Pickle juice for breakfast? Not exactly how I envisioned kicking off my tour of the food attractions starting near the popular Spice Market in Istanbul. But one of the early lessons of spending the day with tour guide Angelis Nannos — a wiry Greek native with a passion for Turkish traditions that’s shared by his American bosses, the authors of the clever restaurant guide “Istanbul Eats” — is keeping an open mind (and a willing stomach).
So here some pals and I find ourselves, sipping sour vegetable juices in the belly of a warehouse stacked high with bags of coffee beans and equipped with a small kitchen for brewing tea and coffee. Burly workers get up from a worn table to make space for Nannos, his new charges and his purchases from some choice stalls in the market: olives, cheese, that liquid eye-opener from the pickle vendor and simit, Turkey’s equivalent of a bagel, sprinkled with sesame seeds. Our impromptu picnic is served atop sheets of newspaper and accompanied by the comings and goings of the men, who ferry trays of steaming tea and thick coffee to the merchants outside. None of the regulars in this warren of offices and storage, or han, bats an eye when a doctor strolls in and takes the blood pressure of one of the senior characters.
The print and online versions of “Istanbul Eats,” written and photographed by Ansel Mullins and Yigal Schleifer, are smart, affectionate and sometimes irreverent looks at the food scene in this metropolis of more than 10 million. The live-action spinoff of the 2010 guide is a calorie-laden insider’s look that goes well beyond what regular tourists glimpse.
Hence our breakfast in the warehouse.
Our day with Nannos actually began at 9:30 a.m., in Eminonu Plaza in the Old City, with an introduction to the amazing nut, cheese, olive, fish and other vendors nearby, who distinguish themselves from their competition in, say, Paris and Beijing by encouraging — almost begging — shoppers to sample their goods.
“You have the right to try,” instructs Nannos, who gave up a job as a civil engineer to teach and blog about food, music and other passions and joined Istanbul Eats just a year ago. “You’re not obliged to buy.” It was advice I used in Istanbul thereafter, but not before I’d shelled out $90 elsewhere for some pistachios and the marshmallow-like confection known as Turkish Delight after encountering a particularly persuasive dealer. I blame the transaction on jet lag.
Breakfast is behind us, but there’s baklava straight ahead, at the fragrant
(the tour is arranged not based on your appetite at the moment, but on where the good stuff happens to be). Nannos is on such friendly terms with the crew behind the glass display cases that he dons a white hat and joins them to cut samples of baklava for us. There’s a lot to take in: baklava with walnuts, baklava with the more expensive pistachios, baklava in the shape of lips and baklava flavored with . . . chocolate? Nannos catches the frown on my face and says that it isn’t blasphemy but part of Istanbul’s charm to embrace “the new with the old.” The chocolate confection, which we eat with kaymak, similar to clotted cream and made from buffalo milk, is fabulous, and I don't even care that much for chocolate.