The problem with blogging about vacation food is remembering to snap photos before you start eating. If you lose focus and get carried away with the fabulous dish in front of you, you’re faced with nothing but memories. That said, I had every intention of documenting all of the regional cuisine we sampled while in Istanbul. I was not entirely successful. I was able to snap a few though, and here they are – for your enjoyment. While it’s obviously not the same as being there, until they develop scratch-n-sniff computing it’s the best I can offer. Suffice it to say, the food was every bit as good (in most cases better) than it looks. This buffet lunch was one of our first meals in Istanbul. It was in a tiny family owned restaurant in the ancient Sultanahmet section of town, almost next door to our hotel. The manager greeted us at the door and took the time to explain what each dish on the buffet was and how it was made. We then picked the dishes that sounded interesting and waited for them to prepare our plate. Among the dishes we sampled – stuffed bell peppers, eggplant tangine, spicy green beans, a baked squash and tomato casserole, a seasoned rice, and lamb from the rotating kebab spit. Verdict: a perfect introduction of the week to come. It was varied, flavorful, traditionally Turkish, and as warm as the people who served it. There are a myriad of options for meals on the run. Our favorite was the doner kebab. Each vendor serves a different version, and each version is delicious. This was one of the first of our many doner kebabs. If you love doner kebab like we do, keep reading. Our favorite is listed below. Know what’s better than gorgeous dried fruits & nuts in the exotic atmosphere of the ancient Egyptian Spice Market? Dried fruit stuffed with roasted nuts. We sampled the succulent apricots stuffed with almonds & the dates stuffed with pistachios. It’s a perfect “carry around while you shop the Spice Market” snack. Dear Simit, you look like a donut or a skinny bagel, but you are nothing like those imposters. You are warm and toasty; brushed with sesame oil and smothered in gloriously roasted sesame seeds. If you were smaller, I would wear you on my finger like a ring. A wedding ring. There’s no escaping it. Turkish Delight is everywhere in Istanbul. There are almost as many varieties as there are shops selling it. Some are rolled into small square-shaped logs and dusted in superfine sugar. Some are rolled like a jellyroll and have the flavor and texture of a chewy marshmallow. But the best are made from honey & roasted pistachios and are more expensive than other varieties. Bottom line: they’re all good; some are better than most; you get what you pay for, so go for the good stuff. Also, try the pomegranate. It will rock your world. The Complete Package will attest to the fact that I am not a beer drinker. What I miss out on, TCP makes up for. He enjoys a good beer, and loves to sample the local brews. However when we travel, I make it a point to try new things. Local things. Even exotic things I might never try at home. So I tried the local Efes Pilsner. And it was good. It’s even better on a warm day. I was blown away by the giant wheels of cheese and ceilings dripping with cured meats at the Spice Market. I don’t know why this surprised me, but it did. We saw shop after shop of dried fruits, Turkish Delight, and spices. But to come around a corner and see giant blocks of gorgeous cheese and big, beautiful cured sausages and salamis – well, it was a joy and an unexpected pleasure. My tip for travel food: ALWAYS try the local specialties. Even if it means crawling out of your box and your comfort zone. Life is an adventure, so live it! Our lunch break on the Bosphorus was terrific. Sitting in a little cafe right on the water, eating seafood just pulled from the water by local fishermen – well, it was beyond memorable. We picked a handful of appetizers instead of a lunch plate, and we were not disappointed. Among our choices, olives brined with lemons and whole peppercorns and a lovely octopus salad. I can still taste it just looking at that photo. Followed with a hot cup of Turkish tea, it was a perfect meal. The BarBecue House restaurant was conveniently located a few doors down from our hotel. We passed by it each time we walked to the trams on Divan Yolu Cadesi (the main street that runs past the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque). Each time we passed, the engaging waiters would try to tempt us in for a meal, regardless of the time of day. With a lovely dining room upstairs, a lively dining room downstairs, and a charcoal grill right by the front door that was perpetually tempting us with the smell of grilled meats and fresh bread – well, let’s just say they didn’t have to sell it too hard. In all, we ate dinner here three times in six days, and we thoroughly enjoyed it each time. If you’re in Istanbul and looking for a meal near the Hagia Sophia, stop in and visit The BarBecue House. And tell Ramazan his friends from Houston say “Merhaba/Hello!” Every vacation produces a favorite dining experience. Usually, The Complete Package and I have differing opinions on what that favorite meal was. In this case, we agreed. Hands down. Our favorite meal was this fantastic doner kebab from a small stand outside the entrance to the ancient Rustem Pasha Mosque near the Spice Market. It had everything the perfect doner kebab should have – warm, lovely bread, lamb sliced right off the rotating spit, a creamy yogurt sauce, fresh tomato slices, some thinly sliced onion, and in this case – golden french fries. But the frosting on the cupcake, the cherry on top of the sundae, was the addition of a few blazing hot chili peppers set out on the dining tables. This was one of those sandwiches that had you rolling your eyes back in your head and moaning with delight. As we washed it down with two cold ayrans (a salty yogurt drink), we both leaned back in our chairs and simultaneously said, “Now THAT was one fabulous sandwich.” It was all we could do to walk away and keep sightseeing. If we’d hesitated even 5 minutes, we would have ordered another one and done it all over again.
And that, my friends, is the best reason to immerse yourself in the place you are visiting. You never know when something will surprise you. Do yourself a favor. Try the real cuisine, not the fast food joints that are sprinkled about more and more cities around the world these days. You can have those things at home. Take a chance and enjoy the best your destination has to offer… while you can.