the ultimate food high
“Hoşgeldiniz! Balık satılık. Hoşgeldiniz!”
The vendor catches up to me a block into the waking bazaar.
“Hoşbulduk, günaydın,” I say back out of politeness.
He’s selling fish, and I don’t eat fish. Besides, it’s five in the morning. The fog is just beginning to lift as I make my way through Kadikoy, a blue-collar neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul. Vendors selling mussels soaked in lemon juice call out to me, and as I walk by, they thrust the lemons under my nose. My nostrils flare from the sourness.
If you stay out in Istanbul until early morning, you’ll see merchants and fishermen begin to open the bazaars, rolling out tarps and chasing stray cats away from the barrels of fish caught fresh from the Bosphorus. Turks don’t start their day before ten, except for bartering restaurant owners descending on the bazaar at dawn. Walking home, I watch them light cigarettes, the smoke dissolving into the thin fog enveloping the marketplace. The city has shifted as the nightlife winds down, sleepiness so stark and streets so barren I almost miss the crowds haggling me.
Paying acute attention to the cobblestones, I look up for just a moment to make eye contact with an elderly vendor dressed in a white button-down and gray suit. As I pass, he reaches out and hands me a piece of baklava, a honey and pistachio sweet pressed in phyllo dough and soaked in milk.
“Teşekkürler,” I murmur, taking it and noticing the tespih, or Islamic prayer beads, wrapped around his wrist.
I bite into it, and its sweetness instantly washes away the sour aroma lingering from the seafood and lemon. In a city that tests my patience every day—severe traffic, blaring horns, narrow sidewalks, shouts I get from Turkish men, my inability to ever find my way—it is in moments like this that I love Istanbul, with its blurry rainy nights, back streets, and juxtaposition of old and new.
Savoring the baklava, I can see the silhouetted minarets of Süleymaniye Mosque on the European side of the Bosphorus, designed by the 15th century imperial architect and civil engineer Sinan. Several dozen of his buildings still exist in Istanbul, a glimpse of Istanbul’s golden age as the capital of the Ottoman Empire. But his works also tell the tale of a modern metropolis of roughly 15 million Istanbulians, many newly arrived from the Turkish-Syrian border. As I find my way out of the early market maze, using the mosque’s minarets as my guide towards the water and my ferry ride home, the morning prayer begins to call out.
The vendors cry one last time, begging me to buy their apricots and eggplant. Climbing aboard the ferry to Beşiktaş, I raise my hand to get a clerk’s attention. His tray is full of chai and salep, a hot milk and thick flour drink.
“Chai lütfen,” I say, pointing and handing him a Turkish lira.
Despite the cold, I stand outside with the seagulls and clench the chai in my hands. The hot tea is smooth, and I reach for the last bit of baklava in my jacket pocket. I see tiny fishing boats bobbing up and down, nearly capsizing from the wake of crossing barges. The call to prayer fades as we get further from shore and is replaced by swirling wind. Washing down the last bite, I know this is what I’m going to miss most about Istanbul. ●
—Marley Walker, writer for Baked.
This story was originally featured in Baked’s Fall 2014 issue. To read more, click here.