On the trail of Istanbul's Iskembe Salons
ISTANBUL SOOTHES, NOURISHES AND HEALS HERSELF ON TRIPE. 24 hour neighbourhood iskembe salons serve tripe soup and kelle paca, a broth made of roasted sheep head and boiled sheep trotters simmered in juicy tripe stock. You eat these soups when you’re cold or sick, hot and happy, drunk or horribly hungover. For iskembe is a signal cure for all human ills, especially those that are self-inflicted.
For iskembe is a signal cure for all human ills, especially those that are self-inflicted.
Iskembe salons vary in style from the marbled to the tarnished, from designer chic to down-at-heel. To discover a good salon, you ask any taxi man or dolmus driver. In the Old City they are sanctuaries where tourist guides disappear to recover from a day of inane questions; on the Asian side where old boys in flat caps suck soft soup through what used to be their teeth; in the New City, bravely holding back the twin tides of trends and gentrification. For iskembe transcends class, and gender, and money.
The recipe varies little. You make a rolling stock of beef bones, butchers fatty spoil and tripe bits flavoured with salt and pepper and a nub or two of garlic. Skim the pale fat that rises to the top. Take the tripe from the first two stomachs of a young cow. The first will be dun-coloured rumen—smooth, or blanket tripe—the second and third, reticulum, or honeycomb tripe. Boil both tripe types separately until tender, remembering to both skim the pan and hold your nose. Chop the rumen small, and the honeycomb into large postage stamps. Have ready a bowl of glistening stock fat, one of pinkish wine vinegar flavoured with rough chopped garlic, another of beaten egg yolks. Refresh a spoon of rumen and one of the grey-ish honeycomb in a bowl of very hot stock. Drain and repeat. Stir in a dribble of stock fat, a spoon or two of pungent vinegar, and another of the beaten egg, to thicken the soup a little.
Have ready a bowl of glistening stock fat, one of pinkish wine vinegar flavoured with rough chopped garlic, another of beaten egg yolks.
FOR KELLE PACA OR PACA SOUP, YOU ADD A SPOON OF ROASTED SHEEP HEAD, one whose meat has been cut into dice the size of small fingernails, and/or the same of long-boiled shredded sheep trotter. With the nails removed, of course. Some chefs add to either soup a sprinkle of the hot isot red pepper flakes introduced to Istanbul in the last generation by Mesopotamian migrants. Others do not, for iskembe resists fashion.
In the New City, my favourite iskembe salon is behind thrusting Taksim Square on Tarlabasi Boulevard, the screaming, gritty highway that bisects Beyoglu and splits the latte drinkers from the luckless. It is called Lale—Tulip—and maintains a demanour of prim dignity. There’s a small taxi stand and dolmus terminus outside. Inside yesterday was a representative iskembe constituency of nostalgic millionaires with bulging shirt buttons, some shiv-faced cutpurses, a pair of chatty whores, a table of taxi drivers who’d just worked 18 hours solid, the odd food lover, some lost tourists and a blind accordionist.
My wine writer friend Andrew Jefford once said that iskembe corbasi soup smells closer to the animal it came from than any food he’d ever come close to. True, there is a memory of the farm in the dark and rich aromas rising from my bowl, but after a night on the tiles, these smells are grounding, comforting, real. Kelle paca is more definitely umami, savoury, meaty in character. Both are always served with a big bottle of vinegar on the table, and a crock of slivered garlic in light brine. A basket of chewy bread completes your feast. The cost is not quite three dollars. For iskembe nourishes, and tastes ancient and true.
Kevin Gould channels M.F.K Fisher and Smells Sanctuary In Istanbul’s Old and New Cities
Kevin Gould is a freelance writer with The Guardian, Jamie magazine (for which he was shortlisted for the 2014 Kate Whiteman Award for Work on Food and Travel), former APA Journalist of the Year and author of Dishy. Ariel Roman is an artist, illustrator, designer and one third of HellaCrisis.