HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO me! Except it's not my birthday – far from it, in fact. My crockery – if you can call it that – disagrees. The pink paper plate in front of me, covered in balloons and shouting HAPPY BIRTHDAY in bubble letters, folds under the weight of my breakfast: buffalo milk transformed into a decadent blob of clotted cream and slathered in a sticky mess of comb-flecked honey. Hello, kaymak.
If only all breakfasts could taste, and look, like this. Hidden away in the backstreets of Istanbul's Spice Bazaar, I crouch on a kids' plastic stool in what seems to be an abandoned building. While Turkish food in London is seriously en vogue – pretty new cookbooks, cool new restaurants, hip new chefs – this is the cuisine as it was intended, stripped of gloss and pretension.
Eating in the labyrinth of alleys of old Istanbul requires some hand-holding, and that's where Esin Yaşar, my 34-year-old Istanbul-born street-food guide comes in. On a table laden with doilies, she nudges more children's party plates towards me, each piled high with feta cheese, olives, walnuts and meats along with bagel-esque, circular portions of bread. Simit is the crusty one; açma is the soft, dreamy lovechild of a brioche and a croissant. This is my kind of sightseeing.
"We need caffeine," Esin declares. Behind me a sixty-something moustachioed man – the neighbourhood tea maker – scurries through the building distributing bitter, two-inch-high glasses of Turkish tea to workers. Nearby, his mate tugs a rope that hauls a tray of brews up and down fifteen flights of stairs on a creaky but ingenious pulley system.
Tea, it seems, is as celebrated by Turks as it is by Brits, but it's over a coffee that the really serious stuff happens. "Drinking coffee is like a therapy session in Istanbul – women gather to sip it while complaining about their husbands," Esin tells me. I'm soon presented with a small, china cup of the dark stuff – a sediment-laden, sugary blow to my groggy morning brain. Then comes the relationship advice: "If you need to impress your mother-in-law, you just make her a good coffee." If only it were that simple.
Turkey's biggest city straddles two continents, and here in the Fatih district on the European side of the Bosphorus, traditions like this are taken very seriously. Forget supermarkets; here the locals, young and old, gather at the bazaar's outer stalls (the inside's where the bum-bagged tourists throng) to buy their produce.
Plump, shiny olives tower in precarious heaps across the stands, their name and taste dictated by the Turkish city from which they originate. People queue at stalls of cheese – not just any cheese, but sheep's milk feta stuffed into a goat-skin wrap, a method that creates its own unique pungent smell and flavour. 'Sausages' dangle from stall ceilings – colourful plastic skins stuffed with nuts and molasses; a protein-packed energy bar that, combined with that coffee, will rev you up more than any energy drink.
While local residents come to buy their produce on the streets, this is where they consume it, too. We weave through the packed, narrow alleys of shops selling anything from neon-green washing baskets to antique scales, before arriving at the workplace of the area's most respected baker – the notorious IPM, or Istanbul Pide Master. He's not looking particularly happy, but then apparently he never is.
"Sometimes he smiles, more often he doesn't," Esin states. But beneath that moustache (without one you're nothing in this city), a hint of a grin appears as he rolls out his version of pide – think of it as a Turkish pizza. He tops it with minced meat, cheese and egg and tosses it into his stone oven until it's a weighty, moreish snack – crisp on the bottom, molten on the top. On the side? A thimble of tea, naturally.
If health-conscious Istanbulites exist – and I'm assured they do, even in a city with a modest life expectancy in the mid-seventies – they don't come to these crowded ancient backstreets that have been trampled by Romans, Persians, Ottomans and more.
Over the next few hours I walk the lanes, cramming in deep-fried fish known as hamsi, then cheese, then bread, then more cheese, then the big daddy of street food – sweet breads and intestines that have been soaked in milk, fried and stuffed in bread. The result is a salty sandwich that tastes far better than I'll ever make it sound.
Passion for food is obvious, and evident everywhere I look, from the old man who strolls the streets balancing a tray of teetering bread on his head, plucking off bits of dough to fuel his journey, to the six-year-old girl who stuffs the sides of her mouth with kerbside mussels, and demands I take a picture of her chubby-cheeked achievements.
If health-conscious Istanbulites exist, they don't come to these crowded backstreets
Then, of course, there's the sweet stuff. Esin disappears into a small, worn-out looking shop while I wait in the street next to two grandpas who try their best to sell me knock-off Rolexes and, er, used trainers. "Take a spoonful and guess what it is," she says when she returns. It's a gloopy, grey bowl of something sugary; an unfamiliar texture like custard combined with stringy candy floss. It sticks to my lips and, rather alarmingly, won't unstick.
"Rice pudding?" I offer hopefully. If only. "That's chicken-breast pudding," Esin replies, nodding proudly, "shredded, boiled chicken, with sugar, milk, rice and cinnamon." Once fed to Ottoman sultans at the nearby Topkapi palace, this tavuk gögsü is one of the city's, if not the country's, most famous dishes, which, despite its name, has no hint of chicken in its flavour. Who needs apple pie?
While much of the city's food is scoffed on the streets in these old parts, the meyhanes – Turkish versions of tavernas – are another glimpse into how culinary traditions survive in modern Istanbul.
"This city is exactly like Vegas," Esin tells me. She's referring, of course, to the raki that's drunk at these meyhanes – a 47%, aniseed-infused, cloudy-looking alcohol that's downed with devotion. "We call it lion's milk – it will make you feel like a lion when you drink some." She leans in and whispers conspiratorially: "You know, Hannah, what happens at the raki table stays at the raki table. Exactly like Vegas."
Luckily my friend has flown in for the high-rolling debauchery. On Esin's instructions, we book into a meyhane located on the less-visited Asian side of the city. Taking the ferry over gives a sense of how vast and chaotic the rest of Istanbul is – relentless traffic; smoggy pollution mixed with sticky heat; boats zigzagging haphazardly across the murky Bosphorus strait, transporting the city's 14 million population to a skyline punctuated by elaborate mosque domes and towers.
Kadiköy, by comparison, is peaceful. We trace the side of the water past the rusty structures of abandoned, graffitied carriages, down to the retired but grand 1909 Haydarpasa station building, now home to the Mythos meyhane. The walls are lined with blue and white tiles, and plush red velvet drapes from the ceiling, but it's the food that really matters here. Small sharing dishes are careered around on a trolley for us to pick from: aubergine with cheese, vine leaves, deliciously salty samphire, seabass with dill. Overwhelmed with choice, we take them all, with several beers and a bottle of raki on the side. What happens at the raki table, etc…
Fuelled and ready for a party, we follow the lead of the locals who rely faithfully on hipster-esque Beyoglu, back on European turf. This too is a massive eating area, where meyhane culture has thrived for centuries. "Try any place, they're all good," Esin had told me – something which would land a London tourist in the deadly red glare of an Angus Steakhouse queue off Leicester Square. But she's right. Locals spill out onto the streets at every restaurant, tables creaking under the weight of cold mezes and beers.
Bar after bar of punters sit on low wooden stools glugging beer and raki
It's well past midnight, and Istanbul Caddesi, the city's main shopping thoroughfare, is as rammed as Oxford Street during the Christmas sales. Consulting our phones (Google maps is your best mate here), we negotiate the backstreets to Balo Sokak – a narrow alley, no more than a couple of metres wide, with bar after bar of punters sitting on low wooden stools glugging beer and raki to a rock soundtrack.
While Brits might turn to a kebab at the end of a boozy night, here in Istanbul it's a respected dish that's eaten at any time of the day (ours are for breakfast, naturally). Hungry groups of friends gather at one side of the vast pedestrian thoroughfare of Taksim Square, beneath the neon red and yellow lights of Kizilkayalar, a 24-hour shop. In their hands they hold small, soggy paper packages. Not kebabs, but burgers. Wet ones.
In glass, hammam-inspired boxes, squidgy parcels of bread and meat sweat themselves into a moist delicacy that's perfect post-raki fodder. I give the owner two lira and take a bite of a hot bun saturated in a garlicky tomato sauce and stuffed with a token sliver of a patty (veal, apparently). It's far from gourmet, but there's something undeniably addictive about it, as the raucous queue behind me testifies.
Hell, why stop now? I hand over some change for another. In a city where delicious old culinary traditions are infused with more modern approaches like this, you can ignore the blockbuster city sights. Just walk the streets and you'll find your own. ■