Whether you are staying in Turkey for a day, a month or a year, there probably is no better way to start your explorations than with a Turkish Flavours Food Tour.
You may think you are signing on for a crash course in Turkish cuisine—which it is, and quite delicious to boot. Yet, it’s the inviting window into Turkish culture that makes this well-named tour so worth your while.
This is not just an outing for foodies—it’s more.
There is much to sample—from arrays of spices, to sweets,
to street food and specialty dishes that are deserving of a place at the table of the best haute cuisine restaurants around the globe.
As you munch, your tour guide unfolds the story of how the Turkish table comes to be set with daily feasts and gives you a gander of how this is central to Turkish culture.
The explorations start by meeting at the entrance of the Spice Bazaar (also called Egyptian Bazaar), a market area that dates back to the 16th Century.
Cornucopia!!!---from dangling strings of dried eggplants, peppers and more, to colorful heaps of spices, to fish on ice (even though it’s not peak season), to cheeses and olives
and then to more cheeses and olives,
to aromatic coffee wafts that wake you up a notch more, to shiny pots and utensils used for Turkish recipes like dolmas (which means “wrapped”),
to juicers on the ready,
and bakers making the ekmek (bread) that is a staple of every meal,
Pinch yourself—you’re standing where the camels once stood at the end of the Silk Road spice path!
But unlike taking this market scene in on your own, with the personable Turkish Flavours tour guide, Taci, we also learned the back story of why the Spice Market endures as a place that Istanbulians still flock to today to get their staples and wares.
Taci seems to know all the vendors and they clearly have a high comfort level with her.
With Taci as your guide you feel more like you are entering the intimate living room of each vendor, rather than the busy food stalls where you actually find yourself.
An example, and a tour within the tour, was the spice tasting at the Spice Bazaar’s No. 51 “Ucuzcular”.
Here proprietor Ahmet served us tea and more than 20 spices – ranging from a BBQ mix reportedly popular with Texans, to combinations with names like “Ottoman Spice”, “Anatolia Spice” and others that are designed for the unique spicing requirements of everything from salad to red meat.
We also sniffed one-dab-will-do-you aromatic essential oils and ogled flower-rich tea mixtures that delight even before you steep them in water.
Somewhat like a low-key standup comic, Ahmet had the enthusiasm you expect to find in a high-tech start-up just infused with venture capital. But start-up they sure aren’t--Ucuzcular has been in the Spice Market for five generations.
What Turkish Flavours does is cull the best-of-the-best, many similar to Ucuzcular in being multi-generation family businesses that guard the quality of their name, to give you a condensed sampling tour of the Spice Bazaar en toto.
If you visit the Spice Bazaar on your own you’ll get an inkling; with Turkish Flavours you get an intimate feel.
From the Spice Bazaar you then take a short walk to the ferry over to the Asian side of Istanbul, at the Kadıköy stop. En route to the colorful produce market, you first stop and sample fried mussel street food.
You’ll stop in a shop full of mezes (appetizers), learning that there are different ones for meat, fish or other meals to follow.
Then sweet tooths get to luxuriate in a sweets shop teeming with lokum (Turkish Delight candy), chocolates, marzipan, colorful hard candies and more.
Williams-Sonoma fans will especially like shopping at the small store that is the source for their towels, finding them at a fraction of the price.
Lingering in a small grocery, you’ll learn about staples of the Turkish kitchen such as nuts, pomegranate syrup, pepper paste, and more—with Taci quickly summoning encyclopedic answers on where each ingredient comes from within Turkey. You’ll walk past cafés where people are smoking nargile (hookahs), playing backgammon, and where tables fill at night with locals enjoying Rakı, an Ouzo-like anisette liqueur that is sometimes chased with sour turnip juice or otherwise slowly sipped with accompanying mezes and banter.
Taci never used the phrase, but what she was painting is a picture of what makes for the “good life” in Istanbul. Food is no small part of that “good life”. No wonder it’s difficult for tourists to get a bad meal in Istanbul!
That said, there are better meals to be had in Istanbul, and the Turkish Flavours tour wraps up in one of the better restaurants, Ciya, that dedicates itself to reclaiming and preserving the link between food and culture. “Food and Culture” is in fact the name of the restaurant’s quarterly periodical that speaks to the food connection in defining what is Turkish.
There are actually three Ciya locations and Taci selected the per kilo one that enabled her to choose a menu to convey both of what is typical in Turkish cuisine and special in the Ciya menu.
How magical to watch our yogurt-dabbed bread grow in just a minute’s time in the hot oven that was also slowly roasting eggplants!
We were served shot-glass sized samples of different drinks—ayran (a salty yogurt drink ubiquitous in Turkey), sumac juice, and mulberry juice.
Taci had picked several dishes that featured bulgur, each distinct by the additions of flavorings such as pomegranate syrups or pepper pastes.
Some dishes will likely be familiar to you already—like the hummus, dolma and flavorings such as mint, fresh parsley and lemon.
The knockout dishes however were the ones that you won’t find in Turkish restaurants in the U.S., probably because the ingredients are hard to find.
A salad made from wild oregano sourced in Southeast Turkey was particularly delicious, as were the marble-sized kofte (meatballs) swimming in seasonal sour cherries of the same size.
That food eaten in Turkey is seasonal is a point that will come across in a big way to most Americans who live in big urban centers where you can buy anything at any time—but with the cost of compromised flavor more often than not. For example, today’s tour showed the pre-cut artichoke hearts in the produce market but next month’s probably will not.
The meal will fill you but you will likely still be hungry for more “Turkish Flavours”. There is more! Turkish Flavours’ founder Selin Rozanes not only invites you into her Istanbul home for an authentic cooking class but now also offers cooking class tours in Bodrum, Urla and Cesme. Eat your way across Turkey?? Why not!
Turkish Flavours is already booking people for cooking classes and food tours next November! There are more classes during the high season and they will likely be able to squeeze you into to one or another tour or class whenever you arrive.
Photos: Peter Kachergis