Monday, September 7, 2009

Scents of Summer (Part 2, Istanbul)

Views of lakes, rivers, glimpses of coast and endless fields of light-worshipping sunflowers helped pass the time pleasantly as we made our way with the car through Northern Greece all the way to the Turkish border, but as dusk fell, the only way to stave off boredom seemed to be sleep. A few hours later I woke up, slightly startled by the vague yet persistent noises all around me. A glance at my watch and then a glance around me: Istanbul. The city was teeming with life and the streets were a pandemonium of blearing horns and cars whose drivers seemed to be following a single rule: Follow no rule at all. Presiding majestically over this overruling ataxia and peering down at us just as we were peering up at them, the rightful proprietors of this city - its buildings. The new next to the old, the Byzantine next the Ottoman, the Muslim next to the Christian, the romantic next to the strikingly modern, the marvelously preserved next to the dilapidated, the colorful next to the ashen. Never have I seen such beautiful madness. I knew then already, from that first moment I opened my sleepy eyes, that if Istanbul is one of those cities that separate people between those that love it and those that hate it, I belonged firmly in the love it camp.

Had this been a travel-blog, my weeklong stay in Istanbul would have provided material for several entries, so rich an experience this strikingly beautiful, indefinitely interesting city offers to travelers. However, this being a perfume blog I find myself struggling to parse everything that makes Istanbul what it is into an entry about the city’s scents, of which believe me, it has plentiful. I might as well start with the most obvious: The city smells like corn. That’s right, corn! Every single corner has a vendor offering both grilled and boiled corn-on-the-cob, ready to feed the city’s inexplicable, insatiable hunger for the cereal grain. Everyone seems to be constantly eating it while walking around and by the end of the day trashcans are overflowing with the gnawed-clean leftovers. Every few steps one is inexorably greeted with the sweet smell of corn. Munching on one while on the go makes one practically a native, no matter how blonde or blue-eyed: I was constantly greeted by ushers in Turkish the one time I decided to try one for myself.

This corn obsession might be the most bizarre and by far the most ubiquitous (I am really not exaggerating!) but there are other food-and-drink smells aplenty to tempt the nose of the hungry Istanbul explorer. The best place to find them all in one place is Istiklal Avenue, a wide, long pedestrian avenue that sums up the beautiful chaos that exists in this grand city in the best possible manner. Always busy (literally millions of people walk its length every single day), filled with street performers, vendors, boutiques, restaurants and all manner of shops, Istiklal Avenue offers the possibility to taste and smell countless unique Turkish flavors. It might not all be pleasant - we found ourselves almost heaving when we approached a popular rotisserie that specializes in goat and lamb dishes, but it is certainly interesting. A sweet, milky, vanillic smell surrounds Dondurma (chewy, goat milk ice-cream) vendors as they entertain passersby with acrobatics involving large springy masses of ice-cream flying in the air before returning to the frozen vats for some more churning. That very smell mingles with the heavy smell of spit-roasted meat a few steps down the road and that in turn with the smell of mussels drenched in fresh lemon juice further ahead.

By far the most wonderful, exotic smell you’ll encounter here comes from the wandering salep vendors. I was already familiar with salep since it is a beverage you can easily find in Thessaloniki as well during the winter, but since it is a very typically Turkish drink, I find it deserves mention in this entry. Salep is a thick, fortifying beverage which is served hot and is made of powdered orchid bulbs of certain species, milk, rose water, crushed walnuts and various spices, most notably cinnamon. I personally do not enjoy actually drinking it since the texture is most definitely an acquired taste (it is rather mucous), but whenever I happen upon a salep vendor I stop and linger nearby to revel in its marvelous, spicy scent. Do try this at least once if you travel to Turkey as it is a very unique experience. I mean, how often do you get to drink something made of orchid powder?!

Sometimes particularly delicious smells might prove to be something you’d rather not actually eat. Case in point: while walking down Istiklal Avenue one night, we decided to turn into a particularly busy side street, lured in by the sights and sounds of plentiful eating, drinking, laughing, haggling and general merrymaking. The air was filled with this incredibly delicious, spiced, strong smell of something vaguely meaty-smelling. When we had pushed through the crowd enough to get a glimpse of the lined vendors, we saw that they were preparing sandwiches made of tiny pieces of what looked like soft meat as fast as they could, in order to feed the ravenous throng which was gobbling it all up as if there was no tomorrow. “Alright” I thought, “I’ll try one”. Thankfully, as I was about to order, some instinct prompted me to ask what kind of meat my delicious-looking sandwich was being filled with. The vendor looked at me in surprise: “Intestines!” I took another look at the heap of tiny, soft pieces which only a moment ago had looked (and smelled) so appetizing and of course, saw it too. Intestines. Diced intestines. I retreated as fast as I could, which was not all that hard since the next customer in line was already eagerly ordering. Intestines. My boyfriend laughed and laughed, especially when I told him that my nose was not entirely dissuaded by the knowledge but instead kept finding the scent delicious. Who knew my nose could have such strange tastes?

Join me again on Wednesday for the final part of Scents of Summer when we will visit Istanbul’s spice market, talk about fabulous perfume oils and visit with a perfume artisan who creates gorgeous, unique personal blends.

Images: Istanbul through the window by Sakis Alexiou, Corn vendor via Flickr by Wrote, Dondurma vendor via Wikipedia, Salep fountain via


The Daily Connoisseur said...

Divina what beautiful images... and I love that you are describing the scents of your journey- my image of Istanbul is so much more vivid now! Can't wait for the third installment...

Ines said...

Intestines are a delicacy here in Croatia - but I for one cannot bear the thought of eating it. I noticed that men here tend to love it, while most women don't (that's not to say all - some do like it).
Can't wait to read the next post! :)

ScentScelf said...

I always enjoy your posts, Divina, but today you have given me something extra: salep. As an American, the only concept I've had of eating bulbs until now--other than onions & garlic, natch--was the popular story that Audrey Hepburn ate tulip bulbs to survive during WWII. I think that should I ever be presented the opportunity, I will need to sample the salep...even if it is mucousy.

(Oof, I do believe I just made a public commitment. :) )

f said...

Wow, corn? That is so funny! In some European countries they think American corn is "animal feed" and won't eat it - obviously the Turks know better. :-)

Salep has now been added to the list of things to try before I die.