The Other Side of Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar

One of remarkably few downsides to travelling with my son is, well, markets.

I like nothing better than wandering around local markets looking at what’s for sale and buying (typically) whatever new fruit I can find, and veggies should we have a kitchen, plus perhaps some lurid underwear and/or age-inappropriate vest tops.

But, for me, markets are primarily about gawping, about scents, colours, curios and, sometimes (as in Daraw) a window on the culture.

And Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar is tailormade for gawping.

Fruit and flower teas for sale at the Istanbul Spice Bazaar.

Now, Zac has what I can only term a pathological aversion to markets, in particular any with a seafood section, and especially anything with a seafood section that includes live critters, especially fish.

He has quite Catholic tastes.

Jade shops, yes. Tourist tat shops, yes. Markets? Nuh-uh.

Yes, not even spice markets.

Colourful spice mixes at the Istanbul Spice Bazaar.

This was a bummer when it came to Istanbul. There are two markets on most people’s sightseeing schedule (and, if I’ve learned one thing while travelling, it is, as this post makes clear, don’t knock the obvious stuff): the Grand Bazaar, and the Spice Bazaar.

Both of them are historic, wonderful buildings, with covered, cross-vaulted arcades along the lines of the markets in the Old City of Jerusalem. They now cater (forgive me!) almost exclusively to tourists.

Which didn’t mean I didn’t want to see them.

Now, Zac actively enjoys shopping where there are presents to be bought. And my aunt, who we’ll be meeting in Greece, was about to turn 60, so that, plus the promise of baklava, had him almost enthusiastic about the prospect.

Henna powder and packaged preparations at Istanbul Spice Bazaar.

For all his intermittent sophistication, Zac likes nothing better than a small, fluffy animal.

So as we headed down the side of the Spice Bazaar, he suddenly disappeared.


Boxer puppy for sale at Istanbul Animal and Flower Market.

Well, unbeknownst to us, we’d wandered into the Istanbul Animal and Flower market.

AKA, a giant pet shop! (The animals looked well-treated to my inexpert eyes, though this reporter had doubts.)

Garish aquarium for sale at Istanbul Animal and Flower Market.

You can buy everything at the Istanbul Animal and Flower Market.

Seriously everything.

From rabbits, to puppies, to turtles, fish, aquaria and parrots, to cages and mix-your-own pet foods!

Pet foods for sale in baskets at the Istanbul Animal and Flower Market.

Also, umm, leeches?!

The salesmen scoop them out of the bottle with bare hands, flicking them off in a cavalier fashion, and were doing a roaring trade, largely to older men.

While leeches are occasionally used to reduce post-surgical swelling in the UK, here they’re sold against cholesterol, stroke and heart trouble.

Leeches in a vat at Istanbul Animal and Flower Market.

The Istanbul Animal and Flower Market is properly known as the Istanbul Flower Market. And a particular favourite on the flower front seems to be these kitschy, brightly coloured cactuses.

Cactuses at the Istanbul Animal and Flower Market.

Though you can buy every fruit and veg seed under the sun, not to mention glorious, multi-coloured chilli plants.

Chilli plants with multi-coloured fruit at the Istanbul Animal and Flower Market.

And, in all honesty, the colours and magic and overwhelmingly foreign clientele of the spice bazaar was a bit of comedown for both of us.

I’m pleased, though, that Zac eschewed the fruit teas, and, for that matter, the henna, and went, unerringly, for the single most expensive item in any spice market anywhere in the world.

Spices for sale at the Istanbul Spice Bazaar.

My auntie’s 60th birthday present?

No, not the “Turkish saffron” at 20 lira for 100 grammes.

But a tiny packet of “true Iranian saffron”, a spice that comes close to costing its weight in gold, for a cool 30 Turkish lira, or ten of my British pounds.

“Jesus,” I say, fumbling optimistically with the wiry, dark red filaments, and putting one on my tongue in a pseudo-knowledgeable fashion. “I hope that’s the real thing…”

Miraculously, it appears it is.

31 Responses

  1. Ha ha! Great read. I’m kind of glad we missed the Flower Market when in Istanbul. I would not have handled the trade of live animals very well. We bought some of that Iranian saffron, too, as well as heaps of teas and other spices.

    • Theodora says:

      After a lot of time in Asia — plus not being a particular animal lover — I have a big blind spot when it comes to animal welfare, I must admit. I couldn’t believe the saffron was genuine! But it seems it is…

  2. Margaret says:

    I love markets, too. I like your photo of all the teas. I missed the animal and flower market when I was there, although if I were to take my daughter, she’d want to bring all the fluffy animals home.

    • Theodora says:

      Me too, Margaret. Me too! We have an ongoing battle over when he gets a pet, and what pet he gets. I’ve had to fight people off when they try to give us kittens…

  3. Ainlay says:

    I adore markets as well so we hit one everywhere we went. Surprisingly instead of getting inured to the meat section my girls became more and more sensitive to the raw livers, tongues and entrails hanging about till by the end they flatly refused to go anywhere near the butcher section. But they would have loved the spice market. Do you guys do any local cooking classes? They usually entail being guided around a local market and learning about the more bizarre fruits and veg.

    • Theodora says:

      We were going to do a class in Istanbul, but the teacher got sick, so that didn’t happen. We did one in Bali, which included that, and I think I will do a Thai one next time we’re in Thailand. You’re right that they’re a great way to experience markets, though…

  4. Jenn says:

    Beautiful colors!

  5. Susan says:

    I love those chili pepper plants. I’ve yet to be brave enough to try one, but my husband’s grandmother had one and our 12 year old won a “Best in Show” ribbon for a photo of it!

    My kids would disappear around the animals, too. And then recount every detail of what every puppy and kitten did…

    • Theodora says:

      They’re beautiful, aren’t they? There’s something so amazing about multi-coloured fruit. But I think they must be a relatively new/trendy thing in Istanbul, since I’ve only ever seen red and green peppers used in actual cooking.

  6. so beautiful! but i covet that huge pile of henna. each winter, i run a henna funshop at a conference. we buy large quantities so everyone can henna themselves! hmm… 😉

  7. What a cool find…and 10 pounds for some Iranian saffron? Does it have magical powers?

  8. I missed the Spice market while in Istanbul!! Next time. Great pics!

  9. Ahhh! I just bumped my nose leaning towards those luscious photos!

  10. Micki says:

    The tea looks absolutely wonderful. It brings me back to the markets in Kuala Lumpur, where I’d find great loose leaf tea. Definitely missing that in Canada!

  11. Natalie says:

    What a good find. Never seen this mentioned in any guidebooks but would not mind a look myself. The dog looks adorable!

    • Theodora says:

      Oh, I’m glad it’s not in the guidebooks! We only had the general Middle East one, so I assumed it would at least have made the Turkey guidebooks. It’s actually the most fascinating place…

  12. Amanda says:

    I didn’t spend nearly enough time in the Spice Bazaar (thought I DID spend plenty of time getting lost in the Grand Bazaar and drooling over glass lanterns), but it was indeed a delightful assault on the senses! I missed the pets, though…

    • Theodora says:

      I’ll have to find out whether it only runs on certain days, Amanda. It was a completely different audience from the Spice Bazaar…

  13. Helen says:

    The saffron certainly was the genuine article – beautiful, thank you very much. A really thoughtful present, and only part consumed. Still plenty more to enjoy!

    • Theodora says:

      Brilliant! It did work well, didn’t it? Lovely seeing you in Greece. And looking forward to England in July.

  14. Ali says:

    i just want to know whether i can find any African flowers in Istanbul flower market or not, if anybody knows please let me know, i have a plan to visit Istanbul next week.

  15. Ali says:

    i mean african violets flowers

    • Theodora says:

      Hi Ali, It’s been a while since I was there, but I don’t recall seeing any, I’m afraid. Good luck. Theodora

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