Culture in Turkey: Food, Glorious Food (and Drink)!
I am probably the last person who should write about food. In our journalists' group to Turkey, on which I had the privilege of tagging along due to my wife's (Megan Kamerick) membership in the fourth estate, we had a former chef (Gwyneth Doland) who occasionally would comment on the presentation of the food, then the subtle flavors of what she tasted in this dish or that delicacy or the other dessert.
Me? I have less sublime delineations. Bad, Not that bad, Good, Really Good, and F***ing Amazing.
It should tell you something about the overall quality of Turkish food when I relate this little trip tidbit. About the third day of the trip, I woke up with the distinct feeling that I really didn't need to eat again for a few days. We had, after all, had three large meals a day up to that point, including a dinner with a family that included I believe eight courses with a dessert and tea. I was literally stuffed. Much of it was rich, full fat food that because of my lack of a troublesome gall bladder that became too much of a whining complaining organ some seven years ago and had to be relieved of its duties, I really shouldn't have been eating because of possibly horrific side effects. But eat I did. And so, with that full feeling that yet is sort of unsatisfying, I marched down to tackle a new day and vowed to not eat much.
But I continued to eat, and eat, and eat whatever was put in front of me. Like a good boy, and like my mama taught me, because everything was just so damn good I couldn't help myself. Most everything was incredible.
There are two meals that stand out in my mind as sub par. Just two meals in a three week period! One of those meals occurred when we visited a high school founded by members of the social movement that was sponsoring our trip. We were ushered into a cafeteria and served our lunch by the cafeteria staff. We were given lentil soup, a salad and chicken, with baklava for dessert. The lentil soup was uninspiring compared to the other soups we had before, the chicken was a bit dry, the salad just average, and the baklava was too soft and mushy. And yet, as I even ate all of this meal, I realized that if I were on a tasting tour of school cafeterias and this was a lunch I was served, this meal would probably rank in the top five. If you have to eat lunch in a school cafeteria, well, you would want to eat that meal.
The other sub par meal we had was after the group had split up and Megan and I were on our third or so day alone in Istanbul. Because our guide said we just HAD to have fish sandwich down by the Bosporus, we went to get one. There are these crazy little boats that bob nauseatingly near the Galata Bridge. They are like tiny barges with awnings over them that makes them look like one of those carts, carried on the shoulders of servants, that pashas ride in. In them, somehow cooking despite the motion on the water, men slap fish on the grill. You go up, order a fish sandwich, and in a minute it comes wrapped to you for 5 or so Turkish lira (about $3.50). Grab a Coke and you're set. Unfortunately, the fish is full of bones so you spend a lot of time picking them out of your teeth, and just being slapped on a piece of bread, it doesn't have much taste.
But that's it. Only two sub par meals. And notice that I write sub par. Not bad. Because my food experience of Istanbul and much of the rest of Turkey is like my experience of New Orleans. You really have to work hard to find a bad meal.
And so, a litany of what we ate both in restaurants and elsewhere. You've already, I'm sure, been perusing some of the pictures of the food I've been sprinkling throughout this post. The typical meal would begin with a lentil soup. There would usually be a salad, called a shepherd's salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, maybe peppers and maybe some olives. Cheese was often involved in the meal. Sometimes there were sarmas, similar to the Greek dolmas, which are grape leaves wrapped around a mix of meat, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers or other things. We also had kofte's, which were Turkish meatballs. We had what our chef member Gwyneth called "darling little footballs" which were called kibbeh and were fried concoctions of bulgur and meat (usually lamb or beef). Fresh fruit was always a staple of the table. If you got through all that, then the main dish might come. It usually involved rice and could include stuffed eggplant, or a doner kebap or iskender kebap, or this tiny little pasta-like dish called monte, that was delicious. As you slipped into a food coma at that point, dessert would arrive and was usually sweet beyond your wildest dreams. It might be baklava or a cake-like offering. Sometimes, goat's milk ice cream would accompany the dessert (which really pleased my tongue but sent my gall-bladderless digestive system into hyperdrive). Of course, all of this was washed down by copious amounts of Turkish tea, a dark tea colored soft amber in small Turkish tea glasses that resembled the shape of a curvy, voluptuous woman.
On one night, when we were hosted by a family, I even surprised myself. The wife of one of our guides, Habibe Aksoy, had told us prior to the trip that when visiting a Turkish home, we should expect a lot of food. It is polite, she said, to eat something of everything. In fact, it is expected. One of the very few vegetables I don't like is eggplant. And when I mean very few vegetables, I'm the kind of guy who likes brussels sprouts and spinach and liked them when I was a kid. So amidst all of this amazing food being sent toward me down the table, I was least excited about the eggplant dish that was coming, but like a good guest I took a good portion of it and prepared myself to eat it. I took a bite, and then another, and then another. I had seconds of that eggplant. In the hands of our hostess and her sister, even a dish that I traditionally stayed away from was a delight.
Two memorable evenings were spent eating seafood in restaurants beneath the Galata Bridge, next to the lapping waters of the Golden Horn, while the fishing poles of the fishermen above us rhythmically moved up and down as they tried to bait fish into biting their lures. Unlike the fish sandwich, the restaurant prepared fish - we ordered a type of sea bass but they had all kinds - was done to perfection. Light, flaky and freshly cooked. Both times, they brought the uncooked fish fully laid out to the table so that we could see exactly what we would be getting.
Another memorable meal, simply because of the ambience of the place, occurred just after our group left and we checked into our hotel. Megan asked the clerk for a good place to eat. He asked what kind of food we wanted, and she said "something local." He got very excited and told us about his favorite place about five stops up the metro line. "Not touristical," he said and said the food was good. So we followed his advice. He must have called them because we got off the train trying to find the place, and saw a man in the window of a restaurant waving to us. We went in, and the waiter was very nice and clearly wanted to talk to us about how he read the Financial Times and what we thought of it. We were the only non-Turks in the place. The food was good and filling. We left, and decided to walk a bit, and suddenly another man in an apron came running after us to tell us about his restaurant. We told him we had just eaten but he handed us a menu and told us to come back to his place at any time and that he would be happy to help us.
We also had a meal in a small corner restaurant near the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, a meat-like stew with curry I think served over rice with a side of french bread, that was sublime in its simplicity and flavored even more by the non-stop patter of the old man who owned the restaurant and who had traveled to Europe, Canada and the US and wanted, almost needed it seemed, to relate his experiences and impressions of those places.
Breakfasts in our hotels were always full affairs. Everything was available and included in the price of the room. Eggs, meats, cheeses, vegetables, olives, yogurt, muesli and other cereals, breads, coffee, tea. I got used to having some meat, vegetables and olives with my eggs and cereal.
For drink at meals, tea was always available. A local drink that I could not get into, but which some members of our group liked was ayran, a salty yogurt drink. Megan really like a sour cherry drink called vishne. Of course soft drinks were available, including Coke Zero and Fanta. I tried a local cola called Cola Turka, which I thought was pretty good. For alcohol, beer was mostly limited to a Turkish lager called Efes. Wine was available, often of Turkish origin, and we drank some Cappadocian red wines which were tasty. Often bars had western mixed drinks like martinis and margaritas available, but if you ordered them you had to be prepared for anything as it seemed to depend on what the bartender decided to make them out of. The occasional mystery of the alcoholic mixed drinks, coupled with the steadiness of the other drinks that we knew were always available, only added rather than detracted from the pleasure of the trip and of being in someplace new.
But the drink I loved, and dearly wish I had brought some home with me, was raki. Raki is the national drink of Turkey, a heady anise seed brandy (probably much like ouzo but don't tell the Turks that - to them it's different and better than the Greek version) that is served straight and when mixed with water, becomes cloudy. Stephen Kinzer, in Crescent and Star, says it is the perfect drink for Turkey: everything seems clear and optimistic at first, but after a while becomes murky and cloudy and full of inner pessimism. The next time I am in Turkey, I will visit a meyhane, where raki and mezze and music are served non-stop and where people gather to talk about things important to Turks. But for now, I'll just remember the licorice-like flavor of the raki on my tongue.
So, I'll end this post on Turkish food with the only thing I can really say about it that conveys the full range of what I felt about the food on our trip.