Cooking in Istanbul

Cooking in Istanbul

Since we had done all the usual tourist things during our previous visit to Istanbul we decided to try another popular thing to do this time around. A cooking class. Other than the kebabs we enjoyed during our previous visit we really didn’t get to learn that much about Turkish cuisine so we decided to sign up for a cooking class with Cookistan

We took an (overpriced) cab from the docks up to the Radisson Plaza where we met our instructor for the day along with a bunch of (much younger) cooking enthusiasts. Our instructor, AyŠın, was phenomenal. She had a great sense of humor, and great timing in everything we did that day. We started out with a walking tour of her neighborhood to get a sense for the kinds of small shops that people use today in modern Istanbul. When we arrived at the cooking school this was all set up for us.

Our cooking stations, all setup for us at

The menu for the day can be seen on the chalk board:

  • Suliman Soup -- Yes, I now officially like lentil soup.
  • Borecik -- a delicous meat mixture baked in pastry
  • Stuffed dried Aubergine -- even though aubergine sounds a lot better than eggplant, I’m still not a huge fan. Although they were not too bad. We also used the same mixture to stuff grape leaves and I really liked that.
  • Bulgur Salad -- Again, a new salad, and I’m fan.
  • Circassian Style Chicken. Kind of a cold chicken salad that you can eat with a spoon or put on bread for a sandwich.
  • Pumpkin Dessert -- Maybe the only thing all day I really didn’t appreciate. -- It was too much like eating sweet squash for my palete

In a very small world moment you can see the young man in this picture with me, who works on the same team at Epic with one of my former students!

Shredding veggies for the soup

A Tale of two Scams

Gastronomic Negotiation

“Sir, you walk past me every night. Please give me a chance! I will give you an appetizer and free baklava for desert!” Really? I honestly don’t remember you. I’ve only walked down this road one other time. “Very Sorry” I say, “I’ve already got a dinner reservation back at Ocean’s 7. ” “you will like it!” Says one of the patrons at the current establishment. Another ten steps down the road and we are implored to “Look at my menu.” A bit further on we are told “Sir, I have your table ready for you!” The idea that you can bargain for your supper seems so counter productive to me that I just cannot fathom it. Hey, lets see how little I can pay for something I’m about to ingest into my body. The incentives here are all in the wrong direction!

I can only imagine the conversations in the kitchen:

Waiter: One chicken and rice for the cheapskates at table five!

Chef: Oh great, now we know what to do with the gizzard and thigh meat that has been sitting on the floor all night!

No Thank You I will be more than happy to pay a price that puts the chef on my side.

Waiter: Chef the generous folks are back at table seven.

Chef: Great, tell them to order the veal, I’ve got two extra tender pieces I’ve been saving for my best customers. Oh, and bring up that 2011 Rombaur Chardonnay from the cellar, I know they will love that.

I think we can all agree on which chef we would rather have cooking our food.

This whole hawking the restaurant thing has been an ongoing saga since we arrived in Istanbul, and we even experienced it in London a couple of weekends ago. I don’t remember it being the case in Vietnam or Morocco, and certainly not in Malta, but maybe this has more to do with the onset of high touring season than our location. Now, this is not really a scam (although we have heard stories of the old bait and switch ) so much as an intro to the two things that happened to us today.

Cruising on a Reputable Ferry

Our plan for the day was to take the Ferry up the Bosphorus river to the mouth of the Black Sea. You get to see a lot of Istanbul along the way, then the ferry stops for a couple of hours so you can have lunch or do a little hiking and then comes back. As usual Jane had it all planned out, including a discount for using our museum passes. When we arrived at the waterfront we were immediately accosted by the usual crowd of tour people trying to sell us one of their packages. – two hour boat trips, three hour boat trips, six hour boat trips… “No, we are going on the ferry!” we would say. “But I can leave sooner. I will take you to the same place, wait for two hours and bring you back. My boat holds 80, it will be much nicer than the ferry and 800 people!” Hmmm, we were intrigued, and a bit horrified that we were even considering this option. But after a bit of negotiation, and multiple confirmations about our destination and pricing we decided to risk it. The captain even threw in a 50% discount on coffee at the nearby snack shack. Run by a relative no doubt. “Just wait here” we were told. So we waited and watched them try to work their magic on other passersby.

After a while, one of them came up to talk to us.

We cannot take you. I cannot do the trip for just your group. It will be better if you take the ferry, down there. There are not enough passengers today, because the bike race is keeping them all away from here. I am sorry.

It was true, there was a big Tour of Istanbul bike race in town, and the weather was a bit dreary, so the pier was sparsely populated. Which also meant that the ferry was not nearly as crowded as Jane’s research had led us to believe it would be. So, we carried on with our original plan, got our tickets to the ferry and were on our way.

The cruise was interesting, we got to see some castles, and some amazing real estate. And even a container ship that originated from Valletta! We just can’t get away from Malta now. Here is a little slideshow of some photos on the tour.

The shoeshine redemption

After the cruise we had to make our way back into the spice market to buy some of the delicious candy covered “fistik.” That is peanuts covered in a syrup and rolled in sesame seeds. We discovered these our last day in Morocco, and were only too happy to find out you can buy them in Turkey as well. Some of the group wanted to hit the archeological museum while others just wanted to wander the spice market some more. So we turned them loose and decided to wander our own way back to the hotel.

As we were passing up one street that was very lightly travelled a shoe shine man dropped his brush in front of us. So, we picked it up and called out to him to give it back. He thanked us and we were on our way. Suddenly he called back to us. He sat down and and said “please,” with a look that said let me repay your kindness. We thought how nice, one good turn deserves another. But I had on my hiking shoes, which are not “shineable” and so he offered to shine Jane’s black shoes which were definitely in need of some love after all of our travels. He finished up Jane’s shoes and then insisted on brushing mine with a toothbrush and some water – which certainly did not hurt. About this time both Jane and I reached into our pockets for a few coins to tip the guy.

Imagine my surprise when Jane offered him several one lyra coins and he said “no, paper” What? He doesn’t want coins he wants paper money? Slowly it dawned on me that we had been played this whole time. He now wanted to be paid the full amount for two shoe shines, which took less than a couple of minutes. I added my coins to Jane’s and dumped them in his hand and we turned and walked away. I guess we both got half price shoe shines, and nine turkish lyra (about $3). Lesson learned, and a small price to pay for a story to add to the blog.


“You want a fish!?” Said the night watchman with confusion. “No,” I said, “do you have a cork-screw?” doing my best imitation of screwing in a corkscrew and then pulling out the cork. “Ah! One moment” And off he went, out the front door and into the restaurant across the street. Moments later he was back with an excellent corkscrew, which I used to uncork the bottle we had purchased around the corner and then returned to him. After I got back to the room I could not contain my laughter any more. A fish? The fact that he borrowed the corkscrew from the restaurant, which was the very thing that Jane had suggested in the first place. An idea that I soundly rejected. Hi, I know that we didn’t eat dinner here or buy anything from you but would you mind terribly if I borrowed your corkscrew to open the bottle of wine I bought at the market around the corner? I just can’t imagine myself saything those words.

A glass of wine was a great way to cap off what had been a very full day of touring around the old city of Istanbul. Once known as Constantinople, it was the head of the Christian world. Then under the Ottoman empire it became a Muslim country. Today, Turkey is largly muslim, but the government is a secular government. We began with a tour of Topkapi Palace were we visited the treasury, and the Harem and saw the Sultans private rooms. We also visited the tulip gardens. It is an interesting fact that although Holland is usually celebrated for its tulips, the Dutch took them and transplated the tulips from Istanbul originally!


In the hall of mirrors, I told students about recursion.

They did not care.

From the Palace we moved on to the Blue Mosque, one of the icons of Istanbul. There was a really long line to get in, but we made the best of it, while Ben ran into someone with nearly the same last name as him in line. He turned out to be from wisconsin, and has relatives in Decorah. Small world. The line was rather entertaining, as standing in line appears to be optional for many tourists here in Istanbul. However all of the guides team up to try and send the line jumpers to the end. It is interesting to see the reaction of the people who clearly know they are being jerks and getting called out for it. Once we got inside it was amazing. It is so hard to describe this space, like St. Peters in Rome it is just so large that you cannot hope to capture the scale of the whole thing.

Across a very large square from the Blue Mosque is Hagia Sofia. This was once the largest Christian church in the world. Of course it was later supplanted by St. Peters and others. The really interesting thing about Hagia Sofia is that it was converted to a Mosque. Check out the apse of the church in this next picture. Notice that the alcove is not centered. This is because even though the church was sited east to west, the axis was just eleven degrees off of the line to Mecca. Because Muslims do not allow for images in their mosques all of the mosaics were covered in whitewash and then painted over in more typical muslim designs. Except for the Seraphim. Look at the two images below:

Notice that the only difference here is that the face was painted over with a symetric diamond shape. Some of the mosaics that they have begun to uncover and restore are really stunning.

Hagia Sophia

Finally, we visited the cistern under the basilica. You may remember this from James Bond, “To Russia with Love.” It is just this giant underground place that used to provide water to the city. But now, it is just stunning:

The Cistern

After all of that we headed back to the hotel for a short rest before we took the students out for a group dinner. We were all plenty exhausted after such an interesting day. Tomorrow, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, and Taksim square.