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Spices At Little Istanbul: The Small, Family-Owned Business Brings Worlds Of Flavor To Vermont

Apr 14, 2020 11:50AM ● By Gabrielle Varela

A colorful “OPEN” flag waves from the storefront of a small shop on the first floor of a massive concrete building in White River Junction. Meandering shoppers who pass the large storefront windows stop enchanted by glimmering jewel-like lanterns. The shop is Little Istanbul, named for the Turkish capital, tempting in its mercantile revery like some sort of Cave of Wonders. It sits adjacent to its restaurant sibling The TuckerBox. Both owned and operated by Vural and Jackie Oktay.

Inside is a shopping experience akin to those of far-flung Turkish bazaars with barrels of fragrant spices, shelves of delicately painted dishware, shoes and bags with contemporary Turkish designs, and exquisite handmade rugs and furniture.

“When I was a child, I worked in a tourist district. My mom made the handmade carpets. I grew with that. It's fun for me. I was always collecting,” said Oktay in an interview over the phone while his wife conducted homeschool in the background at his restaurant Tuckerbox.

“When I decorated Tuckerbox, people were asking where to get the lanterns and things. So, I wanted to provide a place for them.” Said Oktay.

Born in Turkey, Oktay started out in hospitality as a teenager working at various hotels in Istanbul. Wanting to push his career forward, he came to the United States on a visa to work at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire arranged by a friend’s Uncle. There, he met his wife Jackie, who was also working as a cocktail waitress and attending nursing school at the University of Vermont at the time.

Little Istanbul is the third of the Oktay empire and the only one where customers can pick up hard-to-find ingredients and rare handmade goods. Oktay opened his first business, The Istanbul Kebab House, in Essex Junction in April of 2012. It is the first restaurant that defined his success. It was “a hiding place,” explains Oktay, who knew he was onto something when people continued to come for his food despite what he thought was a terrible location.

Growing sick of commuting from Hartford prompted him to open his second restaurant Tuckerbox in 2013 in White River Junction. The Istanbul Kebab House was later moved to downtown Burlington, Vermont, and is now co-managed by his brother, Hasan.

When someone recommended he open a shop reminiscent of a traditional bazaar-like those for which Istanbul is famous, a vision of Little Istanbul was born.

While visiting family in Turkey, the fate of his new business venture was revealed through a fall, a traditional Turkish fortune-telling practice where leftover coffee grounds allow readers to see into the past and future.

The fortune-teller saw a gentleman in an Italian hat offering Oktay a business opportunity. William Bittinger of RailRoad Row LLC was the man in the hat offering him a space in a new building downtown White River. Vural still has a picture of the coffee grounds, and Bittinger still has his hat.

Perhaps the most enthralling of these global goods are the heaps of exotic spices. Treasures themselves, the mounds of black, red, pink, and burnt orange ingredients are the centerpiece of the shop displayed behind protective glass.

“Anything you use as a spice is medicine,” said Oktay.

Little Istanbul carries about 60 different exotic spices from the Mediterranean, Middle East, and beyond. Oktay returns to Turkey about once a year traveling throughout Istanbul and surrounding rural areas to choose all his merchandise. When asked which spices he recommends or how to use flavors together, suggestions come rapidly with vivid descriptions of mouthwatering recipes like savory chicken shish kebabs or intoxicating fish stews with tarragon; zesty, garlicky dips and dressings; lentil soups with turmeric and tea made from dry mint with lemon and honey.

“Historically, the Ottoman empire took spices from North Africa all through the various regions of Turkey. Our food is Armenian, African, Middle Eastern descent, and was perfected to be presented to the sultans. The spices and dishes stuck. This is our cuisine. One dish could take you to any of the seven regions of Turkey, each known for its various spices and spice levels. The difference is as subtle as how you make a meatball,” said Oktay, who admits he likes to make his with Marash pepper and cumin

“Everybody cooks in my family. My mom is an excellent cook. She makes Anatolian food so a lot of handmade doughs, lavash, pastries, green lentils, soups. We know how to cook as a family. I am kind of picky, and when you are in the old city eating recipes that are 500-600 years old with the right spices, the right food. I wanted to bring this food to the Upper Valley and share this good culture,” said Oktay, a representation himself of typical Turkish hospitality.

“As a kid working right behind the spice bazaar and those smells immediately make you hungry. When you eat that kind of old school food, you memorize it.” Said Oktay.

Like the country itself, known as the bridge between Europe and Asia, Turkish cuisine is a culinary crossroad, and exploring its many flavors can indeed be a memorable adventure.

Here are five ingredients you can find at Little Istanbul to add some worldly spice to your culinary couth:

  • Baharat- Literally translates to “spices” this is a blend famous in spice bazaars using cumin, pepper, paprika, coriander, and turmeric. Use at your upcoming BBQs as a dry rub or marinade to lamb, chicken, beef, seafood, or vegetables.
  • Dukkah- The Egyptian nut and spice blend uses nuts, sesame seeds, coriander, and cumin. Warm and nutty, this blend can be sprinkled on cheese or fruit for snacking, blended with olive oil for an excellent dipping sauce with bread or used as a crust for protein like lamb or even tofu. 
  • Mahlab- A spice for your sweet tooth, this ingredient is made from ground cherry seeds. The flavor is clean, fruity, and floral with a slight almond note. Use it in pastries, cakes, tarts, and puddings with honey, butter, cheese, and fruit for a stunning after-dinner treat.
  • Zaatar- You may recognize this spice blend as it is typically used as a condiment. This Middle Eastern spice blend uses dried oregano, thyme, marjoram, sumac, sesame, and salt. Use it sprinkled on top of dishes or to season a dip. 
  • Fenugreek leaves- these dried leaves are great for flavoring fatty bases like yogurt, oil, or cream, making them great for gravies, curries, and marinades. Use it in a marinade and slather it on your grilled fish or as a smokey note for butter chicken.

Looking for something a bit more straightforward to start? The owner and seasoned cook has even put together his own one-stop-shop spice blend: Vural’s Blend is a mixture of Mediterranean oregano, cumin, sumac, white and black pepper, garlic, onion and Marash pepper blended to perfection for a great tavuk şiş (chicken shish kebabs, the Turkish way).

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