Photos by Kevin Gould
Istanbul is the New York of the Near East. Where NY’s penicllin is chicken noodle soup, Istanbul soothes, nourishes and heals herself on tripe. 24 hour neighbourhood Iskembe (say it like this - ishkembeh) Salons serve tripe soup and kelle paca (kelleh pachah) - 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 (especially) or horribly hungover. 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 taximan or dolmus driver. I have favourites all over Istanbul - 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.
For kelle paca, or paca soup, you add a spoon of roasted sheeps head whose meat has been cut into dice the size of small fingernails, and/or the same of long-boiled shredded sheeps 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.
Lale’s chef is Ayni Gundogdu. There are many nuances in the Turkish language. You can translate his name idiomatically as Having Seen The Day Born, or as Real Day Rising. Or you can just eat Ayni’s soup. He likes to add a few specks of isot pepper to his soups, sometimes. Their colour bleeds into the broth in slowly growing orange spots. For Ayni likes the colours of sunrise above all other colours.
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 3 dollars. For iskembe nourishes, and tastes ancient and true. It connects with your soul, and with the soul of the old and new Istanbuls, too.
Tarlabasi Bulvar No 3, Taksim
Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year
by Kevin Gould