My husband and I were wondering through the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul, a few streets from the now infamous Taksim Sqaure. The multi-colored flags strung diagonally across the intersections and alleys waved calmly with the Bosphurous breeze. We came to this part of town on a tip from a friend. We were hunting for street food.
We started with Simit, a bagel-like round of crispy bread topped with sesame. I had mine plain, while my husband had his stuffed with sheep cheese and tomato. These can be sold two ways, soft or chewy to a crisp. I prefer the softer round. The bitter dough and the crunch of the sesame seeds that always get caught in my teeth are truly addictive.
Rows and rows of lemons caught my eye next. There were stacks of perfectly oval muscle shells nestled inside of the lemon rows. Midye dolma, street food style muscles, are served steamed and stuffed with spiced rice and lemon. We stood at the high top table near the cart and kept nodding at the man preparing the muscles in a “keep em’ coming” kind of way. The muscles were sweet and had a fresh thickness to them. The rice had been browned with spices, something like red pepper, thyme, and paprika. We ate about a dozen and ambled onto out next stop.
My sweet tooth kicked in right as the coffee was being poured. A long stretch of thick black brew, no sugar because it was for my husband. However, the tempting frosty square served on the plate with the coffee was all mine. Türk lokumu, or Turkish delight, are soft gelled squares flavored with fruits, flowers and nuts. This one was particularly indulgent with rose water and pistachio. I grabbed a few pieces to go, wrapped in pastry paper, and headed on with the sweetest morsel of candy still lingering in my mouth.
The next food adventure was the most triumphant and trying snack of the trip. “This place is famous! Many people will come here when the bars close” was the advice. What is it famous for? Tripe soup, işkembe çorbası, is a famed Turkish hang-over cure. We took a sharp left down a side street into the small opening of the café. There were four tables, an odd number of chairs, and a few TV’s playing live soccer. Two men sat, hovering over their bowls, in the corner by the window. Before we could sit down, a man with a stained white coat waved us to the back of the shop. His smile seemed to say that he was truly enjoying himself. We hesitated but followed his waving arms.
As our eyes rounded the corner, I realized that he wanted to show us the “behind the scenes” of his small restaurant. There was one large cutting board with minced pieces of grey and pink meat and a large vat built into the counter. The smell was overwhelming; at first it was pungent, like a cheese shop. But, as I stood there longer, it turned more sour and acidic. He grabbed a giant pair of tongs and dipped and swirled the soup in the vat, searching, stirring, searching. All of a sudden, the tongs pulled up the whole, giant, simmering stomach. My eyes widened into saucers, I was nervous.
Two bowls sat in front of us. We were face to face, trembling, having a showdown with the thickening yellow soup. A bowl full of bowels, if you will. Turkish food had not failed me yet, I was up for the adventure. How many times would I be sitting here? How many times do you get such a warm welcome from the cook yourself? How many times do you get to truly eat what the locals eat? We dug in. The texture was lovely, silky, reminiscent of lentil soup. But the smell was ripened, I couldn’t get past the achingly sour aftertaste. We tried and tried to add garlic and hot sauce, to finish a bowl, to be humble travelers. Even though our bowls were not empty, the risk was worth the reward of such a vivid memory.
After we politely put our spoons down and handed over the cash, I was ready for a cab back to our room. In the back of the cab, my stomach was still churning. My husband was laughing at my colorless cheeks. I didn’t want our snack-filled night to end like this. Until I smiled and remembered the handful of türk lokumu still safely tucked away in my pocket.
About the Author: Natalie Cowart earned her BA in Creative Writing from the Florida State University. She currently writes and teaches in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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