Dateline: Beyoglu, Istanbul—The call to prayer warbled from a nearby mosque as I walked down the southern part of Istiklal Caddesi toward the Bosporus. Istiklal is a long footpath stretching from Taksim Square down to the water, effectively separating the “stylish” and “European” Beyoglu shopping district from the iconic ancient city where the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque dominate the skyline. Footpath is a generous name for a collection of roughly hewn and worn-down cobblestones winding down a precarious hill with pedestrians, stray dogs, bold seagulls, and irritated taxi drivers paid enough to make the attempt.
As I walked up to the döner stand I waited for the intonations from the minarets to soften. Business carried on as usual around me. I waited not out of some respect for the call, but rather my Turkish is pretty rough and I didn’t want to mishear what the shopkeep had to say, or mess up my order and end up with something unexpected. These döner stands are as iconic to Istanbul as any ancient Byzantine tower or extravagant mosque. Rotating in front of these stands are two massive columns of glistening meat, one light and one dark, one presumably chicken and one presumably beef. Beneath each is a placard with a price and a rough picture of what meat they are selling. Like most street food, it’s best to avoid dwelling on how the meat arrived at the location in its current state.
The mid-day call ended and I approached the older man standing by the meat with a knife about as long as my forearm. I didn’t stumble as much as I expected ordering a chicken döner sandwich. The old man nodded and replied that it would cost two Turkish Lira (about $0.88). I paid the man. There were about six other men working in the stand. The older man pocketed the money and began constructing my sandwich. He finished quickly, handed me my sandwich, and then stepped out of the way as a stray dog walked by.
The beauty of the street döner is in its ingredients. The bread had a crisp crust, but soft, fresh insides; it had clearly been baked that day. The pickled spicy peppers and cucumbers tossed in with the meat came from a jar close to the rotating columns of meat. I could see each ingredient. And while the chicken might have been suspect, it was moist, tasted wonderful, and flavored the bread perfectly. In a major American city, you would not be surprised to pay 10 times more than $0.88 for sandwich described as, “freshly sliced chicken with homemade pickled vegetables served on freshly baked artisanal bread.”
I ate my sandwich on a small stone wall near Galata Tower, a 12th century fortification and one of the few remnants of the Byzantine civilization in Beyoglu that predates the Islamic conquest. I can’t say that I ate the sandwich slowly. I crumbled the wax paper that accompanied the sandwich and wiped the grease from my beard on my sleeve. It was time to keep walking.
Wilder has traveled extensively in southwest Asia, eastern Europe, and spent a brief stint in Afghanistan eating various meats and cheeses and drinking lots of water. His favorite sandwich is the gyro, and that seems a little unorthodox. When he’s home in D.C., he’s frequenting sandwich haunts such as Fast Gourmet, SUNdeVICH, or Stachowskis with his lovely wife and traveling companion.