First there is the smoke from a distance. Coming closer to the source of the smoke you smell something that reminds you of barbecue. But this is different. It is roasted as meat, but in a more gentle way.
‘Kestane kebab’ (roasted chestnuts) shouts the street vendor. With a small metal grip he is putting the warm sweet chestnuts one by one next to each other. With love for his produce and love for aesthetics he puts them in a nice shape.
Before he puts the fruit on the warm area of his cart he scores them with a sharp knife to prevent undue expansion and “explosion”. The roasting area has a pan-shaped metal receptacle with holes drilled into it and below it is the fire that roasts the nuts.
There are lots of chestnut vendors out on the streets of Istanbul. In the popular tourist districts like Sultanahmet and Taksim they need a license and get standardized red-white carts from the district authorities. In other districts jobless men make their own carts and start selling the popular snack in the working class neighborhoods of Istanbul.
The sweet chestnut was introduced into Europe from Sardis, in Asia Minor (west coast of Turkey, 70 km from Izmir). The fruit was then called the ‘Sardian nut’. It has been a staple food in southern Europe, Turkey and south western and eastern Asia for millenia, largely replacing cereals where these would not grow well, if at all, in mountainous Mediterranean areas.
Until the introduction of the potato, whole forest-dwelling communities which had scarce access to wheat flour relied on chestnuts as their main source of carbohydrates.
Their popularity has declined during the last few centuries, partly due to their reputation of “food for poor people”
Fresh chestnuts have about 180 calories (800 kJ) per 100 grams of edible parts, which is much lower than walnuts, almonds, other nuts and dried fruit (about 600 kcal/100 g). Chestnuts, as with all plant foods, contain no cholesterol and contain very little fat, mostly unsaturated, and no gluten. They contain about 8 percent of various sugars.
I love roasted chestnuts. When I see the vendors with their carts I always chat with them and buy a little paper bag with this warm street food. Once cooked, its texture is similar to that of a baked potato, with a delicate, sweet, and nutty flavor. This is inexpensive finger food. They are sold in various sizes of paper bags of 100, 150, and 400 gram, costing from 4, 5 to 10 Turkish Lira. When you bought one the vendor will wish you ‘Afiyet olsun’! (Enjoy).
And last but not least: chestnuts are good for people with a gluten allergy.