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Eating My Way Through Istanbul: Exploration

How can I *not* start with this pic.  I mean, LOOK. AT. IT.

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If you caught my post a couple weeks ago, you’ll know how much I LOOOOOVED the food in Turkey, and the two different food tours we went on to get a feel for the culture and cuisine.  But the tours were just the beginning…we spent all three days eating everything in sight (and maybe seeing some sights in-between).

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We couldn’t have asked for a more gorgeous day to explore.  The Blue Mosque looked particularly majestic against the blue sky.

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We were up early and tramped over the Galata Bridge, in search of breakfast.

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And boy, did we find it.  So, this is definitely one of the stranger things we ate.  We sat down to a lovely breakfast, I ordered a cappuccino and honey and sweet cream with bread, and then something on the menu caught my eye.  That white dish in the back is tavukgogsu—otherwise known as chicken breast pudding.

I KNOW. 

It was strange and good and weird and…I wouldn’t throw it out of bed.  I honestly don’t even have the right words to do this justice, and I liked this description:  “It tastes more like a rice pudding, minus the rice—creamy and smooth, but thick enough to be almost chewy. It’s seasoned with cinnamon and vanilla, but there’s not even a trace of chicken flavor. The white meat is added simply for the elastic texture it creates after cooking down for a long time in milk and breaking up into indistinguishable strands.”  (Serious Eats)

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After fueling up, we headed over to the Basilica Cistern right as it was opening.  It is so cool (both literally and figuratively).  It’s a cistern built in the 6th century while the Emperor Justinian was in power.  It’s the size of a cathedral inside, all underground.  And echo-y and a little eerie, but definitely cool.

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We then queued up to get into Hagia Sophia, which didn’t take nearly as long as it would normally have due to the drop in tourism.  As you might imagine, tourism in Turkey is suffering right now, which was great for us (in terms of lines and crowds), but super sad for an economy that relies a lot on tourism.  I will say that despite running into a few different protests and demonstrations (we always headed the other way when that happened), we felt totally safe in Istanbul and found the people so warm and welcoming.  You can’t account for random acts of terror anywhere, but this is a vibrant, bustling city bursting with culture and great people.

Hagia Sophia was beautiful and interesting.  Unfortunately part of the inside was under renovations, but you can just feel the history here, and seeing the juxtaposition of two major religions’ visuals and rituals was fascinating.

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We made our way back to Galata Bridge and were starved, so grabbed a balik ekmek, a fish sandwich that the garishly decorated boats sell hot and fresh.  It’s very simple (and honestly, kind of bland, wasn’t a massive fan)…fresh fried fish (watch out for bones!), raw onion, and lettuce on a roll.  But the experience was so fun, it’s madness on those boats.

The Blue Mosque was my first time in a mosque, and my first time wearing a headscarf.  The colors and patterns and everything were beautiful, and it was very hushed and peaceful inside.

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This is something I was kind of obsessed with, called kunefe.  Many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures have a version of this.  It’s made from a stretchy, unsalted fresh melting cheese (kind of like mozzarella, but better), which is then covered in phyllo shreds (called kadayif) that are soaked in sugar syrup and fried until crisp.  It’s crunchy on the outside, soft and melty on the inside, and syrup soaked awesomeness.  Both times I had it it was topped with pistachios and clotted cream.

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Ah, this.  I randomly bought this in an insanely crowded little market we were walking through, and BOY HOWDY am I glad I did.  It’s hard to describe what was inside—I think it was some of the shredded phyllo (kadayif) and also some nuts and other stuff??—but it was so delicious.  I accidentally dubbed it the penis pastry, though, and once you see it you can’t un-see it.

I did go back the next day for another one though…

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We also made sure to get over to the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent.  I was particularly enamored of the green and gold decoration in the dome.

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These are lokma (well, a version of them), which are the most awesome, crispy, sweet, fried donuts.  Impulse buy, and 100% the right decision.

We made sure to grab some Turkish ice cream, which is thicker than normal ice cream, and some fresh-squeezed pomegranate and orange juice.  As you do.

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Breakfast on our last morning consisted of menemen, Turkish style scrambled eggs cooked with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and sausages, served with bread to dip it in.  I couldn’t resist having more honey and sweet cream, and we drank cappuccino while looking up at Galata Tower.  A great start to the day.

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I only had a sip of this (I was enjoying my Turkish coffee at the time), but this is salep.  It’s super cozy and warm, kind of like vanilla cocoa, and is made with orchids and topped with cinnamon (and I think other spices, I definitely smelled some nutmeg in there).

We made a few different trips to the Spice Market for shopping (as well as one to the Grand Bazaar, for just a few minutes).  About every second shop is either spices and tea or Turkish delight and lokum, a nougat dessert with a variety of flavors and fillings.  I am NOT a fan, but it is ubiquitous and lots of people like it.

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Waffle!  Another impulse buy, and for good reasons.  The couple on our food tour recommended a restaurant up Istiklal Street by Taksim Square, so we headed up that way one evening.  Istiklal Street is where young, hip Istanbul hangs out at night, full of live street musicians, tons of pedestrian traffic, and a fun little tram.  We spent a couple evenings up here, but this evening as we were walking we noticed that all the side streets were filled with buses of cops in riot gear just hanging around, and then we happened upon a quite large demonstration, and so decided that we needed a dinner plan B.  But we were STARVING, and there was a sign for waffles, so we bought one and showed down.  Highly recommend.

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This amazingly delicious dish was loquat kebab, which we had at Ciya Kofresi, on the Asian side.  We had such a great time on our food tour in Asia that we took the ferry back over a couple days later and explored more on our own.  Loquat, in case you’re wondering (and I was, I’d never heard of it, and also called Japanese plum), is soft and sweet and tart.  They wrapped the meat in the fruit and everything was just juicy and tender and awesome.  We had it with ayran soup (ayran is cold yogurt beverage mixed with salt; we never got around to trying it).  The soup used ayran as the base, with beet, wheat, fresh mint, and fresh coriander.  It was interesting.

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I also had this very interesting dessert…I couldn’t tell you what it was, exactly.  But it was some kind of thin crispy pastry stuffed with pistachios and topped with honey, sweet cream, and cinnamon.

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I continued my mission to try every pastry I could get my hands on.  Not sure of the name of this, but it’s made of semolina flour (and maybe almond meal?), pistachios, and soaked in syrup.  Very delicious.

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We got to see not one, but two glorious sunsets from Galata Bridge.  The first one was by accident, the night we tried to go to the restaurant in Taksim Square and the demonstration changed our plans.  We wandered around trying to find someplace rated well for dinner, and ended up here around sunset, so everything worked out for the best.

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We came back the next night and the sunset was even prettier.

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I could get used to this view…

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These are the gaudy fish boats in Eminonu that we bought the fish sandwiches from, but they’re particularly pretty at night.

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View of the other side, looking at Galata Tower.  Our apartment was just a few steps away from the tower.

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And every night (at least when we were there), they set off fireworks by the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent.  Tell me that isn’t one of the prettier things you’ve seen.

In case it wasn’t clear, I fell in love with Istanbul, and would go back in a heartbeat.  Would love to hear stories from others who have been!

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  1. […] If you enjoyed this, here’s part two, exploring the food scene on our own! […]

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