The city of Istanbul is as remarkable for its breathtaking skyline as it is for its exquisite food found in the labyrinth of winding streets and neighborhoods below. The Turks love food and are proud of their culinary heritage, so hosting a Culinary Discovery Tour here is as much about meeting the people as it is about tasting the delicious cuisine.
Our first destination was Istanbul’s famous spice market. As we approached the market, the tantalizing smells of roasting eggplant, searing kabobs, and pide baking in wood-fired ovens emanated from the restaurants and market stalls lining the streets. As we entered, the bright lights and vibrant colors invited us to explore.
In the first spice shop we visited, we were treated to a lesson on how to tell real saffron from the many imposters one can find all around the Mediterranean. When you put the stamen of saffron in warm water, real saffron will turn the water an amber-gold color, while fake saffron will leave the water a pale yellow. Considering this exquisite spice is one of the most expensive in the world, you certainly want to ensure you’re getting the real deal!
Our next stop was a cheese shop where we compared fresh goat’s milk cheese to a more aged variety. We then visited a shop with cured meats and other delicacies. Finally, we were off to the fish market to check out the fresh catch of the day and savor the fish roasting on open grills. I had brought with me a chart listing the fish of the Mediterranean, so we were able to expertly identify sea bass, sea bream, snails, blue fish, flounder and much more. I took this opportunity to go over the things I look for when buying fresh fish: bright eyes, hearty flesh, scales and fins intact, no belly-burn from being packed in ice, maroon-colored gill flesh and a fresh sea smell.
We then toured the Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, before heading to the Turkish Cultural Center for lunch at NAR, a restaurant that offers authentic Ottoman Turkish cuisine in a modern setting. Here we were served a tasty selection of dozens of dishes, each meant to be enjoyed in one to three bites as part of a degustation that formed a mosaic of tastes, flavors, textures and sensations. What an absolutely exquisite and delightful culinary experience!
After lunch we were treated to a mouthwatering demonstration of traditional candy making. The candy, caramel rolled in mastic sugar, had a hint of mild pine that was both unique and delicious! Everyone was very impressed by the master candy maker and his apprentice.
Our day in Istanbul was a wonderful start to a fantastic voyage through some of my favorite culinary destinations in the Mediterranean!