Istanbul: Meatballs and mosques

I am happy to report I am getting comfortable with Istanbul.

We had köfte (meatballs) for lunch today, at a place Istanbul Eats calls “the Cadillac of meatballs.” We would never have tried the place without their recommendation (thank you Z for introducing us to their book!), because (a) we never would have set foot on Kurabiye Sokak, a little street off İstiklal Caddesi, and (b) not only did they not have an English menu, they had no menu at all.

Kurabiye Sokak

{as always, mouse over photos for description, or click to enlarge}

When we arrived at Kurabiye Sokak around noon, we found a quiet street dappled with restaurants, all of which looked appealing — though Köfteci Hüseyin was by far the busiest, with only four empty seats in the place. Nearly all the diners seemed to be businesspeople, and all the tables held variations on the same few items: flattish meatballs with a red sauce, big hunks of French bread, some kind of salad, and Cokes or ayran. About a half-dozen men, ranging in age from about 30 to 60, bustled about the tiny space, bringing out metal plates of köfte or clearing away empty ones. One of them greeted us and guided us to the single vacant table, which another man was clearing away. We sat and were shortly brought hand wipes, napkins, flatware, a small empty bowl, and a plate with two giant pieces of bread (it looked like two-thirds of a loaf).

I knew from Istanbul Eats that our ordering options would be simple — a single or a one-and-a-half order of köfte, and yes or no to the side of beans — but I wasn’t sure how this would be accomplished without a common language. I figured they would just bring us whatever, and we’d eat it. But no. The youngest of the staff approached us and held up one finger, gesturing at each of us in turn: “One person, one person?” I nodded. “Salata?” I said yes. “One salata?” “Two,” I replied. He nodded, repeated our order to confirm, and left. A couple of minutes later, an older man came to our table and asked, “Ayran?” He mimed drinking. I said yes. He asked, “Two ayran?” Erik was confused by this exchange, but after I explained, he said no, he would have nothing. The man left, and shortly after, someone else brought our salads: a mix of shredded carrots, chopped tomatoes, thinly sliced onions, white beans, and chopped flat-leaf parsley, flanked by two wedges of lemon.

Bread and salad

We looked at our bread and salad and then at the table, which offered salt, oil, and red (wine?) vinegar. (I think there was supposed to be pepper too, but both our shakers contained salt.) I poured oil and salt into the small empty bowl and then started ripping apart the bread, which was deliciously soft and squishy. A lot of the bread we’ve had here has been dry, so it was fabulous to find some that wasn’t. Later Erik noticed that everyone else was using the small bowl for used-up lemon wedges, rather than dipping oil. I said, “No matter,” but then it occurred to me that if the bowl was meant for discarded stuff, maybe they don’t wash it between customers. I stopped dipping my bread after that!

Our köfte was a while in coming, and so was my ayran; I suspected the man had mistaken Erik’s “nothing” to speak for both of us. But the younger man saw we weren’t drinking, and came around to ask, “Drink?” Erik said, “One ayran, one water.” He brought us two ayrans, but oh well. Turns out ayran is like an unflavored salted lassi. Not bad at all, but I wouldn’t call it thirst-quenching; maybe it is if you grow up with it! Although we were hungry, it was kind of fun waiting for our köfte. We had the bread and salad to eat in the meantime, and the other diners to observe. Our table was pushed next to another of the same size, to form a communal table for six. At the other end two men faced each other, but they were strangers; one watched the wall-mounted TV as he ate a one-and-a-half order of köfte and a dish of salad.

Köfte and tomatoes

Finally we got our köfte — which came with sliced tomatoes, more onions, and hot sauce — and we set to in earnest. The köfte was juicy but not greasy, and the meat very fine; Erik compared it to a saltier burger patty (but the grind is finer than that). I don’t know how our neighbor ate his one-and-a-half order; my single order with salad and bread was already so much food that I admitted defeat halfway into the salad and with two köfte still to go. (Erik ate the rest.)


After we paid up (it came to 36 TL, or just under $20 USD), we decided to go for a little walk — which, as is usual with us, turned into a 7 km circuit that took us across the Golden Horn and back. We made a short visit to the Pera Museum (note to self: do not visit museums directly after large meals!) — which had some paintings and an extensive and ancient collection of weights and measures — and to an antiquarian book festival going on across the street. Then we headed toward the water, downhill on another narrow street with tons of musical-instrument shops.

On or near Galip Dede Caddesi

Musical-instrument shop

It was not a hot day but the sun was strong, and I got thirsty fast. I was delighted to see drink vendors on nearly every block, selling bottled water, juices, or soft drinks, or juicing fresh fruit on the spot. I bought a fresh pineapple juice, a relatively expensive drink at 5 TL (about $2.75 US); a bottled water cost less than 1 TL. Other fresh-juiced options included pomegranate, kiwi, and grapefruit (greyfurt in Turkish!).

Along the way we happened upon the Galata Tower, which I mean to visit (or at least sketch) another time.

Galata Tower

At the bottom of our downhill walk we were pleased to find not just the water, but the Galata Bridge to take us across it. There were many fishermen trying their luck along it (some of them did have full buckets next to them!), and even a few people swimming — I don’t know if that’s allowed, but I can’t imagine the water is very clean.

Fishermen on the Golden Horn

Swimmers on the Golden Horn

Once we crossed to the other side, we were in the Old City, where Istanbul’s most famous landmarks are located. We’ll go back another time to see them (probably on the tram, not walking!).

Bankacılar Sokak or thereabouts
For today, we just parked ourselves in the shade of the nearest mosque, the Yeni Cami or New Mosque (“new” as in 17th century!) and rested.

Pedestrian tunnel (?) at Yeni Cami, the New Mosque

Erik bought us a water and an orange drink from a vendor, and we settled ourselves to people- and cat-watch, and admire the mosque.

New Mosque (Yeni Cami)

We stayed for an hour while I made a sketch. Groups of headscarved women (with their children) came and went. They noticed me drawing, but didn’t say anything — though I felt them more interested than most of the passersby I encountered in Scotland and Iceland. As I was drawing that tall left tower, we heard the mid-afternoon call to prayer. We didn’t actually notice anyone hastening into the mosque during the call, but the area did seem to clear out quite a bit afterward.

Sketch of Yeni Cami

When we returned home, we took the walkway underneath the Galata Bridge (for more shade). It’s lined with restaurants and some of the guys outside these were quite aggressive in trying to get us to stop and eat. In the middle of the bridge the restaurants and walkway cease and there’s an opening for boats. From there you have to take stairs back up to the top of the bridge (though you can go back down stairs and resume the under-bridge walk/eat after the gap, if you wish).

Boat passing under the Galata Bridge

Our walk back from there was uneventful, though triumphant — as we took a new route home, sans map or directions, and did not get lost! Our new friend told us “once you get used to the city, it feels small,” and to my huge satisfaction, this is beginning to happen. We strolled some of the streets that seemed so confusing on our second day in town, and this time I had my bearings.

Carved turquoise door propped up against a building wall

We returned home for a little rest, and about an hour later headed out again for dinner at a different köfte place closer to home. This time I got şiş kebap instead.

Kuzu (lamb) şiş with pilaf, tomato, and pickled peppers

We were seated by big open windows on the street, and a couple of neighborhood cats gave me guilt for not sharing.

Two cats begging outside a restaurant

Look, how cute this cat’s face is!!

Orange cat with very cute face

I’m surprised that I feel so much more comfortable in Istanbul today than I did even a couple of days ago — or even one day ago. I think I feel more at home in a city when I do more things for myself there, like wandering around, or really choosing restaurants rather than just going into the one that seems easiest for a foreigner to handle, or making sketches (and of course I always feel more tender toward anything or anyone I draw). Each encounter, each successful route-find, and each new discovery helps me feel more like a part of the city rather than so much an outsider. And it really helps, of course, to have local friends, and tools like maps and guidebooks!