Monday, May 13, 2024

Istanbul 2024: Back for Buryan!

Scroll back to the first entries of this blog and you find that it was begun as a diary of a trip to Istanbul we made in 2006. Fumie had a job as photographer for the time Out! Travel guidebook to Istanbul, and we spent about two months in the city. It was enough time to get to know the cultural rhythms of the place and pick up a smattering of Turkish language. We traveled to Istanbul a lot in that decade - it was affordable and just a cheap bus ride away from our usual Balkan summer jaunts. and the food was immeasurably better. Its worth checking out those early posts - I looked a lot less like Grandpa Simpson in those days.

Surrounded by attractive people at Çiya Lokantaşı.

It has been over ten years since we were last there, so when Fumie took Turkish Airlines to fly home to Tokyo, she opted for a return stopover in Istanbul, we jumped at the chance to return. My son Aron, who lives in London, joined us. We were only there for four days - not enough. But better than nothing. 

Rustem Pasa Mosque

I set myself a few guarded parameters. I was not going to buy a carpet. I was not going to buy a new bağlama saz, any or Pontic bagpipes, or kemençes, not even a tiny three stringed uçtelli saz that can easily fit in hand luggage. I was not going to do any of the things that I did two decades ago when I returned home to Budapest with a small orchestra strapped to my back and a huge Turkmen rug wrapped in the worlds largest  plastic shopping bag. I was, however, going to eat as much Turkish food as possible. 

Karalahana: Black Sea stuffed collard greens

We were there for the last two days of Ramadan. Many Turks don't have a problem eating during Ramadan, but eating pit roasted lamb in the Kadinlar Pazar (aka, the Siirt Market) in the strongly conservative Muslim Fatih district would have to wait. We ate at at this market for iftar - the nightly feast after a day of Ramadan fasting - back in 2010. Most tourists avoid Fatih, and "cool" people from the trendy neighborhoods would warn us against going there. They were wrong. Sure: you can't buy beer in the neighborhood, but you will find, hard core Anatolian hospitality rules in effect here. You can drink tea.

Kadinlar Pazar: The Baby in the Watermelon Haunts my Nightmares

For the time being, we took the ferry to Kadikoy on the Asian side. Çiya is a restaurant founded by a Turkish chef turned ethnographer which presents dishes collected as folklore through different areas of Turkey. I ate there twenty years ago and have gone back ever since - it rates as one of the world's best restaurants, with absolutely amazing food at normal prices. Over the years Çiya has featured in Anthony Bourdain's show, a Netflix series, and gets written up in all the tourist brochures, but it still keeps high standards and low prices.  We had a salad plate of regional specialties, and then some meatballs made with fresh almond fruit, and I - ever adventurous - went for a plate of good old beans.

Çiya salad plate.

We stayed in our old neighborhood of Beyoğlu near the Galata Tower, but the area has since become a victim of over tourism: crowded streets, expensive restaurants pushing out the old neighborhood local kebab shops. Restaurant prices were a bit of a shock: Turkey has had a bad economic year and between inflation and currency devaluation food was up around 130% over last year. Working Istanbullus traditionally eat out during the day and their sticker shock was leading to a lot of small local restaurant shutting down.  In the future I would definitely consider staying on the Asian side of Istanbul. Quieter, Cheaper, And some of the best classic Turkish food in town. 

Fatih, Kadinlar Pazar

Once Ramadan ended, it was time for Seker Bayram, more widely known as Eid al-Fitr. Celebrating the end of Ramadan, people feast on sweets and for the three day holiday crowds of families go visiting and the guidebooks told us to expect crowds in public transport. They weren't kidding. Everybody was out and gulping baklava and halva from dawn to dusk. We finally made it to Fatih to visit the Kadinlar Pazar, which is a market serving the needs of the southeatern Anatolian internal emmigrants in Istanbul, ringed with restaurants serving the specialties of Siirt, Bitlis, and Mardin: buryan kebab - whole lambs roasted for hours in a pit oven, served simply on Anatolian flat bread and an esme pepper salad. There are few foods I love as much as buryan lamb. Popeye's fried chicken. Sarajevo Cevapcici. Cantonese rice rolls. Maybe Shake Shack burgers. But Buryan wins. I'm already planning to go back.

With only a few days to stay in Istanbul, and city traffic nearly unpassable due to the seething sugar-crazed crowds, I did miss out on seeing any live music. I did encounter some of the most classic Istanbul sounds on record, though. 78 rpm records, in fact. I passed by an antique record shop in Kadikoy and noticed some gramophone discs in the window, walked in, and immediately rediscovered my long gone fluency in Turkish. "Do you have any old Ottoman records? Greek or Armenian music?" and the shop owner sits me down and starts pulling out carefully preserved 100 year old discs, properly stored and protected in new paper sleeves, including classical Turkish recordings by Tamburi Cemil Bey. 

Cemil Bey was an Armenian Istanbullu who mainly recorded playing the classical Turkish kemençe, a small three string fiddle played on the knee.  In the 19th century, a majority of the musicians playing Turkish classical music were non-Muslims: local Greeks, western Armenians, Jews, and Gypsies. Playing non religious music as a profession was not considered suitable employment for a good Muslim. By the middle of the 19th century this sound had become the contemporary Urban Pop sound of the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean, which is why so many of the melodies and musical practices of Turkish fasil (light classical) have entered into the repertoires and playing styles of modern Greek Rebetika, Jewish Klezmer, and Armenian halay music. Tamburi Cemil Bey's versions of makam melodies have gone down as the defining versions. His Nikriz longa is still played across the post-Ottoman world. 

Modern musicians still adapt Cemil Bey's work. Salih Korkut Peker from Izmir plays a modified electric cumbuş - an oud neck stuck to a banjo body, and changed the rhythm to reggae. This version was my particular ear worm for this year.

No, I didn't buy any of the old records. I am very careful to know my vices, and collecting 78s is not going to become one of them. I know 78 collectors. They are very odd people, often well beyond obsessed, and most of this music can be found on reissues. But that won't stop me from rooting around old record shops. We are already planning to go back in the future. Maybe I'll get one of those Black Sea bagpipes yet.