Most travellers will tell you that Istanbul is a place you go to eat. I can confirm that. Every regional variety of Turkish food is represented in some form and is seasonal and affordable. Whether it’s sweets treats, exotic juices, breakfasts or a meat frenzy you’re after, this is the place.
One thing that surprised me about Istanbul: the food is all Turkish. For such a big international city I did expect more European, Asian and Middle Eastern options. It’s slowly trickling in to the mainstream food culture but you’ll mainly find local food. It’s not a problem for a traveller, who will be delighted to try the local fare. For expats it’s quite frustrating when you just want a curry or something with avocado – for the foreign resident looking for some non-Turkish fare read this post on international cuisine in Istanbul, or go to Delicatessen in Nisantasi, or one of the foreign eateries in Nisantasi…
Let’s start at the beginning with a Turkish Breakfast, or Kahvalti.
A typical Turkish breakfast is fit for a king, cornflakes and porridge it is not. In the most humble of coffee shops you will find a feast of local salads and herbs, homemade jam and fresh breads with eggs – all a good reason to get out of bed early.
Many Istanbul cafés pride themselves on their breakfasts platters. Olives are a must, spicy sucuk sausage is popular and menemen is a common breakfast dish: eggs with tomato, onions and pepper, rather like what we see abroad as shakshuka. Although kahvalti means “before coffee” you are more likely to get tea with a Turkish breakfast.
Recommended Breakfast: Cafe Privato, tucked down a cobbled street near Istanbul’s famous Galata Tower, is worth visiting for the exquisite koy kahvaltasi, or village breakfast. This enormous spread includes several Turkish cheeses; a selection of homemade, natural jam; hot Turkish and Georgian pastries; fresh eggs; marinated olives and salad; a farmhouse butter and rich honey. Breakfast is served on a lace table cloth in small, rose-patterned china plates. Accompany this delightful breakfast with tea, herbal tea, coffee, fresh juice or Privato’s spicy lemonade and relax on the old sofas.
Cafe Privato is on Timarci Sokak, off Galip Dede Caddesi (the “music street”) near Galata Tower. Breakfast for two is around 30TL, including one tea or coffee and is. Served from 8.30 a.m. until late at night.
Known to the rest of the world as Turkish Delight, lokum are the translucent, jewel-coloured cubes sold in Istanbul’s sweet shops. They are in a different league to the exported variety.Turkish Delight became a popular delicacy in Britain in the late 1900s -— usually limited to rose flavour and eventually covered in chocolate.
The original lokum in Istanbul, however, is exactly as it was hundreds of years ago: made of starch and sugar. Lokum is most commonly available in rose, lemon, orange, pistachio and mastic gum flavours. Lime, hazelnut, mint and, cinnamon are also sold in larger shops. Some deluxe lokum are made with chopped nuts or dates and rolled in shredded coconut. The delicate sweets are dusted in powdered sugar and stacked neatly in the glass counters of reputable sweet shops to be purchased by the kilo. Lokum isIt’s often served with Turkish coffee instead of cakes or biscuits. Lokum is ubiquitous in Istanbul, competition is fierce and prices are low- delicate little boxes of Turkish Delight are sold for 5-10TL
Recommended Lokum Shops:
Haci Sayid is a Turkish cake shop with an impressive selection of chocolates and high-quality lokum. They have shops filled with colourful cakes and and Turkish sweets in over 20 locations throughout Istanbul.
Koska has been producing quality Turkish sweets since 1907. Koska products available in most good stores and at their own shops in Central Istanbul. The display cases are crammed with pyramids of sweets and cakes; a neon “Turkish Delight” sign illuminates the window. They also sell pistachio chocolate, flavoured tea and sugar-free sweets.
Turks are passionate carnivores and have many different types of kebabs. Here are three types you’re bound to come across in Istanbul: a doner plate is sliced, roasted meat served with salad, rice and Turkish bread. Durum refers to a meat, salad and sauce wrapped rolled in ato flat bread – what is commonly known as a Lebanese Kebab in Australia and the UK. Shish kebabs are a higher quality meat skewered with onion, mushrooms and peppers on wooden sticks. Chicken, beef and lamb are the most popular meats. Vegetarian kebabs are an unknown concept in Turkey. Not all kebabs are created equal: even Istanbul has some mediocre offerings.
Recommended Kebabs: For consistent quality, head to Hayri Usta Kebap in a side street near Taksim Square. This cute little restaurant furnished with authentic stools and wooden tables serves outstanding kebabs for only 7TL to -14TL per person. The attention to detail is what makes Hayri Usta’s the best: the bread is village-style bazlama bread. Fresh parsley and red cabbage is mixed in the salad and kebabs. Sumac and smoked chilli sit in bowls on the table – you don’t find this at most other kebab shops, this place is special. Katip Mustafa Celebi Mah. Cukurlu Cesme Sok. No:15 Taksim, Beyoglu, Istanbul, Turkey. No alcohol. Open till late.
Balik Ekmek (“bread and fish”) are a particular favourite of mine. This seaside snack can be bought along the coast from cafés or even directly from the fishing boats where they are grilled on a small stove. Balik Ekmek is a fillet of hot grilled mackerel in a fresh white bread roll with a salad of rocket, onion, lettuce and sometimes tomato (made to order) with lemon juice. Hot pepper is added upon request. The result is a tasty, crispy sandwich: one is a snack, two can be a substantial meal.
The boneless mackerel makes balik ekmek easy to eat. These fish sandwiches are an institution at Istanbul’s fish market in Karakoy, along the Golden Horn and under Galata Bridge. It’s worth visiting theseis places for Turkey’s most delicious sandwiches, sold at around 6TL apiece.
Hot and cold, hard and soft – Turkey has some amazing drinks that you’ve probably never seen before. Local beer is served in bars, restaurants and cafés. Fresh pomegranate juice, orange juice and Ayran—, a chilled salty yoghurt— are sold on the streets.
Boza is a unique tipple,best described as a healthy, slightly alcoholic milkshake— – although it doesn’t contain any dairy. Slightly sweet, malty and very thick, this traditional Ottoman winter drink has a very low alcohol content and is rich in zinc, calcium and niacinvitamin B. Boza is made of fermented wheat and served with cinnamon and dried chickpeas it’s very tasty.
Recommended Boza: Since 1876 Vefa Bozacisi has been considered Istanbul’s premiere boza outlet. This traditional Turkish shop hasn’t changed much sincetill it opened: the beautiful tiles and counter are all original. A case in the corner houses the glass from which Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, allegedly drank. Vefa Bozacisi (Vefa.com.tr) is easy to find on Vefa Caddis 66, Vefa Fatih.
Turkish cafés offer much more than tea and coffee. Try salep, a hot, creamy drink made of orchid root powder mixed with milk and sugar and flavoured with rosewater or ginger. Cinnamon and nutmeg are sprinkled on top before serving. Salep usually contains sugar, but it is not overly sweet— – you can add your own. You’ll find salep in most good cafés alongside the usual hot drinks.
Get out there and stuff your face, afiyet olsun!