Eating up Izmir on Turkey's Aegean Sea, by Tristan Rutherford
World's 50 Best, August 2021
Izmir is a delicious melting pot. For 5,000 years history’s hungriest denizens - from Alexander the Great to Ottoman Turks - imported ingredients and ideas.
Turkey’s third city became a trading entrepot. A seaside metropolis so tasty it lured eastern Anatolians, Cretan Muslims, Italian traders and many more. Don’t believe us? Sip Turkish coffee beside a Roman agora alongside nine synagogues and a Catholic Cathedral. That’s just a typical Izmir morning.
Izmir is a multicultural melange in the manner of Marseille or Dubai. A place where Sephardi delicacies like boyoz pastries are munched by all faiths. A destination where you can drink locally-grown
Chardonnay on a pier designed by Gustave Eiffel. A sun-blessed city where both genders strip off and dive into the Aegean Sea. Enjoy a liberal helping today.
Location, location, location. Izmir is a ferry hop from the Greek Islands. Yet it’s a sleeper train journey away from Istanbul or Ankara, Turkey’s two biggest cities. Sea bream, samphire and squid chill on ice outside every seafront eatery. Street snacks are mussels prepared dolma (stuffed with pilaf), tava (deep friend) or şiş (skewered).
The city is in thrall of Aegean greens. Seasonal sides include nettles, wild radish leaves, chicory, çiriş (a wild-child leek that belongs to the lily family), crocus, Illyrian thistle and borage. Don’t know the names in Turkish? Don’t worry. Izmir is packed with lokantas, or workers’ canteen bistros, where dishes reside behind a point-and-choose glass counter. Your selection will be plated up and served 60 seconds later. Turkish tea comes free.
That said, Turkey’s most westernised city loves to carouse and booze. Specifically with rakı, an anise-licked spirit. Rakı is traditionally made around Izmir due to the city’s laissez-faire liberalism and proximity to grapes and pine mastic. Evliya Çelebi, Turkey’s answer to Marco Polo who travelled from Croatia to Crimea, sought out the spirit in the 17th century. Çelebi even noted rakı’s pet name: aslan sütü, or ‘lion’s milk’, due to its milky opacity once ice cubes are lobbed in.
Izmir köfte rank among the best of Turkey’s 100 varieties of meatball. The city snack is a smash of lamb, potatoes and tomatoes. Literally a meal in a bun. Especially when topped with parsley and the chili flakes known as pul biber, which translates as ‘Aleppo pepper’, reminding diners that Turkish ingredients hailed from Arabia to the Atlantic during five centuries of Ottoman Empire rule. Smell the sizzling meatballs before you spy them in $2-per-portion köfteci kiosks.
Even death has a culinary angle in Izmir. After funerals the mood is lightened with lokma, fried doughballs lathered in enough syrup to induce further cardiovascular problems. The local İzmir lokması versions are doughnut-shaped with a hole in the middle. Like a sweetly calorific wedding ring.
Izmir receives more sunshine than the South of France. Hence the creation of sübye. It’s a cooling beverage made from discarded seeds scooped from the melons that grow in every garden. The recipe involves dried seeds, a cup of sugar and a powerful blender. Sübye’s taste? Nutty, dense and only available on a street corner near you.
Institutions & monuments
Typical Turkey. You'll be munching a $1.50 ispanakli pide (spinach pizza) when you'll stumble across a Lydian column, Crusader fort or Byzantine church. Izmir's Roman agora is a case in point. It's a marble-clad market square adorned by Greeks, Romans and Ottomans, framed by a Corinthian colonnade straight out of Gladiator. Yet the agora is surrounded by the density of Turkish life - flying footballs, flower hawkers, gas bottle delivery trucks - within a city of 3m souls. As Izmir is so liberally blessed with antiquity, tourists at the agora are outnumbered by archaeologists and stray cats.
Two centuries ago Izmir was nicknamed ‘the Marseille of Anatolia’. Greeks, Jews and Turks of European descent traded tobacco, figs and licorice root with the wider world. They built Mediterranean mansions like the one that hosts the Arkas Maritime History Center. This museum regales 5,000 years of salty Izmir history via 150 model ships and 100 old masters. The coolest model is MV Savarona. Once the world's longest luxury yacht, she was delivered to Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1938. You'll see his picture all over Izmir. Atatürk was a handsome statesman who gave women the vote, sipped rakı and dressed like a Savile Row habitué. The most instructive painting? German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm's yacht Hohenzollern II anchored off Turkey. The Kaiser had sailed in to finance the Istanbul to Baghdad railway. The service carried culinary culture back and forth until the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Seferihisar is 40 minutes east of Izmir. You can smell this walled Aegean town before you see it. That’s because Seferihisar is Turkey’s first Cittaslow, or Slow City, where everything served must be sourced from the immediate vicinity. Think Noma, multiplied by 1,000, teleported beside the Aegean Sea. Only-try-here delights include tangerine sherbet drinks and mantı chickpea ravioli. Street eats just keep coming. Wander the ancient streets to bag olives and aubergine-stuffed börek filo pastries. Chemically-enhanced produce and fast food stores are forbidden. The Cittaslow designation was the brainchild of local politician and ex-journalist Tunç Soyer. As mayor of Izmir since 2019, let’s hope Soyer brings the joy of Slow Food to the big city.
Kemeraltı is more than a market. Since the 17th century it's been an entire suburb built on mercantilism. Stroll from imposing hans (caravanserai big enough to park a silk-laden camel train) to tiny pasajı (literally passages, or alley, dedicated to pickles, scarves and every conceivable commodity). Kemeraltı is Izmir’s answer to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. With far less foreigners.
Teahouses, eateries and ice creameries have grown organically to serve Izmir’s most bustling quartier. As have trees and the vines to shade them. Sustenance in Kemeraltı is provided by countless stalls selling pickled garlic globes, simit bagels, wrap-your-own fig leaves, lokum Turkish delight and pressed-before-your-eyes pomegranate juice. Even Izmirlis get lost in the shop-til-you-drop labyrinth.
The district is also home to several active synagogues including the beautiful Signora Giveret, named after a Portuguese merchant. Nearby the Hisar Mosque, the largest in Izmir, is an Ottoman work of art. Welcome inside.
Tristan and Kathryn lived in Turkey and authored the Time Out Guide, Rough Guides and Hedonist Guide to the country.