We've long been legume fiends, and we both have a thing for white beans in particular. Maybe that's one reason we can't stay away from Turkey -- Turkish cooks do white beans like no one else.
Turkey's kuru fasulye (koo-roo fah-SOOL-yay), or dried white beans, vary in size from no larger than the nail of your index finger to half the length of your thumb. Cooked and cooled, they might be tossed with olive oil, vinegar, sliced onions, parsley, and chopped egg for a refreshing salad called piyaz. Or they might be pureed and eaten as a mezze. Or added to a meaty soup or stew.
Our favorite kuru fasulye preparation is often called simply ... fasulye. Stewed with onions, tomato (and sometimes red pepper) paste(s), lamb, plenty of butter and -- if the cook is very conscientious and cares not a whit about cholesterol -- lamb tail fat, dried white beans become the sort of can't-get-enough dish that haunts your dreams.
Write-ups on Turkish food, no matter how rhapsodic, rarely mention this dish. Maybe that's because it's a Black Sea specialty, and too little attention is paid to the wonderful cuisine of Turkey's northern-most region. Perhaps it's because kuru fasulye is such an everyday dish, an esnaf lokanti steam table staple. Truth to tell, the dish doesn't always live up to its potential.
So, with a few exceptions, for a really great fasulye you need to go to a specialist, a "white beanery" if you will. On our last stay in Istanbul we taste-tested the famous beans at two.
Ali Baba Kanaat Lokantasi is sits directly across from Fatih district's Suleymaniye Mosque, a must-visit site for every tourist in Istanbul. And there are plenty of tourists eating at Ali Baba. Don't let that worry you; there are plenty of Istanbullu eating there too.
The signage out front announces Ali Baba's pedigree: c. 1939. Inside, everyone's eating beans. Big, lush lima bean-sized beans sloshing around in a pool of thick tomato-and-red pepper meat gravy liberally spiced with biber (red chilies). That's Ali Baba's kuru fasulye up top in this post. It's served with nutty, buttery rice pilav and tursu, or pickles.
The page in my notebook headed "Ali Baba Kanaat Lokantasi" is empty. Apparently I forgot all about recording our meal as soon as the beans arrived. I remember Dave and I fought over the last bits of tart, salty pickle -- perfect match for the buttery beans -- , and that as good as the pilav was I for the most part avoided it in order to save room in my belly for all my beans, which were tingly with spice (sort of unusual outside of Turkey's southeastern region), tomato-ey, and rich with lamb and butter fat. I remember the couple at the table next to us having an intense, almost heated conversation and then falling silent as soon as their beans arrived. And I remember that after we left Ali Baba's I told Dave we'd have to go back again for another round because I hadn't taken any notes.
After lunch at Ali Baba's I was fairly convinced we'd eaten Istanbul's ultimate bean. But when the topic of legumes came up during my interview with a cafe owner in Galata and both she and the translator became almost giddy while describing the specialty of the house at a Tophane spot called -- no coincidence I'm sure -- Fasuli, I knew we had to investigate.
Fasuli is a lovely old-style (though not old) restaurant -- think white tablecloths, heavy cutlery, black-and-white attired waiters -- specializing in Black Sea cuisine. Its menu is big and includes regional standards like corn bread and kara lahana (collard-y "black" cabbage) dolma, but don't be distracted. Everyone goes to Fasuli for the beans -- and on your first visit at least, so should you.
Smaller than the kuru fasulye at Ali Baba's, more like navy beans than lima beans, Fasuli's beans are cooked just so: long enough to render them tender and creamy but not so long as to turn them to mush. Fasuli's sauce isn't nearly as spicy as Ali Baba's, nor is it as tomato-ey. Mostly, it's just over-the-top rich with lamb flavor, which is strange because there isn't really much discernible meat in the dish. It's as if the kitchen has figured out a way to distill the essence of an entire lamb roast and 25 pounds of lamb tail fat into a single pot of beans. Fasuli's fasulye are buttery and no doubt very unhealthy. But that won't stop us from going back for more when we're next in Istanbul. We ate ours with the usual pilav and a tart, salty cacik (cucumbers in yogurt). The latter provided an almost necessary occasional break from the intensely shovel-icious fasulye.
In the end I'd be hard pressed to choose a favorite. Ali Baba's fasulye strike us as mid-day beans: sharply spicy enough to bring your brain into focus, not so heavy as to send you into a coma post-meal. Fasuli's version seem more like dinner material, something fantastically swoonworthy to reward oneself with after a long, bone-breaking kind of day. They invite slow, ponderous spooning.
Hayvore's fasulye are a late-coming contender for Top Bean
A complication in the taste-off: One morning we stopped in at new-ish Black Sea spot Hayvore for some laz boregi, a sumptuous pastry best described as pudding-filled "baklava". As we prepared to leave, a gorgeous black pot of beans appeared from the kitchen. We couldn't walk out the door without a spoonful or two.
Verdict: Hayvore's may well be Istanbul's next Famous Bean.
Ali Baba Kanaat Lokantasi, directly across from front entrace to Suleymaniye Mosque, Fatih.
Fasuli, Kilic Ali Pasa Caddesi (behind Kilic Ali Pasa Mosque), Tophane.
Hayvore,Turnacibasi Sokak 4, just a few doors from Istiklal Caddesi.