In many respects, Istanbul-life is what happens while you’re making other plans. The subtle transition between the unknown and the familiar occurred in my daily experiences here without me even noticing. One day I was a wide-eyed yabanci (foreign) alien and the next, Istanbul had somehow become my normality. I now rarely catch myself noticing the more bizarre elements of life in Istanbul, of which there are many, and of which I was all too acutely aware of in my first few weeks here. I have now become accustomed to the pace of this great city; no longer a complete stranger, I now feel strangely at home amid its landscape, its people and its culture. Subtly, and without intrusion, the city seems to have woven itself into my subconscious, the relationship between us becoming more intimate as time passes. As I move through the city day after day, going about my routine, I feel myself becoming ever more intertwined in the city’s complex tapestry.
I have now developed my own habits and rituals here. I am now known by my Galata neighbours, local coffee shops and takeaway services. As I travel back and forth across the city each day, I recognise the same familiar faces staring back at me on the metro and hold the same conversations with street sellers on my route home. One of the absolute highlights of my busy working day has become my evening ritual of stopping to eat pilaf tavuk (chicken rice) outside Haciosman metro station. Due to the amount of time I spend commuting across the city, this habitual evening snack is often the first chance I will have had to eat since breakfast. The mobile pilaf tavuk cart at Haciosman sums up why I love Istanbul — the food is fast, tasty, cheap and continuously available. For me, Istanbul is all about the thriving street food culture.
In order to avoid what Adam Smith referred to as “The deadening effect of familiarity on curiosity” I try, when I can, to seek out new perspectives of the places I visit daily in Istanbul. On my commute to work, I reflect on the beauty of my surroundings. I take note of the facial expressions and mannerisms of people on the bus and metro, the swerves and turns of the furious traffic whizzing by, the colour of the skyline littered with buildings and the red flags rippling on the ocean breeze sweeping in off the Bosphorus.
The main difference from when I first arrived is that, where these things once overwhelmed my sensory experiences, they now make me feel strangely at ease. I have grown increasingly accustomed to the texture and tone of Istanbul. The things that used to baffle, horrify and amaze me have become so normal to me now that I hardly notice them. I have come to find solace in the dirt and the smells, the constant noise and frenzy. Of course, from time to time I become deeply frustrated with how difficult everything seems to here — Istanbul is the very definition of juxtaposition — but I feel at home amid the chaos of this urban space, in all it’s glorious paradoxical charm.
The mobile food cart at Haciosman metro station is owned and run by two friendly gentlemen, Mohamed and Gulnur, and the food they make and sell is simple but utterly delicious. My work colleagues and I are such regulars customers that Mohamed and Gulnur know exactly what time we will arrive each day and always great us with big smiles. Both men seem so delighted that a group of yabancis has become their most frequent group of customers. Every evening at 18:30 when we get of our school service bus at the entrance to Haciosman metro, Gulnur beckons us towards him, beaming with pride as he bellows “Hosgaldinez” (welcome). On approaching the cart, Mohamed flashes us a shy smile and nods politely as he extends a hand containing a small plastic bowl filled with boiled white rice and shredded roast chicken.
At this point in the day, I finally relax. The food is homemade and heartwarming — real ‘food for the soul’ grub. At the back end of the cart there is an array of condiments available, including jars of Turkish green pickles, yellow peppers and chilies. I take my chicken rice scattered with as many spicy yellow chilies as I can pile on top and drenched in mayonnaise. It may sound and look disgusting but I think it is the bee’s-knees of simple, home-cooked, Turkish street food.
The food is served in small half-ball shape portions and cost 3.50 tl per portion. The chicken is soft and flavorsome and the rice is creamy and buttery with boiled chickpeas mingled among it. Seeing as Turks don’t really believe in vegetarianism, if you ask for a portion without meat, Mohamed and Gulnur will simply scoop around the chicken piled up at one side of the rice pan and—voilà!—you have a veggie portion. Haci Osman Pilavcisi’s food is so popular with locals passing by during rush hour that Mohamed and Gulnur have even created a Facebook page for their mobile food stand, which boasts over 420 ‘likes’: https://www.facebook.com/HaciOsmanPilavcisi. The friendly atmosphere and high standard of service that Mohamed and Gulnur uphold has enabled them to create a culture uncommon of the average street food stand in Istanbul. Their customers are not only plentiful, they are also loyal and, like myself and my colleagues, can be counted on to keep coming back for more. Everyday, I glance about and see the same familiar group of commuters huddled around the cart, shovelling chicken rice into their mouths at speed. We are all there, everyday, no matter the weather, for the same reason – we are all really, really hungry after work.
What I like most about eating at Mohamed and Gulnur’s food cart is the strong sense of community there. Everyone eats together and everyone is welcome, regardless of class, gender, age, or even species, for that matter. Even the street dogs are welcome at Haci Osman Pilavcisi and I routinely see people purchasing whole bowls of chicken rice to feed the hungry stray pups with. While street food sellers in central areas of Istanbul would chase off begging dogs, in the misty mountainous district of Sariyer, man and beast happily dine together.
As I am sure Mohamed and Gulnur have realised, one of the things that makes Haci Osman Pilavcisi so successful is its location in the remote Northern district of Sariyer. While there are thousands of identical street food stands scattered all over Istanbul, not all of them have managed to cultivate such a great sense of community or highly loyal customer base as Mohamed and Gulnur have. This is because the pace of life is a bit slower up in Haciosman (which happens to be the last stop and farthest point of the city’s Northern metro line). People are not in such a mad rush up there. They know each other and they make time to stop and speak with each other on their way to and from the office. In fact, we all rely so heavily on Mohamed and Gulnur being there to meet us with warm bowls of chicken rice after work, that on the rare occasion that they are not, my colleagues and I literally don’t know what to do with ourselves. The only reason that Mohamed and Gulnur will not set up their stand is if the rain is too heavy during the winter season, yet we all still whine like spoiled little children if we are denied our beloved chicken rice.
My daily dining ritual with Mohamed and Gulnur is now so established that we have even managed to teach each other some basic language skills. While my Turkish is still appalling, neither Mohamed nor Gulnur speak a word of English. Everyday, after I have finished stuffing my face with chicken rice, Mohamed takes my empty bowl away and offers me a peçete (napkin). This routine is in fact how I learned to pronounce the word “Peçete” and how Mohamed learned to pronounce the word “Napkin”, which he very proudly demonstrates for me every evening. Bowing his head as he passes it to me, Mohamed proudly says “Nap-et-ken!”, to which I proudly respond “Pej-ita!”. Then he waves me “Iyi akşamlar” (good evening) with a broad-beaming smile. I respond “Iyi akşamlar” and we part ways, knowing we will do the same familiar dance again tomorrow.
*A Turkish Delight