No trip is complete without experiencing the food of that region. Eating in Istanbul really gave me sense of the city, the food is taken seriously by its residents. I made it my gluttonous duty to engulf as much as possible before leaving. My goal is to hopefully write a similar post for all cities I encounter, except of course for Myrtle Beach, as I would be afraid of a back alley beating if I inspired anyone to eat anything there..
The food in Istanbul was an adventure; however, even when eating in Istanbul I did fall into the reoccurring trap: the waste of my time, money and hunger. While the title of this article is everything I ate in Istanbul, it really isn’t everything. It would have been nearly impossible to write about the nearly 50,000 calories I consumed. I will touch on the different food in Istanbul, from Michelin Star quality, to the guy selling desserts off a card board box.
Turkish Breakfast (Village Breakfast) in Istanbul
Let’s start at the beginning and discuss breakfast in Istanbul. For some reason, no one at our hotel could tell me where (or even what) a traditional Turkish breakfast was. I was told by the owner of the above restaurant that is really called a “village breakfast.” So much for the internet. I am glad I finally found it, it was among the best food in Istanbul.
After much searching, a seven-minute walk from our hotel yielded us Ethran, one of the few places where there was no one trying to drag you in to the restaurant. After mentioning I wanted breakfast I was greeted with “what time,” thinking it opens at 9:30am, I said so. Of course vacation being what vacation is I didn’t get there until 10:30 to find an empty restaurant and a lone man waiting in a stairwell. This man proceeded to disappear without a word into the kitchen. He whipped up the master piece above. Nothing; not even a power outage that made the kitchen pitch black, could stop this man. I can safely say that it falls into my top five breakfasts of all time, and I really can’t remember the other four.
Eggs, four types of cheese, fresh veggies, smoking hot Simits (not like the stone cold ones, you get from the venders), and the most delicious clotted cream with honey I have ever encountered. I felt like I was king, being served by my own personal chef. Then the bill came and my full stomach was met with smiles, because for two people the bill was like $15. I almost ordered a second one.
Eating in Istanbul: Dinner
If you are lucky you will run into the masterpiece above. One of the two best kebab dinners we had in Istanbul. The one above is from the restaurant Ciya Sofrasi on the ‘Asian Side,’ i.e., the continent of Asia. The picture below was part of the meal from Birecikli. This was a meal we were hijacked into from…let’s say a tour guide of ours.
In addition to the kebabs here we also were happily force fed various other items, the most notable Lahmacun.
Now every site I have come across mentions this as Turkish Pizza and that is pretty much what it is. I really wasn’t even going to try it. What can beat New York Pizza? Nothing. And yet, this was its own animal. While it looked like pizza, the flavors were different. The crust is extra thin and crispy and when combined with Turkish spices and lamb, it shouldn’t be missed. Which I would have, had I not been bamboozled into coming here..
Pay no mind of the fact that I had a huge dinner planned directly after this meal. So, after Kebabs, Lahmacun, Çiğ Köfte (raw veggie balls) a yogurt dish and various other items I headed out to my second feast. At times eating in Istanbul was a challenge, but my cholesterol rose to the occasion.
When you get sick of Kebabs there are many options. First, Ottoman cuisine is a great alternative. My recommendation is the Old Ottoman Cafe & Restaurant. We had two of our best meals there, so good that we forgot to take a picture until we got to dessert.
If seafood is more your thing, you will find it around every corner. You can go the cheaper route and grab one of the clones on the Galata Bridge, or go a little more upscale. One of our finest meals was at a seafood place not far from our hotel (Unfortunately, the name has escaped me). I can’t mention food in Istanbul without mentioning a mezze platter, and we had a great one there.
It is a variety of random spreads and other options. This one had hummus, fish, and eggplant, among other things, with different levels of spice. It was like the United Nations in your mouth with all the different flavors coming together.
Moving onto main courses, calamari was a staple in our diet throughout the trip. It wasn’t cut as nicely as we had in Barcelona, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. The shrimp, in true European style had a look in their eye like they were pissed about being eaten. I am not sure why Europeans love to have staring contests with their seafood, but the taste and freshness more than made up for it. Overall the seafood, like most food in Istanbul, was amazing.
Fine Dining in Istanbul
It isn’t necessary to drop $300 on a dinner for two when eating in Istanbul, but it doesn’t hurt. Well it does, it hurt my arms greatly, but I digress.. We went to Nicole toward the end of our trip and had one blow out multi- (tiny)course meal. Nicole is one of the finest restaurants in Istanbul. Until 5 minutes ago I thought they won a Michelin star, but apparently there are no star winners in the city. Regardless, we had an exceptional, yet somewhat pretentious meal. We had the added benefit of knowing that when you pay (with the promise of your first born) for your meal you won’t tricked into a lamp shop afterward…
The one problem is we were hungry when we got back to our hotel room. Well, at least the food looked and tasted nice, even if I could have mistaken it for a garnish. The food in Istanbul is usually both delicious and filling, but one out of two isn’t bad.
Street Food in Istanbul
This is where things got interesting because I had so many different items, a lot of which I had no idea what they were. When eating in Istanbul, street food is a must, there are some caveats though.. Let me start by saying the three most prevalent things on the street are Simits, corn and acorns. The corn tasted like I was chewing on a rubber hose, the acorns made me wish I was eating the corn; ultimately, both were horrible, skip them, please. The Simits were ok, but once you have had them fresh and warm there is no going back.
Having said this there were certain foods I NEEDED to try:
The Doner was my go to street food in Istanbul, although I could not tell the difference between Duran and Doner. I know they both had lamb and were the form of a sandwich. My best guess is that if it is in a wrap it is a Duran, but there was very little consistency in advertising. The one pictured above is from a standalone vender in the Grand Bazaar, it was the most amazing bite..EVER. I may or may not have gotten myself into trouble with my wife by telling her it was THE BEST DAY EVER…yeh.
What can be better for your stomach than a small, foreign, white castle like burger-like substance..? If you like playing Russian roulette with your bowels this is the way to go. I will say no more..
See there is some variation here, still a sandwich but now from the sea. It was a captivating show watching the venders in boats, in a carnival-like atmosphere, next to the bridge, fight for your business. I had two of these, it is one of those things I wish I had ten of. Some of the best food in Istanbul, especially if you like fish.
Midye Dolma (Stuffed Mussels)
I wasn’t crazy about these, but people loved them. They are sold all over the streets, but I thought it would be safer to eat them in a restaurant. I like street food more than anyone, but mussels sitting in the sun are too risky, even for me.
Whatever this is…I was told it was a sort of Ottoman Candy
The above ‘sucker’ had a texture like caramel, yet sweeter with various flavors. It was tasty, but I only saw it once, a guy walked up to the line we were in and swirled it right in front of us.
One last mystery food
This honey soaked dough ball was bought right off the Galata Bridge. What can be safer than a random dude selling baked goods off a cardboard box? My stomach did survive, thank you alcohol.
Ok, I went through a lot of the food in Istanbul, let me move on to what I drank in Istanbul.
Drinking in Istanbul
Tea-You will have tea coming out of your ears before you get home. They serve it at the end of every meal and almost insist that you drink it (or coffee). They also serve it when shopping or just browsing. It won’t be unheard of to drink eight glasses in a single day. I really liked the tradition, I found it relaxing, but a city with this much tea should really have better bathrooms..
Coffee-If you don’t like Tea, Turkish coffee is also an option. The coffee is strong and the bottom is like mud. I found out the hard way that drinking the bottom is like swallowing chew. If you don’t swallow the bottom the coffee..it is delicious!
Fresh Squeezed Juice
Feel the diabetes fill your veins when you start your day off with this delicious, natural juice. I would wake up first thing in the morning to hunt down freshly squeezed juice in Istanbul. It consisted of exactly one ingredient, which was whatever the fruit you selected. The fruit is also of better quality than what I pick up anywhere in the states, further enhancing the drink. Once you try this, you realize how badly Tropicana has been screwing you.
Alcohol in Istanbul
You are not always going to want to reach for OJ and tea when drinking in Istanbul. Once 11:00 AM rolls about it is time for something a bit harder. My go to drink was Efes beer, (see above), it is light and goes great with pounds of lamb. When not drinking beer, I opted for wine. Turkish wine was surprisingly good, and inexpensive at that.
Raki–This used to be the national drink of Turkey, but it was replaced by some yogurt concoction that I spit out after one sip (Ayran). Raki doesn’t go down much easier, but it does get you a lot drunker. It is served clear then becomes cloudy with the addition of ice. The flavor is very similar of Greek Ouzo, with a very strong liquorish taste. I have a bottle that I brought back with me, all teed up for the next time I am filled with self-loathing.
I wasn’t going to add dessert to this, but I thought I need to at least mention Kunefe. Seen below, this one of the most uniquely, amazing things I have eaten on all my travels. What goes better in dessert than a giant plate of stringy cheese? It is sweet, it is crunchy, is one of the best desserts I have ever had.
There you have it, maybe it wasn’t all the food of Istanbul, but it was a good chunk of it. When eating in Istanbul, I think it is important to at least taste everything (ok, Most of what) you see. No matter how strange it is you should be in for a surprise. As always, if you avoid American chains and any place where you see more fanny packs than Burkas and you will have a culinary experience that is not just thrilling to the palate, but fresh and unique (especially in these times of cloned hipster pop-ups..). Spread across two continents you have access to some of the best food in the world…