Istanbul was once the crossroads of the world, and it is still the meeting point of Europe and Asia. Last summer, it was also the spot my family chose as a meeting point — my grandmother had expressed a wish to go to Turkey for her 80th birthday, so the 12 of us swooped down on Istanbul from all directions, like an ice cream-devouring Assyrian horde.
It was easy to see why Istanbul, balanced on the Golden Horn, at the juncture of the Bosphorus and the dazzling cobalt-bright Sea of Marmara, had once been the centre of the world. Despite the heat, the piers were bustling with people, sweet-sellers, juice carts, cruise liners and small boats chugging in and out. It was at once sleek European and chaotic Asian, and its food drew from all over Turkey and its neighbours.
The big birthday dinner took us to Borsa, an upscale restaurant in Beyoglu with décor designed to please any passing Russian oligarch. We ordered most of the menu: dolmas, astringent grape leaves stuffed with rice, artichokes stuffed with herbs and rice, imam bayildi-style aubergines, hummus with roasted peppers, quails marinated in thyme, grilled calamari, lamb manti dumplings, and what the menu described as “special lukewarm Bolu beans”. Then, more lamb with aubergines, veal doner kebabs, luscious beef filets marinated in thyme and yoghurt, and still more lamb, grilled with peppers and tomatoes. For dessert, we went round the table as our waiter mopped his brow. Fig and date pudding. Quinces in syrup. Orange semolina with ice cream. Custard with chicken breast.
My aunt, who was relaying everything to the waiter, stopped and glowered menacingly. “Dessert, I said. If you’ve gone back to mains…”
“I haven’t,” said the small personage who had spoken, refusing to be cowed. “It’s in desserts!”
The waiter intervened with the air of wisdom: “It’s a custard made with chicken, madam. Very fine threads of chicken breast with milk and cinnamon.” But the fine-chicken-breast custard, when it arrived, was a letdown: a gelatinous cousin of panna cotta, with no hint of poultry in its creamy, jiggly depths. Still, now everyone could say they had eaten chicken for dessert — a Punjabi family’s dream.
But Istanbul’s real culinary heart was out on its streets. In the cavernous Spice Bazaar, customers sifted through massive vats of olives — pale green, purple, black, sampling here and there. In Sultanahmet, we ate a whole levrek (sea bass) baked in a hard casing of sea salt and set aflame. At Eminönü, on the waterfront, we stood in line among chatty Istanbullus for four-lira grilled mackerel-and-onion sandwiches, served off old fishing boats. Outside the city, by the Bosphorus, a nondescript shack conjured up briny, fatty anchovies, quick-fried in corn, grilled swordfish and batter-fried red mullets with accusing prehistoric eyes.
One day, we crossed the Bosphorus Strait to eat at Çiya in Kadıköy. Çiya — actually three adjoining sister restaurants — is run by Chef Musa Dagdeviren, who spends his time unearthing long-forgotten regional recipes, cramming his menu with unusual home-style dishes. You order your food at a deli-style counter, and pay by weight. Our spoils were a yoghurt soup with bulgur and mint, lamb meatballs in a sauce with tart cherries, roasted green figs with tomato, pomegranate and onion, and a parade of kebabs: lamb-tomato skewers, spicy cumin-scented beyti kebabs in lavash flatbread parcels, lamb with pomegranate juice and aubergine, chicken shish kebabs, and beef kebabs with mozzarella and mint, accompanied by pale Turkish wine and mulberry sherbet.
Everything we had eaten so far paled in comparison to Çiya: the meats zinged with their tart fruit sauces, and everything shone with the Mediterranean flavours of garlic, mint, sumac and drizzles of olive oil. We left dazed, all curling up on the ferry home to take satisfied naps.
But Istanbul wasn’t done yet. Getting off the ferry, a digestive walk along the seafront seemed just the thing. I wandered off to the quieter, smaller pier, and was photographing a man wheeling a bright kebab cart around, when the middle-aged couple that had just bought their snacks from him tapped my shoulder. “Where from?” said the man, as his headscarved wife clambered onto the hood of their car, and unwrapped her lettuce-kebab wrap. “You like this kebab man? You take this kebab!” And he handed me his own just-bought kebab roll.
I was taken aback, since personally, I only share food at gunpoint. But he insisted, pressing it into my hands. My stomach groaned, but I took it. His wife grinned, and pointed at her own sandwich, miming how delicious it was. I bit in: the grainy, spicy lamb meatballs inside were almost raw, mixed with bulgur, herbs and scallions. “Çig köfte,” said the man, beaming. “Good? Best?”
“Best,” I said. “Istanbul, best.”
(Naintara is a food writer based in Paris. Follow her on twitter >@naintaramaya)