After snacking on sütlaç, Turkish coffee, and one bite of boyoz, while wandering around Kemeralti Market in Izmir, it was finally time for lunch. After a whole morning of delicious smells coming from various food carts and small cafes, Victor and I already had our preferred meals picked out.
While it’s not exactly hard to be a pescatarian in Türkiye, as there are usually lots of seafood and vegetable dishes on the menu, the majority of street food dishes at the market were meat-based, and so Victor decided to try kumru for lunch. Kumru is a toasted sandwich prepared with chickpea flour bread, typically filled with grilled kaşar cheese, spicy sausage known as sujuk, and tomatoes. Obviously, the sausage was going to be a problem, but modern variations of this traditional Izmir delicacy include vegetarian versions sold all around the market. The sandwich that Victor ended up getting had thick cheese and tomato slices, with a bright green pepper on top. It was chewy, fresh, and flavorful, but small enough that he got it down in about two bites.
For the second part of his lunch, we stopped by one of many “Midye Dolma” stands selling stuffed mussels with aromatic rice, herbs, and spices. The shiny black shells were laid out in giant piles on street stand countertops, along with wedges of lemon, with no refrigeration in sight. I am not going to lie, this made me slightly nervous as the last thing I wanted to put into my mouth was unrefrigerated seafood that had been lying out the whole day. On the other hand, plenty of locals were chowing down on large plates of mussels bursting with spiced rice. Clearly, this wouldn’t be such a popular snack if it came with a side of gastrointestinal discomfort. We bought half a kilo in a small plastic bag, sat down on the bench, and started sampling. I grabbed one, removed the top shell to reveal a plump orange mussel on top of yellow rice, generously squeezed some lemon on it, and popped it into my mouth. It was rich, spiced, delicious, and far less seafood-y tasting than I was expecting. Victor and I finished the bag rather quickly, as it’s hard to stop eating these tasty morsels once you start.
Now, it was time for my main lunch, and I was excited. I had already picked out what I wanted to eat and where. Earlier that morning I peeked into a window of a small shop, with a long line of people waiting to be served, and saw a large display of meats. A large man was chopping, spreading, and rolling meat and vegetables into flatbreads, to be served as delicious-looking meat wraps. There was just one tiny issue with the display of meats…
“Is that… brain?” I said, pointing at what clearly looked like a dozen small brains on a plate, as the man grabbed one and started spreading it on the flatbread.
Victor did his absolute best to appear unbothered. He flipped the pages of our Turkish guidebook, searching for “söğüş”, written in large white letters on the shop display.
“Sheep head meat wrap,” he read out loud, and before I could wrap my head around what “head meat” was, he announced the ingredients somberly, with a punctuation mark after each word, “Tongue. Cheek. Brain.”
Now this is where most of you would have walked away to never come back. I also walked away, but only because it wasn’t lunchtime yet and because I made firm plans to come back (I even saved the location of the shop in Google Maps, so worried was I to not be able to find my way back in the maze of the market later). Here’s the thing about me – I grew up eating a lot of cheaper cuts of meat such as intestines, tongue, liver, and so on, a reflection on my parents' and grandparents' impoverished rural Ukrainian childhoods, so this was comfort food to me. Now, I never had brain before, but I wasn’t going to let that turn me off what looked like an otherwise delicious lunch.
And now, finally, it was time. I ordered by simply raising one finger up, “One, please!” and the man got to chopping and layering meat, then sprinkling it liberally with marinated red onion, parsley, mint, tomato, and lots of cumin. It’s hard to describe just how happy I was biting into that monstrosity. All the meat was beautifully seasoned, the onions and tomatoes were fresh and crunchy, and (words I never thought I would say) the brain was soft and smooth. Overall, an absolute 10 out of 10, one of the best meals I had in Türkiye and would happily have it again.
That was it for lunch and after having eaten so much, we were planning a late-night dinner at a restaurant by the market. We went to a nearby History and Arts Museum for a few hours and strolled by the Aegean Sea waterfront, as the evening fell. By the time we got back to the market, stalls were closing and the restaurants along with them! After fifteen minutes of walking, we found only one small café still open, with an interesting food display under the glass case. Initially, I thought I was looking at mezzes (small appetizers often served in Turkish restaurants), but quickly realized these were not spreads or salads, but more like single ingredients – boiled eggs, peas, marinated onions, corn, mushrooms, among many others.
“What would you like?” the owner of the stall asked. Victor and I looked at each other. We had absolutely no idea what we were ordering. I shrugged and started pointing at dishes almost at random and after about four, the owner indicated that this would be enough.
We sat down at the outside table and patiently waited to see what exactly our dinner was going to be. Honestly, I was half expecting them to just bring corn and mushrooms on a plate.
And then it showed up – a glorious giant baked potato, topped with everything I had picked out earlier. It had a crispy shell, creamy potato filling, and lovely fresh toppings. Interestingly enough, one of the toppings I picked was a mayo potato salad, but surprisingly, it tasted pretty good on top of a baked potato! The waiter told us the dish was called kumpir, and we were pretty happy to have stumbled on this unexpected stuffed baked potato as our impromptu dinner. To chase it down, we ordered ayran, a salty yogurt drink, that was a wonderful complement to our potato-based dinner. We never came across kumpir again but have ordered ayran in restaurants and bought it in stores and were never disappointed with its light and refreshing taste.
One baked potato shared between two people isn’t exactly a lavish dinner, but we had so much food throughout the day, strange, weird, yet delicious food, that it was just enough to keep us until morning. This was only our second day in Türkiye and we already sampled so many new dishes, it was hard to imagine what delicacies the new day would bring. Spoiler alert: there is going to be at least one more Turkish food post because not a single meal in Türkiye disappointed.
And while we are on the topic of food, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!