More Posts About Turks and Food

Prior to the trip a good friend forwarded an article from the New York Times about a stellar breakfast restaurant in Cihangir, a neighborhood on the Beylogu side of Istanbul near Taksim, the “Times Square” of the city. I tried to hit the place during the week, but it was closed, done in by the snow or perhaps only open on weekends. I woke up this (Sunday) morning with no real agenda (other than to get a mosque under my belt) and started off by walking through the Besiktas Market (site of the fish vendors) via a little park that reminded me of Gramercy Park only grungier and surrounded by less posh apartments.

I saw this demented sculpture garden – quite possibly the weirdest thing seen this trip – and continued downhill past the by-now-common site of a gazillion mangy cats and pre-distemper dogs that infest the vacant lots and narrow hillside streets of the city. Some of the dogs have some sort of identification thing stapled through their ear – like cattle – and the cats are everywhere, perched on air-conditioner units, dashing into kebab shops, and languishing under parked cars with their tails ticking away. I imagine they must have to round them up and neuter the poor things every so often. Or, what I saw was a product of not rounding them up and neutering them. Some of the dogs are just nasty. They come wandering down a sidewalk and the first thing that comes to mind is “Oh shit. It’s Cujo.” You avoid eye contact –  be the dog whisperer – and stay out of snapping range. One bite and it’s fourteen injections through the belly button. I passed one cur that morning by the steps up to the German Embassy by the Karbatas soccer stadium that smelled like halitosis on four paws. It had this moussed electrified perm in its fur and smelled as if it had spent the night snacking in a dumpster. Two similes are not enough for this dog.

I wandered up to Taksim – a serious trudge up a big hill which instantly rendered my morning shower a memory and turned me into AquaMan – he who sweats buckets in January. No huffing or puffing. My cardio is okay. I just have very efficient liquid transfer capabilities. So off came the Filson logging coat and up I marched in shirtsleeves to the wonder of some French tourists bundled up for Ice Station Turkey. Taksim was quiet but I saw a big Orthodox church I spied from the morning I ate a “wet burger”, so I ducked in and took in another service to keep up the march moving towards 52 holy places in 12 months [I’ll post on that later, I am highly burned out on churches right now.]

After the service at the Greek church I remembered the New York Times reviewed restaurant, Van Kahvalti Evi, was on a street that fed into Taksim Square. I Five minutes later was wedged into a seat next to a table full of loud Americans ordering a traditional Turkish breakfast from Van, the city in the easternmost regions of Anatolia, the Asian mainland of Turkey.

Tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, a little pot of peanut butter, another of butter, a basket of breads, a bowl of yogurt and dill and cukes, a saucer of wild unfiltered honey and sweet clotted cream, and five kinds of cheese: Armenian string cheese, a very hard and coming close-to-smegma clump of some cheese with herbs, a bland cheddarish cheese, the ubiquitous triangle of very salty feta, and a wet cube of something made from sheep’s milk. To add insult to injury and to keep up my reputation as a trencherman and gourmand, I tossed on a order of flatbread grilled with meat and cheese – think a pastrami quesadilla and you aren’t far off except the tortilla was more like filo than masa flour.

I dug in. This was a project that took some planning and strategizing and when I eat alone I tend to become self-conscious and understand why my two terriers, when given a bone, immediately head for the underside of a table or staircase to eat it alone in their lairs. I took notes about the church service in my notebook, Tweeted, checked out my city map, and did my best impersonation of a guy eating in prison – shovel quickly, don’t make eye contact, and guard the plate with both forearms. The breakfast was very different, very good, and not your usual IHOP clown-face pancakes with the bacon eyebrows.

I left a better man for it, and walked back up past the church (which had two Cujos in a muddy side yard jointly gnawing on what looked like a diaper) to a serious main drag – a pedestrian Broadway with a cute little tram clanking up and down it. It was open and booming on this grey, drizzly Sunday morning, so I took it all in, snapping pictures and taking little tram videolets until I stumbled into the Greek Embassy and an exhibition on the Greek churches in the city. More churches. Just what I needed. But it felt obligatory and I had to feed my head after doing so much damage to my stomach at the Van. In I went, picking up a program, and for a half hour I circled two rooms reading big placards about the sad little churches left behind when the Byzantine Empire tanked.


Back into the fresh air. I walked down the hill past the Galata Tower and headed into the Golden Horn for my Excellent Mosque Adventure. See below.

On the return back to the hotel I had to do some souvenir hunting back in the Besiktas bazaar. Sons get Turkish soccer scarves, daughter gets a collection of pins, wife gets the Sultan’s Dagger (the one with the emeralds on the hilt) and a box of Turkish Delight (assorted Fruit flavors). While there I decided to eat the Turkish Last Supper and go as low rent as possible for a full grey-meat-on-a-stick experience. What follows is mayhem. Pray for me on the ride to Beijing.

Right off – worst meal of the trip. Worst meal of the month. The waiter – who is Rudy Giuliani’s doppelganger – was as good in English as I am in Turkish – and the menu didn’t have any pictures. A good rule of life is “Do not order anything called a: Sausage Special” and don’t order something that on second check of the menu is described as “boiled leaves of dough with cheese and/or meats.”

Boiled leaves of dough was amazing in its nastiness. It was like eating with a finger down your throat. Gelatinous. Wet with hot water. Sort of floating in the hot water. Cheese was chunks of hard feta. Some pale green parsley was hanging around in there too. Someone had rolled up a handful of cheese and a bunch of parsley in six sheets of filo and tossed it into the dirty hot dog water. Then assaulted it with a scimitar.

So now I have that going for me. I couldn’t wait for the Sausage Surprise. I saw the cook messing around with a red squirt bottle and a white squirt bottle, the International Greasy Spoon symbols for ketchup and mayonnaise. Waiter brings same plate to me. What occurred was a bed of greenish French fries bedecked with two hot dogs – pure Oscar Meyer – and two discs of what looked like anemic hamburger patties but were definitely not cow, I am assuming weren’t pork, and most likely were lamb or goat or both. On one side was a pickle stuck in a wad of tartar sauce, on the other was two squirts of ketchup and mayo.

Surprise indeed. I picked at a couple fries. Abandoned the dogs after one bite, and finally just gave up. Rudy Giuliani was sad about that. But I tipped him anyway as I didn’t want to carry any Turkish lira out of the country and besides, it wasn’t his fault. He shook my hand and touched his heart in gesture of “hail fellow, well met.”

I lurched out into the rain, missed squashing a cat, and sent it flying into the restaurant in fear. Perhaps it will join the Surprise.

A sad note. As I walked back to my hotel I passed a bookstore and in the window, big as can be, is a picture of my hero, the late David Foster Wallace. I became very blue, and stood still for a second, tired from running around, tired from to-do lists, tired from the fever pace of this emerging market, and looked up across the square where the ferries from Asia dock and saw in big lit up red letters the word “Final.”

Thanks Turkey, that was awesome.

Sultanahmet Camii – The Blue Mosque: 51 Churches and One Mosque

Today the 52 Churches project left Christianity after 12 churches and finally experienced Islam with a visit to the impressive Blue Mosque of Istanbul. This one was not easy, took some courage and persistence, but was well worth the extra effort and I am particularly proud that my introduction to Islamic worship was in such a venerable and magnificent mosque.

Formally known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in English (the Sultanahmet in Turkish), the Mosque was built between 1606-1616 by Ahmed I, whose tomb is located there. There is a detailed history on Wikipedia of course, so I will spare you the borrowed pedantry and let you click the previous link to educate yourself. It’s blue because of the extensive use of blue tiles throughout the interior, particularly in the immense dome, which in many ways mirrors the grandeur of Hagia Sofia, The Church of Wisdom, built 1100 years earlier across the grand plaza to the east. The mosque is notable for having six minarets, the most of any mosque except for Mecca, which was given a seventh minaret to retain its preeminence in the minaret department.

I tried to enter and observe prayers three times over the past seven days and polled several people about the etiquette and protocol of an infidel such as myself entering a mosque during prayers. In some cases and countries nonbelievers are firmly banned from entering mosques, but allegedly, because of the secular reforms of Kamal Ataturk, Turkey does not hold such a hard line and the Blue Mosque in particular is organized as a “tourist” mosque and permits visitors in between prayers.

Each time I tried to enter I was too close to the beginning of the next prayers and the guest entrance on the west side was closed. The carpet touts and would-be tour guides can be brutal and by my final attempt today, with only hours before I left Turkey for China, I resolved to make one last effort despite the warnings of many that I was a fool to expect to watch prayers. It simply isn’t easy and it isn’t like a typical temple or church where a non-believer can just stroll in and have a seat. Indeed, even in the Eastern Orthodox church they have a name for people like me — catechumen – who are supposed to observe the services out in the narthex outside of the nave. That apparently is NOT the case in a mosque, some of which prohibit a non-believer from entering at all. I was growing a bit pessimistic I would ever gain entry or worse, would have to disguise myself and enter in mufti like Richard Francis Burton did when he snuck into Mecca in 1853 disguised as a Pashtun (he also spoke nearly every Indian and Arabic language).  I am a huge Richard Burton fan by the way. He was one of the more amazing adventurers who ever lived.

Continue reading “Sultanahmet Camii – The Blue Mosque: 51 Churches and One Mosque”

Church of St. George – Constantinople: 52 Churches

(Brace yourself church fans; this is going to be a long one I think)

First the context. Then the church.

The Eastern Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian denomination in the world (after Roman Catholicism) and is the prevalent Christian denomination in Greece, the Balkans, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Russia. It is Greek in origin and traces its history directly back to Christ’s Apostles, emphasizing in its beliefs its unchanged connection directly  back to the foundation of Christianity.

It was the religion of the Byzantine Empire, which followed the Roman Empire and peaked in its power and extent in the middle of the sixth century but survived until 1453 in its capitol of Constantinople until the city was sacked by the Muslim Turks. The Patriarchate is the spiritual capitol of the faith, yet care must be taken not to assume that the Patriarchate is the “Vatican” of the Orthodox faith, or the Patriarch is tantamount to the Pope. He is, like the Pope, considered “first among equals,” and he is viewed as the leader of the Orthodox faith. Historically the position of Patriarch wielded immense power and in some regards was as powerful as the Byzantine Emperor. The piety of the Byzantine court cannot be underestimated, and the synods or early religious councils that were convened in the early centuries such as the Council of Nicea are fundamental to the history of all Christian denominations.

This is the religion of icons, of priests in black cylindrical hats and flowing robes, of smoking censers filled with frankincense. If you’ve seen Deer Hunter and recall the Orthodox wedding, then you’ve seen some Orthodox liturgy.

After the sack of Constantinople the Byzantine church limped around Istanbul, getting kicked out of one church after another as the Sultan converted Hagia Sofia — The Church of Holy Wisdom — into a mosque and commanded that no Christian church exceed a mosque in size or grandeur. Today the church is the small but elegant Church of St. George on the shores of the Golden Horn in Phanar (Fener), where it has resided since 1600.

From Wikipedia:

“Since the fall of the Ottomans and the rise of modern Turkish nationalism most of the Greek Orthodox population of Istanbul has emigrated, leaving the Patriarch in the anomalous position of a leader without a flock, at least locally. Today the Church of St George serves mainly as the symbolic centre of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and as a centre of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians. The church is financially supported by donations from Orthodox communities in other countries.

On 3 December 1997, a bomb attack seriously injured a deacon and damaged the Patriarchal Cathedral.[4] This was one of the many terrorist attacks against the Ecumenical Patriarchate, its churches and cemeteries in Istanbul in recent years.The efforts to bring the terrorists to justice are continuing.”

The Service

Before travelling to Turkey I wrote an email to the secretary of the church seeking some information about services, but I never received a reply, which is not surprising given the incongruity of communicating with an ancient church through a digital pipe. Friday afternoon I used Skype to phone the Patriarchate’s press office where I explained my mission to visit interesting sacred places over the course of a year. I was referred to an American expatriate affiliated with the church, and one minute later had an encouraging discussion with a gentleman named Paul Gigos who told me my timing could not be better as one of the more significant Feasts of the ecumenical calendar was taking place the following morning, Saturday: the Feast of the Three Hierarchs.

Continue reading “Church of St. George – Constantinople: 52 Churches”

Besiktas Fish Market

It rained today and I had calls sprinkled through the afternoon, keeping me hotel bound except for a dash across Barbaros for a couple beef kebab rollup things called durum and a spicy cold meat thing called kofte. The weather was just sucky and I had no remorse about missing a day out on the streets and in the bazaars.

Finally, around 5 pm, as it was getting dark, the thought of room service  again was too depressing so I bundled up and walked down to the port of Besiktas, a very busy, vibrant intersection where the ferries dock and a big monument to Ataturk stands in a plaza surrounded by smoking buses and a perpetual queue of yellow taksis. After five days poking around the city, I realize my hotel is beautifully situated between some great neighborhoods, the Golden Horn, and the modern era of digital agencies and the like to the north.

I’d noticed a  busy little alley down at the bottom of the hill the other day, so I headed there and turned in with the crowd of commuters heading out to pick something up for their dinners. The lines at the ATMs were ten people deep. The rain was at a mist stage so my glasses were dazzled with the lights.

The fish market had more species on display than anything I’ve seen outside of Tokyo. I recognized a few things — especially the ubiquitous brawling bluefish — but there were some little fish in abundance that were staggering to behold and smell. There were some super weird fish.

The square with the fish stalls was ringed with fish restaurants of course, so I had to enter one to see what the fuss was about. Indeed, the fish was ordered, the order was taken outside, the fish was filleted on the spot, and brought into the kitchen to be cooked. I consider that fresh fish.

Now the restaurant was very nice, the Ahtapot Restaurant to be precise, and the proprietor overloaded me with mezze and salad and cheese. When we got to the discussion of the main course I was trying to convey that I wanted his freshest fish — whatever was in season — but NOT bluefish as I had eaten that a few nights before in Ortakoy. He put his finger on the bluefish entry. I shook my head. He nodded his head. I shook my head. I pointed at bonito. He shook his head. I shook my head. I asked: “What’s fresh.” He pointed at the bluefish. I pointed out the window at the market. He smiled. I gave up. “Get me whatever you think.”

I ate bluefish.

No complaints. I had to walk that monster off, so I toured the bazaar for an hour, snapping pictures of nut stores and pastry shops and white box PC sellers. I  passed a shop that sold water pipes, or nargile, or hookahs.

The bazaar felt like a real neighborhood. There were no tourists. Just locals getting bread and stuff for their dinners. It was very interesting in its own non way: a functional souk that the neighborhood depended on for life’s essentials. Each alley had a theme. There was washing machine alley and bedding alley, there was pharmacies and spice shops. The fast food — the doner spots — were bewildering in their numbers and variety. Guess who added insult to injury and threw a doner kebab on top of his fish dinner?

I walked up the hill past a monster traffic jam where the cars were spinning their wheels on the wet cobblestones and the air was filled with the stink of burning clutch. I descended along a little urban park, made my way back to the Conrad, and now must do some research on the Eastern Orthodox church as I am attending a service in the morning at St. George’s, the Rum Patrikhanesi, conducted by the current Patriarch, or supreme leader of the Orthodox Church, the religion of the Byzantines and Constantinople.

Stalking the elusive Lahmacun

So Bourdain was all over the lahmacun — the cheese-free Turkish pizza made out of minced lamb and peppers and stuff on a flatbread sort of crust that one rolls around a wad of parsley, arugula, sprinkles with sumac, and squeezes lemon all over. Result — I’ll have another please. Five days of searching and I can’t find the damn thing. I figure it would be as ubiquitous as pizza is in a U.S. strip mall, but no, lahmacun is too low rent for a nice place and too high end — as in you need an oven to bake the crust — for the average bufe doner kebab joint around the tram stops and ferry landings. Gary and me left the Grand Bazaar after two hours of major souk-ifying and were stunned by this call to prayer. Inspired, we went on the lahmacun hunt, old hands at this point of avoiding the touts.

“May I sell you something you don’t need?”

“You look like a rug expert!”

A food tout nailed me after the hair-raising call-to-prayer and waved a cartoonish laminated menu in my face. I said the magic word and he flipped through the pages and put his finger on this off-register-purple-color picture of a round disk of ground meat. I had found the elusive lahmacun. There was no time for a sanitary inspection. Decor and ambiance be damned, Gary and me were going to sit and eat. And so we did. This stuff kicked butt. Praise be to Bourdain. Gary, having ordered frozen fish sticks the day before, was happy to see me happy and let me bully him into ordering kiyamali and sucuklu — football shaped loaves of pita covered with meat paste or cheese and salami. As Bourdain would say, “Stoner Food.” I drank a plastic cup of salty yogurt goo called an ayram. A hungry cat stared at me. Istanbul is infested with cats and cloned dogs that look creepily like Cujo mixed with my brother’s bull mastiff. Obviously some ancestral Balkan war dog breed. Anyway, the cat was desperate to get through the glass and get some unpronounceable.

Bourdain on lahmacun at the 7:15 point

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