Going to Istanbul with your Greek head on, you fast become aware that you are in a city of unknown knowns. Creeping up on you when you are least expecting it, you suddenly realise that, either by the look of something or its name, you know exactly what you are dealing with. From the name for beans, fasulye, fassolia in Greek, to the word for a street, sokagi in Turkish and sokaki in Greek, the knowns are everywhere. The two languages, though to each other almost totally impenetrable, more frequently than you’d expect, a familiar hand pops up and you know exactly what’s going on.
I will not regurgitate the centuries of history that join Greece and Turkey; to be fair it is not the easiest of connections. Having said that, for two nations that could be adversaries these two countries and cultures could not be more closely related. It’s a given that the word ‘Istanbul’ itself comes from the Greek phrase ‘stin Poli’, meaning ‘in the City’. To this day when Greeks refer to ‘The City’ they mean only one place and that is Istanbul.
I need to lay down the basic reason for our Istanbul trip. It wasn’t simply for a cultural visit – it was born out of a forty three year old friendship between my husband and his best friend, Salih. They were thrown together on a Business Studies course in Sheffield, and the only two foreign students were one Greek and one Turk. This was a was a match … well maybe not entirely made in heaven… but definitely one that would stand the test of time. So, after over 40 years we’re in Istanbul… Constantinople… The City.. and with Salih as our very special guide.
At Salih and Barcin’s home we are, of course, the misafir – and our ears hear the familiar word mousafiris – guests . Dinner is dolma, stuffed vegetables and, less familiar, homemade manti – delicate Turkish ravioli – along with a good helping of seamless talk on the side. Above the chat and reminiscences, the call of the muezzin through the open windows reminds us that we are, after so many years, in Istanbul.
Our days are filled with amazing sights: Top Kapi, Agia Sofia the Bosphorus and the one-step transition between the two continents of Europe and Asia. There are mosques, minarets, cisterns and churches, lives and intermingling cultures everywhere. There is modern Istanbul too – elections, emotions, flags, and people, and where there are people there is, inevitably, food.
When she was little, my sister wouldn’t eat anything unless she could have a look at it first – Greeks and Turks are the same. It was reassuring to see that In Turkey (it is less common in Greece these days) the mezze dishes are brought to the table on huge trays for the customers to choose once seen. Those small plate offerings of trendy, hipster eateries are, needless to say, nothing new.
At Bebek Baliçi, with a blissful view of gently lapping water and bobbing boats, it was a hard choice. Smokey aubergine purée, a sharp parsley salad, sea-fresh prawns and the most luscious cured bonito were finally decided on. And there was that hand of familiarity again: maydanoz like maidanos the Greek for parsley, karides the same as the Greek word for prawns; and we all knew what we were talking about when the bonito was identified as lakerda.
At the everyday restaurants in both Greece and Turkey all the food is on display – not just as images, but trays of what you’re actually going to eat. And that is what is so important to the confidence of choice in a restaurant – we all know what we HOPE something will look, and obviously taste like, but the reality doesn’t always match the expectation.
Our lunch at Hünkar in the Nisintasi neighbourhood immediately took me back to meals at Filippou in Kolonaki, Athens. These two restaurants are more closely related than cousins – I’d call them stepbrothers.
From the crisp white tablecloths, to the long-serving staff and including the more than dedicated clientele, these two establishments are definitely born from the same food culture. Both these places are not just restaurants, they are touch-points of familiarity for their customers – a culinary home from home. Obviously the quality of the food and the service are exceptional, but mostly they just come to have good home-style food in a familiar environment. People aren’t here to eat the latest food-fad – I can safely say that there’s not a glimpse of avocado or quinoa to be seen. Both Hünkar and Filippou are bastions of traditional cuisine and, apart from the occasional exception, most of the dishes are remarkably similar.
We could have eaten, anginares/enginar (artichokes) or maybe börek/ bourekia (pies) but Mihalis and Salih ate paça/patsa, an intense broth made from veal trotters. I left them to that and had the totally Turkish hünkar beğendi – the creamiest combination of pureed aubergine and bechamel with a braised lamb topping.
Eating our way through Istanbul, we had roasted chestnuts (kastana/kestane) on the street, drank the most surprising combination of fresh mulberry juice and vodka, and bought findiklar/ fountoukia (hazlenuts) and fistik/fistikia (peanuts) in the bazaar. We saw menus with kokoreç/kokoretsi, pirzola/brizola and midye/midia. We found a place more familiar than a foreign country and perhaps a little stranger because of that. Above all, we found that very old relationships are incredibly strong.
Days later, after a visit to the Süleymaniye Mosque, we eat lunch with our escort of the day, Gorkhan, at Erzincanli Ali Baba. With Gorkhan we have no language in common apart from that of food. We have blissful bowls of stewed beans – kuru fassolye (probably the best fassolada I have ever eaten) along with a side dish of turşu (pickled vegetables) – toursi in Greek. We admire photos of each other’s children with sign language, gestures and smiles. And there it is, the fact that sharing a meal of good food is the best way to connect with someone.
So here’s to more food and friendship – the friendship being the most important thing.
Bebek Balikci http://www.bebekbalikci.com Bebek Mah. Cevdet Pasa Cad. No: 26/A | Besiktas, Istanbul, Turkey
Hünkar http://www.hunkarlokantasi.com/en Mim Kemal Oke Caddesi No:21, Nisantasi, Istanbul,
Erzincanli Ali Baba, http://www.kurufasulyeci.com Suleymaniye Mh. Prof. Siddik Sami Onar Cad. No:11, Istanbul
Filippou https://www.filippou.gr Xenokratous 19, Athens, Greece