Lavish meals under the stars, intimate fine dining experiences, and scrumptious street food to tempt any palate. By Tatyana Leonov.
Turkey is one of the most exhilarating countries to visit – a fascinating destination where senses go into overdrive and the requisite of sleep is soon forgotten. It’s a flurry of all things amazing – chatty people, cheerful festivities, some of the world’s best sights, and of course, glorious food. The smell of a wood- fired kebab, the heat when biting into a fresh-baked gözleme, the sound of pomegranate juice makers as they make juice after juice, the sugary coarseness of that first bite of baklava – eating in Turkey is an affair of all the senses.
Istanbul is an energetic city straddling religious traditions and modern culture. Women in head-to-toe burqas walk beside kids decked out in the latest designer gear; rooftop bars are full, and so are the mosques; street food merchants promenade alongside bigwigs rushing to their next meeting; and tattered casual eateries sit beside modish restaurants. Old and new, European and Asian, intense and surprising. It’s easy to get besotted with the tapestry that is Istanbul. It’s no surprise that the food offerings span just about anything.
In the trendy Sisli district, passionate gastronome Semsa Denizsel manages Kantin (kantin.biz), a shop and restaurant space that has everyone talking. Donning a headscarf and a contagious smile, she loves to natter with customers as they peruse her stock. She’s got lush green olives from Sivrice, olive oil from Ayvalik (Turkey is the second largest olive cultivator in the world), colossal blocks of gruyere and kasar cheese from Kars, homemade chutneys, salads, and jams. Semsa always makes sure she has crusty house-made sourdough bread. “I source and make whatever is local and will taste the best,” she says with a laugh.
Upstairs the 80-seat restaurant is jam-packed most nights with a jovial crowd feasting on what Selma calls new Istanbul cuisine. “It’s a fusion of Turkish, Armenian, Greek and Jewish influences. Anything goes, a bit like Istanbul,” she explains. Tonight she has prepared bonito confit paired with velvety red lentil puree, wood-roasted pumpkin with oyster mushrooms, sorrel with sweet caramelised pears and tulum cheese from Konya, succulent prawns from the Aegean coast, and kokorec en papillote (lamb intestines in parchment paper) slowly cooked in the wood-fire oven. “It’s a bit different but I like to surprise my customers,” she says.
Not far from Sisli in the chic district of Beyoglu, surprises await at fine diner 360 Istanbul (360istanbul.com). Situated in an extravagant penthouse perched on a 19th-century historic apartment building, patrons take in spectacular 360-degree panoramas of historical Istanbul and order from a menu that encompasses international cuisine and Turkish classics with a twist. Instead of traditional lamb shish, diners are offered the glazed octopus version, and dolma is reinvented in the form of a zucchini flower, while chickpea falafel is gussied up with a piquant sweet-and-sour sauce. The real surprise is the rollicking night- time entertainment. During dinner, performers wander around tables boldly singing and executing mesmerising dance moves to entertain patrons.
Of course it’s not all stunning views and showbiz in Istanbul. Some of the best discoveries are concealed in tiny winding cobblestone lanes – perennially vibrant eateries full of laughing locals, friends enjoying small cups of aromatic Turkish coffee on the sidewalk, and street vendors hawking their wives’ home cooking. You’ll find these everywhere, but the tourist hub district of Sultanahmet is the place to visit.
There are hidden-away rooftop restaurants with so many flights of stairs to reach them, you might find the deck to yourself (some come with stunning vistas of the legendary Bosphorus and surrounding mosques), tiny hole-in- the-wall eateries frequented by in-the- know locals, and the Grand Bazaar with its profusion of garrulous merchants who do almost anything to get you into their stores. Although the prices are a little dearer compared to most markets, there’s something magical about strolling through one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world.
Turkey is bordered by eight different countries and understandably, its food differs significantly from region to region. Knowing where to eat is an expert’s job. Touring with Trafalgar (trafalgar.com) is the way to go. The guided travel company offers two Turkey itineraries: the 14-day Best of Turkey and the eight-day Highlights of Turkey tours. Visitors travel from point A to point B by luxury coach with plenty of foodie stops on the way.
The local guides know the ins and outs of the gastronomy scene and sojourns are never random. Restaurants are purposely chosen for both food and ambience. In Canakkale, visitors dine on creamy local cheese and homemade garlic bread washed down with gutsy wine overlooking the sprawling Sea of Marmara at Hektor Wine house.
In the buzzy seaside city of Izmir, Trafalgar guests eat at Yengec Resaurant (yengec-restaurant.com) where a profusion of seafood dishes and massive sides (green salads peppered with bright pomegranate seeds, crisp-fried artichokes and smashed eggplant) come flying out one after the other. Staff with wide smiles chat away even though they’re busy.
Next to a petrol station in Canakkale sits Nidal Sezer’s quaint roadhouse Gelibolu Miller Nar Restaurant. With the assistance of a translator, Nidal explains that she cooks whatever is fresh and tasty, and presents it beautifully too. A sharp ginger and celery root salad comes served in a hollowed-out orange; there are bittersweet soups, plenty of oven-baked vegetables, aromatic stewed beef, roasted chicken chunks and special regional dishes such as mashed-up broad beans, bulgar pilav topped with Turkish saffron, and a variety of deeply golden pastries.
The epicurean highlight of touring with Trafalgar is the Be My Guest experience, where guests can eat with local residents in their homes, for example, in the tiny village of Demircidere. With the language barrier instigating plenty of laughs, visitors and locals dine together, indulging in traditional probiotic tarhana soup, börek pastries, dolma, fried eggplant and fresh olives.
Getting To Know The People
Food is a great way to meet the locals. In major cities you’ll come across merchants selling simit. These sesame-coated bread rings make for a tasty snack any time of day (although the Turks usually eat them in the morning, and if you’re up early enough, you can snag a hot fresh-baked simit). Gözleme is another street food find worth savouring. The hand-rolled Anatolian flatbread comes with a variety of fillings, such as spinach and cheese, lamb mince or mashed potatoes. Another bread-based dish, pide, is the Turks' version of pizza. Popular toppings include spicy sausage, minced lamb and cheese.
Dessert in Turkey is a decadent affair. Baklava is perhaps the most famous concoction – flaky layers of filo dough and nuts are stacked and brushed with butter and sugar syrup, then cut into rectangles or diamonds. Noah’s pudding is a scrumptious dessert; pomegranate, pistachio, rose and saffron are popular flavours.
Typically these glossy fruit-and-nut puddings are topped with seasonal picks – figs, apricots, hazelnuts and the like.
And you can’t go wrong with ice cream – order sticky Turkish ice cream from a bell-ringing vendor in a red-and-gold vest, and you’ll get teased and taunted as the dessert is offered and pulled away, grabbed and retrieved as passers-by watch. Eventually you will get the ice cream. In Turkey, good things come to those who wait.