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'Fried fish, very tasty'
Geetanjali Krishna |
July 06, 2005
o you want to eat fish or meat?" asked the concierge of our hotel, when we asked him to recommend a good restaurant to us in Istanbul. My husband and I looked at each other and shrugged.
"Both, maybe," we said.
"You'll have to choose one of the two," said he, "for in Turkey, when you want to eat fish, you go to a fish restaurant. And when you want to eat meat..." We completed the sentence for him, "...you go to a meat restaurant?"
He clapped his hands in delight, "So you know it already! What will it be, then?"
We chose fish, and he sent us to the row of fish restaurants under the Galata Bridge, the impossibly long bridge straddling the Bosphorous.
Each had inviting arrays of fresh seafood displayed outside, tables spilling over to the waterfront. They all had similar but exciting menus offering rice and pine nut stuffed mussels, grilled bluefish, swordfish kebaps (roasted swordfish dishes) and lots more.
"What sort of fish is this?" I asked, pointing to some small fishes in the display that looked like sardines.
"Fried fish," the maitre d' replied, "very tasty!"
The smells were so enticing that without, any further questions, we dug into grilled mackerel, flavoured with only the fire it was grilled on and the salty tang of the sea.
With it, we had kalamari rings, crisp and batter fried. We washed it down with some raki, an interesting local brew made of aniseed, traditionally drunk with a fish meal.
The locals call it 'lion's milk', probably because it turns milky when ice is put into it and also because it is very, very potent. Later, when we walked across the bridge, we realised exactly how fresh our lunch had been -- men with grills stood on the bridge with fishing poles.
As soon as they got a bite and a tug they scooped up their haul, gutted it and plonked it on the grill.
The next meal we ate was in a 'meat' restaurant, where we tried the Turkish versions of the Indian kebab and biryani. Lamb is the meat par excellence in Turkey.
It's cooked to tender perfection with vegetables in sis kebaps, roasted on the spit in tandir kebaps, and minced with oregano and skewered in adana kebaps. Another lamb dish that's popular is dolma, which is basically mince and rice stuffed into all manner of vegetables -- peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, eggplant and vine leaves.
In the Spice Market, there were garlands of dried tomatoes, eggplant and peppers strung together, for Turkish cooks like to use dried vegetables to make this zesty dish. Maybe it's a throwback to their nomadic days, but dried vegetables are used extensively in the food there.
That was the beginning my love affair with Turkish cuisine and its succulent kebaps, pilafs -- meat and rice cooked together -- and halwa (no prizes for guessing the Indian equivalent of this sweet semolina dessert).
A mélange of Mediterranean flavours and oriental execution, Turkish food is simple but delicious. Go to the bustling Spice Market and you'd imagine that Turkish food has as many, if not more spices than Indian cuisine.
But though the variety is immense, spices and herbs are used sparingly, each only with certain ingredients. Turks are culinary purists and don't believe in using heavy sauces or herbs that mask the flavours of the main ingredient.
For example, parsley is used with eggplant, cumin is sprinkled over red lentil soup or mixed in ground meat when making köfte (meat balls) and dried mint sprinkled over zucchini.
A little lemon drizzled over grilled fish, and in meat and vegetable dishes, is all the seasoning Turkish food needs. That is why, when one eats Turkish food, one finds that the eggplant tastes like eggplant, lamb like lamb and fish, gloriously like fish.
Turkish people like to eat their breakfast very fresh -- there's usually a fresh white cheese not very different from feta, lots of cucumbers, tomatoes and olives, and fresh breads with honey and jam. They love yoghurt, whether as ayram -- a thin frothy drink quite like salted lassi -- or in dessert with thick honey poured on top.
Talking of desserts, one's culinary adventure in Turkey can never be deemed complete until one has sampled the mindboggling range of Turkish delights found in pastane, pudding shops which locals love to frequent.
Turkish people say proudly that profiteroles were invented in Istanbul, so every pastane offers these sticky dumplings in smothered in chocolate sauce.
The other two popular desserts are halwa (it even tastes like our own, but often has powdered cinnamon sprinkled on top) and baklava, which is flaky pastry soaked in sugar syrup and liberally peppered with pistachios.
Follow dessert with Turkish coffee or tea served in curvy glasses. It's sold by vendors in traditional Turkish costumes under the Blue Mosque, and seems like just the right thing to do in that setting.
But both are thick, sweet and strong -- tastes that the Turkish people have probably taken centuries to get used to. To other less-adventurous tipplers, I'd say stick with ayram or more potent brews.