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Breakfast Like A Grandmaster in Istanbul Print E-mail
By Christine VanCott   
September 12, 2012
Though the tournament action at this year's Olympiad, those wishing to escape the isolated playing hall are a metro ride away from a sensory-rich excursion into Istanbul's bustling old city. Historical monuments echo changing times as they shift affiliation and function over the centuries. The Hagia Sophia transformed from cathedral to mosque to museum; the first urban power station of the Ottoman Empire is now a modern arts venue which hosted a concert by the Red Hot Chili Peppers this week. Building facades peel away to expose layer upon textured layer of history and stone, conquest and brick. The cobblestone streets are uneven from the constant motion of a diverse population skittering across the surface but steeped in the past.

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Situated at the confluence of Europe and Asia, modernity and tradition, you'll find the wearers of tank tops and full hijab comfortably side-by-side in shopping malls. Bottles of Coca-Cola and fermented black carrot juice line the neighborhood mini-mart together in neat rows. The call to prayer may sound five times a day but pop music ringtones still invade the interior of mosques. The first rest day gave some of the American team the chance to venture into town, through the spice bazaar and past the fishermen along the Galata Bridge, where the day's catch is grilled up into simple fish sandwiches on wheeled street stands.

DSC04832.JPGAmidst the crowds of a lazy Sunday afternoon in Sultanahmet, members of the American delegation sampled new and familiar flavors alike. A handful of sticky pomegranate-pistachio Turkish delight was a surprise hit. The chewy, bright red, bite-sized pieces featured crunchy nuts and were not too sweet. 

Irina Krush brought some back to share with the rest of the women's team--they'd enjoyed pistachio helva together the week before and she thought it would be fun to try something new. Alexander Onischuk tried the popular street snack that reminded him of home: boiled corn on the cob with a light sprinkling of salt. Six of us rested on a narrow cobblestone corner, nibbling away at the crisp kernels and pondering afterward what to do with the cobs since no trash cans could be found. ( Yury Shulman's environmentally conscious attempt to dispose of his failed, after a nearby cafe owner pulled it out of a marked trash can and handed it back to him.) An afternoon of sightseeing and shopping concluded with a search for a traditional döner kebab sandwich.

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Since the tournament games began at 3pm local time, players and fans seeking morning respite are fortunate to find themselves in a part of the world that likes to ease into the day. As I found, Turkish breakfast is a more a way of life than simply a meal.

Just reading the paragraph-long menu listing of upscale Turkish chain restaurant Big Chefs' breakfast offering may take more time than gulping down a typical American morning muffin. Named the “Slow and Calm,” their breakfast is a main-stage event: “Yellow Thrace cheese, Ezine (feta type) cheese, smoked Circassian cheese, walnut-tulum cheese, beef ham, honey, butter, black olives, 'Antakya' cracked olives, green pepper, tomato-cucumber, strawberry jam, cream, Nutella, sausage in sauce, flat pastry with cheese, glass of fresh orange juice, unlimited traditional Turkish cups, one cup of filter coffee, daily newspapers, assortment of weekly & monthly magazines, wireless Internet, fine music.” This is not just a meal, this is to linger over.

TurkishBreakfast225.jpgNecla Tepekule, a Galata neighborhood resident and self-proclaimed food lover, explained, “We feel like first you need to feed your eyes.” Even though the pace of urban life in Istanbul has often reduced the morning meal to a quick sesame-crusted pastry from one of the many street vendors, the tucked-away Galata restaurant where she works has spent several years perfecting its “traditional village breakfast.” Also a formidable spread, breakfast at Cafe Privato consists of an entire tabletop full of carefully selected local favorites. “I'd like for our guests to try just one spoonful of everything,” she says, “Otherwise, you may miss the treasure.”

The dining experience can be savored as much as the food, thanks to the homey tablecloth and the delicate vintage style teacups. The tower of tiny china plates balanced at the end of the table only rounds out the postcard view of Galata Tower from the open air interior. You can choose to recline upon the antique velveteen sofa that the restaurant has affectionately nicknamed “grandmother's chair.” Tepekule is quick to guide foreign palates through descriptions of their traditional dishes and proud to point out that even the oregano has been brought from miles away, just for the intensity of its flavor.

In a society that loves to eat and share time at the table with family and friends, Turkey's cherished morning ritual offers a delectable hour (or three).
 
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