If you know one thing about this city, it’s this: if you’ve a date in Constantinople, she’ll be waiting in Istanbul. If you know two things, it’ll be that Istanbul is where East meets West. The city straddles two continents, bridging the Occident and the Orient since the earliest days of antiquity. Eastern opulence blending seamlessly with Western arts into a magnificent jewel on the shimmering waters of the Bosporus to create one of the great cities of antiquity and the modern age.
Yeah…that’s the story, anyway. As with so much in life, the reality differs a fair bit from the advertised product. Following the expulsion of the Greeks and others in the early years of the Republic, Istanbul has been predominantly mono-cultural. And nowhere is that more visible than in the city’s food culture, with one notable, recent exception: Arabic cuisine.
Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, a great influx of refugees and migrants have moved to the city. With this diaspora, small enclaves of their brethren who remained after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire have grown rapidly. This migration is most evident in the Fatih district, especially around the eponymous mosque and in the Haseki neighborhood, along Turgut Ozal Millet Street. This is, incidentally, my home in Istanbul.
Get off the tram line at Yusufpasa and walk west. On either side of the wide, bifurcated avenue you’ll see as much Arabic script as you will Turkish; more, in some places. Syrian eateries have surrounded the previous foreign presence in the neighborhood – the Uyghurs – though they’re still there, serving up delicious laghman to weary travelers as they have since the days of the Silk Road.
One of the more famous of the Syrian restaurants in Haseki is Tarbuş Food, owned by Syrian immigrant Mohammed Nizar Bitar. For many years, two small eateries named Fez Food and Fas Food stood on either side of Turgut Ozal Millet Street, both with nearly identical signage, one copying the other. When the waves of migrants flooded into Fatih district, both restaurants became surged in popularity. One changed its name to Tarbuş, and then the other followed suit. In the past, the one on the south side of the street had been the little brother, envious of the crowds that hustled for seats outside its northern sibling on hot summer nights for a glass of fruit yogurt drinks. Today, though, both Tarbuşi are going gangbusters.
I stopped by for the first time on a Friday afternoon after the rush for a late lunch. The place is clean and modern, much like a decent, non-chain diner would be in any western city. The aroma of ‘broasting’ chicken wafted out the door as I stepped in; the Arabic chatter of the late-lunch stragglers spoke to the restaurant’s authenticity. The staff was quick and attentive, bringing me a bilingual (Turkish and Arabic) menu just as I got settled into my seat. Though there are only a few pictures on the menu, as long as you know some Turkish, you can order easily. Even without knowing Turkish, you can make out some keywords like falafel and hummus on the Turkish side.
After a little consultation with my server, I ordered a serving of hummus, falafel, and a variation of an Arabic beef-and-yogurt dish called etli fatte. Too much for lunch, but I wanted to have a nice, wide variety of flavors. And I wasn’t going to eat at a Syrian place without indulging in some hummus and falafel.
The hummus arrived shortly with a pleasant plate of onions and pickles. Every table comes well-stocked with slices of pita bread, so I took one of those and dove in. Mmm mm! That is what hummus should taste like. Soon, the falafel appeared on my table, though I hardly noticed, so ensorceled by the hummus was I. But, man cannot live on hummus alone. Once the falafel had cooled a bit, I popped one of those ın my mouth. A-freakingi-mazing! They could have been a Platonic archetype of the idealized, primal ur-falafel. Realizing that I was almost full already, I asked the server to box up the falafel and remaining hummus so I’d have some room to try the fatte. The fatte (oftened transliterated as fateh) was interesting. I’d never tried this dish before, and I did not know what to expect. The yogurt was much more sour than I was expecting; not a bad thing, but certainly not what I thought I would be tasting. The skillet-fried ground beef was well-seasoned, and the chickpeas were good. What I most enjoyed, though, was the bits of toasted pita bread.
On subsequent visits, I tried a few other dishes. The etli kabse, broast tavuk, and even the chicken cordon bleu are all quite tasty. You seemingly can’t go wrong there. Especially if you get a side of hummus and a small plate of falafel.