Jan 7, 2011

Istanbulis Forever

by Nicholas Belzer

          This is very emotional for me – as part of my New Year’s resolution, I have vowed to deny shawarma a portion of my diet. Previously, it had been a veritable staple, but now it is going the way of other steady comforts: the twinkie, the slim jim, mauve foodstuffs….the list ends there. So, for my final shawarma of 2010, I patronized an old favorite, Istanbuli, on Agrippas Street, which is that party cobbled walkway from King George straight up to the Shuk, or Machane Yehuda.
I don’t like to write about shawarma. I don’t even like to spell it (shwarmuh just seems so intuitive), but still I’m compelled to bring this eatery to the good peoples’ attention. There are two marks of kavod ( thumbs up)  that are due this place, the primary one being the fact that they are called, and continue to be called, ‘Istanbuli’. You know a place has street credibility when immediately after the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident this schawarma restaurant was just as popular and enjoyed as any other day.
Why am I forsaking the staple food of 1/18 of the world’s population? There is a phenomenon peculiar to this region affecting resident expats known as the ‘banality of the schawarma’ in reputable gastronomic circles. Non sequitur- I had referred to the schawarma in a former article as the local version of the burrito, yet no such ‘banality of the burrito’ has ever been confirmed or seriously entertained in the West. In any event, I have been afflicted by the B.O.T.S. and soon must forage for tapas, indefinitely. 
The spacious counter (by shawarma shop standards) to the immediate left when you enter Istanbuli’s is manned by a pair of religious professionals, each playing his part in the frying of the schnitzel breasts, the trimming of the shawarma roast, the de’skewering of the shipudim (grilled meat), and the hurried barking at the customers. The pair present themselves as something of an odd couple, the older fellow probably being the owner struggling with a usurious small business loan, while the young man appears to have been conscripted to this station from a freight ship operating a mizrachi hesder. Alas, their spirit of mutual cooperation and contempt betrays the blood bond, as palpable as the rotating, searing, sweaty spit of shawarma wafting itself over the counter, folds of flan-consistent fat marinating the crisped and raw-tanned meat like beads of agave sap distancing themselves from an unforgiving Mexican sun. Oddly, amidst a scene as distinctively redolent as this - the evocative burrito haunts my mind’s eye…
The second point of kavod for my favorite shawarma dispenser in Jerusalem is the glorious promotion which Istanbuli’s has promoted very suddenly, where they offer shawarma in a laffa for 15 shekels. Considering the quality of the meat here, and the fact that I had always paid 22 shekels for the same thing, I really believe that this is now the best deal in town. The shawarma served is not beef, but a kind of poultry for sure, and I can’t help feeling that the sanitary conditions here are superior to most of their competitors. Their stash of sautéed onions in a pan by the fries, along with accessible condiment bottles of tehina really go appreciated too. For a hot kick, mix some of their turkiye with the hummus to the laffa, but for the love of God do not accept a spoonfull of the yellow stuff! This curried syrup is intended for the melancholic and Sri Lankan tourist groups.
Coming here over the months, I’ve always admired the true grit of this place, keeping an unpopular name for their business and just focusing on roasting that good stuff. Realizing this, and appreciating this resolve in the face of Turkish tensions, I could only ponder how long it would take – how long until the French would somehow compel this brazen shop to cower and change their name to something more benign, perhaps more commercial, or French. But for now, the tricolour of the dreaded Republic could not be seen as I enjoyed my last shawarma of the year, and for some time to come.

Update: Istanbuli’s has recently changed their name to ‘Shawarma 15’. Whether this is a reference to their location on Agrippas street, the price of their shawarma, or the fact that their deals, like tobacco and butterfly knives, appeal greatly to the local teenage demographic, is not so perspicuous as to warrant an educated guess. 

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