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VISITING Istanbul is like being slapped in the face by a school teacher who's been trying to teach you about the unique geography of the Turkish capital which is part European, part Asian; further divided into an old city where conservative Muslims would frown on women in mini skirts, and newer hip areas where no one cares what you wear. You're left with your head spinning in different directions just trying to comprehend the rich history and cultural diversity that you're better off just jumping right in and going with the flow.
"Istanbul can be quite confusing at first glance," says Tarun Kalra, general manager of Fraser Place Anthill Istanbul - a spiffy skyscraper of fancy serviced apartments that's managed by Singapore-based Frasers Hospitality.
"You've got a city that's divided into three parts by two water bodies. There's the Golden Horn which divides the European side into two - the historical Sultanahmet and modern Beyoglu - while the Bosphorus divides Europe and Asia." But while it takes a while to get used to it, the Singaporean PR who was posted to Istanbul says: "It's easy to settle down here. It's a bustling city of over 15 million people, with modern conveniences available almost round the clock."
Frasers' 116 apartments are located from the 39th to 52nd floors of the sprawling Anthill Residence Complex in the upscale district of Bomotin, Sisli, on the European side of the city. The one to four-bedroom apartments and penthouses are outfitted in contemporary furnishings and full length windows, which means you wake up to impressive views of the city. The complex is self-contained with a supermarket, laundry and restaurants including its own all-day dining outlet. There's a huge gym and it even has its own Turkish bath, if you prefer to get scrubbed down in more 'controlled' surroundings.
With a safe home base in Frasers - which was recently given the right to call itself Turkey's Luxury Serviced Apartments by the World Luxury Hotel Awards - the best way to appreciate Istanbul is to go local, says Kalra, who has himself acclimatised to life in Istanbul with his wife and infant son. "The local Metro and trams are world class and bring you almost to any part of the city. Walk through the neighbourhoods in Istanbul's Historic Peninsula with the spirit of an explorer and look out for a treasure on any turn. I also recommend strolling through the neighbourhoods of Galata, Cukurcuma and Cihangir on the Modern Beyoglu side.
"Mix and match your visit - immerse yourself in history and combine it with the relaxed modernity of the city."
And of course, there's the food - which itself is a mind-boggling journey as you eat your way through Turkey's distinctive cuisine that is a lot more than Turkish delight and doner kebabs.
The best way to discover the local cuisine is to sign up for a walking tour with Culinary Backstreets. The boutique agency organises small group and individual walking tours to explore the food in different neighbourhoods, taking you far from the tourist traps of the Grand or Spice Bazaar (where you can't browse leisurely with every stallholder watching your every move and hustling you to buy yet another pashmina or colourful painted ceramics which every other shop is selling) into the streets where the locals hang out, eating and buying delicacies you've never seen before.
The tours are run by avid foodies Ansel Mullins and Yigal Schleifer - Americans who have lived in Istanbul for over a decade. "We created Culinary Backstreets to supplement what we saw as lack of information on the local, authentic culinary life of cities we know and love, starting with Istanbul," says Mullins.
"Istanbul is and always has been a magnet for migration," he adds.
"Tracking the movement of people through food is what excites me most. When some people see hopelessness in the Syrian refugees who are all over the city today, I see hope in the little restaurants they've managed to open. It's survival and the city is better for it."
Mullins' small team of guides are like him - enthusiastic and knowledgable foodies who will lead you through the maze of Istanbul's streets into a treasure trove of gourmet treats while giving you a lesson on eating traditions as well.
Our guide Gonca - a free-spirited, mini-skirted Turkish lady who readily admits she would not be able to dress the same way over in Sultanahmet in the old part of town - kicks off a tour of Karakoy and Kadikoy (representing the European side and the Asian side) with the quintessential snack of simit bread. You see the sesame-studded, twice-raised pretzel-like bread on every street corner. They all taste the same regardless of which vendor you buy it from, but what makes one vendor different from another is the personal relationship you build up with yours, says Gonca. Her vendor plies at the Karakoy end of Galata bridge, which crosses the Golden Horn, and Gonca has been buying her simit from him for years and knows all about him and his family, and vice versa.
The simit is the Turkish equivalent of a New Yorker's bagel, grabbed on the way to work as a breakfast substitute. In Istanbul, the real way to eat simit is to nip into a traditional tea shop and enjoy it with a glass of golden liquid whose quality is judged by the clarity of the brew.
The bread is deliciously chewy, glazed with grape molasses so the sesame seeds will stick, and the tea brewed by an elderly tea master in a quaint hole-in-the-wall shop hidden inside Kursunlu Han, an old building dating back to the Ottoman times which housed hardware merchants and now is home to a smattering of small businesses.
Like Kursunlu Han, Karakoy is the go-to place for hardware and anything to do with the naval industry. It's also home to interesting eats, including a fish market under the bridge that comes alive with displays of Hamsi fish and salmon from the Black Sea, blue fish, sea bass and bonito, all gutted with their gills turned inside out to show how fresh the catch is. Naturally, fish restaurants dot the bridge as well but avoid them as they're mostly over-priced tourist traps.
Instead, explore the neighbourhood and you'll find little gems like Fehmi Ozsut, a family-owned shop which specialises in kaymak - a thick clotted cream made from water buffalo milk. The place is run by two brothers who inherited a water buffalo farm with just 50 animals. It's an expensive delicacy because each buffalo produces only 3-5 kg of milk a day. To make the kaymak, the milk is boiled for 10 minutes and then the cream is skimmed off and rolled into clean-tasting, rich creamy chunks and drizzled with natural honey from Van, a city outside Istanbul.
Baklava is practically synonymous with Turkey and some of the best can be found in Karakoy Gulluoglu - a commercial chain but nonetheless of reliable quality. It's a huge shop filled with an unending stream of customers snatching up boxes of syrupy flaky pastries layered with ground pistachios.
Just next door is a giant food emporium, busting at the seams with displays of mezze, dried meats and cheeses. It's a popular brunch spot for the local yuppies who come in and order copious amounts of fleshy salted fish called lakerda, marinated peppers and octopus, dried eggplants stuffed with rice that's scented with Turkish cumin and black pepper, more pickles ("The Turkish pickle and salt everything," explains Gonca) and interesting cigara borek - crisp cigarette-thin filo pastry filled with fresh cheese.
Cross over the Golden Horn to Kadikoy on the Asian side and another eating adventure awaits. The fish market here is a lot more interesting than the one on the other side. While it started out as a fish market, other food shops and restaurants sprouted up at the same time and it's since evolved into a vibrant shopping street. A must stop is Gozde, a well-stocked deli that also serves up amazing small plates such as cornmeal-crusted deep-fried hamsi - little anchovy-sized fish - and mussels packed with rice flavoured with cinnamon, onions and pepper. The mezzes are great too - bulgur salad, feta cheese, grilled eggplant and grated carrots from the Caucasus.
If you can't find a McDonald's in Kadikoy, it's probably because it has its own version of fast food in the burrito-like tantuni - which is savoury spicy minced beef cooked in a large metal pan squirted with sauces and wrapped in lavosh bread for a satisfyingly sloppy meal. Kadikoy Takuni is a humble, somewhat grungy joint but watching the guy frying up the meat and slathering the lavosh in the pan's oil and juices is a delight.
The same kind of cooking action can be found at Borsam Tasfirin, where young Turks - literally - roll out dough and top it with gamey minced meat and tomato for the local version of pizza called Lahmacun. The locals stream in and out in quick succession as they wolf down the light crispy oven-fired dough as fast as the boys can make them.
However, for the real Turkish delight made the traditional way using only natural fruit flavours with nothing artificial, check out the achingly cute Altan Sekerleme, a tiny shop tucked into a tiny street a short distance from the Spice Bazaar in Kucuk Pazari. The shop has been there since 1865 and handed down from father to son. This old school sweet shop with bottles of colourful rock candy and trays of juicy but very sweet rose, orange and other fruit-flavoured Turkish delight will make you go wild. And the prices are a lot cheaper than at the conventional stores. Incidentally, avoid all the shops in tourist areas which taunt you with displays of Turkish delight in lurid colours. They're over-priced and awful.
Meanwhile, save some money for shopping at Taksim Square - the touristy but still entertaining main shopping drag. Fraser Place's Kalra always takes visiting friends to walk along "the famous 1.4km Istiklal Caddesi, where you can enjoy looking at the Ottoman Era buildings, shop and soak in the atmosphere with the one and only historic tram running on the street". If Kalra and his wife hanker for some Asian flavours, they'll nip into nearby Cok Cok - a Thai restaurant owned by Singapore architect Tan Kay Ngee and his business partner Bekir Kaya. It serves surprisingly reliable fare from fish cakes to curries and beef noodles, thanks to a Thai chef in the kitchen.
And of course, when the hustle and bustle and culture shock of Istanbul get the better of you, there's always Frasers Place to return to, where Kalra ensures a sense of Singaporean hospitality to make you feel at home, even when you're far away from it.
The writer was hosted by Frasers Hospitality
Fraser Place Anthill Istanbul
Cumhuriyet Mahallesi Incrili Dede, Caddesi No: 6/34380
Bomonti - Sisli - Istanbul, Turkey Tel+90 212 373 6888
“Walk through the neighbourhoods in Istanbul’s Historic Peninsula with the spirit of an explorer and look out for a treasure on any turn.”
Tarun Kalra, general manager of Fraser Place Anthill Istanbul
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