Culinary Backstreets of Istanbul

Tea delivery service in the Grand BazaarWhen a friend suggested we sign up for a food tour of Istanbul I was instantly intrigued but also slightly hesitant. I'm used to sniffing out my own food trails when I travel, but given that neither of us speak Turkish and with the fervent hope we'd not be taken to places we'd easily access on our own, I got on the Culinary Backroads website and picked the old Bazaar quarter tour. While Istanbul is packed full of street vendors with traditional foods, knowing which one serves the best version of their product was impenetrable, we didn't have the time to taste test our way through town on our own. Fingers crossed this tour would open up the more modest side of the local food culture and give us a bit of context along the route.Starting point was the old Orient Express train station, maybe my favorite building in the city with its rosy pink facade and stained glass windows. Instantly, I imagined the posh, well-dressed crowds that once disembarked after their long journey through Europe, and the amazing city they were about to explore.  Sadly, now it's terribly neglected as the train tracks no longer extend this far into the city - a faded monument, now home to a tea room which serves men who are on the street corner haggling over prices for carrying their goods by truck all over Turkey, through a window on the front. This is where we had a traditional Turkish breakfast of honey with clotted cream, olives, pastrami, sheep's milk cheeses, simit (sesame bagels), flat bread, and strong tea.  Our Belgian-Turkish guide, Selim, warned us to pace ourselves as we'd be eating little morsels here and there throughout the 7 hour excursion, but those simit, which he'd brought from the man selling them on the street near his apartment, were just too good.Onward though an abandoned hammam, or Turkish bath, around an obviously business-oriented part of the city.  Within minutes we stopped to try some borek, infinitely different from the kind I learned to prepare from our Turkish housekeeper Taiba in Ankara all those years ago. These were huge spirals of flaky phyllo dough filled with a ground beef mix or cheese and then chopped into bite-sized chunks.  It's eaten by local workers for breakfast, a fast-food of crispy, hearty deliciousness. Down another side street and we stopped at another hole in the wall, this time to try the very unappealingly named, Head & Foot Soup or Kelle Patcha.  A sheep's head and feet are boiled in a yoghurt broth which, because of the gelatin in the feet and head, thickens it to a wallpaper paste-like consistency.  Then cubes of beef tongue are added along with a slightly spicy, garlic oil. Sound terrible? Nope! It was delicious. Selim explained that this was a popular breakfast dish for workers during the cold winter months....and it made sense.  While I might not have eaten an entire bowl, I was happy to have enjoyed something that I would have NEVER ordered off of the menu on my own. The proprietor distributed cloves for us to chew on after we'd finished, to ward off the strong garlic and gamey taste as we waved gulle gulle (goodbye) and set off again.
Now, I'm leaving out all of the wonderful history Selim shared with us along the way, but I can only repeat so much....and plus, you all need to sign up for a tour with Culinary Backstreets when you visit Istanbul yourselves! My fear of being on just another food tour was utterly dismissed as I learned more about Turkish history, culture and the modern-day lives of its people through the access Selim gave us. I've always believed the best way to learn about a place is through its food, and the stories and immigrants and wars behind it. Turkey, with its abundance of people from all over the region, bringing with them their ingredients and customs, has made this the most exciting place I've ever eaten.