There are few cities in the world that humble an experienced gypsy like me. Istanbul is at the top of that list. This exquisite city of spices, heat, crowds and street entrepreneurs along the bustling Bosphorus is a treasure chest for chefs.
This trip I was able to take my colleague, Chef Steven Pegg, on his first tour of this magical city. In addition to teaching in the Bon Appétit Culinary Center, Chef Pegg has been at the helm of La Reserve, Privée and Toscana, three of the gourmet dining venues onboard Marina. I always enjoy taking someone new to a city I know well; it’s like seeing it again for the first time.
We headed out to the Old City and the Blue Mosque on a warm Monday morning to marvel at the ornate ceramic tiles and the astounding majesty of this beautiful place of prayer and reverence. But as only two chefs would do, we soon headed outside to check out the street food. And what a festival of flavors and colors that turned out to be!
There were carts of pomegranate and orange vendors with presses to make fresh juice. The pomegranate is in season here – and there is not a more sensuous fruit.
The smell of caramelized bread rose from the grills, and children gathered around the candy vendors making popsicles of brightly colored spun sugar.
Chef Pegg is from the south of Spain, so his nose perked up at the smell of charred corn from one of the plethora of vendors selling whole cobs of corn, grilled and smothered with ghee (clarified butter) and wrapped in wax paper to “take away” and enjoy.
As Chef Pegg negotiated the corn, I was off to the melted cheese and flat bread delicacy that is prepared on a concave hot grill, laced with salt and handed to me like a burrito on steroids! The woman who had this street cart was watching her two young daughters as they negotiated the price with me and was also checking out the competition. I love the entrepreneurial world of street food.
After a walking feast of pomegranate juice, grilled corn and a cheese borek, we were stopped dead in our chef tracks by the watermelon (or karpuz) vendors. Just when you think there is no more room in your stomach, there is that bright pink, succulent watermelon vendor with a slice so inviting that you cannot say no. I’m sure you can all relate. When there is bumper crop at the end of summer, we have to say yes to Mother Nature and just give in.
The vendors with the roasted nuts and toasted, salted seeds were tempting – and the nuts smelled great – but even two chefs have their limits. Enough was enough, and tomorrow is another day. After all, Marina will be back in Istanbul in a few weeks!
We headed out to the Topaki Palace to see the sights, but mainly to check out the bookstore, which was reported to house a number of cookbooks on Turkish cuisine, the Ottoman Empire culinary traditions and the cuisine of the Byzantine kitchen. (I know – boring stuff to most of you – but to two chefs this is something akin to a goldmine!) After an hour in the bookstore, we left with Andrew Dalby’s Tastes of the Byzantium and Feeding People and Feeding Power: Imarets in the Ottoman Empire, a historical account of the culinary “back of the house” in a palace of 12th century nobility. Thank goodness those chefs had to keep the same food and quality records we do today!
Before heading to a late lunch, we decided to take a stroll through the Grand Bazaar. We started at Gate One of the Bazaar, thinking that it might make sense to follow some kind of rational walking pattern through this labyrinth of shops and food stalls. After a few minutes we realized we were in another world of side streets and merchants and secret passageways. The precision with which they stack the spices and the abundance of nuts and delicacies always amazes me.
When you can silence two chefs with more spices than we can imagine – well, then you are in a special league of merchants. We just wandered and sniffed and laughed… it is truly another world.
Lunch was a quick stop for a meatball, cucumber cajik and bread (and a bottle of Greek beer) at one of the many fabulous cafes that line the streets of the Old City.
As we were enjoying lunch, a few merchants strolled by with their carts of vegetables and fruits, or of pots and pans, and we realized that shopping in Istanbul in this neighborhood is nothing like we experience at home in the U.S. or in Spain.
After lunch we took a quick stroll through the Arasta Bazaar, a higher end group of merchants with lovely linens and bags.
We were photographing all the lovely boutique hotels that have emerged in the Old City and stumbled (literally) onto a cooking school owned by an English-speaking chef who invited us in for a look. I had students who had mentioned this school, and what a coincidence – there they were waiting to take a class! So we signed up to bring three Oceania Cruises chefs for classes in November when we are next in Istanbul. If luck is on our side, we will add this to our portfolio of market tours!
Next stop was the Spice Market. How can you explain something that is so unique? When you walk in to the market you are immediately hit by the colors and the smells of all the spices. And then you realize that it is so much more.
For example, the caviar market here is exploding. There are dozens of merchants who sell a staggering variety of caviar and an equal number of merchants with teas from every corner of the world.
I love the pottery and the woodwork, especially the guitars found in stall after stall.
The market is laid out with a central aisle, but if you venture off the touristy main path, you can find a lot of interesting stalls with pristine fruits and vegetables.
We turned a corner and found a culinary wonderland – shop after shop of merchants with specialty culinary items that most chefs have to search years in order to find (especially in one place). Here we found a store with hundreds of pastry tips and another one with dozens of handmade tammies, a type of strainer.
It is hard to imagine a more wondrous toyland in which you could place two chefs. This was a Disneyland of pots and knives and specialty items for the kitchen. Needless to say, hours later we emerged in a daze, and we were already planning our provisioning trip when we are next in Istanbul.
Before heading back to the ship, we decided to have a cup of Turkish coffee. There had been a stall we spied earlier where people were lined up for coffee, and we headed there. After some attempts to speak to others in line, we discovered that the coffee shop we had picked was heralded as the “Starbucks of Istanbul” – none other than Kuru Kahveci. The coffee was strong and fantastic. Just what two chefs needed to get back to Marina and start classes and dinner for our beloved guests!