Turkish tea, ayran, kebabs and baklava

In the UK and Australia, a kebab is normally like that girl you’d rather forget:  a drunken mistake that you picked up at the end of the night because, well, let’s be honest, who knows what you were thinking.  Come morning, you’d really rather you’d kept your lips away.  There are exceptions, of course – sometimes you’re not even drunk yet, but you just feel like something cheap and easy (I’m talking about the kebabs, people!).  And sometimes it’s not so much regret as just an ignorable feeling in the back of your mind that probably you could have chosen more wisely.

In Turkey, the kebab can serve that purpose too, but with the added bonus of substantial competition between about three million kebaberies in close proximity, so your late-night inebriated self has quite the array of rotating meat products on display to drool over while waiting for its fix.  (No, kebaberies is not a real word, but it totally should be, so I’m using it anyway.)  But in Turkey, the kebab can also function as a perfectly respectable meal.  Score one for the Turks.

In fact, score two for Turkey for the fact that not only can you purchase said kebabs from a variety of perfectly respectable restaurants, or from a veritable treasure trove of dodgy-looking meat merchants in the bar areas.  You can also, if you keep your eyes peeled, find a third category of vendor:  the man with the kebab cart.  This champion will set up shop in the evenings down a little side street somewhere by wheeling his cart into place and lighting the charcoal in its little barbeque.  Like most restaurants, he will be serving şiş kebabs (the meat is cooked on a skewer before being gift wrapped in bread along with the other presents:  lettuce, tomato, onion, spicy sauce, etc.) rather than doner kebabs (where the meat is cooked as it slowly rotates on a glorious vertical rotisserie).  Unlike restaurants, you will be able to wander along on the side of the road, spot our lonely hero going about his delicate work, politely request your serving(s) of delicious delicious meat products, and be on your way, reward in hand, in about ten minutes.  And they’re the tastiest kebabs I’ve ever had, even despite the fact that I was stone cold sober.  (Well, at least one of the times.)

A street vendor makes me a delicious delicious şiş kebab in Sultanahmet. Make sure to ask for the spicy sauce.

I don’t know whether there are any nutritional bodies which issue guidelines specifying a recommended daily intake of kebab, but as you might guess from the preceding paragraphs, I’m pretty sure I consumed more than whatever that hypothetical limit might be.  Fairly regularly.  In fact, I’m pretty sure there was one twenty-four hour period which involved about five or six kebabs, and pretty much no other sustenance.  At that point, I decided that it was probably time for some variety.  And thus for the next twenty-four hours, I consumed pretty much nothing but baklava.  Three cheers for a balanced diet!

You will find a variety of different types of baklava in Istanbul.  I highly recommend the place on this corner near Gulhane.  I can’t for the life of me remember what it’s called, but it’s on the south side of the road on the corner where the tram turns right to head towards the water, and it’s a bakery / sweet shop on the bottom floor and café on the first floor.  Head up to the first floor, peruse their ridiculously large catalogue of baklava and assorted other sweets (it’s too big and has too many pictures to be denigrated a ‘menu’, so I’m going with ‘catalogue’).  And order lots of them.  Get a seat next to the (open) windows, so you can look out at the traffic chaos as you reflect on the sugary goodness you’re about to stuff in your face.  Good times.

While enjoying your baklava, you will most likely also want a Turkish tea (çay).  In fact, while doing pretty much anything in Turkey you will most likely also want a Turkish tea.  Or possibly a Turkish coffee – although, to be honest, while I love them, I didn’t see many other people partaking.  Tea, on the other hand, you will see literally everywhere.  In fact, from all the visual evidence available to me, I’m fairly confident in claiming that tea is all that’s required to sustain an elderly Turkish gentlemen into his dotage.  That and a game of dominoes.  Or chequers.  Or just a newspaper.  In dire circumstances, just the tea by itself may suffice, as long as its consumed in a park somewhere.  Or, if the gentlemen operates a store in the Grand Bazaar, then there.  In which case it will have been delivered on a silver tray by a delivery boy whose sole occupation is to run around the bazaar delivering tea to said gentlemen.

Tea delivery in the Eminönü Spice Bazaar.

Between sips of your Turkish tea, you may wish to try another local beverage:  ayran.  It’s a slightly strange drink, with the appearance and texture of milk, but the taste of greek yoghurt.  Actually really quite good.

There are other Turkish delicacies that you should try too, if you get the chance.  Pide (Turkish pizza), for example.  Fish sandwiches from the market at Eminönü.  Köfte (meatballs).  Çop şiş (lamb on a skewer), especially if you’re in Selçuk.  But my final real main recommendation, if you get out of Istanbul to anywhere in the south and/or west of Turkey, is to make sure you get some gözleme into you.  It’s basically like a crepe, normally made with minced meat filling, or spinach, or cheese, or some combination.

The process of making gözleme appears to go like this:

  1. seat an old woman with some dough and a rolling pin in front of a small round table about thirty centimetres high, and give her the filling and access to a round dome-shaped grilling plate on which to cook the gözleme (it’s cooked with the filling already spread out on the dough and with the dough folded over)
  2. ???
  3. profit (although not much, since it’s typically going to set you back around five to ten Turkish lira)

Someone told me that the best gözleme to be had is up in the little mountain village of Şirince – and certainly the cheese and spinach one I had there was fantastic.  But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the best one I had in Turkey was on the boat cruise I took from Olympos to Fethiye, on the afternoon of the second day.  We pulled into a reasonably popular but remote bay, only for our boat to be immediately assailed by a variety of ice cream sellers, jet ski owners offering rides for a specially discounted fee which they were offering just for us this one time only, etc.  And by a rowboat equipped with an old woman, a small round table about thirty centimetres high, some dough, a rolling pin, and a round dome-shaped grilling plate.  A little old lady made me gözleme on a boat that her son rowed up to the side of ours.  Seriously.  It made my day.  (And it was already a pretty damn good day by that point.)  How could I not have two?  And, although it may not be traditional Turkish fare as scientifically defined by alimentary archeologists, the nutella and banana gözleme was definitely a winner.  Authenticity be damned.

They rowed out to our boat and made me gözleme! Could Turkish food get any more awesome?

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