literary food blog, for readers with good taste.

Joseph Kanon's "Istanbul Passage" & Vegetarian Turkish Red Lentil Soup


Istanbul Passage is a story that could feel very much like an action movie if it were not written with such empathy and human insight. Instead, it has the plot of a thriller with the styling of a noir, plus a real soul.

Leon Bauer, our protagonist, works for a large tobacco company where the most exciting part of his day is the view out the window. He watches the hustle and bustle of the city he’s come to call home. His “side projects” are far more interesting. For years, Leon has been helping the Allied Forces’ intelligence groups with odd jobs and covert operations.

During World War II, Turkey crouched between the great powers and stayed “neutral.” But, naturally, Istanbul was full of people taking sides. Spies, contacts, shady characters all danced around each other, betrayed each other, ate together, and carried about their deceptions. Watching eyes were everywhere. Istanbul Passage takes place just after the end of the war. The hotbed of secrecy and politcking is beginning to cool down. CIA agents are winding down operations and heading back to Washington, D.C., which means the end of Leon’s freelancing.

After one last job, that is. And it's an appropriately shady one that involves meeting a mysterious man in the middle of the night by the river and providing safe transport through Istanbul to an American-bound flight. Of course, things go horribly wrong. The ensuing drama involves danger, death, and a complicated cast of villains. Like a Bond movie, the plot is full of twists, accidents, and uncertainty about who is good and who is evil.

Leon has a quiet sadness that lends some richness to the work. He has been surrounded by tragedies much of his life thanks to war and the Nazis. These days, his beloved wife is catatonic after a rescue-gone-wrong broke her spirit. But while Leon’s sadness is deep, it is also private: he visits a prostitute once a week, and she tells him he is the only client who doesn’t try to unburden himself of his worries in her bed. The reader’s view into Leon’s psyche rounds out Kanon’s work and lends it a compelling melancholy.


Istanbul is the perfect setting for Leon’s tale to unfold. Like his own personal history, the city is rife with beauty, weariness, and secrets. It’s also the perfect setting for good food! 

I just returned from a trip to Istanbul, where I couldn’t get enough of this vegetarian Turkish red lentil soup. Now it's your turn to try it.



  • 1 1/3 cup (about 8 ounces) red lentils, rinsed
  • 7 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 large carrot, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
  • 3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste
  • Lemon wedges for serving (optional)


Combine all the ingredients (except the salt and lemon) in a large pot. Bring to a boil and cook for about 30 minutes, until the vegetables and lentils are very soft.

Put about half of the soup mixture in a blender and blend until creamy, then stir back in to the large pot.

Stir in the salt and serve with a lemon wedge.

Recipe via Whole Foods

Bookmarked: The Reading Out Loud Edition

The TBR List: December 6