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The feast from the East

Eating out in Istanbul

Chinese, Thai, Indian and Syrian cuisines are succeeding spectacularly in Istanbul. Andrew Finkel samples some of the best, and is impressed

Just off Taksim Square, where a herd of Generation Y tourist hotels have galumphed into the neighbourhood, lurk memories of the pre-war apartment blocks they replaced, and of one such building, on Lamartin Street, that provided Istanbul’s first taste of Eastern exotica. The China Restaurant opened in 1957 – a decade before I first set foot in Istanbul – and wasn’t, to be honest, as Chinese as all that, nor could it be in an era of mile-high import barriers when even soy sauce was an impossible luxury.

The proprietor, Celâleddîn Wang (1903–61), a Muslim scholar from Shandong Province in China, served as a diplomatic emissary for the Chiang Kai-shek government, but in 1949 was forced to flee through the Himalayas to Pakistan, and then, six years later, was forced to move again – accepting an invitation to open a Sinology department in the same Istanbul University where he had studied history. The restaurant was a way to supplement his academic wages to support a large family. In the late 1960s it was run by his son.

I remember seemingly authentic dumplings, and a talent for improvisation – making a Turkish dish of runner beans or aubergine pretend to be from somewhere else. Mrs Wang apparently grew bean sprouts on cotton wool in her bathroom. The restaurant was equally famous for its kindly and efficient head waiter with the Roald Dahl-ish name of Yakar Çakar, who also ran the till, helped in the kitchen and picked the Wang children up from school.

Of course, Istanbul palates have been transformed in the 20 years or so since the China Restaurant finally closed its doors and there is a now a wide and committed variety of “ethnic” restaurant chains serving decent sushi or pizza. Global brands such as Zuma and Nobu have secured entries in the newly issued Michelin Guide to Istanbul. But far more encouraging, if less grand, is a new generation of eateries – small or family enterprises launched by émigrés in search of security and a better life. There is now a “Little Syria” of restaurants scattered around the Fatih district (Saruja was reviewed in Cornucopia 56).

“Going out to eat Uighur” is another growing trend and it was the dumplings at the Tarhan Uyghur Restaurant in Aksaray which triggered ancient recollections of similar ones served by Prof Wang. The vast menu at Tarhan includes grilled meats and braised vegetables, with some dishes quite fiery and, I imagine, true to the troubled Xinjiang region of China. Lağman – noodles whose dough has been pounded, stretched and rolled to give texture and an elastic feel – are the star attraction, although I preferred the menper, where the dough is rolled flat and cut into tiny squares, and which just seemed a better vehicle for the sauce. Tarhan is perfect if you are hungry, albeit not the place for a romantic evening out. There is endless choice (even if that sauce is a bit ubiquitous) and not one frill in the décor apart from a large, somewhat severe portrait of the 11th-century lexicographer Mahmud al-Kashgari, whose famous dictionary promoted the linguistic unity of the Turkic peoples – a concept reflected in the menu which, to a Turkish audience, is strangely familiar and foreign at the same time. Portions are large, prices modest, and no alcohol but black or green tea and tisanes.

Another Uighur treat is göşnan (literally “meat bread”), a flat savoury pie. Those served at Makana, a garish hole in the wall hidden among the döner kebab and burger joints of Beşiktaş, are spectacular – excellent pastry and an ultra-tasty filling. The menu here is short and a little sweet, or at least with a background hint of sweetness in the spicy sauce that goes with the lağman – squarer with a bit more chew than those at Tarhan and somehow more satisfying. The choice is between beef and chicken toppings. There is also a surprisingly attractive vinegary carrot salad. Truth be told, everything is good, carefully conceived and executed – fast food at its very best.

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