Travel and culinary experiences are like the sea and seashells – can you ever think of one, without the other? After all, who doesn’t want to see more of the world, and experience different food cultures whilst doing so. And for that reason, we are here to help if you’re heading to Turkey and want to explore more of its delicious food and cuisine.
Turkey has been very popular with tourists this year, and it’s expected that this surge will continue. Not only does Turkey offer great beaches, beautiful architecture and landscapes, it tops it up with a rich and varied cuisine, one that differs from region to region.
So what it is that you must try? And how? I will start from my favourites, and I hope you enjoy these experiences as much as I did.
This feature is about Istanbul, and we’ll do a part two for Cappadocia for these are the two places and regions where I chased my culinary delights. And came with memories of a lifetime, a double chin, and recipe books!
Start your day early and happy with a Simit
Chances are that you will find a food cart vendor right outside your hotel (we did!), and get your first real taste of Turkey right away. So what’s a Simit? It’s a circular bread layered and encrusted with sesame seeds. Just like a bagel, if you please. These are usually eaten in the morning and most bakeries would display them in a tempting way. On our first morning in Istanbul, we decided to skip a buffet breakfast and take our cue from the locals.
We promptly spotted a cart with an alluring spread of Simit, and they were so fresh. I felt like a local as I dug into my still-warm Simit, and took a tram that was full of office-goers. You can pair a Simit with Turkish tea, cheese, clotted cream or even honey but they are equally delicious on their own.
Take a delightful break for fresh juices and roasted chestnuts
If you’re hopping from one place or palace to another, and want something to snack on, or something refreshing, go for roasted chestnuts and a glass of freshly squeezed juice (it could be anything from orange, apple, grapes, melon, pomegranate and more!)
Known as Kestane Kebab, the chestnuts make for delightfully simple snacks. If you talk to a local, they will tell you that many households in Istanbul often roast them on wood-fired ovens. In the streets, they are grilled with their skin on and are such a good treat for the chilly winds of winter (though they’re available all year round).
Both – the fresh juices and chestnuts – are so pocket-friendly, but we’ve to say that most eating adventures in Turkey are reasonably priced. Just perfect, isn’t it? Especially so if you’re on a budget.
A kofte trail – find the original, and also the ‘imposter’!
Kofte is meatballs, and you can’t do Istanbul without doing koftes. Now here’s the thing. There is a very old (1920) kofte restaurant in the Sultanahmet area called the Sultanahmet Koftecisi. It has a minimal, bare décor, and a simple menu. We tried the beef Izgara kofte, and they turned out to be the most delicious ones of our trip. There’s also a second restaurant by the same name, and we ended up going there too. While it’s not the original, its succulent chicken kebabs didn’t disappoint either. We gave our business to the original, and the imposter and were rewarded with happy bellies and hearts. It’s also a good idea to order the lentil soup (chorba) along with your koftes, and you will end up having a most comforting and wholesome meal.
Go for light lunches and big dinners
When we travel, lunch is usually kept light, and dinner can be a more leisurely experience. That way, during the daytime we get to see more of the place we are at.
That’s what we did in Istanbul as well. We tried small lunches and at different places – at a marketplace, opting to go with what the shopkeepers had for themselves. It turned out to be chicken pilav – rice with shreds of chicken and chickpeas that was served with pickled Istanbul green chillies. Near Istanbul University, we ate like students. Thrifty meals of chickpea stew with rice teamed with a salty yoghurt drink called Ayran. We also took our clue from families out on a picnic in Uskudar and had uskumru sandwiches (freshly grilled mackerel tucked in a loaf of bread along with slices of tomatoes and onions). There was just one lone stall, and all the families made a beeline for it, and so did we.
(Uskudar is a neighbourhood of Istanbul, Turkey, located on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, just across from Besiktas. There are many tea and coffee joints there, and also cafes that offer shisha or hookah with different flavours.)
For dinner, it’s a good option to try to tack Iskander. These are chicken donor kebabs served over soft slices of roasted pide bread, and accompanied with gravy, yoghurt, salad and French fries. You could also have a hookah, and end your meal with some dessert. Most restaurants would offer an assortment of Turkish desserts, and my tip is to opt for kunefe (a cheese-based dessert served with ice cream and pistachio nuts) and firing sultan (a baked rice pudding served in a clay dish).
If you are hungry between meals, try these
In between breakfast on the go, a light lunch, a street-side snack, and a leisurely dinner, you may feel like indulging yourself a bit more. If you do, Istanbul offers you plenty of opportunities. Whilst shopping and bargaining, many shopkeepers extend a cup of Turkish tea and coffee (most times, for free). It’s part of the shopping experience and their hospitality.
There are also sherbet sellers in traditional gear with their cooling, fragrant drinks. We had what they called a rose-hip sherbet and it was just the thing for a hot day. And how can we forget the mischievous ice cream sellers?
Eating ice cream in Turkey is an experience in itself. You may have seen a video on social media, but it’s fun to experience it for yourself.
Of course, these are just some of my personal favourites, and there is plenty more in Istanbul to discover, devour and enjoy. If you want some Michelin-recommended or Michelin-starred restaurants to try out, here’s a link for that too.
Plus, if you’ve always been interested in food adventures, and the prospect of eating like a local excites you, we have something on that too! You will find it here.