Istanbul – 25 must eats

I remember arriving in Istanbul on a cold cold afternoon. I was wearing every single bit of clothing in my wardrobe in a futile attempt to ward off the cold (that based on everyone else’s attire, only I was feeling). Atul met me at the stop where the airport bus dropped me, laughed at my snowman attire and then walked me to the artist’s house in Beyoglu that we were to stay in. We were in Istanbul!!

Bags in hand, we walked across Taksim square only to stop every chance we saw a vendor selling something edible. Ofcourse roasted chestnuts had to be bought given the weather, baklava because that must be ritual, simit at a handcart because I had already baked it and I was curious about how right or not mine were and borek from a borekcisi because..umm I was a bottomless pit of greed for uneaten foods. That evening as Atul hauled me across the bridge and up and down the hilly roads of Beyoglu, one thing already became clear to me. There was no dearth of unexplored food in this beautiful, grey city that felt so familiar and yet so foreign.
To me, this supposedly exotic, affordable travel destination felt like much more than the sum of its beautiful parts. I found the greyness stark and arrestingly beautiful. As I commented to our Air BnB host Amilyn (who incidentally turned out to be an artist I was following and yearning to buy art from on Society6!!), I was a rather startled that all those monotoned pictures of the Istanbul skyline I had seen weren’t color corrected at all. That was winter in Istanbul – painted in neutral, grey, earthy almost bleak shades – a lot because of the light and the building facades and then some because of the clothes people wore.. On the other hand Amilyn explained to me that a lot of the locals felt strongly about what they felt was a stripping of color (and identity) in a deliberate process of ‘cleaning up’ to curry favour with the European Union.
Over the days, I started to understand what Amilyn meant about the greyness being a recent, superficial construct. And yet, as I learned to read between the beautiful soulful lines that is the fantastic skyline of Istanbul, it became more and more beautiful to me. Fighting to retain its older character and struggling to redefine itself as something new, contemporary and ‘developed’. Amilyn and I spent hours exchanging impassioned notes about what seemed like strong parallel political situations between India and Turkey. Thankfully, history and culture are not so easily mouldable to convenience, will and political avarice. After all the food of Istanbul was anything but grey. Rich, varied, deeply flavourful, the food was as full of layers, stories and complexities as it’s myriad monuments with mind-bogglingly beautiful detailing. It’s true, I could see change through the numerous fast food outlets, sanitized pastry shops that sold bread and French style pastries and the tres leeches outlets that were sprouted all over. Yes, the change that Amilyn spoke of was visible in the removal of the fish sandwich boats from the banks of the Bosphorus but the cities abiding love for its food was visible in the many establishments that seemed to strive to preserve the old.
adana meal

Asmali Cangrim Cigerim on Istikal cadessi (street), serves up some of the best kebabs I’ve ever had. With every accompaniment as perfect as possible, thsi meal was an orchestra by a master conductor.

Establishments that still pay obsessive attention to every detail of the dishes they produced, dedicated to creating the perfect balance as taught and learnt over time. Nuts, olives and even butter etc are categorized and sold according to where they were grown and the many varieties of other indigenous produce still preserved with a clear emphasis on flavor and texture that come from traditional techniques of production. Unlike a lot of the world where the emphasis in agriculture has shifted from quality to quantity, in Turkey she said, they still care passionately about the flavor of produce and you can clearly taste that in the food. True to the cliche about the Mediterranean, the quality of produce actually was unbelievable and the resulting flavors in seemingly simple dishes, astounding. Far from flavorless as they are often labeled by Indians who are used to a spicier palate, the meat was rich in flavor and diverse in variety. But the kebabs are only the tip of a magnificently delicious iceberg. There were so many treasures I found in this city of nostalgia and dreams. In January I wrote an article for NDTV about the best budget restaurants in Istanbul but irrespective of where you eat, there are a few things that must absolutely NOT be missed by anyone who travels to this food lover’s haven. Here are some favorites.

 What you mustn’t miss if you are in Istanbul in winter.

 1. Sahlep, in a lane outside the Egyptian spice market, as we walked towards the Blue Mosque.

Piping hot Sahlep
  A warming cinnamon-laced sweet drink that tasted like a thinned semolina pudding but was actually made of exotic orchids and other unusual ingredients.

 2. Midye dolma dolme

 The snack of a mussel shell filled with rice and the seafood meat. The street side snack-sellers would open each shelled morsel, drizzle it with fresh sparkling lemon juice and then serve it one by one till the customer had his fill. The entire ritual was reminiscent of eating paani poori and the taste just as bright, tangy and complex even though we were actually eating rice and shellfish instead of spicy jaljeera in a batasha. The best we had was at a local vendor, hidden in one of the underpasses near Fateh.

3. Kuru Fusulye

 The glorious curried beans accompanied by rice and bread – This may be an attractive and cheaper alternative to meat for the local workforce but it’s all the more delicious. Buttery, melt in your mouth delicious white beans, cooked with smokey tomato and pepper pastes and sometimes meat into a rich, smoky, spicey-sweet gravy that words or pictures can do no justice to. The Turkish version of rajma chawal as Atul put it, this was one of my favourite meals in Turkey. Another dish I tried to replicate when I got back but alas, without the success I was looking for. There are a couple of places that do this fantastically well but the one I fell in love with – A tiny family-run eatery at the beginning of the main road as it slopes up, connecting the Ataturk bridge to Beyougulu.

4. Simitsimit

 That sesame covered ring of bread I had made myself without having eaten the real thing. Crunchy, chewy – this was fantastic on the move breakfast. Made even more wonderful when the vendors who brought these along in their signature red carts would slice and slather them with cream cheese. Best when the simit is deep brown from having been dipped in grape molasses before being rolled in sesame and baking. Definitely better had at the street vendors than at Simit Sarai in my opinion.

5. Lahmacun

 Think light thin crust pizza with the popular topping of minced meat. Eaten rolled up with the ubiquitous squirt of fragrant lime

6. Turkish coffee over coals

 Roasted, dark, smokey coffee that smells as divine as it tastes. I’m not a coffee girl, but even I fell in love with Turkish coffee. We ended up getting a whole lot of packets of Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi coffee which our host said is the very best.


7. Boza, the sweet fermented drink

A beautiful, creamy, tangy sweet drink, laced with cinnamon, perfect for the winter. You would never imagine that the drink was made by fermenting bulgur, millet, barley or chick peas or that a sweet sour cinnamon warm drink could be anywhere so yummy. even better when you bite into one of those roasted pieces of chickpeas. I can completely imagine why this ancient drink was such a favorite with the Ottoman. It’s been found to have several health benefits including balancing blood pressure, increasing milk production in lactating women, facilitating digestion and ahem..enlarging breast sizes!

8. Tursu Suyu or Pickle juice

 Turkey is a place completely laden with pickles and a lot of the street vendors serve their wares with pickles on the side. Near the Galata bridge we saw stalls of pickle juice vendors selling this gorgeous pink colored drink in plastic cups that had mouth puckering delicious slices of cucumber and cabbage. The drink itself is surprisingly delicious – south, salty, tangy and hauntingly reminiscent of jal jeera or kanji. Most often consumed in summer months to beat the heat, I was coaxed into tasting this by an incredibly sweet shopkeeper in a fabulous pickle shop (Ozcan Tursulari ) who saw from my mooning looks that I was smitten by all things pickled. SO wish I had downed more of this.

9. Balik Ekmek or Fish sandwichbalik ekhmek guy

 When we were there, the Balik Ekmek served on the boats were dwindling (our friend said part of the ‘cleanup’ by the government in an effort to make the country more acceptable to the rest of the European Union). Translating literally to “fish bread”, this was a simple fish sandwich. A fresh from the sea mackerel fillet quickly grilled, salted and sprinkled with red pepper, served with onion, lettuce on a crusty baguette with a wedge of lemon for squeezing over the top. Nothing fancy, but simple, fresh, and totally satisfying.

10. Cig Kofte or Veg kebab.

These delicious kofte translate into English as seasoned raw meatballs but the variations I had and loved were purely vegetarian. The traditional meat version, made out of uncooked beef or lamb that is kneaded together with bulgur, tomato and pepper pastes, herbs and spices, is still offered at several grill restaurants in the neighborhood of Fatih but the vegetarian version has finely ground bulgur marinated with scallions, parsley, tomatoes, garlic, tomato paste, and mint leaves and kneaded into kebabs. Isot pepper, locally produced by farmers of Şanlıurfa, in the southeast of Turkey lends the Kebab its smoky flavor and rolled into a lettuce leaf with a squeeze of lemon and pomegranate molasses, this one will send you to a healthier heaven.

 11. Sweets at a local sweet shop:

Sicak Helva(baked halva), Ayva Tatlici (quince dessert) –  While there’s absolutely no earth of them, it’s not the (tooth-achingly sweet) desserts that were the highlight of Turkish food for me. It has to be said though, in addition to the yummy if hackneyed Baklava, there is a lot more on offer here. The sicak halva which is a baked sesame pudding is sweet enough to overpower the lingering fishy taste in your mouth post apish meal as per the Turkish popular saying “fish is still alive until helva is eaten” (“balık helva yemeden ölmez”). The Quince dessert, on the other hand, is another ancient dessert that the Istanbullus are staunchly proud of. More than 57 years old, Sakarya Taticisi is one of Istanbul’s iconic restaurants, famous for the fine way in which it has preserved the tradition of the Quince Dessert.  Locals travel from far to come here just for the tart, syrupy sweet glazed fruit served with a wad of kayak on top that is seasonal and hence only available in winter. If you get here in autumn or winter, you order the quince expecting it to be a pale version of its colour like most fruit get once poached but instead you will find that the skilled slow cooking process changes the colour of the halved stewed fruit naturally to a deep ruby-red. Cut into your fruit and you will find the morsel to be melting soft, very sweet, tart, jammy even and the creamy melting kaymak cuts through it to make this dessert transcend to a whole other level of decadence.

12. Seriously good Baklava.  baklava

Having never been a major fan of Baklava before, Istanbul did manage to make a convert of me. So much so that I actually found myself getting back to Mumbai and baking Baklava on the very next night itself, jetlag notwithstanding. But then I realised that the composition of a real good Baklava is rather a specific thing. Butter from Gaziantep and Pistachios from the Antip region. Crisp, golden outside, moist syrupy inside, flavourful nuts and the perfect proportion of butter to syrup. My favourite ones were those I picked up at Guluouglu (I actually found the shop in the Spice Market to be better than the Kadokoy one) and the ones from Sakarya Tatlicisi in Beyouglu.

13. Adana Kebab adana

 My favourite kebabs in Istanbul. The ones we had at Ciger Cigerim on Istikal Caddesi were without doubt the best kebabs I have EVER eaten. Must be eaten the right way – laid over a bed of condiments, salads and fresh arugula on a thin roomali like bread and rolled up before you eat it rapturously. If you are a meat eater, you cannot come away from Istanbul without eating this one.

14. The ridiculously good Turkish Breakfast breakfast

Definite favourite was the kurdish influenced spread in Van Kahvalti EVi in the hilly Beyoglu neighborhood called Cehagir — The full breakfast will arrive at your table with a basket of warm bread and a large assortment of soft fresh cheeses, local honey squeezed fresh out of the hive, a fresh salad of cucumbers and tomatoes, olives, honey, jam, yoghurt and cucumber dip. A Tahini based paste made with a grape syrup, preserved cherries, a spicy tomato and pepper salsa, a ground walnut and roasted flour paste sweetened with honey and more. All of this you will wash down with the ubiquitous Turkish chai (Yes, Turkish and Hindi share the same word for tea!) And if you are like me and all that gorgeous food isn’t enough to sate your greed, you must also have the fried eggs served with sucuk (Turkish spicy sausage) which will arrive at the table in a small kadhai, gorgeously swimming in delicious local butter,  dotted with incredible slices of the sausage and beautifully scented with smokey red pepper flakes. And then when your husband inhales the aroma of heavenly kayakin and takes a few bites, all the while raving about how it conjures up memories of bread with fresh malai and cheeni, you may have to pout and order some more. Yep, you may want to wear oversized pants for this trip.

15. Loukmalokma

Turkish Gulab Jamuns!! light, yeasted dough balls fried till they are puffy and crisp, dunked in sugar syrup and served hot, dripping with honey and laced with cinnamon. Another one for the sweet tooth, this goes down ridiculously easy too. Another dish I quickly put together when home in Mumbai and I really must share soon.

16. Doner Kebab

doner kebab
 One of the many kebabsandwhiches on offer, there is a good reason why this one is the most famous. Generous portions of sliced juicy lamb or beef roasted on a rotisserie, served on a pita along with tomato, onion with sumac, pickled cucumber and chili. You’d think this one may get dry and chewy but the abundance of moist meat ensured that the sandwich was addictively delicious. The perfect snack for while you rest your tired walking touristy feet.

17. Durum roll – Tantuni

A yufka or lavash wrap filled with meat. How can that go wrong? The delicious, perfectly stir fried peppery beef, after being placed in the durum, has onions softened with sumac and parsley, as well as tomatoes and lots of spices, added to it. And, of course, you must never forget the lemon and pickled hot pepper that are served up next to this. The fillings are generous and the rolls addictive. If only there wasn’t so much good food in Istanbul, one good just live on this!!

18. Tres leches cakes

tres leches
While we were there, these rather trendy cakes were all the rage. Little shops dedicated to the juicy-soft cakes, drenched in sweet milk and caramel were sprinkled around the Karakoy area but I will however, stick my neck out here and say – yummy though they maybe, the next time, I’d splurge my calories elsewhere. My vote – if you’re operating on limited time, stomach space or calaories, you can afford to give this one a miss. But if you do love soft, moist pastries, think before you give it up. Yeah, I know, when it comes to dealing with greed, I’m no help.

19. Turkish delight

 turkish delight2
It’s true that I’ve always turned my nose up at Turkish delight and I only appreciated these after we got back home!! Luckily we had grabbed boxes along the way for friends but unfortunately most found their way to my stomach and consequently, hips. My favorites were the ones from our neighborhood dry fruit shop and the ones at the fantastic spice shop in Kadikoy, Arifogulu rather than ones from the pricey haci pekir.

20. Borek

Stuffed and baked filo pastry or yufka that our hosts said are always best made at home. The ones we had were shop bought but absolutely scrumptious as well. Surprisingly, my favorite one was the one filled with a mashed potato filling that brought back memories of mildly spiced aloo paranthas but the feta cheese and all others we tried (minced-meat, spinach, leek) were great too. Soft, beautifully layered and incredibly delicious in a familiar and rather noncontroversial way.

 21. Kunefe  kunefe

The traditional dessert of melting cheese encased in a vermicelli like pastry, baked to a golden and then dunked in sugar syrup. We had the version at Ciya Sofrasi and the result was a crunchy outside, melting stringy cheesy inside marvel. In deference to my dairy avoidance, I skirted the cheese and gorged on the crispy sweet crust. Why did nobody else think of this obvious deliciousness?

22. Manti or tiny filled dumplings in a yoghurt sauce

 A mid-15th-century Ottoman dish, with dough wrappers that are filled with pounded lamb and crushed chickpeas, steamed, and served topped with yoghurt mixed with crushed garlic and sprinkled with sumac. The version we had was served piping hot, topped with a creamy yoghurt and garlic sauce, spiced with red pepper powder, drizzled with melted butter and topped with ground sumac and mint. Comfort food at the end of a cold-cold winter day in Istanbul.

 23. Mezze

Yes, the familiar assortment of little dishes but only much more. Like wikipedia states, Turkish meze often consist of beyaz peynir (literally “white cheese”), kavun (sliced ripe melon), acılı ezme (hot pepper paste often with walnuts), haydari (thick strained yogurt with herbs), patlıcan salatası (cold eggplant salad), beyin salatası (brain salad), kalamar tava (fried calamari or squid), midye dolma and midye tava (stuffed or fried mussels), enginar (artichokes), cacık (yogurt with cucumber and garlic), pilaki (foods cooked in a special sauce), dolma or sarma (rice-stuffed vine leaves or other stuffed vegetables, such as bell peppers), arnavut ciğeri (a liver dish, served cold and çiğ köfte.

24. Menemen (scrambeled eggs) or Sucuklu yumurta

sucu fried eggs
A delicious Turkish-style fried eggs topped with a dry and spicy beef sausage called sucuk. The traditional Turkish scrambled egg  dish with onion, tomato, green peppers, and spices tastes remarkably similar to a dish that your mom may make in India for a typically breakfast. The only two points of difference are that the egg are runny and soft (which makes this extra delicious) and come with a choice of additional toppings like the delicious sliced local lamb sausages or sucuk. Yummy! My favourite though were the sucuk fried eggs – slices of fried sucuk over fresh eggs fried sunny side up in copious amounts of local butter. So so good.

25.Midyetava or batter fried mussels.

Fried mussels dressed with a creamy garlic sauce and served inside a crusty quarter loaf of bread. The mussels are battered and fried in a huge vessel with a bowl of hot oil in the center and a wide edge to arrange sticks of cooked mussels. The edge allows the excess oil to drain of the fritters even as teh mussels are kept warm. I chose to have my mussels with a dolop of the tangy ‘tarator’ sauce made of yoghurt, garlic, bread crumbs and walnut. But you can also have yours between crusts of Turkish bread as a sandwich.


There is so much more I want to share about what Istanbul was but there’s only so much one can craminto a single post. I do however want to share a few references and links that you may want to bookmark. These helped me when I planned the gorgefest that was this trip and again as I reminisced to put this article together:


  1. says

    I love this post……My husband of 24 years is Turkish and I make this dish meemenn for dinner or breakfast at least a few times a month……Almost every day we have the Turkish breakfast….and then we are not hungry til’ dinner time.Istanbul really is a great place for food, basically all of Turkey is….the bazzars with the fresh veggies and fruit are amazing and they actually tatse different then what we get here in North America….so fresh and tasty like they supposed to be.Thanks for sharing this post…..

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