The call to prayer floating from minarets that rose through a light hazy fog dripping from the Bosphorus provided Istanbul with a backdrop that made me feel as though I was standing in a film. It was April and swollen grey clouds hung ominously over the iconic skyline.
We took the little rickety tram along Istiklal Avenue to Taksim square where we would meet Annie, our guide on a gastronomic odyssey through the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul. Five minutes before the tour began it started pouring with sheets of rain.
“Well, at least we’ll be spending most of our time in restaurants,” Mark said.
“Um, it’s a street food tour,” I mumbled to the ground, now shining with rainwater.
Annie was waiting by the Starbucks, huddled under an umbrella. She beamed at us despite the pouring rain and Mark’s scowl and handed us each an umbrella of our own. This lifted our spirits slightly, but didn’t put a stop the rumble of our stomachs, we had been told not to eat lunch and obeyed.
When Annie started talking about the history of Taksim square, the meaning of the statues and took us into an art gallery that used to be one of the city’s many water cisterns, I have to confess, we could only feign interest through chattering teeth, sodden feet and rumbling stomachs. This was a food tour and I was desperate to sample some authentic fare.
Our first stop was at a vender selling roast chestnuts and I couldn’t help but feel a rock of disappointment in the pit of my empty stomach; we had walked past a million of these carts and this was supposed to be a tour that delved into the back streets. I wanted to eat until my guts burst open, not snack on chestnuts that grew cold and soggy as soon as they hit the paper bag. The rain was only getting worse.
Just as I was about to ask if the tour would ever take us to the safety of indoors, Annie lead us down a little alley round the back of Istiklal Avenue and into a steamed up little eatery which consisted of a clusters of chairs and tables and a one giant hot plate sizzling with spiced beef mince. The two guys behind the counter greeted us with smiles and loud Turkish banter. The smell of the beef cooking made my mouth water and I was so glad to be in the warm watching sodden passers-by. Within minutes we were each handed a triangular wrap full of meat.
“Here,” Annie said squeezing lemon juice and stuffing mine with coriander and chillies.
It was so divine that any thoughts of soggy feet and numb hands melted away. I could have eaten ten of them.
We popped in to a little Kurdish restaurant with brass dish-like tables where boat-shaped cheesy Kurdish pizza (or pide) was cooked in front of us in a stone-fired oven. Washed down with a frothy bowl of the traditional yoghurt drink Ayran drunk from a brass ladle, we felt like proper locals.
Other stops included a butcher that sold cooked chicken in a bag that you shook up with a secret spice mix, a paper-table cloth fish restaurant that offered crispy little white bait and a shop that let us taste approximately six billion different types of nut and dried fig. Once I had reached my goal of feeling so full I thought my guts were going to explode, we were offered a small respite. We were only half-way through the tour and I was positively sweating with the effort of digestion. Even though it was an alcohol-free tour, Annie invited us to her own home to share a glass (or two) of wine with her.
Right in the centre of all the foodie action Annie’s house, a nineteenth century grand townhouse, stood towering above us. The entrance hall was furnished with dark mahogany ottomans and the walls covered in rich oil paintings.
“My day job is restoring Greek Orthodox icons,” she explained, showing us the treasures of her study. Mark’s eyes lit up; as a student he was a historian with a penchant for the Byzantine Empire. The two of them discussed the fall of Constantinople over several glasses of wine while I played with the various limping or blind street cats that Annie had taken in to her home. It was a win win situation.
A little wine fuzz hanging over our heads, we left her house and engulfed ourselves in the throngs of Beyoğlu’s bustling fish market. Sleek fish on ice beds lined the shimmering alleys and locals shouted in loud Turkish, bartering and laughing over lira. We stopped at a mussel stand where they deep fried mussels on a stick in front of us and I forced them into my already bursting belly.
Of course, no food tour of Istanbul would be complete without a taste of honey-sweetened baklava, but we were so full that we took ours from the 18th Century shop and saved it for breakfast the next day.
“Perhaps you will join me for some tea,” Annie suggested, high praise of our company.
“Of course,” I replied, not wanting to miss out on anything.
Dreadlocked students and sweaty businessmen with loosened ties sat on the squat wooden chairs that made up the outdoor tea garden. Bulging pools of rainwater built up on the canopy overhead which looked dangerously close to spilling over. Twisting spools of smoke wafted sweet apple aroma from waterpipes passed between make-shift philosophers. It was the perfect way to end a tour; watching a microcosm of Istanbul society, all sharing tea and nargile without another tourist in sight.
Flavours of Istanbul by Suzy Pope is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.