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Editor’s note: In the latest installment of our ongoing series First Stop, we asked Stavriani Zervakakou, chef of the restaurant Karaköy Gümrük in Istanbul, where she stops first for food when she returns to Istanbul. (We’ve written previously about her First Stop in Athens.)

Lamb liver skewers in the Aksaray district’s Horhor neighborhood; domatesli kebap with wheat pilaf behind the Egyptian Spice Bazaar in Eminönü; fish and bread from Emin Usta in Karaköy; a simple but delicious pressed sandwich with kavurma – beef rendered in its own fat – and kaşar cheese from Petek near the Galata Tower; or a postmodern kumru from 6/24 in Nişantaşı would be my top list for a first welcoming bite in Istanbul.

The time of landing and my mood determine my final pick as a first stop, and when I feel adventurous I definitely go to Horhor! I love this area because the restaurants here are open until very late and the atmosphere of Horhor is just like its name: strange and surreal. You have to see the neighborhood for yourself. I usually have a seat at Çiğeristan, a local standby whose name means “the land of liver.” I know the name might sound strange but the food here tastes so good.

Stavriani Zervakakou, photo by Erbil BaltaBefore I order my skewers, I always start with a thick and totally delicious red lentil soup made with bone broth and topped with rich drops of melted butter and cayenne pepper. I’m completely crazy about this soup! After being soothed by the soup, I wait with a diplomat’s cold-blooded patience for my skewers to come. When they arrive, I reflexively pull myself back a little bit so the waiter can land the impressively long and thin skewers on the table, next to the side dishes that are already there: spicy spreads made of dark isot peppers; bouquets of parsley and mint; and a beautiful dish of grilled tomatoes, hot green peppers and onions. There is also warm lavaş bread, and I combine everything together: the grilled onions, a few leaves from the fresh herbs, lemon drops, the liver and the pepper spread, wrapping them with the thin lavaş and repeating until my skewers have all been denuded. At last, I refresh my mouth with homemade ayran and continue watching the open-air theater performance that is daily (or, more accurately, nightly) life in Horhor, feeling exhausted but deeply satisfied.

(top photo by Yigal Schleifer, above photo by Erbil Balta)
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