As you may have already known from past posts, I have this thing for local markets. Forget about shopping malls; it’s thesouk, the nearby mini-market, and the town’s wet market that I always look out for whenever I travel especially
when I am pressed for time and don’t have the luxury to spare a day or
two for shopping. Because it’s only in these places that I get to see
what locals eat, what food items are cheap, what local novelty items can
make great gifts for the kids.
Hence, the very same morning of our return flight to KL from
Istanbul, I made sure that we made a quick visit to the Egyptian Spice
Market. From Sultanahmet, it’s just a short tram ride to Eminonu, then a
three-minute walk to the market that was opened in 1664 (!) and still
in operations today.
(I take one shot of the entrance and I mess it up by overexposing it! Grrr!)
The first few stalls predictably sell souvenirs — beautiful yet cheap glass mosaic lamps…
…pottery, scarves and prayer carpets…
…and some dried spices here and there.
But walk past these shops and go find your way along the narrow alleys…
…right into the bustling back roads…
…where they sell cheeses…
…olives and other pickled fruits and vegetables…
…fresh fish and shrimps…
…assorted meats — all halal, given that some 99% of the Turks are Muslim…
…dried grapes and more spices, some in paste form, some in powder form…
…local fruits bursting with colour…
…and even a baklava shop from the city of Gaziantep, which is credited to be the ‘birthplace’ of baklava….
…pots, pans, pestle and mortars, and ibrik (teapots)…
…kitchenware of all sorts…
…kebab sticks of different lengths and widths [NB: We bought 6
pcs of the mid-sized ones for about RM1 ~ USD0.30 apiece. They work like
a dream because the heat goes all throughout the meat, even in the
…various items made of wood…
…elaborately decorated wooden chests…
…and stoves that looked too beautiful to cook on.
Forget about shopping malls. I’d pick the Mısır Çarşısı anytime!
Look up the word ‘cistern’ in the dictionary and you’ll see that it
means ‘tank’. And that’s what the Basilica Cistern is — one huge water
tank. The difference? It is one ANCIENT water tank, constructed in 532
A.D. primarily to supply water to the Byzantine Palace. Later on, it
supplied water to Topkapi Palace and other buildings.
The Basilica Cistern, also known as the “Sunken Palace” or Yerebatan Sarayi
in Turkish, is a cathedral-sized underground chamber, measuring
approximately 138 metres (453 ft) by 64.6 metres (212 ft) – about
9,800 square metres (105,000 sq ft) in area – capable of holding
80,000 cubic metres (2,800,000 cu ft) of water.
The entrance is small, almost like a guard house, and can easily be missed if not for the crowd queueing up outside.
Walk down the stone staircase and suddenly you find yourself plunged
into darkness. As your eyes start to adjust to the dim lighting, you
can make out row after row after row of stone columns.
The water in the Basilica Cistern comes from the Eğrikapı Water
Distribution Center in the Belgrade Forest which is 19 kilometres(!)
from the city. It is yet another example of an engineering feat from
ancient times. Today, there is still water inside but water levels are
now low. Numerous fish can be seen swimming about in the water,
probably placed there to avoid mosquitoes from breeding. That’s just my
theory actually. I don’t even know if mosquitoes exist in Turkey
because I didn’t encounter any the whole time I was there.
Water still drips through the brick-domed ceiling in some places,
making it quite slippery — so watch your step! — and a bit of a danger
for your photography gear.
There are platforms now for tourists to walk on but not too long ago,
tourists needed to explore this place in small boats! What an
experience that would have been!
The biggest attraction inside the Basilica Cistern are the two Medusa
heads which now serve as the bases for two columns in towards the rear.
No one knows how they got there or why they are there. And what makes
them even more intriguing is how they are positioned — one Medusa head
is lying down on its side…
…the other Medusa head is upside down.
Here is a short video that I shot of the upside down Medusa head
using my trusty old Nokia N82, just to give you a sense of scale of the
Medusa head, as well as give you taste of the ambience of the Basilica
The entire cistern’s dim orangeish lighting and the echoing sound of
the water dripping melancholically from the ceiling in some places give
an eerie, other-worldly, almost Greek mythology-like feeling to the
Basilica Cistern. I strongly advise against the use of flash when using
your camera down there if you wish to capture the ambience of the place
in your photos.
The only modern ‘anomaly’ inside the ancient structure is a cafe just before the exit.
The Basilica Cistern is just a stone’s throw from Hagia Sophia
(Ayasofya) and is open every day from 09:00 hrs to 18:30. The entrance
fee is 10 Turkish Lira (~7 USD) for foreign visitors. Allocate some 30 minutes for your visit.
After a morning of
nonstop rain, the sun finally peeks through the clouds over the Sea of
Marmara, Istanbul (October 2010). Photo taken straight out of the
camera, unedited other than resizing for the web.
In the wee hours of the morning, when the sky is dark and the air is
still and the world is fast asleep, that’s when I turn to you, my Lord. I
pour out my hopes and dreams to You. I beg for Your forgiveness as I
prostrate before You in deep shame, remorse, and sorrow.
For who am I to seek Your pardon? I’m just a flawed mortal who keeps
falling into the same traps again and again and again. I’m just an
ungrateful fool who keeps turning a blind eye to Your blessings with
wanton disregard and disrespect.
But oh, my Lord, You are the only one
whom I can turn to. Without Your grace and pardon, I would surely be
lost. Please have mercy on my soul, my Lord and my God. Please forgive
me, please pardon me, please don’t let me go astray.
Tavuk göğsü is probably the most interesting food that I got to taste
in Istanbul during my week-long stay there. At first glance, it looks
like some sort of thick white pudding. Dig in with your fork and the
consistency will remind you of melted mozzarella, but slightly tougher
and not as stretchy. Nibble on it and the taste resembles mahalabia
(Arabic rice and milk pudding)…but as the last of the creaminess melts
in your mouth, suddenly you find yourself chewing on bits of white
And so I relied once again on good old Google to find out what tavuk göğsü is made of. It is indeed
a Turkish dessert pudding made with chicken and milk! A contradictory
combination? To 21st century taste buds, perhaps. But apparently, it’s
been around since the Roman times and introduced (or perhaps
reintroduced) into Anatolia by the Romans. Wikipedia says
it became one of the most famous delicacies served to the sultans in
the Ottoman Topkapı Palace and is today considered a ‘signature’ dish of
Personally, I found tavuk göğsü to be quite tasty and filling. But then again, I’m a Filipina who likes chicken macaroni salad
that comprises of boiled elbow macaroni, mayonnaise, cheese cubes,
raisins, pineapple bits, condensed milk, and shredded chicken, a sweet and savoury Filipino dish that perplexes most Malaysians except the Kelantanese, who’ve always loved all of their foods sweet.
When in Istanbul, it’s a must to indulge in baklava, that ubiquitous
delicacy made of countless layers of impossibly thin phyllo pastry that
enconsces chopped nuts within its delicate layers, then finished off
with a drizzle of thick, gooey syrup all over it. The phyllo pastry used
for baklava is said to be so thin that when you lift up a sheet, you
can see through it.
I once thought all baklavas are created alike and taste alike. So
when T — a business associate who’s a native of Istanbul — told me she
knows the best place for baklava in the whole of Istanbul, I was not
entirely convinced. Nonetheless, I tried to keep an open mind as her
husband drove us across Atatürk Köprüsü (Atatürk Bridge) to Karaköy, a
commercial neighborhood in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul which used
to be known as Galata. Our destination: Karaköy Güllüoğlu.
T briefed me that the place, having started as a family business, has
a complicated history. Hence, you can find several several baklava
shops all over Istanbul bearing the Güllüoğlu name but there is only one
Karaköy Güllüoğlu. This particular shop is said to be the one owned
by the father and is the ‘original’. Karaköy Güllüoğlu itself insists —
through its website and pamphlets in several languages in its shop —
that they are “the only Karaköy since 1949″, clarifying that they are
“totally different and unique compared with the products of the shops
with the name Güllüoğlu.” So how can you tell which shop is which? The
Karaköy Güllüoğlu has the Galata Tower in its logo and their
registered trademark is Nadir Güllü.
A huge crowd is always a telltale sign of good food. Or in this case,
cars triple (!) parked besides the kerb in front of the shop. The next
encouraging sign: nearly empty shelves! T said it’s supposed to be a
24-hour shop but the baklava was completely sold out that day. Whatever
remaining baklava there was on the shelves were being packed into boxes
for customers who have pre-booked them.
Thus, just minutes after we walked in, they started rolling down the
shutters in front of the shop. The interesting thing is that when
customers would arrive, they’d still be allowed to go in then shown the
empty shelves before being politely told that all the baklava sold out
for the day.
As T went to order our baklava and çay (strong Turkish tea),
I sat on one of those high stools clustered around a small round table,
snapping photos as discreetly as I could. My face broke into a huge
grin when she reappeared at my side with a plate of pistachio baklava
served with a huge scoop of kaymak (Turkish clotted cream).
T’s husband then demonstrated to me the proper way of eating a baklava
— he angled a slice of baklava slightly so that he could pierce it with
his fork from the bottom at a slight angle [NB: approximately 1/3 of
the piece should be behind the fork, the upper 2/3 facing you, so as not
to break the layers], smeared a bit of kaymak on the slice, then popped the baklava upside-down
into his mouth. This way, he explained, the thin phyllo layers on top
can melt on your tongue. He also added that what sets Karaköy
Güllüoğlu’s baklava apart from all other baklavas is how you can
actually hear the layers of phyllo pastry crackling as you bite into a
I followed his lead and obediently did everything that he said, including smearing my baklava slice with kaymak.
I closed my eyes and let out a prolonged “mmmmmm…”. It was heavenly!
The strange thing is: it wasn’t as sweet as all other baklavas I’ve
tasted before. And I think I know why: if you look closely at the photo,
only the lower layers of phyllo pastry are drenched in syrup; the upper
layers aren’t, which explains how they retain their crispiness.
Quality always comes at a premium and Karaköy Güllüoğlu is not an
exception: the lowest price I’ve seen in its shop is TL28 (Turkish Lira)
for one kilogram of the heavenly treat. In contrast, prices at a
Gaziantep shop at the Egyptian Spice Bazaar start from TL16. Despite the
steeper prices, I still would have gladly bought a box or two of the
delicious treats. Unfortunately, since all of the shop’s baklava were
sold out that night, there was nothing left for us to pack up and bring
back to the hotel.
T and I started off the evening as business associates discussing
products, orders and shipments over an awesome fish dinner at Cibali
Balikçisi; we ended the night like long-lost friends savouring baklava
and kaymak with tiny cups of piping hot çay at the legend that is Karaköy Güllüoğlu.
This is not a paid post, but if Karaköy Güllüoğlu offers me some
free baklava the next time I’m in Istanbul, I’d be more than happy to
take it 😉