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.
When we were preparing for our trip to Turkey, The Family, who usually disdains the preparatory stuff that I read, picked up the article on food and read through it. Two phrases that she repeated were lokanta and ev yemekleri. We were to find out that a lokanta could be anything between a Turkish equivalent of a good dhaba and a reasonable self-service restaurant. Ev yemekleri was more interesting, since it meant a place which served home-cooked food. So, after two days of airline food, when we were in Göreme, looking for our first Turkish dinner, coming across a place which was both was a stroke of luck.
An Indian will find some things quite familiar in a Turkish menu: Çorba (pronounced shorba) clearly means soup, köfte are obviously meat balls and Çay (pronounced chai) is, of course, chai. The family running the restaurant was welcoming and all smiles, and if the boisterousness of the man was not fueled by a little Raki, then he was the most outrageously extroverted person I’d ever seen. We chose to start with the lentil soup, Mercimek çorbası. You can see this in the featured photo. It became an instant favourite.; The Family and I oscillated between this and the tomato soup through the rest of our trip. An order of köfte was an instant follow up. A basket of soft white bread appeared on the table, and was a lovely way to soak up the gravy.
The evening had turned a little cold outside, and the stove in one corner of the lokanta kept the place cozy. A couple of pots on the stove were clearly being kept simmering. When we asked we were told that this slow-cooked meat was a specialty of the house. It takes eight to ten hours to cook, and what we saw here was the next day’s meat being left overnight to be done. Today’s was ready in the kitchen. Both the husband and wife spoke English, although the man was more fluent. We liked the vegetables and meat being cooked together, so we asked for a plate.
This came with a rice and salad. I would get used to this combination of salad over the next few days. Every plate of rice would have a glob of chopped onions with parsley and another glob of chopped cucumber and other leaves. The tomatoes were served either on the plate, as here, or separately. Combining a curry and rice with chopped salads is a fairly standard way to eat in India, so I guess most Indians who eat meat will not find Turkish food very alien. The tastes are pleasantly different though.
The lady came along to tell us that the Çay would be on the house. We’d had Çay for breakfast and knew that it is unsweetened. The Family asked for şeker (pronounced sheker), an easy word to remember. I have tea without sugar, so şekersiz was fine with me. The lokanta was very basic, furnished with plastic chairs and tables, but the food was excellent. We would go on to try many different kinds of places, but this first experience made us come back to lokantas again. We never found a reason to regret it.