On a culinary odyssey in Istanbul, Isabel Conway goes in search of the world’s finest kebab…
Ottoman ruler Sultan Mehmet II did nothing by halves. A legendary gourmet with a penchant for indulging in lavish feasts prepared for himself, his mother, the harem and favoured guests he employed more than a thousand chefs in a string of kitchens.
Conquering Constantinople at the tender age of 22, his new empire created a dynamic Port and trading centre which inevitably became a melting pot for culinary diversity. The Ottoman Empire and Turkey’s turbulent history created a fascinating culinary atlas, stretching from Ancient Persia to the Arab World, from North Africa to the Balkans and down to the Mediterranean.
My friend Ed and I have come to Istanbul with a simple enough mission – to hunt down the world’s best kebab, while exploring the city’s interesting culinary scene, cooking with Istanbullers, shopping for exotic spices to take home.
Our culinary odyssey started in style at the historic Pera Palace Jumeriah Hotel, the Grand Dame of Istanbul, founded to provide luxury lodgings for adventurous travellers arriving aboard the Orient Express in the late 1800s. Billeted here for a couple of nights we got off to a perfect start enjoying the head chef’s elegant take on that ubiquitous favourite, Meze, seated outside under a glorious September full moon overlooking the famous Golden Horn.
Taking our mission seriously we had earlier enrolled for a ‘cooking with the locals’ class with Turkish Flavour. Culinary expert Taciser (Taci) Ayvaz spirited us by ferry away from fashionable Beyoglu in Europe across the Bosphorus to Asia.
Ensconced in a teaching kitchen set up by Turkish Flavours founder Selin Rozanes we chopped market fresh herbs, experimented with flavours such as dolma (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and all spice) stuffed aubergines with minced beef, mixed the ingredients for taboule, shepherd’s salad (coban salata) and a delicious crispy borek of melting feta and herbs. Thankfully the task of rustling up a baklava – that syrupy multi layered filo pastry concoction – was deemed too tricky for beginners.
Taci made numerous forays to the fridge to replenish our excellent Turkish white wine (yes we were allowed a tipple to assist our culinary endeavours) while a tiny dynamo of a woman named Daria assisted with the trickier and forgotten tasks. Later we all sat down for a jolly good, authentic, multi dish Turkish dinner – the kind eaten at home rather than in restaurants.
Continuing our culinary odyssey next day we again crossed the rippling deep blue ‘Bos’ with views of Topkapi Palace, seat of the Ottoman rulers for nearly 400 years. The Asian quarter is a fascinating maze of food stalls and restaurants and here we met Hulya Eksigil, a well – known Istanbul food writer and guide with Context Travel who specialise in off the beaten track city tours.
Ed was wondering whether that special kebab might make an appearance at Ciya Sofrasi, whose walls were peppered with accolades from the New York Times and leading food magazines around the world. By now we had been served at least 12 courses of wonderful dishes originating in Anatolia, considered to have the most authentic original Turkish flavours. Deciding that we could not force another bite, that special cigar shaped Kebab arrived….made from the finest lean lamb mince, perfectly shaped and grilled and speckled with fresh pieces of pistache. Superb, sublime……..we scoffed the lot, certainly Sultan Mehmet would have given it his thumbs up too.