It's a little known fact that Istanbul expats want for very little. If we're willing to pay for it, we can get almost anything we want, including the two big ones: pig products and booze. We bitch and moan about scarcity/price of both but, having recently spent a week in Islamabad, we should shut up.
There comes a time, however, when an ingredient for a Thai or Indian or even American dish is needed and doesn't exist in Istanbul. Sometimes, the finding of a random American product is much more important than the having (Oooo! Look! Duncan Hines brownie mix! Want!) of it. Sometimes, it's easier to buy a product on the road that you know you can find in Istanbul but not without a lot of effort (such as putting on shoes). Highly valued, expensive seasonal fruits or unusual cheeses can also be carried in (Mangos and Litchis from Pakistan! Avacados from Israel! Limes from the UK!) Often though, the point is simply to return with perishable/breakable/potentially poisonous item that none of your friends has yet thought of smuggling in.
We've been on the road a lot lately. We count our food and wine acquisitions among our greatest accomplishments of the year. For example, we brought 14 liters of wine and booze, a kilo of Boerewores (South African sausages), ostrich pate, game sausage and several packets of biltong (jerky) back from South Africa. This, we'd like to point out, was a personal best in terms of quantity and quality. We also pulled off a stunning and unlikely-to-be-repeated hand-off of imported goods (mostly English cheese and bacon) in Istanbul during a 30 minute layover (having too little time to hit the duty free was a personal failure) between international flights. It's not easy being a part of ILIQTT (Istanbul Liquor Transport Team), but membership has benefits,
What follows is an Expat's Guide to Foreign Product Procurement, Duty Free Shopping and Helpful Packing Hints, sponsored by ILIQTT. Motto: Don't argue with us. We're professionals.
(A primer for American readers: if you don't live somewhere where imported goods or "vices" like liquor are taxed onerously, you will never understand the appeal of duty free. Prices are higher than you would pay in the product's home country but far, far less than you would pay in your destination country. We want a piece of this racket.)
Best Duty Free Overall: Dubai wins. It's practically a shopping mall. Electronics are cheaper there than in most places outside the U.S. Lots of high end makeup, too. It doesn't have anything interesting or unusual though. Neither does the entire Gulf so don't blame the Emiratis.
Best Wine Duty Free: Johannesburg offers hundreds of local varietals and helpful wine stewards to help you choose. There are purchase limits though, and prices are much higher than in the wine shops. Still, if you can't hit a local wine store, it'll do. The exchange rate with the dollar is favorable so you can get delicious and unusual bargains. It also has a wide selection of products made of kudu (an antelope) and ostrich. Both are tasty! Buy some and serve it with a Cape Shiraz for Sunday Dinner.
Most Disappointing Wine Duty Free: Tbilisi. Sure, there's a huge supply but of only of the most well-known mass market brands at huge mark-ups. Stock up at World of Wine/Urine in downtown instead.
Best Duty Free Selection of Obscure European Liquors: Tel Aviv. Did your people brew it from plums in a Moldovan shtetl? Then it's probably in Tel Aviv Duty Free. Better still, Tel Aviv doesn't limit your purchases. It's pretty much as much as you can carry and think you can get away with smuggling in to your destination.
Best Wine Transport Mechanism: Box wine. If your mother drank her Carlo Rossi Rose out of a box when you were 10, you might laugh, but box wine rules. A five liter box maximizes space and is stable in a typical rolling suitcase. If you care about excess baggage charges, plan for two kilos a box. If you're coming from Lebanon, South Africa or France, pack a five liter box and your Istanbul friends will thank you profusely and finish it in one night.
Best Wine Transport Mechanism, Runner up: Wine Skins. A clever FOC (Friend of Carpetblog) who is a superior problem solver gifted a package of this genius product on her recent visit. It's as simple as wine bottle shaped bubble wrap and it's awesome. We leave several in our suitcase so we don't forget to carry them with us when we travel. We heart them.
Best Duty Free Scotch: We don't drink brown liquor but we know people who do and we aim to please. The Scotch Usta in the Stansted Airport offers helpful suggestions of obscure scotches that taste like ones your Scotch drinking friends like but may not have tried and make you look smart.
Best Source of American Products: Pakistan. We can't explain it, but there are real American brands in the supermarkets of Lahore and Islamabad: French's mustard, Duncan Hines cake mix, Pam cooking spray, Ziploc bags, Jif peanut butter, El Paso refried beans -- the list is endless. It almost makes a trip to Islamabad worth it. Almost.
Best, Cheapest Supply of Books in English: Again, Islamabad. Saeed Bookshop in the Jinnah Market has an amazing supply and most cover prices are less than $10. The international terminal in Islamabad has a good selection too. Since books in Istanbul are often double the cover price, this almost makes a trip to Islamabad worth it. Almost. The Karachi domestic terminal also has a great selection. We advise against a special trip, though. Nothing is worth a trip to Karachi.
Best Selection of Subcontinental Spices and Ingredients: Any Gulf supermarket. Let's say, for the sake of argument, you don't want to go to India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, but you crave and can't find such cuisines in your own city of 18 million (Is Istanbul the biggest city in the world without a Pakistani restaurant? Discuss). Since these countries' populations keep the Gulf states functioning, their culinary needs are well served in every major supermarket in the UAE, KSA or Qatar.
Best Place to Buy an Electronic Haddith Organizer and Tang at the Same Time: Jeddah. An absolutely perverse selection of orange colored products (Tang, Tide), religious frippery and rip off Chinese products. Not to be missed for the freak factor.
Most Underperforming Duty Free: Kyiv. With all the different vodkas available in that country, the offerings at the Duty Free are lame. Actually, this could be said for the whole of the FSU. But because vodka is so cheap and plentiful in every supermarket, it's worth bringing an extra suitcase and cushioning the bottles with pork loin. There are 54 breeds of pigs in Ukraine. Try one today!
Worst Duty Free: Putting Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia aside, Doha has terrible duty free. It's half-assed, poorly laid out and they funnel you in there straight out of passport control. Doha airport is terrible in general. We avoid it. Also, Duty Free at Turkey's border with Bulgaria is also particularly grim.
Got any other hints?