Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Perched on the shores of the Bosporus, the strait dividing Europe from Asia, we’re finishing a feast of appetizers, grilled seafood and fish. This is elegant dining though it’s peasant and fisherman food. But the tastes are so wonderful, the ingredients so fresh from the nearby farms and the sea beneath our feet, that who cares if it’s high-end or not!
Istanbul is the former capital of two successive empires, Byzantine and Ottoman. It sits at a crossroads of civilization, where Europe, Asia and the Middle East met and fought and traded. This is a city at once ancient and modern, spectacularly beautiful and yet utterly frustrating.
Istanbul’s cuisine is a mixture of the successive civilizations that occupied this part of the world. The seafarers of ancient Greece left a tradition of salt-preserved as well as smoked meats and fish - lakerda, salted and pickled bonito, is one of the specialties not found anywhere else and so is smoked beef tongue. The Romans left the habit of stuffing vegetables with a mixture of ground lamb and rice. The Seltzuk nomads, one of the early Turkoman tribes that came from the Asian steppes, introduced the use of yogurt in cooking. The Ottomans, the Turkish group that conquer the city, adopted from Byzantium vegetables cooked in olive oil. The variety is endless and meze, a tradition along the Mediterranean shores which can be also found in Spain and Portugal under the guise of tapas or pinchos, allows small-portion tasting of these wonderful creations as accompaniments to wine or raki – an anise-flavored highly alcoholic beverage.
And, please, let’s not forget the deserts!
Baklava, kadayif and burma can be found throughout the Mediterranean, mostly soaked in different syrups (orange blossom flavoring is most common in Istanbul), but there are also delectable specialties like kazandibi, a milk pudding that is cooked in a large copper pot (kazan) and is allowed to become caramelized at the bottom, then sprinkled with cinnamon; and tavukgöğsü, a delectable custard whose chief ingredient is the white meat of a chicken's breast!
And of course lokum; these small mouthfuls of pure pleasure... the one-and-only Turkish Delight.
The restaurant scene is fast changing in Istanbul. Even though the vast majority of residents still entertain mostly at home and Turkish-style cooking is still the most prevalent form of cuisine, restaurant chefs are starting to make inroads into the collective consciousness and the impact of non-Turkish, non Mediterranean cuisines, is felt more and more at the upper-class level.
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