How to Eat Your Way through Istanbul
Turkey has a peculiar past of rulers, religions and cultural influences; all of which is reflected in its vibrant cuisine.
Normally, I scour blogs and forums and pour through recommendations searching out the very best restaurants to find the most authentic and delicious dishes in a region. But Istanbul? Well, for me the city is more on par with Bangkok than it is with Rome. A city where it’s more fun to just stumble upon something delightful. A place that isn’t so painfully catered to tourists. Where the food is delicious and the ingredients fresh. Where the best recommendations come from the locals you meet… not a Tripadvisor top 10.
Istanbul, as I’ve mentioned in my previous post ‘4 days in Istanbul’, is unconquerable. It’s absolutely enormous with every street of Istanbul drastically different from the next. You might be walking by a group of men noshing on fresh caught fish sandwiches and pepitas along the rocky rivers edge, then take a left to see a restaurant filled with young Turks and tourists enjoying meze and local white wine. Another street and you’re staring up at a stunning mosque, where women are lifting their face scarves to enjoy the roast corn they just purchased from a street vendor.
Dining is pretty much broken down into two categories: kebap (no I’m not spelling it wrong) & meze, which go hand and hand, or oven cooked food.
You should plan on eating kebap every single day. Lamb is king in Istanbul, and with good reason. A lamb kebap from the right place with a side of garlic yogurt and some perfectly seasoned butter rice? Heavenly. Meze is a bunch of small appetizers (think dolma, yogurt dips, meatballs, sautéed artichoke, eggplant dips, olives, Turkish cheese, hummus). Meze is everything to me and one of the reasons why I was in culinary heaven in Turkey. I love the chance to try a whole bunch of foods at one meal, and meze affords me that luxury (and for cheap! how’s that for an oxymoron).
The best restaurant we found for kebap and meze was hands down Develi. It’s a chain now, but we visited the one across from Tom Ford in the Bosphorus area. Yes, this location is a bit flashy… With paparazzi waiting just around the corner… But the atmosphere is a perfect blend of classy and hip. There is this beautiful tile work, an outdoor patio and gorgeous live walls. Develi began in 1915 and has remained in the family. Two grandsons run this location, and believe me, they are making the family proud. The meze is perfect, but the kebaps? Out of this world. I suggest ordering the steak tartar, cheese & honey, garlic yogurt dip, walnut spread, meatballs in yogurt, stuffed eggplant and lamb kabob. Of course with a bottle of Turkish white wine and finished with Turkish tea and pistachio baklava. Mouths watering all over again.
Another great spot in the Sultanahmet old town area is Rumist. I suggest ordering the mixed meat in the clay pot with hummus and garlic yogurt dip. Touristy? Sure, it’s a bit theatrical with the breaking of the pot, but the bread is next level. This is also the perfect spot to order aryan. It’s a salty yogurt drink that is local to Turkey and worth trying, at least once.
If you’d like to veer from the traditional, there are a few fine dining ‘experiences’ worth mentioning. We did the tasting at Mikla at the Marmara hotel and were pretty impressed with the creativity and price. The rooftop view wasn’t too shabby either.
Pide and the Turkish pizza.
Both are very different. Pide is like a bread boat filled with pizza toppings. Make sure to get one only in places with a brick oven. Turkish pizza is like an extra thin crust pie topped with a few small toppings, like lamb and tomato. You can sprinkle your own herbs and sauces on top.
okay, now let me backtrack….
A Turkish breakfast should top your itinerary in Istanbul (literally and figuratively). Think cheese, creams, honey, fresh baked breads, Turkish sausage, egg concoctions in adorable little skillets, more honey and of course.. Yogurt. We went to a pretty spectacular buffet atop a luxury shopping center outside of the bazaar grand entrance. The name is slipping me, but it really doesn’t matter – these buffets aren’t far and few between. Any of the nice hotels will have a spread worth checking out, supposedly one of the best is at the Four Seasons.
Hellllllllo Turkish delights. Enjoy these liberally along with baklava in all of its glorious forms.
I don’t know what kind of crazy endorsement Anthony Bourdain got from promoting Istanbul as the place for superb street food, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. I was sorely disappointed by the lack of variety and flavor in the street food. I’d suggest saving your lira and waistline for the bakeries instead.
Let me start with the best and work my way down then.
Doner. You’ve got to get doner at least one (a day) on your trip to Istanbul.. Not only is it the only ‘street food’ worth consuming, it’s satisfying without being too filling. At a few of the doner places, you can also find what appears to be a soggy burger. Get it if you think you might like the taste of a soggy sloppy joe on a regular white bun.
Mussels. Worth trying. The mussels are mixed with rice, spices, nuts and raisins. A drizzle of lemon all for the outrageously inexpensive price of 50 lira cents each (like 16 American cents!). My warning lies in the origin of these delights though, because that river is the furthest from sanitary.
The Turkish bagel. Similar only in consistency to its NY cousin, these seed encrusted braided breads are fine if you’re starving, but far from delightful. Yes, even when covered in Nutella.
The corn on the cob and fire roasted chestnuts. Taste exactly how you would expect them to, uneventful.
But what about these fish sandwiches everyone is fighting one another for under the bridge? Okay, they are fresh caught that day. But there’s nothing appetizing about 2 boney fish in a plain sub roll with some lettuce, onion and tomato.
While you’re over there, you’ll notice 1 mini donut cart. They taste like fried dough, because they are… And are fine if you feel like being reminded of your childhood at the fair minus the confectionary sugar.