Cultural encounters in Istanbul
Sofyalı 9 is one of Beyoğlu's best meyhanes (meze restaurants) and has the sort of informality that makes it feel like I'm having dinner in someone's front room. Mismatched tables fit into the multistoried dining rooms like jigsaw pieces, and traditional Turkish music drifts out through open windows. Outside, a group of women banter with the waiter as he refills their glasses with red wine.
All meals here begin with cold meze. There is no menu - instead, a gigantic tray piled with white bowls, each of which our waiter describes in careful English. We load our table for two with pickles, a cheese, chilli and tomato dip and a bean salad. As the waiter takes our order for hot dishes - a cheese-stuffed borek pastry, and mushrooms in tomato sauce - I wonder if we've gone overboard. Twenty minutes and five clean plates later, it seems not.
But the locals don't come to Beyoğlu just for meze. The next evening, a dusk stroll takes me - and apparently everyone else in the city - along İstiklal Caddesi, a wide, pedestrian boulevard lined with open-fronted shops, restaurants, galleries and bars.
Nearby Cezayir offers sanctuary from these busy streets. Housed in a former school built by the Italian Workers' Society in 1901, the restaurant's dark stairwell opens on to a sheltered courtyard surrounded by mature trees and abundant foliage - part dining room, part botanical garden. The menu, says manager Fatih Ariman, is "modern Turkish. Mediterranean cuisine mixed with the best of the Ottoman and Byzantine kitchens." I begin with a selection of starters - tiny chickpea croquettes and balls made from fried octopus follow shrimps wrapped in filo, and a pastrami stick pastry. Pastry is a recurring feature on Istanbul menus. "In Turkey, there's a pastry for every household," says Fatih. "Each has its own special recipe."
But no one is as passionate about baking as Nadir Gullu, the self-proclaimed "dessert despot". His family opened its first baklava shop in 1949, and in the intervening years Karaköy Güllüoğlu has acquired a devoted following. Adults queue at the gold-enamelled display counters like kids at a sweetshop. Every one of the tiny round tables is filled with people cradling small plates of their favourite variety. There is walnut or plain, and special products for dieters and diabetics, but most choose the customary pistachio: a succulent, syrupy cube of pastry, sprinkled with the green nuts.
This sweet was developed in the kitchens at Topkapı Palace, and its popularity with the sultans helped cement its position as Turkey's favourite sugary treat. "My friends call me Mr Baklava," says Nadir with pride. "And today, I am going to teach you the proper way to eat it." The lesson begins with a palette-cleansing sip of water. "Good baklava affects all of the senses. First, your eyes: presentation is important. Next, your ears, when you hear the crunch of 40 layers of filo." Spearing the piece with his fork, Nadir deposits it in my mouth. "Do you smell the butter, the pistachio? And finally, taste all the flavours on your tongue? Don't swallow immediately! You must chew, at least 10 times."
As I masticate obediently, a priest stops at our table to shake Nadir's hand. Gesturing to a bag laden with boxes, he explains he has travelled all the way from Greece. "I remember you, of course!" beams Nadir. "Over the years you must have eaten five tonnes of my baklava." The priest shakes his head. "Oh no. Never five... more like six."
- Sofyalı 9, Sofyalı Sokak 9, Tunel
- Karaköy Güllüoğlu, Rıhtım Caddesi, Katlı Otopark Altı, Karakoy
- Cezayir, Hayriye Caddesi 16, Galatasaray