Chef Tom – Istanbul Part 2

Previously on Chef Tom’s Big Adventure:

Istanbul, Pt. 1
One of my favorite parts of my Big Adventure was engaging my fan base back home in voting. They would vote where I would go and what I would do, and even what I should eat. People ended up being able to vote for a good half dozen mini-adventures. In Istanbul they had to choose between two different food items for my lunch. I figured out early on to make choosing difficult, too, to play up each choice as exciting and compelling, so that it would be tough.

Balik Ekmek is a fish sandwich that EVERYONE says is a must-have when in Istanbul. Dönor Kebap is the ultimate classic Turkish dish. It’s like the Schwerma sandwiches we’re familiar with at home. Both choices are outstanding, so I will love you no matter what you vote!  

I’m hungry. Please vote.

…And Now….

The vote is in! Döner Kebap it is.

It was close with balik ekmek (fish bread) at 42% and döner kebap at 58%.

The most famous kebab in the world is the döner kebab which literally means “rotating kebab” in Turkish. Before taking its modern form, the ancestor of the döner was the “Çag Kebabi” and it’s mentioned in the Ottoman travel books of the 18th century. It was a horizontal stack of meat from the eastern province of Erzurum.

Chef Tom gets to have a delicious döner kebap, but not just your run of the mill döner, this one is special and rises above the very crowded marketplace filled with döner chefs. These are layers of succulent lamb and beef laced with juicy green pepper and tomatoes.

I will let you know how it goes.  I may talk with my mouth full.

Took some doing but I found it. This is Chef Burat. Slicing away at his wonderful döner kebab. He wants to stop but I tell him to keep going. Then he points to me letting his friends know I am a chef from California who is making him famous on the internet. His glass of cay (chai) within reach.

Ok this was way worth the walk. It takes two hours to build his döner kebap, layering slices of raw lamb and beef. The slices of green pepper and fresh tomatoes between the meat add tons of moisture, extra flavor and makes for a beautiful presentation.

My version came on a toasted baguette roll. After he toasts the bread he smooshes it into the savory juices collected below. The meat is tender, the beef-lamb combo is brilliant, the veggies soft with a slight crunch of the peppers. I scarfed it in about six bites.


Of course some cay (chai). Chef saw me writing so after I finished my first glass he sent me another one. He was so sweet and kind, happy to pose for the camera.

Thanks for voting. A most excellent choice.

Now it’s time for dessert.

I think I will find the kunefe vendor who browns a shredded filo-cheese-pancake in a small round metal pan suspended over hot wood coals. When both sides are browned he drizzles the hot cake in sweet syrup and powders the top with pistachio.

Can I say oh.em.gee twice?


One of THE best desserts ever.  Savory and sweet, crunchy and chewy, addictive as hell. Watch the video below and see how he does it. Little pans roasting over hot coals. You can see at the end how he spreads the bright green pistachio powder over the top.

It’s a long walk back to the Kunefe vendor. It was sunny and I was thirsty and I kept passing these enticing (fresh-squeezed) pomegranate juice vendors.  So I grabbed one.

A juice, not a vendor.


Other Turkish Delights

Çay (chai)

Sharing a moment to connect while having a cup of tea (actually a small tulip-shaped glass), is a very big deal here. These kiddie tables and tiny stools are anywhere and everywhere. That part I love. They show up in the most unlikely places – because it’s not about where, it’s about who and when.

Just as the loudspeakers from Mosque minarets blast prayers five times a day, sharing a cup of çay (pronounced chai) occurs multiple times during the day. Had dinner with a local woman last night and she told me for her, fifteen times a day.

The word çay is a derivative of the word Chinese who brought tea here and has nothing to do with the spice-laden, milky version we know.

Local shop keepers pay a monthly stipend to the çay vendors and are issued tokens. The çay is delivered to the shops on request by men or boys carrying these small metal trays. Tokens are exchanged for tea and when the tokens run out they buy another month’s worth.

All over the city you see men carrying these trays to and from shops. If you are a known customer especially, you can count on tea arriving soon.

Tea is serious business. Nearly every market had a choice of tea sets. After seeing a hundred, it became clear that there might be a small handful of vendors selling them to the markets because the tea set styles repeated over and over again. Here are a couple of samples, including one over-the-top blingware set that no queen serious about serving tea to her guests should be without.

All in all, having çay together is the ritual, and sharing the moment to connect with each other is the purpose.

Very civilized.

Time for Tea


Turks LOVE their sweets. For every savory food restaurant with big windows to watch from the street, there were two sweet shops. Giant piles of serious craftsmanship, long queues of locals waving and shouting out their orders, busy servers hurriedly filling custom to-go boxes with all manner of sugary treats. Just standing and watching this very serious ritual was fascinating to me. Even in the patisseries of Paris, the passionate exchange between customer and shop was not near as serious.

fistikli baklava (pistachio baklava)

cevizli baklava (walnut baklava)


Chef Tom is currently Resident Chef for a small tech firm in San Francisco. He also teaches cooking classes, caters small parties and leads overseas culinary tours. His specialty for the last twelve years has been cooking for people with food allergies and sensitivities. His motto is “Food should give you pleasure, not pressure.”

Check him out at

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