At this crossroads of East and West, the cuisine is as fascinating and complex as the long history. From street food to chic new restaurants, Anya Von Bremzen finds the best dining in Byzantium.
Standing on the Galata Bridge eating a peach, I’m only half looking at the lineup of imperial mosques along the Golden Horn. Instead I’m contemplating my new purchase, which isn’t a gold bracelet from the Grand Bazaar or a kilim—though I certainly need one. What I’ve bought is an apartment, a little place with a beautiful Bosporus view in the neighborhood of Cihangir, Istanbul’s leafy hub of café life. The thought of my acquisition has me in a state of simultaneous gloom and euphoria. Gloom because Turkey’s currency is fluctuating like crazy, because the prospect of the country’s joining the EU seems real one day and phantasmagoric the next, because the local Ikea has sold out of the extralong curtain rods I need. Euphoria because to me Istanbul is the most fascinating, most ravishing city on earth, a feeling that hasn’t wavered since I first ate a peach on the Galata Bridge 20 years ago.
Everything one hears about Istanbul is pretty much true. Yes, the Hagia Sophia is big and byzantine, the Grand Bazaar both a treasure trove and a tourist trap. Yes, this metropolis of 12 million people physically and metaphorically straddles Europe and Asia. It is by turns provincial and cosmopolitan, Muslim yet resolutely secular, exhilarating and exasperating. Even the rumors of Istanbul’s transcendent new coolness aren’t vastly exaggerated. Beyond the clichés, though, what keeps luring me back is the texture of everyday life. The ferry ride at dusk as the skies flare cinematically over the minarets. The tulip-shaped glasses at my corner tea garden. The courtly smile of my local pistachio vendor. And the food.
With the endless grills, the subtle spicing, the celebration of yogurt, legumes, and sun-ripened vegetables, Turkish cuisine is the last frontier of healthy Mediterranean cooking. The kebabs and savory pastries called börek alone are reason enough to move here. While Istanbul isn’t the next capital of Spanish-style avant-garde cooking—so fashionable in Europe these days—its hedonistic high society ensures that there are plenty of spots that outglamour anything in Miami Beach or Hong Kong.
It’s a sprawling city, divided into three parts by the Bosporus strait and its offshoot, the Golden Horn (see map with "Istanbul’s Foodscape"). Though many tourists tend to stick close to the Old City—especially the historic Sultanahmet district around Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque—to truly experience Istanbul’s food, you have to go a bit farther afield. Best of all, meals often come framed by views so breathtakingly beautiful, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this city is a mirage.
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