IN a market on the northern side of the Golden Horn, that slash of inlet that carves west into the European side of Istanbul, a man was cooking tiny fish. A hand-scrawled sign proclaimed their name - hamsi - and a price that was barely more than giveaway.
It turned out that they were Black Sea anchovies, plentifully in season and delicious, lightly battered and deep-fried, drizzled with lemon juice and eaten head-to-tail, with a handful of rocket.
To New Zealanders, Turkish food is pretty much synonymous with the doner kebab, that pita-wrapped sandwich of meat, sliced from a vertical spit and combined with lettuce and tomato to make the local version of a sandwich. Doner kebab (the Turkish spelling is kebap) is easily found at street stalls in Istanbul. There is a rather unfortunate fashion of laying a few cold chips on the bread as a base, perhaps to alleviate the homesickness of the travelling English football fans, which is to be avoided. But it is a poor man who leaves Istanbul without having ventured beyond this now-international takeaway.
Through the Turkish Embassy in Wellington I'd made contact with the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, but something about my requests for foodie-trail suggestions must have been lost in translation.
Mistaking me for some sort of big-spending gourmet, they had furnished me with a list of eight of the city's swankier eateries. Intimidatingly, they had a date and time against each name - adding up to a programme that would have had me eating two lunches and two dinners on each of the first two days: it was a flattering assessment of my staying power but rather out of line with my appetite and budget so, having established that I was not booked into and expected at any of the establishments, I tucked the list in the bottom of my bag and we struck out on an independent expedition.
Well, not entirely independent. Ilginay, an effervescent ministry staffer offered to join us for a couple of days as we walked the streets. She hastened to warn us she was not an official guide, which suited us just fine. Monotonous recitations of the dates mosques were built or sultanates overthrown never did a lot for me. What we quickly learned from Ilginay was to eat where Istanbulites eat.
That meant starting with the so-called lokantasi, down back streets and often barely signposted. These places were like workers' cafeterias, where customers choose servings of pre-prepared dishes, for about $5 each, from a selection deliciously arrayed on the benchtop. In normal circumstances, this would be another no-no for me, eating food that has not been prepared freshly to order. But the crush of customers and the rapid replacement of empty dishes reassured me that nothing sat for long before being served.
At the Bahar Lokantasi, near the eastern entrance to the Grand Bazaar, we feasted on hunkar begendi (lamb casserole on an eggplant puree) and baked fish. This was washed down with ayran, a drink native to Turkey which consists of yoghurt, water and salt and is the perfect accompaniment. We finished with home-made baklava so warm and soggy and honey-soaked that you had to eat it with a spoon.
Sitting astride the narrow strait called the Bosporus, Istanbul has a foot in both Asia and Europe and its cuisine reflects the dual heritage. It's a contested one - the Greeks call a yoghurt-and-cucumber dip tzatziki, the Turks call it cacik and both of them will tell you they invented it - but it also lends Turkish food a charm all of its own.
I was surprised by the dearth of street-food merchants in Istanbul. The ice-cream hawker in a fez - only worn to pander to tourists; Kemal Ataturk condemed Ottoman dress as decadent - is a regular sight, performing a pat routine in which the ball of ice-cream disappears. Apart from the roast-chestnut sellers found everywhere in Europe, though, you don't find charcoal braziers cooking up a storm on the sidewalk.
But you don't have to spend a fortune to eat like an Ottoman emperor. The fabled Pandeli Restaurant in the Spice Bazaar was a major disappointment - bland food, offhand service - but the tiled interior is gorgeous. Much better was the Hamdi, which overlooks the Galata Bridge, the edge of which is lined by fishermen day and night.
Here, as light faded over the Sea of Marmara, we exulted in muhammara (walnut and pepper pesto, dressed with mint leaves); icli kofte (meatballs rolled in bulgur wheat and baked to a golden crust), and kebabs in which pistachios were ground into the meat.
It's only a short ferry ride to Kadikoy on the Asian side of the Bosphorus and it's worth the trip. A vibrant food market is only a few steps from the wharf, and in the middle of it, I found the best food in Istanbul. Ciya Sofrasi is the brainchild of Musa Dagdeviren, a native of southern Turkey, who established it as a kind of living museum of Turkish food, where he prepares and serves traditional recipes gathered on frequent trips into the interior.
He's battling against not just the invasion of American fast-food chains, but also the homogenisation of the regionally diverse cuisine of the area from Mesopotamia to the Balkans - the longest-inhabited region of the world.
The maestro himself was not in attendance when I dropped by but the young maitre d' took pity on me as I stood in front of a colourful array of pots steaming on a large benchtop. "I order for you. It is best," he said, pointing me to the plain interior, where white-shirted waiters circulated among the simple wooden tables.
He chose well: from central Turkey, firik pilavi, a dense risotto-like pilaf, rich with chilli chicken; ezogelim gorbasi, a rich lentil-and-tomato soup from Anatolia; and kisir, the Turkish take on the Arab tabbouleh, a salad of bulgur wheat, tomato paste and parsley, with the sharp tang of sumac and pomegranate seeds. Each dish was dense with unexpected flavours that seemed to go on for ever. The late-night doner kebab shop seemed far away.
Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.