At Hayvore, a workers’ cafe in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district that specialises in foods from Turkey’s Black Sea region, the anchovy pilaf is served in small clay dishes, a mound of rice, pine nuts and currants encased in a crust of fish fillets. Anchovies, or hamsi, are a celebrated winter fish on the Black Sea; Hayvore prepares them in other ways, too, layering fillets with tomatoes, onions and herbs for a baked dish, and dipping them in corn flour and frying them until they’re crispy. Tart pickles and corn bread are fitting accompaniments, as is a hearty soup made with kara lahana – a leafy brassica similar to collard greens – borlotti beans and dried sweet corn. To finish: milk pudding, studded with hazelnuts, wrapped in pastry and doused with syrup.
Corn bread and collard greens are not the sort of fare that draws most travellers to Turkey’s cultural capital. But after decades of east-to-west migration they have become – like lahmacun, the spicy flatbreads from Turkey’s south-east, and the breakfast spreads associated with the mostly Kurdish province of Van – as much a part of Istanbul’s culinary fabric as simit and Turkish delight. Istanbul is so thickly populated with shops selling stellar kebabs and baklava that a visitor could eat well for a week without venturing beyond the familiar. But that would be a mistake, when the bounty of a country as rich in regional cuisines as Turkey is on the menu.
Not that there’s much wrong with a kebab, especially if prepared in the style of Konya, the Anatolian city best known as the home of Rumi. Each night at Konyalilar Etli Ekmek, on Istanbul’s Asian side, 40 kilos of lamb are laid at the bottom of a copper cauldron and blanketed with fat. Covered and slid into the wood-fired oven, the cauldron is left overnight, the meat cooking slowly as it lolls in its fat bath. The resulting firin (oven) kebabi is served in succulent shreds on a round of warm bread smeared with lamb fat .
Equally impressive is the freekeh-stuffed chicken baked in a salt crust at Akdeniz Hatay Sofrasi, a friendly place in Aksaray serving dishes from Hatay province. Wheeled tableside, set afire and cracked open with a hammer, the dish is a spectacle. It is also delicious: tender flesh imbued with smoke from the freekeh. Mediterranean ingredients like pomegranates, olives, chillies and pungent herbs pervade the menu, in starters like katikli ekmek, crispy flatbreads spread with a fiery paste of dried chillies, cracked green olives and fresh za’atar salad, and sarma ici, fine bulgur wheat mixed with parsley, mint and citrusy pomegranate molasses.
Although it has become something of a hipster hangout since it opened a few years back, Van Kahvalti Evi in Cihangir remains a good choice for a proper Van-style kahvalti (breakfast). Order a plate of otlu peyniri, Van’s renowned sheep cheese threaded with pickled herbs foraged every spring in foothills near Lake Van, and eggs scrambled with toasted wheat flour and drizzled with Van honey.
Sunday mornings are for the Inebolu market, a trove of edible booty from Kastamonu province, known for its dairy produce, breads and mushrooms. Stallholders like Hasan Kenan – whose table groans under the weight of seven-kilo wholewheat loaves (sold by the thick slice), pots of plum, Cornelian cherry and pear jam and, in September, late-season tomatoes and livid orange kanlica mushrooms – leave their villages on Saturday afternoon to reach Istanbul before dawn. First to arrive are chefs, then regular shoppers. By 11, when most Istanbul residents are just getting up, the vendors are packing up. The prize for skimping on sleep: velvety snow-white yogurt, ridiculously rich buffalo-milk kaymak and a wedge of homestead cheese.