Of all the many ways to introduce newcomers to Istanbul, the drive into the city from Ataturk airport may well be the worst.
Short on beauty, at least the cab ride from the airport is a baptism by fire into one essential element of life in the metropolis on the Bosporus: traffic.
It's a half hour of cars swerving in and out of lanes, and aggressive drivers riding the horn and careening to their destinations with an urgency usually seen only in emergency workers. We saw two accidents on that first taxi ride: one was a car flipped on its side on the median with the driver standing beside his wreck with his shirt dirtied and his pants ripped; minutes later, we watched two drivers arguing over their fender bender.
Then we got to experience the problem personally. Just blocks from our hotel, our cab was lightly rear-ended by another cab. No matter, our cabbie checked the damage using the passenger side mirror, muttered a few imprecations at the other driver under his breath, then zoomed on.
What compounds the terror is that not only does everyone drive like a maniac, but none of the backseats in the cabs have functioning seat belts. The shoulder straps are there, but the buckles are buried under the backseats or are non-existent.
Once safe and sound at our hotel, we gathered our wits, consulted our map, and hit the town -- on foot -- to sample a few of the local specialties.
Istiklal Caddesi is a glorious pedestrian boulevard in the heart of Istanbul's cosmopolitan Beyoglu neighbourhood. On our first night, on the cusp of sundown in the middle of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, we entered Istiklal Caddesi off a tiny sidestreet and were immediately immersed into a hive of humanity that easily qualifies as the pedestrian equivalent of the automobile traffic we'd just escaped.
But whereas all those cars terrify, this street invigorates. Between the buzz of the faithful lining up in front of restaurants to break their daily fast and the many restaurants and cafes, some Western, some Turk, eager to help them do it, it was hard for us to decide where to stop first.
Okay, maybe it wasn't that hard.
Ever since I read Harold McGee's article praising Turkish ice cream, I'd been craving a taste. Dondurma, as it's known in Turkey, has a uniquely chewy texture, a quality it owes to two factors: first, it's made using powdered orchid bulbs, known as salep in Turkish (which translates to "fox testicle" in English); second, it's not so much churned as it is kneaded and stretched vigorously.
The two processes work hand-in-hand. Salep contains glucomannan, a carbohydrate that, as McGee explains, "bind[s] up and block[s] the movement of water molecules." Kneading the ice cream turns this "network into a dense elastic mass" so thick it can be pulled like taffy and sliced with a knife.
Several cafes along Istiklal Caddesi sell salep ice cream. Some emphasize the more theatrical aspects of this dessert: they pull cylinders of dondurma out of their freezers using extended metal rods, then they stretch and pull it, showing off its amazing pliability. The only thing I can compare it to is glass blowing, and the oozing fluidity of molten hot glass as it's being pulled from ferociously hot ovens and shaped by the glassmaker.
We stopped at a few places. I'd read about Mado during some pre-trip research and then had it recommended again by Cenk, a native of Istanbul and the author of Cafe Fernando, a droolworthy food blog. Some argue it is Istanbul's best ice cream maker, and they do serve a delightful dondurma with a mild taste and a slight chew.
At the cheaper stands on Istiklal Caddesi, teenage boys spin their ice creams this way and that, teasing the buyer by almost juggling them, before handing over cups of dondurma that are far chewier and less flavourful than the more refined product at Mado. This version encapsulates Rachel's objection to dondurma: done poorly, it reminds her of the gummy gelatinous texture that is a hallmark of cheap industrial North American ice cream.
A little further down the street we stopped at Haci Bekir, Istanbul's most renowned candy shop, which is famous for its Turkish Delight and halva. Unfortunately, I've never been a fan of Turkish Delight. In Canada, the only exposure most of us get to "Turkish Delight," known as "lokum" in Turkey, is the vile Big Turk chocolate bar -- a sickly sweet ribbon of hyper-sweet, fruit flavoured jelly enrobed in cheap milk chocolate. The real stuff, however, I now love. The version at Haci Bekir is delicately sweet, and its most noticeable flavours are nuts and rose water or mastic.
Halva, a slightly sweet, grainy, tahini-based dessert, was already one of my favourite childhood treats. My father would purchase it occasionally, and I remember gorging on it without ever having any idea what it was. We went for a brick of pistachio because it works so well in most sweets, and halva is no exception. This halva distinguishes itself for its texture, which seemed both a little moister and much finer than the tinned product sold in most Toronto groceries.
Already stuffed to the gills on Turkish sweets on first night in the city, we were nonetheless lured into a little hole in the wall pastry shop by the constant stream of people lining up for a mystery food being scooped into bowls from a big baking dish and slathered with chocolate sauce. Whatever it was, business was brisk.
Turns out that Inci does a brisk business in profiteroles. Unfortunately, we have to give these treats a thumbs down. The choux pastry was good but the filling was heavy and a little coarse and likely thickened with cornstarch.
I returned to Mado every day of our trip, some days more than once, for a cup of dondurma. To this day, the only Turkish I've really mastered is "Merhaba! Salepi dondurma, lutfen." I'm not sure that "Hello, salep ice cream, please," made me a great tourist in the eyes of Mado's staff, but it did make me a very happy eater.
Of course, it's easy to bring home a little lokum and halva, but ice cream travels poorly. I was determined, however, to try making dondurma at home, so I purchased small amounts of salep and mastic for a small ransom at Istanbul's Spice Bazaar and decided to try my luck in my own kitchen.
Let's just say I'm still trying. I have now created reasonable versions of dondurma at home. Unfortunately, I lack the equipment to properly work the ice cream and it shows in the final product. My version of dondurma has a far more pronounced mastic flavour than the versions we ate in Istanbul, but it is also far less chewy, the quality I love most.
Mastic is also a challenging ingredient to use. It comes in jagged crystals and is actually the resin of a tree native to the Greek island of Chios. Not only does it apparently contribute to the chewy texture of dondurma -- we saw mastic chewing gum for sale in Turkey -- it adds a sharply resinous, almost piney flavour to dishes, even when used in minute quantities. I used less than one gram in my first batch of dondurma, and decided to scale it back ever so slightly for my second.
I've played with the amount of salep I use too, but I don't think I can approximate the texture of the real deal until I make dondurma in my stand mixer with liquid nitrogen, something I don't intend to do until summer. I'm betting that the paddle attachment on my KitchenAid will provide the kneading muscle it takes to make this ice cream behave, and the liquid nitrogen will give me the temperatures I need to keep it chilled while doing so.
That said, if you happen to get your hands on some salep, a product unavailable outside of Turkey as far as I know, and a little mastic, which is available in most Turkish or Greek groceries, including Greek House Food Market in Toronto (where one of the owners told me many Greeks chew nuggets of mastic like gum), do try the recipe at the end of this post.
And if you can't get your hands on the ingredients, visit Istanbul. For all my complaining about the terror of the ride into the city, all I remember about the cab back to the airport was sadness at saying goodbye to a beautiful city and its incredible food.
Dondurma -- Turkish ice cream
This recipe is still a work in progress. Texturally, it's not quite there yet, though the flavours are excellent. In order to improve its texture, I suggest making this ice cream with liquid nitrogen in a stand mixer so it can be kneaded thoroughly.
500ml 35% whipping cream
500ml 3.25% whole milk
0.8g mastic (a piece about the size of a fingernail)
12g salep (approximately 3 tsp)
200g granulated sugar (approximately 1C)
1. Freeze the mastic. When frozen, grind to a fine powder in a coffee grinder with 10 grams (approximately 2 tsp) of the granulated sugar.
2. Heat the remaining sugar, all of the cream, and 250ml of the whole milk over medium-low heat. Sprinkle the sugar and mastic mixture and salep over the milk mixture, whisking vigorously. Heat the mixture to 80C, whisking constantly. Remove the mixture from the heat, and add the remaining milk.
3. Chill the mixture completely, preferably overnight.
4. Churn chilled mixture in ice cream maker as per maker's instructions.