(I wrote this back in 2010, but happily share it again – though President Erdogan has moved the city backwards by a lot since I wrote this – it’s a shame, he’s sold the collective property of the Turkish people to his capitalist buddies, re-Islamicized society, and gone to great lengths to undo the amazing work of Kamal Ataturk)
Istanbul, Turkey is a city of neighborhoods and timelessness. It is a place that is utterly modern and yet so steeped in historical places and persons that it defies any attempts at placing it as a city of a specific time or civilization.
The first city was founded by a guy named Byzas about 700 years before Christ. The Delphic Oracle in Greece told him to start a city in a place that was ‘opposite and blind’. They called it Byzantium and figured everyone else must have been blind not to see this spot, since on the opposite side of the Bosporus there was a city in a less perfect spot.
And so it went until 196 AD when the city was destroyed and rebuilt and named Augusta Antonia. Personally, I think Byzantium sounds better. It stayed a Roman City and in 330 AD it was renamed again, the more familiar sounding Constantinople after Emperor Constantine became a Christian and made it his capital. Later in 537, Emperor Justinian had the Aya Sophia (Hagia Sophia) built and it remained the largest Christian church for 1000 years.
In 1451, the chariot races at the Hippodrome came to stop when Sultan Mehmet II of the Ottoman’s conquered the city and turned the Ayasophia into the world’s largest mosque. He also had the Topkapi Palace built. Sutan Ahmet later built the famous Blue Mosque.
After picking the wrong side in World War II, the Turks struggled to get their independence and Mustapha Kamal (Attaturk) moved the capital to Ankara so that it wouldn’t be vulnerable by sea. This left Constantinople as Istanbul. (That’s Istanbul not Constantinople) The city was a bit of an aging and decrepit place but in the past four decades she has undergone some massive beauty treatments and is now once again the Paris of the East.
Frankly, I like Istanbul better than Paris. Like Paris, Istanbul has been the home of writers, painters, great intellects, and radicals. She’s a city I’ll gladly pay for again and again.
I’m thankful that I had the chance to live and work in Turkey for several years. On this Thanksgiving, I am in Hawaii, but I look back at Turkey…and all the Trimmings. Happy Thanksgiving from Vagobond!
The Blue Mosque Spiritual Center of Istanbul
I love Istanbul. It’s big, it’s ancient, it’s filled with people from all over the world, but most of all – it’s delicious. Like the city, the food of Istanbul is a mixture of the large, the old, the international and, well, deliciousness. To help explain what I mean by that – here’s a very brief history of Turkey.
Turkey was the birthplace of the founder of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It was the greater part of Alexander the Great’s Empire, it was the Eastern Roman Empire, and it controlled Egypt, the Middle East, and North Africa as part of the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, Turkey was split into regions controlled by different European powers and after Attaturks’ war of Independence it became modern Turkey. The Western part of Turkey is in Europe, the Eastern part of Turkey is in Asia. If you’re looking for the center of the world – Turkey is it. If you’re looking for a world cuisine, go no further than Istanbul.
Peacock was a delicacy served in Ottoman Palaces for a different kind of Thanksgiving
Italy may be the birthplace of pizza, but when you go to Turkey you get something more magical. Pide. Cooked in wood fired brick ovens and served on long wooden planks, pide is essentially a large pizza stretched out until it is often more than a meter long and a hand wide. This is the ultimate Turkish fast food and it’s a great place to start when you want to eat Turkey with all the trimmings. Pide isn’t the real Turkish Pizza though, that distinction belongs to lahmahcun.
Pide is the longest pizza in the world!
Lahmahcun is a thin oval shaped Turkish pizza on a very thin pita crust. You can get a cheese lahmahcun or the traditional which is finely chopped meat and herbs baked until crispy. To eat it in the true traditional style, squeeze a bit of lemon on it, put a small bunch of parsley or sorrel on it, and then sprinkle it with sumac. North Americans invariably ask “Isn’t that poison?” and while there is indeed a poison sumac (similar to poison ivy) the Turkish version is a slightly sour purple condiment that goes perfect with lahmahcun. Now, just roll your lahmahcun up and eat it like a burrito.
This next is a statement that can cause some controversey. Turkish home food is very similar to Greek home food. The controversey comes because any Turk will twist that statement on it’s head and say that Greek home food is like Turkish home food. I sat in a cafe on Kos and watched a Turkish man try to order a Turkish coffee and refuse the Greek coffee that the Greek waiter kept offering him – was it possible that only I knew that they are exactly the same thing?
The Turkish Home is the Culinary Center of the Country
Stuffed grape leaves. Dolmates in Greek, dolmades in Turkish. I took a cooking class in Istanbul recently. A New Yorker in the class learned that we were going to be making stuffed grape leaves and said to me behind her hand “I thought this was a Turkish cooking class, not a Greek one.” The truth is more complex. Dolma means stuffed in Turkish but has no meaning in Greek. As one Turkish pundit put it “in Greek dolmates means ‘stolen’.“
That brings up a good point. Watching foreigners interact with Turkish food is one of the great Turksih delights. Americans say that kifte is like hamburger, Mexicans say that a donor durum is like a burrito, Greeks say that everything is like the Greek version, Italians raise their nose at pide and lahmahcun but then eat it with simple smiles. One of my favorite reactions was when an older English lady was eating a bowl of iskembe chorbasi (chorba, by the way is a generic word for soup in Turkish, though it is often used to describe a minestrone type soup – which makes sense when you realize that shorba is an Arabic word that is used to describe a minestrone like soup.) The English lady was obviously enjoying her chorba and asked me what it was made from. The name iskembe is derived from a Persian word – shikamba. Shikamba and iskembe both mean – tripe. Tripe soup. When I told her, she wouldn’t eat any more despite her earlier enjoyment. “I won’t eat cow stomach,” she said, “Even if it is delicious.”
For Turks, iskembe is the perfect cure after a night of hard drinking. Hard drinking usually involves drinking raki, the Turkish national liquor. An anise flavored hard liquor that typically is served with fish. For Turks the word fish always goes with raki. So, raki balik, liquor and fish. My kind of country.
In a way – with the drinking, the fishing, and the tripe – Turks are the masters of feasting. if you don’t believe me, you can look at one of the most famous of the Ottoman palace foods – a quail cooked inside of a chicken, cooked inside of a duck, cooked inside of a peacock. The North American redneck Thanksgiving version is a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey – suitably called Turkdukin. I’ve no idea what the Ottoman/Turkish version is called – but one thing you can be sure of, it’s going to be delicious.