Wandering the thoroughfares of Istanbul, it is hard not to notice how much emphasis there is on food. Wherever you may be, there will be a bakkal - a small corner shop which offers the basics, often including a sandwich using the bread baked daily throughout the city. Then there is the büfe, with hot toasted sandwiches for sale, delicious with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, and also the small diners offering a small selection of ‘home cooking’ for those who want a sit down meal. But this is also a seasonal city, and in addition to these places - which are open throughout the year - there are those street vendors who sell only the produce unique to the time of year.
Sweet as can be: salep
As the snow starts to fall, shouts of ‘Saaalep’ and ‘Boooza’ reverberate around the city streets. Salep is a hot, sweetish drink served with a dusting of cinnamon, and is greatly appreciated on a gray afternoon. It is an aromatic drink, traditionally made from the powdered dry root of an orchid plant - the Green Veined Orchid, or Orchis morio (otherwise known as the Anatolian Orchid). Commonly found throughout Anatolia, it shows its pink flowers during April and May. Salep is sold from wheeled carts with a heated ornate brass container, and the cries of the salepçi (salep seller) will alert you to his presence long before he turns the street corner.
Where to drink salep
Dondurmacı Ali Usta - The queues to buy ice cream from this Moda joint are infamously long in the summer. Visit in the winter months when there’s less visitors and the salep is just as good as the summer’s offerings. Moda Caddesi No. 264/A, Kadıköy; T: (0216) 414 18 80
Yeniköy Kahvesi - Tucked away up some leafy steps, this café feels like an oasis in the middle of the city, offering a casual and relaxing spot to enjoy a salep with a view of the Bosphorus. Kürkçü Faik Sokak No.4, Yeniköy; T: (0212) 299 38 10
Boza: from contraband to corner-shop staple
Boza is generally sold in the evening - again it is the long call of the bozacı (boza vendor) that brings his customers from their homes to buy this unusual and very nourishing drink. Boza was made famous in Istanbul by the Vefa Bozacı Company which established a shop in 1876 in Vefa, the district after which it is named. Apart from the street vendors, boza can be found throughout the city in small shops where the company’s name can still be clearly seen. Here it is usually kept in large marble containers to maintain its cool temperature. This is critical: boza is made from fermented millet (which gives it a tiny alcohol percentage, around 0.5 percent). When stored in abnormally warm conditions, it becomes fizzy with an alarming acidic taste.
Properly looked after, boza is a thick, grainy liquid which is faintly sweet. It, too, has a dusting of cinnamon on top and is traditionally eaten with leblebi, dry-roasted chickpeas. The famous seventeenth-century traveller and writer Evliya Çelebi recorded 300 boza shops in Istanbul alone. Sultan Murad IV introduced capital punishment for anyone caught with the stuff, which had a much higher alcohol content in those days, but - happily for boza drinkers today - this failed to stamp out consumption. From Bulgaria, through Anatolia, to the Turkic republics of the Steppe towards China, people have long used boza as an important part of their diet. Full of probiotics and iron, and high in calories, it is even fed to camels and other livestock when food is scarce.
The scent of burning charcoal together with the aroma of roasting kestane (chestnuts) hang heavily in the autumn and winter air of Istanbul. On street corners everywhere in the city a kestaneci (roasted chestnut seller) can be found sheltering beneath a plastic awning tending to the hot toasted nuts. Not only are the chestnuts sweet and delicious to snack on, but a bag of these freshly roasted nuts can make a very efficient hand warmer when the climate dictates.
Sweet chestnut trees are native to the Black Sea region of Turkey. This explains the enormous size of the fruits, compared to those found in Northern Europe, where the Romans are thought to have exported them as a dietary supplement for their troops. The discarded nuts eventually took root to grow into beautiful trees. Sweet chestnut wood is a hard and durable form of cheap timber and weathers well - as a consequence, the majority of older Black Sea coastal dwellings were built from chestnut wood until the more recent availability of cheap concrete.
Sweet chestnuts can be found as a delicacy cooked in a sugar syrup, and these are sometimes even coated in chocolate. The Divan Hotel’s cake shop, in Taksim, stock variations of sweetmeats for those with a penchant for this Turkish delicacy - take a look at our article on chestnuts for the city’s best kestane. Vefa Boza, too, is sold in the larger supermarkets of the city, but some of the best magic is found only when it is bought from a street vendor, who, after all, is providing a door to door service for those who keep their ears pricked for his cry in the early evening.
First version of this article was published in January/February 2001 issue of The Guide Istanbul.