Exotic Istanbul

Jenny Handley visited Istanbul, where history, culture and cuisine combine in a kaleidoscope of flavours that can all be termed Turkish delight.

My interest in Istanbul was piqued when my husband stopped there a year ago. I had begged him to buy me some brightly coloured hand-painted ceramics, so was disappointed (and mildly suspicious) when he returned bearing just a box of Turkish delight, claiming he had not seen any crockery anywhere. With direct flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg, Istanbul provides easy access to Europe, so when he chose it as the launchpad for a European trip, I made a mental note to discover crockery while in the Turkish capital.

We hit the ground running for action in Istanbul, determined to pack as many sights into two days as possible. The iconic view of the Blue Mosque (the famous building with its delicate patterns of blue Iznik tiles) from the window of our hotel in the Sultanahmet district was an inspiring welcome. We walked for five minutes towards the famous Grand Bazaar, following the exotic aromas of vibrantly coloured spices. You’re spoilt for choice with the vast variety of spices and teas on display. In the bazaar, which dates to 1461AD. I could not move a metre without falling over piles of crockery; bowls, plates, platters – you name it, I tripped over it.

Penance for my husband was to carry all my purchases, so there was no holding back. Victorious, I went on to buy unique jewellery and leather items, all the while fine-tuning my haggling with the stallholders. These lively Turks seemed to have an endless supply of cousins who had a smaller or larger size of what you wanted “just a minute away”. Endearing and hospitable, cups of apple tea were enjoyed with them during our shopping pursuits. Exhausted by the bartering, my husband sought refuge in the Fes Café, where he could sip a Turkish coffee and enjoy the ambience of the souk while I proceeded, undeterred. In excess of 5 000 shops line the 60 streets that form the maze of the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest covered markets in the world.

Our love affair with Turkish food started in the market and blossomed on the streets where their flavourful cuisine is best enjoyed. The Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires have each influenced the cuisine so it represents a fusion of central Asian, Middle Eastern and Balkan styles. Light use of spices and plentiful fish and seafood are popular. Keftas and kebabs, schwarmas and lamb, meze, pilafs, potatoes, peppers and olives washed down with fruit juices are an obvious choice. Lentils, beans, nuts and yoghurt, pastries and pastas are plentiful too. Turkish delight is not the only sweet treat in Turkey. The many ice-cream vendors could win an Oscar for their ebullient display as they stir ice cream with a paddle and then sweep it up into the air and let it land in your cone. Baklava and other nutty, syrupy desserts provided sustenance on the streets.

After waking to the sounds of calls to prayer, it was time for breakfast – the sultry, sexy aromas of tomato-based tapenades and delicacies, cheeses, sucuk (a dry, spicy sausage), menemen (a mixture of tomatoes, green peppers, onion, and egg) provided the most exotic start to the day.

We got to the Yerebatan Sarnici (Basilica Cistern) as it opened to avoid lengthy queues. Built in the 6th century, the James Bond movie From Russia with Love was filmed in this underground reservoir that was discovered in 1545. When boarding the ferry to venture from one continent to another – Europe to Asia – we spotted the long line of locals queuing at lunchtime for their balik ekmek fried or braaied fish served on a roll with lettuce, tomatoes and onion.

As a self-confessed, hedonistic shopper, Istanbul provided perfect fodder for my addiction, in addition to culture, beauty and history. Lasting memories linger in the distinctive Turkish purchases and memories made exotic Istanbul.

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