Sally and I are hovering around one of the oldest mosques in Istanbul, obscured by the trade of food and coffee, canopies littered with branches and leaves of ancient trees that have resisted the pollution and pushes of the Beyoğlu neighbourhood, and somehow find themselves taller than the buildings that surround them.
We sit on the cast iron chairs, and are ignored by the waiters who tend the tables to locals around us. Perhaps they know we are waiting for the Culinary Backstreets tour guide. Perhaps we look ignorantly touristic, unworthy of service. Perhaps we are invisible.
There is an ablution altar squished against the deepest recess of the café. Old and age-dirty. Decorated with calligraphy and the neon glow of the “sarj” box alongside it. Whatever that is…
In the corner, a vendor touts his simit, a bagel-like breakfast bread with sesame seeds. His cart is as old as he is, perhaps. It’s paintwork is fresh though, and it slides into the street scene as perfectly as if placed by an interior decorator, matched to the nearby scooters and discarded plastic fruit crates. He sells quietly. Beside him, yellow memo notes flit in the morning breeze on their black ribbons, mourning the passing of 301 miners in Soma just 14 days ago.
The polis are having a Laurel and Hardy battle with their vehicle and the nearby corner. The street is too small. People gather to observe and advise. To no avail, it seems, as eventually they leave the crew to take the short walk to Taksim Square and back the bus out the way it came.
At 9am on the dot, Katerina arrives. Greek and Turkish descent, but Istanbulian to the core, and our guide for the day. We are joined by just one other couple, also residents, but for today tourists, as they train their American palates to a traditional Turkish tune.
She takes us just a few steps to Ozkonak, a single fronted diner swathed in 1970s wood laminate and the hum of fluorescent lights. Coffee burbles towards the back, behind brightened steel cases, devoid of dishes at this early stage of the day.
Breakfast, or “calfata” (translation: under coffee), is provided on white Arcopal. Tomatoes, cucumber, white cheese and little black olive bullets marinated in herbs and olive oil, salty as the dead sea. Simit accompanies, its donut shape sliced into quarter arcs, and my favourite, Kaymak, a buffalo clotted cream, dense and almost al dente, drenched in local honey.
We enjoy the company of our new found friends with a cup of cay, and just as we decide we are full, the menemen arrives. Baked eggs, not served like shakshouka but scrambled together with tomatoes, onions and spices, sujuk sausage and peppers. With a glance sideways at each other, and the briefest nod of the head, Sally and I fill the holes we had reserved for further food touring, realising that this indulgence may mean we miss out on savouring another taste down the track, but also agreeing it is probably worth it.
With plates almost emptied, we are allowed into the kitchen, where we meet the staff who speak as much English as we do Turkish. We converse in a language of smiles and “mmm”s, lifting pot lids after being granted approval to our questioning eyebrows, snapping photos as they stir okra stews, custards and curds. Katerina does her best to translate as our questions become more intricate, and I’m sure they are laughing at our in-depth questions about a series of dishes which to them hold all the intrigue of Vegemite on toast. Whatever, it makes our photos happy, and we laugh with them, or at ourselves with pleasure.
Culinary Backstreets Beyoğlu tour will take you through breakfast and lunch, and over a distance of around 3km. It’s an easy meander, and you will be very full by the end of it (but fuelled with inspiration for dinner regardless). For $125, it’s an utter bargain. It’s one of the best food tours I have ever been on, and would recommend this or any of the others wholeheartedly. I will pick up the market tour next time I am in the city. They also run food tours in Athens, Shanghai, Rio, Mexico City, Barcelona and …. And have a super culinary travel blog that you can access if you don’t have time for the tours.