Updating a guidebook is fascinating, exhausting, repetitive and exhilarating work. Nothing spurs you under the skin of a place more than 40 pages of listings that need checking in detail and the thought of thousands of travellers following your footsteps and relying on your diligence. Pounding the streets in search of that new café, lifting the toilet lid on endless en suites, and sitting down to tea with tourist info man after tourist info man, it’s a labour of true love that really puts you on first name terms with a place.
It also makes you hungry. Which, in retrospect, is probably why I chose to update Turkey for the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. The job covers the entire western half of the country, from Edirne by the Bulgarian border to Konya and Cappadocia in the centre, and promises all manner of moveable feasts along the way. Here are 12 that stood out, for better or worse.
The first, and perhaps most memorable of all was almost elemental in its simplicity: meat in bread at Istanbul’s Büyük Otogar. You realise Turkey’s love affair with this combo as soon as you arrive; huge elephantine thighs of meat slowly spin on spit after spit on every corner, held tight and dearly by hungry Turks in whichever hand isn’t dealing with their cigarette.
These aren’t the putrid booze-soaking concoctions sold in our inner city zoos back home though; instead my chicken chunks were swept up in a metal dustpan and packed into a crusty baguette before the whole thing was dunked into the juices of the meat pile to soak up more fatty goodness. At around 2TL (85p) and washed down with a stewed plastic cup of Turkish tea from an urn in a depressing waiting room, it heralded the unspeakably exciting start of my adventure.
The following day, mezze at Sultanahmet’s Palatium Café was memorable meal number two. Having twigged that much of the trip was going to revolve around two food types, I went momentarily veggie. Numerous guide books and enthusiastic forum types insist you have to try the corns on the cob on offer on most Istanbul pavements, but the soggy, insipid dildo one gruff bloke pulled from a tepid pan of water for me went straight into the Bosphorus after one bite. Thankfully the platter of hummus, dolma (stuffed peppers), cacık (cucumber with yogurt and mint) and barbunya pilaki (borlotti beans in garlic and tomato paste) was much better and made all the more memorable by the call to prayer ringing out in the background for the first time on my trip.
There are many things to say about Ankara, none of which revolve around food, but one plate of bullet hard meatballs at Zenger Paşa Konağı in the old citadel stuck in my mind (and my teeth), mostly thanks to the bizarre Ottoman ephemera that was hanging from the walls. My next key plateful came four days later in Cappadocia, that otherworldly land of cave dwellings and rock formations in Anatolia famous for its epic hot air ballooning.
Ziggy’s restaurant in Ürgüp is rightfully renowned, and served an astonishing plate of pan-fried liver and local wine on an outdoor terrace overlooking the town. It was my 14th meal alone, which was fine by me as I had the company of Jeremy Seal anyway, but once the sun went down and reading became impossible, I did feel like a bit of a loner. I don’t have a problem with eating alone; it’s an unavoidable part of exploration and there are plenty of ways to make yourself look busy with maps, brochures and notes. It’s also infinitely less depressing than the sight of those couples that sit together in silence for the whole meal. That said, having to head out on my own for supper in Konya on a budget was a dismal prospect.
The conservative, quiet and staunchly alcohol-free city is included in the guide thanks to its equidistance between Cappadocia and Antalya on the coast and the fact it’s home to the tomb of the Mevlana, who founded the whirling dervish sect, but we really didn’t get along.
It’s a place crying out for some atmosphere, holding a begging bowl for a few scraps of some kind of vibe. The strict Muslim population are perfectly happy, and a moving sight to behold at the places of pilgrimage. It’s just the secular residents who would rather be in Istanbul or Izmir, on the coast or just anywhere but here, that give it a sense of noisy desperation. Konya is a place where the stonewashed fashions are as outmoded as the Nokias; where bad boy teenagers race crap cars with fairy lights around the number plates up the main strip; and nargile (water pipe) cafés turn the music to 11 to drown out the yawning lack of conviviality.
The Mevlâna Museum, Konya (Pic: Getty)
The city is surrounded by the “breadbasket of Turkey” and from East Anglia to the Great Plains we all know what that means for culture and excitement. The meal? Dügün (soup with yoghurt, mint and rice) with a side of tap water in a dirty cup, sipped hastily in a dead restaurant as I plotted my urgent exfiltration.
Turkey’s bus network is brilliant. Not only will the coaches get you from A to B for about 35TL (£12), they’re also populated with boys in orange bow ties who hand out free snacks and drinks. The dubiously-named Finger Time cake bar and powdered coffee duo became a favourite as the miles clocked up, enjoyed over an episode of the unintentionally hilarious popular crime show Arka Sokaklar (Back Streets). Boasting the funniest opening credits I’ve ever seen and a litany of cop show clichés that made me squirm into the guy next to me even with the sound off, it was sterling entertainment.
The bus passed through snowy pines and the temperature dropped ten degrees as we navigated the mountains hiding the coast and by the time I re-opened my curtains we were by palm trees and somewhere called the West Virginia City Ranch Saloon on the way to Antalya.
Unsurprisingly, the tourist-ridden coastline boasts a smorgasbord of second-rate food, and I ate most of it. Dishwatery fish soup in Kas, grilled meat of questionable origin in Antalya, chewy kebabs in Fethiye and half-arsed burgers in Bodrum were some of the highlights. Bodrum is a funny place for eating, packed full of tables set up on the beach in pitch black darkness, a blessing once you realise the clientele of this jumped up resort.
Selcuk heralded my next dish worth writing home (or here) about. A simple lamb kebab with a side salad drenched in pomegranate dressing was served up in a flash at Mehmet & Ali Baba Kebab House. This place is guidebook gold, less for the food (which was OK) than the affable owners.
Mehmet attached himself to me long before he realised I was from Rough Guides, showing off all his press cuttings in a laminated folder before giving me a ride on his motorbike to the ruins at Ephesus. On the way he showed me some secret sites, pulling down a fence to sneak us into an area supposedly home to the cave of the Seven Sleepers, and pulled off the road to reveal his collection of scavenged coins from the area. It was my birthday, and as I sat drinking wine alone in my Izmir hotel room later that evening, I decided he was the best present I’d received in a while.
The Sea of Marmara region is a hotbed of regional delicacies, and peynir helvasi in Çanakkale is a sweet cheese dish served up across the city and much nicer than it sounds. I chewed my way through a paving slab of the stuff at midnight while chatting to the student owner about Mel Gibson and Jason Statham in far, far too much depth.
Conservative Edirne, meanwhile, is famous for oil wrestling and fried liver, and I tried not to think of the former while tucking into a huge plate of the latter. For some reason I sat down to supper at 5.30 here, which was just as well as the town shuts up shop around 9pm. Even the fountains ground to a halt and a reserved hush descended on the centre.
Back in Istanbul at the end of my trip and life was continuing as normal. In Sultanahment the simultaneous sound of four separate calls to prayer rang out while the city went about its business. The nargile bars around the bazaar were a haze of sweet smells and sparks as waiters used hairdryer bellows to fire them up. Down on the Bosphorus boats bobbed violently in the water as vendors passed out fresh fish sandwiches. Three women in burkas at a Galata Bridge restaurant tapped at their iPhones while the sun fell behind a minaret. Up on Istikal Avenue the police were tossing tear gas at demonstrators among the Saturday shoppers, and I got caught up in the crossfire.
There was time for one last supper, and it was going to be a carnivorous blowout at a Rough Guide recommendation from the RG to Istanbul. In fact, Terry Richardson’s evocative writing had me earmarking this place back in London:
”Watch master grillsman Kenan cook tortilla-style bread over his basement charcoal grill, smear it with olive oil, sprinkle with pepper flakes, thyme and salt, then pop it back on the grill to finish. This bread is used as the ‘plate’ to serve an astonishing array of kebabs and grilled meat to a loyal Turkish clientele.”
It didn’t disappoint. Surrounded by raki-befuddled locals I worked through the best meal of my trip: numerous fresh meze dishes followed by a plate of beef grilled medium with a touch of pink and accompanied by a red onion and coriander garnish, fresh aubergine and tomatoes. Kenan was passing taco-sized parcels to the regulars between courses.
Back home in London, as I sat down to Iskender kebab in Dalston, I realised a couple of things. That travel cliché about travel opening your eyes is a cliché for a reason. I’ve since realised my local dry cleaner is a Galatasary supporter and the man in the nearby deli is from Ankara. The word “Akdeniz” on numerous north London shops is no longer a mystery; it means “Mediterranean” (literally “white sea”). Mostly importantly though, it dawned on me that I’ve become a massive kebab bore.