That much of the past seems to stick to Samatya is a marvel in Istanbul, a city being rebuilt and “restored” at an alarming pace.
First, there’s the question of its name. Occupying a stretch of the Marmara Sea and squeezed between the old city walls and Kumkapı, an area home to a rotating cast of eclectic restaurants, the neighborhood still goes by its Greek name (Ψαμάθια or psamathia, likely derived from the Greek word psamathos, meaning sand) even though it was rechristened as Kocamustafapaşa after the foundation of the Turkish Republic.
Perhaps more importantly, it’s imbued with a certain type of nostalgia. For many Turks, the neighborhood is best known as the backdrop of İkinci Bahar, a dizi (television series) centered on the lives of a kebab restaurant owner and his female meze cook that aired in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But going back even further, many associate the area with Istanbul’s Armenian population: Armenians were settled in Samatya and neighboring Kumkapı as part of Fatih Sultan Mehmed’s efforts to repopulate the city after his conquest in 1453. Both districts still boast a number of Armenian churches, although it is believed that only around 60,000 Armenians reside in Istanbul today.
We wondered how much of this Armenian connection was a relic of the past – a certain wistfulness for the cosmopolitan Istanbul of yore, which people often paint as a time of peaceful coexistence between various religious and ethnic groups – and how much is reflected in Samatya’s current character, particularly its food. Would it be similar to Kurtuluş, another old minority neighborhood where patisseries still bake Easter breads and local delis sell Armenian meze? We visited Samatya on a quiet Sunday, when the churches are open and the streets are calm, to see.
When we first arrived in the morning, the neighborhood looked like a village recovering from a long night of excess. The still-sleepy alleyways slowly came to life as shopkeepers opened their stores, placing small tables and chairs outside, and fishmongers arranged the catch of the day on their stands. We caught a hungry street cat eyeing up a bowl of fresh istavrit, and while we had thoughts of noshing on a couple of the small fish deep-fried in batter, our stomachs were rumbling for something sweet.
The promising smell of baked goods led us to the Tarihi Merkez Pasta Fırını. Beneath the colorful and very 70s-style writing painted on the shop window informing us that the bakery has been open since 1951, a handwritten sign read Tahinli perhizlik çıktı. We hadn’t eaten a perhizlik before, but were eager to try one since we have yet to find a tahini pastry that we didn’t like.
“We are Turkish, but in the neighborhood there are Christians and Armenians, so we bake these [perhizlik] for them. Even the original owner of this place was Greek, he first opened a 100 years ago,” explained one of the two old men at the counter. It looked like a diet version of the nokul, an energizing, flavorsome roll with raisins, walnuts and tahini – the baker confirmed that our assessment wasn’t far off. “During Lent, Armenians don’t eat eggs, milk or animal products,” he said, so the perhizlik (literally “something suitable for fasting”) is one of the few sweet things that can be eaten by observant Armenians in the 40 days before Easter.
While still thinking about how a pastry could taste so delicious and yet so light, we noticed groups of people walking into the entrance of what seemed to be an official building, but in fact is the Surp Kevork Armenian Church. We popped our heads in to get a glimpse of the interior before the service began and soon found ourselves chatting to a churchgoer named Mr. Gül about Samatya’s Armenian community. “Armenians don’t really have commercial activities in the neighborhood anymore,” he said, adding that they “don’t go out much to dine, and make [their] food at home,” hinting at some lingering uneasiness, perhaps a byproduct of the string of attacks on Armenians in the neighborhood in 2013.
Half hoping that Mr. Gül would invite us back for dinner, we took our leave as the conversation petered out and made our way back to the heart of Samatya. After passing through a small alleyway covered by an arbor and rounding a corner covered with graffiti, we stumbled upon a group of men languidly playing backgammon and stirring their tea at Telis Café. Although tempted to join them for a game, we powered on, only to come across the colorful Ali Haydar İkinci Bahar restaurant, which is where the series of the same name was set.
Having heard mixed reviews of the restaurant, we instead stopped into a charcuterie shop called Namlı (unrelated to the more famous chain of the same name). The owner proudly showed us the choice of cheeses and pastrami along with a glossy, dripping honeycomb from Erzincan.
Once in the main square, we sat down at Günbilir Balık Restaurant, which we were told has an excellent meze selection. Although it was lunchtime, some of the waitstaff were still eating their breakfast in a corner of the main room, its walls covered with old Istanbul images and newspaper articles.
The headwaiter quickly came over to take our order and was surprisingly energetic despite having finished his Saturday night shift at 5 a.m., as he revealed to us. He was eager to talk about the restaurant’s Armenian connections when we asked. “It was once called Varujian after the owner’s name, because this was an Armenian building like all the buildings around here,” he explained. “This was the living room of his house and he turned it into a restaurant. He went to Germany because he didn’t feel very comfortable here, so our current boss, who is Turkish, took the business.” Certainly a believable story, albeit telling in its elisions, but not one we could later verify.
None of the staff is Armenian, but the community’s presence still lingers in the food. One of the Armenian mezes we tried was topik, a dense chickpea dumpling enclosing a mash of onions, raisins and tahini that surprised our palate with a mix of earthy, nutty and sweet flavors in one bite.
The rest of our meal was rounded out with such meze classics as acuka, walnut and red pepper spread, octopus salad and balık böreği, deep-fried pastry stuffed with fish. Along with our incirli peynir helvası, a dessert made with cheese and semolina and topped with some clotted cream and candied figs, the waiter – now busy serving the customers that packed into the restaurant after we began our meal – offered us a much-needed homemade sour cherry digestive.
Back outside, the sun was pouring into the square, and, needing some time to digest, we ordered a coffee at nearby Tarihi Emirgan Kahvesi, a perfect spot to observe the comings and goings of the mahalle (neighborhood).
None of the staff is Armenian, but the community’s presence still lingers in the food.
Armenian influences aside, Samatya certainly has its fair share of distinguished eateries, or at least places that would make one feel like they were dining in an earlier era. In addition to Ali Haydar İkinci Bahar, the first Istanbul branch of Develi Kebap, which was founded in Gaziantep in 1912, opened in the neighborhood in 1966. It still occupies the same four-storey building, preserving the timeless interiors. And not far from the main square, a wooden building on the verge of collapse houses a branch of Fasuli, the Black Sea-style beans specialist. In this no-frills environment, all your attention can rightfully be given to the deeply intense flavor of the beans.
In search of a quiet place to unwind, we walked down a narrow slope to a small park. Cliques of local men smoking and chatting in their suits and ties threw curious glances our way, while young kids showed off on their scooters. The highest wall in the park hides the Imrahor Mosque, a 5th-century basilica that was turned into a mosque after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
Across the street we glimpsed the top of a small church and soon the festive sound of bells could be heard. Our day of eating only turned up fragments of Samatya’s Armenian past, but it also strengthened our resolve to dig even deeper.