in the last heat of summer, I spent three all-too-short days exploring the streets of istanbul. at that time, the skirmishes on turkey’s eastern border were alarming but distant, easily forgotten amongst the breathtaking beauty of istanbul’s mosques and palaces, in the dripping heat of late summer days and nights filled with delicious food, loud, bustling crowds, and music.
on the first night, we found ourselves in a back alley behind the galata tower, surrounded by jovial dinner parties; we ordered simply by observing what looked delicious on other tables – some pita and delicious dips, a lemony grilled whole fish, and köfte, or turkish meatballs – and lost ourselves in a smokey haze of music played on a turkish stringed instrument and raki, a heady anise-flavored liqueur.
predictably, we woke up rather late the next morning and rushed to begin our day. mosques and museums passed in a history-crammed, sensory-overloaded blur. we jostled our way through the blue mosque, took some hard-won pictures, escaped the stifling crowd within. we paused for a lunch of testy kebab at the excellent aloran cafe. we sped through ayasofya, taking in the gold-tiled basilica and each increasingly-ornate section of the palace, and did some hard bargaining in the grand bazaar.
between the bustle and the beauty of the city and our breakneck desire to “see it all”, istanbul had left us breathless. on our final day, we found ourselves in the spice market, which was really more like a home goods market where one could find cute cupcake liners and of course, spices for great prices. we wound our way upwards through twisting alleys and steep stairways to the süleymaniye mosque, a quiet, expansive space surprisingly devoid of visitors.
by the entryway, some students proffered educational brochures about suleiman and about islam; they were very open to questions and I learned more from them in a few minutes than I had from the hours-long audio tour at ayasofya. I knew from conversations with my muslim friends at home that the central tenet to islam was peace. however, I was interested and surprised to read a passage about how women should be viewed as equals, an argument for women’s rights way ahead of its time. it forced me to reflect, amidst the shuffling of bare feet on carpet, on the prejudices I had unconsciously adapted against islam even as I thought I had maintained an open mind.
while chatting with the students, we got a recommendation for a nice rooftop cafe overlooking the golden horn. we made our way up a set of dark stairs, past the second floor pool hall/student lounge to an open rooftop cafe. around us, groups of people young and old sat, some in intense conversation, others bent over textbooks or just hanging out. we ordered turkish coffee, sat back, and just stared out in awe of the sprawling size of istanbul, a city whose asian side we had not even visited and whose western reaches remained unknown to us after three days of constant exploration.
a few months later, conflicts that had seemed so distant in the summer arrived in istanbul, first in smaller attacks, then in a suicide bombing incident in the plaza between ayasofya and the blue mosque. the humidity and heat of istanbul and of summer had faded, yet the kind faces and intelligent words of the istanbul university students I met sprang instantly into my mind. I know that the vibrancy of istanbul will return – the city is large and resilient. I pray that their shattered peace returns as well.
makes 4 servings
1/4 cup grated onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tbsp chopped chives
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp baking soda
2/3 cup tahini paste
3 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 cup water
1 clove garlic, crushed (make sure there’s no green sprouts!)
1/4 tsp salt
yotam ottolenghi and sami tamimi. jerusalem: a cookbook. new york: ten speed press, 2012.
michael solomonov. zahav: a world of israeli cooking. new york: houghton mifflin harcourt, 2015.
2 form meatballs about 2-in in diameter. refrigerate for ~1 hour.
3 whisk together tahini paste, lemon juice, water, garlic, and salt in a medium bowl, adding water as needed until it reaches a pourable consistency.
4 lightly coat a large frying pan with olive oil and heat over medium heat. space the koftës over the pan, making sure they don’t touch, and flatten slightly with spatula. cook for 3-4 minutes each side, until nicely browned. remove to a paper towel-lined plate, blot excess oil, and remove paper towel. spread tahini sauce around the plate and drizzle on köfte. garnish with parsley and serve immediately.