Sunday, December 30, 2012

Istanbul Diary, Day 6

The day began with cats shopping for hand tools, and then only got more interesting from there.

By the way, you can click to enlarge any of these photos. Blogspot has auto-resized them for easy page loading, but the originals are much larger.

This was the day that we had been looking forward to hungrily - the day we would embark on the famous food tour created by the discerning website editors at Istanbul Eats. Bryan and I took the tram across the Golden Horn to the Karaköy ferry station to await the arrival of our guide.

The ferry pulled up, and we were greeted by the young Turkish gentleman we were expecting, our gustatory guru, Gokcen. Here he is eating ice cream, in a photo previously emailed by our tour operators.

As soon as all 7 guests were assembled, our guide led us off through the dock-side bustle of fisherman and maritime engine repair facilities to this caravanserai, a onetime motel/camel stable where old timey travelers on a budget would stay while on a journey to the big city.

After wandering around the courtyard and appreciating the tumble-down charm of the place, we settled in for some tea. Here, they serve tea in narrow glasses sitting on round saucers. You put your sugar cubes in and mix with the spoon provided. Even the cheapest tea in the most informal places seem to come with these accouterments. It's a must-have for a brisk December morning when sitting in a 500 year old building surrounded by fan belts.

As many Americans observe when traveling, some parts of the world are more awash with the detritus of human civilizations than others. If you found this marble column capital in Maryland, it would probably be in either a museum or an expensive antique store. Here, it serves as a convenient base for mounting some sort of improvised water pump. It's surrounded by empty cardboard boxes and used paper towels. Sic transit gloria mundi. 

As we wandered around the upper level of the building taking more photos, this kitty jumped out of the shadows and into my range of focus. He didn't seem to mind me standing over him at all.

Next up on the tour was a neighborhood lunch spot which, thanks to Gokcen's personal intervention, had agreed to open up for us early and provide us with some traditional Turkish breakfast items.

We started with fresh bread and buffalo milk cream cheese type spread. Also, honey and various jellies. My favorite was the one made with rose petals. For those not mainlining sugar with their breakfast, there was also slabs of feta cheese and salty olives.

Having finished breakfast and thanked the proprietors, we made our way back through the fish market toward the ferries.

Here we are on the ferry between Karaköy and Kadıköy, which, as it turns out, are two entirely different places. You can see the Port of Haydarpaşa, one of Istanbul's major shipping facilities and rail yards, on the opposite shore.

Our first stop on what everyone refers to as The Asian Side was a lively lunch spot that featured toasted bread with spicy tomato paste and grilled meat bits. Everyone else at the table took a small tasting portion as Gokcen described the menu and neighborhood, then stopped eating. As there was plenty of food left, I kept going, continuing even when Gokcen mentioned that he was keeping track of how much each of us what eating. I wasn't sure if that was a joke or some kind of warning about food tour etiquette, but I disregarded it in an case.

Continuing down the street we came to Sekerci Cafer Erol, a famous candy shop that has operated in the city for several decades. In addition to the obligatory Turkish Delight, they had an amazingly meticulous selection of marzipan fruits and vegetables. My favorite was the purple eggplants on the bottom row.

Continuing on a candy kick, we entered the deceptively simple interior of the Bilgeoğlu baklava shop. Unlike the  Greek variety, the baklava here is often dusted with pistachio, which is a key ingredient in sweets over here.

Time to cut through all of that sugar syrup with something sour. Heels up for the pickle shop! We tasted some little cornichons and pickled baby plums, which were...interesting. I also had a few ounces of pickle juice, which Gokcen claimed was wonderful for hangovers. The shop had a squint-inducing spectrum of pickled delights, all prepared with lemon juice rather than vinegar.

Not pausing for a moment, we continued on to a spice shop, which had examples of their wares dried and hanging from the ceiling.

Then it was on to a meat market/deli location where we tasted several different mezes, which are the traditional accompaniment to drinking raki, or, as it's known around here, "Kadıköy lightning." Raki is an anise-flavored spirit popular in Turkey that's often distilled at strengths around 120 proof, so some food is a good idea if you've got a long night ahead of you. 

We didn't actually stop at this seafood shop, but I'm including this photo of blue crabs as a shout out my adopted state of Maryland. Doesn't the crab in the middle look like he wants to give you a big kiss?

And now we relax with a cup of traditional Turkish coffee. You know it's Turkish coffee because it has half an inch of unfiltered sludge at the bottom of the cup. This blackish ooze might look rich in roasty flavor, but you should not under any circumstances be tempted to drink any of it. You'll be sweating coffee grounds for days.

After we finished our coffee, Gokcen tried to show us how to read our fortunes in our cups, in the same way that scary old women in stories read tea leaves. This attempt at divination yielded mixed results, with the most common prediction being that most of us could expect to be traveling soon. As we had all come from various locations between Chicago and Singapore to be on this tour in the first place, this seemed to be a safe prediction.

Little did we know, however, that our amateur coffeemancy would be quickly followed up with rabbit-based  clairvoyance just down the block. The guy holding the board with the colored tabs of paper in the photo below was offering the services of the black and white bunny to tell the future. Gokcen paid for his fortune to be read, which was accomplished by the rabbit being presented with the board and, guided by a supernatural hand, pulling one of the the papers out with its teeth. Upon being presented with the result, Gokcen agreed that it fittingly commented upon his search for an engagement ring for his girlfriend.

The smaller, all-white bunny played no role in this process, other than to look adorable and attract customers. He was, however, for sale.

After all of this excitement, it was time for another glass of tea. We were assured that Turks routinely average 4 cups a day. Given that everyone we saw who was not engaged in manual labor with both hands seemed to be drinking tea at all times, this seemed an extremely conservative estimate. 

Under the glass tabletop we noticed dozens (possibly hundred) of handwritten notes left by previous patrons.  So many so, in fact, that the glass was no longer lying flat on the table, but was raised about a quarter of an inch off of the wood of the table itself. They all seemed to be in Turkish, but Gokcen suggested that many were saucy notes involving young love and its unpredictable discontents.

As we were drinking our tea, a mobile simit vendor walked down the street, yelling out a string of sounds that apparently made only slightly more sense to Turkish speaking listeners than they did to me. Gokcen of course recognized this gibberish-spouting bread seller as a beloved neighborhood character, engaging him in conversation (as far as that was possible) and buying some of his supply. This comic interaction was captured on iPad video by the Singaporean lady sitting next to me. It is still unclear to what extent this particular simit guy was being amusingly eccentric versus full on coo coo crazy pants.

Here's the spot where we stopped, a place that served spicy ground-beef roll-ups. This was described as a great place for eating at the end of a long night of drinking. I don't want to draw too many assumptions about our host's evening activities, but I'm pretty sure he's no stranger to the bottom of a raki bottle.

Apparently tatuni is a recently popular food trend imported from the provinces. Ours was served with a frothy copper mug full of salty watered-down yogurt. The pause that refreshes!

As we were winding up our tour, we stopped at another sidewalk attraction, this one with an open rotisserie oven. I didn't hear exactly what it was we were having (it was near a busy intersection full of traffic and holiday shoppers), but I did notice Gokcen say, twice, "...but you don't have to eat it if you don't want to." Considering we were all pretending to be seasoned international travelers with sophisticated palates, this should have been an alarming allowance, but I let it fly right past me.

And it's a good thing I did. The item in question turned out to be lamb sweetbreads wrapped in intestines and cooked over charcoal. Chopped up with some spices and tomatoes and dropped into a fresh roll, it was actually quite good.

We also stopped at yet a couple more places, including an ice cream shop (although not the one pictured at the top). By that time, however, my camera and my memory-forming capabilities had ceased to function. I was stuffed to the gills, as my father likes to say, and fully satisfied as a tour customer. 

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