Having lived in the Middle East for the majority of my childhood, I was ready to compare my experience in Turkey to the overwhelming chaos of Cairo’s Khan el Khalili – a market found deep at the heart of the capital – or to what (sadly) once was Syria’s Old City. The winding cobbled streets of Istanbul, shaded by ancient Ottoman city walls, were far more similar to a rural Italian town.
Despite this, the sweet aroma stemming from street vendors selling hot corn on the cob or freshly baked simit (rings of pastry coated in sesame seeds) which are then dunked in warm chocolate spread, jolted a web of interlinking memories from my childhood. Wandering through the bustling Grand Bazaar, the pervading perfume of just about every spice you can positively imagine filtered through the teeming alleyways, transporting me back to my nine year old self, tailing after my parents through endless souq alleyways, driven by promises of fresh lemon juice at the next stop point. Although I do not leave for Asia until January, where better to begin a record of my travels than this vibrant city!
Row upon row of ruby red saffron, a sandier indian saffron, hot paprika, followed by a carefully labelled ‘less hot paprika’, against the golden hues of several different heaps of turmeric. The colliding shades of ‘meatball spice’, ‘spaghetti spice’ and what was promised to be genuine Ottoman spices (derived from the Ottoman Empire) form a rainbow so irresistible that it is near impossible not to reach into your purse and begin the bargaining.
A Beginner’s Guide to ‘The Haggle’
There is no way around it; on entering the Bazaar, or more aptly, The Lion’s Den, you (the tourist) are the prey. Singled out my the tell-tale map you are clutching to your chest but are still, rather unfortunately, holding upside-down, or the enormous rucksack storing enough water bottles so that you might be mistaken for a camel crossing the Sahara, as well as the three extra preparatory camera lenses you are armed with for the weighty Canon slung around your neck. Or perhaps it is your awkwardly inappropriate spaghetti-strap top, or the empire building shorts you have chosen to wear. Either way, the prey WILL be spotted and it is therefore vital that your haggling techniques are perfected and polished so that you are able to outrun the predator.
These are a few precious tips that I have learnt from my mother, Queen of the Bargainers:
- Never show too much interest in the desired item. Look at it critically – are there dents or lose parts? Is that really silver, or just very very shiny metal?
- This may seem obvious, but it is an essential stage of the process: when you enquire about the price, do NOT agree straight away (unless, of course, you know that it is worth that amount and is non-negotiable).
- Stage three of the operation; state a price lower than what you intend to pay. And so the bartering war commences. Whilst the shop owner works their way downwards, and you vis-versa, you will eventually meet in the middle.
- If a middle meeting point is looking highly unlikely, a gradual attempt at slowly walking away is often very effective. (If you have grossly misjudged the situation, however, then you may have to endure the humiliation of sheepishly crawling back to the seller.)
- If you end up meeting at a price you feel is too high, then there is no harm requesting a deal whereby another item is included – a sort of 3 for 2 deal.
Happy hunting and good luck!
In this Aladdin’s Cave, each and every possible need is catered for. From the endless spices – my favourite of which was called ‘Chilli for Mother-in-Law’, to be served when the victim is talking too much – to the myriad mixtures of tea for migraines, sleepiness, energy, cholesterol and even an aphrodisiac combination for love that my sister and I were heavily encouraged to try. Teas that are designed as a perfect accompaniment to the deliciously rich baklava, dripping with honey and stuffed with nuts – but I’ll save that blog post for another day… This variation, alongside a paradoxical specialisation and personalisation, far outdoes any visit to Sainsburies.
The piece de resistance, which I have saved until last is, undeniably, the national sweet – Turkish Delight. I previously recognised this as one of the less desirable Christmas sweets, forced down after a heavy meal in order to please offering hosts, who are secretly desperate to get rid of them.
Everywhere I went in Istanbul, every corner I turned, this treat was offered to me. From the flight attendants on my outward journey supplying snacks, to the hotel rooms, the reception desk, to every other shop owner who specialised in this treat, it truly was inescapable. My trying it became inevitable.
Row upon row of cherries, raisins and dates forming a thick fruit ‘leather’, which is then wrapped around either a nougat or chocolatey centre and stuffed with pistachios, almonds and walnuts. Flavours and textures so varied that it is impossible not to like.
After hundreds of samples later, having shamelessly abused the free give-aways, I chose my favourite: a soft and juicy Carob ball studded with pistachios, their green and purple hues forming a brilliantly bright coating.
With my jeans feeling considerably tighter than at the start of the holiday, and my suitcase threatening to burst open with the weight of my purchases, it was time to head back to the UK and channel my newfound inspiration into creating some treats of my own.