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Engin's Empire

Engin Akin, Turkish hostess and cook extraordinaire, leads a fast-paced food tour of Istanbul to prepare for an alfresco dinner party.

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 pistachios—as 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.

From the spice market, we head to the fish market across the Golden Horn strait. On the way, we refuel at Vefa Bozacisi, a drink parlor that's one of the last remaining sources of boza, Turkey's oldest traditional beverage. Between sips of the milky, fizzy, intriguingly sweet-tart liquid, Engin explains that boza is made by fermenting dried millet or barley, that it can be traced back to the fourth century B.C., and that among locals, a stop at Vefa is something of a ritual. But Westerners might find its taste weird, she adds.

While the spice market is a relic of old imperial Istanbul, Balik Pazari, the fish-and-fresh-produce market, is a great slice of Beyoglu, a once-cosmopolitan nineteenth-century quarter of faded embassies, mod nightclubs, boutiques and antiques shops. As we enter the market, we are greeted by the odor of mussels fried in cauldrons of sizzling oil. Everything from the Oriental bazaar of legend is here: vendors hawking kebabs and rings of sesame bread, menacing sheep's heads and blocks of halvah. But there's also a whiff of European nostalgia in places like Sütte, a venerable sandwich shop and charcuterie that supplies Western embassy staff with pork products, forbidden to the city's mostly Muslim population. Engin, however, has no time for pork or nostalgia: At the stall of Ali, her fishmonger ("an ex-lawyer who loves fish"), she plucks two dozen sardines for a grilled-fish salad from a sea of glistening gills.

We emerge from the market on Istiklâl Caddesi, Beyoglu's pedestrian thoroughfare traversed by an antiquated red tram. The street is a hodgepodge of once-glamorous, turn-of-the-century facades and Art Deco fragments wedged between slapdash modernist boxes. Chic cafes, döner dives and French patisseries lost in a time warp coexist with traditional pudding shops and Turkish confectioners. The best candy shop is Haci Bekir, a temple of Turkish delight for more than two centuries. Here, we share the queue with extended Muslim families and manicured divas with silicon implants for lips. Picking up a packet of Haci Bekir's akide, a candy with subtle nuances of bergamot and clove, Engin notes that the sultan's elite troops traditionally presented their commander with a plate of this sweet as a sign of their loyalty. Alas, we can't linger: More snacks await at the Saray Muhallebicileri, a cross between a diner and an Oriental pastry palace, where white-jacketed waiters dispense chicken soup and Turkish egg dishes 24 hours a day. It is also Engin's favorite place for take-out desserts. Tonight she will serve Saray's su muhallebi, a creamy, not-too-sweet milk pudding scented with rose water.

Suddenly Engin realizes that it's lunchtime and that she craves kapama, a light stew of lamb capped with Swiss chard. Refik's Restaurant, a homey place loved by the city's bohemians, serves the definitive version, and Engin wants to compare it with the recipe in her upcoming cookbook. Waving at the ruddy-faced owner Refik—who has already had his daily intake of raki and is quietly sorting out grape leaves behind the counter—Engin orders her kapama, tastes a spoonful and pronounces it "clean, elegant, brothy and made with the best cut of lamb." (Of course, she adds, her version is better.)

Loaded with shopping bags and old-fashioned paper-wrapped parcels, we finally return to Engin's home: Time to get cooking. A few hours later, a seventeenth-century bronze ceremonial tray, so heavy it takes three men to lift it, is filled with meze: cacik, a thick yogurt dip; tomato salad dressed with sweet-tart pomegranate molasses and olive oil; and broiled eggplant with yogurt and almonds. Engin throws an antique Anatolian kilim on the lawn to sit on while her husband, Nuri, an elegant textile tycoon with a passion for boats, pours raki and greets the guests, a coterie of designers, journalists and producers. Between sips and bites, Engin and company reminisce about a recent yacht trip to Chios and gaze at Asia, which sparkles across the Bosporus. "There! There! Can you see the village of Kanlica?" Engin cries out. "I just discovered this shop there... Ahhh, if you could only taste the yogurt they make!"



Anya von Bremzen is the author, with John Welchman, of Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook and of Terrific Pacific Cookbook.
Published April 2001
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