Last month my husband and I spent six days exploring Turkey’s capital. While Istanbul itself is quite a frenetic and harried place, which made it hard to fall in love with the city, the food alone is worth travelling for. From top class restaurants to a kebab on the go, the people of Istanbul know how to eat, and how to eat well. During our stay we indulged in many unusual, fascinating and downright delicious foods, so many that it was hard to pick the highlights. These are just a few things that a visit to Istanbul would not be complete without.
Balik Ekmek (fish sandwich)
Balik Ekmek is the ultimate street food in Istanbul, even better than their amazing kebabs in my opinion (and believe me, the kebabs take some beating). On first hearing about the Turkish fish sandwiches, I wasn’t overly exciting – a mackerel fillet in a bit of bread, surely anyone could make that? And I’m sure they could, but throw in the squidgy hunk of Turkish bread, the open grill to cook the freshly caught and filleted mackerel, along with a generous handful of crispy salad and this is way beyond your average sandwich shop.
Where to go: Most people head by Galata Bridge to the old fishing boats converted to Balik Ekmek cooking stations and sure, they’re pretty good. But by pure chance we discovered an even better stall selling these Turkish specialities further on from the bridge by the ferry ports. The fish tasted even fresher, was filleted much more carefully and there was barely a queue. Perfect!
Kebabs and grills
Istanbul is great for meat lovers, especially if you love the taste of grilled food. This is one of our ideas of food heaven so as you can imagine we more than over indulged! I was a bit hesitant about trying the typical kebabs cooked on the large skewer and then carved off. Let’s face it, here in the UK they’re really only reserved for soaking up the alcohol on the way home from a drink fuelled night. But in Istanbul the quality and taste are supreme with no fat or gristle, floury light bread, and a flash of chilli sauce if you fancy. They’re so good, on our first night there we grabbed a quick kebab, and ended up going back for a second round!
As well as the traditional kebabs, the Shish kebabs are fantastic. These are chunks of either lamb or chicken cooked on smaller skewers. Usually served with bread, rice, salad and pickles, it’s a hearty meal. The most enjoyable element for me is that the flavours of the grilled meat speak for themselves; there’s no pretence or overdressing, just good quality, well cooked food.
Where to go: Top choices for us were Semazen Bufe and Restaurant which is just across the road from the Sultanhamet tram stop. We enjoyed the takeaway so much we ate in the restaurant. The food was unbelievable (the photo above shows the enormous grilled platter for two) and to make it even more enjoyable, we ate on the balcony which was only big enough for a table for two. A perfect view over the busy streets of Istanbul, while we quietly tucked into our delicious meal.
I’d also recommend seeking out a Lokanta. A Lokanta is a self serve restaurant, I guess we’d think of it as a cafeteria. We popped into one for what was intended to be a quick snack while we were in Kadikoy on the Asian side of Istanbul. We ended up having a very generous portion of chicken shish kebab and it was sublime! Huge chunks of perfectly cooked chicken breast for a couple of pounds.
Pide is often called Turkish pizza. It’s a flatbread with an array of toppings, and not necessarily cheese as we are accustomed to. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good pizza, but there was something charming about the Turkish variant which was much lighter. And it didn’t leave me feeling like I needed to run 10k just to burn off the calories of 1 slice. You can choose from different meats, vegetables and cheese if you’d like it, but my recommendation would be a traditional meat pide. It’s a tasty combination of ground meat and vegetables on a stone baked flatbread. Yum.
Where to go: We only tried Pide at one restaurant, the Vaha restaurant opposite Hotel Daphne in Sultanhamet. The food was really tasty and the bill was reasonable. However the best element of this place is the majestic view from the roof terrace of the Sea of Marmara. It made our evening.
Other things to try:
As I mentioned at the start of the post, there are so many fantastic foodie experiences to be had in Istanbul it’s been a hard task to narrow it down. Here’s a handful more to consider:
Fresh watermelon from a street vendor – better than haribos for a sweet hit and supremely refreshing in the Istanbul heat
Roasted chestnuts – sold from carts all over the city. A nutty flavour and a filling snack that will keep up your energy
Olives – we bought a huge bag from the spice market for around £2. If you like olives, you can’t beat the freshness of those at the spice market, and you know they haven’t travelled thousands of miles to get there
Turkish Delight – for the ultimate Turkish treats, head to royally appointed confectioner Haci Bekir which has a few branches across the city. You’ll never eat a Fry’s turkish delight again.
Have you experienced the foodie paradise of Istanbul? What did you think?