When Victor visited Istanbul last year with his parents, he was so impressed with Turkish markets that he later wrote three blog posts on this topic (post #1, post #2, post #3). So obviously, while visiting Türkiye this year, we couldn’t skip Kemeralti Market in Izmir, one of the oldest and largest markets in the region. As with every Turkish market, this one was full of spices and aromas, vibrant textiles and intricate carpets, traditional Turkish delights, local handicrafts, and homemade goods. And before you ask - no, I am not writing yet another Turkish market post, this is actually an “all my favorite less-known Turkish foods, all of which I just happened to find in the same geographical location” post. While I loved all the mounds of teas and spices displayed outside of the varied shops, the narrow streets winding among buildings with colorful facades and intricate details, and the general atmosphere of merriment and overabundance, it was the food in Kemeralti Market that stole the show.
We started our morning in Kemeralti Market by searching for a cup of coffee. Now, that’s a crazy thing to search for in Türkiye, where there are traditional coffee shops absolutely everywhere, marked by outdoor seating areas with low tables, surrounded by benches with cushions, and decorated with Turkish carpets and textiles. Honestly, I am not sure what exactly I was looking for, as we passed one coffee shop after another until something caught my eye.
“What’s that?” I wondered out loud.
There was a billboard display advertising something called “Sütlaç” and a man sitting on a colorful table right next to it, eating something out of a small earthenware pot with an immeasurable appetite. He was doing a much better job of advertising Sütlaç than the billboard. He overheard my question and with a thumbs-up gesture, said in heavy French accent, “Very good! Try! Very good!”
We thanked this random French tourist. settled in at the next table, and ordered one Sütlaç to split, our quest for coffee momentarily forgotten. A small reddish pot quickly arrived at our table, and I poked my spoon at the caramelized top, sprinkled with nuts. It was unmistakable after one taste – I was eating delicious, creamy rice pudding. It was far less sweet than rice puddings I tried in Mexico, the U.S., and India, milky and light, a mix between thick custard and traditional rice pudding, and a perfect small breakfast to start the day.
We kept walking, intent on finding some coffee as well. After a bit of wandering down the narrow streets, we walked into what I can only describe as the “dedicated coffee shop area of the market” where the street was lined with coffee shops on both sides, extending all the way to the end of the block. As we walked to find an empty table, I noticed a curious thing. A lot of people we passed had their small coffee cups flipped over on the saucer, with the thick coffee grounds oozing out from underneath the cup.
“Could this be how you let the waiter know you finished our coffee?” I wondered.
We sat down and ordered two cups of Turkish coffee. I kept looking around, curious as to the local customs, and noticed a woman picking up her upside-down coffee cup and staring inquiringly into it.
“Wait a minute…” I said, “I think I know what this is… They are fortune-telling on coffee grounds!”
I checked with a waiter, and he confirmed my intuition that drinking coffee and having your fortune told from leftover grounds is a favorite pastime in Türkiye. Of course, we had to try it! I pulled up instructions on my phone and followed them carefully, first intently thinking over my life as I gulped down my coffee, then turning the cup over in the saucer, and swirling it around three times to loosen the sediment inside. We waited for five minutes for the coffee to drain down the cup and then Victor stared into my cup, trying to make sense of the swirls, lines, dots, and circles formed by coffee grounds. As any good lawyer, he started out his divinations with a legal disclaimer that he assumes no responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions in my possible future and/or fate. Then, he told me that I would receive money soon (he wasn’t wrong, payday Friday was just around the corner), that there was a change coming to my life (still waiting for that), and while it looks like I have no clear goals in my life, I am full of joy. As for the last part, I am still a bit skeptical whether the coffee grounds told him this or if it was inside knowledge from the last twenty years.
And since this is technically a food post, I do have to mention that the coffee was thick and aromatic and much smaller than the usual 8 oz cups we are used to. Later in the trip, we tried Turkish coffee many times, from small copper coffee pots, in delicate cups with saucers, brewed on hot sand, and served with small colorful pieces of Turkish delights. It was a delicious pick-me-up every time.
We continued our slow walk down the market, constantly stopping to check out colorful textiles or Ottoman mosaic lamps until we reached a small bakery stand selling simit and boyoz. We have already tried the bagel-shaped and sesame-coated simit bread before, so it was time to sample boyoz, especially considering it was a local Izmir city delicacy. One boyoz set us back 20 cents and came on a little napkin. I bit into the small flaky bun, and it was hot, a little greasy, with a filling of sharp salty cheese. I turned to Victor to let him know what I thought while extending the boyoz over to him, and the bun slipped out of my hand and fell on the stone-paved street, with an awful plunk. I stared at the ruined boyoz and then at Victor.
Trying to keep my face as straight as possible, I said with as much conviction as I could muster, “It really wasn’t that good.”
Victor looked back at me, unimpressed, “Still no reason to just throw it on the ground!”
Through my laughter, I kept trying to explain it was an accident, while Victor stuck to his story of “you didn’t like it so much, you just threw it on the ground in rage” and went on like that until I was half convinced myself that this is what happened. I offered to buy another one, but seeing how the one and only bite I took wasn’t that impressive and we still wanted to sample a lot of other food at Kemeralti Market, we decided to save 20 cents and the extra calories and move on to various lunch offerings.
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