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JEFF KOEHLER

  • writer
  • photographer
  • cook
  • traveler
August 15th, 2007

on the road: Istanbul

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Istanbul viewed from a ferry crossing the Bosphorus © Jeff Koehler

On Sunday I took the ferry across the Bosphorus from the European side of Istanbul to Karaköy on the Asian side where the strait opens wide-mouthed into the Sea of Marmara. The ride is short (just twenty minutes) and scenic and perfect to enjoy a simit (bread ring) covered in sesame-seeds and a tulip-shaped glass of çay (black tea) – two simple pleasures that always evoke my first trips to Istanbul a dozen years ago.

In Karaköy, I spent some hours browsing the small streets behind the Mustafa Iskele Mosque that are crowded with fishmongers, spice shops (to buy sumac, gum mastic, and black cumin seeds), yoghurt and cheese shops, greengrocers, bakeries (including my favorite, Eser Ekmet, across from the Armenian church), and dozens of bookshops.

I’d come, though, to eat lunch at Yanyali, perhaps the city’s best lokanta (a basic restaurant where the days dishes are laid out to chose from). In 1919, at the very end of the Ottoman empire, a man called Fehmi Sönmezler approached one of the palace chefs to open a restaurant. Eighty-eight years later the same traditional dishes are being prepared with the same exacting standards of quality and freshness. The extensive, rotating menu shows off the breath and wealth of traditional Turkish cuisine.

But I was at Yanyali (and, indeed, Istanbul) specifically for the rice dishes – domlas (rice-stuffed vegetables), pilavs, and a handful of milky rice-based desserts.

The founder’s grandson, the friendly, thirty-something Ergin Sönmezler, greeted me as I entered (we had met the previous day), and led me through a meal that included a dozen different dishes – all but one with rice.

There were various dolmas (cold ones stuffed with rice, pine nuts, and currants, warm ones with rice and meat), and a couple of pilavs. The iç pilav was superb, the rice studded with pieces of lamb liver, tiny currants, and pine nuts, and delicately seasoned with black pepper, allspice, and a pinch of cinnamon. The grains were individual and fluffy and glistened with oil and butter. Perfect.

What’s the trick? I asked. There is no trick, Ergin said. It’s technique. Pilav was an exam dish for Ottoman palace chefs. It’s how you can tell a good restaurant – if the pilav is good, the restaurant is good.

Two desserts at Yanyali – firin sütlaç, a creamy baked rice pudding, and zerde, a celebratory saffron-colored (milk-less) rice pudding that is always served at weddings and boys’ circumcision ceremonies – meant no room for a beloved simit on the ferry back. But a glass of tea? Always.

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Eser Ekmet bakery, in Kadiköy, Istanbul © Jeff Koehler

Posted by jeffkoehler in  images, on the road  |  

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