The spice bazaar in Istanbul
The spice bazaar in Istanbul, also known as the Egyptian bazaar (Misir Carsisi) was built in 1664 and currently has about 85 shops selling spices, Turkish Delight and other sweets, homewares, souvenirs, and dried fruits and nuts. It is the most well known bazaar in Istanbul after the Grand bazaar. My trip to the spice bazaar came as a result of what I thought were exorbitant prices for Turkish Delight in the Grand bazaar. I headed to the spice bazaar to see if I could get better prices for them and I did.
The bazaar was just a fraction of the size of the grand bazaar but it seemed to have much more by way of variety. It also seemed to have more local shoppers which is always a good sign and bears testament to the quality and authenticity of the offerings available. It was busy given I was there by 11.00 am Turkish time, but not overwhelmingly so. After a couple of haggling sessions my girlfriend and I bought 5 boxes of Turkish Delight.
However, what struck me at the spice bazaar was the colour and spices. As a connoisseur of spices and herbs the attraction was natural. Some of the spices available are listed below. I was particularly interested in how these spices were used in Turkish cuisine.
Cumin, or “kimyon” as it is known in Turkey, is what makes Turkish meatballs what they are. It is also a must have in Turkish hummus. Generally, cumin is used in Turkey to season meat dishes and also used in seasoning soups and sprinkled over meats and stews as a garnish. It can be used to flavour pizzas and pastries and a major ingredient of the spicy Turkish sausage Sucuk.
Sumac is a popular spice in the Middle East. It has a slightly tangy and lemony flavor. In Turkish cuisine, sumac is used most commonly as a garnish. It is often sprinkled on grilled meats, salad of sliced onions and parsley. In Turkey, you would often find sumac served as a condiment next to kebabs, sautéed lamb liver and meatballs.
Simit, the circular Turkish bread encrusted with sesame seeds and one of 13 must try Istanbul street eats, came to mind when I saw sesame seeds on sale at the spice bazaar. Apart from Simit, in Turkey sesame seeds are also used to make tahini, or sesame paste for coating the tops of bread and pastries.
One of my favourite Turkish puddings, baked rice pudding, which I last had at the Hafiz mustafa 1864 confectionery, can be made with a dash of cinnamon. Whether in its powdery or stick form, cinnamon is one of the most common ingredients in Turkish desserts, puddings, pastries and cakes.
Tea was plentiful at the spice bazaar. Even though Turkey only caught the tea drinking bug in the 1900s, tea is now a huge feature of the country’s culture. It is the second most consumed drink after water and serves as a lynchpin for Turkish hospitality. The variety of tea I saw at the bazaar was impressive.
The best part of my breakfast in Istanbul was the cheese. The selection and the taste was delightful. It was, therefore, no surprise to find a couple of cheese stalls at the spice bazaar. White cheese in Turkey is a staple at breakfast, as well as a filling in layered pastries like borek, which I highlighted here – 13 must try Istanbul street eats. Cheese in Turkey tends to come from goat, cow or sheep milk.
Nuts have a social significance in Turkish culture. They are often served at henna parties, as part of a meze and as a side when alcohol is on offer. The most common nuts in Turkey are pistachios, almonds (badem), chestnuts, hazelnuts (fındık), and walnuts (ceviz).
In the spice bazaar pistachios seemed to dominate. Turkey produces two types, Antep, which are small in size but pack an enormous amount of flavour and normally come from Gaziantep in western Turkey and another Siirt which are round bigger pistachious nuts with beige shells (see photo above) from Siirt, in Eastern Turkey. The Antep pistachios are mainly consumed as a snack as well as forming a major component in baklava and other sweets. The Siirt pistachios, on the other hand, are sold mainly as a snack.
Turkish Delight (Türk lokumu):
Turkish Delight was the reason I had to quickly dash into the spice bazaar. I knew they’d make for great gifts and knew i’d get good prices at the spice bazaar. I had been to the 150 year old Hafiz Mustafa 1864 to sample the best Turkish Delight Istanbul had to offer and wanted to take some back to London. The quality varied somewhat and was usually distinguished by the price tag and the ingredients used. When Turkish Delight was first made in the 1700s at the behest of the Sultan at the time by an Ali Muhiddin, a confectioner, the recipe revolved around mixing water, sugar, corn starch, cream of tartar and rosewater. Nowadays, pistachios, walnuts, oranges, almonds, clotted cream, and chocolate have all become ingredients in the more expensive Turkish Delights.
Very little Turkish honey ever comes out of Turkey. The only country that produces honey sweeter than Turkish honey is china and Turks make sure they consume most of theirs leaving very little for export. What does manage to get out is usually beyond most people’s means. This is premium honey and guess what? You can find this here at the spice bazaar for a fraction of what it will normally cost internationally. Do be wary though, as Johnny Morris reports in the article, Turkey – Grail Trail, some of Turkey’s honey could make you go mad.
The Ottoman empire is thought to have first used preservation methods to cure meat. It is, therefore, no surprise that their descendants, the Turks, still use these traditional methods in preserving meat. Breakfast for me in Turkey was special purely because of Turkish cheese, eggs and pastrami. Apparently there are over 20 kinds of Turkish pastrami in Turkish cuisine with Kayseri pastırması, from Anatolia in Turkey, the most common. Admittedly, there were not that many shops in the spice bazaar selling pastrami. I am certain more variety could be found in a more specialist market or shop elsewhere in Istanbul.
The sweet pastry delicately made of layers filled with chopped nuts and bonded together with syrup or honey is as Turkish as American pie is to Americans. I was not surprised to come across a rather huge selection of baklava at the spice bazaar. The range was wide and the prices were reasonable.
Overall my mission at the spice bazaar was accomplished. I walked away with a few shopping bags without breaking the bank. The stall attendants and owners were brilliant and would haggle and educate you on their offerings in equal measure. I had walked around the spice bazaar the evening before and had discovered a whole “market” around it. My only regret was that I was pushed for time to catch a flight out of Istanbul so I could not spend time discovering the surrounding market during the day time. I am told there are some bargains to be had and an equally impressive offering on show as well as some cool restaurants and street food in the vicinity.
Spice bazaar opening hours: 09:00 am to 19:00 pm during weekdays and Saturday; from 10:00 am to 18:00 pm on Sundays. Spice Bazaar is closed during religious and public holidays.