It was that last week before I left Istanbul, the city of my heart, and very early in the morning, when I dragged Şule across the Bosphorus to Beşiktaş to the culinary institution that is Pando Kaymak.
Growing up, my parents would constantly reminisce about that unparalleled clotted cream, that dream served with honey and bread, the one made from water buffalo milk, and always with stars in their eyes. This was back home in Iraq, back before the wars, back before Saddam, back when Iraq was allowed to thrive. The Iraq of their memory was a great country, secular, with an excellent education system, an investment in locally grown foods, and a booming capital city.
In Iraq this dream that mildly resembles clotted cream is called "geymar," in Iran it's called "sarshir," and in Turkey it's called "kaymak." It is usually made from cow's milk. But the absolute best one is made from water buffalo milk.
Water buffalos are moody creatures and raising them is an art, something almost poetic. These animals seem to produce milk only for those farmers with an almost familial relationship, developed over years of trust. It's not something you can mass produce. This is why water buffalo farms are rare.
So when I finally make it to Istanbul, the city my father studied in his sophomore year at university, I, naturally, search for any place that serves kaymak made from water buffalo milk.
Most people visit Istanbul for the views, the history, the "East meets West." I'm in Istanbul for the water buffalo kaymak.
And then I find it.
A now 92-year-old adorable man named Pando who, with his wife Yuana, spend three days perfecting each batch of water buffalo kaymak.
This man is known as an institution by the Istanbullu. His name is actually Pandelli Şestakof, but everyone calls him Pando. And his shop is actually called Kaymakli Kahvalti Burada, but everyone calls it Pando Kaymak. I love that.
When Şule and I arrive I am obviously very excited. We have a seat and I immediately spot Pando, recognizing him from photographs online. I distractedly order from the young woman working there, keeping my eyes on the adorable man who runs the place. There is no menu, which I love, so we simply order kahvalti, breakfast, with extra kaymak. The people seated around us outside are just casually eating breakfast, so Pando probably can see that I am a little too excited to be having breakfast. He comes over to our table to see how we are doing and Şule translates the conversation. I ask her to tell him that I came all the way from Los Angeles to have his famous kaymak. This prompts him to sit with us. He motions the server to bring him çay, bardak not finjan cup preference, which I love, and he proceeds to have a conversation with us for most of our breakfast.
Pando's breakfast looks like this: a plate of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, feta, and the best black olives, maybe, in the world; fried eggs and sucuk; a basket of baguettes; and, of course, the kaymak in a pool of honey sitting on a small piece of honey comb, which seems to be standard for good kaymak in this city. All the ingredients are of the best quality, deliberately selected, and from various regions in Turkey.
The only way I can describe how Pando's water buffalo kaymak is the best kaymak I have ever had in my life, so smooth going down, and why I understand my parents' life long obsession with water buffalo kaymak, is to compare it to something like whiskey. You can enjoy a decent, affordable whiskey but maybe it's nothing special, it's not exciting. But it's not a cheap, disgusting whiskey that you use for cocktails only either. That's the cow's milk kaymak. But then there's the really delicious, expensive whiskeys that you only bring out for special occasions, too afraid to waste even a single drop, and never, ever do you make a cocktail with it. That's what Pando's kaymak is, except you have to eat it right then, you can't save it. This forces you to live in the present moment and realize that in life you can't keep saving up all the good things for later.
At some point Pando gestures to take my picture with him using his own camera. I love that. And later when I hug him goodbye I also ask for a picture of us using my phone.
This morning I found out that Pando is being evicted from his shop, the place his father established in 1895. No, that's not a typo. 1895. He makes the best kaymak in Istanbul, maybe in the world. And he's being evicted to make way for a büfe, or a "fast food snack shop," because: capitalism. So, please, if you know anyone in Istanbul, tell them to organize a flash-mob dine-in and prove that Pando is worth keeping.
"Yuana, his wife and business partner, laughed cynically and moved on to a story about pretty young tourists posing for pictures with Pando that morning. Pando chuckled and waved her off. They’ve now seen it all, it would seem."