Eating my Way through Istanbul

A highlight of Istanbul was undoubtedly the food. I'd been warned of its allure before, rather warned of the necessity of seeing more than just the food. Other than donor kebab - which is common all throughout Europe thanks to immigrants everywhere, the cuisine is Turkey is different than that which I'm used to. Which meant there was a lot more to try. In a sense, our exploration was half based around food. In planning out a day, I'd say something to the sort of "Lets go to this neighborhood and explore for a while, and we'll stop when we see a stand with ___________(insert desired food item). And then we'll go to this mosque then get baklava..." And on it went. Here's some of the best things we ate.

A quick note, I've said this before, but I don't do food photography. First off, its a hassle, especially with street food. There's no holding the food, fishing out your camera and getting a good photo while salvaging both the camera and the meal. Second, even if your seated and the food is on the table, its very difficult to get a decent picture. Pictures should be taken either for memories, or because they have some degree or artistic value. But when you can find a better picture online that triggers that same memories, I believe you should roll with that. Hence, many pictures are not mine. I'll let you know which are.


I'll start with the most prolific. One thing we noticed about Turkey was that everything was in excessive, with competition nearly excessive. There was never one vendor, his neighbors always sold the same thing. So was the case with Simit, which you could find in carts in any square and on the side of many streets. Essentially a less doughy bagel with extra sesame seeds, they taste great (I love sesame) and provide a reliable snack or breakfast of carbs that won't make a mess. You can also get cheese or nutella smeared on them. Price: 1 Turkish Lira for a plain.

Simit in a street cart: Courtesy of le petit pois

Islak Burger

The Islak Burger has the aptly chosen anglicized name of Wet Burger. Considered Turkey's greatest gift to fast food, an Islak Burger is a small burger patty of unknown quality cooked with lots of garlic. It comes on a soft white bun and is smothered in a garlicy tomato sauce - hence the wet nickname. They are delicious and craved my burger craving that I'd been recently feeling, but leave you with a scary feeling in your chest and a questioning of the foodstuffs we allow into our bodies.

The best and cheapest Islak Burgers are found at Taksim square - "the" large square of Istanbul. Surrounded by huge Turkish flags and with a giant statue of Ataturk, the square is a perfect emblem of nationalism. The approach to Taksim is interesting. Coming from Sultanahmet (the historical quarter) as we did, you walk up a great hill onto Istikal Boulevard. Istikal is the most European boulevard you can imagine, a super wide street flanked by stores, restaurants and churches with a thousand people walking in every direction, mostly for the sake of strolling. Yet even on such a boulevard, it managed to retain its Turkish heritage with almost no major clothing stores I recognized and only two Starbucks. Skip the funicular to the boulevard, skip the tram to Taksim and enjoy your wet burgers. Price: 2 Turkish Lira each. 

Islak Burgers - image courtesy of a good scottish name

Turkish Baked Beans

There's a number of ways they serve white beans in Istanbul, but I recall the two options are a more buttery dish and a more savory bowl of beans. Both are warm, flavorful and give the strange sanctification that beans give so well. Often taken as a side dish at a cafeteria or in a bowl on the street. Often served with rice, they also sometimes they show up as Barbunya or Fasulye. Price: 3 Turkish Lira.

Turkish Baked Beans - image courtesy of badhowto


Kokorec was one of my favorite things that I ate in Istanbul, so of course, it was street food. At the team, we referred to it simply as sideways kebab, and until writing this I actually had no idea what it was. The revelation is surprising to say the least, and I'm glad I didn't know beforehand. The meat - whitish in color - turns around a spit, similar to donor kebab yet much thinner and the spit is horizontal. When you order a sandwich, the man warms up bread and in the meantime cuts off a hunk, minces it, and mixes it with grilled red peppers, onion and tomato. This all goes in the bread, with oregono, salt and a red spicy sauce thrown on top.

What I learned from Wikipedia however, is that country to my assumption that it was chicken or pork, Kokorec is actually suckling lamb or goat intestine. I remember remarking on the fattiness of the meat, but not worrying about it. Regardless, it is still delicious. Price: 4 Turkish Lira.

In all its glory - Kokorec - image courtesy of 972mag

Pilav Cart: Rice, Chicken and Garbanzo Beans

People often ask what I miss most about home. They ask in general, and then they ask specific questions such as what foods I miss most. A thriving cosmopolitan area, I can find good food akin to nearly every culture in Paris, but one thing I really do miss, is a simple, unexpected food. White rice. Baguettes are probably to blame for the lack of prevalence of rice in France, it serves as the readily available hyper-cheap carbohydrate, but it requires no personal preparation. Regardless, I eat a ton of rice at home - and though its not a strong desire, I have definitely noticed its disappearance from my diet.

Being the crossroads between Asia and Europe, they eat a lot more rice and Turkey. And they prepare it so well, though unfortunately its heightened flavor is due to a most likely scary amount of butter. But regardless, its great. Throughout the trip we saw countless little carts filled with rice, garbanzo beans and chicken breasts. Curiousity and hunger got the best of me, and even though I had just eaten a Kokorec, a friend and I got a large one to share.

While waiting in line, a couple came up to eat there rice at the "restaurant" The cart, on the side of a busy street just outside the bazaar, had a number of small tables with chairs, about two feet off the ground. The couple ate a plate of rice, paid a lira or two and were on their way. It was in a way a bizarre reinterpretation of Italian espresso habits.

The dish is simple. The man fills a container (we got to go) with rice and garbanzo beans, takes a chicken breast and rips the meat off the bone, spreading it on top of the rice. He then douses it in crushed pepper and you're good to go. Price for not just simple carbs and protein, but the reminder that simple flavor is sometimes still delicious: 3 or 4 Turkish Lira.

Pilav Cart - Image courtesy of sirkeci restaurants


I had it on good authority from my foodie writer Aralyn that I was to try Kumpir during my trip. She unfortunately had missed out on its delight while in Istanbul a month earlier, so I went as her proxy. Kumpir is the Turkish take on a baked potato, and it doesn't disappoint.

As the weather turned sour we went to the fabulous Istanbul Modern, a delightful glimpse of Turkish Contemporary Art. Museums really are the first half of a perfect antidote for rain. The second half is food. We saw a kumpir stand not far from the museum on our walk to the museum, and as it was roughly a meal time (aka I was hungry), we stopped to try it out.

The man grabbed a huge potato out of an old stove, and holding it with gloves, sliced it open. He grabbed some sort of buttery, milky sauce and mixed it in with the potato, created a rich and silky mash. I told him to put everything on, so I got sausage, corn, olive, couscous, spicy sauce, carrot, cabbage and a few more vegetables.

It was huge, and super satisfying. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who doesn't like mixing different types of food, the whole thing is an ensemble meant to be chowed together, reacting to the glory of the different sauces, textures, and temperatures. Price for an unbelievable amount of delicous food: 8 Turkish Lira.

Kumpir - image courtesy of xl-cooking

The Cafeteria

My constant failure in weekend trips is the forgetfulness when it comes to bring food for the journey. It is hard to plan the travel time in between meals, airline meals hardly suffice and I'm too proud and stingy to buy food at the airport, so I always come into new destinations starving. The same could be said of the trip to Istanbul.

After leaving our stuff at the hostel, Chloe and I set off in search of a huge dinner. We were staying in Sultanahmet, the historical center which is a little bit touristy and were warned not to eat there, so we wandered a fair bit. We passed loads of empty restaurants with waiters standing outside. They would perk up at seeing us and say "Yes please, welcome." Some new "We have good prices, heated terrace..." It felt good to be a hot commodity. As the urban landscape began to become less touristy, we saw countless restaurants that had more people, and where we were welcomed less desperately. In the window of many were 20 or 30 dishes ready made.

Without splurging for an individually and freshly cooked meal, which our lack of snobbishness didn't necessitate, we chose one of these restaurants that had more ethnic looking faces than white faces. I got rice, a chicken stew and a spinach dish with onions, with fresh bread on the side. It was an enormous plate of food and was delicious. Price to sit down and eat a more in-depth meal: 15-20 Turkish Lira. After we paid, we were brought free baklava. Twice. It was our first time in a while eating the flaking sweet goodness and it did not dissapoint.

A few days later, we decided we wanted to go to Asia. It was easily accessible, as Istanbul spans two continents, so why not take advantage of the opportunity? After a dirt cheap and picturesque ferry ride, we were in a new continent - the furthest I'll be from California this year. The Asian part of Istanbul itself isn't to exciting, there are some parks and a palace but it is mostly residential.

Yet not all hope was lost because we stumbled upon a cafeteria that was one of my favorite types of restaurants, one in which having white English speaking tourists enter is truly a shock for the workers. We watched and quickly figured out you grab a tray, put some things on it, point to the hot dishes you want and pay before you eat. I got a beef stew, baked beans, an incredible soup, a salad, rice and a sweetened yam. It was all very warm, well spiced and delicious. They brought us "free" tea afterwards. Price for all that: 20 Turkish Lira.

Turkish Cafeteria - Image courtesy of Concierge Magazine


While not as good as Moroccan tea by any means, Turkish tea is as important a part of the culture. A simple black black tea, it is consumed after meals, during business, and with friends alike. Its a nice way to end a meal, or a good super cheap alternative to coffee. Price: somewhere less than 1 Turkish Lira.

Turkish tea


Skewers and Garnishes

We had a serendipitous moment after a morning of wandering the Grand Bazaar. Chloe and I found friends in the form of two Australians and one Brit in the hostel, and had all set off together. Hungry of course, we had our eyes upon for early (read first) lunch possibilities. A small stand had a counter in front with five seats, and we felt it a sign that being company of five, we should take them. Ordering was easy enough, the man knew enough English to say Lamb or Chicken. In front of each of us, he put a thin, clear plastic tablecloth (to be our plates) and gestured to the piles in front of us. There were grilled green bell peppers, seasoned pickles, bowls of spices and bowls of small pickled peppers. They served as wonderful appetizers and we could eat as many as we wanted. We ate the small peppers together, and we suffered together. France doesn't do spicy food, so the sheer heat of the pepper brutalized my mouth. But I felt alive.

They then brought out our rolls, which we made up of meat from a skewer, some lettuce and sauce wrapped in a warm thick pita like bread. They were incredibly juicy and wonderful. Ayran, a salty yogurt drink was a perfect complement and mitigated the spice. Price for delicious street meat and the perfect streetside dining: 8 Turkish Lira.

Street garnishes by the Grand Bazaar

Fresh-squeezed Juice

One of our most consumed items was definitely the fresh-squeeze orange and pomegranate juice that is as readily available as anywhere else. Men with manual juicers and huge supplies of the two fruits wait in stands and in the street with carts for thirsty wanderers. The fruit is all super fresh, so the orange is great, the pomegranate divine, and the mix fabulous. They simply cut the fruit in half, juice it and repeat 20 times for one glass of juice. Price: 2 - 5 Turkish Lira, depending on size.

Making the juice

the divine fruits


Sometimes we bring stuff with us in the past that are irrational and should really stay there. For example, I thought I didn't like Baklava because I had some lingering feeling that I hadn't enjoyed it and some point. Regardless, I tried it in Istanbul, for free our first night and loved it. It made me think, how much Baklava have I missed out on over the years? I don't even know where that feeling originated, the memory is long since buried.

Baklava is a flaky pastry made of layers of filo dough and heavily sweetened with syrup or honey and filled with nuts. In Turkey, it comes in all sorts of shapes, sizes and combinations of different nuts. There's not much to say other than that we ate it every day and I could never get bored of it. Also, with the right packaging it could be a perfect biking food...

Baklava - Image courtesy of International student association

Donor Kebab

There's no way to eat in Istanbul without eating a lot of Donor Kebab. Yeah we have it all over Europe (its best in Barcelona I've found), but its way better in Istanbul. The meat is higher quality and better spiced, and they served it more authentically. In France, it comes with unexciting bread, simple sauces and low quality lettuce with fries on the side. In Istanbul, the meat is better tasting, the greens are more interesting and they add a variety of sauces and spices onto the sandwich. Which I may add was always nice, fresh doughy bread.

You can tell the difference in quality by looking at the meat even. The best place we went we chose because there was a huge line of nearly all Turks waiting for sandwiches. It was a good sign that paid off. The spit looked as if you could tell someone had had pushed the pieces of meat onto the spit, bit by bit rather than being one huge scary piece of kebab. The kebab man also had technique, using just a nice instead of an electric shaver as they seem to do here in Paris. Price: 2 - 5 Turkish Lira for a wonderful meat sandwich. 

Kebab Master

And that's the food. It felt great to follow my stomach and try as much as I could. I really enjoyed being in a land of meat but also vegetable  as well as a land full of spices. I know there's more to try, but I also have more life to live.

To close, the thing that made it all so exciting was the price. When you convert Turkish Lira to Euros, everything is incredibly cheap. Coming from Paris, which is ghastly expensive, it was such as relief to truly find a sandwich that cost the equivalent of a euro or two. And enjoy it.

Food and art seem to be the best ways to explore a city, as they fill fantastic hungers, and the exploration fills in the rest the city has to offer along the way. Architecture of Istanbul coming soon!