Kebabs and Turkish Delight. That was all I knew about Turkish food before I came here.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know a whole lot more now, because I have been a bit shy about trying new foods so far. This is not really like me. As you may recall, I am the one who will try the spiciest stews, the most mysterious parcels of pastry, the most unappetising-looking concoctions, and the still-writhing octopus tentacles clinging to the ends of the chopsticks.
It’s not a lack of desire to try the food that is holding me back. It’s the feeling of being completely overwhelmed by the eagerness of the restaurant staff and street food vendors to entice me to choose their establishment.
Much as I truly am loving the friendliness here, I really don’t cope well with being watched. In Korea, I hated having to go into a shop other than a supermarket, because the assistants there would instantly begin following me. They’re trying to be helpful, of course, and their attentiveness seems to be appreciated by the local people, but as soon as I felt them hovering behind me and knew they were staring at me, I became so flustered and self-conscious that I couldn’t think straight, much less contemplate the wares. I wanted to politely ask them to leave me alone and tell them I would ask if I needed help, but was always too scared of causing offence.
Thankfully, this rarely happened in restaurants. I was allowed to stop at a street vendor’s stall and peer curiously into the pots, and squint at the menu in silence as I tried to figure out what everything might be. If the vendor did try to banter me into buying, I’d smile nervously and scuttle away. If they left me alone, I’d generally work through the options and then stay to eat.
I think it’s an introvert thing. It’s not just that the banter and hollering and “you try, you try!” makes me uncomfortable; it’s that it drowns out the quiet mindset I need to be able to process new information and work things out in my head. I can’t even read/pronounce half the stuff on menus here, much less identify them or know what they are. I just want a couple of minutes to stand there in silence, possibly looking at pictures and matching them to food names, maybe even googling something on my phone before I choose. Hey, food’s important, don’t judge me!
It’s practically impossible here, though. I suppose the people in the food industry feel the pressure to draw in customers, given that every street in even the more residential areas is lined with food options. Every single one, from large, fancy, tourist-trap restaurants to plain old food carts and hole-in-the-wall fast food hatches, has someone employed to linger around the entrance shouting at passers-by. The second they see you slowing your walk to glance at the menu, they pounce. Perhaps a more confident person would engage them in conversation (and indeed, I do think that’s probably what I’ll have to do if I actually want to eat while I’m here!), but I just shrug helplessly, shake my head nervously, and scurry on to the next one. And repeat.
It’s very frustrating when you’re hungry and dying to try some amazing, unfamiliar foreign food. I paused at one today which had nobody outside it, and had the luxury of about 30 seconds to look at the menu. Another minute or so and I would probably have gotten my bearings and entered the restaurant… but alas, someone inside saw me looking, and pointed me out to someone else, and suddenly I felt about half a dozen pairs of eyes on me, and knew I probably had a maximum of 5 seconds alone time left. I hastily walked off.
For this reason, I have so far stuck entirely to foods I already know, or ones bought from places selling only that one thing. Kebabs, fish sandwiches, simit (an ubiquitous sesame bagely-bread thingy), and more kebabs. This definitely has to stop, or I will be too heavy to walk by springtime.
However, I will just add that finding oneself temporarily restricted to authentic Turkish doner kebabs and sandwiches made with fresh bread and fish caught about 10 seconds ago is really not all that dire, as tragedies go. I am surviving. Don’t you worry about me. ;)