And here’s Istanbul, eaten köfte at one of the main köfteh shops in Sultanahmet, squeezed and drank pomegranate juice for the tourist price at the Ayia Sofia, eaten a sesame bagel simit overlooking a crowd of boats in the Marmara Sea and the Asian mountains that look more like clouds, and drunk tea from the glass tulip tea there too – but no, this is not Istanbul yet, not a feel for Istanbul yet.
For example, I’m so hungry for kebab-ekmek, what the hell. Balik-ekmek is what it is: half a mackerel, fried in front of you and shoved into a halved bun with fresh onions and herbs. It’s common to pick it up at the pavilion on the Eminönü pier: you can hear the call to it from afar, “Buirun-buirun-buirun!” (please, I mean, please), and the crowd crowds in, getting full – but now the pavilion is closed. So, we go up to the Galata Bridge and get the first caught – from a guy who does not take too much trouble, a little fried carcass – that’s all, cut the bun – that’s all, threw some greens – that’s all, and go on your way, man. But let it be like that – you sit on the kerb, exactly in the middle of the Golden Horn, and long trams are stretched behind, and ahead the light shines on Asia, the cables of Bosporus bridge, ferry boats as smart as buses, and tips of rods, which the bridge is full of, and under the rods there are cups with bouquets of fish minnows, with sharp-nosed bait. And you look at the gull in the dark sky caught by the green laser beam of a passer-by, and you chuckle at the old trick of the shoe-shiner who seems to lose his brush in front of you and goes on his way, listening, when he is called out to deploy his art of persuasion, trying to smear vax on the grey shoes that must be cleaned, my friend, by all means, by all means, nothing that the shoes are grey, and nothing that vax is used.
Muammer, owner of the Beyoğlu Söğüş Kelle boiled lamb’s head locker, poses at a photo of him as a teenager – still with the trolley
That’s when it feels like you’re in Istanbul, like a library with millions of stories told anew every day and composed anew. You can comprehend it through the layers of centuries, you can look out over the Bosphorus from the harem in the Sultan’s Topkapi Palace, marvel at the universal lightness that the heavy-weight Hagia Sophia conceals, descend into the underground colonnades of reservoirs and gaze at the thick golden fish in the dark water, wander through the endless maze of the Grand Bazaar, bargaining for pashminas and cornflower ceramics – but the real language of Istanbul is different: The language of the streets and squares, the language of the sea that the city has inside, the language of the food that is everywhere in the city.
Freshly squeezed juices – orange and pomegranate – are the main street drinks, along with tea and ayran; in winter they also drink salep of jatrach root. Meat cut from a lamb’s head is eaten on a plate (which comes with a mountain of free fresh bread), and in the form of sandwiches too.
We cross the bridge to the other side of the bay and realise how reckless we were in encouraging the young slacker, because we see the real master. This is clear from the line of seven and from his work: turns over the fried fish halves, gently runs his tongs along the backbone, picks it out and throws it into a box under the fryer, rhythmically beats the small bones with his tongs there, which he pulls from the mackerel, fries the flattened bread, soaking it with heat and fish fat, sticks the fish inside, scatters the peppers, tops it with chopped tomatoes and herbs, spritzes it with lemon juice, folds the loaf and presses it against the glowing steel with tongs, heating it some more, and only then puts the sandwich in a paper pocket – and the queue is dealt with in seven minutes. Even though they have long been making kebab from frozen fish from the northern seas, some people know how to make it and others do not.
For a newcomer, Istanbul is overwhelming – it seems like everything and everywhere is good on the streets here, but then by trial and error you find places that are actually good. And lucky if there’s a local person who fills your time with places unmistakable. Fortunately, we have one – his name is Ekin and he’s a chef. We meet him in Taksim Square the next morning and he – with a nod to the main kebab shop (“Thirty thousand döner kebabs they sell here from Saturday to Sunday”) and the square itself (“This is where we fought the police for our Gezi Park”) – tells us that he studied in France, thinks he is half-French and that French cuisine is the best in the world, but he is certainly local and knows more about Istanbul food than any other Istanbulian.
Pando Kaymak in Beşiktaş serves not only kaimak but also the freshest eggs – especially popular in the morning. Plastic tables with oilcloths, roosters between tables and the freshest fried fish – that’s what the café at the Galata Bridge Fish Market is all about
We enter the bustling even morning pedestrian street of Istiklal, but soon turn off into endless streets to find ourselves in a tented alleyway lined with tiny tables: “Let’s have a coffee or tea to start, and then I’ll show you something,” says Ekin. We drink some coffee and some tea, catching the rhythm of the day, while a ‘Istanbul: they call it chaos and we call it home’ T-shirt stares back at us from the window. Again the alleys and alleys, until Ekin leads us to a glass tall box from which bare rings of trachea look out over the skinless rings of boiled lamb heads. The black-haired salesman takes one, quickly cuts the meat off it, shreds the tongue, tosses the cut eye too into a plate with onions and herbs, and sprinkles red pepper on top – done, sit down here on a chair and see how good it is, but meanwhile look here, at the black and white photo: this is me at fourteen, doing the same thing. (I notice he has a Facebook too: the address is written above the photo.) “There used to be a lot of that, there were food carts everywhere, but these creeps are forcing everyone out,” Ekin says, and it’s clear without elaboration that the creeps are the ones who wanted to knock out Gezi Park. Then he asks me, “Have you ever eaten lamb’s brains?” “Eggs,” I say, “but I don’t remember eating brains. Ekin smirks: “Then you haven’t. It’s impossible to forget. (A day later he shows us to a nearby cafe that cooks exclusively in offal, and there they give us a plate of tender boiled brains, on which we squeeze a lemon.)
The awfully sweet tulumba, reminiscent of Spanish churros, is fried on the streets in two versions: as rings or as short cylinders. A tried-and-true spot in Sultanahmet, the main tourist area, is Maya’s Corner kebab shop near the Yerebatan underground reservoir
And then we end up in a fish alley, where it’s not fish I want, but mussels stuffed with rice – mussel dolmas – laid out in a vat. They are also sold on the quayside, where a man who has disembarked from the ferry needs only to make a sign with his hand – the seller opens and serves the shells one by one, sprinkling them with lemon juice, until the man gives the hand signal to stop, wipes his hands with an extended napkin, and settles for a handful of heavy change. “Never eat mussels on the wharves,” Ekin says. – ‘You can here, they make it here. Don’t take them from the vat, but from this, you see, covered pot, they’re still warm there.” We ask for ten and then ask for ten more and then we go out onto Istiklal, where an old tram rattles on and on, a backpacker in a white T-shirt and headphones strides along the track, so he can’t hear it, and the cabman opens his window and throws a ball of paper at his back to the laughter of the street.
A huge knife helps you shred the fried meat faster – otherwise you can’t cope with the never-ending stream of people at Besiktas’ best kebab shop, Karadeniz. The few fish left in the markets in the evening are given away for half price and won’t be sold the next day: the people of Istanbul won’t understand that
And then we take the ferry to Asia, to the Kadıköy wharf, where you cross the road and enter blocks of shops where half-pound stacks of tea pile up, dark red basturma logs reveal themselves, bundles of dried aubergines and tomatoes hang down and bags of spices and nuts of various kinds stand open – and there, too: kebabs, fried khamsa and battered mussels (sampling both as sandwiches) – and kokorech, fried chopped giblets that are chopped even finer right on the roaster with a spatula like a large spatula, lined with sliced tomatoes, pressed into a slide and piled with hot this and spicy powder.
Anything fried at the Galata Bridge fish market can be eaten without fear: fishermen deliver the catch straight to the counters and fryers. Chickpeas and rice, which cost mere pennies and are sold from carts on the streets, are not for vegetarians: they are made with chicken broth
There’s a story about kokorech. On my first visit to Istanbul I wanted to eat it, so I ate it in several places. I found the best one in Kadıköy and took a picture of a big Turk chopping it. In Moscow, I gave his picture to my friend who was going to Istanbul: “It’s worth a trip to Asia at least for this kokoreche,” I said. When my friend returned, she said that both the kokoreche and the man were great, because he had taken a free kokoreche in return for the photo. “I took a picture of him too, isn’t that him?” – and showed me a portrait of a Turk completely unknown to me.
Kizilkayalar on Taksim sells small ‘wet burgers’ around the clock (worth a look) and cuts kebabs with an electric grinder
Now I see the man who made me kokorech five-odd years ago, and he’s still in the same place, only slightly older, and wants to say hello, but where would he remember me, there have been millions of faces shown to him over the years. So I just eat my kokorech and we keep walking until we come to a block where the street is blocked on both sides by tables. “Look,” Ekin says. – “There’s a café on the left and a café on the right, it’s all one, called Çiya, and then there’s another one next door, and it’s the same owner, so here you take your snacks and go to a table there, because we’ll get kebab and lahmajun there. “What are we eating?” – I ask, after picking up a whole plate, and Ekin says and then writes, so that I never forget: “Dolma of grape leaves stuffed with rice, bulgur and pepper paste; bulgur köfte with the same pepper paste; this herb here is called kaya koruyu in Turkish, but in English I don’t even know how (I find out later what its name in Russian is: peelings); this is mountain herb salad, I have no idea what they’re called; this is dolma of dried aubergines with bulgur again; the same thing here, only of dried peppers. And I brought you this on purpose, because you have to try it here: mumbar, lamb intestines stuffed with rice, tomato paste, and other little things; what do you think?” I sense a complex linguistic emotion within me, but in English I can only nurture it into a simple, “Great!” – which I repeat countless times.
And this chekelek,” says Ekin, as they put a plate of orange and crispy spices and olive oil in front of us, a specially prepared fresh goat cheese, which is a compulsory free snack and must be eaten with bread, but with what kind – you’ll see. They bring you hot air-filled bread covered with sesame seeds. Pistachio-flavoured kebab and lahmajun (if you do not know, it is a thin flatbread with a thin layer of minced meat and parsley on it), to sprinkle it with lemon, roll it up and eat it right away. Towards evening we find ourselves at the fish market by the Galata Bridge, where a basin of water is poured over the silverware lying around and it is loudly sold, lowering the price because it is closing time. Our eyes want fresh khamsa taken from the counter and fried in front of you, but no, we can’t eat any more.
A typical order at Tarihi Cumhuriyet İşkembe Salonu, where only by-products are available: lamb head and leg soup and a plate of lamb brains
We say goodbye to Ekin while we walk around Istanbul to absorb what we’ve learned in a mnemonic and digestive sense, and in the evening we end up in a small café behind the Galata Tower, built by the Genoese to oversee Constantinople. And there, over clay glasses of Turkish red, we meet mixologist Ertan (“I invented the International Businessman cocktail,” he introduces himself. – Sooner or later, every bar has an International Businessman and he orders this cocktail, a win-win option”), who, upon learning the purpose of our wanderings (“The best street food in Istanbul, where is it?”), promptly suggests: “Let me name the fifty best places with döner kebab, will that do?” We, we reply, are in favour of variety – and then he tells us stories about a kebab shop in the Grand Bazaar with an annual turnover of a million euros, and about a kaimak (something between sour cream and butter) in Beşiktaş run by Bulgarian Turks: “They are a hundred years old – when they bring you kaimak, your hands are shaking. It’s very easy to find, just across the street from the kebab shop, which you can get without me, because there’s nothing better than that in Besiktas. And about the owner of Çiya: “Everywhere this guy has worked, he’s held out for six months at the most. Lahmajuns, lots of other things, he got kicked out of everything. He opened a restaurant and went bankrupt, a second one went bankrupt. I went to work in a bookshop where old-school writers came in and talked to them about food, and old writers love talking about food. And finally he came up with Çiya, where he collected old recipes from all over Turkey – and now the whole street is his.
The bored look of these guys on Galata Bridge, spanning the Golden Horn Bay, warns you not to buy kebab emek from them
And we, of course, set off (the next day? the day after? previous days are intertwined with subsequent days, and when was which is no longer clear) to Beşiktaş (after having been to Beykoz, a distant district on the Bosphorus, where the Bosphorus itself is the width of a mid-Russian river, and on the shore under the plane-trees are tables of cafes flowing into each other, where everyone eats only yoghurt – with icing sugar, with honey, with jam) – and in Besiktas we see, of course, a kaimanaya with an old man, who, if not yet a hundred years old, will soon be.
But few people need kaimak on that day, but right opposite – at a stall called Karadeniz, i.e. “Black Sea”, a crowd is buzzing like the sea, for which a big man in a white cap is sprawling with rain, slicing meat from a hot spit, and the grey-haired old owner, also wearing a cap, is shoving meat into a pita pocket. ‘Do you feel the meat is not very salty? – Ekin asks. – ‘That’s because it’s the freshest. They make pide too, but the best pide in town is in Fatih, on the other bank.”
A place called Karadeniz in Fatih makes the best pide in Istanbul – no one is even questioning that, it just is
Pidehs are crispy dough boats with different stuffings, from cheese and spinach and egg to meat and herbs, and the best place, surprisingly, is also called Karadeniz, and they only make pidehs there. While ours are baking in a huge oven, I go for a walk, turn the corner and see five people around a small grill on which köfte is being fried right on the pavement. I call out to photographer Pustovalov, he takes aim with his forty-year-old “rolleyflex”, and the most important fryer, seeing such photographic respect, hands us each a bun with flaming cutlets inside.
Seagulls follow the ferries for a reason: they are thrown pieces of bagel from the stern; the game is often similar to basketball – hit right in the open beak
Already evening, we descend from Fatih to the Golden Horn, past the Byzantine aqueduct, past the shops where we sample red peppers dried with olive oil and therefore blackened, the best – Antep – pistachios and fragrant cheese from Siirt. When we reach the New Mosque the muezzin sings and his prayer ties everything together: the receding sun, the pigeons on the paving stones, the Egyptian bazaar fading towards evening, the fried chestnut vendors, the trams and ferries, the dark sheen of the water, the thick pencil of the Galata Tower and the thin pencil of the minarets, people with their business – and you seem to understand the heart of Istanbul, but the prayer ends and everything breaks up into thousands of movements, lights, sounds and it is clear that you are leaving and he stays: look at me and go away, Russian, and come back with more money if you want and can, and I have my own life, what do I care about you, Russian.