For me, Istanbul has always had an allure. I could say that this is because Turkey is where east meets west. Or because they have a uniquely liberated take on Islam. I could say it is because it sits on one of “the oldest continuously inhabited regions in the world.” But it’s really because someone once told me that in Turkey there are whole markets where all they sell are spices.
In the autumn of 2009, I went to see for myself. I went and was enthralled. What follows are remnants of the Turkey I took away with me.
The menu at the coffee shop that stretched back into an alley off Istiklal Caddesi included a kind of coffee I had not seen before. It was called “melangic,” and the English translation was “terebinth.” I ordered it and the server presented me with a dark sludgy drink, looking like they had brewed it the way Turks usually brew coffee, but the taste and the smell were entirely different. The drink was nutty, slightly smoky, earthy and sweet.
As it turns out, this “coffee” is made from grinding the berries of the pistachio tree. I sought out the dried berries in the spice market. They were a beautiful phosphorescent blue-green color, but smelled and tasted like nothing. I bought them anyway and brought them home, but have not been able to replicate the experience. Perhaps this is a good thing, because whereas coffee has failed to make an addict out of me, melangic just might.
The crown jewel at breakfast
I didn’t realize what a big deal breakfast was until I stayed overnight with a friend in Kadikoy, on the eastern side of the city. Claiming that she was not at all going out of her way, she made a salad of cucumbers and tomatoes, set out an array of cheeses and meats and olives, and most delicious of all, walnuts preserved in syrup that my friend had jarred herself and opened for the occasion.
Manti: the Turkish ravioli
According to the Turks, they are the ones who created ravioli. They call it manti. The best version I tried was at a popular cafe near the Istiklal Caddesi, called Ara Cafe. The noodles were light and puffy, filled with spiced lamb meat, sauced with yogurt and doused in garlic butter. The waitress brought a spice rack to the table with dried oregano and mint, sweet and hot paprika, black pepper and sumac. I followed the lead of my Turkish dinner companion and used them all.
I could go on and on about Turkish food. I loved the seasoning – both spicy and sweet. Peppers mixed with herbs like mint and sour yoghurt. I loved the use of rice in stuffings, like the ubiquitous mussels piled high along the streets, stuffed with a mix of rice, pine nuts and currants and served with a lemon wedge. I might go back just to eat these little morsels again.
Istanbul held all kinds of firsts for me. It is there that I first ate cow’s brains (I didn’t love them). I helped prepare yogurt soup in a cooking class and learned that you can buy a sweet red pepper called pul biber tatli, as opposed to the hot biber aci.
It was one of the best trips I’ve ever taken and the memory of it lingers on my palate, like a past love affair – sweet, sensual, and full of adrenaline, but trapped in time, just out of reach.