Watch out Bangkok and Seoul. You have a contender for the World’s best street food. Bustling with traditional Turkish fare and western alternatives, Istanbul stands out as a must visit for any foodie. But it’s the street food scene that interest me. With it’s long history and simple techniques, Istanbul offers a bit of something for every taste. You can’t walk through most neighborhoods in Istanbul and not have your senses attacked by savory meats, mouthwatering sweets, and delicious drinks. So sit back, grab a napkin, and enjoy my look at Istanbul street food.
Midye Dolma (Stuffed Mussels)
You don’t have to be a seafood lover to get behind these delicious mussels. At first sight these appear to be plain old Mussels however, you’ll be surprised to find out they are actually filled with orange mussel, herbed rice, pine nuts and currants. You can’t walk a few blocks without running into a street vendor steaming these bad boys. Served with lemon the best way is to eat them right away. The vendor will crack one open for you. Squeeze on a bit of lemon and use the shell to scoop out all the street gourmet goodness.
Içli köfte or Kibbeh
These little torpedoes of deliciousness will have you licking your fingers in seconds. This dish is very popular in the region with Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese (the first I actually tasted) versions existing. But all share similar characteristics. Içli köfte is a croquet like cyclinder shaped like a football and filled with minced meat and then fried. Juices from the meat soak into the golden brown shell to form a explosion of flavor when you bite into it. BE CAREFUL. They stay very hot for quite sometime. Try them with a mint yogurt or spicy sauce. Brings out the flavor.
Lahmacun (and Pide maybe)
I was torn here because I LOVED both of these. Lahmacun won the spot because of it’s “street foodiness” Both are essentially pizza with Pide not having an real discernible difference. Lahmacun on the other hand is a bit different than your traditional pizza. Dough is rolled out and flattened. A pre made mix of very finely minced lamb, onions, tomatoes and parsley are spread over it. No sauce or cheese here folks. It’s then baked and stacked face to face. It’s served with a “salad”. You take the salad and place it on the Lahmacun, roll it up, and enjoy. Like a burrito. Very simple dish that definitely sets itself apart.
Uhhhhhhh turkish pretzels………pretty much what they are. Turks will argue with you that these are different. With a history dating back to the 1500’s who am I to disagree. As someone that grew up eating pretzels in the U.S. Midwest I can tell you they sure taste similar. Not all Simit are the same though. I found most had sesame seeds, with a light buttery glaze. However, near the Blue Mosque, i found some that seemed to have a sweet glaze that I believe was molasses. And they were quite a bit softer.
For two weeks I had walked past this shop, only wanting “authentic” Turkish food. Oh what a waste that was. When I finally ate some of this delicious chicken I quickly realized these are in a class of their own. Not only do they roast the entire chicken but the thighs, wings, and drumsticks individually. With a mix of traditional Turkish spices, and a slow cooking technique, you get a hybrid dish bursting with flavor.
Here we go. The great debate. What is a kebab? People commonly mistake Kebabs, Gyro, Shwarama, and Doner. Kebabs come in many different forms but one thing is universal, they aren’t wraps with the exception of Doner Kebab (means rotating meat in Turkish). Kebab is traditionally meat grilled on a skewer. In the west we regularly make these, Shish Kebab. The large blocks of meat you see around the world are Gyro, Shwarama, and Doner. The original was invented by Iskender Effendi, in Turkey, and was Doner. Since the translation is “rotating meat” all of these ARE Doner. It was later introduced in Greece where the meat and spices changed a bit. Thus becoming Gyro (which is greek for “turn”). NOTE: If it has Tzatziki sauce then it’s a Gyro. Shwarama is Arabic for the same dish. So Gyro, Shwarama, and Doner are essentially the same thing.
Now I prefer Kebab. Kebab is it’s own thing all together. A formed string of meat cooked over an open flame. At times chunks of diced meat with vegetables. When in Istanbul make sure to try Adana Kebab. It’s my favorite dish in the city. A bit of kick with savory Turkish spice. An you can count on plenty of fresh vegetable sides to accompany it.
I’m still a bit on the fence about this national drink of Turkey. A cold yogurt drink which you’ll see all over Istanbul. It has a bitter and salty taste that catches you by surprise. Especially coming from the west where much of our yogurt is sweet. It’s normally served with grilled meat to clear the palate a bit. I recommend getting this from a traditional Turkish restaurant or vendor. It’s sold pretty much anywhere they sell drinks. Including Burger King. And I think we can all agree once it makes it there…………………………………….
Let me start by saying i’m not a fish guy. Never have been. Balik Ekmek is slowly converting me. For a city which such a huge maritime history, it stands to reason that one of the best dishes is fish. Served hot and fresh from the grill, by the Bosphorus, these fish sandwiches are simple and delicious. Don’t be fooled by the ridiculous claims of some vendors. THIS IS NOT FRESH FISH. It’s frozen fillets. No way to mass produce this way otherwise. You get one piece of fish on a roll with light vegetables. The fish is lightly seasoned and largely deboned. Still be careful. DO NOT go to the vendors near Galata Bridge away from the New Mosque. The best are on the other side. Directly across from the New Mosque near the Eminonu tram stop. The stands are on the same side as the tram. You can’t miss the crowds.
Simply put, delicious. I’m a big tea drinker. Istanbul offers some of the freshest and diverse tea flavors outside of China and India. Very unique spices and hybrid flavors. Not only visit tea house but pick up your own from spice vendors. Although they sell in bulk be sure to sample in store. Most will allow you too.
We’ve all heard of the famous Istanbul Spice Bazaar. It’s not until you venture through the narrow walkways and stalls that you realize how immensely unique Turkish spices are. Try a taste or two. Vendors are more than eager for you to sample their wares. Prices are always posted clear and tend to be on the cheap side. Especially if you get a bit away from the crowds in the front part of the Bazaar. If taking spices home ensure they are vacuum sealed (which most do) and placed in your checked luggage.
I’ll start by telling you what this is. Kokoreç is lamb intestines. It’s wrapped in a spiral around offal and grilled over wood and coals. Offal is additional internal organs like kidneys, sweetbreads, and hearts. And it’s delicious. One of the most popular street foods in Turkey. Like fruit, the quality depends on the season. The very best Kokoreç comes from young, suckling Lambs. This dish reminds me of good old southern cooking. Slaves often received the worse parts of animals which is why our African-American and southern cuisine includes so much of it. Pigs feet, Chitterlings, Frog Legs, Gizzards, even ham at one point was considered trash meat. Kokoreç is diced and mixed with Oregano and other spices. Put onto bread with tomatoes and served hot. Don’t let the ingredients throw you off. This is a must try.
I recall how much I hated Edmund Pevensie as a child after reading he sold out his family for these things. At the time I didn’t get it. Now…….mehhhhhh. Depends on which sibling. The Turkish LOVE sugar. And the famous Turkish Delights don’t disappoint. The Turkish say “Tatlı yiyelim, tatlı konuşalım”, meaning “Let’s eat sweet and let’s speak sweet”. Well they sure do. If you’re diabetic stay away from all things sweet in this country. You honestly have no idea how much sugar they put into their sweets here. Although Turkish Delights are the stars of the show, Baklava is the foundation. The key difference between this and others I’ve had is Pistachio. They love it in Istanbul.
World Famous Turkish Coffee
Turkish coffee is the best coffee in the world. Yes I said it. And yes, I’ve been all through south America. Sure you’ll find some strands that are better but as a whole, nothing beats the Turkish coffee culture. Turkish coffee isn’t a type. It’s a method. Listed by UNESCO as an Intangible cultural heritage, it’s become an entirely different sub culture within the coffee drinking community. Roasted and ground coffee is boiled with sugar. It’s then served with the grounds which are allowed to settle at the bottom of your cup. This method allows the preservation of the full flavor. Turkish coffee is a communal drink. A drink that not only energizes the body but the soul as well.
I can’t leave this piece without thanking the countless Turkish vendors who embraced me with open arms. I pestered them with questions and photos. They responded with kindness and hospitality. The street food community in Istanbul is one of the best around. Be sure to visit as many vendors as you can to get a true feel for the culture as well as the cuisine.
Comment below and tell me which dish you would like to try!!!