I never intended for this to be a food tour of the city – or to be a reporter or a critic while I was here and I don’t think I’ll go back on that lack of intention. Plain and simply put, there are some things here that are so wonderful in their simplicity that they simply have to be talked about, or at least noted for future reflection.
My decision to plant my ass in Sariyer, Istanbul rather than in some other part of the city was an easy one to make, but I cant take all the credit for it. This is where my wife’s family lives most of the year and the house was available while they were away on holiday down on on the western shore of Asia Minor.
My other option was to stay in Cevizlibag with all of the in-laws. Cevizlibag is one of those areas on the outskirts of “real” Istanbul – where poverty and piety, oft bedfellows, are rife and after certain hours one doesn’t want to be strolling down the road looking around with wide wonder. It certainly isn’t a place for a big fat westerner to be roaming around after dark.
When you pull up a ring-side seat in a Sariyer waterfront cafe along the edge of the Bosphorus, you are promptly greeted by schools of small fish which have been coaxed toward the shoreline by locals tossing bits of bread to them. The schools of fish attract more locals who stand in lines a hundred yards long to fish them out with rod and reel with seemingly little concern for time, as I have seen the same fishermen stand in one place over the entire course of a day to score a small pail of them.
There is a good chance the fish will arrive prior to your waiter, even when the cafe is slow. The servers here are very efficient and short on words – even with the natives – but they are generally good spirited and eager to please. Just don’t come expecting the kiss-your-ass-a-thon that takes place in US restaurants. I can’t begin to tell you how nice it is to not have to listen to a 5 minute list of the daily specials and obtuse menu presentations that take f-ing forever and are the norm at places like Bonefish Grill. Smile, be friendly, but shut the hell up and get me my drink you twit.
My guide – chaperone – interpreter and for the last 3 days – shadow, has been my sister in-law Cigdem.
Always eager to please and constantly interested in my well being and comfort, she’s been showing me the local bus routes, what to say to the drivers to get where you want to go and pay the right amount, where to fetch the best fruit, fish, meat and bread and how not to get run over by the cars here – which if you’re new here can be really useful information because you ain’t in Kansas anymore Toto. Her help has been invaluable in keeping me alive, keeping me from getting lost, teaching me more Turkish than I knew when I arrived and seeing to it that my belly was full from daybreak to dusk on a daily basis.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the weather here has been outrageously good since my arrival.
The view and the comfort from the sea air seem to do wonders for a soul that was a little crisp around the edges. I really seem to feel alive here. I suspect the Mediterranean region in general might be pretty effective for my blood pressure as well as any other ailments I might have in my head. It is a peaceful place at the moment and certainly helps with slowing the heart rate and grounding me a bit.
Then… Enter the Borek – the fluffy, doughy, butter-laced pastry filled with an assortment of ingredients, most commonly cheese, potato or meat.
The borek pictured here was one of great delight. It is best earlier in the day when it is fresh from the oven. Borekci (bor-wreck-gee)- or the man who makes the borek, are at work very early in the morning to make the days first batch and there are usually two firings, one in the morning and one just before people return from work in the evening. My plate was a combination of potato borek with a small amount of cheese and herbs and beef borek, speckled with black currants, onions and spices. Just this small plate is enough to induce a massive food coma, so beware. After eating this plate I was sofa meat for the remainder of the afternoon.
To see a master craftsman at work, plying his trade as a Borekci – check out this clip of one of the best in the business of hand making phyllo. If you ever wondered how they got it so thin… the grace with which he works is simply incredible.
The other part of any meal, stop or respite in the day in Turkey is the tea, or Cay (ch-eye). As I’ve written before, tea isn’t just tea. It’s a reason to pause and take a moment to reflect, a reason to hit the off button for a moment and digest the days events, an opportunity to step out of one moment in time and enter another which is less cluttered and closer to a more gentle humanity than the outside world. Tea offers you a breath and a moment to recapture yourself. If it were left to any other beverage I just don’t think it would add up.
And they do it right here. Served in a small glass, paint peeling hot with cube sugar and a spoon. Absent are the 15 flavors, lemon wedges, milk, twists and other bullshit accoutrements that come with stateside tea service. It’s the reason why most American waiters would like to jam a fork in your eye when you and your beehive hair-do brunch buddies all order it at the peak of service – and owners are too stupid to figure out just how much it drags down the efficiency of their staff during weekend services when it is ordered most.
Here.. No fuss, no muss.. I’ve seen waiters put 20 glasses of it on a table before most of the guests can get their coats off. Restaurant owners in the states would do themselves a major solid by investing in Turkish tea making practices and technology… Um.. I think they use hot water and tea… Jackoffs…
So – tomorrow brings some new adventures for me as I begin to venture out a little further on my own… on the minibus.
Quick as hell in the flats and the equivalent of a donkey-cart on an interstate when going uphill, these occasionally smoke belching, un-air conditioned palaces of olfactory sensation are a staple here in Turkey. Often targets of regulatory interjection and ban-attempts, these small, independently owned and operated buses, or dolmush, are intimidating as hell to an outsider and really need to be studied a little bit before you simply go jumping on one.
I was most interested in figuring out how to get off of one. Getting on is the easy part. They are very efficient, dramatically cheap and are the way around town when you want to feel like a local. For about a dollar a ride – there’s no way to beat them. Just read the sign in the windshield before getting on or you could very quickly end up in a place that you really didn’t expect to be. Here is a nice link for more info on minibuses.
So it’s another day in paradise as they say.. Who ever the hell “they” is. We’ll see what it has in store for me. I don’t expect to do much except listen, watch and learn. But as I’ve already seen, with my plate of borek, the unexpected can come along at any point and change your day.