Istanbul: A City Made for Food Lovers

Turkey's seaport brims with exotic fruit, skewered lamb, eggplant dishes, and more

OLIVES aren't just for lunch and dinner anymore. I discovered that little tidbit at a series of breakfasts here in Turkey.

No self-respecting Turk would have any less than three kinds of olives with the morning repast. And there are literally dozens of olives to chose from. They are accompanied by two or three cheeses, a few jams, breads, a hunk of honeycomb, seasonal fruits, tomatoes, and cucumbers.

Turkish cuisine, like the country itself, offers a dazzling abundance of delights and surprises. From the most simple snacks sold by street vendors: raw mussels with lemon wedges, a round pretzel-type bread called simit, and pita stuffed with barbecued lamb, to the extravagant Ottoman dishes served by waiters in black tie at the Ciragan Palace: Breast of Chicken Filled With Ground Pistachios, Rice and Spinach; Filet of Turbot With Saffron and Lemon; and for dessert, Artichoke Beignets With Pistachio Ice Cream.

It is an exotic, sensual, and descriptive cuisine especially those dishes from the Ottoman dynasty: ''A Lady's Thighs'' is a popular meatball dish, a sweet desert pastry is called ''Lips of the Beauty,'' an ever-popular eggplant entree is known as ''The Imam Swooned'' (see recipe at right), and another is a simple understatement: ''His Majesty Liked It.'' (One can only pity the poor chef if his majesty didn't!)

For all its rich history, the cuisine here is, for the most part, quite simple, devoid of thick cloying sauces or overspiced offerings. Sauces, when they are served, are usually light, often lemony and served over fish or vegetables, or a thin yogurt sauce served with lamb.

The Turks will, however, stuff any food that has a hole in it. And if it doesn't have a hole, pocket, or cavity, they'll make one. They stuff vine leaves, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, figs, fish, and squashes with spinach, saffron rice, ground meat, or goat cheese. Ground walnuts, pistachios, or almonds are stuffed into or sprinkled on entrees and desserts.

Lamb is far and away the best and most popular meat. Sweet and tender, it is marinated in herbs and olive oil, barbecued and served threaded on skewers as Turkey's most famous dish, shish kebab; ground and stuffed into vegetables; stewed with tomatoes and potatoes as Kuzu Kapama; and doner kebab, the succulent pillar of lamb turning slowly against a vertical fire. Beef runs a poor second, and pork is as rare a reindeer meat in this overwhelmingly Muslim country. Chicken, of course, is never far from the table.

A variety of fish is pulled from the Bosporus Strait, the Black Sea, the Marmara Sea, and the Aegean Sea: fresh sardines, red mullet, sea bass, mackerel, swordfish, octopus, and turbot just begin the endless list. Most are grilled -- still the preferred method of cooking. Some are stuffed and baked as well as fried.

The spice and herb list is dominated by mint, dill, paprika, allspice, saffron, cinnamon, and clove.

Seasonal fruits and vegetables here are second to none, and Turkey has the climate to grow an abundance. Eggplant dominates the vegetable list and the cuisine boasts about 240 eggplant recipes. Tomato dishes are close behind. Peeled and sliced fresh oranges, grapes, figs, fat apricots, and the juiciest peaches ever are grown here.

But of all the Turkish dishes, the centerpiece (although it is served first) is the meze an endless variety of hot and cold delicacies that precede every dinner. Small portions of all savories mentioned, as well as many more come into play. A wise diner may well order nothing but meze and dine like a sultan.

Turkey never ceases to draw the traveler in with its never-ending wonder and unexpected delights, not the least of which are at the dining table. And for those who think olives are the pits, just skip breakfast and save your appetite for the rest of the day.

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