2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

How to Fuel Five Centuries of Commerce

How to Fuel Five Centuries of Commerce

Simit with Wild Za’atar in Istanbul

We were starved. We awoke confused in Istanbul having been on and off trains for three days, exploring Europe one quick meal at a time. There had been perfectly braised beef cheek at Paris’ Café des Musées, pretzels and honey-mustard in Munich’s Löwenbräukeller, and fine spring produce from the Dolac market in Zagreb. I was traveling with a young chef and his teenage brother on a journey to learn some new tricks to take back to the chef’s first restaurant. Now that we had arrived at our destination, we were heading out to meet a guide, Ugur Ildiz, by the Bosphorus. He was going to show us how to eat in Istanbul.

Ugur took us an old trading hub, a han, in the European side of the city. The weathered stone building, known as Rüstem Paşa Kervansarayı or Kurşunlu Han, housed various craftsmen and small businesses. The two-story structure looked more like an ancient fort than a workplace, though the scattered debris of industry told us the place was still in use. The han was built between 1544 and 1550 by master architect Mimar Sinan for Rüstem Paşa, the Grand Vizier to Sultan Suleyman. Built on the ruins of a Genoese church, the nearly 500-year history was obvious in every corner; even the solid stone steps had sagged.

We had our first taste of Turkish culture at a small table beside what appeared to be the office or security booth for the building. On a newspaper tablecloth, our guide presented several simit with wild za’atar preserved in oil and salt. We knew za’atar as a dried spice containing sesame, thyme, and salt, but here we had the fresh herb of the same name. The pungent, floral herb was endlessly welcome against the fresh simit. We took in the history lesson whilst tearing into the simit: a bread loop, not unlike a bagel, though baked after being dipped in grape molasses and coated in sesame seeds. As we crunched though breakfast, our guide pointed out some Roman ruins in the yard, an innocuous stump of stone or marble now holding a make-shift water tap for the workers.

This traditional morning snack was served with tea, the backbone of a day’s trade in Istanbul. As the curved tea glasses were placed on the table, it was revealed that the “office” we sat by was in fact a tea station for this building and the local area. Some shops even had an intercom to put their order in; people were drinking 15 glasses a day and had no time to leave their shops or stalls to ask for a cup. Later, when we saw men with tea trays dashing between pedestrians or simit sellers with their carts, we understood a tiny element of the culture of the city: the spirit of trade fueled by tea and bread.

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