Who wouldn’t delight in a thick wedge of still-steaming apple pie smoothered in cinnamon and sugar, a gooey English toffee pudding oozing saccraferious syrup, or a tower of ice cream loaded with nuggets of buttery cookie dough and crowned with a lava of fudge. I wouldn’t.
I can’t explain it, but I just don’t like sweets. Chocolate filled croissants from Paris, glazed Crispy Cream donuts, velvty vanilla frosting – I would just rather have a chicken leg. As I have been previously informed, this aversion to sweet treats is a travesty in Istanbul, a city brimming with sweet shops selling a vast array of Turkish delight and sweet pastries. And yet â€“ if I were stuffing myself with their honeyed goodness, I wouldn’t have as much room for the bitter, sour, spicy, and salty foods that I love.
Suyu: the dusty streets of Cairo are teeming with juice shops where over-ripe oranges, pungent guavas, oblong bananas, and milky coconuts are pressed into glasses on request. Patrons quickly gulp down the juice and then return the glass. I rarely partake in this cultural practice of speedy fruit juice quaffing. Most of it is just too sweet. But from time to time, I do relish a good swig of pomegranate juice with it’s vibrant tartness and bitter bits of pith. And while Istanbul isn’t overflowing with juice shops like Cairo, it was on the the city’s streets that I drank the best pomegranate juice. Period.
The pomegranates in Istanbul are astonishingly ripe, distended with fat seeds gushing their crimson juice. Wagons loaded with these ruby fruits of the under-world can be found in most regions of the city. In Istanbul it is common to mix the sweeter juice of an orange with the freshly squezzed pomegranate juice. But I like it straight â€“ a perfect shot of sour while moving from bar to bar, or in my case, from restaurant to restaurant.
Borek: luckily for me, many Turkish pastries are of the savory variety, and there’s very little I love more than a good buttery pastry filled with garlicy spinach. In Istanbul, borek – Turkish pastries stuffed with potatoes, feta, spinach, nettle, leeks, minced meat, or zucchini – are sold on almost every block in cafes, large sweet shops, or humble specialty stores selling free-form borek wrapped in thick paper. Borek, like simit, is best in morning after being freshly baked in large batches and before the passing of time has rendered the buttery pastry a soggy glob. I particularly love the su borek stuffed with potato and the sigara borek â€“ cigarette shaped borek â€“ stuffed with spinach. Not necessarily sold on the street but best when eaten from a paper bag translucent with grease while walking the streets of Istanbul.
Kumpir: and then there’s kumpir â€“ whipped potatoes stuffed back into their potato skins and then piled preposterously high with condiments. Seven Turkish lira (US$4.75) can buy you a street meal the size of a small baby. When a kumpir is ordered at the street-side stands, the vendor splits open a humongous baked potato. Then comes the most crucial step of the kumpir’s creation â€“ fluffing the inside of the potato with a fork and whipping the loosened insides with butter, cheese, and salt. This is no English baked potato with beans. This is creamy smooth whipped potatoes with more toppings than actual potato. Among the the vast array of toppings on offer at most kumpir stands are hot dog slices, corn, peas, bow tye pasta with red sauce, mayonnaise pasta salad, coleslaw, vegetable salad, purple cabbage, hot sauce, dill yogurt, and fine bulgar salad. Everyone has an opinion about the right combinations of toppings and their ratio to the potato, but in truth, I believe that the best way to eat a kumpir is with everything on it. Saltiness from the pickles, creaminess from the vast array of condiments using mayonnaise, spiciness from the wonderful hot sauce- kumpir is a giant soggy Jackson Pollack of a meal.
You should eat baklava and Turkish delight while you are in Istanbul. Even I couldn’t resist the flaky pastries studded with emerald pistachios or the mellow scent of rose water. But make sure to save room for everything else the streets of Istanbul have to offer. Don’t forget to try the simit, balik emek, suyu, the borek, and a kumpir.
Originally written for Food Jihad