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Istanbul ~ Carving the Eye out of Your Fish Dinner | Food Pilgrimage: A Food Writer's Quest for the Greatest Meals on the Planet

Istanbul ~ Carving the Eye out of Your Fish Dinner


In Istanbul in January, it was not nearly as warm as I wanted it to be. The sun was bright yellow and the sky was pale blue and cloudless, but on the creaking, rusting Ferry crossing the Bosporus to Kadikoy to visit the fish market, the air had the bite of cold coming off of water and I ordered two hot, milky coffees for John and I to keep warm. The paper cups gave off steam and warmed our hands.

The ferry connects Europe to Asia, but you’d never know because it’s all just one big hodge-podge city of strange building styles and covered markets and men everywhere standing in black jackets drinking deep amber tea out of tiny thimble shaped glasses.

From the ferry port, we walked through the crowd, passing a number of large, stray dogs that all seemed content to simply stand in one place and bark out at no-one in particular. The people pouring off of the ferry were the darkest-dressed group of people I have ever seen; black and dark gray from head to foot. Some of them in leather jackets, some in long overcoats, all of them just black and dark gray.

We stopped at a small wagon where a man stood behind a glass case selling long-distance calling cards and chewing gum. We asked after the fish market in English and he seemed to understand and very enthusiastically pointed us back towards the waterfront. We followed his directions past a two-story café where people sat under glowing heaters drinking hot tea and smoking thick cigarettes that gave off blue smoke. Most of the places in Istanbul sold either tea or beer, but not both. We turned onto a side street that became small and crowded with fish stalls and vegetable stands pushing out under bright canopies and above them, tall colourful building facades reached up three of four storeys. The vegetable shopkeepers organized their goods like floral arrangements, each one trying to outdo the other with banana and pineapple situated like headdresses on stacks of deep red pomegranates and tan and yellow melons. There were miniature forests of upright celery and carrots between giant onions and heads of purple and green lettuces.

It is a great tradition in Istanbul to visit the fish stands and pick out a whole fish from the ice tables and point to the restaurant where you want to have it cooked. The restaurants only charge a few Turkish Lire to grill or fry or bake your fish in the hopes that you will spend your money on Raki and lager. Raki is a clear anisette spirit like French Pastis or Greek Ouzo or Spanish Anis that gets served with a jug of water so that you can dilute it to a cloudy, bracing aperitif.

At one fish stand, there was an iron cauldron full of steaming mussels still in the shell. Each one was stuffed with a rice mixture and soaked in broth with flecks of lemon peel, onion, chilli and parsley. We each ate three, using the shell of the first to eat the second and third. They were steaming hot and plump and tasted fresh, like the clean, white sea-foam that rides the wave crests on a storming day. They cost one Turkish Lira a-peace.

Behind the cauldron of mussels, there were rows of shiny bream with their gold striped foreheads and black and silver sea-bass and pink, square-shaped snapper and torpedo shaped mackerel. Behind all of that, there was one last John Dory; a particularly ugly, good tasting fish that cooks up rich and flaky. John Dory is best off of the grill, with hot charred stripes on the crispy skin. When I pointed to the John Dory, the fishmonger, in white apron and tall rubber boots, placed in my hand a crooked, shucking knife and he pointed to the eye of the fish. I was meant to cut out the eye of the whole, dead fish, as it sat there on the ice and keep the eye so that when the fish was cooked, I could match the eye to the cooked fish to know it was indeed the fish I had paid for. I looked at John, who shrugged, and I cut out the eye in a wide circle of flesh and for lack of a better thought, I put it in my empty coffee cup. I pointed to the restaurant across the way, which had a gold medallion over the window and sizzling noises coming from the doorway. It also had a giant black and white photograph of Atatürk dressed up in hunting kit high up on one wall.

While John and I sat and waited for the fish, we finished three Raki’s each, each one less diluted with water than the previous. The cold liquorice taste went perfect with the skewers of salty, fried sardines that the kitchen kept passing to us through the window.

The John Dory came out and it was crispy and still sizzling and it was charred on both sides and the big, gouged out eyehole was opaque and it was definitely the fish I had paid for. We squeezed meyer lemon over the fish and ate it, washed down with cold lager, and we talked about all of the pictures of Atatürk  and about all the byzantine antiques we had seen earlier that day and about the Ottoman bayonet that we had found and were determined to buy from the covered bazaar the next day if we could bargain the fat man with the crushing handshake and bad breath down to one-hundred Turkish Lire.

Later, we took the ferry ride back across from Asia to Europe. On the top deck, the night air was very cold, but we were warmed by food and by the Raki and we didn’t notice so much the cold as we talked about someday owning sailboats and cruising the Mediterranean. We also had hot coffee, which we drank sip-by-sip as the lighted-up domes of the giant mosques passed by and the white foam wake of the ferry disappeared behind us into the dark.


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