The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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