In Kadikoy’s abundant and busy neighbourhood market on Istanbul’s Asian shore, there are many familiar sights. Stunning displays of fish fresh from the Marmara, Aegean and Mediterranean seas, olives in every hue from black to chartreuse to pale yellow, strings of dried chillies and sacks of herbs and spices such as sage, oregano, hibiscus and allspice berries. But every now and then, there is an unexpected curveball.
Sekerci Cafer Erol looks pretty much like the high-end confectioner’s shop that it is, with brass topped jars of akide (Turkish sugar candy) in serried rows, an enticing display of chocolates and some stunning marzipan fruits. But when I settle down at a pavement table outside, it’s not the shop’s wonderful looking halva or honey cakes I find myself snacking on, but tomatoes and olives – the savoury items have been drenched in syrup, transforming them into sweet candied treats. Even the Turkish delight, or lokum, holds the delicious surprise of fresh clotted cream.
I wander further into the market, across a small square overlooked by the landmark Hagia Euphemia Greek Orthadox church, and pass what appears to be a simple kebab shop. In fact, Mercan Kokorec is one of the many restaurants and stalls dotted around Istanbul selling kokorec, a local delicacy of chopped lamb’s offal served in Turkish bread. There’s also a tray of stuffed mussels, another local favourite, that are standing upright to reveal a filling of rice, pine nuts and currants.
Ciya Sofrasi serves up Turkish pizzas (Getty)Just around the corner, at Meshur Ozcan Tursulari, I stop off to sample its signature cocktail. Not a mojito or cosmopolitan, but a deep pink blend of beetroot, pepper and cabbage pickle juice. Pickles may be all the rage among trendy chefs around the world at the moment, but they’ve long been a key part of Turkish cuisine and are served with every meal. From the hundreds of jars that line the store I try beetroot, carrot, okra and their best-seller, cabbage. It’s a delicious and fascinating insight to the Turkish palate.
At the other end of the street, there’s pizza. Well, sort of. By common consent, Ciya Sofrasi is one of the best lokanta (tradesmen’s restaurant) in the city to try lahmacun. It won’t win awards for interior design, but the traditional flatbread, spread with a thin layer of finely chopped beef, tomatoes and peppers and cooked in a wood fired oven, is well worth the visit. I add a healthy amount of fresh parsley and a squeeze of lemon, fold the lahmacun in half and feast.
Kadikoy market offers a window on to Istanbul’s everyday traditional eating habits, but a ferry ride away across the Bosphorus Strait to the European side of the city gives a glimpse of a more unorthodox interpretation of Turkish gastronomy. At Gile, a restaurant in the upmarket Akaretler neighbourhood, chefs Uryan Dogmus and Cihan Kıpcak apply modern techniques picked up on travels around Europe and America to their native cuisine.
Flavoured butters are on trend across the world at the moment, and here they’ve whipped in traditional Turkish tulum, a sheep’s milk cheese aged in goat’s skin. Tarhana, made from fermented cracked wheat and yoghurt, is usually hydrated to make soup, but at Gile, it’s formed into dry crackers and served with a delicate version of lakerda (pickled bonito) made with mackerel. Mussels are elevated above their street food status and served breaded and deep fried with radish, charred leeks and tarragon pea purée, all presented elegantly on a marble slab. Pastrami (a traditional Turkish dish) is made with duck instead of beef and served on a bed of smooth hummus flavoured with paprika oil.
I find a dialled-down version of Gile’s modern take at Tapasuma, the restaurant of boutique hotel Sumahan on the Water, which is in a beautifully converted 19th-century Ottoman distillery. It’s lunchtime when I alight at the hotel’s private jetty after a two-hour guided cruise of the Bosphorus with Saffet Emre Tonguc, tour guide to stars such as Oprah Winfrey and Calvin Klein. Tonguc’s shameless name-dropping (which includes top American chef Wolfgang Puck, who is soon to open a restaurant in the city) is as entertaining as his information-packed commentary that takes in the numerous palaces and palatial private residences which line the shore.
There are more water views in Tapasuma’s smart dining room, where a long, lazy lunch includes a selection of refined hot and cold mezze including courgette flowers stuffed with local seafood and a more traditional take on lakerda with bonito, red onion and dill. To drink, there’s salgam suyu (fermented black carrot juice), a salty, sour concoction that’s a close cousin to Kadikoy’s pickle juice cocktail. It’s often served on the side with Turkey’s national drink raki (it’s pronounced “rukkar” with a rolling ‘r’ – say it how it’s spelled and your waiter or barman won’t know what you’re talking about), a spirit that’s distilled from grapes and aniseed.
For an authentic “raki table” experience, I accompany local food and drink writer Aylin Oney Tan to the narrow cobbled streets of Balat, Istanbul’s Jewish quarter.
Agora Meyhanesi, a historic tavern dating back to 1890 has recently been restored by leading Turkish film director Ezel Akay and is now a magnet for the city’s creative and artistic community. Raki table is a simple enough concept and involves drinking the spirit, usually diluted with water, with mezze (never larger dishes) and enough friends to spark up a decent conversation.
“If there is a group of four or more people, and if they intend to make it a long night, they will order a ‘bir buyuk’ or ‘bir kucuk’ referring to 70cl or 35cl bottles,” explains Tan. “If one wishes to order by the glass, either one orders ‘bir duble’ or a double shot; or ‘bir tek’, a single.”
The conversation, raki and food, including patlican kizartma (roasted aubergine with yogurt dressing) and charcoal-grilled octopus keeps coming, and even an aged violin player of indeterminate talent sitting down by my side and playing a bad version of Agora Meyhanesi (a famous Turkish ballad named after the tavern) can’t kill the lively atmosphere. It’s another of those curveball moments that has become a theme of my visit – and I can’t get enough of them.
Andy Lynes flew with Turkish Airlines (0844 800 6666;turkishairlines.com). Return flights from Heathrow to Istanbul start at £175.
Pera Palace Hotel, Mesrutiyet Caddesi 52 (00 90 212 377 4000;jumeirah.com). Double rooms start at €180 (£125.50), room only.
Eating & drinking there
Mercan Kokorec: mercankokorec.com.tr
Meshur Ozcan Tursulari: ozcantursu.com.tr
Ciya Sofrasi: ciya.com.tr
Gile Restaurant: gilerestaurant.com
Tapasuma Restaurant: tapasuma.com
Agora Meyhanesi: agorameyhanesi.com