Guide to Istanbul Cuisine and Eating Out Dining guides

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Until the fall of Byzantium in 1453 Constantinople was traipsed through by Romans, Greeks, Persians and Arabs, all of whom have left their footprint on the nation's cuisine. Food in Istanbul transcends sustenance and dishes are gilded with such majestic titles as Vezir parmagi 'the Grand Viziers' fingers' and Imam bayildi 'the priest fainted'.

Meals become a time to socialize and are stretched to fill the entire evening. Istanbul's cuisine remains stoically Turkish, seemingly oblivious to the influences of its Mediterranean neighbours for the last half a millennia. This could only happen in a city where the breadth of indigenous dishes always leaves something new to discover, and the ingredients are of superior quality. Tracking down a bad meal in Istanbul is hard work and many restaurants genuinely earn the accolade of being 'outstanding'. Here are some of the dishes that you can expect to find:

Kofte/ Piyaz: At the turn of the Millennia, with divorce rates spiralling, it's good to know that some marriages are still made in heaven. Kofte and piyaz is one such coupling. A typical dish of kofte involves half a dozen thumb sized patties of flame grilled minced beef. Its partner, piyaz, is an unassuming salad of white haricot beans, tomato wedges, shredded lettuce, red onion and a small bush of flat leaf parsley. Best dressed with lemon and a sprinkling form the accompanying buckets of dried red pepper and rosemary this culinary nirvana will set you back about £2.00. Two of Istanbul's finest kofte restaurants sit virtually next to each other on Sultanahmet's main thoroughfare, Divan Yolu: Tarihi Meshur Sultanahmet Koftecisi (12a Divan Yolu Cad) established in 1920 is slightly easier on the eye than the neighbouring Sultanahmet Meshur Meydan Koftecisi. Coffee: Turkish coffee (kahve) comes as thick as mud and as black as night. The Arabica bean arrived in Istanbul in the middle of the sixteenth century, having hopped onto the last leg of The Silk Route in Syria. The Ottomans regarded it as the "milk of chess players and thinkers" and it soon became a national institution. Having been ground, until the bean's texture becomes that of talcum powder, sugar is then added before the coffee is brewed. Order a sekerli kahve and the spoon will stand up in it, orta translates as medium but is still impossibly sweet, and sade is without sugar. Kahve traditionally comes with a bottle /glass of water, to dilute the taste and sluice the powdery grains from your mouth afterwards. The sludge clinging to the bottom of the cup isn't wasted, but the cup turned upside down onto a saucer, where on cooling the grounds can be 'read' to tell your fortune.

Meze: Where the Spanish have tapas the Turks have meze, a meal for the indecisive. with time on their hands. It's a crime to wolf meze down, instead the meal should be stretched to fill the evening, accompanied by a bottle of Raki (a local aniseed based spirit) and plenty of animated conversation. Typical dishes include Zetinyagli Yaprak Dolmasi (vine leaves stuffed with rice and pine nuts), sigara borek ('cigars' of filo pastry filled with white cheese, then fried) patlican ezmezi (smoked then pureed aubergine with garlic and yoghurt) and hamsi (fried anchovies). While most meze hungry visitors head for Cicek Pasaj (Flower Passage) locals in the know are sitting in Cumhuriyet in the neighbouring fish market, an old haunt of Ataturk's.

Iskender or Bursa kebap : Just across the Sea of Marmara from Istanbul in 1867 a chef by the name of Iskender Usta came up with a revolutionary way of cooking mutton. By taking the standard sword skewed chunks of lamb and elevating them, and the grill, into a vertical position he found the meat's juices now basted the roasting meat, rather than dripping into the fire and causing it to flare up. Add to this a bed of unleavened bread (pide) and a drenching with fresh hot tomato sauce and warmed butter, and he had found a recipe that couldn't be contained within Bursa's city walls for long.

Mercimek corbasi : Giving the kebab a run for its money as the definitive national dish is mercimek corbasi, lentil soup. In Turkey soup works for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Their lentil soup is a thick orange coloured broth and, aside from the obvious, the chef will usually throw some of the following into the pot: garlic, cumin, fenugreek and coriander seeds. The final touches are left to you, but customarily take the form of a generous squeeze of lemon and a pinch of dried red chilli flakes. You'll be hard pushed to find a menu that doesn't contain mercimek corbasi, but it's often the humblest of lokantas that serve the tastiest broth.

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