Turkish feast for the senses

Turkish feast for the senses
PHOTO: SgTravellers

It was only 10am and we had already eaten three breakfasts.

Early that morning, our group of 10 had walked through the crisp spring air to our meeting place with Sinan and Yasemin from Istanbul Tour Studio (istanbultourstudio.com) at the Kilic Ali Pasha Mosque.

We had signed up for their Flavours of the Old City tour, attracted by the promise of seeing the local and off-beat aspects of Istanbul, and were all excited about spending the next six hours exploring historical hoods and tasting authentic Turkish cuisine.

Our guides first took us down the quiet streets of the Tophane neighbourhood, where a few traditional shops hold their own among a slew of burgeoning art galleries and cafes.

Galata Simitcisi was one of the old guards, and we were drawn like mice to cheese as the fragrant smell of the Turkish bagel simit and other freshly baked goodies wafted out through its entrance.

Brothers Mehmet, Zeki and Emir Ozdemir have run the bakery for the last 30 years, churning out at least 1,000 pieces of bread and pastries every morning.

Despite our hotel breakfast earlier, we chomped through our individual shares of circular bread sprinkled with sesame seeds and even bought a few more. Starting at 1TL (about S$0.50) for a simit, they were a real steal and a far cry from the hard dry ones we had eaten from roadside stalls in the previous days.

At the next stop, we had Turkish breakfast - the real McCoy! Sitting shoulder to shoulder in the tiny but cosy family-run Asmaalti Cafe, we had a sumptuous spread of sausages, olives, green chillis and more simit that was elevated one heavenly notch with servings of honey and clotted cream.

The star of the meal was menemen, a delicious mix of scrambled eggs with white cheese, caramelised onion, tomato paste and green peppers. Add a cup of Turkish coffee or tea each and we were almost ready to call it a day.

Places to discover

But there were places to discover and no time to lose, so Sinan deftly herded us out and onwards to sample one of the best baklavas in the city at Karaköy Gulluoglu. Opened since 1949 and located a stone's throw away from the Bosphorus strait, it is the place to buy the Turkish dessert if you prefer a less sweet variety. Try the square ones with pistachios, which are made with 30 layers of light and crispy baklava pastry, and the unusual chocolate ones that even the locals talk about.

Satiated with bread and eggs and high on sugar, we tried to stay focused on Yasemin's tales of the city's history as we traipsed across the Galata Bridge that joins Beyoglu, the European side of the capital where we were, and old Istanbul.

We stopped now and then to watch locals reeling in their catch, took photos with the scenic Golden Horn waterway as the backdrop, and had a quick walk through a fish market at the end of the bridge.

While the aroma of freshly grilled anchovies was enticing, our stomachs were protesting and there was still lunch to make space for. We scampered quickly on towards the famous Spice Market.

Having already visited it as part of another tour a few days earlier, we were glad when Yasemin led us to the shops outside the market, where most locals do their shopping.

While the inside of the Spice Market is a giddy experience of enthusiastic (and sometimes suave) shopkeepers extolling the wonders of Turkish delights, spices, nuts, dried fruits and fruit tea in between flirting with female customers, the outside has a boisterous but less stifling and touristy atmosphere.

Reasonable prices

There are convenience stores very much like our local provision shops selling household items, knick-knacks and even baking utensils and party accessories at very reasonable prices.

We chanced upon a shop selling nuts and dried fruits at prices that were 20 to 30 per cent lower than the ones in the Spice Market, and unleashed our Singaporean purchase mania on the hapless but happy lone staff member, who had to call for reinforcements.

We were then taken to Kahveci Nuri Toplar, a Turkish coffee shop that has been in business since the 1890s. There, we watched the staff roasting and grinding Brazilian coffee beans the traditional Turkish way - into aromatic powder that is even finer than an espresso grind.

Our tour ended with a walk through the Beyoglu neighbourhood near Taksim Square, a major shopping district similar to Orchard Road. Then, it was on to lunch in Datli Maya, a traditional oven restaurant that uses an 80-year-old wood-fired oven to cook its Anatolian recipes.

We had a homely meal of cheese and mushroom pide (Turkish flatbread), lamb kebabs and a mixed seasonal salad with pomegranate in a small dining room on the upper floor that barely fit 18 people.

In between, we amused ourselves with cups of tea from their century-old handmade copper samovar. The whole experience was like being in someone's home kitchen and we loved it.

Heritage stay

My husband and I further explored the Galatasaray district, also in Beyoglu, towards the end of the trip. We wanted to experience staying in a heritage hotel so we chose the House Hotel Galatasaray, which was located in the historic 1890s Zenovitch Apartment.

The renovated building had retained its original shuttered façade, marble staircase and ceramic-tiled reception area, and there was something delightfully furtive about seeing the passing feet of unsuspecting pedestrians on the street level from our luxurious basement suite.

Round the corner are hip restaurants and stylish cocktail bars. We had dinner at Dai Pera, which is well known for its ev yemekleri or home cooking. Their mezze (Turkish-style tapas) and appetisers are superb, especially the crunchy, pastry-wrapped prawns, fried aubergine with yoghurt and tomato sauce, as well as the beetroot salad wlth fresh greens, sweet corn and grated white cheese.

Feeling "yolo" (short for "you only live once"), I tried the signature mesir spices cocktail - invented in the 14th century during the Ottoman Empire - which turned out to be a heady mix of 41 types of herbs and spices.

With comforting nosh and a swirl of history in my head, it was the perfect last meal in this city that had made us feel so at home.

Guidelines

- I flew from Singapore directly to Istanbul on Singapore Airlines.

- While some major shopping centres, hotels and restaurants accept US dollars and euros, it is better to carry some Turkish lira with you. Change your money when you arrive in Istanbul, as the rates are better there.

- Spring, from late March to May, is one of the best times to visit the city. Next is during autumn from September to November when the summer crowds are gone and prices are generally lower.

Go to sgtravellers.com for more stories.

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