Much of the olfactory enjoyment when in Istanbul comes from the culinary exploration of dishes that delight all the senses and make one abandon all expectations of following a diet regime in a flash. It is no accident that the Turkish refer to Culinary Arts when talking about food. The abundance and diversity owing to the rich flora and fauna of the area provide rich culinary escapades for an inquisitive gourmet palate. Babette's Feast with an oriental twist!
And so often food and drink is accompanied by oryantal dancing* to excite the senses even more: One feels like James Bond.
With a nomadic origin back to the first millenium in Central Asia, the Turkish repertoire has been influenced by the Arab, Persian, Greek /Byzantine, Seljuk and French traditions, as well as the Imperial Kitchen of the Ottomans, adding colourful spices and refined techniques. The little balls of delight that are içli kofte with their outer shell of bulgur and minced meat and their filling of pine nuts and spicy minced meat are inducement to a glimpse of heaven. They are chased away with tangy turnip juice. In Imam Bayildi bittersweet aubergines in onion and tomato sauce are sweetly melting into the tava (pan). The name literally means 'the Imam fainted', presumambly with pleasure. My favorite and one I recreate at home is Manti, home-made ravioli-like bites stuffed with minced meat with a yoghurt sauce on top.
Cumin and turmeric are especially prized and used in meat preparations which are roasted (kebap), stewed (yahni) and grilled (külbastı). Their acrid, sweaty flavour enhances the oiliness of onion-marinated meat, accompanying donerli rice pilafs in earthen pots topped with bright sauces to be enjoyed with your commensall. The background of those spices recalls the Arabic tradition of the souk echoed in the Serge Lutens perfumes and indeed this is the place to comprehend their intricasy best. Everything mingles nicely in this melting pot of civilizations: their Iskender Kebab is named after the Persian name for Alexander the Great!
When the weather is warm and the bitter orange trees in Balat are in bloom one can catch whiffs of their honeyed goodness intemingled with the sweet smells of the bakeries meters away. To the East, along the Golden Horn, brings you to Eminonu and the Spice (Egyptian) Bazaar, both old trading districts dating to Byzantium and the Spice Road. The pungent, rich smell leads you by the nose across the stalls of the sellers. Each one in its own heap of bright vermillon, deep mustard and brownish golden, they invite you to lean and take a deep breath with the desire to immerse your hands into the expensive, little red stigmata, yellow-green leaves of lemongrass and brown seeds. I find myself trying to mentally decipher the composition of Safran Troublant, a fragrance by L’artisan Parfumeur composed by Olivia Giacobetti. The natural combo of bitterness and sweetness like that in iodoform, as well as the smooth, pleasant feel of saffron(Crocus cartwrightianus) escape from the bottle like djenies from a middle-eastern tale with merchants and thieves. The same feel accompagnies me in Agent Provocateur where the rose is playing cello to saffron’s basso.
All these references are here dissected with the precision of a surgeon: saffron here, rose petals there, curcuma and turmeric like mustard-coloured dust, and fenugreek for pastırma, a delicasy that is destined for the brave and adventurous.
Pastırma is made from wind-dried cured meat, usually veal. Legend has it that agressive horsemen preserved meat by placing slabs of it in the pockets on the sides of their saddles, where it dried by the pressure of their thighs on the horse (this is also the origin of Steak Tartare). Then dried meat is covered in a paste called çemen comprising crushed cumin, fenugreek, garlic, and hot paprika as well as salt. Pastırma is intensely rich with the aroma of fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum), an herb primarily used as a galactogue for millenia, as well as for cattle food. An opaque, rather bitter smell with a nutty undertone, it traverses the urinary track to scent a person’s urine as well as their sweat and intimate juices. Its seeds’ odour is comparable to thick maple suryp. Fenugreek is featured in many fragrances which have rippled the waters of niche perfumery with pre-eminent examples Sables by Annick Goutal and Eau Noire by Christian Dior (composed by nose Francis Kurkdjian). Everytime I smell them I am reminded of the intense flavour that this spice gives them.
To take the heat off those spicy dishes the Turks have devised the wonderfully refreshing drink Ayran or Airan, a mix of yogurt, water and salt, not too different from traditional Lassi from India. It manages to clean the palate and restore the stomach to its best function.
But the most fascinating of them all is the winter drink Boza, a fermented drink made from bulgur. It tastes tart and is thick as glue. Traditionally served with a dash of cinnamon on top and double roasted chickpeas (called leblebi in Turkish) on the side, it was confided to us by our waiter that it grows the breasts to become bigger! I can't vouch for its effects but it sure makes an impression upon hearing the rumour, doesn’t it?
To be continued with bittersweet romance, hammams and desserts...
*For you ladies who consider this kind of dancing demeening, please click to see this AMAZING clip!