Insights from Turkey
by Molly Farquharson
The food in Turkey is wonderful and very nutritious. Even at the vegetable sellers it is displayed in a very attractive way. For example, some tomatoes may be placed on a stack of cucumbers to show them off. One restaurant on Istiklal Caddesi, one of the main shopping streets in the city, usually has a carved melon in its window to lure in customers.
These are some of my favourite Turkish foods. Tavuk shish is chicken shish. It is pieces of chicken broiled and then served on a plate with salad (mostly lettuce and red cabbage), grated carrot, slices of huge radish (about the size of a turnip), and a long thin green pepper. There is usually bulgur and occasionally rice. Sprigs of parsley are liberally sprinkled on top. This comes accompanied by wonderful bread.
Bread at the bakeries is very cheap, as the price is government controlled. Most of it is the French bread style and costs about 35 cents per loaf. Bread in Turkey has to be eaten the same day, as it goes stale quickly. There is also “flower” bread that is like a bun in a circle around a centre, like a blossom. It often has some sesame seeds sprinkled on top. We can get various other kinds of bread, some whole wheat, some seeded. There is even what we consider regular sliced bread, but it is not that tasty, especially in comparison with the other bread.
One kind of bread is flat and has indentations on the top (the bread maker pokes his fingers into it to do that). Another type often arrives puffed up like a balloon. It is long, about the length of two plates. Both kinds of bread are called pide (pee-day). They are like pita. We tear off a piece and use it to wrap some food and eat it. I learned that it is rude to completely clean one's plate, which is no problem as the food is abundant and it's hard to eat it all. Another kind of pide is a long pide bread with cheese or minced beef in it. I like the cheese one as it reminds me of a version of cheese pizza or cheese toast. Lahmacun, another common baked item, is sometimes called Turkish pizza. The thick crust is covered with minced lamb, tomatoes, peppers, and onions – but no cheese.
On the streets you can find carts selling simit, which resemble bagels, but are not quite as bready. There are also chatal (fork), which are three pieces that meet at each end. They are a little richer than simit. The third choice is achma, which are also like bagels, but are softer. These cost about 75 cents to a dollar, so they are a cheap way to fill up if you are on the run.
Other dishes I like are kuzu shish (lamb) and various kinds of kebab – usually lamb and usually ground. Two kinds, Adana and Urfa, are spicy, and are regional foods (both those places are in the south of Turkey). Doner (meat turning on a vertical spit) is what I normally associated with Greek restaurants. It is pieces of lamb – like the giro. Iskender (Alexander) kebab, a common doner dish, consists of cubes of pide with sliced doner on top, and then a tomato sauce on top. Sometimes there are a few French fries mixed in. On the side of the plate is yogurt. Sometimes there are pieces of fresh tomato mixed in.
Here I want to note that yogurt is mostly used with meat or vegetables. Fruited yogurt has been on the market for only a few years and is sort of in the category of sugary cereals, meant to get the kids to eat it. The yogurt is great and people eat a lot of it. They even make a drink of it, called ayran. It is yogurt and water, sometimes with dill weed or garlic in it. It is very refreshing in the summer. French fries seem random here. If you order a hamburger, they stick two or three fries on top of it under the bun. At McDonald's you can get mayonnaise to go with your fries. Yuk.
The soup is appetizing. Usually it is a red lentil soup (mercimek corbasi) served with a chunk of lemon to squeeze into it. The chicken soup seems to me to be rather watery. There are also some yogurt-based soups, some of which are cold and may include garbanzos. Lemons are ubiquitous. They are used as a dressing for salad, in soup, and in a lot of other ways, if only to squeeze over whatever is on the plate. They grow in Turkey, too.
Desserts are intense. Of course there is baklava and variations of it. It is so sweet that a little bit goes a very long way, though Turks can eat a whole plate of four or six pieces. There are cakes (called pasta here) that look better than they taste. They are actually not so sweet. Some of my favourites are chocolate-filled cookie-like concoctions that are wonderful and some sublime hazelnut-filled pastry.
Coffee culture as we know it has arrived in the form of Starbucks and Gloria Jean's. Before that there was the traditional Turkish coffee, which is akin to thick espresso. Or else there is instant coffee. Neither one is very good, as far as I am concerned. Everyone drinks tea, which grows in Turkey, too. In fact, most offices have a “go-fer” who brings tea all day. It is very common for tea rather than coffee to be offered to customers and friends.
At fish restaurants (meyhane) you can choose mezes, which are appetizers. I often order several and that is my dinner. I accompanied it with a glass or two of raki, which is similar to Greek ouzo (but don't say that to a Turk!). Mezes might include raw fish in lemon, like seviche, thick yogurt dishes with cress or grated carrot, fava bean paste, eggplant purée or eggplant in a tomato sauce, pickles, and more. They are really delicious and at most places you can choose them from a large tray. Fish is rather expensive at restaurants. What is offered is usually the fish that is in season; it might be sea bass or snapper or tuna, among others. There are some very small fish that Turks like, but I personally find their taste objectionable.
A common salad is choban (shepherd) salata, which is chopped tomato, cucumber, peppers, and onion dressed with oil and vinegar. Of course there are green salads, as unfortunately Turks have discovered head lettuce. One thing you see here sometimes is a cart selling cucumbers. The seller will often peel and salt them for you, and then you can walk down the street chomping on a cuke. Great fast food!
In the past I often had occasion to use a lot of taxis, mostly for work. They have taken me all over the city and I have met different kinds of taxi drivers and sat in different states of taxis.
Unlike many North American cities, you can easily flag down taxis on the street. If you are staying at a hotel, they will call one for you, but generally taxis are easy to get. Usually taxi drivers are honest, but sometimes they will "forget" to turn on the meter, in which case you have to remind them or protest. The taxi meters are usually in the middle below the dash (so you have to crane your neck to see it) or electronically displayed on the bottom of the rear view mirror. If you are going to the airport, for example, you should ask at the hotel or ask someone you know to see about how much it should be. A ride from Ataturk Airport to the centre of the city it is about 40 lira these days.
Some taxi drivers drive like a bat out of hell, but most are fairly careful. In general Turkish drivers are a little crazy, but there are much crazier in the world. They are generally polite, although most do not speak English. Some may speak a little German, but most can only ask 'Where you from?' and that is the end of a conversation.
The worst taxi drivers are in Sultanahmet, which is where most tourists congregate. They are infamous for ripping tourists off. They take a lot of round-about routes, adding many kilometers if they can. They may also do the money switch: you give him a 50 lira note as payment and he passes you back a 5 lira note, saying earnestly that tourists always get them confused. By then you are confused and give another 50 in hopes of getting change. I met someone that experienced this twice in a row with the same taxi driver. In the old days, the taxi drivers would set the meter to the night rate during the day. As a result of that, there is no night rate now, and of course the other taxi drivers are not too happy about it. In fact other taxi drivers recommend not getting a taxi from a taxi stand in Sultanahmet but to flag one down from the street instead.
A few years ago some of the taxis were still pretty old. I got into one that was probably owned by the taxi driver. I say that because the driver looked to be about 100 years old and the car was pretty battered on the inside. He had had a bar welded across the back of the front seats, probably to keep the seats upright. The window levers had broken off and the ashtrays were long gone. At least the doors opened from the inside! The man drove like most old men: he kept two hands on the wheel, and when entering a curve, he turned bit by bit, rather than with one smooth movement. He argued with me a little as we drove up to Galata Square, saying that the roads were one way. I know those streets and one way or not, we were going there. He wanted a higher fare by going a different route, is all.
The newer taxis are generally very clean and sometimes have some personal things hanging from the rear view mirror, which indicate that they are probably owned by the driver. One taxi driver in this case was very talkative, once he ascertained that I spoke Turkish. He told me he used to work in a bank, but during the troubles with banks a few years ago, he left banking and bought the taxi. He said his friends who were still at the bank made about $800 a month, and he was making considerably more. He also told me he was divorced and loved to go to the Bosporus to fish restaurants and wouldn't I like to give him my number so he could take me. He was very nice, but I declined.
Another taxi driver told me that his family was Albanian, though he was born here. From what I could see of him, he had had a bit of a rough life, as his nose looked like it had been broken. He talked and talked and told me he enjoyed the conversation with me. He said if ever I needed a taxi or wanted to go out, I could call him. He insisted on giving me his number and had me read it back to him. And of course he asked for mine, which I did not give him.
Some taxi drivers don't talk. Perhaps they think I don't speak Turkish or perhaps they are just taciturn. Those who do talk even a little ask me where I am from, what my husband does, if I have children, if I work here. Lately I have taken to telling them my husband is a teacher so they will not bother asking me out.
In the past when I have said I was not married, the next question was whether I lived alone. They then suggested that it must be very difficult to live alone and wouldn't I like a friend. Or they ask if I have a friend. I tell them I have lots of friends and sometimes feign not understanding what they are getting at.
Some of my women friends are offended by the way taxi drivers ask personal questions. I am not usually offended, though I have learned to fend them off. They are curious and they are assertive, as most Turkish men are. They don't seem to feel they have anything to lose by asking, as indeed they don't. Some of these drivers actually do get women to go out with them and some get foreign girlfriends; so they keep trying.
In general, you should be aware of taxis in Istanbul, but don't worry. Turks are generally helpful and except for the taxis in Sultanahmet, you should have a favourable experience getting around Istanbul.
For many visitors to Istanbul, a trip to a hammam is on their list. A few years ago, this was my first experience of truly clean living. Some friends and I went to SultanAhmet, the major tourist area in Istanbul (that is where Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque are). One of the people had a flier to a famous Ottoman bath (hammam), so we decided to go. The door was a fairly nondescript entryway with a grizzled older man drumming up business outside it. At that time entrance cost about $15, but now it is likely $50 or more.
First of all, we left our clothes in a locker and wrapped a big red-striped peshtemal (a thin cotton cloth) around us. We were ushered into a sıcaklık – a large, round marble room that was very toasty. There was a large, raised marble dais in the middle, where we lay down wrapped in our cloths. The stone was very warm. We lay there and began to melt. Soon, however, some Turkish women came in, naked except for their panties. They were the masseuses. We watched with curiosity as they worked on a couple of British women. Those women also had left their panties on (Out of modesty? I wondered if they had brought extras...). When they were done being worked on, it was our turn.
But first, let me try to describe the place. The name of this particular bath is Cemberlitas. Built in 1584, it was commissioned by Nur-u Banu Sultan, the wife of Sultan Selim II. "It is one of the most important works of 16th century Ottoman architecture," said the hammam's pamphlet. The ceiling had many small vents or windows in it, so the light shone down in various places on the dais as the sun moved. It looked like the inside of a gigantic stone saltshaker. The room was round, with carved stone columns separating the various alcoves. There were stone basins around the room with water faucets for each of them. There were also larger alcoves that had three basins in them. We discovered that each one had a different temperature of water, from cold to lukewarm to warm. After lying on the table for a while, it felt good to get up and wash off with our choice of water. I was awed to think that this place, now a must-see tourist attraction, was once a place full of highly placed women and their female entourages. Imagine the intrigue and the court gossip fomented there! If the stone could talk! It would be in Turkish, though, and I wouldn't understand much!!! Anyway, I was very impressed and was glad I went in.
I felt even better after my massage. First, the woman called me: "Lady, lady!" I went over to her and she took off my cloth, laying it out for me to lie on. Then she motioned for me to turn over. She rubbed my skin with a kese, a scratchy mitt, which felt quite good. Then I rolled over and she continued, making me sit up while she did my arms. She motioned for me to lie on my belly again, and then she started the soap and massage process. The olive oil soap was put into what looked like a thin pillowcase. She got it all wet, blew into it, and squeezed it. The air coming out of it made a foam that she spread all over me. Then she rubbed me the right way and pounded my back a bit. Afterward it was time for the front. It felt great!!!
The next step was to lead me over to the marble basin, where she washed my hair by pouring water from a bowl over me. She rubbed my back and shoulders some more, rinsed me off, and led me back to the stone table to melt completely. It was wonderful! I felt like a baby – and like a pampered woman. It was VERY relaxing and, of course, historical.
We eventually emerged from the bath and went and had lunch. It was at a place that had waiters dressed in pseudo Anatolian outfits, and there were fezzes for the tourists to put on. In the middle of the restaurant, there were four women also dressed in Anatolian clothes, preparing what the menu called crepes, but which was really thin bread. They rolled it with long thin rolling pins – more like long sticks – and cooked it on a flat plate. This is the traditional way of making bread in Anatolia (the part of Turkey that is outside of Istanbul, on the Asian side). It was tasty, but way overpriced; we were, after all, in the tourist area. Then we walked about 20 min. to get to Eminonu, which is where there are a lot of ferries, the Galata Bridge, and the famous covered bazaar.
It was a lovely day. It was fun to be a tourist for a while and to pretend to be a harem maiden.
Early in the 21st century Ontario-born Molly Farquharson landed
a job as an English teacher in exotic Istanbul. Later she established Molly's Café, a cultural crossroad in one of the city's oldest neighbourhoods, where she continues to live as the unofficial Queen of Galata.