Past stalls festooned with garlands of chiles, up vaulted walkways lined with sacks of henna and sumac, Engin Akin marches onward, pausing to examine an Anatolian honeycomb or sift through a mound of pistachiosas if she were a sultan inspecting troops. We are at Misir Çarsisi, Istanbul's spice market, which, Engin informs me, was constructed in 1660, when the fragrant commodity was imported from the Far East via Egypt. Hence the market's nickname: Egyptian Bazaar. Engin could tell me more, a lot more.
My Istanbul food-shopping guide for the day Engin Akin is Turkey's Julia Child and Martha Stewart rolled into one: She's a radio talk-show host, a cookbook author and a walking textbook of Ottoman food mores, legendary among the city's Mercedes-and-Nokia set for her soirees. This evening, 10 friends will gather for meze (light appetizers) and raki (anise liqueur) in her garden overlooking the Bosporus strait. As usual, Engin uses the party as an excuse to prowl the city's cacophonous bazaars and dollhouse pastry shops or to expand her kitchenware collection with a few boxwood spoons, called simsir, at a back-alley store.
Our tasting-and-buying tour starts at Misir Çarsisi because, as Engin says, "spices must be fresh, fresh, fresh." Jostling her way through a portrait gallery of mustachioed vendors, she leads me to her favorite spice guy, Tayfun Filiz, near the main entrance of the bazaar. Slender, with the demeanor of a scholar, he is also a famous herbalist. "Anya dear, are you suffering from spring fatigue?" Engin asks me. "Tayfun can mix an infusion for you." Engin plans the menu for tonight as she sniffs. The nutty scent of Tayfun's just-ground coriander settles it: She will make Circassian chicken in a spiced creamy sauce of pulverized walnuts and bread. Cumin will accent succulent pistachio-studded köfte (meatballs). And for stuffed grape leaves, Engin selects a trio of allspice, black pepper and cinnamon to give the rice filling an elusive but lingering sweetness.