At long last, it was time to truly venture into foreign territory.
Having refreshed ourselves with a nap in our hotel room, my cousin Keith and I were ready to get out and see what the ancient city of Istanbul had to offer. Unfortunately, by this time, it was already early evening, so our exploration would be limited on this first day. Furthermore, we were hungry, and thus finding a worthy restaurant was among our top immediate priorities.
Thankfully, our room was located within relatively short walking distance of Taksim Square, a nightlife-friendly section of the city that you might consider to be Istanbul’s version of the Gaslamp District in San Diego or perhaps a smaller-scale version of New York’s Times Square. It’s a fine place to visit, particularly in the evenings after the city’s historic landmarks have closed for business.
One thing you learn very quickly when walking around Istanbul is that the local population breeds some of the world’s more aggressive salesmen. There is a street within the square that could easily be called “Restaurant Alley,” with one right after another lining the way on either side, and the street is only wide enough to accommodate foot traffic. As you walk down this path, you’ll find that nearly every one of these restaurants employs someone who stands near the entrance and practically pulls you into their establishment. For an unsuspecting tourist without a specific eatery in mind, the decision can very easily be made for you.
This was, in fact, the manner in which our first restaurant of the trip was determined. We were basically escorted into the place well before we could look through any menus posted outside to decide whether we were interested. Not until we had already been seated were we able to peruse a menu, and at that point, we could only hope for the best. Considering my previously expressed concerns regarding the completely unfamiliar cuisine that awaited me, this probably wasn’t the ideal way to select my first meal of the trip. Suffice to say, I was a bit nervous.
It wouldn’t be long before I was able to settle in and calm down, though. We ordered an appetizer that was essentially a spicy, buttered shrimp dish served on a skillet, meant to be eaten atop slices of bread that had been served. Keith and I agreed that it was just…phenomenal. Hmmm, maybe the dining in Istanbul wouldn’t be such a concern after all. Throughout the week, in fact, we would be introduced to some excellent fare, which included a Turkish spin on baklava, a sponge-cake dessert called ravani, and a hot drink known as “salep,” which proved to be a wonderful beverage on a couple of the chillier evenings.
There would never wind up being another appetizer or main course item that could quite rival those shrimp during our stay in Istanbul, but that’s not to say that the rest of the cuisine was disappointing. Really, the entire dining experience within the city was substantially better than I would have ever expected, but the shrimp dish had simply set the bar at an unrealistically high level that would’ve been difficult for anything else to match. It was so memorable, in fact, that I snapped a photo of it–something I rarely ever do with food–and have more recently attempted to duplicate it back home. My girlfriend, who thoroughly enjoys cooking, happily accepted this challenge, and successfully concocted a pretty similar dish that brought back some pretty wonderful memories. (She also made a great “salep” drink to go along with it…)
In all, there are really only two negative things either of us could really find with the cuisine in Turkey. The first would be its lack of pork products, but such a thing should probably be expected when visiting a predominantly Muslim city. We may not have even thought much of it at the time, but apparently our bodies must have been going through withdrawal, as we managed to consume some form of pork during each of our three meals on the first day after the scene shifted from Istanbul to Athens.
Otherwise, we were quite puzzled by the local popularity of a beverage known as Şalgam Suyu, which is essentially a briny turnip juice. We tried it without knowing what it was made of, only to find that it was every bit as repulsive as you might expect a briny turnip juice to be. But one major swing-and-miss along with a number of big hits still makes for a pretty strong dining experience overall.
The overwhelmingly positive dining experience in Istanbul eased my mind about the potential cuisine that might await us in Greece. Admittedly, my negative impression of Greek food up to that point was predominantly based upon one bad experience in my childhood, so this was a golden opportunity to start looking at the cuisine in a much more positive light. Perhaps it was really as simple as just ordering the right menu items and avoiding the wrong ones.
And indeed, that would prove to be the case in the end. Aside from the aforementioned availability of pork in Greece, the cuisines of both countries were strikingly similar to one another. For instance, baklava and ravani were both widely available in Greece–the former would have been expected, the latter not so much–and it was clear that both nations used some of the same spices to flavor many of their dishes. Fish is a major staple food in both places. As for the differences, lamb is arguably the meat of choice in Greek cuisine, and olive seems to be used in as many different ways as possible.
Given my apprehension toward the unfamiliar cuisine that both countries would offer, it would have been easy for me to seek out the nearest McDonald’s or Subway whenever possible, but I was determined not to cheat and go that route–with one exception. I had specifically wanted to visit one such chain restaurant in each country, but only to see how different the menu would be, with the objective of ordering a unique item that would not be available in the States. To that end, the Burger King we went to in Athens actually proved a little disappointing, as its menu was mostly a downsized version of what you might find at a location near you. The McDonald’s in Istanbul, however, delivered by offering a “shrimp burger,” which essentially replaced the standard hamburger with a patty made of shrimp meat and featured a spicy cocktail sauce. It wasn’t fantastic, but it wasn’t bad either, and most importantly, it was certifiably unique.
What I ultimately learned after a week in each country was that Turkish food was, in my opinion, better overall than Greek cuisine, but both had a lot of quality items to offer. In both places, eating my way through the week proved to be a far easier and more positive experience than I would’ve expected, and both cuisines remain well within my range of possibilities to this day when considering dining options. In fact, I’ve since found myself choosing foreign cuisines with much greater regularity in general, such as uncovering a surprising enthusiasm for Indian food. Much of that can be traced directly back to those two weeks in Eastern Europe. And that was but one of the ways in which the trip would prove to be a transformative life experience.