Times are changing in Tarlabaşı, one of the most culturally diverse, interesting and occasionally dangerous neighborhoods of Istanbul.
The government’s billion-dollar Tarlabaşı 360 project aims to gentrify this area. Even with its seedy streets full of young ruffians and Syrian refugees, Tarlabaşı oozes with a charming ambiance like no other. Its beautiful architecture, dating back to Ottoman times, is covered in layers of soot and filth that cover unmistakable beauty.
Most charming of all is its resident menemen chef, İsmail Amca (“uncle” in Turkish), one of the more adorable Turkish characters we’ve met. He enjoys his retired life making the elemental egg dish menemen on the corner of Kurdela Sokak, a bustling thoroughfare that on Sundays is host to Tarlabaşı’s colorful weekly bazaar. An Istanbul native, İsmail Amca used to work odd jobs in factories before he retired and opened up his little menemen shop just over two years ago. Bubbling with friendliness and with a warm smile that is unmatched by any, İsmail Amca instantly makes you feel at home in his dark and cramped little kitchen, which has only a couple of tiny chairs and tables scattered about.
Unless you know where you’re going you would never look twice at this run-down little shop, which has no official name or fixed hours; the only features identifying it as an eatery are some photos seemingly printed from a Google image search of menemen, soup and kuru fasulye (white beans in sauce) plastered on the window and doorway.
For the uninitiated, menemen is a classic Turkish breakfast meal: eggs scrambled in a wonderful mix of sautéed peppers, onions, plenty of spices and fresh tomatoes. İsmail Amca’s menemen is made sade (simple) – no frills, no extra ingredients like cheese or sucuk (garlicky sausage). It is absolutely delicious, with an unmistakable home-cooked taste.
As he bustles about chopping the peppers and tomatoes for the menemen, İsmail babbles on in Turkish about all the foreigners who have discovered his food. His customers are always enraptured by his overwhelmingly warm hospitality. Indeed, a “wall of fame” – covered in pictures sent to him by his unknowingly adopted nieces and nephews from Spain to Germany to Ukraine – rests above the stove.
He proudly points to a picture of a French girl, Maria, who he says used to stop by his place on a daily basis for a cup of tea and a chat. He explains that they adopted each other as family, and that they both shed tears on the day she returned to France when her semester abroad ended.
One day, İsmail Amca gave us a long fatherly speech, insisting that whenever the weather got really cold and/or snowy, we were welcome to come to his kitchen and warm ourselves up with his soup.
We thanked him, all the while knowing that the highlight of his repertoire is his amazing menemen, which, until a few months ago, was the only dish he served. In our experience, if a cook or a restaurant in Istanbul specializes in one thing only, that one thing will be nothing short of a masterpiece.