Wednesday, September 19, 2012

1st Day in Istanbul: Mostly About the Food

We are so excited to finally be in Instanbul!  As soon as we arrived, we recognized the city immediately with the iconic images of massive domed mosques, sky-high minarets, palaces, bridges, and waterways. 

Despite our excitement, we didn't make it to hardly any famous sights today! No Hagia Sofia, no Blue Mosque, no Topkapi Palace, no museums, no Grand Bazaar.  We did manage to see the Galata Tower, Yeni Mosque, cross the Galata Bridge, and walk through the Egyptian Spice Market, get a view of the Golden Horn islet and the Bosphorus Strait; but the last 24 hours has mostly been about the food.  After 3 weeks of rather uninspiring Balkans cuisine, we are certain the remaining 7 days in Istanbul will continue to be mostly about gorging ourselves with Turkish cuisine! 

After the sticker shock of trying to book a hotel or hostel in this town last week, we went through and located a reasonably priced ($60) apartment in the Beyoglu neighborhood.  The best description of this place is bohemian in a residential neighborhood void of any tourists.  There are plenty of Turkish men hanging out on the sidewalks drinking tea all day long - it's that kind of place.  However, within 5 minutes, there's a bread and pastry shop, convenience store, small restaurant, produce stand, barbershop, liquor store, etc.   A 10 minute walk puts us right in the middle of one of the most famous pedestrian streets, Istiklal Caddesi, and we can be in the historic heart within 30 minutes (walking).  Here's where we settled into for the week.  

Istiklal Caddesi or Independence Avenue in Beyoglu neighborhood is one of the most famous and visited pedestrian streets in the New or Modern Istanbul side of the bridge.  There are plenty of chain retail and restaurants, bars, and nightclubs in these parts.

Istiklal Avenue ends at Taksim Square on the northern end.  The square is actually quite round.  It is very busy as a transportation hub, but has a nice monument called Monument of the Republic built for Turkish Independence in 1923.  However, the most interesting observation was that there were no places to sit (e.g. benches) in the entire square.  Apparently, the square is not to be enjoyed by hanging out.

On the southern end of Istiklal Avenue is the quaint meandering (and steep) streets of the Galata neighborhood; home to the Galata Tower as well as many artsy crafty boutique stores.  One could go up into the tower for a bird's eye view of Istanbul, but the line deterred us from doing this.

So, where's all the food we talked about earlier?  We were sampling all along.

Efes Pilsen, Turkish beer.  
Our first meal in Istanbul made us homesick for a good ol' southern meat-and-three joint.  This was similar, but Turkish food. 

Grilled chicken, orzo, stewed okra, baked eggplant with minced meat peppers tomato, cold tomato cucumber salad.  
Our favorite neighborhood restaurant, Saray Lokantasi, serving cheap but hearty traditional Turkish home-cooked meals. 
The watermelon in the back of a truck looked too good to pass up.  Since we have a kitchen, we bought one for later! 
Store selling Turkish Delight called Lokum.  Sweet fruit flavored items eaten as a digestive. 
Colorful fruit at juice stand.  We had  fresh-squeezed  pomegranate juice and kiwi juice.   
Very interesting to see that all the gills were turned inside-out at the fish market near the Galata Bridge.  
Ate lunch at Akin Balik restaurant, right in the middle of the fish market, as recommended by our airbnb host.  We had to choose our fish lunch from this selection. 
We had grilled sea bass.  Akiko is quite the fish filet-er, de-boner, don't you think? 
Baklava store. 
Pistachio baklava for a snack. 
Ayran, a very popular Turkish yogurt drink.  Thin consistency of milk but taste of full-bodied, strained, yogurt; flavored with mint and herbs.  It was very cold and refreshing! 
Comlek kebabi 'earthenware bowl',  a type of kebab made of lamb, eggplant, tomatoes.  Not all kebabs are on a stick.  Sis kebabi is specifically on a stick.  There are hundreds of other kebabs. 
What everyone drinks in Turkey!  Turkish tea in its distinct glass cup. 
All this eating was making the cat hungry.  Cat longing to catch one of the pigeons pecking away at the bread crumbs. 

When we weren't eating or drinking, we managed to make it across the Galata Bridge for a nice view of the Golden Horn Islet and Bosphorus Strait.  As soon as we crossed the bridge, the imposing Yeni Mosque guarded the landscape.  To rest our feet and to get away from the crowd, we went to the 6th floor Rooftop Bar in the 5-star Legacy Ottoman Hotel right next to the mosque.  It seemed nobody knew about this bar that had a great view of the city. 

We also took a quick walk through the Egyptian Spice Market.  This was only a preview since we scheduled a private guide for a foodie tour for next Monday.  The tour includes talking to food vendors and sampling lots of food at markets on both the European and Asian side of Istanbul, followed by a traditional Turkish lunch!