Istanbul, the jewel of the Ottoman Empire, is filled with exotic, intoxicating flavours and as celebrity cook, Alana Lowes, has discovered, authentic Turkish food is more than just a doner kebab.
Eastern European Time Zone (UTC+02:00)
Istanbul Ataturk Airport
Qantas, Etihad and Emirates all fly to Istanbul from Brisbane
Fresh seafood – tick, meat on sticks – tick, sweet sticky desserts – tick, creamy cheese for breakfast – double tick, not to mention the relaxing hamam (Turkish bath)…Istanbul, Turkey is a “tick all the food boxes” destination that I have visited time and time again. Here you will find me devouring “real” Turkish kebabs, jostling for sweet-smelling tea or pungent spices at the markets, or having my sticky foodie fingers scrubbed clean in a hamam.
Turkey’s largest city and cultural hub, Istanbul, is nothing short of a culinary wonderland. It is not just about kebabs and mezze (although they are definitely always on my hit list), Turk’s are also crazy about freshly caught seafood and sweet delights. But, before I indulge in any delicious desserts, let’s start first with a Turkish breakfast.
Best breakfast spot
A real Turkish breakfast is the ultimate way to kick off the day. You have two options – either find a little breakfast cafe or for the more adventurous, hit the narrow bustling alleys of the Spice Bazaar in Eminönü for bread, cheese, marinated olives and some salam (Turkish salami). I love to sample before I buy and in Turkey this is certainly encouraged. There are fresh slabs of beyaz peynir (mild, white cheese) or if you are game tulum peynir (goat’s milk cheese ripened in a goat skin casing) which I can assure you is absolutely delicious, although looks quite confronting. Use large hunks of simit (sesame crusted pretzel) to attack the cheese and then follow this with spicy salami and olives. Don’t forget to have a rich strong Turkish coffee to really finish off the ultimate breakfast.
Sweet mid-morning treat
If you are visiting during the summer like I always have, an ice-cream is the perfect choice to combat a warm summer’s day in Istanbul, but actually getting one isn’t quite as easy as you may think. In Turkey, Dondurma (ice-cream) is generally bought from street performers. It is always a game of cat and mouse when I try to grab my ice-cream cone only to have it whipped away from under my nose time and time again. It is great for a laugh, mostly for the street performer, and you are sure to gather a crowd to watch your misfortune. In the end it is worth the wait as Turkish ice-cream has a unique chewy texture and can be stretched and stretched without the fear of it breaking. The added bonus is that it doesn’t melt as quickly as normal ice-cream, so you don’t end up wearing it.
Lunch fit for a Sultan
By now you have indulged in breakfast, been spoilt with ice-cream, so you must be thinking about where to eat for lunch. Right around the corner from the Spice Bazaar is my favourite restaurant in all of Istanbul serving Turkey’s famed kebabs and mezze – Hamdi Restaurant. With views out over the Bosphorus River, prepare yourself for a feast fit for a Sultan. I don’t usually recommend a banquet menu, but this is the exception – choose your own mezze selection and I highly suggest you make sure it includes ezme – a spicy tomato and pepper salad and it is the inspiration behind Alana’s Pantry Spicy Turkey sauce. Before you even have the chance to plunge you last piece of bread into the remaining dips, your lamachun (Turkish pizza) will be laid out before you and following this, the jewel of the experience – a kebab platter with lamb and pistachio and spiced beef. Trust me you won’t be disappointed.
Time for relaxation
With a belly full of new tastes and flavours, now is the time to sit back, relax and emerge from your food coma. A Turkish Hamam is the perfect place to be scrubbed, soaped and slapped back into the land of the living. My recommendation is the Çemberlitas Bath which was built in 1584 and consists of both men’s and women’s sections. Inside the women’s section there are dozens of washing stalls and a central stone platform to lie down upon and simply pass time relaxing and gazing up at high sealing dome that is peppered with portholes that magically allow streams of light to flood into the Hamam in all directions. A coarse mit is used to scrub your body, exfoliating away any stress as you drift off dreaming about your next feast.
Another sweet snack
If you are lucky enough to be visiting during the holy month of Ramadan there are special sweet treats that are only available during this festive season. The Tulumber is my favourite and it is crunchy, syrup-coated, soft and fluffy all at the same time – wait for the sun to set and join in with locals greedily consuming this delicacy.
Dinner like the locals
Ahirikapi Balikçisi is one of the dining secrets of Sultanahmet and it’s where you will be mixing with the local workers feasting on grilled fish and sipping raki. Think rickety tables, colourful service, grilled calamari, buttered chilli prawns and cold beers, oh and of course the obligatory endless baskets of freshly baked Turkish bread. I love a place without a website, so all you need to know is to ask how to get to Keresteci Hakki Sokak 46, Cankurtaran/Ahırkapı. Simple really!
Skills to take home
The one thing I ALWAYS do when overseas is a cooking class. It is a fantastic way to learn about a culture and to collect some new recipes to impress your friends back home. Selin from Turkish Flavours showed me through to her cosy kitchen based in her apartment. It looks like the set of a cooking show with jars of marinating olives and plates of kaymak (creamy Turkish cheese). One item on the menu that catches my eye is kaymakli kuru kayisi (stuffed apricots). Much of Turkish cuisine involves hidden surprises – stuffed eggplants, stuffed figs…you get the picture. Selin will walk you through her recipes step-by-step. It is a real treat learning her recipes and hearing her nostalgic stories of watching her mother cook dinner parties in this very kitchen.
More about Alana
Alana Lowes is a celebrity cook of MasterChef pedigree and has travelled the world co-hosting the television show ‘A Taste of Travel’ on Channel Ten.
Alana has just embarked on a new adventure with the launch of her own Alana’s Pantry Spicy Sauce range available at Coles Supermarkets nationally. Inspired by her travels globally, she has bottled up the flavours of the world into her range of gourmet hot sauces. www.alanaspantry.com.au
To see where Alana is jetting off to next or what’s on her dinner plate, follow her on Instagram and Twitter @AlanaLowes