Grilled mackerel on the Galata bridge
"You and Ledina can eat all that crap together in Turkey."
--Eric (Ledina's husband) on prospects of eating non-fleshy animal parts.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I decided to visit Istanbul. I was going to meet up with Ledina, a good friend of mine from the Addis Ababa salad days. Ledina is a most impressive gourmet adventurer and I knew that she was the perfect person to discover a new world of culinary delights: After all she was the first one who dug in to the raw goat chunks (Tere sega), when we were in Ethiopia. We were joining Ledina’s sister Bora her friend Michael. It was a small army of fearless eaters-- stuffing our faces as we worked our way forwards and backwards across Istanbul, stopping for the occasional draw on the nargile or water pipe. The four of us were primarily interested in street food, as it tends to be the best tasting, cheapest and lets say, experiential. This is the way to locals eat anyways, not in tricked out tourist traps of ‘we have terrace’ restaurants with menus in four languages. Sultan’s Revenge be damned-- I’d rather eat hunkered down on a street curb swatting off the battalions of stray cats (and there are A LOT of stray cats in Istanbul!) than in a restaurant.
I had purchased a Lonely Planet guide that included a run down on street vendors and things that we might come across such as mussels, fish sandwiches, cucumbers, raw meat balls, etc. It warned that sampling some of these dishes risked bouts of severe diarrhea. The stuffed mussels for example, were recommended only for those that wanted to live ‘very very dangerously’ and went on to add ‘if you try these, you must be mad’. I wanted to live dangerously. And yes, I might exhibit symptoms of madness; but having lived in sub-Saharan Africa in a mud hut drinking river water for two years, I figured I already played host to most of the possible range of microorganisms and furthermore believed that the Turkish varieties were probably pretty small time stuff compared to their African counterparts. I was not to be proven wrong.
I sampled all that I could off the streets. The stuffed mussels for those who live dangerously? they were OK, but tasted more like a ball of rice than of any shellfish. There was amazingly delicious rice pilaf, with such fierce turnover, it is highly unlikely that it sat anywhere long enough to be fertile ground for bacteria.
The grilled fish sandwiches were always good, made more fun by the novelty of ordering them off of tiny wooden fishing boats docked along the Golden Horn river. Unfortunately, I never did manage to get my hands on the raw meat balls. Given my love of kitfo, it looked like they would be right up my alley. We hit everything else on the lonely planet list though, and more. I loved the carts of raw cumbers, expertly peeled before your eyes and served with a shake of salt.
Thirsty? There were carts laden with fresh oranges and grapefruits, pushed by men who would slice open and juice up some refreshing citrus. I was most enamored with kokorec, which are sheep’s intestines.
I used to be a bit squeamish when it came to the interior meats, but now-a-days I have a true appreciation of their capabilities. Especially when prepared porchetta style, all tied up and seasoned with aromatic herbs and served in a hot roll. I am ready and waiting for Macmac to try his hand at some boudin or haggis.
It wasn't all fish sandwiches and barbecued sheep intestines for us though, the sweet stuff is just as good and just as plentiful. Pastry and candy shops selling lokum (gummy Turkish candy) and all manner of baklava dot the city like the syrupy sugary stars. We also became specialists in the wonderfully eclectic asure.
Asure is a mix of fruit, nuts, grains and beans in a sweet starchy medium perfumed with rose water and cinnamon. Asure has it all, texture, flavor, color and all around mind-belly satisfaction--it feels good to eat it. The rosewater aroma imparts asure with a very sexy, exotic attitude, emboldened by dried figs and pomegranate, but is grounded in homey familiarity with its broad white beans, chickpeas and barley. We tried one that even contained maize kernels! I will certainly begin trying my hand at recreating this in my mother’s kitchen in the coming weeks... Asure is also interesting to me in that it breaks many of the rules that have been laid out for desserts in the western context. It is not cakey, flaky, creamy or chocolately; it isn't even terribly gooey. Often times, we just ate asure for lunch rather than downing a greasy French-fry-lamb kebab. Of course, we also took a fish sandwich for dessert.
Thanks Jolie. I believe my sister is getting back to the US today. You'll need to book her quickly for your Turkish-Ethiopian party food, she doesn't stay still for long.
Check Jolie's Flickr Page for more photos.