The golden sun of the late August afternoon sprinkled orange, yellow and red blotches on sides of buildings. I felt a slight breeze as I watched the Galata Tower stick out among the the buildings behind me. Compared to the others, it was strikingly unique yet looked so natural in its place. My sister and I walked slowly across the Galata Bridge, past photographers capturing the sunset, fisherman dangling their lines into the water, and street vendors selling corn and sticky, melted sweets. Even though it was also busy on the bridge, it gave us some relief from the weekend crowds on either side.
We had already been in Istanbul four days, which was enough time to realise that the immensity of the city gave it many personalities. Crossing from one side to another felt like going from Cairo to Bangkok in both distance and culture. Standing in the middle of the bridge, the city closed in around us, we could barely comprehend that one city could be in both Europe and Asia.
We had given ourselves headaches studying the thousands of years of history and culture at the many museums and historical sights. We also managed to go to a Turkish bath and shopped several times at the Grand Bazaar. The only thing we hadn’t done yet was eat something uniquely Istanbul.
That afternoon, were on our way to find it. Halfway across the bridge, I caught a first glimpse of the dramatic rocking of the boats selling balik ekmek, fish sandwiches, along the Eminönü waterfront. The clouds of smoke wafted away from the floating kitchens. Normally, I would never voluntarily eat fish. As a toddler, I notoriously announced, “I will never eat anything that comes from the sea,” and for most of my life, I followed that rule.
I had stomached fish on occasions, but only when I was invited to eat at someone’s house or when I was visiting the Kuna Yala islands in Panama where I had a choice between eating tuna for three meals a day, and starving.
There was one person that made me change my mind about eating fish, and we met him at a hostel in Rome earlier that month. He went to university in Istanbul and had thick, bouncy curls like a rag doll, and a kind eyes. When he heard that we were going to pass through his beloved city, he offered to tell us about his favourite spots. The next day, he knocked on our door with a long list of ideas and talked passionately about Istanbul for several hours. We knew his suggestions came from the heart and decided that a visit to the fish vendors near the Galata Bridge was a must-do.
So that Sunday afternoon, I put my disgust of fish aside to eat a TRY7 (USD2) balik ekmek on the shores of the Golden Horn. Once we reached the waterfront, we saw a line of swinging boats with men rapidly cooking hundreds of fish. I watched them in awe as they threw fish from the skillet into baguettes and added onions, lettuce, and lemon. Their body movements were so precise and quick, it was like watching a movie in fast forward.
We joined a storm of other people under the covering and sat on plastic chairs as we waited for our paper-covered sandwich. We saw children around us shriek with happiness. People sat down and people got up. Adults patted each other on the back and burst out in laughter in the middle of conversations we couldn’t understand. There was an unmistakable feeling of cheer in the air.
The scavenger birds circled above us and we saw Bosporus cruises passing by, probably full of people staring in envy. There were bright colours happily shouting at us: The deep red of the turşu (pickled vegetables), the shining lights outlining the names of the boats, the patterns of the hijabs, and the lavish gold details sewn on the employees’ shirts. It made the experience a feast for the eyes, not just the stomachs. Instead of Turkish pop or American Top 40s, the soundtrack to this open-air eatery was the consistent sizzle of fish, the banging of metal cooking utensils, the indiscriminate calls and responses of chefs passing sandwiches to waiters, and the rhythmic shouts of vendors selling accompaniments and fried dough.
The waterfront was brimming with movement, of families and friends sharing a normal moment, eating a cheap, fast-food fish sandwich on a sunny afternoon. In a city of ornately-decorated buildings with a complex history and a painfully complicated present, I witnessed so much joy surrounding the simple act of savouring the crunch of pickled vegetables and the taste of freshly-caught fish.
Tourists can find balik ekmek throughout Istanbul, but eating it at the Galata Bridge is an experience unlike any other. Here, the sandwich is accompanied by an almost palpable sense of delight emanating from the thronging crowd.
When our sandwich came, I dug into the thick bread and lean fish. I ate it. Even though I still didn’t like the taste, it was the most I’ve ever enjoyed eating a fish sandwich.
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