Updated: May 5
It feels so good to be able to travel again.
Covid had clipped my wings to the extent that I had nearly forgotten how to pack a suitcase or board a plane but my recent trip to Istanbul and the Urla peninsula fixed all that – and reminded me of just how important it is to get out from behind a computer screen and actually live.
Istanbul is easily one of the great food cities of the world, with its layers of history, its tapestry of cultures and its centuries of food traditions. With 15.5 million people, it has an energy that can be somewhat frenetic but it’s that sense of dynamism that makes eating out here so compelling. And that view over the Bosphorus…!
In Istanbul you can graze on street food such as simit (a pretzel-like bread ring sprinkled with sesame seeds) and sut misir (roasted sweetcorn); you can browse the Spice Bazaar and sample Turkish cheeses and cured sujuk sausage, then treat yourself to traditional, simple meze of the sort served at Pandeli; you can grab a kebab – a proper kebab; and, now, more than ever, you can indulge in cutting-edge cuisine from rising-star chefs.
Chef Maksut Askar (pictured above) of neolokal and chef Fatih Tutak of TURK are just two chefs who are flexing their gastronomic muscles in the city. They are impressive in their own ways but one thing the two chefs share is a respect for Turkish food traditions: both creatively (and beautifully) reimagine classic dishes such as pide, dolma and çilbir (one of my favourite Turkish dishes – poached eggs served on a pillow of yogurt and drizzled with chilli-spiked melted butter). It’s cooking that’s fresh yet rooted.
I was also impressed by the Turkish wines I tasted – particularly those made from the country’s numerous indigenous grape varieties, such as Kalecik Karasi, Narince and Misket. There’s been an incredible renaissance in winemaking in Turkey. The quality has improved enormously in recent years, and there’s a real sense of pride that’s served with every glassful.
After the energy of Istanbul, the Urla peninsula on the Aegean coast feels like the epitome of calm: clear water, blue sky and a chilled-out atmosphere. Yet here, too, the food scene is uproariously alive. The stalls of the local food market are piled high with beautiful home-grown veg – tomatoes that range the whole of the red spectrum, fresh-from-the-tree lemons, and foraged foods such as wild asparagus and green almonds.
And the restaurants…
I was blown away by the sophisticated cooking at Hiç, a lokanta serving beautiful dishes based on seasonal local produce (see above). The dynamic local couple who run the place also operate a cookery school, run harvesting + cooking tours – and they make award-winning olive oil, too.
If you haven’t yet heard of chef Osman Sezener (pictured below), I suspect you will soon… He’s chef at OD Urla, a farm-to-table restaurant that’s one of the best and most exciting places I’ve eaten in. Ever. Chef Sezener cooks updated Turkish food, much of it grown on the surrounding farm, over live fire. It’s ambitious and honest and just incredibly good.
Whether you sit inside at the chef’s table and watch the well-drilled team prepare the likes of wood-roasted octopus with pomegranate molasses and fried leek, or take a seat outside among the olive trees, the place has a sense of magic about it.
These are just a few sketches of what I experienced on my trip. I hope to share a lot more stories and details very soon.
Thanks to Isabelle Kliger for the opening snap!