Greetings from the land of delicious. Of all that is line-caught, spiced, grilled, baked, sun-dried, sugar-coated, roasted, and pureed, and served up everywhere from five star kitchens to stands smack in the hustle-and-bustle of Istiklal Street.
To call these delights “food” is an understatement. They’re more of a culinary experience, rich with royally-infused history and influences from West and East.
For this post, I’m channeling our own Istanbul journey through food.
Well, it’s the undisputed anchor of our time here. I can’t tell you how many hours we’ve passed cooking, scoping out new restaurants, sampling snacks from vendors, and oogling mouthwatering displays of produce stands and bakeries in this city.
You can’t go far without thinking about food here. (Or smelling it. Especially in the spice and fish markets).
Food is also a conduit for Istanbul’s deep history–one present all around us, in massive mosques, opulent palaces, overwhelming bazaars and crumbling wooden homes.
(And in the cats. So many cats).
Istanbul is quite a treat. Hope you’re hungry.
Let’s start on the street.
Here is where you’ll find Istanbul’s most iconic snacks. King among them is simit.
When I first visited a decade ago, I remember seeing the simit vendors strolling Galata Bridge, selling their sesame-crusted bread rounds for pennies. Istanbul has changed a lot in that time, but this tradition hasn’t.
You can find simit almost anywhere. It’s a popular on-the-go snack, its chewy crust and fluffy interior enough to satisfy without leaving you stuffed.
Simit is a snack best enjoyed hot. Indeed, in the old days, it’d only be baked and sold during peak times.
Another street treat best enjoyed hot? Roasted chestnuts or kestane. These wintertime beauties are roasted in front of you, by vendors who also take pains (or pass idle time) to erect kestane pyramids for hungry customers. A small bag sets you back 10 lira.
Our favorite wintertime treat, though? That’d be salep. Greg and I order this drink at any cafe we visit. Made of ground orchid root blended with milk, it’s topped with cinnamon before serving. Rich but not overly sweet (which is rare in Istanbul, where desserts can sear off your tooth enamel), it’s a perfect way to warm up. (And a way that’s been used since the 8th century, apparently, after Turkish converts to Islam needed something non-alcoholic to get through the chilly winter).
We weren’t as big on boza. Served at room temperature, it’s a thick beverage made from fermented grains like durum wheat, millet or barley. It packs vitamins and protein, but its taste (a cross between tart yogurt and, well, grain flour) leaves much to be desired.
Some of the sultans weren’t fans of boza either. Sultan Selim II banned it in the 16th century for containing opium, while Sultan Mehmet IV prohibited it for its alcohol content (which it gained via the fermentation process).
Another disappointing street food was balik ekmek. It literally translates to “fish bread.” We tried one on our first day in town, at a stand just off Galata Bridge.
A filet of grilled whitefish stuffed into a half-loaf of white bread, plus some raw onions, lettuce, lemon and spices, it was originally sold from the backs of fishing boats hauling in generous catches. A little side hustle with fins, so to speak.
Today’s balik ekmek is tourist-focused. Depleted fish stocks, plus urbanization and government regulations, have left local fisherman little choice but to ship in their whitefish. All the way from Scandinavia. (Which is probably why it was a “meh” experience for us.) At least the scenery was entertaining.
Shopping for dinner is almost as fun as eating it here. (Almost).
It can also be overwhelming. Fortunately, we had some help from Öz.
Greg and I signed up for a cooking class at Istanbul Cooking School soon after we got to town. On an overcast Sunday morning, we met Öz, our instructor, on the always-bustling Istiklal Street.
Sha’ron and Yael joined too. A couple from Haifa, Israel, they run a culinary pop-up as a side business. They’d come to Istanbul for a weekend of inspiration.
Öz suggested we start with a snack before shopping. We stopped in at Şampiyon Kokoreç, a little chain joint with a giant vat of these babies out front.
“This restaurant makes some of the most respectable midye dolma,” Öz told us. “Don’t buy these off the street,” he warned, “because there is no quality control there.”
He showed us how to eat the delicious mussels using their shell as a spoon. Stuffed with seasoned rice and a squeeze of lemon, they’re like Lays or Thin Mints: try and stop after one (or three). It’s impossible.
Our next stop was just off a small street, right behind the fish vendors of Beyoğlu. Small and dingy, the shop wasn’t a place we’d have picked on our own, but having Öz as our tour guide revealed its wonders.
“This is the best spice shop in the area,” he promised. “They also sell tea.” He opened a giant glass vase half-full of reddish-brown flecks.
“Apple tea is mostly for tourists, because Turkish people drink black tea,” he clarified. “Apple tea sold in the bazaars is usually not good. But they have great apple tea here.”
Indeed, inhaling it brought visions of spice and cider. (Greg and I soon went back to buy some. We drink it nightly.)
Next up was a lesson in Turkish herbs and spices. Major players are dill, fennel, mint, parsley, and sumac, along with tomato paste and biber salçası (red pepper paste). This is sold hot or mild, from a bin and by the kilo. You can use it to spice up nearly anything you sauté or simmer. (We’ve taken to using it in breakfast scrambles lately).
Along with spicing, Turkish people love pickling. Just about anything. Öz showed us a shop where pickled garlic, tomatoes, broccoli and even oranges were displayed alongside the usual (dill) suspects.
Pickled goodies (turşu) have long graced local and royal dinner tables in Turkey, historically as part of the main meal. Today they’re served as accompaniments and sold in grocery stores and speciality shops. Some places even sell pickle juice. Served OTC in a cup, like a true prescription, it’s a popular hangover cure here.
Our final stop was for sweets. Üç Yıldız Şekerleme has been selling Turkish candy for three generations, including the national flagship: Lokum, aka Turkish delight. Thick, chewy, and sold in nutty, floral flavors like pistachio and rose, lokum is made from a syrup and starch milk mixture. It’s also got a storied, centuries-old history in Turkey. (Which depends on the story you believe).
Regardless of history, it remains a hugely popular sweet-for-purchase. But its quality can be terrible if bought boxed at bazaars.
“This shop uses no artificial flavorings. It’s all pure,” Öz reassured us. The owner, an elderly Turkish man who bantered in French with Sha’ron, let us sample several flavors, which were indeed much fresher and tastier than what I remember buying years ago at the Grand Bazaar.
Shopping with Öz was an invaluable setup for our time in Istanbul. Now, we knew where to get spices, tea, sweets and an afternoon midye dolma snack, among other things.
Gabby helped with the rest. An old friend of one of my best friends, Gabby is an accomplished artist who lives in Istanbul with her husband Özgür, a yoga instructor.
In addition to painting and teaching art classes, she helps promote eco-friendly living among locals. When she mentioned Feriköy’s Saturday farmer’s market as a can’t miss stop to stock up on essentials, we knew we had to go.
Held in an old car park, the market features rows of produce, cheese and eggs next to pantry staples like beans, rice, and bread. We picked up goodies for the week and then rewarded ourselves with some freshly-made gözleme.
Compared to Feriköy’s, Kadıköy’s market was more like the frenetic Grand Bazaar. Along with produce, eggs, spices, and cheese, you’ll also find lightbulbs, batteries, antique record players, designer knockoffs (purses, jeans, perfumes), and about anything else your wardrobe or home could possibly need.
At the markets, we put our newly acquired Turkish (Hand gestures, though, played a key supporting role).
Produce is great. But our favorite market? Was this one. Behold Kadıköy’s fish market.
After a chance encounter, Özgür, Gabby’s husband, led us here via an underground mall (full of shops selling fertilizer and stun guns, no less) Remembering the buying tips we’d learned, we picked a wide-eyed, red-gilled sizeable palamut (Atlantic bonito).
For 60 lira (roughly 11 USD), we had a filleted, fresh catch, ready to cook for dinner.
In preparing Turkish cuisine, we learned quite a bit about it. Including that there’s no such thing.
“Turkish food is regional,” Öz clarified, handing us a sheet of the day’s recipes. After collecting our ingredients, we’d headed to our classroom, which occupied an airy, wood-floored kitchen on the fifth floor of an apartment in Beyoğlu.
“Dishes from Western Turkey are Mediterranean, and include fish and herbs. Eastern Turkey is heavier on spices, meats and charcoal cooking. Food in Istanbul is Ottoman cuisine, which features lots of soups, beans, rice, dried fruit, stews and meats that are cooked on skewers.”
This squared with what we’d seen around the city. Bins filled to the brim with dried fruits, beans and rices were a common sight in bazaars.
Kebaps were a common sight too, though Öz was quick to clarify their differences.
“Istanbul’s most popular kebap is iskender. This is when the pieces of döner (meat and minced meat cut from massive skewers) are laid on pide (bread) and covered in sauce.”
By now we were drooling. Öz put us to work, chopping onions and tomatoes for our classic Ottoman etli yaprak sarmasi (wine leaves rolled with meat) and mercimek köftesi (lentil balls). The latter are popular at “housewife parties” and are served chilled with romaine leaves and pomegranate molasses.
We kept chopping, this time adding green onions and parsley into a bowl that already included bulgar.
“This is kisir. It’s a spicy bulgar dish that is a popular part of mezze in Turkey,” Öz explained. “Mezze is where you have lots of cold and maybe a few warm dishes. In Turkey, they are served at restaurants called meyhane.”
We added onions, tomatoes, and peppers to the kisir as Öz reviewed meyhane decorum. Basically, at a meyhane dinner, plan on being there for a while. Avoid talk of politics, religion, or marital troubles. And plan on eating a lot and drinking raki, Turkey’s flagship, anise-based liquor, after each bite. (“We water it down first,” Öz assured us).
Borek brought back memories of our time in Sarajevo. It’s ubiquitous here too. (We have at least four places within a two block walk where you can buy fresh, flaky borek, stuffed with spinach, cheese, potatoes, and sometimes meat).
Last but not least was sütlaç. It’s a baked rice pudding with western origins, and it’s king within Turkey’s popular milk-pudding culture. You can find it everywhere: high-end restaurants, lokantas (worker’s canteens), or even street carts, where vendors sell it to late-night crowds looking for a sugar boost.
Finally, we were ready to eat.
But first, wine. Earlier, Öz had helped us pick up a bottle at a corner store. Along with merlots and cabernets, Turkish reds (and whites) come in indigenous varietals. They includes Kalecik Karası, the medium-bodied red we poured into our glasses.
After a hearty “Şerefe!,” we dug in, and came back for seconds (and thirds).
Can you blame us?
Inspired by our class with Öz, Greg and I spent the next few days perfecting a menu and buying ingredients.
Just in time for our taste tester.
We (re)made kisir and adapted the wine leaves recipe into a version of kuru patlican dolmasi (stuffed, sun-dried eggplants). Strung like beads on a necklace, the sun-dried eggplants are sold in most spice shops. A whole strand cost me 20 lira ($4 USD).
After a few minutes in boiling water, they’re ready to stuff, with ground meat, pine nuts, rice, or whatever. Add some water and oil, cook for 25 minutes, and you’re done.
Throw in some pickles, olives, and acuka (a spicy walnut paste that we can’t get enough of), and you’ve got a meal.
The best part about mezze? Having ready-to-eat sides for the week. We threw in some freshly-caught bluefish (lufer) the next night, which Greg prepared (unintentionally) in a flambe style. Fortunately, thanks to his quick reflexes, crisis was averted.
With just a little olive oil, garlic and lemon, the finished product was lezzerli (delicious).
We also indulged in some treats while out with mom, including lokma. Made of fried sweet dough, they’re like the children of funnel cake, served warm in a cup.
Mom made sure we weren’t the only ones eating while she visited. Hundreds of thousands of street cats call Istanbul home, and we’re pretty sure she fed a third of them while she was here.
Between bites and cat feedings, we toured the city’s best-known sites, including the Hagia Sophia. Originally built as a church in 532 by Emperor Constantine, it was converted to a mosque when the city was taken by the Ottomans in 1453. Under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s aggressive post-World War I secularization, it became a museum; today, it’s the city’s most popular one.
(Tip: hiring a licensed guide outside the museum is totally worth it. Ours wore a blue Michigan hat, though he’d never been to Michigan. “Everyone just says to me ‘Go Blue’ and I kind of go with it,” he chuckled)
A seven-million-square foot complex overlooking the Golden Horn, Topkapi includes a harem, library, treasury, mosque, Janissary (soldier) quarters, hospital, school, stables, hammam (baths), and even a “circumcision room.”
Successive sultans added their own rooms and buildings to Topkapi, each in a seeming attempt to outdo the others, as the addition of beautiful Iznik tiles, marble, and woodcarvings we saw would suggest.
As Topkapi grew, so did its kitchens. Rebuilt after a fire in 1574, their ten buildings include a creamery, storeroom, and confectionary, as well as lodgings and a mosque for the 400 members of the kitchen staff.
These 400 staffers fed 4,000 people per day at the palace. Visiting the kitchen, you can see their tools-of-the-trade: from massive iron cauldrons used for stews, to stunning dishware used to serve the royal supper. The Ottomans were big on Chinese porcelains and amassed a collection of over 100,000 pieces. Later collections on display include Japanese and European porcelain too.
Indeed, Europe influenced Ottoman tastes and habits greatly in the 18th and 19th centuries. Pre-meal hygiene took on more importance in the sultan’s dining halls, while sultans sent their chefs abroad to learn how to make royal European fare. This helped introduce kidney beans, tomatoes, maize and tea to the palace (and later, Turkish) diet.
That royal diet featured lots of “stuffed and soup” options, many of which you’ll still find on menus throughout Istanbul. Stuffed chicken, chickpea soup, stuffed onions, noodle soups, bulgar soup, sumac soup, stuffed aubergines, and stuffed dumpling with yogurt were regular courses on the royal menu, along with meats, fish, pilafs, and desserts like baklava, halva, and rice puddings. (Drooling yet?)
Another Topkapi tradition that’s still big in Istanbul? Coffee. Brought to Turkey from Syria in the 16th century, coffee gained a foothold at Topkapi during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent. Its service was quite a ritual, featuring incense, Turkish delight and rosewater. Special copper vessels were designated for pouring and storage.
Though these rituals are long gone, coffee culture remains strong. Throw a stone in any neighborhood in Istanbul, and you’re guaranteed to hit a coffee shop. Depending on what area you’re in, it might be a hipster venue serving lattes and mochas, or a historic coffee house with an equally historic clientele.
In any case, Istanbullus love their coffee like I love mine: frequent, aromatic, and strong.
(Especially when you’ve got places to go, things to do, and gifts to buy).
I promise we did more than eat and drink here. (Kinda).
We saw the “must see” sights, and did lots of reading (and catching up on Netflix.)
Historic wooden homes, along with old churches, stone-paved streets, and the stunning red-brick Phanar Orthodox Greek College, comprise Fener. Formerly home to a mostly Greek population, the neighborhood still contains the Patriarchate of Constantinople, despite the vast exodus of the area’s original inhabitants. (This occurred during and after the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey, following the end of the Greco-Turkish War).
Just next door, Balat is the city’s original Jewish quarter. It has much of the same architectural charm as Fener, along with colorful street life. (It’s also gentrifying, slowly but surely, though there are plenty of abandoned, crumbling houses still for sale).
While cruising Balat, I did, of course, manage to find my favorite bakery of the trip.
Some things never change.
It’s bittersweet (and sour, and pickled) to say goodbye to Istanbul.
And to Yunus, our next door neighbor. He fed us our first meal in the city, and our first kokoreç. (Vegetarians, a trigger warning: this is basically lamb intestines wrapped around sweetbreads. It’s then cooked over a charcoal fire and chopped up with onions and peppers, and served on a toasted roll).
He was also quick to greet us with a “merhaba!” every morning (and some free rolls from time to time).
Also, saying goodbye to this guy will be tough.
We fed him frequently, and saw (and heard) him around the block just as often.
Here are a few of my favorite shots, in parting.
Thanks to Gabby, Ösgur, Öz, Umut, Muhammet, Osman, Kay and Diana for making our trip a fantastic one, along with all the other folks (local, expat and fellow travelers) we met along the way.
Thanks, Istanbul. Hoi An bound!
- Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk
- Istanbul and Beyond: Exploring the Diverse Cuisines of Turkey by Robyn Eckhardt
- Article on Best Turkish Street Foods
Recommended Restaurants & Shops:
- Aheste Pera: Near Taksim Square, it has great mezze and cocktails. Perfect for a fancier night out. Mkae a reservation!
- Askoreoz Balikcisi: Near Taksim Square, it’s good for fried anchovies and a grilled fresh catch for cheap.
- Babel: Great for mezze as well, and a little more low-key than Aheste Pera. The owner is super friendly, and they have great wine-by-the-glass too.
- Pera Family: Near Galata Tower, and great for high-quality towels, scented soaps, scarves, and robes at reasonable prices
- Şampiyon Kokoreç: Get the midye dolmas! This chain features great lentil soup and passable kokoreç too.
- Meşhur Aperatif Kokoreç: It’s a hole-in-the-wall next to our apartment in Cihangir. And makes delicious, authentic kokoreç. Yunus is the man!
- Tarini Francala: This bakery has no link or Google presence, but if you go to Balat, you’ll find it 🙂
- Üç Yıldız Şekerleme: For all your lokum (and yufta, and jam, and candy) needs