This week on The Trip Podcast: Ansel Mullins on the lost city of Istanbul, the glorious multitudes of Turkish meatballs, and the art of raising kids abroad.
Every time I meet Ansel Mullins, my world just seems to get a little larger and little more intriguing. Over the years, whether in Poland, or Istanbul, or now in Porto, serendipity seems to strike all around. So of course we would take a quick walk into Batalha Square in the old town of Porto and be serenaded by Pimba ballads and an elderly dance class in the shadow of the church. That’s just the kind of moment that Ansel and his co-founder Yigal Schleifer have been delivering for a decade, all around the world, through Culinary Backstreets
If you don’t know Culinary Backstreets, you should. They are a media company—they started as a blog called Istanbul Eats those many years ago—but the true magic is in their intimate, informed, gluttonous food tours, now available in 13 cities around the world. Porto is one of those cities, so Ansel and I talk in this episode about this city, but also, at great length, with sentimentality fueled by Cabo Verdean ponche he brought, about our mutual paramour, the lost city of Istanbul, circa 2012. Rest in peace, you beautiful city in your most beautiful year.
That is when and where we first met, and much has changed since then, largely for the worse in Turkey, and in part, that has led Ansel and his family, the quintessential wandering and curious Americans, the kind I want to be when I grow up, to move to Portugal, where the ponche flows and you can grow old dancing a quiet dance with your partner overlooking the tram and the church in Batalha Square.
Here is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Ansel.
A lot of good things happen in the alcohol world when it’s just out of some reused plastic bottle.
Nathan Thornburgh: Ansel.
Ansel Mullins: Yes.
Thornburgh: Our drink is like just hanging out in a plastic bag here. It looks good. It looks like there would be like cha-cha or something in there. There’s a plastic bottle, and a lot of good things happen in the alcohol world when it’s just out of some reused plastic bottle. Is that what’s going on here?
Mullins: I totally agree. Yeah. I mean, let’s get it out of the bag so you can see what’s inside.
Thornburgh: Now, on the flip side, our cups are also wrapped in plastic.
Thornburgh: This is the ASMR portion of the podcast. Oh wow. That looks like you peed in that bottle and maybe you’re having some kidney problems.
Mullins: A little revenge.
Mullins: This is the ponche of Señora Maria who operates a Cabo Verdean Taverna in Lisbon called São Cristóvão. She makes it in-house. This is something I discovered after moving to Lisbon three years ago. Ponche is mostly what you would expect it to be. A sort of Apéritif made from grog.
Mullins: Sugar cane molasses.
Thornburgh: You’re saying this ponche is made from grog?
Mullins: Yeah, grog. That’s the word.
Thornburgh: Okay. Define grog for me. I should know this.
Mullins: Grog is cane liquor. So, sugarcane liquor, which they call grog, and molasses. It’s got some cinnamon in it, and lemon. It’s really sweet. There are lots of different recipes, but this is hers. I asked her before I got it.
Thornburgh: Cheers. What do we say in Porto?
Mullins: A nossa! To us.
Thornburgh: To us. Whoa, whoa. That is like an island fireball, that like fireball shit that people chug when they’re snowboarding. Something that’s just basically like cinnamon hooch. This is a very smooth but deeply cinnamon-y spiced out punch.
Mullins: It’s good stuff. You can go into these little taverns. The concept of Cabo Verde was something that was new to me as well. Well, I brought this drink because it’s something that I think is one of the most interesting elements in Lisbon—this connection to the former colonies. You can get straight in there with your grog or your ponche. Then there’s the music, and then there’s just huge communities in Lisbon which exist. That’s something that I think is quite interesting to explore here in Portugal.
Thornburgh: Yeah. Even in New York, I would be hard fucking pressed to figure out where the Cabo Verde party’s at. I mean I know it’s out there. It’s probably up in Boston or something.
Mullins: Yeah, there are big communities there.
Thornburgh: Portugal is like that, right? It’s a gateway to Tolkien-sounding places that we’ve never heard of. What does the word of Madeira conjure in your mind besides a dusty bottle in your grandmother’s liquor cabinet? Isn’t that an island that’s in the middle of…
Thornburgh: …absolutely nothing?
Mullins: It’s a part of Portugal, like the Azores, and Cabo Verde, which is a former colony.
Thornburgh: Yeah. I’m in flinging-a-dart-at-the-map mode sometimes. I’m always trying to figure out how to get far, quick. I thought about coming through here to Luanda. It turns out that it’s actually not that cheap or practical, still. I don’t think TAP Airlines is doing a great job of making it easy for for visitors to go straight there, but Angola is definitely on the list. But that’s something you get out of Lisbon. How do people in Lisbon feel about all of this colonial stuff coming back and being in their town? Are they as excited about this punches as I am?
Mullins: I don’t think so. I think that punch probably arrived after the revolution and civil wars, and communities of Cabo Verdeans, and Angolans, and people from Mozambique, and go out, all made Lisbon more so than Porto, but also Porto. I find Portuguese people are aware and they probably know ponche, but I don’t think it’s their go-to cocktail for a Friday night. But the food, and the culture, and certainly the music is something that is quite familiar. But I find it maybe a little more remarkable than a lot of people that I know in Portugal.
Thornburgh: I mean, part of why I want to talk to you, you are famously fucking nerdy about exactly this thing, drinking a thing that’s going to teach you a thing about a history, and geography, and place. So it’s a trick question. Of course. Nobody’s as excited about the story of Cabo Verdean punch as you would be. You’ve made a career out of being excited about that story.
Mullins: For sure.
Thornburgh: Yeah, so I don’t know who the Portuguese Ansel Mullins is. Perhaps they’re out there, but you you have taken that obsession and gone global. I found a few descriptions of you, which I feel like we should just start riffing. CBS Sunday Morning called you a backstreet gourmet, which I think of like sex. I don’t know why.
Mullins: What’s sort of hat does a back street gourmet wear? I’m not sure.
Thornburgh: Yeah. Right. Looks like really, really dingy tuque.
Mullins: It’s not puffy yeah. Maybe torn stolen perhaps.
Thornburgh: Right. Or like it reminds me of Black Block, like dumpster diving or something. Anyway, if you had ever been attempted to call Culinary Backstreets, Backstreet Gourmet, it’s seems like it would be similar. Just has a really raunchier feel to it.
Thornburgh: Jeff Gordinier in the New York Times called you a food Sherpa.
Mullins: A Sherpa. I like that.
Thornburgh: A food Sherpa.
Mullins: I carry you and your bag to the next destination, lunch.
When big media outlets would cover Istanbul, there would inevitably be a shot of a girl dancing on top of a table with a mosque in the background.
Thornburgh: I want to have you tell me how all of that started how you became a backstreet gourmet food Sherpa.
Mullins: Well, I didn’t start as as a Sherpa. I felt like I was a member of a community of Sherpas, or there’s a tribe of Sherpas. I’m not quite sure what you’d say.
Thornburgh: I think that’s an ethnic group. You were part of an ethnic group and it’s all.
Mullins: A tribe of Sherpas, exactly. It was a conversation that I guess was going on, but it wasn’t online. It was being shared among friends traveling through different places. I was in Istanbul. It was the information that everybody wanted or talking about the dining experiences that they were searching for, but it was much harder to find in the early 2000s. Yigal, my partner, and I wanted to share that it was a a response to the coverage that Istanbul was getting at the time. Istanbul was getting, it was like this minarets and lipstick and miniskirts phase of coverage of the city. So when big media outlets would cover the city, there would inevitably be a shot of a girl dancing on top of a table with a mosque in the background, and it needed to be a glitzy nightclub.
Thornburgh: I know her. Listen, we had good times. Okay? I’m not hating on it. But I get it.
Mullins: Right. But it was very surfaced. It was like a surface glance at the city. That particular city is where this was, I would say born in Zagoras. I said, “Okay, I want to, I want to spend a lot of time,” but really digging into the punches of Istanbul and geeking out on it, and figuring out who makes this one and why they make it. Does their village make it different from the other one? Because all of these different worlds were existing within spitting distance of the nightclub. Right? But they never cross paths.
So, I felt like there was so much to dig into in Istanbul. So that just carried us to the present day, where Yigal and I, we’re writing about these things seriously. Trying to find out the stories of the people in those restaurants, sharing it on our website and then eventually, designing experiences where people could come with us, and get in there, and benefit from the relationships we’ve built with these people and telling their stories. Hopefully, people get a deeper understanding of the city through what would have been just like a greasy lunch.
You could spend a lifetime wandering around that city and never get bored.
Thornburgh: You had first gone to Istanbul quite a while before then, right?
Mullins: 2002, yeah.
Thornburgh: So you’re not from Istanbul. Nor are you from Lisbon. You’re from Chicago, right?
Mullins: Chicago, right.
Thornburgh: How did you get to Istanbul?
Mullins: Istanbul was a place that I’d visited with my girlfriend at the time. We were both living in New Orleans and jumping at the bit to get out of the States but we wanted to get this global experience living internationally, living away from the places that we knew as home, and seeing it as almost like unattainable the closer we got to something more like serious jobs and all of that.
Thornburgh: Yeah. Smart motherfuckers.
Mullins: We found the moment. I was working for the mayor of New Orleans, we didn’t get reelected. Immediately lost my job and I said, “This is the perfect opportunity.”
Thornburgh: What’s the ratio of people your age who might even be unattached, say a girlfriend. And everybody’s like, “Let’s go live overseas.” What’s the ratio of people who ideate that, and then actually make it happen? It’s gotta be minuscule.
Mullins: Maybe more and more these days, I’m not sure.
Thornburgh: Right? As there is less to live for in the United States, just as someone who had been frustrated in that same interest for decades through no lack of opportunity or except for what life lassos and hog ties you with back in the States. I’ve always found that impressive that you actually did it, that you both managed to do it. You got it. You stuck it, and you stayed. But why Istanbul? How is that the one that that got you?
Mullins: I think we visited it and realized that that you could spend a lifetime wandering around that city and never get bored. I think that everybody probably has that reaction upon visiting Istanbul, and some cringe and never leave their hotel room because it’s really, really overwhelming. But for us, it felt so fascinating. The fact that that there was so little, at least in the English language, written about the daily life of the city. There’s a great amount of historical writing, and there’s a Byzantine institute at every American university. But of what’s going on in contemporary Istanbul, there really wasn’t a lot of knowledge being shared. So it was like a discovery around every corner, and searching for how to study that. I came to food, which is a passion of mine anyway, to explore my hometown of Chicago growing up. And so that felt natural. It was like okay, I can do this.
Thornburgh: You were a food Sherpa in Chicago?
Mullins: I guess kind of a food Sherpa-in-training or some kind of …
Thornburgh: So you were already doing that just going on missions?
Mullins: Yeah, yeah. In the way that I think a lot of people go out and hunt down the great Mexican restaurant, or whatever it might be. But Chicago is interesting in that it’s laid out in neighborhoods which are pretty coherent. It’s like ethnic neighborhoods. So you can go to the Polish bars on parts of Western Avenue and it’s an all-Polish scene in there and they’ve got sausage and thing that somebody’s wife brought in on a tray. That was thrilling to me that inside the city, you could have all of these different relationships and experiences.
So I brought that to the way that I started studying Istanbul. Let’s go in, let’s try to get the scoop on an area. Turks are extremely warm if you can speak Turkish, you’ll be welcome to a table, and they’ll tell you the whole scoop. So it was fertile ground for that exploration. It coincided with great development in the city and a lot more interest in it from people traveling too, so yeah, everything came together at the right moment.
Thornburgh: One of the things, and we will get back to where Culinary Backstreets come to. So you have I think in terms of news pings on your name, you have a weird there’s a duality to how you show up in news references. On the one hand, there’s all of this coverage from journalists who like myself, fell in love with you and the way that you talked about food in Istanbul. So you’re in all of the great papers and everybody’s like, “Then my day got better when I ran into Ansel. He showed me the set net.” But the first references to you in American news is as someone who had been very close to a terrible terrorist attack. Which was I think in The Guardian and The Independent. That was pretty early on in your time in Istanbul.
Mullins: 2003, I guess it was.
Thornburgh: It was 2003.
Mullins: I think it’s one, it’s like the perfect Istanbul mix, in which Istanbul is this amazing place to visit. Incredible place to eat. Then every once in a while, has just an absolutely terrible attack.
Thornburgh: Absolutely. But what was that like and why the hell did you stay?
Mullins: Well, I guess I had already become comfortable enough with the city to know that these things happen, and it could happen any place which we had seen throughout that time. So I didn’t really associate it with some danger of the streets of Istanbul.
Thornburgh: You didn’t blame the city?
Mullins: I didn’t blame the city. Absolutely not. It was al-Qaeda’s fault.
Thornburgh: Yeah. I mean, these were twin bombings. Right?
Thornburgh: The British consulate and…
Mullins: That was the one that I was close to. I was sitting in my office. The building we were working in was under renovation. The bomb went off when a truck drove into the walls of the British consulate. It shook the whole building and popped all the windows in, because the building’s windows were shoddy and poorly constructed, which was a great thing because they just swung in rather than shattering.
Thornburgh: Yeah. I think you had said it like collapsed on your desk.
Mullins: Yeah, it was just … They were like that. Yeah, I went out and Istiklal was a mess. It was all broken glass and people that were bleeding from their face or whatever.
Mullins: Then I went over through the Hazzopulo Passage, which is a little narrow passage that opens onto a courtyard where they sell little trinkets. There’s a tea house there. That’s where the wall of the British consulate was and is. It was just a mess. I mean, it was incredible.
Thornburgh: And neither you nor your girlfriend thought, “That’s it. We’re going back?”
Mullins: No, that was I think maybe that was when we started getting serious calls from family and things like that, “What’s going on? How are you staying there? Is that place safe? It’s unsafe.” But we had decided that this is where we live, and that this was not the thing that is likely to be occurring all the time. We’d gotten used to the sight of anti-war demonstrations that were going on at the time too. We realized that things that we didn’t see in the States were not necessarily frightening. That a demonstration can be a beautiful thing. Because you see images of people marching in the street shaking their fists, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to hurt you. It’s actually a beautiful thing.
Thornburgh: That was some tremendously elegant shade. We saw things like people speaking about human rights and we realized that not everything we don’t have in the States.
Mullins: And I guess that looking at life through that lens also allowed us to see these bombings not as something that is going to change the life we’re leading there. And it’s not necessarily something that’s going to happen constantly.
Thornburgh: You just weren’t frightened in general.
Mullins: No. No. People in Istanbul also have this incredible way of getting back to business as usual after something horrific like like a bombing or some of the little moments of violence that have happened in Istanbul. People get on with it. I don’t know how they deal with the trauma of it, but that’s maybe something else. Maybe it’s by coming together and getting on, sweeping things up. And so pretty quickly, life returned to normal. The city just has so much energy that it’s hard to dwell on any single thing.