What’s Going On In Istanbul? A Side of Turkey That’s Not Readily In The News

The flag of Turkey on Taksim Square flying half-mast (half-staff) the day after the twin suicide bombings as a sign of mourning

It’s quite alarming how frequently Turkey has been on “breaking news” as of recent. It’s a country I hold very dear to my heart having spent four days just last month for Gastromasa, the country’s largest gastronomy event in Turkey organized by Gökmen Sözen, a highly respected magazine publisher, editor and food and beverage personality.

And yes, I was in Istanbul the night the twin bombings occurred at the Besiktas Stadium. Our hotel, situated at the heart of Taksim Square, was just five minutes away. I was lucky to have been out then, but a colleague who was working in his room said that the blasts were so strong the hotel shook.

We did see sudden throngs of police disperse around every corner of the city, and we couldn’t get back to our hotel until 2 a.m. because they closed down all the roads. It was devastating to know that 38 people had lost their lives and 155 were left injured. Being in the city at the time made me wonder how the locals felt about these occurrences — and if they lived each day in fear. (Since then, there have been a couple of other heartbreaking casualties.)


Why was I in Istanbul? I was there for Gastromasa, the largest gastronomy event in Turkey organized by Gökmen Sözen, a highly respected magazine publisher, editor and F&B stalwart.

Gastromasa’s aim is for Turkey to become a global destination for gastronomy, and for this, their second year, they gathered some of the best chefs in the world to speak to over 800 people at the CVK Park Bosphorus Hotel: Andoni Aduriz (Mugaritz), Elena Arzak (Arzak), Albert Adria (Tickets Bar; Enigma) Josean Alija (Nerua Guggenheim Bilbao), Antonio Carluccio (Carluccio’s), Regis Marcon (Régis & Jacques Marcon), Andre Luca de Lima (Brazil’s master of meat), and World’s 50 Best academy chair for Southeast Asia (North), Mason Florence, as well as celebrated Turkish chefs working overseas: Fatih Tutak (House on Sathorn in Bangkok), Somer Sivrioglu (Efendy and Anason Meze Bar in Sydney) and Serkan Güzelcoban (Schöner Hirte Bistronomie in Stuttgart).

It was a successful event wherein guests were attentively tuned to the speakers all day and left inspired by their stories. But prior to Gastromasa, Gökmen and his team put together for us — both journalists and chefs — a culinary and historical tour of Istanbul.

We, journalists and chefs, were all tourists as we explored Istanbul's culture (and cuisine) prior to Gastromasa proper. Here we are at the Hagia Sofia. Spot all the famous faces!
We, journalists and chefs, were all tourists as we explored Istanbul’s culture (and cuisine) prior to Gastromasa proper. Here we are at the Hagia Sofia. Spot all the famous faces!
A closer look at some of us with the gorgeous backdrop of Istanbul's Blue Mosque behind us at Mukellef
A closer look at some of us with the gorgeous backdrop of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque behind us at Mukellef

We ate breakfast at Namli Gurme, a delicatessen with an amazing array of Turkish produce. (Think of it as a larger-scale Santis or Terrry’s but all local.) It’s where I first tried the breakfast dish sucuk and hellim (veal sausage and grilled haloumi).

Yum yum yum... Sucuk and hellim (veal sausage and grilled haloumi) at Namli Gurme
Yum yum yum… Sucuk and hellim (veal sausage and grilled haloumi) at Namli Gurme, a deli selling excellent Turkish produce– that’s also great for breakfast

We were invited into the baklava kitchens of Karaköy Güllüoğlu, Istanbul’s most famous baklava maker — a family-run business now on its fifth generation, with a recipe that’s been passed down for 200 years, from during the time of the Ottoman period. (Vladimir Putin is a customer, too.) I never knew how labor-intensive (they were all male, too) and meticulous it was to make Turkey’s most famous dessert, with phyllo sheets literally as soft as silk. Watch a quick video HERE.

Making baklava at Karaköy Güllüoğlu with the finest silk-like phyllo pastry
Making baklava at Karaköy Güllüoğlu with the finest silk-like phyllo pastry
The finished products: glistening baklavas at Karaköy Güllüoğlu
The finished products: glistening baklavas at Karaköy Güllüoğlu

We had traditional Turkish cuisine at Yanyali Fehmi Lokantasi and Nar Lokanta before being introduced to modern Turkish via tasting menus at Nicole and my personal favorite, Neolokal, where chef Maksut Askar recreates traditional Anatolian dishes with modern techniques, using local and seasonal ingredients in his restaurant housed in a former Ottoman bank.

Fresh produce at Nar Lokanta
Fresh produce at Nar Lokanta
) The seasonal Bosphorus bluefish served with quince, radish and red onions at Nicole
The seasonal Bosphorus bluefish served with quince, radish and red onions at Nicole
Neolokal which is housed in a former Ottoman bank and has outstanding views of the city from its terrace is one of my fave restaurants in Istanbul
Neolokal which is housed in a former Ottoman bank and has outstanding views of the city from its terrace is one of my fave restaurants in Istanbul
At Neolokal, chef Maksut Askar offers tasting menus with cards explaining the stories behind each dish that guests get to take home. Absolutely brilliant so the restaurant's philosophy doesn't get lost in translation in case the chef isn't around. This is the Kisir Tartare
At Neolokal, chef Maksut Askar offers tasting menus with cards explaining the stories behind each dish that guests get to take home. Absolutely brilliant so the restaurant’s philosophy doesn’t get lost in translation in case the chef isn’t around. This is the Kisir Tartare
Celebrated Turkish chefs Serkan Güzelcoban (Schöner Hirte Bistronomie in Stuttgart), Fatih Tutak (House on Sathorn in Bangkok), Somer Sivrioglu (Efendy and Anason Meze Bar in Sydney) and Maksut Askar (Neolokal in Istanbul) flank Gastromasa organizer Gökmen Sözen (center)
Celebrated Turkish chefs Serkan Güzelcoban (Schöner Hirte Bistronomie in Stuttgart), Fatih Tutak (House on Sathorn in Bangkok), Somer Sivrioglu (Efendy and Anason Meze Bar in Sydney) and Maksut Askar (Neolokal in Istanbul) flank Gastromasa organizer Gökmen Sözen (center)

I also made it my mission to try Turkish street food (minus the ubiquitous döner kebab this time), and really enjoyed kokorec (lamb intestines wrapped around sweetbreads and grilled over charcoal) and the wet burger (“wet” because it is doused in a tomato-based sauce before being left in the steamer for the fluffy buns to absorb the sauce) — both of which are often had after a night out.

Kokorec, a very popular street food in Istanbul lamb intestines wrapped around sweetbreads on skewer and grilled over charcoal
Kokorec, a very popular street food in Istanbul lamb intestines wrapped around sweetbreads on skewer and grilled over charcoal
My kokorec mates! Gokmen Sozen, Albert Adria and his pastry chef for Enigma and Tickets Bar, David, and Somer
My kokorec mates at 1:30AM! Gokmen Sozen, Albert Adria and his pastry chef for Enigma and Tickets Bar, David, and Somer Sivrioglu
Turkey’s famous “wet burgers” at Kizilkayar in Taksim Square, also visited by Anthony Bourdain
Turkey’s famous “wet burgers” at Kizilkayar in Taksim Square, also visited by Anthony Bourdain

And of course, in between, we walked through the Grand Bazaar, Spice Market, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, sailed down the Bosphorus (where we fed birds simit from the back of the boat), had breakfast on top of the Galata Tower with the mayor of Beyoğlu, H.E. Ahmet Misbah Demircan (they closed the tower for us) and culminated with a gala dinner at the gorgeous Çirağan Palace Kempinski Istanbul.

Breakfast with the most incredible view of Istanbul on top of the Galata Tower.
Breakfast with the most incredible view of Istanbul on top of the Galata Tower
The stunning
The stunning Çirağan Palace Kempinski Istanbul was the venue for our gala dinner

What warmed my heart were the people — the Turkish hospitality they extended and how passionate they are about their country and culture — from the organizers, chefs, restaurateurs, journalists/ bloggers, and even their national airline, Turkish Airlines. (It was my first time to try their business class and they had candlelight dining in the air, an actual Skychef who comes to every passenger, free Wifi and service that’s two steps ahead — as in, the flight attendants mindfully apologize if they accidentally block your view of the screen while serving the person next to you!) Unfortunately, the pressing issues that make breaking news often push these steps they have taken back. There is another side of Turkey that the world needs to see.

Turkish Airlines Business Class- Manila to Istanbul
It’s all in the details: candle light dining in the air (please note it’s not an actual candle as that’s extremely hazardous!) and check out their adorable salt and pepper shakes. Plus, wifi onboard is free for biz class!

To answer my question earlier, all the Turks I had asked said that they would continue to live their lives the best way they could every day (rather than in fear) and promote their country, which they love and are very proud of. They all said that they would never, ever stop and let terrorism win. I join Turkey on their quest to promote their cuisine, culture and country to the world.

The Turkish Airlines lounge in Istanbul's Atartuk International Airport is 5,900 square meters (spread on 2 floors) and has quite literally everything: a pool table, library, cinemas, massage beds, mini golf, lockers, toy car racing, TV wall with 9 simultaneous channels, a Japanese garden and great Turkish cuisine. What caught my attention most though was this wired globe which is a reminder that we are all part of this same world... and it is a beautiful world... but with all that's been happening lately, I really hope that we can really live harmoniously one day.
The Turkish Airlines lounge in Istanbul’s Atartuk International Airport is 5,900 square meters (spread on 2 floors) and has quite literally everything: a pool table, library, cinemas, massage beds, mini golf, lockers, toy car racing, TV wall with 9 simultaneous channels, a Japanese garden and great Turkish cuisine. What caught my attention most though was this wired globe which is a reminder that we are all part of this same world… and it is a beautiful world… but with all that’s been happening lately, I really hope that we can really live harmoniously one day.

For more information on Gastromasa, visit http://gastromasa.com.tr/en

Special thanks to Gökmen Sözen and the Gastromasa Team; and to Erhan Balaban and Angela Trinidad of Turkish Airlines Philippines.

*The original version of this article appeared in my column in Philippine Star 

2 Comments

  1. Great post! I had the chance to visit Istanbul for 4 days in early 2015 and loved the cuisine. Can’t wait to go back in the near future. :)

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