin in Taksim Square.

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One sets up a picture in your head when a place becomes famous for an event like the uprising and riots that occurred here in July and Taksim square wasn’t at all how I’d imagined it. It was quiet and unassuming, barely a square now with recent changes. From here – talking local politics along the way – we began our walk along Istikial Avenue, a bustling pedestrian street … apart from pretty, small old trams and a proliferation of street cleaning vans that we had to keep jumping out of the way of!

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Still fairly middle class and monied today, the area was once a good deal more upmarket when the French and Italians came and developed the area. Amongst the eclectic mix of buildings are many French-styled 18th and 19th century buildings, an Italian Roman Catholic Church. Hasan took up into Cicek Pasaji, that opened in 1876 as a theatre – a history easily recognisable from the outside – which now houses many little cafes and restaurants inside with light pouring in through a large glass dome.

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We came out from the back exit into a small fish market.

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Hasan pointed out that the bright red gills indicated the freshness of the fish – something I’d never seen before – and faded as the fish got older. It was a nice little market with vegetables too. Lots of aubergines that are found in various forms on every menu and also large pomegranates and walnuts, again much used in the local cooking.

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Hasan pointed out stalls selling a local speciality of fried intestines, but we thought we’d give those a miss! Another stall had battered and fried mussels which I’ve had before and like – but not at this time in the morning! It was a nice, peaceful and colourful place to wander and we came to a cafe where Hasan suggested we could stop for coffee. Linda and I, great coffee lovers, decided this was a man who understood our needs! I was especially grateful as I’d eaten little for breakfast because the hotel’s offerings are so dire. Thus I totally indulged myself by ordering a slice of what turned out to be a rather wonderful chocolate cheesecake to go with my coffee.

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As we walked on, Hasan explained we were in the Pera area – Pera meaning across the water – and we moved on into Galata, fortified by the Genovese in the 14th century and now a bohemian area with music shops, galleries and ethnic shops. All along the way were little carts selling bread rolls or grilled corn or fresh pomegranate juice.

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We passed self service restaurants selling typical Turkish food, including fried anchovies.

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Approaching the Galata bridge where we would cross to the European side again, Hasan pointed out a building of typical Ottoman architecture.

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It was busy ahead: heavy traffic, stalls selling food and drink or even smartphones.

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The bridge is apparently a good place to fish.

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Halfway across we went down stairs and a row of fish restaurants was revealed underneath.

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It was lunchtime but we were headed for boats the other side selling one of Istanbul’s most famous street food – balik ekmek – fish sandwich.

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Fillets of freshly cooked mackerel are put into a roll with salad and onion and there you have a fast and delicious lunch in your hand. Next stop was Misir Carsisi, the Spice Bazaar.

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Hasan took is to Nazar to buy Turkish delight and spices.

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We were given some pomegranate tea and told about the health benefits of saffron, which can apparently lower cholesterol. Smelling different qualities – and prices! – it was easy to identify the best quality.

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In the evening we had tickets to watch Whirling Dervishes at the Cultural Centre. It was an amazing experience.

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Afterwards we wandered only 20m or so before deciding to eat at Amedros. It had a lot of recommendations but was also busy – always a good sign! And most important, we liked the look of it. It turned out to be a wonderful choice. Head waiter Mehmed gave us such a great welcome and entertained us in the nicest possible way throughout the meal, always checking we were happy, and laughing and joking with us. When Linda questioned him about a main course she was considering, he brought a sample! We shared a plate of meze to begin and it was excellent.

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I had Ottoman Chicken, cooked with pomegranate, walnuts and red onions as my main course.

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The interior was stylish and comfortable.

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One of my favourite Gotan Project albums was playing in the background. The wine was good. The company perfect as Linda, George and I talked about the whirling dervishes, our lovely day and how much we liked Istanbul. There is quite a bit of hassling to buy in the streets but nothing too pushy or uncomfortable. In general the Turkish are hospitable, helpful and friendly. It’s a great place to be.

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