Hungry for an authentic dining experience in Istanbul, Kristin Shorten heads for the Grand Bazaar.
OMEWHERE between the sweet helva and the surk cheese from Antakya, I fall into a Middle Eastern food coma.
It is the first night of a Trafalgar tour of Turkey. After lengthy introductions at our hotel, our excited, jet-lagged group of 30 – aged from 20 to 70 – boards a tour bus headed to an undisclosed location for a welcome dinner.
Turkey borders war-torn Iraq and Syria, where the ongoing threat of terrorism – and warnings from our government to travellers to exercise a high degree of caution – has a few travellers on edge. But our itinerary avoids the most dangerous region – the border area in southern Turkey – and the tourist trail is followed without incident.
Dinner is at Istanbul’s Kantin Restaurant, a hole-in-thewall eatery run by Semsa Denizsel. Semsa greets us with a spread of crushed, unbrined green olives from Sivrice; Kantin’s own sourdough bread; the season’s first pressed olive oil from Ayvalik; and massive blocks of mouthwatering gruyere and kasar cheese from Kars. Then it’s upstairs for an extravagant nine-course feast. Although Turkey is a Muslim country, some people drink alcohol and it has a flourishing wine industry. We settle around two long tables, wine is poured and the first course – bonito confit with red lentil puree – arrives. Then comes wood-roasted organic pumpkin and oyster mushrooms; sorrel with caramelised pears and tulum cheese from Konya; kokorec en papillote (lamb intestines cooked in parchment paper) from the woodfired oven; and prawns and baby calamari from the Aegean.
Midway through the dinner a few weary travellers bail and catch a taxi back to the hotel – to the displeasure of our hosts. I’m tempted to take off too, but stay in fear of offending.
Around midnight a palatecleansing green tangerine sorbet arrives, followed by mastic pudding with sour cherry molasses. Then, the most intriguing course of the night is helva, a semolina-based sweet treat that is like a block of honeycomb, and is eaten with Surk cheese. At this point of our gastronomic endurance test, I was so full I could hardly move, let alone enjoy it.
The next morning I wake at the Radisson Blu Sisli with a food hangover and vow not to overindulge again. My resolve lasts until I wander down to the breakfast buffet, with its fresh sourdough loaves, dozens of cheeses and olive oil-drenched Aegean vegetables alongside the usual breakfast fare.
Back on the bus, we work our way through Istanbul’s gridlocked streets for a day of sightseeing with a local specialist. This is tourism at its most tedious, trudging from Topkapi Palace Museum – residence of the Ottoman sultans between 1453 and 1852 – to St Sophia along with hordes of tourists. We queue for entry – even at the bathrooms – but our group is still processed more quickly than solo travellers.
The atmospheric Spice Bazaar, built in 1660, is the centre of Istanbul’s spice trade. Before exploring we head for a door – tucked away on the left, just inside the main entrance – to the famous Pandeli Restaurant (c1901). Lunch offers a welcome reprieve from the masses as we climb a towering staircase towards a maze of rooms, turquoise-tiled walls and domed ceilings. The six-course lunch includes Russian salad, stuffed grape leaves, dried white beans, eggplant pastry with giro, mashed eggplant served with lamb, grilled mixed meat and a traditional Turkish dessert. The food is good, although the presentation isn’t so impressive. It’s said Pandeli’s key attraction is consistency. The menu hasn’t changed in a decade.
After lunch, we visit a spice store and stock up on spices, dried figs and Turkish delight in eye-popping varieties including chocolate-coated pomegranate flavoured, pistachio encrusted, and spice-rolled. Also in the bazaar are stalls selling numerous varieties of baklava and stuffed dates.
Dinner is at swish rooftop bar and restaurant 360 Istanbul, which has superb city views. Bracing for another onslaught I take the stairs to the eighth-floor trough in the Beyoglu district.
It serves international food, from grilled seafood and steak to spring rolls and sushi, washed down with expensive and popular Ancyra wines. Dessert is Death by Chocolate – fitting after all we’ve eaten; our guide declares “the aim of this trip is to make you big’’.
On the way to Gallipoli the following day we stop at Nar Restaurant for lunch.
The roadhouse cafe, next to a petrol station at Canakkale, is run by Nihal Sezer who is panicking and in tears when we arrive as she has lost power while preparing our food. She needn’t have worried as the offerings – bitter, fresh pomegranate, carrot and ginger soup, salads stuffed into hollowed oranges, pastries, stews and a sweet pumpkin desert with clotted milk – are superb, and not at all what you’d expect at a truck stop.
A similarly impressive meal is had the next day on the way to Izmir, where we stop in the village of Demircidere, population 200. The locals, who split their time between the village and city, put on a wellpractised performance – in traditional costume – and host us in their homes. It is a comical experience as we attempt to communicate with our hosts, who speak minimal English.
Each local takes a group of four back to their modest home, where they serve traditional probiotic Tarhana soup, homemade yoghurt, borek (a pastry) with potatoes, stuffed grape leaves, olives and dessert.
Before alighting the bus we’re told it’s rude to refuse the food, so we politely taste everything – regardless of appearance or flavour – including shrap, the homemade wine.
Suddenly my most pleasurable travel experience – meal time – has become something I dread. This is until the last day of the tour when we’re dropped at the Grand Bazaar and are free to dine wherever we want.
Four of us peel off and happen upon Mardin Et & Kebap Salonu, and it’s filled with locals sitting on cheap chairs, surrounded by framed family photos on the wall. Hidden away down an alley outside the glittering halls of the bazaar, this was what we’ve been looking for. We order pita, tzatziki, lamb shish, eggplant and tomato kebabs and a minced meat Turkish pizza, but can’t eat it all. It is by far the cheapest and best meal of our trip.
The writer was a guest of Trafalgar.