As the call to prayer drifts from mosque to mosque and lights flicker on in anticipation of dusk, everyone around us takes a sip of water and wolfs down a date, almost in unison. It is the start of Ramadan and, here in Sultanahmet Square, folks are breaking their first fast of this holy month. They have been waiting patiently for the loud cannon blast which announces the day’s end – a tradition of old that still persists here in the square, though the loud bang often frightens unsuspecting tourists – sitting on blankets spread in the square’s grassy patches and pulling tupperwared iftar meals out of plastic bags and picnic baskets.
We count ourselves among the picnickers, as well. We’ve made our way on foot from the Grand Bazar to Sultanahmet, collecting food along the short walk to fashion an iftar of our own. It’s been a while since we’ve Ramadan-picnicked in this particular square, with the Hagia Sophia at one end and the Blue Mosque on the other. But as the month winds its way back into winter (a boon as the days grow shorter, and the fast with it) we’re reminded of what makes a spring Ramadan so special – a warm night, enjoying iftar al fresco.
Ask an Istanbullu to meet you in Sultanahmet for dinner and expect a stifled groan and eye-roll. Most restaurants in this historic neighborhood are the definition of tourist traps, with hiked prices and sub-par offerings. But locals and tourists alike have been BYOiftar-ing in this historic square long before the Covid-19 pandemic sent people flocking to parks. So, where to grab a good meal in an area notoriously bereft of good eats?
We start our food haul crawl to Sultanahmet Square at the Beyazit Grand Bazaar tram station. Unfortunately, our first two stops are closed – our döner guy has shuttered to break his own fast, and the tiny storefront that served excellent dürüm has been taken over by a souvenir shop. The latter is a typical story in an ever-changing city like Istanbul, and our lamentations over the demise of another quality wrap place are a little too well-rehearsed. With kebabs (and the impending sunset) on our minds, we settle for the first spot grilling up Adana that we can find.
Not knowing that our bet on the Adana would turn out to be a good one, we head to Erol Restaurant, an old stand-by. “We make the food fresh every morning, from scratch. Not everyone does that around here,” Erol told us back in 2014. It’s one thing to hand-pat a cooler full of köfte every morning, but it is another thing entirely to prepare a seasonal menu with range and variety. He reminds us of that again today.
We snag a plate of imam bayıldı (slow-cooked eggplant stuffed with sautéed onions, tomato and garlic), surprisingly flavorful kuzu kavurma (braised lamb) and turlu, a hodge-podge of stewed vegetables that we like to call Turkish ratatouille. The eggplant melts beautifully on the tongue, and the vegetables make for an ideal side to our kebab.
Our next stop happens by accident. Everyone in our group has had a longing for Indian food that Istanbul has not been able to fulfill. And though Sultanahmet may seem like an odd spot for South Asian cuisine to flourish, after spying Bombay Masala, feeling compelled to stop in and talking to its owner, we understand what it’s doing here.
Umer Faizan has lived in Istanbul for 12 years, since arriving from Lahore, Pakistan, to study engineering at Istanbul Technical University. “Turkish cuisine is good, but all of us Desis missed our food,” he says, referring to his fellow students with roots from the Indian subcontinent and surroundings – including Pakistan. Realizing that Desis will almost always gravitate towards the tastes of home, no matter where in the world they are, Umer successfully opened three Indian-Pakistani restaurants in Istanbul catering to Desi tourists.
Also nearby, in the neighborhood of Kumkapı, is a growing community of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis – as well as an Indian restaurant or two. Years ago, close to the Sultanahmet tram stop, a mango lassi (Indian yogurt drink) on the terrace of Dubb was this writer’s go-to fix for a “taste of home.” But today’s chance encounter at Bombay Masala has moved a new guilty pleasure to the top of the list: samosas. Small, crisp and full of spiced ground beef, these fried golden triangles were a traditional fast breaker in my household. Tonight, they took that place of honor once more.
We finally entered Sultanahmet, with a plan to stop by Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi. Things haven’t changed much from our first entry on the historic spot in 2012: “All those framed, handwritten letters from movie stars, politicians and military generals that cover the walls of this Sultanahmet mainstay are not complaints. The restaurant’s İnegöl-style köfte – that’s the log format of the meatball, not the patty – is pleasantly springy, aromatic and juicy. When dressed with a spicy red pepper sauce (served upon request) and stuffed into a fresh hunk of bread, it borders on divine.”
While we generally like to sit in the front room at the old marble tables and watch the action at the grill, the line out front of other folks with the same idea deterred us from changing our plans – and the park beckoned. Luckily, the to-go queue was fast-paced, and we made our way to Sultanahmet Square to await the ezan (call to prayer).
We choose a spot in the grass, with a view of the Hagia Sophia before us. In a contentious move by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his reigning party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party), the museum was reconverted into a mosque in 2020. As sunset settles over us, lights strung between the historic building’s minarets come glittering to life: La Ilahe Illallah – There is no God, but God.
We eat. We talk. We revel in the beauty around us, all politics aside. Decades can pass, and we are still enchanted. We managed to find a decent meal in Sultanahmet, and all we were missing was a fresh Ramazan pidesi. But in true 2022 Istanbul fashion, we had found ourselves Indian garlic naan instead. The night sky envelopes us, and we pack our things along with the hundreds of other picnickers. Before heading home, we take a peep into the Hagia Sophia. With half a decade of scaffolding gone and all its chandeliers lit, it’s a vision – though we feel a twinge for the beautiful mosaics hidden from sight.
We decide on one last stop. While Ramadan days are a lesson in resilience, reflection and will power, Ramadan nights are long and indulgent. And we must have coffee. We walk along the tram line to a small Syrian coffee roaster in Sirkeci.
Yahya is manning his classic Arabic coffee stand, B&M Coffee, as he has been for the last nine years. Originally from Aleppo, Yahya brought his grandfather’s 60-year-old coffee brand, Bonja Mowaid, to Istanbul, and his cardamom-packed brew is always a favorite late-night pick-me-up for us (especially after a full meal around the corner at Şehzade Erzurum Cağ Kebabı).
Coffees in hand and suhur (the pre-dawn meal before fasting) another nine hours away, the night stretches out before us. A walk along the Bosphorus seems in order…
This article was originally published on April 11, 2022.
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