Friday, March 26, 2010

Great Expectations: Istanbul, 10 years later

You can forgive some countries for their mediocre food. Some lack a public dining tradition or some never even try to claim any culinary fame. That is why I don't blame Moscow or Amsterdam for feeding me lackadaisical grub at inflated prices. Istanbul, however, I expected to be up to snuff.

First time I went there in 1999, back in my militant vegan days. There was only eat steamed corn and aromatic Turkish bread to feed my pallid tree-hugging face so by the end of my visit I left weak in my knees and light in my head. A few years later I rid of that eating disorder of mine. I became deeply interested in steaks, sushi and all sorts of delicious animals again. I bought Ghillie Başan's tantalising recipe book and spent hours slobbering over it. I stocked up on vine leaves, biber salçası, and stacks of fresh coriander at my local Turkish grocer trying to recreate my Istanbul culinary experience as it could have been. I went to Turkish restaurants in Amsterdam and London but my heart was not there: I kept wondering how much better it would have tasted in Turkey. I was planning my revanche: I would go there and bury my face in all the previously forbidden stuff and make good for what I missed out on.

My spirits on the Istanbul-bound plane were high. First thing upon arrival to the city, I rushed to a kufte restaurant prominently advertised in all tourist editions. A peep inside revealed three floors full of leisurely dining Turks, a good sign. The smell of charcoal-grilled meat sent my stomach into a spasm of anticipation. t was suspended in the tricky limbo of not being bad enough to send back to the kitchen and not good enough to write back home about. Edible yet utterly forgettable.

One week in Istanbul was spent making bigger and bigger circles around the city in quest for what I thought I had been missing. Every eatery, no matter cheap or expensive, touristy or locals-only, was the same: just good enough. Strangely enough, the best food I had in Istanbul were street snacks: kufte and grilled mackerel sandwiches.