Category Archives: Istanbul

Istanbul, mon amour

Cumhuriyet Kitap, Turkey’s answer to the TLS or The New York Review of Books, recently ran an essay I wrote on Istanbul. It was translated and introduced by Selçuk Altun, whose novels include The Sultan of Byzantium. Here’s the English version, with a few illustrations added:


It was an Irishman who introduced me to Istanbul, the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats. He had never been, himself: he never got further east than Ravenna. But he thought of Constantinople as the Holy City where, for a moment in the early days of Byzantium, art and action, feeling and intellect, had been fused into a single, graspable Truth.

That is no country for old men...Yeats wrote, in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.

His belief had nothing to do with Istanbul; yet the outsider’s view cannot be disqualified. Istanbul has always been, in part, a figment of the imagination. The emperor Constantine, who founded the city in 330 AD, envisioned it as the New Rome; and it was as Romans, Romanoii, that the Greek-speaking rulers of the city faced their nemesis 1100 years later. The rough Frankish knights who turned the energies of the Fourth Crusade against Constantinople in 1204 saw the city as a painted harlot; the Venetians, meanwhile, as their California. The Vikings called it Micklegard, the Great City. The Muslims, who first attacked it in 668 AD, called it the Red Apple. Osman, whose descendants were to capture it in 1453, saw the city in his dreams, and even today, on the walls of old mosques and mansions throughout the Balkans and the Middle East, you may find it wistfully represented, a city of hills and kiosks, trees and minarets rising gracefully from the water: a glimpse of an earthly paradise.Some of these illusions may even survive an encounter with the physical city, too.

The young in one another’s arms…

I first came to Istanbul on a wave of youthful romanticism, making my own Haj across eastern Europe, on foot, treading woodland paths from the Baltic to the Bosphorus. I was 26 years old. I stood beneath the dome of Aya Sofia like those ambassadors of old who said: ‘We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth.’ Outside, old men waved us to share their café chairs. The bread was dazzlingly fresh, the mackerel came off the boats, and in the Grand Bazaar a concoction of mint and chicken blew away months of dreary, Soviet-style meals. Walking across Europe was like a fairy-tale adventure; Topkapi was a fairytale palace; and the streets of Istanbul seemed tinged with gold. Of course I fell in love.

I married the girl who shared the journey: and in a way, I married Istanbul.

It was a city where you could bump your shins on history, eat well, take a ferry, ride a tram, and travel from one civilisation to another in ten steps. It took me a while to get to know Istanbul. I began like a jealous husband, raking up the past, combing through the stories people had told about her over the years. It helped that I had decided to write a book on that very subject: Lords of the Horizons, A History of the Ottoman Empire.

I wrote it to explain the Ottomans to myself. In Cracow, we saw some of the war tents captured at Vienna in 1683. In Hungary, we walked past a beautiful minaret, in a dusty town square. Who were those Ottomans? Where had they gone? I discovered there were many answers to those simple questions. For four years I immersed myself in books. There was something in the Ottoman style I liked – a gracefulness, a grandeur. As the former Yugoslavia tore itself apart, the old Ottoman settlement seemed less arbitrary, perhaps more merciful. My source for many stories was not in Istanbul, but at a private circulating library in the heart of what was once fashionable London, near Piccadilly. Among millions of books, all cloth-bound in library bindings, with stamped titles, I fell on the dusty memoirs and reminiscences of travellers and diplomats.

Some were fools. Some were wits. Charles White collaborated with Ahmet Vefik Pasha to write a three-volume description of the city in 1846. Eduardo de Amicis spent only six weeks in Istanbul, to write Constantinople (1878). They described the texture of daily life, which Istanbullu of the period seldom bothered to record. Everyone knows London, from Dickens or Sherlock Holmes: Istanbul never had that sort of chronicler. Those foreigners, amazed by everything they saw, wrote for posterity, creating prose pictures for their friends at home in an age before photography. They wrote down the mundane details of Ottoman life, and that is how I got to know Istanbul.

In time, of course, I discovered my city, not through the eyes of other lovers, but through my own. I came back three, four times every year, making new friends, visiting new places, tramping the streets of the city. My friends took me to places I might never have guessed existed, like Sinan’s bents in the Belgrade Forest. I liked ferries; forgotten parts of the old Genoese walls in Pera; hammam towels (but not hammams); mouldering hans; Istanbul Modern; smoking in taxis; and the certainty that there would be something extraordinary, memorable, perhaps invisible, within ten metres of anywhere I stood.

I liked Istanbul’s energy.

Perhaps it infected me: I started to write novels set in the city I knew from books. My detective hero Yashim investigated a coup attempt in the reign of Mahmud II, and a murder in Topkapi. Fiction gave me another way of telling an Ottoman story, another way of looking at Istanbul. The Janissary Tree won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Novel, and I felt encouraged to write more, trying to bring Ottoman Istanbul alive for readers all over the world.

One way was through the food. When Yashim wants to be quiet, and think, he goes home and cooks simple Ottoman-inspired dishes. Soon my readers were asking for recipes, and now I have collected and improved them, and added more, to make an Istanbul detective’s cookbook: Yashim Cooks Istanbul. So even when I am not in Istanbul, I can taste the city, and dream. It always was, partly, a figment of the imagination.



How many mortars do you have? While I was working on Yashim Cooks Istanbul, I added another two to my kitchen collection, one stone, one made of olive wood. 

Various recipes in the book call for spices, nuts or even pulses to be beaten, chopped, crushed or pounded. Most cookbooks suggest giving your ingredients a quick spin in a food processor, but I fight shy. I can’t stand the noise, for one thing, or those rubber feet, or the clutter that a food processor brings into the kitchen. These machines have a horrid arsenal of blades and graters, rendering every drawer a danger to unwary fingers. They make me jump – and who wants to be jumpy in the kitchen?

Pestle and mortar, on the other hand, work just as they did when these dishes were first prepared, centuries ago in the kitchens at Topkapi Palace. They were there, in the shape of two stones, when cookery was invented: after fire, and a pot, perhaps even before decent knives, cooking must have involved crushing. Old stone querns, for grinding grain, belonged to the ancients and have entered myth. Baba Yaga, the Russian witch, flies about in a pestle and mortar. They are an elemental pairing – yin and yang: pestle is, of course, cognate with pizzle, which it basically resembles. That, I think, is cheerfully salacious.

Not that I am driven by myth and Luddism. Or not entirely. Yashim Cooks Istanbul isn’t an exercise in historical re-enactment, like making mediaeval rice of flesh in an iron bowl, or chucking up lark’s tongues in the vomitorium. The recipes in the book are simple, inspired by their Ottoman originals but not slavish. They are dishes I’d cook at home, any day of the week, as Yashim does in his Balat flat.

No – the advantages of the pestle and mortar are as practical as elemental, even if they aren’t all visible. What you do see, for starters, is the beauty of the tools, in the grain of the wood or the clean, clear lines of the stoneware. It’s that simple, a tool for the hand and another for the bench. In my kitchen, the mother of them all is the 12 gallon mortar in which, incredibly, you can crush the tiniest pinch of cumin with the merest roll of your weighty pestle.

You probably know that a proper pesto is always made in a mortar – just as basil is always torn, not chopped, for adding to a dish. Whirr a pesto in a food processor and you have a glaucous minced mess, whose oily perfume has been already dissipated by the whizzing blades. Beating the leaves, garlic and pine nuts in a mortar takes a little longer (though washing out processor jugs and bowls is another chore), but the whole thing breaks down the oils, and keeps the pesto cool as it should be.

The same thing applies to spices – or to chickpeas. The reviewer at Country Life Magazine called Yashim’s hummus ‘the best ever’, perhaps because I suggest using a pestle and mortar to reduce the chickpeas and garlic to a thick, uneven, consistency rather than the whirred-up paste you get from a plastic pot. There’s no way to grind spices better than a mortar, either; or to crush herbs. It’s about avoiding stress, not inducing it – nor inflicting it on your ingredients.

Pound away. It’s good exercise, and a therapy. Wonderful aromas rise like soothing balm, the action is physical but not exhausting, the sound is regular and human. It is the sound of somebody chopping wood down in the valley. It is as satisfactory as ringing a gong; and it makes you happy.

The pestle and mortar’s closest relations are the wooden chopping board and the sharp steel knife. A family resemblance also exists between a pestle and a rolling pin, as between the mortar and a pot. These are what cooking is about. These are the implements it requires. And not much else.

When, in An Evil Eye, Yashim observes that cooking is really about a sharp knife, he’s pleased to be given one forged of Damascus steel. With the blade he can flatten, crush, chop and slice anything. But when he wants to make muhammara or hummus, or grind spices or nuts for baklava – or roasted coffee beans – he turns to the pestle and mortar. His is a marble mortar, and the pestle has a handle of cherrywood or ash, attached to a marble bulb, whose significant weight does half his work.

It is primitive. But then living in Istanbul in the first half of the nineteenth century, Yashim knows nothing of the magimix.

Thanksgiving turkey Ottoman style

screen-shot-2016-11-23-at-15-13-51Just in time for Thanksgiving, here’s a gentle Ottoman twist on the festive dinner – Yashim’s spiced stuffing, made with rice. Funnily enough, Ottomans seldom emigrated to the United States (an exception was a Syrian, Hadji Ali, aka Hi Jolly, who set up a camel corps for the Confederates during the Civil War), otherwise this stuffing would have delighted them. 

The recipe is below. You will of course find lots more recipes in YASHIM COOKS ISTANBUL, out now.

Signed first editions of Yashim’s new book are available at postage free. Also on sale on Amazon or a good bookstore!


Yashim Cooks Istanbul Storms US Charts!

You may imagine how thrilled I was to wake up to a fabulous piece about Yashim’s cook book on America’s number one radio show, Morning Edition. They gave it the great title: “Popular Detective Series Gets Its Own Cookbook” which is succinct, accurate and somehow funny. Very professional.

We did the interview about a month back, with Mary Louise Kelly of NPR, in my sister’s kitchen in London. Garlic, pumpkin AND fuzzy microphone.


The interview isn’t without its own drama, either – do listen to the 4 minute broadcast (and check out a few recipes) via this link:

Anyway, it’s a really generous launch present and immediately sent the book skimming up the Amazon rankings into the top 300: heady stuff for a 19th century Ottoman sleuth. Best of all, though, is the feedback from people who have started cooking from the book.

Signed copies are still available via this link: and we’ll be using an express route to ship to the States, too.

Publication Day

I remember the day I found myself crouched over a saucepan by the back window, camera in hand, prodding a rocket leaf with a chopstick. Behind me, a chorus of angry children demanded their lunch while it was still hot. I fiddled with exposures. I zoomed back and forth with the focus. I turned the pan. In the end, I climbed on a chair, balanced the leg of the tripod on the sideboard, and took the classic Instagram shot of the food, from above. It looked like a tidal wave of chicken pieces coming through a porthole. And then, to everyone’s relief, we ate. It wasn’t absolutely hot, but it was perfectly delicious.

Chicken pieces coming through a porthole

Chicken pieces coming through a porthole

The recipe was coriander chicken with lemon and sumac: it’s already something of a favourite, and you can find it on page 48 of Yashim Cooks istanbul, the culmination of all that zooming and recipe-collecting, all that tasting and testing, which really began when Ambassador Palewski came sniffing up the stairs to Yashim’s apartment, in an adventure called The Janissary Tree.

Today, in the UK and Commonwealth at least, is Publication Day. In the US and Canada, it’ll be November 15th – after elections, and before Thanksgiving.

And so, to my weepy Oscar speech.

Tuba's magnificent photos

Tuba’s magnificent photos

Many of the photos in the book were taken by me, or are taken from old maps, panoramas, and costume illustrations. Others, such as the splendid picture above, are by Tuba Satana. Her generosity and knowledge are boundless. She is an Istanbullite, a foodie, a photographer, a blogger and a guide. She is also a dear friend and you can see more of her work at and on Instagram at

If you think the design of the page above is crisp, clear and stylish, you will love the book. Hats off to Clive Crook, who produced the master design, and to Isaac Goodwin, who implemented it. He is at He is also responsible for the scattering of ‘little men’, or Ottoman figures, through the book.

We love the Little Men (and Women)

We love the Little Men (and Women)

When you use the book, whether to rustle up the coriander chicken, ruby pilaf or palace fig pudding, from dozens of recipes, the wonderful Sheilah Kaufman will have picked out the errors and the contradictions. She is a cook book editor, a lecturer and foodie based on the East Coast, with special expertise in Turkish cooking. Her patience and good spirits have helped make Yashim Cooks Istanbul. Further examples of her work can be seen at

Thinking about Widow Matalya's chicken soup?

Thinking about Widow Matalya’s chicken soup?

The testers have been you, Yashim’s readers, who so generously responded to my appeal on this blog. You saved recipes, and improved them. In particular, I owe a great debt to Amina Beres, Ann Barnes, Ann Bloxwich, Ann Chandonnet, Ann Elizabeth Robinson, Anthea Simmons, Beth Bandy, Beverly Firme, Bill Bosies, Britta de Graaff, Burcak Gurun Muraben, Carey Combe, Carmen Mahood, Carol Titley, Catherine Johnson, Chloe Potts, Claire Byrne, Clare Hogg (of the blog Saucy Dressings), Connie Hay, Daemon A. ‘Bunny’ Condie, David Lee Tripp, Diana Moores, Dianne Hennessy King, Donna Cummings, Dr Werner and Sonja Keck of Heidelberg, Eva Krygier, Evren Işınak Bruce, Francine Berkowitz, Rev. Fr. Gary Simpson, Genia Ruland, Geoff Perriman, Giles Milton, Giuseppe Mancini, Greg Burrows, Hira Najam in Pakistan, Indrek Koff, Irena Rywacka, Ivette Buere Cantu, Ivor Gethin, Jan Suermondt, Jean Stearns, Jeanette Kearney, Jill Patience, Jillian Wilkinson, Judith O’Hagan, Juliet Emerson, Kate Hubbard, Leary Hasson, Lennart Allen, Linda Gunderson, Lynda Dagdeviren, Maria Figueroa Küpçü, Mark Culme-Seymour, Marsha Frazier, Marta Bialon, Matthew Adams, Meg Officer, Melanie Ulrich, Olivia Temple, Pat Ruttum, Penny Harvey, Piret Frey, Rick Page, Robin Morris, The Rev. Roger Russell, Ron Garrison, Rosemary Petersen, Russell Needham, Ruth Peers, Sally Catton, Sid Cumberland, Simon Allen, Sophie Ransom, Stella Ruland, Stuart MacBride, Sue Aysan, Susan Dolinko, Suzi Clarkson, Tomas Eriksson of Malmo, and Veronica and Alfio Brivio.

And that, I think, breaks the five minute rule on Oscar speeches.

If you’d like a copy of Yashim Cooks Istanbul, signed and postage free, you can order one at In the UK, it’s on sale at a good bookshop near you, or of course on Amazon at Do leave a good review there, if you can!

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Autumn falls – and Ottomans cook!

Walking today in the woods, the first fallen leaves rustling underfoot, made me long for a fire – and a taste of this slightly smoky dip taken, of course, from Yashim’s new cook bookimg_4631Aubergine (or eggplant) puree

patlican salatası

A classic Ottoman meze, absolutely worth doing whenever you fire up a charcoal grill. Unlike the real thing, ‘poor man’s meat’ is very forgiving on the grill, so you can start the aubergines off as soon as the coals get hot. The flame gives the finished puree an irresistible smoky taste. Don’t forget the humble home fire, either. If you are burning wood in your fireplace, or maybe a woodburner, use it: an aubergine takes only a few minutes to cook.



aubergines (eggplant) 2

garlic 2 cloves, crushed and chopped

olive oil 2 tbsps

juice of 1 lemon

plain yoghurt 225g/8oz



lemon wedges


If you can rotate the aubergines over charcoal, so much the better: char the skins and pop the aubergines into a plastic bag when the flesh is pulpy. Otherwise, burn the skins on the gas or prick the aubergines with a fork, wrap them in foil and cook for at least half an hour in the hottest oven. 

Hold the aubergine by the stalk and peel away the skin. Scrape the flesh away with a spoon. Drop the flesh into a colander, and squeeze it gently to get rid of some of the water.

Put the aubergines on a board and chop them to a pulp, while they continue to drain. Sweep them into a bowl, and mix in the garlic, the oil and the lemon juice. When they are well mixed, add the yoghurt, a pinch of salt and a twist of pepper and beat again. Check for seasoning.

Serve the puree with a drizzle of olive oil and wedges of lemon, to eat on crusty bread.

Some simple pide

Some simple pide

Everything connects, of course, and given centuries of war and exchange between Russia and the Ottoman Empire it should come as no surprise that the Russians, substituting sauteed onion and tomato for the yoghurt, wisely adopted this as their ‘poor man’s caviar’. Versions of both are very popular across the Caucasus.

This is just one of dozens of the recipes from Yashim Cooks Istanbul, out in the UK on Thursday October 27th and in the USA on November 15th. Signed copies are available, postage free anywhere in the world. Just click on this link:

Gliding down the Bosphorus

I’m often asked to name my favourite place in Istanbul.

A bollard on the quay

A bollard on the quay


It isn’t a place, at all: it’s a passage, or a vantage point, or an adventure, with deep dark waters under the keel, and spray at the prow, and a briny bench – and a glass of tea.

It’s a trip on the Bosphorus.

My favourite vantage point

My favourite vantage point

About  fourteen miles long, and sometimes no more than half a mile wide, this twisting strait divides Asia from Europe, and links the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. The name means the same as Oxford: where the cattle cross, from the legend of Io, transformed into a cow until she crossed the strait and regained her human form.


feeding the birds at Eminonu

There are all sorts of Bosphorus trips on offer, but I think it best explored on the ferries which morning and evening crowd around the ferry station at Eminonu. The slow vapur have high prows for punching through the seas which run in from the Sea of Marmara, and low thwarts for easy embarkation.


ferry at a stage

Their bright green hawsers are casually coiled on the planking.


on board at night

One day they’ll no doubt be replaced by fibreglass catamarans and a sensory world will disappear, composed of wet planks, splintered pilings, the bubble of thick paint on rust, and the old ferryboat smell which is the same the world over, a tincture of diesel oil, damp wood and the sour reek of air trapped in the cabins.


Rumeli Hisar

Meanwhile, buy a glass of tea at the counter and settle down on one of the outside benches that run along the bows; put your feet up on the rail, and watch the shores of the Bosphorus unscroll, like some Victorian panorama, their vistas of villas, palaces, restaurants and domes.

The galley of a Bosphorus ferry: I love the chopping boards!

The galley of a Bosphorus ferry: I love the chopping boards!

The last photo, above, shows where they make tea: a place I like so much I put it in Yashim’s new cookbook,  Yashim Cooks Istanbul. !

From Yashim Cooks Istanbul

From Yashim Cooks Istanbul

Yashim’s cookbook available to pre-order!

“What is there not to like about a detective who enjoys cooking as much as he enjoys eating?” The Financial Times
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“Crammed with mouth-watering descriptions of creamy pilafs and delicate meze.” The Washington Post


Readers of the Yashim mysteries, set in Istanbul, like the way Yashim cooks and they’ve been calling for these recipes. Yashim Cooks Istanbul is designed to work in the kitchen, but it’s also a feast of a hardback, crammed with glimpses into the gorgeous world of 19th century Istanbul – costume, street scenes, some really early photographs – and cooking scenes from the Yashim books.


There are more than seventy five delicious and original recipes. They aren’t complex and they don’t need to you to go out and find wildly exotic ingredients. Turkish food isn’t like that – it’s more about simple spices, vegetable dishes, pilafs. There are recipes for lamb and fish, lots of salads, and little meze for snacks or starters. In Istanbul, it’s all about freshness and produce in season. Sometimes the simplest things are the most delicious.


More than one hundred Yashim fans generously volunteered as testers, trying out the recipes from Albania to Pakistan. Their feedback was fantastic, meaning that while the recipes are firmly rooted in the soil of the eastern Mediterranean – with a brief foray to the Veneto, and another into the grasslands of Poland – they have been cooked and approved all around the world!


Yashim Cooks Istanbul is divided into five chapters, each one built around a book in the Yashim series, and announced by a Yashim-era map of Istanbul, just to put you in the picture. We have soups, meat dishes, stuffed dishes, fish, vegetable (and vegetarian) dishes, and puddings, with measures in US style and metric. Everything the hungry cook needs to make a proper Ottoman feast…

There are all sorts of easy, traditional recipes in the book – simple and delicious family dishes like Greek fisherman’s stew, pumpkin soup or aubergine chicken wraps, alongside more unusual recipes like stuffed mackerel, hazelnut and lemon pilaf, or fish poached in paper.


I hope you’ll read the cookbook, enjoying the scents and tastes of old Istanbul conjured up by the short extracts from the novels, and use it to create Ottoman feasts, an everyday supper, or even a delicious picnic!


 To pre-order a signed copy, visit The price includes postage, and books will be dispatched in mid-October.

Istanbul: behind the headlines

Sometimes you can step behind the barrage of news, like stepping into that calm secret place behind a waterfall. Take stroll around Istanbul, as I’ve been doing these last few days. Have a glass of pickle juice at the pickle shop – very good for the stomach.


Take a wander through the fish market, where we bought lufer, Yashim’s favourite fish, and red mullet the size of your thumb, which I dusted with flour and pepper and fried.


Pick up a salad…


to go with some good bread…


pausing only to admire the portrait of the baker’s impressive grandfather…


and remembering to collect my own, patient father…


before taking a look at some of the 19th century architecture along the old Grande Rue de Pera, now Istiklal, Istanbul’s answer to Oxford St (and getting as tacky).

IMG_4097 IMG_4098 IMG_4099

Out again, to find more delights for Yashim’s next venture:

book on side

Ottoman London


We are almost ready to launch Yashim’s incidental meisterwerk, YASHIM COOKS ISTANBUL: Culinary Adventures in the Ottoman Kitchen, on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. As soon as it launches you will be able to order copies, watch the video – and even sign up for a guided tour of Ottoman London.

Leighton House

Everyone who has signed up for my newsletter will also hear about the new audio version of Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire, and get the first news about a forthcoming Yashim adventure.

Taking a tour of Ottoman London suggested itself last month after some of the high-end travel companies cancelled their trips to Istanbul. London has links with the Ottoman world dating to Elizabethan times, so the capital is riven with echoes and exemplars of Ottoman life and culture, from Wren’s St Paul’s cathedral to orientalist palaces like Leighton House. We will spend the day exploring some of these unexpected refractions of the Ottoman world, as well as art and artefacts in museums like the V&A, with lunch included, a lecture and a movie in London’s plushest private cinema.

Once again, I’ll be giving the details of all this via the newsletter.