Taste of Istanbul: a feast for all senses
This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, autumn 2019, issue 110
From waterside stuffed mussels to 3am offal sandwiches, eating roadside in this gargantuan city is a feast for all senses.
As a card-carrying Turk, I speak with some experience when I say there is nothing quite as disheartening as hearing someone say, “I visited Istanbul once … oh my God, I ate so many kebabs!”
Look, there’s no denying, kebabs are great (particularly when you’re a little worse for wear and searching madly for your keys/friends/the meaning of life), but can you guess what’s even better? Tasting rich layers of a 600-year-old Ottoman reign in everything you eat.
This is by no means the complete list of popular street foods (that would read like a novella), but the following dishes make for a strong start.
Whether it’s sharing a ring with seagulls during a morning ferry commute across the Bosphorus or wolfing one down between meetings, simit – a circular, sesame-crusted bread – is an inexpensive dietary stable for most Istanbulite.
Its beauty is in its simplicity. Unlike most other street foods, simit may be purchased from any old street vendor, but what’s important is that it’s fresh with a crisp crust and a fluffy middle. The best way to tell? By gauging the reaction of the punter before you.
Admittedly, Istanbul’s go-to for a midnight ‘just stumbled out of a club’ snack is a hard sell in print: ‘chopped pieces of spiced lamb and sheep offal wrapped in lamb intestines and cooked over charcoal before being served in a loaf of bread with tomatoes and parsley’. It is, however, a taste sensation that has to be tried to be believed.
This isn’t a dish to be tried just anywhere though; Nazmi Amca’s cart right below Galata Tower is exactly where you need to be.
A firm favourite with ferry commuters who each have ‘their man’ at every port, balik ekmek isn’t just a fish sandwich, but a gastronomic awakening – char-grilled fish topped with a salad of raw onions, tomatoes and peppery rocket leaves and served inside a crusty white loaf of bread.
They’re best enjoyed waterside, preferably around Galata Bridge where an endless army mans the grills all day long. Those who are keen to try an upscale version should head straight to Beyoǧlu’s contemporary Turkish cuisine superstar, Mikla.
Still unconvinced ‘decision fatigue’ is a thing? Try standing before a display in pastry shops such as the city’s famous Tarihi Sarıyer Börek and having to choose between countless varietals of börek (layers of flaky pastry stuffed with various filling). Hole-in-the-wall diners do it best, but a quintessential experience is to tuck into them during a traditional Sunday brunch at former Ottoman palace turned luxury hotel, Çirağan Palace..
It’s a rare Italian who hasn’t looked on in shock at a Turk preparing to eat lahmacun, a Turkish-style pizza. Not to be confused with the pizza we all know and love, lahmacun is Victoria’s Secret-thin – oval and topped with ground meat, onions, pepper paste, parsley and spices. It’s unforgivable to eat it without first drenching it with lemon juice, sprinkling handfuls of salad and rolling it up before munching. Treat yourself and get only the best from Fıstık Kebap in Arnavutköy, or Borsam Taş Fırın in Kadıköy.
Who could resist deep-friend balls of dough drowned in syrup and sprinkled with cinnamon? Lokma stands are located in tourist areas (the ones dotted along the waterside suburb of Ortaköy are swoon-worthy) and the balls – served in cups with toothpicks – are best enjoyed when freshly made. For a new take on an old favourite, try an Oreo lokma at Rumelihisarı’s Lokma restaurant.
Eating roadside seafood doesn’t sound like the smartest move, but as Anthony Bourdain once proclaimed before he proceeded to drop a stuffed mussel into his mouth, “Nothing I like better than unlicensed seafood of indeterminable providence.” Mixed with spice-infused rice and served on a half-shell, the mussels are served right out of a metal tray and vendors are plentiful around Taksim in the evening. If you’d prefer to eat your seafood in an atmospheric restaurant, Mısına Balık Lokantasi has two stunning locations in Beylerbeyi and Göztepe.
And finally, a street food you already know and love: the doner kebab. Don’t bother looking for a high-end take on the street-food classic. Doner kebabs (you can order them in ‘yarım dürüm’ for half a kebab if you’re not up for the task for a full one) are best eaten in one of the cheap and cheerful doner eateries concentrated around the beginning of Taksim’s Istiklal Caddesi.
LOCAL FOOD EXPERIENCES YOU CAN’T MISS
Let the senses go wild at the Egyptian Spice Bazaar, once known as the last stop for camel caravan traders on the Silk Road in Ottoman times. Once you fall under the spell of its mountains of dried herbs, jewel-coloured lokum (Turkish delight) and dried fruit and nuts, you’ll never want to shop in a supermarket again.
Jump on a ferry to Büyükada and eat a vişne (cherry) ice-cream as local street cats mew at your feet for a taste. Or reserve a table for two at Tuğ ra, a fine-dining restaurant in Çirağ an Palace. Tuğ ra’s head chef Sezai Erdogan searched archives to help form his menu with dishes dating back to the 1500s.
Accept any invitation to join a local family for a meal. Over the course of 20-odd dishes, they’ll tell you you’re too thin, overfeed you and become your friend for life. Must be okay with cigarette smoke and endless cups of tea.
Hot tip: Choose the stall with the longest queue. If Istanbulites are hankering for it, you know it’s good.
TOUR OF BEAUTY
Prefer to enjoy your ‘best of’ under the full guidance of a professional? Somer Sivrioglu, acclaimed chef of Sydney’s Anason and Efendy, and Maeve O’Mara of SBS’s Food Safari take in 13 days of eating, cooking and sightseeing in their Gourmet Food Safari of Turkey on September 10–22. – gourmetsafaris.com.au
Tuba Şatanaof Istanbul Food Tours has a range of daily tours around the city, from a Kadıköy food market tour to an ‘Offally yours’ day out, but she can also tailor a personalised tour to fit your needs and desires. istanbulfood.com