I am writing this from Turkey where I didn't think twice before deciding to come for a short trip even in the face of the Coronavirus scare. I remember when, precisely 13 years ago, while shooting my show for NDTV Good Times about food and beverages around the world, we had unanimously decided to start with Turkey. We couldn't think of a country which would have offered us more in breadth and depth by way of cuisines. The country has a history that goes back millennia and a geography that makes it crucial to the exchange of ideas and cultures between the east and the West. So almost a decade-and-a-half later, when I wanted to be regaled all over again, it was back to Turkey. In case you are headed there, or plan to, here are the food stops you should consider:
Yeni Lokantesi: Traditional food in Turkey has been a mix of many influences, from middle-eastern and Persian to Greek and European, Chinese to Armenian and even Indian. Over time, what has developed is a signature collection of recipes that range from kebabs to kofte, rice preparations to different types of bread, and ferments aplenty along the way. This restaurant tries to give a snapshot of local fare in a contemporary cafe-style setting. The food was mostly small plates, which encourages you to try more; on our visit, we pretty much ordered the entire menu and yet none of the plates went back not empty. The Tarhana soup was the world's first instant soup (around 100 years ago) and this restaurant does a really good version of it.
Deraliye: Ottoman food was the food of sultans from the 14th century. Royalty didn't eat light-60 dishes a day had to be prepared with a 30-day cycle, so 1,800 was the minimum that any chef's repertoire needed to boast of. The ingredients were rich and lavish (think lamb neck and goose kebap), often cooked up in even richer styles and preparations. Chef Necati Yilmaz-run Deraliye, just a stone's throw from the Hagia Sofia, may be in the 'touristy' spot, but the food is authentic and researched and an educational trip into the chronology of local gastronomy as long as you are okay to come away with a food coma.
Lale Iskembecisi: Tripe may not be top of everyone's food lists, but this inconspicuous place does tripe soup in an endless variety. For most locals, this is the go-to food post a heavy session of raki, so it won't be crowded at 8 pm, but expect a huge wait post midnight!
Greek House Restaurant: Now, the USP of this place that you may read of everywhere is that it is a family-owned place where the women run the kitchen and the men busy themselves with the service. What they will miss telling you is that they make the best Gözleme (philo-wrapped meat pastry) and Testi (pottery) kebab possibly in the country! And if it helps, some Bollywood movie was also shot there some time back.
Roadside: From having Kokoreç (intestines) sandwiches cooked on a griddle to mussels and rice in a shell to pan-fried (Midai tava) mussels, simple fish sandwiches to even jacket potatoes-and that is without including the endless mezze that are served alongside raki or the ubiquitous kebap shops serving up top-notch döner, pide and adana.
Aubergine: This is a category unto itself because the things they can do with this one ingredient is truly worthy of a separate mention-from stuffing it with meat (Karniyarik) or onions and tomatoes (Bayildi) to drying it and using it for dolmas. In fact, Turkey is great even if you are vegetarian, a fact which even a carnivore like me can happily embrace.
Sweets: Baklava will remain the reason I can never stop working out. There's never really a bad Baklava, it's either good or great. Turkish Delight, for many, can be an acquired taste. By contrast, the local Orchid root ice-cream will be an instant favourite. But when I say 'instant', I mean once the ice-cream seller stops toying with you by serving it and taking it back a 100 times before you finally get to taste it. I soberly enough opted for a scoop in a cafe instead.
The writer is a sommelier