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Yigal co-founded the blog Istanbul Eats with Ansel Mullins to bring us the best undiscovered local eateries you might not always find on your own. The blog has grown and evolved into Culinary Backstreets, which tells the stories of a city’s foodways, giving equal measure to the culinary side as the human element to gain a deeper understanding of the city and its daily life.
Over the years, Yigal has worked for the New York Post, New York Times, and Vanity Fair. Istanbul Eats was a winner in the 2012 SAVEUR Blog Awards, and Culinary Backstreets has earned a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor.
I am so excited to have Yigal Schleifer of Istanbul Eats and Culinary Backstreets with me here on the show today.
(*All photos below belong to Culinary Backstreets.)
On Their Blog Istanbul Eats:
We were both living in Istanbul. We’re both Americans. Ansel’s from Chicago, I was living in New York before coming to Istanbul. We both got there around the time, 2002. And got to know each other through mutual friends fairly early on, and I think both shared a love for what makes Istanbul so special, which is it has all these great little backstreet places to eat. Just fun little ‘hole in the walls’ or ‘mom and pop shops’, or just places that have been around for generations, centuries. Very traditional nice spots that serve great food and are often hard to find, unless you’re kind of wandering the streets almost aimlessly.
I think in many ways we bonded over that. We were sitting over lunch one day, I think this was around, let’s say, 2009, and we were both complaining to each other about this article that just appeared in the travel section of a major American newspaper, and it was one of those articles saying, “If you’ve got a couple of days in Istanbul, here’s what you should do and where you should eat.”
The food suggestions, we thought, were just atrocious. At least in our minds. They were very typical suggestions, and just the kind of things that leave people feeling like, “There’s really no great food in Istanbul.” I mean, we kept hearing this. People are like, “I’ve come to Istanbul and I didn’t have a great food experience.” And to us, that was hard to believe. How could anyone possibly not have an incredible food experience in Istanbul?
We thought, “You know what? It’d be nice if there was something that highlighted these great spots that we love.” So thus was born the idea for the blog Istanbul Eats, initially just each one of us writing about these places that we had grown to love over the years there, and more or less more humble places. Not the high-end of the spectrum, but calling them the low-end is not so fair either because there are some high culinary achievements happening in some very humble places.
So we started with the blog and it really took off. It was kind of hard to imagine but at that time there was really nothing, not even in Turkish, that was doing what we were doing, which is kind of just writing about these humble, authentic places. And about a year after doing the blog, we had enough material for a book, so we did a guidebook, which is in English, but there’s also a Turkish version and a Greek version.
And then we also had the idea of… It was suggested to us by somebody who does this in Rome, which is to start doing food walks, culinary tours. We thought about how we would like to do that and really decided that you can really tell the story of the city through food, and we were doing it through our reviews in one way, but doing these walks would be another way to do it.
We came up with an initial route. We now, at this point, all these years later, we have maybe closer to 7 different routes in Istanbul. But the idea was really to create a kind of narrative-driven food tour. So instead of just stuffing your face and going from one place to another and eating good food but without maybe much thought as to what all the food is about, we decided to really find ways to tell the story of Istanbul, of different neighborhoods, especially places that most tourists don’t get to, through food.
Initially our first walk was through an area of the old city of Istanbul where most tourists don’t get to, and really understand the history of how food drives the rhythms of daily life in Istanbul.
So that’s how Istanbul Eats got started. I think it filled the void that was there. I think being expats, or outsiders, allowed us to, let’s say, venture into neighborhoods that maybe because of whatever cultural divisions you have in Turkey, certain people wouldn’t go to that neighborhood. Maybe it’s too religious over there, or it’s too this, or it’s too that. Those rules didn’t really apply to us because we were foreigners. So we were able to go wherever we wanted and eat wherever we wanted and write about these places. It took off, and we were really gratified to see the response.
On Starting Culinary Backstreets:
Istanbul Eats started in 2009, and about a year later started doing food tours. And while we were doing that, we were thinking it would be interesting to try this model in other places. We also saw people who had come to Istanbul and used our book, and had been on our walks who said, “Hey, you guys should think about doing this where I live, this would be really cool”. So, in 2012, the idea of Culinary Backstreets came into our head, which is the idea of trying to do this in other places. In 2012 we launched a website, and initially, we were along with Istanbul, we were also in Athens, and Barcelona, and Shanghai, Mexico City, and then we had it in Rio.
And really the idea was we used that same model, find a local person to write for us about great local places to eat, really to celebrate these kind of unsung heroes, people perpetuating culinary traditions, or doing interesting things with old traditions in new ways. And then we also do these experiential activities, the food tours, to really give people a chance to really get on the ground and have a more guided experience. So we’re really gratified to see that that also got a very nice response, and since then, we’ve gotten into a few other places. We’re now in Tokyo, and Lisbon, and PRC, and Georgia.
We’re really trying to make our mark in cities that we think have a great culinary tradition, great culinary culture, great food culture. That have an interesting story to tell beyond the food itself, but that the food helps tell the stories. So a city with some kind of interesting backstory and that the food really helps you unlock the mysteries of that city. And also places that are kind of hard to navigate on your own, for whatever reason. If it’s the language, culture, or even geography. Istanbul is such a hard place to sometimes navigate because the streets are kind of winding, and you just never really know where you are. It’s nice to have that guidance.
So that’s Culinary Backstreets. The idea, again, it’s just like what we did in Istanbul, really tell the story of these cities through their food, and to really offer people a way to interact with that city and with its story, either through reading our reviews that we do, or taking one of our walks. We also offer something called the Eatinerary, which is our custom-made food and travel guide. We have an online questionnaire that people can fill out and tell us what all their different preferences are and what their passions are and what their cravings are. And then we come back with a several day guided document that serves as a kind of a food guide. So, setting up each day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and other things along the way that really take you through the city and its food.
That’s the Culinary Backstreets story. We’ve really been happy to see it grow, and the idea is to keep adding all these kind of interesting cities to the roster as we grow.
The Pressure Cooker:
Which food shows or cooking shows do you watch?
Well, this may sound very cliche, but lately it’s just been the British Baking Show. Sad to say I’m not a big TV guy. But that’s been what I’ve been watching with my kids, and they’re big fans.
What are some food blogs or food websites we have to know about?
This is kind of a backhanded plug for Culinary Backstreets, but just to say that we recently did a week together with a website called Roads & Kingdoms. Roads & Kingdoms is not strictly a food blog, they’re kind of a culture and travel website that does great reportage and focuses on food, and we did a week with them about bars. Different bars that we really love, small little places, focusing, again, on the people…we call it “behind bars”, it’s the people, the bartenders. So we’re really happy to work with them. It’s a great site that I highly recommend, Roads & Kingdoms.
With Culinary Backstreets, what would you say is your personal favourite tour?
Well, one of our newest ones is in Georgia, the country not the state. It’s an amazing place, it’s an amazing country, it’s an amazing food culture that has an incredible wine culture. There’s something very raw and wild still about life in Georgia. The food is sort of like this mix of all kinds of different influences, yet you can’t quite put your finger on it… It’s totally unique in and of its own, and the walk that you do there takes you through this old market there that’s just an incredible hive of activity and through the city, and then ends up at this wonderful restaurant run by a group of younger Georgians who are recasting older traditions in a new light.
It’s just great, it’s an incredible introduction to, I think, a place that feels really different than a lot of what most people experience, be it European, or North American, or South American, or even Asian. It’s just a very interesting place.
What is the most unusual or treasured item in your kitchen?
It’s not unusual, but I love it deeply, and it’s a mortar and pestle, wooden mortar and pestle, that, to tell the truth, I can’t remember where I got it. It’s possible that I got it in Jerusalem but it’s possible I got it in New York. It’s been with me for a long time now, and I can tell how long I’ve had it because the pestle is sort of worn down from all the grinding but I use it specifically for crushing garlic, it’s perfect for crushing garlic. I don’t know what it is, something about the wood against the wood, and the way it soaks up some of that aroma and the flavor. And just the warmth of the wood, it’s almost like a child of mine. I really love my mortar and pestle, and there were a few years where it was in storage just because we had been traveling, and being reunited with that piece of kitchen equipment is really special.
Name one ingredient you used to dislike but now you love.
I hate to repeat myself, but let me go back to liver and just say that after spending several years in Turkey and encountering liver in all kinds of different forms, in some places it’s even eaten for breakfast, literally, it’s grilled in southeast Turkey in the morning, grilled up. So I’ll have to say liver again just because I’ve become such a liver fanatic.
What are a few cookbooks that make your life better?
There’s one that to me is kind of like a Bible and it’s Paula Wolfert’s, Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean. Maybe it’s 20 years old or more, but it’s a fantastic cookbook that I just turn to all the time and has some fantastic recipes. There’s just something perfect about it to me, and I always go back to it, and it just really seems to cover the sweet spot for me in terms of this Eastern Mediterranean region, ranging from Greece over to Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and down through Egypt. It’s a great cookbook.
What song or album just makes you want to cook?
Probably The Wailers, as in Bob Marley and The Wailers, but before when they were just The Wailers. And it would be Catch a Fire, probably. I would have to say that’s something… That era… Wailers… Anything, actually, from that era I think really does it for me in the kitchen. Or anywhere else.
On Keeping Posted with Yigal:
Go to our Facebook page, we’re just Culinary Backstreets on Facebook, look us up. That’s probably the best way to stay up on what we’re doing. If you want, go to our website and sign up for our newsletter, we send out a weekly top stories of the week newsletter. But Facebook is the most comprehensive.