When my husband, Galo, and I visited Istanbul for our honeymoon some months ago, we were treated to a fascinating sampling of the old and the new.
We toured ancient mosques and palaces, shopped in one of the oldest markets in the world, and explored almost forgotten neighbourhoods, now burgeoning with new life.
Our favourite experience by far took place in a red, four-story mansion in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul, where we tried out EatWith, a startup that lets you enjoy authentic dining experiences in people’s homes.
Our dinner with our EatWith hostess Fatma, her family, and her guests was a night we wouldn’t soon forget.
Just a few hours before taking off on our journey, Galo and I booked two seats at Fatma's dinner table for $56 total through the EatWith website. We knew we wanted an off-the-beaten path experience, and this seemed to be a great way to safely get that while travelling somewhere new.
We chose to dine with Fatma, who explains in her chef profile that she learned cooking from her grandmother when she was five years old and has been cooking for family and friends ever since. During dinner she said she signed up for EatWith so she could share her cooking with more people now that her children no longer live with her.
After a particularly dicey cab ride, we walked down a few small side-streets until we arrived at Fatma's house. She lives there with her husband, Hasan, who was waiting outside to welcome us.
Our party included a couple from Germany, a foreign-exchange student from Switzerland who was also staying with Fatma as an Airbnb guest, Fatma's daughter, Elvan, who was visiting from Italy with her toddler son and helped translate throughout the evening, Fatma, and Hasan. We ate on the fourth-floor terrace surrounded by home-grown vegetables and herbs and little plush koalas gifted by a former Airbnb guest that were happily nestled among the vegetables.
We started our feast with some classic Turkish meze, or appetizers, which Fatma prepared with organic extra virgin olive oil from the Aegean coast.
The stuffed grape leaf dolma she made were to die for, and Fatma sent each guest home with a care package of the leftovers. There was enough of them to feed an army.
We then ate a warm soup that Elvan said was from Fatma's homeland, Adana, and that we wouldn't find on many restaurant menus in Istanbul. Making this dish, she explained, takes both time and skill. The broth appeared to be meat-and-tomato based, and the contents of the soup included chickpeas, little balls of bulgar wheat, and slightly larger filled meatballs consisting of bulgar and minced meat. I'm a big fan of soup and meatballs individually, so naturally I thought the combination of the two was astounding.
Next up, the börek, which is generally a flaky pastry with some sort of filling. Ours was similar to a lasagna in that it consisted of layers of pastry and cheese and spinach filling.
Our main entrée was a sautéed meat and vegetable kebab dish served from the pan over a flame. This was accompanied by a shepherd's salad -- or a cucumber, tomato, onion, and parsley salad -- with pomegranate balsamic vinegar.
As we relaxed and ate fresh watermelon for desert, we chatted about the next legs on our journeys and exchanged recommendations for things to see and do while we were still in Istanbul. Fatma told stories of previous tenants who met and fell in love while staying in her home -- she even arranged a small wedding in town for two of her previous tenants. If you're ever in town and in need of a host, you might consider looking Fatma up.
Towards the end of an almost three-hour dinner, Fatma offered us a choice of apple tea or Turkish coffee. Apart from being an amazing cook and a gracious hostess, Fatma is also something of a coffee cup fortune teller, and she took her time reading my and another guest's fortune -- apparently I have good luck and more happy travels in my future.
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