The last Lokanta

It was our last day in Istanbul and we’d done a long walk through Eminönü. Now, late in the afternoon it was time for a small indulgence with a çay (pronounced chai). Just as I was about to say this to The Family, she indicated a lokanta in front of us. We’d eaten at lokantas before, but hadn’t looked for one after coming to Istanbul. Going into one would be a nice way to say goodbye to our experience of Turkish food.

The food that we’d eaten in lokantas ranged from wholesome to stunning. This one must have been somewhere within this spectrum judging by the number of people who were having a large meal at this odd time, halfway between lunch and dinner. We found our last baklava with the çay. This looked like it was a self-service restaurant, but there were some waiters around. We were told that our order would come to us at the table, and it did very quickly. We looked around the tiled interior, the mirrors on the wall, the interesting lampshades, the railing on the upper floor where there was more seating, and elegant marble-topped tables and spindly chairs. “Nice way to end the day,” The Family said. I agreed.

Tulip and turban

In the late afternoon we sat down for a quiet time and looked at the crowded road outside Sirkeci station: the lines of taxis, people crossing the road, trams coming and going. It looked so calm and unhurried, compared to the tempo of Mumbai, that I wondered about the inflamed imagination of writers who passed through here in the nineteenth century. Could this really be the colourful East of their imagination: debauchery, glamour, exotica?

A hint of that exotica arrived at our table in the form of güllaç (pronounced guellash). This traditional sweet is made only for Ramazan: thin layers of pastry oozing milk, filled with nuts and pomegranate. Perfect with çay. We’d run into güllaç before, and had put off our first experience of it. Now that we had only a couple of days before we left Turkey, we were rushing through our list like the last episode of the Game of Thrones. The result would be some hard-to-shed holiday weight.

That plate looked nice. We took a closer look at the design. Swirling bands of green and gold looked like the “awful turbans” which Mark Twain took such a dislike to. The tulips recalled the heady days of the Ottoman-era tulip craze. This shop was certainly standing when Twain’s ship pulled into Halic to dock. We’d had a wonderful reception at the counter of the sweet shop. We didn’t see a place to sit in, and were gently led upstairs to their cafe. I’d carried my library of books about Turkey on my phone. When I opened Mark Twain’s diatribe about Istanbul (“Everybody lies and cheats”) we had a hearty laugh at the depressive comic who might as well not have left home.

Turkish Coffee

I’d got to like the Turkish çay (pronounced chai) so much that I neglected the coffee for the first half of the trip. In Şirince it was impossible to neglect the coffee. Most of the restaurants in the village had tables with the beautiful pattered trays set out with the cups that you see in the featured photo. Some time in the afternoon we decided to sit down at one of these and have a coffee.

I looked inside the restaurant. A couple of old men sat there chatting. In Turkey you would probably suspect something is wrong if a restaurant or cafe does not have a few people deeply engrossed in conversation. It was the second day of Ramazan, which was probably why these two were not nursing glasses of çay. Reassured, I went out and sat down at the table where The Family had already ordered the coffee.

This style of coffee was heated in a bed of sand at the center of the tray. Clouds had come in a couple of hours earlier, and there was a slight drizzle. The day had turned cold, and it was nice to sit at a table which radiated heat. I’d forgotten how hot sand could become. In a short while the coffee started to boil, and we could pour a small shot into the little cups in front of us. We sat at our warm table, nursed the strong and sweet coffee, and waited out the drizzle. The crowd of tourists we’d seen in the morning had disappeared. Perhaps everyone had found a nice cafe to warm themselves in.

On the streets of Kusadasi

After a big iftari dinner in Kusadasi we decided to take a walk through the streets. Most shops had closed; their staff were off for their own iftari dinners. If it wasn’t for that, I would never have noticed this vibrant piece of art on the rolling shutter of a shop. My feelings about Kusadasi could not remain the same after this.

Kusadasi is a big town, but it is on the tourist circuit because cruise ships which come through the Greek archipelago stop here. In our three nights in Kusadasi we saw two such ships come in and leave. There is a wonderful promenade on the sea along Atatürk Bulvari, reminiscent of seaside walks on the Cote d’Azur. Behind it is a warren of streets with cheap shopping. Later, while chatting with the concierge at our hotel I would discover that British, Chinese, Russians and Indians are deemed to be the most frequent visitors. That is a mixture you wouldn’t find in most tourist destinations.

After that wonderfully wacky shutter decoration I wasn’t surprised by other business establishments. This one was shut, but the door was clearly made up to look like a cave. Roma hamami! Was this one of the Turkish hamams? There were several more hamams along the road, so it would well be one.

Further on I was reassured to find the usual internationally recognizable street art. It had an innocuous message in English. Either the youth here is not disaffected, or they get very pleasant tourists with time on their hands.

Off in a side street we came across a travel agency which advertised itself with these folksy paintings on its wall. One of them showed an embroidered head dress. Could it be traditional? It showed too much hair for a traditional Islamic woman’s headgear. But then, the Ottoman empire included Greek, Bulgarian, Albanian, Egyptian, Arab, and Irani people. The traditional Ottoman headgear could have come from anywhere in the Balkans, central Asia, or the middle east.

No conversation in Turkey is complete without çay. I saw a taxi business open late at night, with two on-call drivers whiling away their time in conversation, with cups of çay. They smiled and waved as I took their photo. Kusadasi is a base from which one can explore the major Aegean ports of antiquity: Ephesus, Priene, Miletus. We had hired a car for this leg of our trip, but if we hadn’t, then tour buses and taxis were not hard to get.

A Turkish Iftari dinner

When I discovered that our holiday in Turkey spilled into the month of Ramazan, I was very happy. Each ethnicity of muslims have their own special food at Ramazan, and I was eager to discover Turkey’s. On the first night of the month we were in Kusadasi. Walking along the sea front, looking for a place for dinner we came across a lively and pleasant restaurant. We later realized that it was part of a big Turkish chain.

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The menu advertised an Iftari dinner. Could I do justice to it? Travel is always an adventure, and you have to jump in. It was the first of Ramazan too. I ordered my three course meal. It came with a glass of the thick buttermilk which is called ayran in Turkey. The first dish was the usual platter which breaks a fast. There’s always a date, some nuts and more dried fruit, olives, some fresh vegetables. I was disappointed that the platter did not have any cheese; I’d begun to expect a Kashar (cow’s milk cheese) or Tulum (goat’s milk cheese) on every meze platter.

A little break, and then the çorba arrived. It was a tomato soup, served with croutons and grated Kashar. There was a long break before the main plate arrived, giving me enough time to regret ordering such a large meal. The main plate was a tremendous serving of kababs over a lavaş (pronounced lavash, meaning a nan). I would become very fond of the seared vegetables that accompany a kabab in Turkey. There is also always a serving of chopped garden salad on the plate with it.

When I eventuially finished the meal, I realized that it was difficult to work your way through a meal like this unless you had fasted during the day. The çay was needed at the end of such a meal.