The Asian side of Istanbul

Today, we ventured out of the European side of Istanbul and took a boat to the Asian side of this multicultural city. Istanbul is one of just a handful of cities in the world that is actually bi-continental: part of it is technically in Europe, while part of it is in Asia. I already loved everything about this city, but knowing this makes me love it even more.

Since I last came ten years ago, a lot has changed. For one thing, the Camlica Camii (mosque) had not been built. It’s now the largest and most modern mosque in all of Turkey, designed by two female architects and recently completed in 2019. This mosque is massive, sitting atop a hill with a stunning panoramic view of all of Istanbul. It has the most extensive public bathroom I have ever seen, complete with an entire massive room just for feet washing (you have to take your shoes off in most mosques), a multi-level underground car park, and architectural touches that were inspired by the Ottoman Empire period. The building and inaugration of this mosque was considered a mega project with the goal to strengthen the Turkish economy, so in some ways, it could be seen as a bit of a tourist push or even a method of propaganda, but hey, I’m all for enjoying these things if I can. In addition to this huge and sparkling mosque, the Kucuk Camlica TV Radio Tower was also inaugurated just a few months ago on the Asian side of Istanbul. When we first arrived and walked across the Galata Bridge, I definitely did not recognize this radio tower, and then immediately learned why.

The last time I came to Istanbul, I really didn’t do much research ahead of time, so when I got whisked off on a boat to the “Asian” side of Istanbul, it felt like a seaside town in the form of a tourist trap, with many annoying souvenir shops filled with junk I’d never consider buying and fresh seafood restaurants. It was a decent afternoon outing, but it wasn’t at all representative of everyday Istanbul life. This time around, we took a regular commuter boat and went to the Kadikoy area, which is a part of the Asian side where real, everyday people actually live. I could immediately feel the difference walking through the streets of Kadikoy, as it felt a lot more local with all of its many restaurants, cafes, bakeries, and markets. I knew this area had to be more local because a lot of the shops had workers and owners who didn’t speak a lick of English. That was totally fine by me since deliciousness speaks for itself, as I found out from a tiny local corner bakery along one of our strolls, where we picked up a beautiful and super scrumptious olive pasted filled bread round. The man who worked there knew zero English, and I don’t know any Turkish outside of hello, thank you, and good morning, so body language and hand motions went a long way!

In addition to stopping by this amazing little bakery by chance, we also spent some time hanging out and enjoying coffee and tea drinks at a local open-air cafe, visiting the Camlica Camii, unexpectedly riding on a mini bus (where someone actually got out of their seat to offer it to me – so sweet!), eating at a fresh seafood restaurant, tasting a local French-Turkish treat called a Kup Griye (essentially a decadent mix of caramel and vanilla ice cream, topped with a nutty crunchy croquant, whipped cream, nuts, caramel sauce, and a tiny little buttery biscuit), and ending our evening at Ciya Sofrasi, a restaurant Chris learned about that was from the Netflix show Chef’s Table. Boy, was this meal memorable. Given we had eaten all these other things during the day, we shared one main and two desserts, along with a plum juice. We had a kebab, which I believe was beef-based, but super tender and meaty with the most luxurious stewed tomatoes and eggplant pieces. We also ordered our first (and last) kunefe, which was not as sweet or immersed in sugar syrup as we were used to. In addition, the cheese layer was extremely thin. I’m so used to kunefe back in the U.S. having a super thick layer of cheese, whether it’s been at Turkish restaurants in Brooklyn or in the Middle Eastern areas of Detroit. But the real star and takeaway for me from this meal was the baklava. In the US and even with other baklava we’d had at the hotels during this trip, I’m used to baklava being extremely sweet, almost too cloyingly sweet, rendering me only able to eat one or two pieces before I have to stop. With this baklava, not only was the sweetness was light, the layers of phyllo themselves were even thinner than paper and far more delicate than what they normally are. In addition, the sweetness was not the first thing that hit me; instead, the first things that hit me were 1) the butteriness of the pastry layers and 2) the savory richness of the generous chopped pistachio filling. The pistachio filling actually seemed more buttery and savory than it was sweet, which was so, so different than what I was used to. I never realized that baklava could be this light and “not too sweet,” but it was truly a revelation!

If we had more time, I would have loved to spend more time exploring the different neighborhoods and cafes and restaurants of the Asian side of Istanbul, or even just spending more time in Kadikoy itself. It seemed a bit more relaxed than the European side, though during the evenings, the area really did come to life with all the restaurant and bar activity. It almost felt as though there really was zero global pandemic.

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