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Istanbul: places to eat kofte

March 16, 2009

“What are you up to these days?” I asked my former officemate while struggling with the best pick from a questionable menu of our faculty cafeteria.
“Not much. Me and S. are going to Istanbul next week.”
“AAAH.” I appeared to be more enthusiastic than they were, but that was understandable. First of all, I did not have to spend two days on some dull project-related meetings. And secondly, this was to be their first time in my favourite city so they were not yet enchanted. Before my tortilla with fried potatoes that you for some reason could not make salty enough disappeared from my plate, I was already walking down the back streets of Beyouglu, headed to the other side of the Golden Horn for the best köfte in Istanbul. Two portions I’ll have, and a salad.

Whenever travelling, we are always after two gastronomies – one of the eye, the other of the stomach. And for some obscure reason, with us both of them, not just the first one, imply walking.  And when I say walking, I mean a lot of walking (as you might have noticed, even my imaginary meal does not start simply by ordering food but with walking to the place).

Fetching bread from the store - of course they dropped a loaf before reaching the end of the street.

Fetching bread from the store - of course they dropped a loaf before reaching the end of the street.

We first learned of this place in Cornucopia magazine and the fact that the caption to the full page photo did not provide the name nor the address of the place did not seem to bother us. Five minute cab drive from Eminönü? You’ve got to be kidding. We had a more elaborate plan.  We took a ferry to Eyüp and climbed the cemetery hill first, had a glass of tea and thought how much the view have changed since the orientalist novelist Pierre Loti allegedly indulged in it. On our way back, we hopped of the ferry at Balat and started our search. We wanted to explore the former Greek and Jewish neighbourhoods anyway and were counting on finding the eatery in the process. Gastronomy of the eye got its feast as Balat and Fener (at least in 2006) were a peculiar site.

The place seems to run at a different pace than the rest of Europe's second largest city.

The place seems to run at a different pace than the rest of Europe's second largest city.

Sewing, Fener style.

Sewing, Fener style.

Charming is not the word although they did possess a certain charm, the one you associate with places where through their current decay you can still sense the grandeur of some former era. The thing that struck me most was the community spirit that you could sense just by walking the small streets that had a particularly nasty habit of making sudden, really steep uphill turns. There were children playing in the streets and rattling by on old bicycles, women would work outside or chat with their neighbours and old men would sip their tea sitting on small four-legged stools in front of the local teahouse. The discussions would probably make Habermas slurp in evny. Everything seemed to be happening in public, on the streets and pavements. As we walked under the lines of drying laundry and through hundred year old shades of tall trees of fenced park, the family and community ties seemed to outweigh the rundown buildings, old cars and occasional empty looks of idle men. An hour must have passed before first doubts on the success of our exhibition must have crept in with the stillness of the August noon heat. The thing was, the eatery looked like a typical building from the crossroad at the end of the street. Any street.

Sightseer becomes a sight.

Sightseer becomes a sight.

And this applied not only on our overly optimistic duo but to the locals that we eventually turned to and asked for directions. “Asked” is stretching the word a bit for what we did was shove the glossy page of the magazine under their noses and gesture for directions, the English that accompanied the whole thing being little more than background noise to the whole interaction. We were getting really hungry. And tired. And hot. And tired of being pointed to wrong direction. We scrutinised the photo in hope of finding some useful information, some hidden clues, or an overlooked street sign. Nothing was there, just the shy grin of the owner and white of his apron. Than just as our stomachs were going through the final revisions of their complaint to Hague tribunal, we stumbled upon a small barber shop. The short, round fellow turned out to be a proper member of his trade, a true center of neighbourhood information. He looked at the magazine, than at us, and at the magazine again. And smacked it with the back of his hand. He recognised the place. And to our amazement, instead of pointing his finger, he offered to take us there, leaving his shop wide open, attended only by the white towels drying on a stand in front of it.

We walked for what seemed like 10 minutes at a pace I would not assign to him when we first saw him lazily reading the daily news. When we finally arrived, he took us straight to the owner and told him that we were looking for the place and that his picture was in the magazine. This “guided tour” ensured us a special treatment and complementary yogurt, which was simply indescribable. People flock to the other side of the Bosporus to Kanlica to buy the stuff but this was simply beyond comparison. The only pity is that you really can’t order another complementary treat… But I did have another portion of köfte. There is only one word to describe the place and I will leave it at that – it is truly “genuine”.

The best köfte place in Istanbul, as far as we know.

The best köfte place in Istanbul, as far as we know.

The food is worth the trip,l but you might want to follow these much simples instructions – hop of the ferry(or bus) at Fener (by the cast iron church of Stephen of the Bulgars), cross the busy main road (Balat Vapur Iskelesi), turn right and walk along the road (past some small car mechanic shops) towards Balat for something like 200 meters. You can’t miss it.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2009 2:57 am

    There is nothing like finding little gems like the place you speak of and it’s a thousand times better when you are guided in by a local. It somehow makes the whole thing more genuine and makes you feel less the tourist and more the guest.

    I visited Istanbul when I was about twelve and have been captured by it ever since… and sadly, have never been back. It was truly another world and one I instantly loved. I can’t wait for the day I can return with my family.

    And the tea! Oh… I miss the tea.


  2. March 27, 2009 7:41 pm

    The photo of the two bread kids and the one of the laundry drying are my favorites (although the first one made me very very hungry!)

    Well done!


  1. Travelling for food « Cashmere Cafe

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