Postcard from Tom: In Istanbul, a calorie-laden tour of Turkish delights

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 Tatlici Safa (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.

We rinse our hands of sugar and crumbs and stroll to a one-man show in a nearby alley. He’s tending sputtering bolsters of kokorec suspended horizontally over red-glowing charcoal. Translation, please? Sweetbreads bundled in lamb intestines. The grill master slices off a round the size of a saucer, chops the milky offal on a wooden surface that’s been worn into a well from all the pounding, and serves us the delicacy in the hollow of a crusty baguette. The mouth registers fat, funk, oregano, salt, chili pepper: pleasure. As he will do throughout our time together, Nannos pulls out a money purse and pays for everything we consume, no matter how much or (later into the tour) how little. Istanbul Eats’s $125 price per person becomes more of a bargain with each stop.

Nannos wants us to see a working-class restaurant that started out as a soup kitchen for the poor in the shadow of the Rustem Pasa Mosque, which dates back five centuries. So in we go to a plain room where a handful of men occupy a handful of tables and eat the kind of food their wives or mothers would make for them if the men could spend more time away from their jobs. (Part of the appeal of Istanbul Eats is its maximum of six guests per tour, which allows easier access to gems such as this; as Nannos says later, “We try not to spoil them.”) We try a few spoonfuls of red lentil soup bright with lemon and hot with red pepper, then follow that with some more time travel.

Altan Sekerleme has been selling candy and confections since 1865; photographs on a wall depict members of three of the four generations that have sweetened the days of customers with satiny hard candies (akide) and Turkish Delights (lokum), displayed in tall glass jars or cupboards that look as if they’ve been around since Day One. Again, a proprietor lets Nannos slip on a glove and hand out tastes of the treats, which are made on site, upstairs. The colors are straight out of cartoons; the flavors run to mint, cinnamon, orange, rose petal and a peach that suggests the actual ripe fruit was used.

The sweets call for tea, which we sip in the nearby courtyard of another han, this one animated by a blacksmith and dating to the 17th or 18th century. “We like to keep secrets for our guests,” says Nannos. This ancient setting is among them.

The pause in the action gives us a chance to get to know our guide on a more personal level. “I’m hooked on Istanbul,” he says, as if there were any doubt. “I don’t want to leave for one day. She will be jealous of me,” he half-jokes. Unlike the guide we had earlier in the week, who wanted to take us to late-night belly-dancing shows and a man-made island on the Bosporus with its own pool, Nannos wants us to see a side of his adopted city that few tourists experience. “I don’t want to be the star of the walk,” he says, and we believe him, even though “the walk” wouldn’t be nearly so entertaining without him.

At one point on our stroll from west to south, every third storefront appears to frame people having their hair cut inside. Nannos says there’s a saying: “Half the men in Istanbul are barbers, and the other half are customers.” A tip for gents: You can skip the Turkish baths here, but don’t even think about forgoing an old-fashioned shave featuring warm lather, a sharp blade and, depending on where you land, a head or shoulder massage.

None of us is the least bit hungry. But the sight of a man shaving lamb from a large spindle prompts us to rally. Besir Ete, the bald swordsman with the kindly mug at Bereket, brings to mind that “Top Chef” top gun, Tom Colicchio; the subject of his attention is not the ubiquitous trunk of meat that lesser purveyors buy frozen from factories, but lamb that he has put together himself, along with alternating layers of tomatoes, onions and bell peppers: sebzeli doner kebab (the first word means “with vegetables”). It is not a traditional doner kebab, Nannos says, but the combination of juicy meat and crisp vegetables (served over rice or with bread) gets a thumbs up for innovation. The striped tower takes the vendor two hours to assemble each morning, Nannos tells us; the secret to its succulence is marinating the lamb in shredded onion and onion juice the night before. We exit thanking Ete, who pats his hand over his heart.

The idea of fermented millet as a chaser doesn’t excite anyone but Nannos. But his enthusiasm for the Ottoman-era beverage called boza is infectious, and he knows just the spot to try it in Vefa, the neighborhood we have wandered into. Dressed with a handsome wood bar, pale yellow walls, mosaic tiles and a glass said to have been used by Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, in 1937, Vefa Bozacici looks like a cross between an espresso bar and a saloon. The house draw, made with yeast, water and sugar, is poured into tall glasses and sprinkled with cinnamon. Roasted chickpeas can be added at the table. The beige result is like a liquefied pudding, mildly sweet but also slightly salty. We are pleased to have drunk it.

It is after 3 p.m. when Nannos leads us through the Kurdish neighborhood of Kandinlar Pazari, and we collapse into the outdoor seats at Siirt Seref Buryan , a restaurant where the regulars include the prime minister and the specialty is whole lamb suspended on hooks and cooked in a dome-topped oven that goes more than eight feet into the ground. Again, we see today blending with eons ago: Half the table is facing skyscrapers and half has a view of the nearby ancient Roman aqueducts. I’m a grazer by profession, but like my fellow travelers, I’m suffering from stimulus overload and taste-bud fatigue. For a moment, I consider flagging a taxi to return to our hotel. But soon the table is crowded with some of that lamb, a rippled dip of red peppers, onion and tomatoes, and a wedding dish called “rice in curtains” (steaming pilaf beneath a crisp cover of pastry made with yogurt). And so we feast again.

We’ve only strolled a little more than a mile in the past six hours, but it feels as if we’ve canvassed the whole of Turkey. We are exhausted and exhilarated. And very, very full.

I returned to Washington with notebooks filled with names of places I’d love to visit again. The best place for a cup of Turkish coffee? Possibly the slip of a stall called Mandabatmaz, tucked away in an alley near the St. Antoine Church off Istikal Caddesi. Mullins introduced me to the father-and-son stand, the faded sign for which translates into English as “The Buffalo Won’t Sink,” because of the thickness of the coffee; the beans for the shop are roasted and ground fresh each day. We sat on wooden stools on a sloped sidewalk comparing the different strengths and came to the conclusion that “orta,” coffee with “a medium” amount of sugar, was best.

Fish lovers should take the time to seek out the inviting Kahraman, which was recommended to me by the Turkish ambassador to the United States, Namik Tan. The signature of the restaurant, the route to which hugs the Bosporus, is simply grilled, ugly but delicious spotted turbot preceded by tasty seafood salads and accompanied by extraordinary warmth (and lots of pantomime).

Serious food connoisseurs need to make time for Ciya Sofrasi , whose chef and owner, Musa Dagdeviren, has made it his mission to revive and reinvent Turkish cuisine. Aim for a perch outside, hopefully the yellow wooden table that is so close to the kitchen window that you might be greeted (as we were) with some charred bell pepper doled out by one of the smiling cooks. Some customers go inside to select their food, much of it on display in pots and platters; we let the servers make those decisions for us. What followed were a soft sail of sesame-seeded bread; exquisite kibbe fashioned from finely ground beef and pistachios; cigar-thin dolma filled with tart rice; tender meatballs the size of marbles; fish wrapped in grape leaves; a salad of figs and tomatoes; orbs of candied eggplant and a crescent of pumpkin draped with walnut sauce. There may be no finer food in the city. Part of the enchantment of dining at Ciya Sofrasi is reaching it via a short ferry ride to the Asian side of the Bosporus.

All those experiences made me grateful to have met Istanbul, yet the only place my friends and I sought out for a second meal was Bereket, that inexpensive doner kebab vendor in the Old City, which we returned to the very afternoon after our tour with Istanbul Eats.

This time, however, we took our guide’s initial advice: “Come with totally empty stomachs.”

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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