Guest blogger: Dolly Ahmad, Program Assistant at the Illinois Study Abroad Office
Food tourism is defined as “the exploration of food as the purpose of tourism.” It has recently started being considered an integral part of the tourism experience. What’s little known about it, though, is if you look the phrase up in the dictionary, you will find a picture of me. I’m holding some sort of Turkish food in my hand, face shining with a smile, somewhere in the streets of Istanbul. Yes, I am the long unknown mascot of food tourists across the globe and Istanbul is my kingdom.
All ridiculousness aside, there is something about food tourism that I find so thrilling. And it’s not that my whole life and reason for existence is about food when I am being a food tourist, or at least I hope. I like to think that it just means that when we food tourists embark on our adventures for the day, we like to designate a particular food as the end goal. At the end, however, the day was not about the goal; it was about the path taken to reach that goal. When I set out at 7am one morning in search for Kemalpaşa tatlısı, I ended up not liking the dessert. But that was not a failure of a day because the thing about food tourism is that it is not about the food under pursuit; that was just a fraction of the day’s adventure. It was about the friends I made by asking “want to wake up and get Kemalpaşa tatlısı with me?” It was about the shopkeepers and bus drivers to whom we talked in order to find a café that sold it. After finding the café, it was about the feel of the café’s quaint little street with the street cats playing and the elderly Turkish uncles having their tea. We food tourists are not just children chasing the ice cream truck just to eat the ice cream, but adults using ice cream as an excuse to run. Indeed, we are a tasteful and classy bunch of adventurers [gulps down an entire ice cream cone Homer Simpson style].
There is no place better for a food tourist than Istanbul with it’s, what I like to call, “cay [tea] culture.” Think about cay culture as the extreme opposite of fast food culture. It is about taking a break from your day and sitting down with friends instead of eating for convenience and speed. It is about dipping each piece of your morning toast into a different jam instead of slathering one type on the entire slice so it can be eaten on the go. It is about finishing off the meal with as many glasses of tea as it takes for the conversation to die down instead of pouring it in a to-go mug. (It is also about my professor coming in late to lecture so he could finish his tea). In short, cay culture is heaven for food tourist. While Turkey is not the country with an eminent cay culture, its one of the most unique. Its location across two continents lends a unique blend of European, Middle-Eastern, and Central Asian tastes to the cuisine.
With that, I begin my foray into the top 5 foods I have pursued in Turkey and the best locations to have them. Keep in mind as you read that this is not simply a list of foods, but a list of experiences.
1. Ortakoy Waffle by the Bosphorous
Here in the US, we traditionally have waffles for breakfast. In Turkey, you could have it for breakfast, but it’s a bit like having ice cream for breakfast. You would have a bellyache all day. This is not a limp, lifeless freezer waffle. This is a waffle topped with your favorite spreads, and you get to pick them. Think of your favorite ice cream flavors – now imagine them as Nutella spreads. Yup, it’s real. Now add your favorite fruits. You’re not done yet buddy; you still have to pick your favorite nuts and chocolate chips. Want share the bellyache with a friend? Have it served to you at a rooftop café in Ortakoy. Want to sit on the stair steps by the shore and eat it? Get it wrapped into a cone and grab it to go. That, my friends, is the Turkish waffle that calls to me in my dreams.
2. Ortakoy Kumpir
Now across from the waffles stands in Ortakoy are Kumpir stands. It’s traditional to get a Kumpir before and a waffle both when you visit the Bosphorous-side area, but hats off to you if you can stomach them both. What is a Kumpir you ask? Oh you know, you’re average baked potato. NOT. It’s anything but average; it’s a baked potato on crack. You know those award-winning potato and pasta salads that your aunt brings to family barbeques? Those are your options for the fillings. There are peas, corn, and other vegetable-y delights as well to balance out the fat if you dare. I was never a baked potato buff but my friends who were told me it is heaven. To be honest, I was usually too busy looking forward to the waffle when I was in Ortakoy to shower the potato with the love that it probably deserved.
3. Sahlep from in the Spice Bazaar
Honestly kids, forget about hot chocolate. Trust me and trade it in for an orchid-infused steamed milk drink with a sprinkling of cinnamon on top. If it makes you feel better, think of it as white hot chocolate and chug it down. And thank me for introducing it into your life. This drink was my personal favorite and can be found year round in most cafés. I, however, far prefer to order it at on a cold day in the midst of a shopping expedition through the Grand Bazaar. Careful not to burn your tongue! It happened to my friend and she refused to drink it again. What a shame.
4. Eminonu Balikli Ekmek
Picture from baycc.org
Eating fish right after it is caught is only a dream for us chummy Midwesterners. Alas, we will always have to frozen fish imported from somewhere off of the East coast. In Istanbul, however, a town famous for its fishing, frozen fish is not an option. Especially when there are boats where you can buy freshly made fish sandwiches from. Even if you are not a fan of fish, which I am not, you have got to eat a balikli ekmek sandwich in Eminonu for the experience. Do it just because you will never get to eat fish so fresh. You might get to eat the eyeballs too if you’re lucky.
5. Maraş Dondurması by the Blue Mosque
I know you. You think that you’ve eaten ice cream. Listen buddy; you haven’t. You’ve only had the watered down, artificially flavored lifeless remains of what ice cream could be. You will only have experience ICE CREAM when you’ve had Maraş Dondurması. And you will only have experienced ice cream when you’ve had it on the courtyard of the Blue Mosque with the prayer call sounding and pigeons landing around you. Let me tell you what makes Maraş Dondurması special; it comes from a special region in central Turkey where the goats are sent from heaven (kidding about the last part) and is infused with mastic. Mastic is the same ingredient that gives chewing gum its chew, so as you can imagine, the Turkish ice cream has a very thick consistency. It stretches like melted mozzarella when you take a bite and, if you get it served on a plate, requires a fork and knife to eat. If you could only try one food in Turkey, his would have to be it. Try it as the traditional orchid or pistachio flavor, the better.