Istanbul is immersed in a retro atmosphere in which past and present, west and east struggle for supremacy.
Forget about public transport (you’ll never have the right bus ticket and taxis make their way through the city by trial and error!), put on some comfy shoes and follow your nose – and sometimes, your map!
This is how you’ll discover Constantinople, capital of the Roman empire, whose basilicas have now been transformed into mosques, Byzantium, and its wonderful mosaics, and modern Istanbul with its triumphantly colorful markets pregnant with intense, sometimes pungent odors and spicy aromas.
A complex past, an event-packed history, a city of continual transformation (not only of the name!) to be found in the labyrinth of narrow streets winding up and down along the Bosporus.
At this point your childish curiosity, which you thought you had lost, will lead you through the streets of this splendid city, among the shops of the Grand Bazaar, to the sound of the muezim’s call, reminding you five times a day that you are in a country where 99% of the population are practising Muslims.
In Istanbul you breathe in history. For example, today’s Fatih mosque inside the walls of the Old City was Istanbul’s first Christian church and first synagogue (it was founded in the 5th century AD). You can also breathe in the perfumes of the Orient and its spices against a backdrop of exciting colors, voices from the market, and impressively beautiful and austere architecture. Yes, this is a city to be experienced and tasted. Before stopping in any of the restaurants – and here you really can find everything, from international dishes to Ottoman cuisine – do try the street food specialties.
There is such a variety of food on offer: you’ll find corn on the cob everywhere, boiled or roasted, at the amazing price of 500,000 Turkish lire – about 30 Eurocents. You can eat them at any hour of the day, cleaned and wrapped in their leaves, and they are quite a popular snack, to judge by the number of vendors who stop at junctions and inside markets with their carts. The same vendors will also sell you rice pilaf with chicken, sesame seed bread and several types of cake. There is no lack of meat both from street vendors and vociferous salesmen in stands: sausages – strictly beef – with tomato sauce, onions and bread; kebabs, of course, which deserve a whole article to themselves; and then the classic Turkish pizzas, pide.These are a sort of pizza covered with tomato and kept warm until you arrive, when they are generously topped with parsley, rolled up and served in a paper napkin.
And then, in a city where the Golden Horn, the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara converge, reminding you of the importance of water, how could there not be fish?
Fish and all types of shellfish are usually battered and fried. A typical dish is mussel kebabs, which are often served raw, especially in the Taksim district. For a million Turkish lire (about 60 Eurocents), a number of boats near the Galata bridge equipped with galleys, however basic, will serve you with a roll containing a fillet of fried fish (which varies according to the luck of the fisherman and the season) with a few leaves of salad and a couple of slices of tomato. Then obviously there are fried squid, shrimp, cuttlefish and octopus: you can choose the quantity you put in your little dish. To end your itinerant meal, if you wish, you will be served peaches, apples, pears, grapes and bananas. If you’re still hungry, don’t miss out on a roll with abundant quantities and varieties of pickled vegetables: gherkins, zucchini, eggplant, peppers, onions, are all crammed into transparent jars, their freshness guaranteed by the number of people who choose to eat them.
Tasting all these odds and ends will make you thirsty. In the historical areas particularly popular with tourists your attention will certainly be drawn to the cherry tea vendors. Dressed in traditional costume and carry a large metal container around their necks, the vendors bend over to pour the tea directly into your glass. The beverage is cold, pleasantly sweet but not cloying, and thirst-quenching. Wherever you are, in a bar or from a street vendor, you’ll find varieties of tea, natural or apple-flavored. The former is rather tannic, dark and served very hot: suitable for stronger palates. The latter is aromatic and refreshing, with a pleasant aftertaste of stewed fruit. Then there are the orangeade and lemonade salesmen, and if you don’t want the tinned or bottled version you can look for a vendor of freshly squeezed juice. The glass is the same, but the sourness of the juice and a good rinse out should reassure you regarding hygiene.
Chiara Fornari and Alberto Arossa work at the Slow Food Master of Taste office