The tastes of Istanbul

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt starts like hay fever. Except neither of us suffers from hay fever. Even if we did, this would be a strange place for it: we emerge from the station at the top of the dinky underground funicular railway into the area that bears its name, Tünel. This is the gateway to Beyoglu, the modern heart of Istanbul. At the other end of the Istikal Caddesi, Turkey’s Oxford Street, is Taksim Square.

The helpful woman at our hotel recommended the restaurant: along with the prospect of some great food, a visit to Ece Aksoy provided the ideal excuse for our first trip across the Golden Horn. The trouble at Gezi Park has died down by now, surely.

Except, within metres of the station, you can feel the tension in the air. Everyone on the street is facing one way, craning their necks towards Taksim. And the itching around the eyes, that burning at the back of the throat, that is not hay fever. That, is the trace of tear gas carried on the evening breeze.

We don’t admit it at first, neither to ourselves, nor to each other. But when the locals start to take masks from their backpacks, it is clear that the situation at Taksim is far from resolved. We press on, ducking into a side street to where we think we might find the restaurant.

Searching the narrow streets is unusually purposeful: this is no shambling saunter of discovery. We stop in a bar to ask directions. A Canadian couple are already hiding out, drinking beer, watching, waiting. The staff have an edgy nervousness to them, but they helpfully point us in the right direction and we set off. Through the backstreets, other tourists are weaving, uncertain; locals in masks and plastic construction-site helmets head off towards the epicentre.

Turning a corner, a sudden gust of wind forces a lungful of gas down the narrow alley and into our faces. What has been until now mildly uncomfortable becomes painful. We turn on our heals and try to outrun the gas.

Then we are there. The restaurant is in darkness, and the owner politely tells us that they will not be opening that evening. It is perhaps the most reasonable thing in the world, and yet I still try to the challenge the decision, saying we have a reservation, only slowly aware that her inconvenience is much greater than mine.

Good sense seeps in and we turn tail and – if not run – then certainly scurry down the zigging and zagging lanes that lead through Galata towards the water. The air is clear of gas and tension almost immediately, and normal city life resumes: boutiques selling guitars, hats, and consumer electronics cascade down the steps, passing the Galata Tower, and we become tourists again. Hungry tourists.

We know of one other highly recommended place to eat: the Karaköy Lokantasi, tucked away on an inauspicious street in the soon-to-be gentrified wharf district of Karaköy. We find the place and, after a short wait for a table (the place is buzzingly busy), we are welcomed into its refined but relaxed embrace. At the counter, we order too many mezzes: sumptuous fava, laced with just the right amount of dill; the most succulent mucver ever tasted; peppers, beetroot and samphire; cacik made with homemade yoghurt; wine and raki and an oozing chocolate fondue. Soon the taste of tear gas is just a distant memory.

The next day, we will return to Beyoglu, and we will walk as far as Taksim Square. We will sit in Gezi Park and welcome the shade and the breezes that it affords, and we will wonder why anyone would want to put a shopping centre there. And I will imagine my next trip to Istanbul. Once things have quietened down, perhaps.

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