13 must try Istanbul street eats
I had heard and read with interest about Istanbul’s street food. The prospect of sampling such Ottoman infused Turkish cuisine was one of, if not the main reason for visiting Istanbul. I had a list of must try Istanbul street eats and with the exception of the elusive Kokoreç, which is a dish of goat and lamb intestines, I managed to sample all on my hit list. A couple were major “fails” and had to be aborted as my palate had too little time to get used to them. The vast majority were incredibly flavourful and a couple were great enough to make me consider planning a second trip to Istanbul just to have them.
My impression of Istanbul was that this was a city that celebrated its street food culture. Carts and stalls of street food vendors were everywhere. What impressed me the most was the sheer number of locals queuing up for one street food or the other. I did spend some time in the city’s restaurants but the street food scene offered me much more variety and authenticity at a fraction of the price of a restaurant meal. It also gave me the opportunity to interact with vendors about their food, with a couple going that bit further by showing me their preparation methods.
It is, therefore, an absolute delight to bring you the following street eats. These are must try if you ever happen to find yourself in this most historical of world cities – Istanbul.
Tursu Suyu is a popular drink in Turkey made primarily from pickle juices. As well as the salt water used in preserving the pickles, garlic is also added for additional flavour. This is certainly an acquired taste. My girlfriend took a sip and unceremoniosly dumped it discreetly while I persevered and endured for a few more sips but eventually had to give in, defeated by the saltiness of the taste. The brine though I understand is good for heath reasons. The pickles included cucumber, cabbage and beets. Other Tursu Suyu contain carrots, onions, peppers and other goodies.
Balık-ekmek (which means fish in bread) is grilled or more accurately smoked mackarel fillet , salted , sprinked with herbs and ground red chili served with lettuce, onion and a squeeze of lemon juice. They tend to have a bone or two still in there so do be careful while woofing it down. The first time I had this was from a trip from the rainbow steps in Cihangir. Walking across the Galata bridge from the karakoy end to the Eminonu end are a couple of decorative balik ekmek floating boats from which balik ekmek is sold. This is a must have and must see. It was impossible to get seat by the boats so we had ours on our feet. The freshness of the fish and flavour was evident and the sheer number of locals bore testament to its authenticity.
Osmanlı Macunu (Ottoman candy)
This is a traditional Ottoman candy made from 5 flavours in different colours. The skilful preparation of this candy on a street to Sultanahmet square had me stirring in amazement as the Osmanlı Macunu’s vendor’s hands moved at breakneck speed. The swirling action he applied to the various gooey or more accurately the candy syrup to a stick was a spectacle. Finally the stick with the Osmanlı Macunu was passed over a juicy lemon half in the centre of the tray for a tarty taste. In less than a minute or so you had a ready made candy to savour while you gallivant on the streets of Istanbul.
Salepli dondurma (Turkish Ice cream)
My first taste of salepli dondurma was on Istiklal Avenue on my way to Cihangir to see the rainbow steps. I had been walking for a couple of hours with a brief respite spent taking in aerial views of Istanbul from the Galata tower. It was a hot sunny day that called for refreshing ice cream. Little did I know, however, that the making of salepli dondurma would come with such hand acrobatics. The vendor, using long-handled paddles will scoop the ice cream, made of milk, sugar, salep and mastic, whilst twisting it in all sorts of directions and adding flavours to it. The whole show took about a minute to complete by which time a small number of onlookers had become hooked, gazing at the vendor. My main concern given the heat was how fast I was going to devour this. I need not have worried. The addition of salep, a thickening agent made from the root of a purple orchid and mastic an agent that makes the ice cream slightly chewy both ensured that the ice cream, served in a cone, melted slowly and lasted longer in the heat.
Simit vendors with huge trays of simit on their heads or selling from simit trolleys were perhaps the most common street food vendor site in Istanbul. The circular, chewy bread encrusted with sesame seeds was either eaten on its own or with tea, cheese or aryan. I have to admit, I found simit a little too chewy on its own and craved having it with a glass of tea or hot chocolate.
My choice of Dürüm eatery was an inspired one. The rather creative review cards under the glass veneer of the table spoke of an eatery that had made many customers happy indeed. Our dürüm came with a large sized flat bread and sauce that was too plentiful to do justice to. The dürüm, a meal in a wrap, comes with beef or chicken or cheese or just vegetables. My first ever taste of dürüm was at London’s Camden market and I promised myself I had to have it in Istanbul. This was, therefore, a mission accomplished momment that would not be forgotten anytime soon.
Lokma, is another traditional Ottoman Turkish desert. It is a dough pastry made of deep fried dough soaked in sugar syrup or honey and cinnamon. I bought a handful of this, normally served in plastic cups, by the Galata bridge in Istanbul. It looked appetizing but ended up being the least enjoyed of all my Istanbul street eats. My girlfriend and I were conscious of the copious amounts of oil that the dough was fried in. That was a mental block that was hard to get over to really enjoy this.
In Ortaköy across the Galata bridge is a street called Kumpir Sokak or Baked potato street where Kumpir vendors congregate to bring this simple meal with a variety of filings to their customers. This I suppose is testament to the popularity of Kumpir or baked potatoes in Turkish cuisine. Admittedly I bought my kumpir from the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul amidst a coversation with the stall holder about my uncanny resemblance to one of his football heroes and a former player for the Turkish football giants Fenerbahçe, Stephen Appiah of Ghana. He was just as enthused about showing me how kumpir was made as he was about talking about football. I suppose what makes kumpir special is its relatively reasonable price and the variety of toppings such as cheese, corn, mayonnaise salad, peas, carrots and strangely enough couscous.
Lahmacun is often called Turkish Pizza mainly by tourists. It is a thin piece of dough with toppings of minced meat, either lamb or beef, and minced vegetables as well as herbs and onions, tomatoes and parsley. The dough with its topping is then baked into a pizza like meal. I bought my first Lahmacun near the Hafiz Mustafa 1864 confectionery to take back to my hotel. It was crispy, flavourful and absolutely filling.
Kestane (roasted chestnuts)
Another must try Istanbul street eats is kestane or roasted chestnuts. I had this as night fell on my way from the Sultanahmet district on my first night in Istanbul. They usually come in different sized bags and often the sellers also tend to have misir or boiled corn on the cob also at hand. I understand that this is a popular meal during the cold winter months in Turkey or during a by gone era when families used open fires to warm themselves.
I will always have fond memories of this street food as it symbolises the end to a wonderful tour of the colourful Balat and Fener in Istanbul. My girlfriend and I stumbled on this vendor as we walked away from Balat. He was surrounded by about 10 kids all gazing into his tray of midye dolma which is simply boiled mussels with spicy stuffed rice. The vendor would squeeze some lemon juice on each stuffed mussel and insisted on directly feeding my girlfriend and I. It was so delicious that we had to gather the courage to bolt or else we would have dug a big hole in our pockets. Midye dolma – one of my absolute favourite Istanbul street food.