Category Archives: The writing life

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:

ISTANBUL

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.

 

Some favourite reads from 2016

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These are some of the fantastic books that I’ve enjoyed this year. All ten were published in Britain, but they have taken me through time and space as only good books can – to Calcutta and the Sudetenland, Swinging London and revolutionary Petrograd – and even to Palmyra, when it was a pristine ruin. With Queen Victoria I’m on home turf – see below. We go to Turkey, too, because it matters to us all – Turkey and Russia, Turkey and Europe, Turkey and the Middle East – raising some big questions for 2017.

Continue reading

selling out

When a book sells out, and it’s your book, which means they liked it, you may well want to punch the air, or kiss a policeman, or whatever. I think you are allowed. Just don’t kiss the air and punch a policeman, that’s all.

But then, when an ENTIRE COUNTRY sells out of your book, you may realise that while it’s great in its way, in another way it’s problematical.

America has sold out of Yashim Cooks Istanbul. Only last week we had a huge load, palletfuls of Yashim Cooks Istanbul, boxed and sitting cosily in the distributor’s warehouse in Chambersburg, PA. Then everyone ran out at once and went to buy a copy. Almost every American – well, they mostly didn’t run anywhere further than their mouse pad, where they feverishly clicked on the link – http://amzn.to/2gbTAz3, if you don’t believe me – and swept all available copies out of the online warehouse. Who instantly reordered, thus sweeping all available copies out of the Chambersburg warehouse and into the mailboxes of a few quick-thinking Yashim afficionados and leaving a note saying that the book was temporarily out of stock. Continue reading

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.

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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:

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/11/15/501588281/assassins-steak-tartare-popular-detective-series-gets-its-own-cookbook

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: http://bit.ly/2c7fkIU and we’ll be using an express route to ship to the States, too.

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.

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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.

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ferry at a stage

Their bright green hawsers are casually coiled on the planking.

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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.

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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 Steps Out

I’m told that tickets for my first Yashim Cooks Istanbul gig have sold out, which has to be good news. Although I remember being told the same thing by the nice people at Faber at the launch party for The Janissary Tree, and wondering if publishers lived on the same planet as the rest of us.

Picture the scene: I assemble a hundred or so of my closest friends and relations, along with the great and the good of Fleet Street, Grub Street and the BBC, hire splendid Georgian rooms in Fitzroy Square, lay on everlasting fizz, engage professional belly dancers, no less – and half an hour into the jamboree the publishers come up smiling and rubbing their hands to tell me ‘We’ve sold out of books! Congratulations!’

Sold out! Jolly well done!

Sold out! Jolly well done!

Anyway, no more tickets for November 12th at the Bridport Literary Festival: but we have other things planned for later, elsewhere.

If anyone wants to pre-order Yashim Cooks Istanbul, you can get signed copies here, free of postage. Also you can pre-order them on Amazon in the UK for £19.99, although they won’t be signed. I expect Amazon.com in the US will offer something similar very soon. Yashim Cooks Istanbul makes a really good present, with a whiff of Ottoman spice.

Many of you have asked when Yashim will emerge from his retirement and engage in a new adventure. Well, he has one rather short adventure chronicled in a collection of stories entitled SUNSHINE NOIR, all mystery stories by crime writers who eschew the frigid wastes of Scandinavia in favour of southerly heat and sweat (not but that it usually snows in Istanbul, but we will let that pass). My story is called Chronos and Kairos, about an occasion when Yashim borrowed a watch. Some of you may remember young Compston, of the British Embassy in Istanbul, bleating about his father’s Hunter in An Evil Eye: it’s that watch. Different occasion.

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Print editions are on their way, apparently, but if you use Kindle then it’s available there already.

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.

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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.

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Pick up a salad…

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to go with some good bread…

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

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and remembering to collect my own, patient father…

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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).

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

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Ottoman London

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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.

 

 

Yashim’s Istanbul Cook Book – a big thank you

Yashim put out the call, and you came from Wisconsin and Istanbul, from Pakistan and California, from Europe, Asia and the Americas, generously offering to roadtest Yashim’s favourite Ottoman recipes for his Istanbul Cook Book. Soups and stews and dolma and sarma, salads and puddings and meze and fish: they have all been sampled, in kitchens from Ankara to Aberdeen. Many of you already have sent in your comments to yashimcooks@gmail.com – most of them, I’m glad to say, enthusiastic.

Bean salad

A well-known crime author loved the lamb and loved the beans, and will definitely do them both again.

beans

A kindly tester took her Albanian dish to a Greek film night and adroitly avoided sparking an international incident.

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A five-year old ate everything on his plate, all cooked by his grandfather!

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In America a translator set aside his work to deal with the tiny fish lady, and prepared fresh tuna. He came back for more.

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In Poland, two women cooked three dishes together – and took the skins off a pot of beans, for Yashim’s salad.

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People tracked down urfa biber (aka isot biber) from ethnic groceries – and even on the internet.

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The listings magazine Time Out Istanbul did a recipe – and asked to review the book when it comes out on July 9th.

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Somewhere in America, a tester went to the store for eggplant and only found leeks, so I offered her a recipe with leeks. When she got back to the shop she found the leeks sold out and eggplant back in stock. She made the dish (and a sensible remark about quantities) and loved it.

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A surprising number of cooks sprang a new dish on friends – and were glad that it turned out so well.

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Me too.

 

I’ve had really useful feedback, too, on quantities, and spicing, and oven temperatures and timing, all of which have gone into the book. If you don’t use metric and centigrade, I’ll be adding a dead simple conversion chart.

 

So I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has got involved, and hope that you had fun, and to thank your friends and families. I love these photos! Some of you are still engaged on Yashim’s behalf, so thank you: I am really looking forward to your thoughts and reactions, too.

 

YASHIM’S ISTANBUL COOK BOOK – a call for volunteers!

As you probably already know, Yashim the Investigator – the hero of my series of five mystery novels – is something of a cook. In an idle hour in his apartment in Balat, Istanbul, he will chop and simmer and stir and sprinkle, and rustle up some delicious meze, perhaps, or a grand main dish, all the while thinking about the case he’s on. It’s how he relaxes. It’s how he thinks. Sometimes it gives him a clue…

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The books are full of recipes, and I hope they evoke the atmosphere of 19th century Istanbul – the way it looked, how it smelled, and what it all tasted like. For ages, people have been suggesting that I, the humble author, gather all Yashim’s recipes, and some more, together in one place – and I am pleased to say I’ve done it. Including baklava, of course.

Yashim’s Istanbul Cook Book is on its way.

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It has dozens of authentic recipes for sauces and fish, for grills and breads, for vegetables and kebabs (and pickles, like those being sold by the guys above): Istanbul the year round! And we’ve dropped in passages from the novels, too, to go with them, and lots of fabulous illustrations.

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The book has been designed by Clive Crook, the Art Director of Cornucopia Magazine, so it’s gorgeous as well as delicious.It’s being published in July.

Right now I’m looking for volunteers to road-test a recipe.Send me your email address (to the email address below), and I’ll send you a recipe from the book.

I’ve cooked them all, again and again, but I badly want to know what your experience of following the recipe was like. Did it work? Were the quantities right for you? Were the instructions clear, or did they leave you furiously backpedalling while you ground the forgotten spices and the onions burned?!

A quick ‘It worked’ is all I need (though please don’t stint if you’d rather say more), and a pointer to what, if anything, seemed wrong. I’m hoping there’ll be no complaints but I’d rather discover that now than go to press with anything that isn’t 100% perfect.

By all means tell a friend, if you think they’d like to join in. Ask them to drop me a line here, and I’ll send them a recipe to try. Who knows – you could end up having an Ottoman feast!

Get in touch at yashimcooks@gmail.com