I’m a big proponent of a well done walking tour. They usually only last a few hours and if you choose the right one, what you take away from the experience can transform your impression of an entire city. Lately I’ve particularly enjoyed taking food tours, learning about new cultures and their traditions in the best way possible – through what they eat. Food tells us more about new destinations than anything else and not only are these walks informative, they’re a lot of fun too. I had a lot of options when I visited Istanbul on my Viking Ocean cruise, but when I learned that one of my favorite walking tour companies had recently opened an office in Turkey, I knew I had to give them a try. That’s how I found myself joining a Walks of Turkey Istanbul Food Tour.
Istanbul is one of the most intriguing and dynamic cities in the world. Straddling two continents and enjoying a long tradition of welcoming merchants from around the world, the result is a culture that is varied and composed of elements that might surprise you. This is naturally best seen through its food culture, something I knew very little about before meeting my guide on the European side of the city to take a short and scenic ferry ride over to the neighborhood of Kadıköy on the Asian side of the Bosporus.
It was my first time visiting that side of the city, even though it was my second visit to this, the largest city in Europe. Since most of the top tourist sites are across the river, the same holds true for most visitors to the city, a fact that made me even more excited to visit Kadıköy. What I found was a bustling neighborhood completely unlike what I had imagined it to be. Along the waterfront were a few Western staples, like Cold Stone Creamery, but once we walked past those shops and into the market stalls of the neighborhood itself, everything changed.
One reason why I enjoy premium guided tour companies like Walks of Turkey so much is that they do more than just regurgitate boring facts. No, instead they try to bring participants into the local community, which is why my tour started in the same way as it does for many people in the city, with a cup of tea and a freshly made simit. Turkey may be best known for its thick coffee, but on a daily basis Turks drink much more tea than anything else. Everywhere I went I found people either buying or selling these small glasses of black tea, it’s so common an aspect of daily life that I think people must lose track of how much they consume every day. Simit is a great go-to snack or breakfast item, simply a sesame-encrusted ring of dough, you can enjoy it plain or with some cheese or butter for a little more flavor. For me, this classic Ottoman combo was the best way to start my foray into Turkish cuisine.
My guide said that many people in Istanbul feel stressed out throughout the day, thanks to work or family or both. Meal times are their opportunities to slow down, relax, laugh and of course enjoy a lot of great food. Maybe that’s why mezze is so popular; these small plates allow folks the chance to try many different things and to engage more with everyone around them. Walking around the market I tried several of these small plates, as well as other snacks like freshly made yogurt with honey, a sweet pastry roll made with sesame paste instead of cinnamon, and any number of other delicious items. I also discovered a lot of things that surprised me. I learned that Turks are a lot like me in their love of breads, pastries and sweets. Drawing upon their global roots, I was surprised to find as many sweet options as I did that day, especially the somewhat strange tendency to candy anything they can. I’m used to some of these preserved and sweetened fruits, like apricots and figs, but in Istanbul you can find anything candied, including olives and even pumpkins.
Sitting in cafes with my guide, watching people walk by and enjoying the same snacks as everyone else, that was probably the greatest aspect of the tour. I felt like I was a part of the neighborhood, if only for a couple of hours, noshing on the same locally produced delicacies as everyone else around me. Throughout the tour my guide shared with me the history of the city and the reasons why the foods we enjoyed that day were so important in the everyday life of the city. I’m not going to share everything here or even tell you all that we ate, I don’t want to ruin the tour for everyone, but within just a few hours I learned more about Istanbul than I ever could have through a more traditional tour of the city’s famous sites.
Did I enjoy everything I tried? No, not even close – I’m looking at you pickled lettuce juice – but I enjoyed nearly everything and even more importantly, I was surprised by many of the dishes I ate. I consider myself to be somewhat worldly, but most of the foods I was introduced to not only had I never eaten before, I’d never even heard of them. Through the course of this culinary education of course I learned about the country, its traditions, history and everyday life; all of which are worth more to me than even the very best kofte offered in that market.
The sun was beginning to set as our tour ended over a cup of thick and traditionally prepared Turkish coffee at one of the many cafes found around the Kadıköy neighborhood. On the ferry ride back to the European side I had time to reflect on my decision to spend my day not touring a mosque or the city’s famous underground areas. My time in town was very limited, but I went on that Walks of Turkey Istanbul Food Tour for one reason – to learn as much about the heart and soul of the city as I could and I succeeded. Food memories are what we remember most from any travel experience. Taste and smell can bring back memories faster than a word or photo ever will. That’s why I think food tours aren’t just nice, but they’re actually important to do. It’s important to form these permanent memories of a new destination and in the process not just walk away with a full tummy, but with a much deeper and personal understanding of the city than we would get through any other experience.
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