Low Life: Culinary Adventures in Constantinople by Nigel Hillpaul
Breakfast around the Middle East is usually a washout. Two places I’ve enjoyed it have been the Hotel Baron in Aleppo and over the border in those little places in Gaziantep and Sanliurfa that serve lamb soup for breakfast before running for one of the long-range buses to spend the next eight hours snoozing and belching contentedly. A tendency stopped only by the pit stops at caravanserais that seem to exist in the middle of nowhere just to service long-distance traffic. Those semi-villages that would have in the past evolved into towns but, because they are in the middle of nowhere, appear to have no connection to the landscape around them apart from as fuelling stops for bus passages.
A bit like English cafes, where you can always tell how good the food is going to be by the quality of their fried mushrooms (sliced, fried slightly brown at the edges and chewy – none of your boiled sliced or left sitting in their own juices rubbish), you can always tell how good the food is in these places by smelling the kuru fasulye.
Kuru fasulye with rice, kuru fasulye with bulgar wheat, kuru fasulye with bread: it’s a staple when travelling as you’re never sure of the provenance of the meat no matter how classy the surroundings. Stick with a nice simple vegetarian dish; after all, long range buses don’t call into somewhere with the toilet that often. Better safe than sorry.
I’ve been to Constantinople a dozen times or so and you always seem to wander around looking for something to eat, tentatively avoiding the recommendations of what the places I stayed in laughingly call a concierge…
Sadly, you still see many tourists and locals heading for the ubiquitous rubbish of an egg McMuffin at the Golden Arches, but my lip curls like a Turkish slipper when anyone suggests it.
If you’re on the move, a feta and spinach borek with a cup of cardamom coffee from one of the many places along Divanyolu Caddesi is a great way to start the day, but sometimes you have to bite the bullet or, in this case, the hard-boiled egg and indeterminately pink meat at the breakfast buffet for what else is on offer.
In this case the view; behind you the tankers queued like cars on the M25 in the Bosphorus rush-hour and on the other side as you look up is Hagia Sophia, while before you are the magnificently ruined walls and remains of the Great Palace. In summer you can feel the sun warming the city’s bones, but winter is best for a number of reasons, the main one being selfish. Fewer tourists, smaller queues and sitting there wrapped up in leather and wool sipping on a Nescafe, you’ve got some peace and quiet to appreciate what’s on offer.
Cem Sultan Hotel, Cankurtaran, Kutlugün Sk. No:28, 34122 Fatih.
The best cuppa in Constantinople? The gardens of SS Sergius & Bacchus in the summer with the enchantingly fat bees buzzing among the honeysuckle as you enjoy a cup of alma çay in a tulip glass while working out where to go to next from your guide book.
Even in winter, with the garden cropped back and waiting for another spring, it provides a gloomily magnificent vista while you sit there on your cushions behind the plastic sheets in the occasional rain, watching the steam rise from your cup (resting on a bit of marble column that has been turned into an occasional table) and taking your feet out of your zamberlans to let your bunions breathe for ten minutes.
The old cloisters have been turned into a series of artisan workshops selling stuff you’re certain you don’t need but you can bring back as souvenirs for the relatives waiting breathlessly to tell you about their own holiday experience.
Küçük Ayasofya, Küçük Ayasofya Cami Sk. No:20, 34122
You know somewhere is good to eat when its full of laughing locals, rather than po-faced well-heeled tourists looking to see how many stars it’s got. I’ll leave that to people booking into the Four Seasons. If you can find a buffet (the urban equivalent of the café attached to caravanserais) try it out. I came on the Balkan Lokantasi by chance, having (like a boy with his face pressed up against the window) seen a huge pot of gently steaming kuru fasulye and felt the compulsion to walk straight in.
You point out your selection from the counter to the right (kuru fasulye, frik and mantı), make your way down to the till where a jolly manager stares at you in astonishment when they realise a non-local wants to eat in their establishment (‘English?’ ‘No, but thats close enough’). Then you shake your head at the amount of change you get back, before making your way down the step into the main eating area. Long tables, big tables etc. It’s communal eating at its best. You don’t even have to worry about finding a long stretch of wall near door to put your back against. Too many people having fun. Families, groups of students all laughing, the happy hubbub that you only get in a good restaurant; happy because people are enjoying the excellent food. It really is top-quality nosh for the hungry traveller.
I shared a table with a large extended family, their students wanting to practice their English, the patriarch wanting to practice his noblesse, the suspicious wife wanting to practice her distrustful look until you give her your best Sid James leer and wink before she turns away blushing to practice telling off the children and primly ignoring me.
I stagger out groaning under the weight of a huge, cheap and tasty feed. You can take your fancy restaurants in Taksim and poke them. An honest eatery like this is the place for me
Balkan Lokantasi, Hoca Paşa Sk. No:12 D:12, 34112 Fatih