ISTANBUL – I loved the kaymak, a kind of clotted cream from water buffalo milk served with local honey, purchased from a street cart and consumed while sitting on an overturned crate in a coffee warehouse. I still dream about the ezogelin, red lentil soup ladled out in what was once a mosque-run soup kitchen.
I discovered that I really do like lokum (Turkish delight) after all (especially if it’s made on the premises and involves pistachios, as in the Altan Sekerlem candy store).
And my husband, Bud (aka The Companion and a man who loves his good, rare steak), asked for seconds of the kokorrigi, lamb sweetbreads and intestine with tomato, wild thyme and red pepper flakes wrapped in flat bread.
He knew what was in it, too.
Still, we’re reserving judgment on boza, a fermented millet drink, that we schlurped at charmingly worn Vefa Bazacis, founded in 1876, while seated beneath a wall case holding the very glass from which Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, once drank.
This all happened during a vacation last month.
We strolled under the guidance of Turkish-speaking, native Vermonter Megan Clark, who is studying in the fabulous city. She works for an organization called Istanbul Eats. (When we got home, we saw the organization featured on the CBS’ Sunday morning show, a nice surprise.)
None of the food we ate was overly spicy; all of it was carefully balanced in flavor. Clark called it “homestyle cooking. The palette of spices most often used in mainstream Turkish homestyle cooking includes kekik (wild thyme), pul biber (red pepper flakes), sumak (sumac), nane (mint), kimyon (cumin) and kara biber (black pepper),” she told us.
There’s always a Western New York angle, though. Interestingly enough, Istanbul Eats was founded in 2009 by two young American men with adventurous palates, Ansel Mullins and Yigal Schleifer. Mullins is married to Madeleine Roberts, a native Westen New Yorker. (She’s the niece of News veteran and good friend Karen Brady – a fact neither Mullins nor I discovered until I booked the tour by email, inspired by a newspaper clipping I had saved.)
“We started Istanbul Eats to bridge a gap between what we thought were the most interesting culinary experiences and what was always written about in dining and travel sections,” Mullins said in an email, once we stopped marveling at the smallness of the world.
“We thought the best eating in the city was done in traditional, informal eateries, but they never got the recognition they deserved. Over time we got to know the people who work at these restaurants, our heroes they became, and a narrative emerged of a traditional culinary culture fighting for its survival in a vast, mixed-up city, both ancient and modern. The route you will be on was put together just like that. It’s a collection of the places that tell that story.”
Nothing could have appealed to me more. As we made our way through the streets around the touristy Spice Bazaar – streets we’d never be able to navigate on our own – I kept thinking about that story. We were not consuming trendy food or fusion food, and certainly not rich-people food. It was comfort food, and we were happy.
And we were a long way from a contemporary, upscale restaurant.
But isn’t it nice to have a choice? William Grimes in a recent New York Times article talks about street food trumping haute food, at least in this year’s cookbook output, but I’m not as willing as he is to concede victory overall.
And there’s no question what side Mullins is on. His business has recently expanded to other cities with a strong culinary bent.
“Worldwide, the pendulum seems to be on the simple, traditional side,” he emailed me. “Eaters seem to be exploring local roots more these days. Turkey happens to have a particularly deep well for such explorations. Our expansion into Barcelona, Shanghai, Mexico City and Athens, with our new site, CulinaryBackstreets.com, came from the insistence of our readers.
“So we found good, passionate food writers in four cities that have a strong traditional culinary culture and put them to work on the Culinary Backstreets.”
It’s a fun site for any food lover, worth visiting even if you only dream of travel in the near future.
So even if you’re sitting in front of your computer in your pajamas, I have some advice for you:
Send your questions and comments about dining out to Janice Okun at firstname.lastname@example.org. She will respond in this column, which appears every Wednesday in the Taste section of The Buffalo News.