Make it. Eat it. Love it.
The best way to learn about a culture is to immerse yourself in that countries food. For food is a universal language that is understood by everyone. Istanbul makes it easy to indulge in its culinary delights with the intoxicating smells of street food, spices, and kepob restaurants at every turn. It’s almost impossible not to get caught up in the food culture this city has to offer.
Walking down the tourist stricken streets of Sultanhamet, street food vendors can be found at every turn. These small brightly covered karts hocking their goods are the perfect solution to a grumbling stomach. You can find a perfect snack any time of day. Broiled or grilled corn, roasted warm chestnuts (perfect on a cool night), fresh mussels with lemon, chickpeas with rice, grilled chicken or meat sliced thin and wrapped in flat bread, fresh squeezed juice stands, flat breads that are covered in spices and called Turkish pizza, Turkish pulled ice cream (that has a texture like taffy!) and simit (a bagel like bread-perfect for a quick breakfast on the go) are all among the choices.
No trip to Istanbul is complete without a trip down to the rocking boats on the docks of the Golden Horn in Eminönü. The famed rocking boats covered in neon lights grill up fresh blue fish and stuff it into a piece of thick french bread, wrap it in paper and hand it to you right off the boat. In the top 100 food experiences to have in your life, these fish sandwiches are worth fighting through the crowd to get. Sit at one of the small tables under the tent in front of the boat and slather your sandwich in lemon juice and salt.
Walk outside the tent to a neon lit kart matching the rocking boats and help yourself to the array of pickled vegetables they have to put on your sandwich. Turkish people love to pickle anything. From vegetables to fruit, they pickle it. The kart also offers glasses of beloved pickle juice. Yes, pickle juice. Turks favor pickle juice in the summer as a refreshing drink. If your taste buds are up for it, have yourself a glass. These wonderfully fresh and tasty sandwiches are the best $3 you can spend and the view and people watching could not be better.
A culinary tour through a new city is a great way to understand the people through their food, find hidden gems and get great tips from a local food enthusiast. We joined Sharon Croxford of Istanbul Food Workshop on a culinary adventure through her beloved city. Sharon quickly took us to our first stop, Güllüoglu Baklava shop. Güllüoglu is said to have the best baklava in Istanbul and some may argue the best in all of Turkey. Family run since 1871 they have been perfecting the art of making baklava.
We started off with a selection of their savory pastries. As we devoured each one, Sharon explained to us what we were eating. Su Böregi translated into “water pastry” can almost be described as a Turkish take on lasagna. Thin noodles are layered with a cheese, vegetable or meat filling and has flaky outer layers. Su Böregi is the most sophisticated pastries in the baklava family to make. My husband and I banged forks a few times fighting over the last piece. Next we tried a sampling of the shops sweet baklava. The original has 40 layers! A more modern take on baklava, a chocolate version, was just perfect. Sharon explained to us that the men that roll the baklava pastry train for 10 years before they are considered “masters” of their trade. They use only pear wood rollers and the pistachios used must be picked at the exact right time (right before they are ripe) so they keep their wonderful green color, taste and crunch. We also sampled a piece of Ekmek Kadayif which translates to “dried bread”. Soaking in the sweetest sugar syrup it is anything but dried bread. It is served with Kaymak, a heavy cream. Must eat it with the cream!
Our next stop was through the bustling, over crowded streets of the spice bazaar. Filled with locals and tourists alike you cannot help but be overwhelmed by all the people and smells! Narrow streets selling every type of spice imaginable, mountains of Turkish delights, wonderful loose teas, fresh honey comb, a variety of olives that can rival the variety here in Israel, coffees, cheeses and any type of cook wear you could possibly need or want. Sharon took us out of the crowded street into Namli Pastirma. Pastirma is a meat that is covered in a paste called çemen, which is made up of a mixture of cumin, paprika and garlic. The çemen is spread over the meat and it is then hung and air dried. There are over 20 different kinds of pastirma. Sharon got us a small selection to taste with an array of different Turkish cheeses.
We walked through the covered spice bazaar and Sharon helped me pick out different types of biber (Turkish pepper) There are many different kinds of biber and they each get their name from the region in which they come from. I decided on Ufra Biber, which I bought in a paste as well as the dried flakes. The smokey raisin like flavor with building heat is what appealed most to me. I also got Kirmizi Biber which has a more sweeter taste. We walked through the bazaar with Sharon pointing out the best vendors to buy from. We stopped in on a vendor selling pure Iranian saffron. She explained how they sell Turkish saffron and Iranian saffron. “Don’t buy the Turkish saffron, its not real”, the vendor told us. She took 2 strands of her Iranian saffron and let it dissolve in a glass of water turning the water golden, showing us it was real. At $10 a gram I couldn’t help but by some. The spice bazaar was truly an experience for all your senses.
We left the busy spice bazaar and headed to Haci Bekir Confectionery. Haci Bekir is thought to be the originators of Turkish delight. Started in 1777 they produced hard candies which was a favorite of the Sultans. One day the Sultan broke his tooth on a hard candy and demanded that somebody make him a soft candy. And so, Turkish delights were born. Haci Bekir has the feel of an old fashioned candy story and an array of magnificent Turkish delights to buy, as well as the famed hard candies that broke the Sultans tooth!
We said our good byes here to Sharon, taking with us a wonderful culinary experience, new knowledge and recommendations for places to eat the rest of our stay. I would highly recommend one of her tours if visiting Istanbul.
Our culinary adventure continued with a highlight worth mentioning. We wandered into a coffee shop one afternoon looking for nothing more then solace from the rain. We got much more. Hafiv Mustafa is a charming coffee shop filled with counters of confectionery treats and a window of beautiful pastries. I ordered a cup of Sahlep. Sahlep is a thick, delicious and creamy milk drink made with the powdered root of the sahlep mountain orchid. Served hot with cinnamon sprinkled on top it is the perfect reprieve to a cold rainy day.
We dined on amazing food at wonderful restaurants like Çiya Sofrasý on the Asian side of Istanbul. Çiya Sofrasý has a chef who entertains the idea of bringing back lost recipes and old cultures. The food is comforting and the menu changes each day. We feasted on traditional Turkish and Ottoman cuisine like Perde Pilav, stuffed artichokes, bulgar pilaf and more. Changa, another wonderful restaurant we visited to celebrate my 29th birthday. With a see through floor where you can look below and see the kitchen at work we dined on fried beef tongue, duck, salmon and a wonderful dessert of chili and wine poached pears.
We at one night in Hamdi, a restaurant overlooking the beautiful Golden Horn. The food was outstanding and the servers arrogant. Havuzlu was a traditional Turkish restaurant right in the middle of the grand bazaar. Offering some down time to the busy bazaar. The eggplant was superb and the kepob was the best we had on our trip. On our last night in a small restaurant you would never think to go in, we sat on tiny chairs low to the ground around a large tin table and ate some of the best food we had our whole trip. Cennet offers an array of different types of Turkish crepes and in the corner of the restaurant a Turkish woman sits all day rolling out the dough for them. We were recommended to try the special crepe by the staff and an order of the Turkish ravioli topped with yogurt sauce. Perfect last meal in Istanbul.
Istanbul is a destination for food lovers that one should not miss. Food is a way of life for the Turkish people and they are always ready to feed you and teach you about their cuisine. Walking through the streets your senses will be overwhelmed by the aromatic smells and your taste buds delighted with each tasting.
I leave you with my biggest guilty pleasure of Istanbul, apple tea. Served in water pipe and tea houses, Sharon tells me “was made for tourists”. That is fine by me. Tasting like candy it’s hard not to buy a bag to take home with you.
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