In Istanbul, food is absolutely everywhere. Pushed up against store-front windows are casserole dishes filled with prepared foods, hazir yemekli, vegetable dishes and sauteed meats. In cooled glass boxes sit skewered meatballs and marinating meat, raw fish set on plates with a lemon slice. Moist rice and chickpeas steam up big, glass boxes, layered like a cake with roast chicken frosting. All of this can become overwhelming and monotonous. Exciting in theory, a cuisine fatigue can set in. But then, all of a sudden, Istanbul street food offers you a surprise. Ours, was the mussel man.
We first spotted him while roving for some balik ekmek on the waterfront. A man in a trench coat stood with what looked like a newspaper covered steel drum. He waited patiently, hands in pocket, right next to this chestnut vendor. A woman walked up and handed him some money and he slid his hand under the newspaper and handed her a mussel. One mussel, which she ate clean, handed back to him and walked away. Was it raw? Cooked? Why only one? I was intrigued and, later, flipped through my photos to see if I could find evidence of his exact position on our walk. The next day, I found the same chestnut vendor but the mussel man was gone.
The fishing market felt like a likely place to find him. Between the fishing tool shops, this man sauteed up some sığır eti. Do you know the mussel man? That smells great, but I'm on a mission. Down by the fish vendors, hamsi tava crackled in big frying trays. Fresh lemon was squeezed on a plate of everything in the sea aside from mussels. No luck there.
For the next few days, my eyes were always peeled for the mussel man. Is that him?!? No, just another chestnut guy. This is how street food works - and, being from New York, I love the chase. In Istanbul, with so many people serving up the same stuff, you have to be discerning - and patient. You search out your fresh orange juice guy, your under-the- bridge sandwich dealer, that perfect simit. At night, when kebab places are lit up in a row and the doner slabs glisten and drip, it feels like a sort of red light district. So much available flesh, but I was looking for that missed connection. That little shiny shell I'd caught just one fleeting glance of.
Do you know the mussel man? No answer. Too busy delivering lunch in true Istanbul style. A meal of soup, rice, meat and salad plated and covered tightly in plastic wrap. A bag is filled with sliced bread, tied and placed on top. You eat just as you would in the restaurant itself and the bus boy comes back later for your dishware. Food, food, everywhere, on carts, on heads, in mounds. But still my mysterious mussel man had yet to be found.
Then, on a street corner in Cihangir, I saw him. Right on the main shopping drag, tucked up beside a grocer, he stood. We approached and asked for two. He pointed to Merlin and then to me, making sure we wanted one each. We nodded. He picked one up, removed its top shell, squeezed some lemon on it and handed it to Merlin - who was a little worried it may be raw. Then, I was given mine in the same fashion.
It was stuffed! We were so delightfully surprised that the man broke into a huge grin, waiting patiently (as he is so very good at) for us to eat our morsel and hand him back the bottom shell. The cooked mussel was surrounded by packed in bulgur, sweet and spicy with a heavy dose of clove. It was absolutely delicious and we wanted another immediately. But he handed us a napkin each and covered the newspaper back over his stock. We went back the next day, but he wasn't there.