Open sesame, pepper, clove...

SUREKHA KADAPA BOSE | Updated on: Sep 29, 2011

lf30_spice4.JPG | Photo Credit: Rasheeda Bhagat

The treasure-trove of heady aromas and rich flavours at the ancient Spice Bazaar in Turkey.

Despite all the history beckoning me in the ancient city of Istanbul, my sights were firmly set on its ancient, colourful and aromatic Spice Bazaar. Rows and rows of shops stocked with spices and herbs… parsley, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg and many others. This famed ‘temple of taste and flavours' is called the Misir Carsisi. Interestingly, misir in Turkish means both ‘Egypt' and ‘maize'. The bazaar's name is said to hark back to the Ottoman period, when many spices arrived here from Egypt. Even today the bazaar remains the centre for spice trade in Istanbul, and a tourist must-see.

Built in 1660 and housed next to the Yeni Mosque, the rent from the shops go towards the upkeep of the mosque.

The bazaar stands on a big square facing the ferry dock at the Golden Horn harbour. As you enter the high-ceilinged, cavernous arcade through a heavy wooden door, you may be forgiven for thinking you have entered a royal kitchen, straight out of Arabian Nights , as aromas and flavours engulf you inside this covered marketplace.

Such covered markets are popular in Turkey, which views them as financial centres. With a single gateway that serves both as entrance and exit, these bazaars are also places where money and valuable goods are stored for safekeeping. Like Istanbul's other famous Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsisi), the Spice Bazaar too is a public area and witness to over 500 years of secular harmony, as a large number of religions and sects thrived here in peaceful co-existence.

Veggies to Viagra

As you embark on an olfactory tour of the bazaar, your eyes and ears are bombarded too with shopkeepers crying out their wares and shop signs claiming to offer “1,500 varieties of spices”, an assortment of nuts, strings of sun-dried vegetables and fruits, dried flowers, and even something called ‘Turkish Viagra', which is nothing more than local figs stuffed with walnuts. And like in bazaars anywhere in the world, there is no concept of MRP here nor a guarantee for the genuineness of the product. A piece of advice: Do a recce of the prices on offer and bargain hard.

Nose out the fakes

The heady smells and sights are enough to tempt anyone to shop for everything in sight, but regulars advise you to never buy from the shops close to the entrance as their prices are nearly four times those inside.

Also, do watch out for the fakes! For instance, the vanilla I came across were in fact dry Bourbon beans imported from Madagascar, a poor relation of the real thing. As for Turkish Saffron, it was not saffron at all but dried safflower! I picked up a bag of vanillin crystals, which were imported from China.

But don't miss the sahlep, the grated root of a wild orchid ,used in confectionery and to make a popular beverage; cinnamon bark; dried rosebuds; gum arabic (used to make Turkish delights chewy); and bottles of eggplant jam. (Eggplant or brinjal is a favourite in Turkey and you will find it in mezes (Turkish appetiser), side dishes, salads, moussaka and other main dishes, served with cheese, minced meat or kebab, or rolled in vine leaves.)

Pickled delicacies

The country also loves its pickles — these winter treats command equal respect as salads on Turkish dining tables. At the spice bazaar you will come across jars and jars of pickes in a mind-boggling array of choices — carrot, aubergine, cauliflower, cucumber, garlic, beetroot, mint and many more. And the best of the Turkish pickles come from Cubuk, a town in Ankara, which also regularly hosts a pickle festival. And if you're adventurous enough, do sample a cup of the vinegar that has been used to pickle red cabbage or purple carrot… it's a delicacy!

Published on September 29, 2011
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