Whenever I travel abroad, the very first bit of research I do, and the most important, is where and what I’m going to eat. Everything else, the culture, hotel and general sightseeing, yeah, they matter, but not as much as stuffing my face with whatever the most delicious local delicacy happens to be. Bearing this in mind, imagine the ridiculous, almost dangerous levels of excitement I generated whilst swotting up on Istanbul when I realised just how varied and interesting the food is, and how much of it involves grilled meat. I literally almost burst something.
There are some fantastic restaurants in Istanbul, I ate in a few on my visit and they were great. But what I really found most exciting was the street food. The city is bursting at the seams with cheap, excellent food. It’s everywhere you look. On my first day wandering around, to use a crude but apt expression, I was like a ‘dog with two dicks’. Eyes bulging, stomach growling, I just didn’t know what to start on first.
Luckily for me, help, in the form of a more structured approach to the problem of stuffing everything in my gob, was on hand in the form of Istanbul Eats. An incredibly comprehensive blog, which has branched out into providing ‘culinary walks’. Admittedly, I was slightly dubious initially, regarding the worth of a guided food trawl around the city, but I’d like to state categorically, for the record, it was without a doubt the best thing I did whilst in Istanbul.
First thing in the morning and we’re meeting our guide Angelis, on the steps outside the somewhat confusingly titled ‘New Mosque’ (construction started in 1597). It quickly becomes apparent that he could be best described as a bit of a character. Exuberant, incredibly enthusiastic about the city, its culture and its food, our small group of just 6 (the maximum tour size) plunges off into the bustling warren of streets surrounding the spice bazaar opposite.
We’re in search of breakfast, and Angelis stops us at various points along the way, to point out interesting local delicacies. Heaps of olives, spices of all descriptions piled up by the kilo, cheeses, meat, fish and coffee. It’s all here, crammed into the crowded streets and we’re urged to try everything, to taste the goods on offer. It’s the way things are done in Istanbul and the vendors don’t mind at all, it’s good for business.
As we walk, our guide appropriates various Turkish breakfast items along the way, stuffing it into his rucksack as we go. Eventually, we’re ushered into a doorway between two shops, down a crumbling corridor flanked by a jumble of crates, storage boxes and offices to an area enclosing a newspaper covered table and a kiosk serving tea and coffee to traders in the bazaar.
Taking a seat at the table, Angelis opens his rucksack and fills the table with his purchases whilst explaining that our picnic area is in a ‘han’, an old warehouse, still very much in use. Just to underline the fact, boxes and crates are ferried past to the street outside with the passing traders barely giving us a second glance. After taking our drinks orders, dainty glasses of hot sweet tea and small cups of thick strong coffee arrive from the kiosk opposite and we’re encouraged to dig into a typical Turkish breakfast.
I dip a ripped off piece of simit, a chewy type of sesame seed covered bagel, into a thick puddle of kaymak, like clotted cream and made from buffalo milk. It’s an amazing combination and tastes absolutely incredible. I divert my attention briefly to the olives, cheese and sliced meats but keep coming back the simit and kaymak. It’s in a league of it’s own.
Breakfast over, we plunge back into the throng around the bazaar and head off down a packed side street. Angelis is on good terms with all the vendors, and they don’t bat an eyelid when he often pops up behind the counter of their shops to demonstrate the finer points of their wares and to offer us samples.
We stop at a lock up, containing nothing else but a bloke tending a charcoal grill over which hang what look like giant ribbed sausages on skewers. It smells incredible. I have absolutely no idea what it is. Andreas orders a few for us to try and explains that it’s called kokoreç, chargrilled lamb intestines and sweetbreads mixed with oregano, stuffed into bread and sprinkled with chilli flakes. I’ll eat pretty much anything, and I didn’t need any encouragement to get stuck in, despite the questionable sounding ingredients. It was absolutely delicious with a subtle smoked, herb and lamb flavour.
Moving on, we make a brief diversion to an ancient eating place, the former soup kitchen of the adjoining small mosque. It could now be best described as the Istanbul equivalent of a working mans caff, the low ceilinged curved stone room certainly looks the part. We take a seat and try a bowl of red lentil soup with lemon and chilli flakes. The same dish has been served on this site for five centuries, more or less. We duck our heads as we head back out into the sunlight.
Further down the street we crowd into a shop selling pide, basically Turkish pizza. The smiling owner has the squat hunched look of a guy who has been kneading dough for decades and he casually and expertly throws together a few pide for us to try, firing them quickly in the wood-burning oven at the back of the shop. Freshly baked, straight out of the oven and oozing melted cheese, they are bloody superb.
Next stop, a sweet shop, specialising in Turkish delight (or lokum as it’s known locally). It’s been in the same family for four generations, opening in 1865. We crowd in and ogle the display case, accepting the proffered samples as Angelis talks us through what’s on offer. All of it is made traditionally, upstairs, and it’s sensational, putting all other examples of Turkish delight I’ve tried in the past entirely in the shade. I decide to buy a half-kilo box of cocoa, hazelnut & coconut, rose and finally pistachio. The price is ridiculously cheap, something like £2.50
After a quick diversion for another glass of hot, sweet tea served in the sun drenched courtyard of a particularly historic and ancient han, we’re off again.
Stopping momentarily to eye a shelf of tavuk göğsü in a shop window, the famous Turkish dessert made from chicken breast and milk (I tried it later on in my stay, and if you didn’t know it had chicken in it, you’d refuse to believe it) I was momentarily distracted by the most impressively moustachioed bloke I’ve ever seen. Check out those whiskers. This fabulously hirsute gentleman looked only faintly bemused as I took a photo.
Moving into a traditional working class area, less frequently visited by tourists, we make another pit stop and this time it’s to sample a kebab. But this is nothing like the defrosted elephant leg we’re used to at home. The example rotating on a spit before us is a sebzeli kebab, the meat layered through with peppers, tomatoes and onions. It’s a work of art. We’re told that the owner marinates the lamb overnight in shredded onion and onion juice to tenderise the meat, then assembles the kebab by hand each morning. It’s frigging superb. We wash it down with freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and move on.
We enter a rather grand looking old shop, dating from 1876, all dark wood, beautiful tiling and elaborately attired vendors to sample a very traditional Turkish drink, boza. Made from fermented millet, it has an incredible effervescent lemony tang. Traditionally topped with cinnamon and roasted chickpeas it’s surprisingly good. I finish off everyone’s dregs and follow Angelis back into the street for the last stop on the walk. Believe it or not, after all that, lunch.
Siirt Şeref Büryan is a restaurant located in a predominately Kurdish neighbourhood, right next to an ancient Roman viaduct. Specialising in lamb that’s been roasted in an underground pit for hours. Grinning in expectation, I was the proverbial pig in shit.
It turned out, the famous lamb, despite being delicious wasn’t the dish that really impressed me. Maybe after so much savoury food, I craved something sweet. A Syrian dish called Künef, was stunning. Consisting of shredded filo, stuffed with cheese, baked and sprinkled with pistachio. It finished the meal and finished me off too. I couldn’t eat another thing.
We’d started out at 9am; it was now late afternoon, and we’d eaten something seemingly every 10 meters or so. I am a glutton of some renown, but by the end even I was fading as we waved goodbye to Angelis and our group, and waddled off down the street stuffed to bursting.
As an introduction to the city and it's food, I can’t recommend the Istanbul Eats culinary tour enough. It was fascinating, we’d eaten dishes at places we’d never have found if left to our own devices. It was easily the highlight of our trip. The walk was ‘Culinary Secrets of the Old City’. The price was $125 US Dollars per person, and all food and drink was included. I have to say, it was worth every penny.
Obviously that was all just one day’s eating. As you can probably imagine, I have a reputation to live up to, so crammed a hell of a lot more gorging in for the rest of my stay. Here are the highlights…
Not food, but look at this incredible ramshackle building. We were on our way to find a kebab place of some fame; and were walking on a raised bit of road. I glanced down over the barrier and couldn’t believe my eyes. Look at that house! People were living in it, but the whole place looked like it was held together with bits of string and sellotape. Incredible.
But, not as incredible as the kebab place we were looking for, Durumzade. Located in the Beyoglu district, I’d seen it featured on Antony Bourdain’s TV program, ‘No Reservations’. Selling ‘durum’, meat wrapped in flatbread, which in this case is a soft wrap called lavash. It’s rubbed with spices and also smeared with the juice from the grilled meat on the skewers over the grill.
Watching the guy at work, there’s obviously a real art to it; quick, precise movements. When the meat is ready, the lavash is piled with a parsley, tomato and sumac salad, the grilled meat deposited on top, and then it’s deftly rolled into a cylinder. Easily one of the best things I ate in Istanbul. If somewhere sold these near where I live, I’d be a permanent fixture. As with all the street food in Istanbul, it was dirt cheap, from memory, 3 Turkish Lira, which is just over a quid.
Balik ekmek, grilled Mackerel sandwich, is something of an Istanbul institution. My pre-trip research had identified a particular vendor on a boat next to the Ataturk Bridge as serving up particularly good examples. On the day we decided to get one, it was pissing down with rain. We were drenched, and we’d somehow ended up trudging miserably, single file down a particularly un-picturesque carriageway, cars zooming past throwing up clouds of spray. We pressed on grimfaced and determined. As we neared the bridge in question, we caught just a feint whiff of grilled fish, it got stronger and more pronounced. We literally followed our noses, dodging puddles and mad, speeding Turkish drivers till we arrived at a boat, moored next to the bridge with a smoking grill on the bow. The smell was divine.
Walking up the gangplank, we asked for 2 and were ushered into the boat itself, where a kind of makeshift café had been thrown together. Dodging the dripping leaks in the ceiling and nodding to our Turkish shipmates, we took a seat. A few moments later, our grilled mackerel sandwiches appeared. At that point, soaked through, the hardship we’d endured on our pilgrimage suddenly seemed completely worthwhile. A truly beautiful sandwich. As with seemingly everything else worth eating on the street in Istanbul it was stupidly cheap, around £1.50
From beauty to the beast. The infamous Islak Burger or ‘Wet Burger’. I’d seen Antony Bourdain munching on one of these bad boys on TV and knew it was something I had to try. The majority of the purveyors of this particular delicacy seem to be centred on Taksim Square.
Basically, a burger entirely encased in a pappy white bun. The whole thing is moist and has been soaked in a greasy tomato sauce. To be honest, I just didn’t get it. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant either. The whole moistness thing was a bit off putting. Again, these were dirt-cheap. I’d say with good reason. I was later told that these are only really worth eating when under the influence of strong alcohol and as a result, taste sublime.
Finally, on my last day I somehow crammed in three lunches, so insistent was I not to miss anything. The last thing I ate on Turkish soil, a döner kebab, similar, outwardly at least, to the ones we’re used to in the UK, but better in every criteria it’s possible to be judged against. I mean, even the guy who carved it was attired in spotless chef’s whites and obviously took what he was doing incredibly seriously.
So that’s my visit to Istanbul. It feels like I barely scratched the surface with regards to the food. It’s an incredible, vibrant, fascinating city to eat out in and explore. Almost everywhere you look, someone is cooking up something interesting and there are whole swathes of the city I didn’t get a chance to visit this time around, setting me up nicely to return.
If you ever get the chance, go.