3 years

Life and letters

No Country for Anorexics

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Turkey isn’t for the weak-hearted. Much like the overwhelming flavours of its food, you must have a taste for adventure to discover the soul of the country.

If you plan to visit Turkey, be prepared to gain a few kilos. Carry Isabgol, to avoid being part of the national piles statistic. Few travellers know that most Arabs and Turks suffer from a sore derriere. But one look at the rich array of food and you will appreciate our humble husk derivative. 

In Istanbul, the cuisine is as big a discovery to the taste buds as the Hagia Sophia is to the eyes and the cobbled terrain to tired feet. Eating is a sensuous experience. Coffee is devoured for its fragrance, and the multi-coloured Lukums (Turkish delights) for their effect on your eyes.

At the end of my first month in Turkey, I was homesick. I’m a dal-roti girl. Living in a stiff upper lip European resort in Antalya, I was forced to seek solace in bland, creamy fish sauces, unappetising salads and uninspiring blobs of red meat. The only saving grace was the elaborate array of desserts, which was unfair to my burgeoning waistline. One day, at a buffet, I happened to touch a piece of bread that I decided against putting in my plate, and a man behind me told me how that was not done. If you touch food, you must take it. These germful accusations didn’t offend me as much as the ‘Bombay Chicken’ the buffet would throw up every fortnight. It was chicken with pineapple and other canned fruit bits. That my home was distant enough for the chef to put leftovers together and call it my cuisine was distasteful.

It was only when I moved to live in the heart of Istanbul, Taksim Square, that food became authentic, even intimate again. By the end of my stay, I had different neighbourhoods charted out on my palette. There was one route in particular that I never tired of. One that introduced me to fish so fresh and soft that it disintegrates in your mouth, to the virtues of being a cay (Turkish tea) addict. When you abandon guidebooks and put curiosity at the steering wheel, among the many things you discover is an elusive thing called ‘you’. My favoured route began in the buzzing Taksim Square, crawling through the mammoth Istiklal Street to encounter the rugged Galata tower and bridge, crossing over the Golden Horn over to the Spice Bazaar and Sultan Ahmet area, known to swallow tourists whole with its history and monuments.

My first real taste of Istanbul was dessert at a rooftop restaurant off Istiklal Street. The Semolina pudding was pure white, smooth with raspberry Dondurma, a Turkish ice-cream literally translating into ‘fox testicle ice cream’. It’s made out of ground orchid tubers, which arguably resemble the aforesaid. There is something about it, a texture, a colour, perhaps a desire that adds to the experience in such a way it can never be replicated. Surrounded by the silhouettes of Byzantine and Ottoman mammoths, sleepy apartments, black expanse of water barely separating continents, it struck me. When my roommate’s boyfriend proposed to her over the same dessert six weeks later, I realised what I had felt was universal. The simple, sweet semolina countered by frozen, tangy raspberry—it overwhelms your senses. When you taste something extraordinary, you want the rest of your moments to match the taste.

Or maybe it was just the powdered orchid tuber, a traditional aphrodisiac mixed in drinks and ice creams. No trip to Turkey is complete without tasting Sahlep, a hot, creamy beverage sprinkled with cinnamon. Drinking Sahlep in a cozy dessert shop on a freezing night takes you back to the days before you’d tasted wine, coffee, sex and other late-night pleasures. Days when your expectations from a winter night were Bournvita and summer vacations. Beverages are an integral part of the Turkish cuisine. Right from the popular cay (pronounced chai), aromatic coffee to those that aid red meat-laden meals sink down, like Ayran, a yoghurt drink similar to salted lassi. That Ayran usually comes in one-litre bottles speaks of the enormous quantities it’s consumed in. 

Walking beyond the desserts of Beyoglu and smoothies opposite Galata Tower is a fish haven. On Galata bridge, men cast fishing lines, while a monotonous traffic ensures continuity between the Asian and European side. Under the bridge, tiny cafés offer pretty much a standard menu of fish sandwich, wine and beer, calamari and sea bass at competitive prices. Sea gulls create a ruckus over fish, and the waiters are no different. Istanbul is a place where street food has no fixed price. Different menus are offered based on your appearance. Sometimes, prices are hurriedly pencilled in before you. Under Galata Bridge, baits aren’t thrown only to fish. A gullible tourist is a prize catch.

At the bridge’s southern end, the enormous dome of the Spice Bazaar is eager to engulf you. I avoided the charms of this indoor bazaar, walking blindly through the crowded maze of wholesale tea, coffee, Lukum, cheese and dry fruits, till, like a seasoned coke addict, my nostrils led me to Kuruckahvaci Mehmet Efendi, a third-generation coffee vendor. The intoxicating smell of coffee is enough to make you stand in queue and buy kg loads of paper-wrapped coffee. 

On my last day in Istanbul, my partner and I were left with a choice. We could either visit Topkapi Palace, known to house the Prophet’s hair among other wonders, or eat our last elaborate Turkish meal. We chose the latter. Little lanes escape the arterial Istiklal Street like floodwater. Hidden in this labyrinth are small eateries, patronised by common folk. A three-course meal here costs not more than Rs 200-300. My ideal meal begins with a subtly-flavoured yoghurt or lentil soup. The main course consists of buttery rice called pilav, with meat and veggies on the side, like aubergines with kheema, spinach with yoghurt, bulgar wheat or doner chicken.

We spent our last few hours in Istanbul searching for the big daddy of desserts. Kunefe isn’t for the weak-hearted. The fifth spoon begins where your appetite ends. Served with cream, it’s a soft cheese, covered in shredded pastry and deep-fried till crisp. 

Like its desserts, Turkey isn’t a country for the weak-hearted. To discover the rhythm, the taste, the smells and heart of this culture, you must have a big appetite, a sense of adventure and a curiosity for the indigestible.