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Andrew Finkel savours the best food on the city’s streets, from grilled meatballs and stuffed mussels to ‘topik’ and ‘simit’
TASTES OF THE STREET
One of the older residents in my neighbourhood hobbled past the new generation of pavement restaurants that have mushroomed along the main street, tut-tutting as she went. Talking to herself in a voice loud enough for all to hear, she complained that in her day it was considered impolite to eat in front of others who might be hungry. I suppose that sense of consideration may explain in part why café culture, or even a tradition of street food, is not as developed as it might be in Turkey. Another explanation is that zealous municipal officials are all too ready to pounce on anyone selling food without a licence.
This made it something of a challenge when I was asked to do a piece on the delights of Turkish street food. So I was pleased when by coincidence a small parcel arrived in the mail – an offering from food critics I respect, Culinary Backstreets, who publish Istanbul Eats and are dedicated searchers after the authentic. Not for them blackened sea bass in a pool of almond purée tinged with lungo decaffeinato, dished up at a showy press dinner sponsored by Nespresso. They celebrate the mom-and-pop local eatery, cooks loyal to a tradition, and (in this case) street vendors committed to doing one thing and doing it well. What the postman had delivered was a series of Usta All-Stars flash cards. Usta means master, and the laudable aim is to teach Istanbulites to cherish street food as part of what Unesco calls “intangible cultural heritage”.
Flipping through the cards, whose sales help to subsidise this dying breed, I learned of Ali Usta, who grills meatballs near the flyover in Mecidiyeköy, Mustafa Usta, who boils sheep’s heads in Beyoğlu, and Osman Usta, serving stuffed mussels in the heart of the historic city. I admit to curiosity about Topikçi Musa Usta, possibly the world’s only itinerant seller of topik – a sort of chickpea pâté wrapped around a sweetish onion-and-tahini filling. Apparently he inherited his corner in the old Armenian neighbourhood of Pengaltı from two Armenian topik-makers who trained him in the art of skinning each chickpea by hand, one by one. I was not inspired to search him out, though. You can get perfectly good topik at several meyhanes, along with a glass of rakı to wash it down.
However, I would be devastated to see the disappearance of the humble simit, a crunchy bread ring coated with sesame seeds. Start with one bite and you can’t help but munch full circle. And I do miss Simitçi Hüseyin, who would wheel his barrow past our front door, using a whistle to announce his arrival, since he was toothless and had trouble enunciating the words to hawk his wares.
Though far older than myself, he always addressed me as baba (“pops”) and had the air of a child trying to please a parent. Pay for one simit and he’d give you two; three and he’d give you five. The next time, if you insisted on overpaying, he would thank you as if you’d bought him a Mercedes Benz. One day we gave him a whistle to replace the one municipal officials had confiscated, but they confiscated that one as well. From our house he’d wheel his barrow up a steep hill and I was amazed one day to spot this frail, elderly man and his cart in a neighbourhood miles away. Like Sisyphus, he’d push his load up the mountain and the next day he would do it all again.
But then he stopped. I was often not home when he made his rounds, and it took me a while to register that he had gone. Then one Sunday he suddenly turned up at my door, without his cart, and confessed in a horrified and uncomprehending tone of voice how ill he’d recently been. I gave him money for medicine and to pay his electricity bill, and was haunted by the thought it had not been enough. Soon, he was pushing his barrow again, cheerful as ever but looking thin and gnarled. A visiting friend diagnosed cancer. He continued his journey up and down the hill, until finally he vanished. It was not a conscious decision, but it was a while before I had another simit. It took only one bite to remember how truly wonderful they are.
Andrew Finkel is author of Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know
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