James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Always Learn the Word for Breakfast

Always Learn the Word for Breakfast

Breakfast In Istanbul

The first night I arrived in Istanbul, I sat down to dinner brimming with anticipation at what local delicacies would await me. When the waiter handed me a menu, it wasn’t too long before my naiveté was replaced with confusion when I realized I couldn’t make out a single word printed on the page.

I was a seasoned traveler and my knowledge of two-and-a-half languages had seen me through remote areas of Cambodia, Morocco, and Peru, so I assumed I could rely on my resourcefulness once again. Instead, I found myself struggling to distinguish appetizers from drinks. There were no translations, no visual aids, and no amount of sign language could bridge my language barrier with the waiter. I was staying in a residential neighborhood in the northern end of the city where the views of the Bosphorus were as beautiful as ever and the language spoken (and written) was exclusively Turkish.

During my initial weeks in Istanbul I disparaged myself for muttering a sheepish thank you in English as I dashed out of restaurants because I couldn’t bring myself to practice reciting the proper expression in Turkish: teşekkür ederim. I had no desire to undertake the uncomfortable mental challenge of learning a new language and relied on my pocket dictionary for brief exchanges. In fact, I wasn’t motivated to address my linguistic apathy until I laid eyes on a Turkish breakfast buffet for the first time. You see, Turkish breakfast is not only one of the most visually enticing affairs I had ever seen; it is a decadent culinary experience that is immensely satisfying and supremely delicious. It was then that I knew I had to commit myself to learning these all-important words: “türk kahvaltısı, lütfen” (“Turkish breakfast, please.”)

Touted as one of the best breakfasts in the world, Turkish breakfast is in a league of its own. This banquet features a dozen sweet and savory foods waiting to be assembled and enjoyed in a variety of combinations. A standard breakfast is most often comprised of quartered tomato wedges, delicately sliced cucumbers, green and purple olives, fresh and aged cheeses, yogurt, and some walnuts and almonds for good measure. For protein there are cast-iron skillets with sausages and fried eggs. Small dishes of butter, jam, honey and chocolate sauce are served alongside thickly sliced country bread. And to drink, there is a steaming kettle of çay, Turkey’s hallmark black tea served in tulip-shaped glasses.

Turkish breakfast is a dream come true. It strikes a perfect balance of textures, flavors and food groups and in bringing together an array of modest ingredients, it becomes much more than the sum of its parts. Its a pleasurable and nutritious way to begin your day and is more than enough motivation for learning a new language.

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