Istanbul: Turkey's delight

Istanbul: Turkey's delight

Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
13 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Lisa Cohen and William Meppem

On the early-morning flight to Istanbul from London’s Luton Airport, Greg and I compared notes. In my scruffy journal were the names of ancient mosques and museums, palaces and spice bazaars. In his own smart black travel diary, Greg had meticulously detailed lists of the dishes he intended to sample in the coming weeks. I peered over his shoulder and read at random, ‘The Imam swooned’, ‘Sultan’s delight’, ‘Something for the husband’, ‘Nightingale nests’ and the irresistibly named ‘Harem navels’. Further down the page I saw listed: Turkish tea, fried-fish sandwiches, chicken breast pudding and, naturally enough, Turkish delight. My mouth watered in anticipation, made keener by the fact that I was actually very hungry. Our pre-dawn start had meant we’d missed breakfast, and the ‘no-frills’ flight offered nothing at all worth spending our remaining few English pounds on. But, we agreed, it would probably be all to the good that we’d land hungry; we had a lot of eating ahead of us.

Then, Asia was beneath us: the dreary, brown plains of north-western Turkey. Our plane landed, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, at Istanbul’s new Sabiha Gökçen Airport. It was a good bone-shaking hour by mini-bus to the splendours of the great Ottoman city and our sense of excitement grew as we bumped along at breakneck speed through the barren landscape. Gradually the terrain changed to thickly forested hills, then a scattering of satellite apartment complexes broke the monotony and finally we were nearing the vast sprawling suburbs of Istanbul.

All of a sudden the traffic thickened and slowed. We were hemmed in by a queue of honking lorries, crossing the Bogˇaziçi Bridge over the fast-running waters of the Bosphorus Strait. The traffic ground to a halt; and for a few magical moments we found ourselves suspended in limbo between Asia and Europe.

It was the perfect vantage point to fully appreciate the vast and expanding metropolis of modern Istanbul, which swept before us along the European shoreline of the Bosphorus. Gazing out to the north-east we saw massive tanker ships ploughing through the choppy waters towards the Black Sea. And to the south-west, spread out in the distance like a dream, was the famous Istanbul skyline. Our hearts quickened and we wound down the windows to make out more clearly the cascading domes of the city’s great mosques, with their delicate spires and minarets glinting in the weak afternoon sunshine of late winter.

This was where we were heading: to Sultanahmet, the old imperial city, with its palace and mosques, its steamy bath-houses and ancient bazaars. Although geographically in the West, it is in the old city where you most feel you are in the Orient – in Constantinople.

For more than a thousand years Constantinople was the glorious capital of Byzantine Christendom, and a glittering beacon of sophistication for western Europe, mired as it was in the Dark Ages. And then, for the next few hundred years, Constantinople rose to even dizzier heights as the capital of the Turkic Ottoman Empire, the most powerful force in Europe and Asia.

For our first few nights in Turkey we were staying in Sultanahmet, where the steep narrow streets bristle with reminders of this great and glorious past. Our hotel was in the shadow of the gracefully cascading domes and six elegant minarets of the Blue Mosque and after settling ourselves into our rooms we wandered out to explore the neighbourhood.

Rain clouds were gathering overhead and the streets were deserted. A solitary simit seller trudged through the drizzle, weighed down by a tray of sesame-encrusted bread rings. We made our way towards the Hippodrome – or Sultanahmet Square as it is known today – which was empty apart from a handful of elderly men in raincoats, who sat on park benches sharing a bag of hot roasted chestnuts. It was hard to imagine that this was once an ancient racetrack, where rival chariot teams raced around to the cheers of a 120,000-capacity crowd.

We were ready for lunch, but before feeding our baser appetites we felt bound to satisfy our souls. Just beyond the northern end of the Hippodrome stands the jaw-droppingly lovely Haghia Sophia, Istanbul’s most famous monument. Built by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century it was the greatest church in Christendom for nearly a thousand years and to this day is still thought by many to be the most beautiful church ever built.

Converted to a mosque after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, Haghia Sophia now boasts fountains and minarets, but the power of its vast soaring interior, the brilliance of its glittering mosaics and the sense of awe that it inspires has been undiminished – even by the scaffolding (courtesy of UNESCO-funded restoration work) that rose skywards into the dome.

And so on to lunch; something quick and easy, we were all agreed. The surrounding streets were lined with grotty-looking tourist restaurants and hazır yemek, the Turkish version of self-service, cheap-and-cheerful caffs. But Greg had other ideas. ‘We need to find a pideci,’ he announced. ‘I’ve got to have a lahmacun.’ No surprises there! Lahmacun – the Turkish equivalent of his favourite Lebanese lunch, lahme bi-ajeen, is the Eastern version of lamb-topped pizza. The best pide restaurants have wood-fired ovens and will usually offer a limited range of other options — kebabs and soups — as well.

By chance, we happened upon a wonderful Black Sea-style pide restaurant in a street tucked away between the Sultanahmet tramline and the Grand Bazaar. There were simple soups and salads, and in front of a large wood-fired oven two young men were working briskly in tandem, rolling and stretching out dough, forming the traditional long boat shapes, adding a variety of toppings and thrusting the pide into the deep glowing recesses. The smell was intoxicating and we eagerly gave our order.

A few minutes later the food started arriving: two golden puffs of nigella-flecked bread emerged from the oven and landed in front of us with a trio of accompaniments. There was a dish of spicy red pepper paste, creamy whorls of butter and tangy white cheese. Next came deep bowls of steaming red soup – a popular Turkish ‘peasant’ dish that was thick with lentils, enlivened with a spritz of lemon and a sprinkling of dried mint. We scooped and dunked and sipped greedily, and then the main event arrived. There was Greg’s lahmacun, a crisp dough base smeared with spicy lamb paste and sprinkled with hot red pepper flakes. The pide were long and skinny, with the edges rolled in to contain the generous toppings: egg and spicy sucuk sausage and melting soft white cheese.

There may not have been swooning Imams, or delighted Sultans, but we all agreed, for a simple soup and sandwich lunch, and our first meal in Turkey, things just don’t get much better than that!


In Turkey soups are eaten all day long – from early-morning breakfasts through to late-night snacks. They are a key part of any festive banquet, and are generally the first food to soothe a hungry stomach at the end of Ramadan fasting days. In winter, soups are the comfort-food par excellence, and the cure for all ills – even hangovers! Soups are not considered as just the opening act to Turkish meals, more often than not they will be the star turn.

In fact, there are entire restaurants, known as çorbacı (from çorba, the Turkish word for soup) that serve nothing but soup – some even specialise in a particular kind of soup. The most famous of these are probably is kembeci (tripe soup restaurants), which often stay open until the early hours of the morning serving up their potent hangover cure to those who’ve overdone the rakı. It’s hard to know whether it’s the tripe that works the sobering-up magic, or whether it’s the traditional, fierce accompaniments of garlic, vinegar and chillies.

One of the most enjoyable meals we had on our Turkish journey was in the south-eastern city of Gaziantep, where we ate a fortifying soup called beyran. Although delicious, beyran is a fairly challenging dish that many might want to eat only a few times a year. Made from the sheep’s cheek and enriched with a big blob of solid white fat from a special Middle Eastern breed of sheep, you can almost feel your arteries hardening as you slurp it down.

The range of soups on offer is vast. There are simple vegetable soups thickened with a handful of rice, pasta or pulses, others are made from any part of the animal – from the head to the tail. A whole subsection of soups are yoghurt based, some contain green vegetables, like spinach, and others serve as the liquid vehicle for tiny rolled dumplings or stuffed mantı. One of the best-loved soups is tarhana, which is a soup base made from a sun-dried, fermented mixture of bulgur wheat and yoghurt. A sort of precursor to Cup-a-Soup!

The one thing that all Turkish soups have in common, from the humblest Black Sea milk soup to the most elegant banquet soup, is the way they make so much out of very little. Above all, they are nourishing and economical and the mainstay of most home cooking.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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