Though it may seem bewildering or even exotic to outsiders, Istanbul’s commercial life is actually organized according to a very old, guildlike system that assigns different neighborhoods to the sale and sometimes manufacture of different types of products. If you bottom out in a pothole and need a rot balans, you head up to the Oto Sanayi area. For kitchen and bathroom accessories, the Çağlayan neighborhood is the answer. And when Istanbulites hanker for grilled sweetbreads, or uykuluk, the only suitable place to go is Sütlüce, down where the slaughterhouses used to operate on the Golden Horn.
We recently asked our friend Şenol Bey, a taxi driver with a passion for backstreet eating, to take us to his spot for uykuluk. A moment later, we were swerving madly through traffic as he cackled about how we’d soon be tucking into something so delicious that we’d “eat our fingers” along with it. We had been on a few other excursions like this with Şenol Bey and found him to be a trustworthy guide through Istanbul’s backstreet eateries. Unlike most taxi drivers, who generally dismiss any food produced outside of the confines of their wife’s or mother’s kitchen, Şenol Bey, a self-described pisboğaz, or serious eater, proved to have an adventurous spirit, a love of dining out and a deep passion for grilled meat.
As we sped past the Haliç Convention Center towards Sütlüce, Şenol described the scene back in the ’70s, when his father worked in the main slaughterhouse at that very location. At the time, Şenol would help his grandfather herd animals down from the stockyards toward their final destination. “There was no road here then. You’d have six sheep going this way and then three would take off the other way. It would make us crazy… Since my father worked inside, we’d go home with bags filled with uykuluk. As much as we wanted! No need to eat them with bread even!”
Today, 30 years after the closure of the slaughterhouses here, the feeling is still one of being close to an abundant source of animal parts. We counted more than a dozen uykuluk restaurants on the coastal road running from Hasköy to Sütlüce; on one block alone, there were three competing venues located side by side. Anyone coming from a country where sweetbreads are treated like a delicacy might be appalled to see a grill the size of a flatbed truck loaded chest-high with sweetbreads, or a dining room that could seat 500 people, nearly filled with diners plowing through plates piled with the succulent, tender meat. We asked our waiter, Bekir Bey, how many kilos of uykuluk they go through in a day. He thought for a moment and said, “A ton a month.” Those who don’t turn away in horror will realize they’ve arrived in sweetbread heaven.
While our order was being prepared we chatted with Celal Bey, who worked the grill. He explained that a good plate of uykuluk should have equal amounts of neck sweetbreads (thymus), which are meatier, and belly sweetbreads (pancreas), which have a fatty consistency. The meat here at Liman comes from sheep from Afyon, also a center for growing opium poppies – which, according to Şenol Bey, are the best animal feed imaginable. To keep up with the high number of orders, Celal Bey boils the uykuluk first so that they are cooked through, later giving them a quick couple of turns on the grill to crisp them up. Since we had requested a whole porsiyon (11TL) rather than a yarım ekmek (8TL) (served in a half loaf of bread), the steaming sweetbreads were plated before being brought over to our table.
What followed was a fast meal without any ceremony, as we devoured our plates of sweetbreads without a word. As Celal Bey at the grill had promised, there was a nice balance between the two types, but we found ourselves hunting down the rich, buttery ones from the belly. These brought back memories of meals from New Orleans to Paris, where waiters suggested a glass of pinot noir rather than a glass of salty ayran as an accompaniment. And that’s what we love so much about the sweetbread scene in Sütlüce. Şenol may enjoy having lunch at Liman because the uykuluk is tasty and cheap enough to get full without eating much bread, but we love the experience because it pokes holes in the illusion that this killing floor cast-off, as delicious as it may be, is actually a precious delicacy.