If the Grand Bazaar is Istanbul’s haven for shoppers, then the Spice Market is for the foodies. Also called the Egyptian Bazaar (or Mısır Çarşısı in Turkish), it’s the second largest covered market in Istanbul, second only to the Grand Bazaar. Where the Grand Bazaar is filled with stall after stall of jewelry, clothes, carpets, and other myriad souvenirs, the Spice Market – as you might guess from its name – is all about food. While a few shops sell small souvenirs, they’re far outnumbered by their neighbors that purvey all manner of dried fruits, nuts, teas, sweets, and every sort of spice you could wish for.
The Spice Market is located in the Eminönü neighborhood in the Fatih district, only a stone’s throw from the Galata Bridge and directly behind the New Mosque. (Which, incidentally, is four hundred years old. Only in Istanbul would that be considered ‘new.’) Compared to the Grand Bazaar’s maze of corridors, its hundred or so stalls are a dream to navigate.
As you walk down the center arcade, vendors plying Turkish delight will offer you tiny cubes of the gummy, pistachio- and hazelnut-laden stuff in flavors as varied as pomegranate, cinnamon, rosewater, mint, or orange. Other sellers will beckon you into their shops to marvel at the dozens of teas that perfume the air. Powdery piles of red pepper, mint, saffron, and sumac tickle your nose with their pungent aromas.
While the inner arcade certainly has enough gastronomical goodies to satisfy even the hungriest of stomachs, many of the stalls are definitely geared towards tourists that shop and buy with wide eyes, rather than picky, practiced stomachs. Those piles of dried dates, apricots, and walnut-stuffed figs may all look delicious…but unless you see a hefty turnover with your own eyes, there’s no real way of knowing just how long they’ve been sitting there.
If you’re looking for a genuine meal, the open-air stalls on the outer edges of the bazaar hold fresher treats. Piles of briny olives, freshly caught silver fish, wedges of salty white cheese, and heaping mounds of ruby cherries, succulent figs, and fuzzy peaches are all within reach, and that’s only the beginning. Locals and tourists alike swarm shops that offer oily (and I mean that in a good way), freshly ground red pepper paste, thick ropes of sausages, and strings of dried eggplants, okra, and tomatoes.
It was these outer stalls that provided us with breakfast on one of our last mornings in Istanbul. In most of the hotels I stayed at while in Turkey, breakfast was much the same: tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon, bread, and perhaps a hard-boiled egg or some yogurt. The breakfast we had at the Spice Market was a horse of a different – and altogether more delicious – color.
First, there were the salty olives, crisp and bursting under my teeth when I took a bite. We snacked on pastırma, or Anatolian pastrami, too. Beef is first cured with salt and then partially dried for ten to fifteen days. Then, it’s rubbed in a çemen – cumin, garlic, and hot paprika – paste before being fully dried. Pastırma is thick, salty, and will spoil regular old pastrami for you forever. We washed it down with black tea, sweetened with sugar and served in tiny tulip-shaped cups.
Then there was menemen, Turkey’s version of scrambled eggs. We had two varieties: one mixed with tomatoes, onions, and peppers; and the other with pepperoni (or at least, a Turkish variety of it). If you’re thinking that scrambled eggs seem like a strange thing to get at a market stall, you’re right. A few small cafés dot the outside of the Spice Market, and once we were loaded down with our other purchases, we pulled up a seat at one of them.
The star of the breakfast for me, though, was definitely bal kaymak, which will basically clog up your arteries if you even look at it too long. Kaymak is clotted buffalo cream, and its silky, buttery texture is the stuff dreams are made of. When you drizzle bal (honey) over it, it becomes even more delicious. The velvety kaymak mellows the sweetness of the honey, and it’s difficult not to eat the stuff by the spoonful. There’s more enjoyment to be had, though…to get the most out of bal kaymak, you have to slather it in on a fresh, crispy simit, the bagel-esque, sesame seed-encrusted circles of bread sold from street food carts all over Istanbul. It’s a good thing I only had this on one of my last days in Istanbul, because I don’t think my waistline could have taken three weeks of daily doses of buffalo cream and honey. Though I certainly don’t think my taste buds would have complained too vehemently…