Friday 7 September 2012

Istanbul: Culinary Secrets of the Old City: Part 2

Now that's what I call a moustache

We left the first part of the Culinary Secrets of the Old City tour with yours truly having made his first pide. I'm still not quite if the owner was planning to sell it or discreetly bin it once I was round corner! I'd like to think it went to a very satisfied customer.

Rose flavoured Turkish Delight 

Stepping through the doors of Altam Sekerleme we entered a fabulous old sweet shop. Glass cabinets and huge bell jars filled with Turkish sweets lined the walls. It reminded me of a traditional English sweet shop. However, instead of a huge variety of boiled sweets on offer, there was an acre of Turkish delight and a small section of halva too.

The shop owner makes all of the sweets upstairs. He was a quiet and smiling man who was happy for us to taste a range of his sweets. The rose flavoured Turkish delights had a deep red colour and lovely fragrance. My favourite was the pistachio flavour which had a lovely nutty crunch in the centre. I've previously found Turkish delight overly sweet, but these weren't sickly sweet in any way.

Inside a Han

We took our purchases, crossed the road and entered a traditional Han through a small wooden door. Two storeys of small rooms hidden behind arches, surrounded a large and bright courtyard. This han appeared to be desserted apart from a few men drinking tea around a small table.

It once would have been filled with bustling trades people, but had since fallen empty. We had a wonder round the upper and lower level, poking our heads through doors and marvelling at the place. There was an elderly gentleman shuffling round one corner of the upper level and I got the impression he might have lived there permanently.

Back downstairs we gathered some low plastic stools around a shady corner of the courtyard and enjoyed a cup of tea, some halva that we just bought and I couldn't help dream what a fabulous place the han could be if it was restored.

The best doner kebab you are ever likely to eat

On leaving the han we had a welcome walk - time to digest some of the food! - further into the backstreets. We really were getting into areas of the city that you would never hope to find on your own.

We arrived at Bereket Doner which sells the most amazing doner kebab you are are ever likely to eat. Everyday the owner of the shop spends two hours making the kebab by hand layering lamb, lamb fat, pepper, tomato and spices to create the dreamy kebab. 

You can find out more in my Best Kebab in Istanbul post.

Vefa Bozacisi

On leaving the kebab shop we started to head toward the Kurdish district of the city, but before we got there, we stopped in Vefa Bozacisi for a fermented millet drink.

The shop has been open since 1876, and the deeply worn stone step, gives an indication of how many people have entered the store ove the years. The interior of the shop was very special with elaborately designed tiles, dark wooden shelving and old mirrors on the walls. It reminded me of some traditional French cafés I have visited with a very Turkish twist.

A glass of boza

There is a plaque on the wall which claims that the boza drink aids digestion, helps milk production in pregnant women, is recommended for sportsmen and can treat cholera! Somehow I don't think it can be all true....

Our guide Megan promised that the drink that it would slip down regardless of how full we were. Thick like custard, cinnamon was the main flaovur and the roasted chickpeas added a textural crunch (even if a few of the chickpeas were a little chalky in the centre). I wasn't expecting to enjoy fermented millet so much!

Yunus the meatball usta

The penultimate stop on our food tour was at a cig kofte stand run by the smiling Yunus. Traditionally a cig kofte contains raw minced beef. The healthy and safety police seem to have put and end to the raw beef these days, but cig kofte are still known as 'meatballs'.

Today bulgar wheat provides the substance with red pepper paste and isot adding a subtle heat and rich complexity. Yunus rolled the meatballs in spring onions, flattened them out with the palm of his hand and then served them to us in a crisp lettuce leaf. The lettuce adding a freshness and textural crunch.

Making the false meatballs

On leaving Yunus' stall we walked round the corner to our final stop, lunch at the Siirt Seref Buryan Kebap Salonu restaurant. In the heart of the Kurdish district, the restaurant was located under the shadow of a enormous Roman aqueduct. 

Just like Sydney's Porteño, Siirt Seref is known for their whole roasted lambs. When I ate at Porteño I found that the side dishes were the star of the show, easily eclipsing the pork and lamb that everyone raves about.

I found the same to be true to Siirt Seref, but this time it was the desserts that stole the show.

 Perde Pilav

We started with a perde pilav. A thin layer of dough / pastry enclosed rice, chicken, shaved almonds and currents. I didn't find the rice had a distinctive flavour, but once I'd spooned over a healthy amount of the tomato, pomegranate molasses and parsley sauce that was on our table it definitely perked up a bit.

 Slow roasted lamb

We were served the pit roasted lamb both on and off the bone so that we could try the difference. I preferred the lamb off the bone which was quite heavily salted and served on Turkish bread that soaked up all of the juices.

Overall I found the lamb was neither as tender of smokey as I expected considering it was pit roasted over coals.


We had two desserts. First up was some walnut baclava specially made for the restaurant by a nona who lives a few streets away. Rapidly slipping into a food coma I found the baclava a little too sweet for my tastes.

Our final dish of the tour was knefe, which I can only describe as a sweet toasted cheese sandwich. A shredded wheat coating encased a gooey centre of Turkish cheese. Heated so the cheese was oozing, covered in a sugar syrup and sprinkled with pistachios this was a new and slightly strange combination for me. It definitely worked, but I couldn't decided if I was eating a sweet cheese fondu or Turkish cheesecake!

With that our awesome food tour was over. Despite my slightly grumpy start we had a wonderful six hours eating our way round Istanbul's old town. It won't surprise you to hear I didn't eat for the rest of the day!

A final thought on value for money....
At $125 per person the tour was the most expensive thing we did in Istanbul by quite a long way. During the tour we didn't want for anything. There was more food that we could eat, copious bottle of water were bought for us (essential on a hot day), toilet stops were paid for and I was even given a copy of the Istanbul Eats book. However, food in Turkey is cheap and I doubt the expenses on the day came to much more than $25 per person. The guide need to be paid, but that is still quite a healthy profit margin.

The real value of tour for me, was that we ate food and had experiences that we would never have done otherwise. Megan was very generous with her time and recommendations for places to go in the city. The shops we visited gave us inspiration for some excellent gifts for friends and family too. My advice would be to take the tour - which I whole heartedly think you should do - as early as you can during your holiday. This will allow you to maximise the tour's benefit during the remainder of your stay.

You can check out all of the locations we visited on my Istanbul map.


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