As a couple of street cats look on, we ascend a narrow staircase until we reach a ledge overlooking the whole of Istanbul’s Golden Horn. There, at the somewhat precarious top, our guide has placed pillows for our small group to sit; we’ll be picnicking in the open air, with the spectacular Yeni Cami (New Mosque) behind us and the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar in front.
“Welcome to the best view in Istanbul,” said Benoit Hanquet, his longish gray hair blowing in the breeze. Our group of eight murmured appreciatively as Hanquet passed around slices of pide, a pizza-like flatbread created right before us a few minutes earlier.
If you’re tired of tours that bring you to the same old places, it’s time you gave culinary tourism a try. Food tours are about more than stuffing your face with local specialties. Rather, the good ones give you an insight into a city’s culture, allowing you to see how local people eat, drink and spend their free time.
Food tours have taught me more than a typical city stroll. For example, on a walking tour with Frying Pan Adventures in Dubai, I learned how diverse the emirate really is by eating Palestinian falafel, Egyptian pastries and Syrian ice cream as we walked through the Deira district. Many of these foods are cherished by foreign workers, who aren’t allowed citizenship, we were told — which made what we were eating seem far more compelling.
In Istanbul, I took on the Grand Bazaar with Culinary Backstreets, a food tour company that has now expanded to 16 cities. Founded in Turkey, the company originated as Istanbul Eats, a food guide that first came out in book form, Benoit told us. The authors received so many requests from tourists to help them find the small mom-and-pop stalls and stands in the book that they decided to start offering tours.
In Istanbul alone, Culinary Backstreets runs six tours a day. Topics range from a cooking class held in Kurtulus, a neighborhood well off the beaten path, to an authentic meyhane, or night out on the town, complete with raki (Turkish liquor) and live music. While the company keeps the skeleton of the tours the same, the guides do some of their own improvising; Benoit tells us that our picturesque ledge is one that only he visits.
Taking a food tour can require some fortitude, both on your feet and in your stomach. Both my tours in Dubai and Istanbul stretched out over six hours; in Istanbul, we left Benoit after being together 7.5 hours (the Belgian expat was still going strong; he informed us that our “early” departure would keep us from coffee at a restaurant with another great view). Come hungry and pace yourself!
Food tours are not for the squeamish. Although Benoit told us that customers with food allergies or preferences are given options, many of the world’s cities aren’t well suited to picky eaters, particularly when you’re visiting places that specialize in just one thing. In Istanbul, we were coaxed into having kokoretsi, lamb sweetbreads that have been roasted for hours. Served on a toasted piece of French bread, the pieces of offal were melt-in-your-mouth delicious — and even those people on our tour who questioned the stop ended up liking them.
Culinary tours also tend to be bonding experiences. Our Istanbul tour included three lively Australians, three Americans (my husband and I included) and a couple from Pakistan. We listened, enthralled over our bulgur and lentil soup, as Shireen from Islamabad shared the hardships of being an art critic in Islamabad. I still follow the Frying Pan Instagram feed, posted by Farida, a University of Pennsylvania grad who returned to the U.A.E. to start her business. Turns out breaking bread together is an intimate act around the world.
At the end of our Istanbul tour, we exchanged email addresses with our new friends and headed back to our hotel. We were tired and full, but also upbeat; suddenly the streets seemed friendlier and more familiar, now that we had drunk the same sweet tea as the Turks. At the hotel I called up the website for Culinary Backstreets and immediately booked another food tour for next week, when I’m in Athens. I’ve visited there before, but I know that by exploring the city through its bakeries and markets, I’ll come away satiated.
— written by Chris Gray Faust