I sing a song of simit – the world’s best bagel.
If there is an afterlife, and I’m invited to attend, and I end up in the good afterlife, I fully expect to begin each and every day of it with a breakfast of simit and kaymak. Yes, kiddies, on Turkey day we talk turkey about Turkish food.
During the first few days of our trip, we were stopped by some imaginary force field from breaching the walls that keep all the tourists inside the old city of Sultanahmet. There you can see the major sites, but with the exception of some good street food, you will not eat well.
Let’s start with simit. Basically, simit is a Turkish bagel. What songs I sing about simit! It’s chewy with a slightly crunchy crust. It’s not as doughy as a New York bagel, but I’m going to say this in public – it’s every bit as good as a New York bagel, if not better. There, I said it. I could get stopped at Kennedy airport for that, but the truth will set me free. What’s more, unlike back home, where only a few places know how to make a bagel anymore, simit is good wherever you get it. Walk down any street in Turkey, (even in the tourist zone, actually) and some guy with a pushcart will sell you the best damn bagel you’ve ever eaten. These round little joyful gluten and carb delivery devices come plain or with sesame seeds. That’s it. No blueberry apple cinnamon swirl simits here, folks. My friend Rich Neimand, whose Bagel Defense Fund seeks to restore the purity of the American bagel, will find no need to expand his operation into Turkey.
Now what about this kaymak? I discovered it when I was tucking into a fabulously good Turkish breakfast. Turkish breakfast is mostly a savory affair, with dashes of sweetness thrown in. They drop a lazy susan in front of you full of olives and cheeses and breads, a pan of fried eggs, some yogurt, and they wish you well. There’s a section of the spinning tray devoted to spreads of all sorts. There’s usually honey and nutella, but one day I was gifted with this fluffy, white substance that had the bright whiteness and creamy consistency of cream cheese, but it was sweeter and less cheesy. As an experiment, I spread a little bit on my simit and at that moment I discovered what it means to be alive. But what was this stuff? The waiter said it was yogurt butter, but that didn’t sound right. Turns out it’s clotted cream made from the milk of water buffalo. It’s like a sweet, creamy, spreadable burrata, but so much better.
Water Buffalo Clotted Cream!! I know, right? The world needs to know. I mean, crikey, people are practically printing their own money in San Francisco by selling toast. Toast! Simit and kaymak puts that stuff to shame. Now, it’s very possible that by putting kaymak on my simit I have committed a Turkish culinary crime akin to putting mayonnaise on a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s Deli, but I don’t care. Simit and kaymak, people. It’s the one breakfast you must eat before you die.
Another thing you’ll find wherever you turn is the grandpappy of antioxidants, fresh pomegranate juice. The way they make it is genius in its simplicity – they cut the pomegranate in half and squeeze the juice out using one of those mechanical orange juice press gizmos, which resembles a papal torture device on Borgia. We had a pomegranate tree in Palo Alto and I spent hours seeding those damn things, when I could have spent seconds using some very primitive technology. I mourn for all the pomegranate juice I didn’t drink. In Istanbul, on the other hand, for a few bucks, you get a nice, big glass of Pom Shmabulous.
After we finally broke free from the old town, where the food options are basically kebab and kebab, we sought out the good stuff – some lovely places that created some very refined plates. Once out of the confinement zone, I wanted to live again, because we ate some really terrific stuff. We went to a place called Munferit, where we had an octopus that was perfectly cooked, pressed into a terrine, sliced thin so it looked like a deep sea mortadella, and topped with a lemony potato salad. Why would you put potato salad on octopus? Beats me, but it worked. We had eggplant sautéed in olive oil and topped with tahini and a tomato salsa. The salsa would have been right at home at a good Mexican restaurant in California. We had absolutely perfectly grilled jumbo prawns on a chickpea puree and drizzled with pomegranate molasses.
Mezzes are great. They’re Turkey’s equivalent of tapas, served in casual taverns called meyhanes. You go in, point at the wall of stuff on the counter, sit down, and eat really well for next to nothing. We had salads of lentils, bulgur, and beans, and we had the Turkish version of macaroni and cheese. The salads were bright and fresh and full of lemon, good olive oil, parsley, and mint. If Turks didn’t smoke so much, between the salads and the pomegranate juice, they’d live forever.
Turkey is an Islamic country (where you will be tossed from your bed every morning at the 5:45 call to prayer if you’ve foolishly forgotten to put in your earplugs), but you can still get a decent drink, especially in Istanbul. We went to the Pera Palace Hotel for martinis – it’s the place where Agatha Christie is said to have written Murder on the Orient Express (at the time, the train’s terminus was Istanbul). We also had Negronis at Istanbul 360, an oh-so-fabulous rooftop bar with a pulsing, techno soundtrack that sounded like a Kimpton hotel lobby, whose cocktails would give New York’s a run for its money, at least on price. I struck up a conversation with a fascinating fellow from Manchester who has been living in Istanbul for seven years and who plans events at the club. This year, he says he has scheduled Boy George and Paris Hilton for appearances. Istanbul is hopping!