This wasn’t my first trip to Turkey. My first time was 14 years ago when a mate asked me if I wanted to tag along on a business trip because he knew I had a lot of respect for different cultures and foods. All we saw were factories. Inside them, outside them, day after day it was factory after factory. Safe to say, it wasn’t anywhere near the trip to Turkey that I’d been thirsty for.
This time, I wiped the slate clean. I wanted to uncover the real Turkey, the stuff they don’t show you on CNN. And boy, did we do that. That’s the beauty of travelling with a camera crew – you can do things the average tourist can’t. I spent two months there and we packed so much in; from going fishing on a small dinghy with a guy who’d been catching fish that way every day for decades, to cooking in the kitchen of a 200-year-old family home that looked like something out of Hansel and Gretel.
If I had to pick what I loved most about my time in Turkey, it’d be the traditional cooking techniques I was shown by incredibly skilled locals. Such as making mantı – lamb dumplings that are made by hand in homes all over the country. I’ve loved eating them for a long time but, man, are they hard to make. Standing among a group of little old ladies who were banging out these dumplings so quickly they were like machine guns, my efforts looked ridiculously slow by comparison, thanks to my fat fingers. When I eat mantı now, I chew a bit slower because I know how much effort is involved in making every one of them.
But not everything the Turkish revel in is so labour-intensive. Take tomatoes, for example. One day I was sitting in a cafe and this old bloke pulls a tomato out of his pocket and starts talking about it passionately, complete with hand actions and facial expressions. His face lit up, not about the dish he was going to make with it, just about the tomato itself. Turkish people are proud of their produce and like to celebrate it. Eating seasonally and regionally comes naturally to them.
It’s why dishes like yourtlu havuç taste so good over there. That’s the carrot and yoghurt dip that, frankly, usually tastes pretty average here in Australia. But in Turkey, when it’s made with freshly picked, locally grown carrots, beautiful homemade yoghurt and Turkish olive oil, it becomes a meal in itself.
But while dips like yourtlu havuç might be what we’ve come to think of as Turkish food in this part of the world, once you travel to Turkey you quickly learn that the cuisine is far more extensive and interesting than the breads, dips and grilled meats that we know.
Of course, you do find those dishes – particularly in the places that tend to attract more tourists, like Bodrum and the other towns and cities that line the Aegean coast – but travel north-east to the country’s Black Sea region and it’s a totally different story. The people, the landscape and the food are heavily influenced by Georgia, a country that Turkey borders. Up there, in among the lush, rolling hills and beautiful hazelnut trees that are so bountiful because of the climate, people work hard and cook hearty, heavy, slow-cooked meals like casseroles made with chicken and walnuts.
The time I spent in that part of Turkey opened my eyes to just how varied it is as a country. Two days before, I was on the Aegean coast, sipping a drink on the beach while beautiful women in bikinis walked by, 48 hours later, I was standing next to an old lady with a moustache, cooking a stew in her kitchen. I couldn’t understand a word she said, but she made the best cornbread I’ve ever eaten.
It was the type of hospitality I slowly came to expect wherever we went in Turkey. People weren’t just happy to share their culture with us, they were excited about doing it and whole villages would emerge from their houses just to welcome us. I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but I think there’s sometimes a misconception about Middle Eastern cultures, that they’re quite closed off or defensive. The reality is very different. There’s a lot of softness about the way Turkish people live their lives.
But I’ve saved the best for last: Istanbul. That city is amazing. It didn’t hit me until my last two days in Turkey. I took a day off to spend a few hours in Istanbul like a local. I swam, shopped, visited a barber and drank a lot of coffee. The Istanbul I came to know is cosmopolitan and exciting, full of fashion, art, food and culture – so many different cultures. The chefs there are so passionate about what they do, mixing traditional Ottoman and Turkish dishes with cooking techniques from all over the country. It’s a style of food unlike anything I’ve seen and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the next thing to take the world by storm.
So, if I ever lost everything and everyone that I love in Australia, I’d head for Istanbul in a heartbeat. It’s a city I could definitely live in. And I never expected to find that on my travels.
Shane Delia’s Spice Journey: Turkey starts Thursday 31 July, 7.30pm on SBS ONE.
Shane Delia’s Top 5 Istanbul Eats
The owner here is known for his turbot, so while other varieties of fish are on the menu, the turbot, which is cooked whole and tastes amazing, is legendary. The tomato salad and cornbread are also out of this world. The atmosphere isn’t fancy and it’s quite a journey to get there, but it’s well worth it.
Iskele Cad, No. 15, Sarıyer, +90 (212) 242 6447
Balat Sahil Restoran
This is another one of my favourite restaurants. It’s very low key and owned by a man called Cemal,
a great chef who ships in a lot of ingredients from the village where he grew up in the north,
so make sure you always ask for what’s in season. The fried veal liver is fantastic and Cemal is a pro at cooking and preparing vegetables with olive oil, a technique that’s called zeytinyağlı. The artichokes and sweet stuffed onions are particularly good.
Mürselpaşa Cad, No. 245, Balat, +90 (212) 525 6185
You can’t go to Istanbul without eating fish by the Bosphorus Strait, and this restaurant is always a good choice. Ask for bluefish when it’s in season. Grilled bluefish paired with a glass of rakı (anise-flavoured liquor) is priceless.
Cevdet Paşa Cad, No. 26A, Bebek, +90 (212) 263 3447, bebekbalikci.net
It’s always nice to eat here and the çiğ köfte (raw meatballs of minced meat, spices and burghul), lamb ribs, chicken skewers and Adana kebab (spicy minced meat on a skewer) are all worth mentioning. For a side, try the gavurdağı salatası, a salad of chopped tomatoes, parsley, onions, sumac, pomegranate molasses and olive oil.
Bekar Sok, No. 28, Beyoğlu, +90 (212) 293 3951
This is a great spot for lunch that serves very traditional Ottoman-Turkish food. I think the lamb trotter soup is one of the best in town, but if you’re not game to try that, there are a lot of grilled meats and vegetable dishes to choose from and the cauliflower with mince is wonderful.
Mim Kemal Öke Cad, No. 21, Nişantaşı, Istanbul, +90 (212) 225 4665, hunkarlokantasi.com
As seen in Feast magazine, September 2014, Issue 35. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.