In the last post, I described the fun of visiting and bargaining at the Grand Bazaar. And although my parents and I enjoyed the craziness of this behemoth ancient market, we found other markets in Istanbul that we loved even more. Several days before visiting the Grand Bazaar, we spent an evening at the Spice Bazaar or, as it’s also called, the Egyptian Bazaar.
Completed in the 17th century and about a century after the construction of the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar was initially known as the “New Bazaar”. Located just a short walk from the Grand Bazaar, it is smaller than its mighty neighbor but just as exciting and interesting. If you do not have enough time to visit the Grand Bazaar, a stop at the Spice Bazaar will allow you to get a quick fix for the atmosphere of Turkish markets.
We visited the Spice Bazaar on Friday night. As we approached the market, we passed an imposing mosque with two elegant minarets. There was a pleasant buzz in the area. The street was busy even by Istanbul standards, with some people hurrying up to the market, while others heading to the mosque for evening prayer.
The Spice Bazaar has both covered and outside sections. We started outside, at the flower section, and the colorfulness of the market began to unfold before our eyes. There were tons of flowers and plants for sale: from tropical orchids to desert cacti. The most popular items in this section, though, were tulip bulbs. Having visited the Netherlands before, I knew that tulips originated in Turkey and once exported to the Netherlands caused a real tulip mania there, with a tulip bulb, at one point, going for the price of a house. The selection of tulip bulbs here was impressive. The pictures of tulips, including rare blue and black tulips, were on display right next to oversized bulbs, promising beautiful flowers to those who would buy and plant them. Having spent my childhood tending flowers in our family’s garden, the walk through the flower section was a perfect bonding moment with my mom. We chatted about flowers, plants, and how to care for them.
Inside the market, it became clear why it is called the Spice Bazaar. On each side of a long-arched row, there were shops selling spices. Saffron, nutmeg, turmeric, cardamom, curcuma, white pepper, black pepper, red pepper. The heaps of cumin, paprika, and curry. The garlands of dry chili peppers. There was an explosion of colors and smells right into our faces. Some spices had mysterious names such as Sultan spice or Ottoman spice; others were advertised as blandly as Chicken spice, Fish spice, or Salad spice. Some names were outright silly, with the pinnacle of the eccentric marketing belonging to a spice called “The Mother-in-Law Revenge”.
Like with the Grand Bazaar, shopping at the Spice Bazaar was a fun experience. In every shop, we were offered tea and a detailed presentation of spices available for purchase. The sellers were friendly, talkative, and not very pushy. The prices at the Spice Bazaar were also much better than at the Grand Bazaar as we found out a couple of days later when we visited the Grand Bazaar. In one of these shops, my parents loaded up on black pepper and other spices with my mom excitedly describing to my dad what she would cook once they get home.
In addition to spices, shops were also selling dried fruit, sweets, and tea. A lot of tea, in fact. The place could have easily been called the Tea Bazaar. Because Julia has an entire kitchen cabinet filled with tea from all around the world, the best present from Istanbul for her (because she could not join me on this trip) was tea. I immediately ruled out black Turkish tea as she already had that in her tea collection. Plus, being here, at the Spice Bazaar, with all the exotic teas around me, I wanted to bring home something unusual and unique. Black tea was just too plain and boring.
Like with spices, tea marketing at the Spice Bazaar is an interesting topic. There were plenty of teas where you would know exactly what you are buying: pomegranate tea, pink rose tea, jasmine tea, and chamomile tea. But other choices included cryptic options such as Relax tea, Detox tea, Love tea, Viagra tea, and my favorite Anti Agging Tea (the spelling is preserved). Each tea was a combination of colorful leaves, twigs, flowers, and berries. I decided to go for the most outrageous mix. In one of the shops, I pointed to a container that seemed to contain all rainbow colors. There were no signs next to this tea, but the shop attendant told me that this was “Energy tea” and that it was “very good”. While hurriedly describing what was in this tea mix and how to brew it, he launched his hand inside the container and a second later showed me a scoop of what looked like a piece of a heavenly meadow. He did not need to persuade me any further.
After spending an hour inside the Spice Bazaar, we started to feel a sensory overload. The kaleidoscope of colorful spices, teas, and sweets combined with the artificial lighting of the evening market was making us dizzy. It was time to start making our way out of the market.
Yet, the visit was not over. Outside, we found endless rows of produce, selling meats, cheeses, olives, and many other delicious things. The market was getting hectic with people doing their shopping after the evening prayer. I was slowly shuffling through the rows of sellers, with my parents walking in front of me. Then, from the corner of my eye, I noticed that my mom was chewing something. And my dad was chewing too. Apparently, the sellers were extending samples of their products to passers-by to lure them into their shops and my parents were refusing to say “no” to all the free goodies offered. At some point, I saw how they started to extend their hands to the sellers who were not even offering anything. They started to remind me of our cats who constantly ask for food at any given moment.
At one point my mom turned to me and whispered while laughing:
“This seller was not offering anything but then he saw my sad eyes and gave me a piece of goat cheese!”
As she was saying that I saw my dad nearly dancing near a meat shop with an abundance of sausages and other meat products on display. Unlike at the Grand Bazaar, where he refused to participate in small talk with vendors, here he was more than happy to chat up a seller who might hand out a free meat sample.
Trying not to abuse the local merchants’ generosity, we bought something in almost every shop we visited. The fridge at our Airbnb was full of cheeses, olives, bread, and spreads providing us with delicious meals and snacks for the entire duration of our stay in Istanbul. But I had to cancel a seafood restaurant outing that I had planned for that evening as there was no point in going to a restaurant after trying way too many delicious samples at the market.
Next week, read about how we take a water taxi to the Asian side of Istanbul and discover our favorite market in the city.