Category Archives: Istanbul

Yashim Cooks Istanbul

A Yashim cookery book would be an appetising prospect.
The Guardian

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Here is the cover design for YASHIM COOKS ISTANBUL, featuring the recipes used by Yashim, my Ottoman investigator, over the course of his five published adventures. They range from light meze to serious dishes, pilafs, puddings, pastries and pickles, imbued with Ottoman flavours.

So many of you urged me to write this book. It has meant a lot of testing and experimentation. So nettle pilaf didn’t make the cut; nor did Priest’s Stew, a beef daube with vinegar backnotes. Good, but not that good – but wait till you try the sensational beetroot pilaf! And please let me know what you think of the cover.

One of the great things about the book is that it allows me to take control, seeing it through from conception to design to edit to print. I’ve had some brilliant professional assistance, especially on design and editing. I’m talking to several printers, in the UK, China and Italy and – whoever gets the job – the book is going to be a feast. It will be a hard case book of 224 pages, full colour throughout, on tactile, bulky, offset woodfree paper. Head and tail bands, gorgeous endpapers. Final details to be decided.

As well as illustrating the recipes we have studded the book with stunning visual references that put Yashim’s Istanbul on display – Ottoman costume, street scenes, some really early photographs. The recipes are interlaced with scenes from the Yashim books which deal with food. The recipes themselves 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 warm spices, nuts, vegetable dishes, pilafs. There are recipes for lamb and fish, lots of salads, and little meze for snacks or starters. If you know Istanbul, you’ll know it’s about freshness, things in season, and sometimes the simplest things being the most delicious.

The official launch date for publication is October 27th.

Meanwhile I’m going to keep in closer touch with Yashim’s readers by sending out the occasional email. Letters are, frankly, more my style. If you’d like to receive them, just subscribe here.

Saving Istanbul’s unique urban farms

Istanbul’s 1500-year old market gardens are on the brink of destruction – to make a park.

Istanbul’s massive city walls stretch seven miles across the Istanbul peninsula like a collar, from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara. They were built in the fifth century when Constantinople was still young, double walls of stone with bands of red brick, regularly punctuated by crenelated towers. For centuries they successfully defied the enemies of Byzantium, resisting over thirty sieges before succumbing in 1204 to a Crusader army, and to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. They are what city walls should be, vast and forbidding, the model for castles in far-off Wales, and a thousand episodes of Game of Thrones. Defenders have flocked to them, many have died upon them, scaling ladders have been hurled upon them, and they have been cursed and blessed in a hundred languages, in the name of half a dozen gods.


But when the smoke clears and the rubble slithers to a stop, while empires fall and kingdoms are overthrown, you may hear the persistent scratching sound that marks the passage of those walls down the centuries. It is the sound of mattock and hoe on soil, the sound of untold generations of gardeners planting seed in the shadow of the city walls. Even today, peering down from the ruined towers of Yedikule, it is thrilling and sobering to see the little plots of lettuces and onion shoots, leeks and radishes, rolling away from you in a green ribbon as far as the eye can see. Like the walls, these little gardens have survived right down from the days of the Byzantines to our own, and Yashim, I imagine, strolled here, and bought an oka of fresh tomatoes from the gardeners of his day.


Actually, the gardens have lasted better. The walls were kept up until the early 19th century, and then allowed to decline. For much of their length they are crumbling, and in places they have suffered the indignity of being bulldozed aside to accommodate more roads, in a city that has ballooned from 2 million to 16 million inhabitants in twenty years. The walls no longer enclose the city, as it marches away across the hills towards the airport, and Thrace, devouring and disembowelling the landscape with structures more massive – and unquestionably more repellent – than anything the fifth century could conceive.

The line of the walls, shaded with green, visibly encloses old - crowded - Istanbul

The line of the walls, shaded with green, visibly encloses old – crowded – Istanbul

The gardens have flourished, while the stone decays. If you are in a philosophical mood, you might see the counterpoint between the walls and the gardens, between these two currents of human activity, as positively Ozymandean. Up there, the ravages of war and conflict, and the gestures of pride; down here, quiet digging and planting, and basketloads of edible leaves. The lettuce of Yedikule is famous across Istanbul. The two, as ever, march side by side.

The Yedikule market gardens in the 1880s

The Yedikule market gardens in the 1880s

But not for very much longer, if Istanbul’s mayor has his way. For some years we’ve been hearing about a plan to turn the market gardens of Yedikule into a park. There would be lighting, and landscaping, and a pool. There would be paths, and swings. A scruffy and essentially unregulated zone that has scarcely changed in fifteen hundred years would be Cleaned Up. The plans have that air of slightly desperate sadness we have learned to expect from architectural visions: lonely trees, anonymous people, purposeless activity. And, one half-assumed, the whole thing would be put off indefinitely.

This January, contractors came to the Yedikule gardens and tore down the gardener’s sheds, where they keep their tools and seed.

That they haven’t yet – at time of writing this post – bulldozed the gardens themselves is a miracle, and may have something to do with a surge of protest led by the gardeners themselves and supported by Istanbul’s Slow Food movement.

If you can, do click on the link below and help Slow Food by signing the petition.

Save Yedikule Gardens

By the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Yashim walked slowly across the Hippodrome, towards the obelisk that the emperor Constantine had brought from Egypt 1500 years ago. He wondered what they meant, those perfect birds, those unwinking eyes, the hands and feet incised with unearthly precision on the gleaming stone.

He stopped for a moment in the pencil of the obelisk’s shade, and touched its base. Trajan’s column stood fifty yards beyond, a slender bole of rugged stone, weathered and clamped with great bronze staples, its base carved with a Roman emperor’s Balkan triumphs, helmeted legionaries crammed together with their short swords drawn; the stamp of horses, the abasement of chieftains and kings, the flinging of bridges across rivers, and the lament of women. The scenes were hard to decipher, too; the stone had been softer.

Beneath it, Arab traders had pitched a wide green tent on poles. A string of mules went by, and as Yashim lowered his gaze to watch them pass his eye was caught by the twining stalk of the Serpent Column, hollow and broken like a reed: a twist of ancient verdigris no bigger than a withered palm-tree, set in a triumphal axis between the obelisk and the column.

It had been made over two thousand years before, a miracle of craftsmanship to celebrate the miracle of Greek victory over the Persians at Plataia, with three fearsome snake’s heads supporting a great bronze cauldron. It had stood for centuries at the oracle of Delphi, until Constantine seized it and dragged it here to beautify his new capital. The centuries since had been unkind to it. The cauldron was long gone; the heads, more recently, had disappeared.

Yashim had known the Serpent Column for years before he first saw the bronze heads in Palewski’s wardrobe. He had imagined them to look like real snakes, with broad jaws and small, reptilian eyes, so he had been shocked by the monsters whose cruel masks he had explored by candlelight that evening. They were creatures of myth and nightmare, fanged, blank-eyed, seeking to terrorise and devour their prey. Malevolence seeped from them like blood.

Yashim leaned over the railing, to peer down into the pit from which the Serpent Column sprang. The other columns stood on level ground. Was it because the snakes emerged from somewhere deeper, some dark, submerged region in the mind? He shuddered, with an instinctive horror of everything cultish and pagan. From above, the coiling snakes looked like a drill, a screw digging deeper and deeper into the fabric of the city, penetrating its layers one by one.

If you turned it so that the coils bit deeper into the ground, if you traced the sinuous curves of the serpents’ bodies from the tail up, you would bring the fanged monsters closer. And eventually you would find yourself staring into those pitiless hollow eyes and the gaping mouth, into the dark side of myths and dreams: terrorised, and then devoured.

Yashim glanced back at the Egyptian obelisk. It seemed cold and reserved, careless of its fate. The Roman column was nothing but a platitude: empires decay.

But between them, the green-black coils of the brazen serpents referred to a dark enigma, like a blemish in the human soul.

From The Snake Stone


Jeremy Seal has made a useful assessment of the current travel situation here.

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…


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.

cookbook page1

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.

fountin ahmed III

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 [email protected]

Five things you should know about The Baklava Club

  1. THE BAKLAVA CLUB is out on June 5th in the US and UK – and in Estonia on June 1st! It’s set in 1842, six years into our acquaintance with Yashim, who made his first appearance in The Janissary Tree, set in 1836. That’s basically one adventure a year.     Baklava_Conference

The story involves a bunch of young Italian revolutionaries exiled in Istanbul, who see the Pope as their enemy, the enemy of liberal nationalism. Gregory XVI came to the papal throne in 1831, and was a diehard reactionary, determined to resist the spread of modern ideas and democracy – he even took a stand against railways. And of course he wasn’t just the Pope, Vicar of Christ: in those days, he ruled over the extensive Papal States, too. He stood in the way of reform, and a united Italy.

Pope Gregory XVI

Pope Gregory XVI

  1. It contains a delectable Ottoman picnic.

    Sweet Waters of Asia

    Sweet Waters of Asia

  2. Yashim falls in love.
  3. By the early 1840s, much of Europe was controlled by autocrats, including Czar Nicholas of Russia and the Austrian emperor Ferdinand. Growing popular resentment broke out in the liberal revolutions that swept Europe in 1848.

    1848 Revolution in Berlin

    1848 Revolution in Berlin

  4. One of the characters is inspired by a minor character in Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake. And I’ll send a US or UK hardback copy of The Baklava Club to the first person to name them both!
The gorgeous US edition

The gorgeous US edition


Erdogan and the Janissaries

Istanbul residents have always treasured their green spaces.


This was, once, a city of trees – ornamental cypresses in its graveyards, fruit trees in its gardens, the banks of the Bosphorus ablaze with Judas trees blossoming in the Spring. On the shore of the Golden Horn, on the Pera side, there grew an enormous plane, cut down on the sultan’s orders to clear the approach to the Galata Bridge.


Long before Istanbullu united to preserve the trees of Gezi Park and, by extension, to protest against the increasingly autocratic actions of Prime Minister Erdogan, I’d imagined a similar scene. In 1840, in The Bellini Card, Yashim encounters a crowd murmuring against the destruction of the great plane. The extract below is from that book, in which Yashim’s adventures take him from Istanbul to Venice.

Prime Minister Erdogan, unlike the sultan, is democratically elected, and seems to have done Turkey a great deal of good. All the more reason, then, to regret that he’s unwilling to enter into the kind of negotiation that a complex society like Turkey deserves. Liberty cannot mean majoritarian rule, as JS Mill pointed out, and there are voices and attitudes in Turkey’s modern society that should be handled with respect. As Norman Stone pointed out in yesterday’s Evening Standard, Erdogan is dangerously like another prime minister who after ten years in power came to believe that their will was identical to the will of the country. Mrs Thatcher’s term ended in ignominy.

One lesson that can be drawn from Ottoman history is that if the people require tribunes, so do their rulers. For many centuries the janissaries, despite their growing licentiousness and arrogance, performed that function: soldiers, who dominated civic society, could now and then express the popular mood. Their method was to overturn their great regimental cauldrons, and beat on them with spoons: the terrible sound of the janissaries in mutiny drifted from the barracks to the palace, and the sultan took note. Then in 1826 Sultan Mahmud II destroyed them, to a man.

Today, housewives in Beyoglu bang their pots and pans together at their windows. But Erdogan doesn’t seem to be listening.

Once the janissaries were eradicated, Mahmud and his successors were less beholden to the people. They furiously modernised the Ottoman Empire, running roughshod over popular disquiet, and collapsed unlamented in a puff of smoke at the end of World War I.

The Janissaries had their own tree, and their own traditions – and they, like the empire they served, are gone. Erdogan – like Mahmud II – still wants his mall.


Here’s the extract from The Bellini Card: note the detachment of troops in reserve.


Yashim walked slowly back to the Golden Horn, taking the steep and crooked steps that led from the Galata tower.

He was about halfway down when he became aware of a strange sound, an unfamiliar murmuring from the shoreline below.

From the lower steps he gazed out over a crowd gathered around the gigantic plane tree. Its branches cast a deep pool of shade over the bank of the Golden Horn, where the caique rowers liked to sit on a sweltering day, waiting for fares. The lower branches of the tree were festooned with rags. Each rag marked an event, or a wish – the birth of a child, perhaps, a successful journey or a convalescence – a habit that the Greeks had doubtless picked up from the Turks, and which satisfied everyone but the fiercest mullahs.

Yashim heard the distinct rasp of a saw; looking closer, he realised that there were men in the tree. There was a sharp crack, and one of the branches subsided to the ground: the crowd gave a low groan. He scanned the faces turned towards the great plane: Greeks, Turks, Armenians, all working men, watching the slow execution with sullen despair; some had tears running down their cheeks.

Two swarthy men in red shirts started to attack the fallen branch with axes, stripping away the smaller growth: Yashim recognised them as gypsies from the Belgrade woods. They worked swiftly, ignoring the crowd around them. Out of the corner of his eye, Yashim caught a sparkle of sunlight on metal: a detachment of mounted troops was drawn up beyond the tree. He hadn’t noticed them. Perhaps the authorities had expected trouble.

He looked carefully at the crowd. Most of them, he guessed, were watermen for whom the felling of the tree was a harbinger of bad times to come: what would become of them, when people could walk dryfoot between Pera and old Istanbul? But it was also the loss of an old friend which for centuries had sheltered their members from the heat and the rain, which had accepted their donations, brought them luck, sinking its roots deeper and deeper with the passing decades into the rich black ooze. No-one had turned up to witness the destruction of the fountain: that, in the end, was only a work of man. But the plane was a living gift from God.

A second branch, thirty feet long or more, fell with a crack and a snapping of twigs, and the crowd groaned again. For a moment it seemed as though it would surge forward: Yashim saw fists raised, and heard a shout. Someone stepped forward and spoke to the woodmen, still hacking at the first branch. They listened patiently, staring down at the tangle of twigs and branches at their feet; one of them made a gesture and both men resumed their work. The man who had interrupted them turned back and pushed his way out of the crowd.

Yashim watched him: a Greek waterman, who stumped away to his caique drawn up on the muddy shoreline and stood there, looking up at the sky.

Yashim followed him down the steps.

‘Will you take me across to Fener, my friend?’

‘I never thought I would live to see this day, efendi.’ The Greek hitched his waistband, and spat. ‘I will take you to Fener, or beyond.’

As they pulled away, Yashim turned his head and saw that the woodmen were still at work. Two more branches had fallen, and the tree looked misshapen; he could hear the rasp of the saw and the toc toc of the woodman’s axe. A team of horses were dragging away the first bare branches.

The rower pulled on his oars, muttering to himself.


The Ottomans’ Trees

In the light of the unrest in Istanbul sparked by the high handed demolition of the green spaces of Gezi Park, I quote from Lords of the Horizons:

“Every storm must have its eye, where the winds sound without a breeze, and in whose still, flat air you can feel the whole of its sullen energy… For the common man, the centre was perhaps a tree. ‘Cursed be the man who injured a fruit-bearing tree,’ the Prophet said, and the idea of the tree – the shaman’s tree, the tree of the Old Religion – was firmly rooted in Ottoman life. Osman’s earliest dream was of a tree of destiny, which grew from his breast and whose leaves pointed at Christendom like spears. A tree grew gnarled and bent in the dusty square of every imperial town and village, where the men could sit to exchange the gossip of the day; so at the centre of the Hippodrome, in the middle of Constantinople, in the heart of the empire, stood a tree known as the Janissary Tree. From it, centuries later, in their days of arrogance and praetorian power, the janissaries liked to administer rough justice, and form their mutinous assemblies: ‘a tree,’ said a visitor in 1810, ‘the enormous branches of which are often so thickly hung with strangled men that it is a sickening sight to look on.”

Istanbul has seen a whirlwind of growth and development, but the storm must still have its eye, I think. Erdogan should think again.


The Janissary Tree

Istanbul reads

Back from a whirlwind visit to the city with two new essentials for anyone thinking of travelling to Istanbul. The first is a book, and a website, called Istanbul Eats: Exploring the Culinary Backstreets – a lively canter around the food treats of the city. Lots of my favourites in there, and others I hadn’t taken in – street food, stall food, cubbyholes and restaurants, clearly orgainsed by district. Authors Ansel Mullins and Yigal Schleifer have an infectious enthusiasm for discovering new things, and eating them. Lots of photos, good maps, and all in a book so small you can slide it into your pocket…

The website is at

Next essential is Istanbul: The Ultimate Guide by Saffet Emre Tonguç and Pat Yale. These two know their Istanbul like nobody else, and their award-winning new guide is everything it promises to be – thousands of photos, maps, vignettes and snippets of information, taking you into – over and under – everything worth seeing in the wider city.

Both books are available abroad, or you can buy them easily on Istiklal Caddesi, the old Grande Rue de Pera.

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

In Istanbul, at any rate. So much changes as the years go by: it’s prosperity, of course, which does it – and the corrosive ways of global finance, which encourages people to get rich by trashing things we like.
Now that the Pera Palace has had a facelift, I’m shifting my bags along the road to the Grand Hotel de Londres, partly because the name is so evocative, and partly because it has what some call faded glamour (and others depressing plumbing). It’s here:  Note: they take bookings without taking a credit card number! How’s that for old world politesse?

While we’re at it, are there any places like that which you’d recommend to us all? I can think of some in India, like the Ooty Club; and I remember staying at the Peace Hotel (nee Cathay) in Shanghai, when the old men played jazz downstairs and your room could swallow a London bus. There was a Greek cafe, Makarios, on Jermyn Street in St James’s till a few years back where you could get a dish of mussels for, I think, £4.50; it was full of minor civil servants and the old waiter had a voice like molasses running over gravel. Now, pimped up, overpriced, Italianated and lost, it’s like this:

Still, all is not yet lost – so take a moment to share your nostalgic travel treats with the rest of us, below – if you can squeeze a photo in, so much the better!