There are no shortages of street food and other culinary staples in Istanbul, with a population of more than 15 million people, so it’s not a bad place to be when a trip deep into south-central Turkey to research the origins of baklava gets canceled due to a devastating earthquake.
After ensuring the thousands of dollars in quake relief fundraising was sent to the right organization, it was time to make the best of a longer-than-anticipated stay in a city that has a foot in both Europe and Asia that goes back thousands of years and was the capital of two empires.
Roasted corn and chestnut vendors are some of the most common here. Ismail dons a fez emblazoned with the word “Türkiye,” sports a wide grin, and gestures that it’s ok to take pictures of him and his cart in Sultanahmet Square. Being from Michigan, I pass on the corn, and order a paper bag of chestnuts roasting on an open flame that costs about one dollar in local currency, the lira. They are warm and smell of the fire and the sweet caramelized starchy chestnuts. I peel one and pop it in my mouth as my breakfast. Not being at the height of season (best time is late fall early winter), the meaty chestnut is still moist, with only the smoke and natural sweetness for flavor, no salt or spice on this nugget. You want to try to get them fresh off the grill. Ismail came from Kastamonu Tür, a mountainous region near the Black Sea in north central Turkey, to set up his business here in Istanbul.
The simit is a bagel-like twisted bread, typically coated in toasted sesame seeds. The quality varies from street vendor to street vendor. They are a ubiquitous snack, and I choose the cart that I see local business owners head toward first thing in the morning as an unofficial recommendation. In Istanbul, Ahmed found a better business than in Ankara, the capital and his hometown. Regular customers order it special with hazelnut spread, spicy pepper spread, or filled with cream cheese. During a trip south to Bursa, on the other side of the Sea of Marmara from Istanbul, I noticed a few other products frequently sold in the simit booths: a bread called Bozlamak spread with a creamy, sweet tahini paste, and a cheese filled roll shaped like a football. This particular green glass-enclosed stand belonged to the owner’s family for 4 generations, and he and his uncle run it now. The 19th Century, metal wheeled cart was now permanently a part of the silk seller’s bazaar that was originally a 15th Century Caravan Serai (or inn for travelers).
Nedim is a yufkacı, a maker of a specialized food product called yufka, the extremely thin flatbread used to make savory borek and sweet baklava and many other rolled, folded, and layered pastries eaten in the Middle East. In Nedim’s quaint shop in the Kadikoy neighborhood, there is a dough roller, a flat custom griddle to par bake the yufka, and a table the yufkacı further rolls the dough once his wife passes it through the roller for the first “opening” as it’s called. Nedim and his wife have been in this profession for over 40 years. At one time, the yufkacı sold their wares door to door and were often hired by families, or even by the palace, to roll the dough for specific holidays and specialty baking times like during Ramadan. Once on every street, it seems that these small shops of individual proprietors who specialize in a product and have been making it generationally for hundreds of years have dwindled to just a few scattered across neighborhoods. The skill and knowledge passed down has been through oral tradition. In Nedim’s shop, he uses only a few ingredients in his yufka: flour, water, and salt. His oldest son is an engineer and his youngest son is a photographer with aspirations to move to the United States, so Nedim may be the last of his family of yufkacı.
Many years ago, I was enticed to buy some boza, available for shipment online, because I just had to try it. Boza is a drink made from slightly fermented grain (typically millet), with a tangy but sweet flavor and a thick milkshake consistency. But a fermented product is not conducive to shipping, and I awaited a return to Turkey to enjoy it properly. At one time, hundreds of boza sellers roamed the streets at night during the winter or set up shop on every corner. I visit the oldest surviving shop, called “Vefa Boza,” established in 1876 by Albanian immigrant brothers Haci Ibrahim and Haci Sadik in the heart of the old city neighborhood Fatih. It is still operated by their great-great-great grandsons. The nostalgia of the place really hits home when you see the original marble vats, old timey benches, and a preserved glass that was allegedly once drank from by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Our boza was served cold, as is tradition, despite it being a winter drink. “We make the boza until April or so and then we wash out all of our jars and put them away until October,” says Tamer, another boza seller in Kadikoy, an area on the Asian side of Istanbul, inside an ice cream shop. It’s made first in a marble vat then transferred into mouth blown green glass bottles, this yogurt-like variety can be eaten with a spoon. Tamer offers a shake of cinnamon and a scoop of toasted chickpeas to compliment the rich and creamy drink that is bordering on a custard texture. The fermented drink, he says, requires 30 days to create the starter using bulgur wheat, with which they then inoculate into a liquid millet and sugar concoction. Throughout the season they will continue to feed the next batch with some of the previous, much like a sourdough starter.
This sweet treat of macun has been made for centuries and was sold in the streets of Istanbul since the 17th Century. You can see a macun street vendor from a distance with their wagon wheel metal tin filled with brightly colored taffy. This sweet was originally a prescription electuary, with properties that blended ingredients like cloves with the sweetness of sugar to cover the taste of medicine. Over the centuries, the medicinal nature fell away but the taste and color haven’t – the multi-hued compartments are filled with a stretchy concoction that is artfully wound around a stick – almost a pity to start to eat. The vendor takes a wand that he dips into each compartment, each color a different flavor. When finished, he brushes the toffee onto the flesh of a fresh lemon as the acid in the juice sets the fruit flavors. Then the flavors blend as you enjoy your treat.
Near a 19th century spring-fed fountain in Kadikoy, a vendor in a white cargo van that has seen better days is barking out the sale of neatly piled boxes of dried white figs. A young man hops out of the driver side of the vehicle, hands over a box to inspect, offers up a sample to taste – and seals the deal. Although dried, they are incredibly moist, without that heavy sulfur taste you often get with preserved fruit. The skins are tender and the snap of the many seeds is a refreshing texture. Cihat says he sells these figs – as well as garlic and other food – around the country. The dried fruit are from Ayden, a province in Turkey’s Aegean region, which is famous for these pale figs that work well as a snack on their own or paired with wine and cheese.
It’s not an average ice cream shop when a dondruma seller is in business. The dondurma ice cream is stretchy and solid, letting sellers play cat and mouse games with buyers reaching out for their cone. Dondurma is an ice cream made with orris root and doesn’t melt into a puddle but remains very solid while staying very creamy, bordering on a fudge consistency. A dondurma seller plays tricks on his mark into thinking they have their ice cream when in fact he’s stolen it back, stuck to the paddle he served it with.
Chef Channon Mondoux, a food writer for NowKalamazoo, is also a professional chef, food educator, and historian. For more than three decades, she has been researching – and remaking – baklava recipes from its origins in the medieval cuisine of the Ottoman Sultanates, among other historical cuisines. She will be presenting her latest work at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University on May 12. On May 16, Chef Channon is hosting Baklava In History: A Live and Interactive Class. More information at www.chefchannon.com.
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