Several months ago, when Z and I decided to go to Istanbul, our good friends and eating companions, Shyam and Thanuja decided to go too. Not with us, but before us. They got home a week before we left.
“The women there know how to dress,” Thanuja told me. We were in Seattle, on our way to pick quince. “You need good boots, and a nice coat. And I have a book for you, for recommendations, restaurants and little places to eat. From the same people who wrote the Istanbul Eats blog.” This is great, I thought. It’s like I have a scout.
As soon as we got to Istanbul, Z had the book out and was flipping through it, looking for dinner.
“They left notes for us,” he said, almost smirking. “Says here that Shyam won $500 dollars—betting that some chard they had in a meze was steamed and not sautéed.”
“And he was right?” I asked. Thanuja is more of the cook.
“I guess so,” Z said, “If he won the money.”
I laughed. If you know them, this sounds quite familiar. It is wonderful to have friends. They were so far away, but it felt like they were right there with us.
We rattled down the stairs and up the hill and onto a road so full of people that they seemed to flow like a river. Lights hung between the buildings, above the glass store fronts, from the old ornate molding. Chestnut roasters stood behind red carts, turning their chestnuts and warming their hands. A trolley that reminded me of San Francisco slowly parted the people and the women, in their boots, clicked and clacked on the cobblestones.
When I was living in Italy, I had a night, alone, in Milan, on my way home for Christmas. Heels and coats, window displays, lights between buildings. It was so beautiful it had made me lonely. I took Z’s arm.
“What are you thinking?” he asked.
“It is like Milan,” I said. The biggest difference was not in the place, but in his presence.
“What were you expecting?”
Only when I said it did I realize: “I was expecting it to be more foreign.”
Z nodded and steered me towards the side of the street. We peered into a window. Trays upon trays of small confections were stacked on top of each other. Green, brown, crispy, soft, translucent…
“Baklava.” Z said. I recognized them, and yet they were completely different.
Before I could go in he steered me back across the street and pointed to another glass case. The light in the shop lit up his features. “And tavak gogsu.”
“Is that the..?” But before I could finish my sentence Z was inside the pasteleria, talking to the man at the counter. I followed him in. We sat down. The man brought a dish to our table, white and wobbly, browned on top.
“Sweet chicken pudding?” I finished. Z already had the spoon in his mouth.
“So there’s chicken in there?” I asked, more to emphasize my skepticism that to hear his answer.
“It’s a thickener,” Z said, when he swallowed. “You can’t even taste it.”
“Then why use it?” I asked.
“It’s a texture thing. Here have some, it’s delicious.” He stuck a bite in my mouth, quick and decisive, like he was feeding a toddler.
Smooth and thick, rich and toothsome. My first thought? “This is so familiar.”
“Did I ever tell you,” I asked, as I took another bite, “how my sister used to make pudding at night?”
Z nodded and I began the story.