Bodrum: the ultimate culinary guide, by Tristan Rutherford
World's 50 Best, August 2021
A single story encapsulates Bodrum’s historically rich allure. One century ago, novelist Cevat Şakir Kabaağaçlı was exiled from Istanbul to Bodrum for his seditious scribbles. Kabaağaçlı expected hell. Instead he found Greek shipwrecks, Persian ruins and the Aegean Sea “cracked upon the horizon without warning like a vast blue thundering infinity”.
Kabaağaçlı’s takeaway? Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans and every Aegean empire since had used Bodrum as a sun-kissed go-to. Turkey’s answer to St Tropez uses the same sybaritic model. It serves pickled sea bass alongside flinty white wines. While in taverna terraces, fig trees draped with lanterns lure today’s global elite.
Final word on Kabaağaçlı. Guest what the novelist did after his three-year sentence? He stayed in Bodrum another 25 years. We hope you can spare a week to eat, dance, swim, sail and drink in a destination bathed in sun.
Bodrum has served sun-splashed ingredients to international travellers for 3,000 years. Little has changed. Today visitors jet direct from Moscow, Manchester, Dublin and Dubai to find cacik (delicious dill dip), patlıcan ezmesi (smokey aubergine yoghurt) and çingene salatası (a 'gypsy salad' of tomatoes, peppers and anything else in season). Not to mention swordfish ceviche, sea bass sashimi, teppanyaki prawns or whatever food trend hits Instagram next.
Some dishes probably date from the time of Herodotus, the ‘Godfather of History’, who was born in Bodrum. Like gözleme, which are stuffed pancakes packed with minced beef and onion. Although Bodrum’s hip hotels serve gözleme stuffed with smoked salmon and avocado, or dark chocolate with orange zest. Both options offer an excellent wake-up call alongside a Türk kahvesi (Turkish coffee).
Green Aegean recipes like Ot Kavurma are found in point-and-choose meze cabinets across Bodrum. The recipe changes with the season. Although wild green mainstays include stinging nettles, mustard herbs, chicory, hibiscus, spring onions, garlic and lashings of yoghurt. The trick is in the preparation. Boil too long and Ot Kavurma’s earthy goodness ebbs away. Boil too quickly and you get pongy pond water that stings your mouth. The dish is best sampled as a $1 appetiser with fresh bread.
Pumpkin flowers are stuffed with heady abandon in Kabak Çiçeği Dolması. A good job, as they flower throughout Bodrum’s sultry summers from May through September, when travellers can expect a 94% chance of a sunny day. Pumpkin flowers are plucked as they open to the morning sun. Pros have a bowl of ready-mixed pine nuts, raisins, rice, pomegranate molasses, mint and dill ready (although the recipe is as capricious as a Bodrum sunset). This way you can stuff fresh and munch sooner. Local chefs layer parsley stems on the pans base so the delicate flowers don’t become frazzled. The taste is Bodrum summer, in a single bite.
Institutions & monuments
The Museum of Underwater Archaeology was founded with a $50 grant from the Turkish government in 1959. That investment was priceless, because this unique history museum, housed inside Bodrum Castle, hosts shipwreck booty from every classical empire found on the surrounding seabed. Discover amphorae that contained 3,000 year-old-wine (the divers who found the jars sampled the wine on their scuba boat and noted how well it held up). Other finds prove that olive oil, ostrich eggs and natural sponges were imported, like classical Whole Foods deliveries, from Athens, Alexandria and Rhodes.
Bodrum's most spectacular shipwreck was discovered by a local sponge diver in 1982. The trading vessel Uluburun sank during the 14th century BCE with a spectacular cargo of Palestinian olives, Baltic amber, Lebanese cedar and a gold scarab purportedly belonging to Queen Nefertiti. Bodrum has always had class.
Across the street from an excellent pide salonu (flatbread bakery) sits the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. That’s right, you can stroll one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World with a $2 dough-on-the-go fix. The mausoleum’s crumbled columns, shaded by olive trees, once supported a 45m-high burial chamber. Until an earthquake struck around seven centuries ago, the mausoleum’s sides sparkled with sculptures that overlooked the Aegean Sea beyond. The backstory of the archaeological site encapsulates Bodrum's globalised pomp. The tomb was styled by Persian governor King Mausolus (you've got to admire a guy who designs his own grave) with the help of Greek architects. The Romans loved it and used the term Mausalia to describe ritzy tombs thereafter, hence the English term ‘Mausoleum’.
In the 15th century, the crusading Knights of St John nicked the best stones for Bodrum Castle. Before the British nicked the rest (the triumphant chariot that galloped on top resides in the British Museum). Here’s one final story from kooky King Mausolus. He married his sister, Artemisia II of Caria. After Mausolus was laid inside his mausoleum, Artemisia went on to become one of Bodrum's greatest rulers and successfully invaded the nearby island of Rhodes - there’s now a two-hour ferry service if you wish to do the same.
Neyzen Tavfik Cadessi is the pedestrian corniche that arcs across Bodrum's seafront. The promenade is a cornucopia of Greek-chic tearooms, be-seen-in bistros and sheesha cafés that puff apple-tobacco smoke into the warm evening air. It’s atmospheric all right. The 500m-long strip is lined with institutions that make Bodrum great. Such as the newspaper shops (Turks love a good skandal over a glass of çay). As well as the ferry to Greece. Or the crowning Bodrum Castle that hosts 3,500 years of watery transactions inside its Museum of Underwater Archaeology. And a plaque dedicated to Ziya Güvendiren, the local boatbuilder who inspired the hundreds of Turkish gulet cruising yachts in Bodrum port. (Spoiler alert: a week aboard a Turkish gulet is a food-tastic voyage of a lifetime.)
Most of all Neyzen Tavfik Cadessi is about seafood. Al fresco restaurants welcome you in with platters of meze starters. Before the real business of choosing a monster of the deep for your main course. All of which begs the ultimate question: how can 50,000 residents (a population on par with Cannes or Ibiza Town) eat so much?
You'll spot chefs in whites at Ortakent's Wednesday Market, a five-minute drive from Bodrum Port. Flogged-from-crates fruit and veg are lined up, in Technicolor abundance, under a lofty shade. Sea green purslane. Purple artichokes. Zucchini flowers cooled by electric fans. Okra in copper pots. Aubergines, melons and turnips in shapes and colours unimaginable to the non-Anatolian eye. Plus try-before-you-buy nuts and dried fruit in quantities sufficient to feed the Ottoman army: pistachios, pinenuts, almonds, walnuts, figs, mulberries, apricot fruit jerky and chickpeas dry-roasted to nibble like peanuts.
Main course? Order a portion of peynirli borek (feta and spinach in a pastry spiral). Pair with a cooling class of ayran (a saline fermented yoghurt drink that’s far nicer than it sounds). Back near Bodrum port a dozen balıkçılık (fishmongers) stock the daily catch of prawns, gurnard and swordfish. Wonder why the gilthead bream gills are turned inside out on the slab? It’s to prove the fish’s freshness. All it needs is a sprinkle of black sesame and a wrap of nori, and you’re in home-made sushi heaven.
Tristan and Kathryn are former Istanbul residents and wrote the Time Out Guide and Hedonist Guide to the city.