It's no secret that we love most any restaurant, street stall, or food shop with a history. So it's only natural that we're drawn to Istanbul, a city so filthy rich in edible backstories that we could spend six months roaming, eating, shooting and asking questions, and yet still barely scratch the surface of its culinary history.
Take Beşiktaş, a slice of the city that -- for whatever reason -- seems to be overlooked by visitors. Sited on the European shore two pleasant ferry rides -- or a straight bus or combination tram-and-bus/or taxi journey -- from Eminonu, it's a bustling municipality built up around a sweet little historic center. If you go the ferry route, hop off and follow the crowds across a busy thoroughfare. Quite suddenly, you're in a neighborhood of brick-paved streets winding up and around a hill.
Sure, central Beşiktaş' lanes are lined with their share of tacky pubs and unattractive shop fronts, but the neighborhood's got heart -- in the form of a wonderful little fish market, sitauted at the intersection of several usually pedestrian-only lanes, and a few great eats that have stood the test of, well, more than a century.
Places like Yedi Sekiz Hasan Paşa, for example. This bakery was introduced to us last summer by our Istanbullu friend Evren, whose mother has been making her way to Beşiktaş for its fresh-from-the oven rusks, cookies and breads for as long as he can remember.
We didn't have to taste a single thing to fall for Yedi Sekiz; going on appearance alone, the place is a gem.
Enter and you're face to face with a portrait of the bakery's namesake, the generously mustachioed and stern-faced Hasan Pasa. The story goes that in the late 1800s Hasan -- a burly, brave illiterate who used the numbers "7-8" (yedi-sekiz) as his signature -- was tapped by Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid to bring order to the then dangerous, hooligan-ruled streets of Beşiktaş. The Sultan bestowed the military rank of Paşa (pasha) on the young man, and he did such a bang-up job making the neighborhood safe that he enjoys near-saint status among its residents.
Across the shop from Hasa Pasa's countenance hang portraits of Ataturk, along with an evil eye and other good luck totems. Stretching between the two great men, is a tiled rear wall centered by a massive wood-fired oven.
In the middle of the room, warmed by the heat of the wood fire, is a vast terrazzo table covered with metal trays of more varieties of breads and other treats than one sould possibly sample in a single, or even multiple, visits.
More bounty is displayed in the bakery's front window.
With such an overwhelming selection, where to start? We can't highly enough recommend the acı badem, [ah-JUH BAH-dem], intensely flavored, crackly-outside-and-chewy-inside almond cookies reminsicent of Italian amaretti. It took us a few visits before we could even get past these wonders. They aren't available everyday, and don't come out of the oven till early afternoon.
We planned jaunts to Beşiktaş around Yedi Sekiz' acı badem schedule, and never walked out of the bakery without at least two hundred grams' worth.
Other Yedi Sekiz highlights: coconut macaroons, a bit sweeter than the aci badem but just as deliciously moist,
portakalı [por-tah-KAH-luh] -- drier, less chewy biscuits heavily infused with orange flavor -- and tahinli [tah-HEEN-lee], massive, to-die-for coils of sweet flaky pastry layered with the most fragrant sesame paste. On our last trip to Istanbul we packed several of these back to Kuala Lumpur, where they survived very well for a month in our freezer.
Yedi Sekiz also does some lovely hearty breads, like these unsalted multi-grain rolls.
Just around the corner from Yedi Sekiz, a red and white awning says it all: "Kaymak-ful (Kaymak-y) Breakfast Here."
Most often described as Turkish clotted cream, kaymak can be made from cow, buffalo, goat, or sheep's milk. Depending on where you are in Turkey, it varies from thin as pouring cream to loosely solid and molded into thinly layered "cakes". Its a decadent accompaniment to sweets and is also eaten for breakfast -- especially in Van in eastern Turkey, where it's a central component in the gargantuan local breakfast spread.
It's also dangerously addictive.
This shop has been serving "kaymak-ful" breakfasts from its simple storefront breakfasts since 1895. They serve their luscious buffalo milk kaymak (just have a gander at that opening photo), which is made not far from central Istanbul, with a few simple accompaniments -- honey, bread, tomatoes and cucumber, eggs if you like, hot tea or milk.
The goods are served with a smile, and are best enjoyed leisurely at an outdoor table with a bird's-eye view of the comings and goings in old Beşiktaş.
Yedi Sekiz Hasan Pasa, Şehit Asım Caddesi. No 12, Sinanpaşa Mahallesi (neighborhood). Beşiktaş.
The bakery opens around 8:30am and closes in the late evening; the ovens are going all day. Little English is spoken and service can be a bit brusque when the shop is busy, but it's worth girding yourself for a little social discomfort and going for it. Have a good idea of what you want to buy BEFORE you get to the counter. Breads and rolls are purchased by the piece, but biscuits and cookies go by the gram, starting with 100 grams.
Beşiktaş Kaymakci, Koyici Meydani Sokak, Sinanpaşa Mahallesi, Besiktas. Open early in the morning until about 3pm (all-day kaymak-ful breakfasts!).