These days I’m really (but really) disappointed with the society around me. And by that I don’t mean the lovely people who are my friends and share my beliefs, opinions and the world view. I mean the broader picture. I vote in the name of every Man. Because we’re all people above everything else, and only after that we stick all these labels that we’re so happy to use on both ourselves and others. And in my opinion, that’s the only thing that should matter. Not the skin color, not the sexual orientation, not the date of birth, not the political opinions, not the nationality, not the religion. Only the level of humanity each of us has.
And then I want to move. To Paris, for instance. But something always happens and makes things seem not so grey.
In the last few days though things went back to being very grey again. The shopping center at the Istanbul Taksim Square or the residential neighborhood at Srđ (some call it the biggest land grabbing project in Croatia). It’s all the same. I send my support – at least the virtual one – to the beautiful Istanbul by telling you my story about an important part of it – the Mısır Çarşısı spice bazaar. Located at the opposite part of the town from where the riots are going on, across the street from the New mosque (Yeni Cami), teeming with pigeons, this is a paradise for all cooking enthusiasts.
The paradise is L-shaped and was built in the 17th century with the money that mostly came from the taxes collected in Cairo, which is why it was named the Egyptian bazaar. Apart from that, just like a real paradise, it’s closed on Sundays, and works from 7 AM to around 8 PM the rest of the week. It’s best to come early in the morning, before hordes of people start pouring in.
At each end of the said letter L there are monumental entrances, and when you go in… there are shops laden with spices, teas, aromatic oils and other things, packed one against the other.
Apart from shops selling foodstuffs, there’s an increasing number of gift shops. And that’s a pity because there are more than enough such places at Kapali Çarşı (The Grand Bazaar).
Being a true nerd, before the trip I made a list of spices that I would simply not go home without. Convinced that I would find rose and orange blossom water wherever I turn, I was a little disappointed when I realized that most merchants actually sell standard spices that you don’t have to go all the way to Turkey for – with all due respect, cinnamon, regular chili and pepper don’t exactly tickle my culinary fancy (which, of course, doesn’t mean that I can imagine cooking without them).
That first visit was short and made in the evening anyway, and I was too tired to focus on converting prices from Turkish liras/kg to kunas/100 g. In a couple of days I came back alone. It made no sense to terrorize my companions by sniffing large amounts of powder like a German shepherd police dog.
I took out my list and started from the top. Most shop keepers stared blankly at me, but I managed to find two shops that I can heartily recommend: Arifoglu (it’s one of the first shops you see to your left when you go through the main entrance opposite the Yeni Cami) and Kral Elmas (it’s outside the Bazaar building proper, in a side street, at Hasircilar Cadesi 6). Generally speaking, this and the other streets around the Bazaar, and not the Bazaar itself, is where you’ll find the most interesting foodstuffs and cooking utensils. These were the two shops where I found everything I was looking for. Oh joy. I was also very happy because there’s no bargaining in any of these two shops! After a few days of endless tugging by the sleeve and trying to outsmart the merchants, it was a true pleasure to just look at the price tag and take exactly that amount of money from the wallet.
However, the quality of the goods they sell is not the only thing that these two shops have in common, they are also involved in some dispute or other (I haven’t figured out what over). So, neither of the merchants were exactly happy to see me with the bags from the other shop, and they did their best to convince me that I had been ripped off by the other guy and that I should by all means get the same goods in their store. I didn’t let myself get too annoyed about that.
They were both intrigued by my list and extremely polite. I got the inevitable cup of black tea in both shops. Wherever you go, you will be offered a cup of tea out of pure hospitality. The tea is usually taken without sugar, and the cup is held on a saucer just like the one in the picture below.
If that’s too bitter for you, you might be offered a concoction made exclusively for naive tourists – apple “tea” – a sweet and pretty tasty instant powdered drink that’s taken hot and sold everywhere (just as lovers’ tea, relaxation tea and a ridiculous form of Turkish Viagra).
I was thrilled with the advice that an elderly gentleman in the Kral shop gave me, and with all the goodies he pulled out from various drawers. Unfortunately, he doesn’t allow taking pictures, and not even my nicest and gentlest pleas helped. This just proves that moms aren’t always right and that not everything can be achieved with kind words.
Generally speaking, it’s not very easy to find your way in a sea of Turkish delight (my favorite type was the red one – with sticks made of whole hazelnuts), baklavas, sweets, teas, spices, cheeses (I loved the one sold in the shape of long strings, I think they call it angel hair or something like that – if anybody knows the type, please correct me if I’m wrong), olives, dried fruits, nuts, vine leaves, lamb heads (which, from what I heard, the Turks consider a real delicacy), so here are a few tips that I got from the people smarter than myself.
- Opt for specialized shops with a long-standing tradition (the smaller the selection of goods the better, because it was made with more consideration, or so it should be).
- Don’t be embarrassed to ask to smell or taste something – what you smell is what you get.
- Pay in liras (when you take out Euros, they rip you off a bit more – just like in our seaside resorts)
- Ask for the purchased goods to be vacuum-packed – the scent and the aroma will be preserved and you won’t be unpleasantly surprised when you come home and open the suitcase (unless, like me, you happen to vacuum-pack your collection of the best Turkish delight you managed to find for your VIP, lose it somewhere along the way :/ and realize that only after opening the said suitcase.)
- Don’t buy spices packed in sets for tourists or the ones heaped up for display – however picturesque they may seem, common sense dictates that they have already lost all their scent and aroma. Arifoglu and Kral sell spices in bags.
- If you really want high-quality spices, be prepared to pay a little higher. The fact that saffron can be found everywhere you turn, doesn’t mean that the best-quality one is cheap. It’s best to look for the Iranian one, which usually comes in very small plastic containers.
- Don’t forget that finer stores sell nice mixtures of essential oils that can be better than the nicest perfumes sold in perfumeries.
- Coffee. Don’t go home without a bag of good Turkish coffee. And after all, it’s a clever go-to gift when you’re not sure what the people you’re bringing a souvenir to like as far as spices go. Right next to the Spice Bazaar, at Tahmis Sokak 66 Eminönü, there’s Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi – a coffee roasting place that has buyers waiting in a line 24/7. Ok, not exactly 24/7, but surely all the time during the working hours. That place has been in business for three generations, a little over 140 years, and each day it sells thousands of brown paper bags full of incredibly finely ground coffee, roasted and ground then and there. When they saw me with a camera, they were extremely nice, invited me inside, readily posed in front of the camera and even had my picture taken with the owner. I don’t drink coffee so I can’t give you my impression of it, but my VIP was delighted with the bag he got. But, what I can tell you is that even I, who am not a coffee drinker, thought this shop and everything around it smelled divine.
- Have fun and try something new – that should be the point of everything
Want to know what I brought home with me? Here is my Instagram photo:
Let’s start clockwise, from 1 h:
- Dried rose petals (they smell really nice – they were probably soaked in some artificial concoction or other, but I’ll take my chances).
- Közmatik – a convenient pan that you can use to grill aubergines (eggplants, if you will) and then make beautiful spreads from them (I’m working on a post about this)
- Spices and other goodies in bags and vials: urfa (my favorite), meatball mixture, baharat (spice mix for lamb, fish, chicken and soups), mastik , sumak (another one of my favorites), za’atar (mix), almond, rose, orange and hazelnut oil, as well as the famous cream of tartar (something like baking powder, often found in American recipes).
- A few boxes of traditional samples and sahan – a pan that’s traditionally used to prepare eggs (with sausages, for instance.)
- Dried eggplants (which are currently in the living room, confusing absolutely all visitors. Some of them were sure that they were looking at seafood)
- Salep – a traditional Turkish drink made from orchid roots – it’s very tasty with a pinch of cinnamon, and can also be used to make cakes.
If you are from the ex Yougoslavian territory (due to postal costs)you can now enter a giveaway over at Da mi je nešto slatko (till Sunday evening)were the original text in Croatian was published. I partnered with Salep Hrvatska company to treat you with the Turkish drink – salep. So, three lucky winners will get a box of salep each, containing 10 bags of the drink (enough to make 10 cups). Good luck!