1. Morning coffee in Galata.
Begin the day with a cup of coffee in the medieval square surrounding the Galata Tower, the sixth century observation post that was once the tallest structure on the Golden Horn. The neighborhood was the home of Genoese immigrants in Byzantine times and despite the invasion of the Ottoman Turks in 1453 traces of Italian influence remain, most notably in the number of cafés that serve espresso drinks instead of traditional Turkish coffee. But this is Istanbul, not Genoa, so why not sample the local brew in an outdoor kahvehane instead? Turkish coffee is an acquired taste: it’s much darker, stronger, and the unfiltered grind leaves a muddy aftertaste. Sugar is added, but never any milk. Pick a kahvehane with a view of the Galata Tower, and enjoy a part of Istanbul little changed from the days it was known as Constantinople.
2. The smell of simit.
Walking towards the waterfront through the hip neighborhood of Karaköy, it’s hard not to notice the aroma of freshly baked simit, a savory ring-shaped and sesame seed-covered loaf that resembles a bagel or pretzel. Locals can’t get enough of simit and the red carts that sell the baked delicacy are ubiquitous in this side of the city. The secret to good simit is the molasses and local sesame seeds used to bake it. The molasses gives the bread its golden brown color, crusty texture, and syrupy aftertaste. It’s no wonder locals consider it the ultimate breakfast snack.
3. Something fishy on the Bosphorus.
No other waterfront is as stunningly beautiful year round as Istanbul’s. At the tip of the Golden Horn on the northern bank of the Bosphorus, the visitor is treated to a spectacular skyline of domes, minarets, bazaars, and palaces. The scenic pier of Karaköy is also where fishing boats returning from the Black Sea and the Aegean coast unload their fresh catch onto the city’s fish market every morning. The waters around Istanbul teem with bonito (tuna), red mullet, anchovies, sea bream, mussels, and squid. For an extra fee, fish vendors will fry or grill what you purchase and serve the fish on makeshift tables inside the market.
4. Brunch on the Golden Horn.
After enjoying a plate of fried calamari and anchovies while taking in the view of the grand Suleymaniye mosque across the Bosphorus, make your way to the Galata Bridge nearby for a breathtaking view of the European and Asian sides of Istanbul—the only city in the world that straddles two continents. The bridge is located at the mouth of the Golden Horn, so named for its color at sunset and the curved shape of its waterway. During the day, amateur fishermen line the rails of the bridge and sell their catch to the fish restaurants that occupy the level below. A seafood lunch underneath the bridge is a unique Istanbul experience, and the view of ferries and cargo ships traversing the world’s busiest waterway is an added treat.
5. Fish sandwiches in Eminönü.
Crossing over Galata Bridge takes you to the busy pier of Eminönü, the main entry point to the historic heart of Istanbul where the city’s most famous landmarks and sacred sites are located. The pier is also where locals catch a ferry ride to and from work and snack on balik ekmek, the grilled fish sandwich that locals take while waiting for their ride. The healthy snack is as affordable as it is simple: grilled mackerel on a bed of lettuce and onions served in a half loaf of bread. All the fish sandwiches are grilled and prepared on boats bobbing wildly on the water and it’s fun to watch the cooks do a balancing act while serving customers.
6. Pide, kebabs, and roasted coffee in Hasircilar Caddesi.
Most tourists getting off at the Eminönü pier head straight to the historic Spice Bazaar that dominates the waterfront. The sprawling covered food market is an obvious choice for hungry tourists and the smell of meat and fish grilling in the hawker stalls is hard to resist. However, few locals shop or dine inside the main Spice Bazaar these days, as much of the food choices are tweaked for foreigners and the price of goods beyond the reach of most. However, the stalls along Hasircilar Caddesi, a pedestrian-only lane perpendicular to the covered market, reveals a treasure trove of traditional, authentic, and affordable Turkish culinary delights.
Turkish cuisine is simple, informal, and shouldn’t be confused with the more elaborate Ottoman version developed in the palaces of the Sultans. A good introduction to Turkish food is pide, boat-shaped bread with toppings similar to pizza. A fantastic example of this hearty Turkish snack is served at Mavi Haliç Pidecisi in a corner of Hasircilar Caddesi. Like authentic Italian pizza, the dough is baked with cheese and meat toppings in a wood-fired oven. The comparison ends there, however. The rest is uniquely Turkish. For one, a generous amount of butter is spread over the pizza immediately after it’s baked. The melted butter oozes when you cut through the pide and is one of the defining characteristics of the delicacy. Another unique aspect is the crust: crunchy on the outside, but gooey underneath. Common toppings for pide include sheep’s cheese, cured beef sausage, minced lamb, thin pastrami slices, egg, and gobs of butter.
No other dish is as closely identified with Turkey as the kebab. Called a kebap in Turkey, the term is a general definition for grilled meat cooked in skewers over coal (shish kebap) or roasted on its axis on a vertical spit (doner kebap). The kebap house Lezzet-i Sark, also on Hasircilar Caddesi, serves Adana kebap, a spicy version of the barbecue that uses the meat of a year-old male lamb. The meat is minced by hand using a knife and seasoned with red chili peppers and salt. The fat in the tail of the lamb adds a buttery flavor to the meat, and when perfectly grilled, the kebap melts in your mouth. Aryan, a frothy and tart yogurt drink helps neutralize the fat from the kebap on your palate. End the meal with the restaurant’s excellent künefe, a cheese pastry soaked in syrup and sprinkled with crushed pistachios. Theirs is baked in the original Antalyan tradition: the crispy crust is made from long and thin noodles and the gooey center uses sheep’s cheese.
The first coffee houses in the world were established in Istanbul after the drink was discovered in the imperial colony of Yemen in the sixteenth century. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent was an avid fan of the elixir and during his reign a new method of drinking coffee was discovered: the beans were roasted over a fire, finely ground and then slowly cooked with water on the ashes of a charcoal fire. Since then, coffee culture has been an integral part of daily life in Turkey. Two of the Istanbul’s oldest and most famous coffee roasters are located along the same narrow lane of Hasircilar Caddesi. Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi next to the covered Spice Bazaar is more popular with locals and tourists, but Kurukahveci Nuri Toplar down the street is better known among coffee aficionados for their delicately roasted beans. Curious visitors can peek into the premises of the traditional coffee shop to catch a glimpse of workers roasting Arabica beans from Africa in an old fashioned wood-burning roaster. The coffee house has been roasting beans the same way since 1890.
7. The Spice Bazaar.
The unique flavors found in Turkish cuisine are largely a function of two things: fresh, natural ingredients and complex seasoning. Istanbul’s location at the crossroads of East and West made it a natural hub of the spice trade between continents. In the seventeenth century, a covered spice market was built to house the lucrative trade. Today, the cavernous building contains hundreds of stalls specializing in spices and other natural products from Turkey, the Caucuses and the Middle East. Apart from spices, best buys include pistachio and hazelnuts, honey, tea, olive oil, pastrami, cheese, and Turkish sweets. When the crowd starts to build up at rush hour, make your way to the courtyard facing the Yeni Cami (New Mosque) on the northern side of the bazaar and enjoy a glass of freshly brewed apple tea, an inimitable Istanbul delicacy.
8. The original Turkish delight.
There are many stalls in the Spice Bazaar that sell the sweet gummy confection known to locals as lokum or Turkish delight in the West. The original recipe was developed in the Sultan’s household in Topkapi Palace at around the seventeenth century, but the oldest known commercially produced lokum can be traced to a confectioner in Istanbul named Haci Bekir. The store still stands in its original location in Hamidiye Caddesi, a few hundred meters from the Spice Bazaar, and remains the most revered producer of Turkish delights in the city. The small gelatinous cubes are made with sugar and starch and infused with natural fruits and nuts. There are dozens of flavors to choose from, but we highly recommend the rose water, orange, pistachio, and hazelnut varieties.
9. Baklava in the afternoon.
The Ottoman household that held court at Topkapi Palace was afflicted with a sweet tooth and a Chief Confectioner (yes, there was a position for one) was appointed to produce a vast array of confections and desserts for the sultan’s family. One other delicacy that has outlasted the Ottoman rulers is baklava, a rich pastry of multiple layers of filo pastry stuffed with chopped pistachio or hazelnuts and held together by honey and syrup. Invented in the fourteenth century for the imperial elite, baklava was made available to the general public in 1864. Hafiz Mustafa was one of the first establishments to sell it. Still considered among the most respected confectioners in the city, the multi-story café along Muradiye Caddesi close to the Sirkeci train station is a must for anyone looking for one of the best baklavas in Istanbul.
10. Offal in a bun.
For the visiting foodie, Istanbul provides a heady mix of high and low cuisine, imperial and working class delicacies—usually within the same block. Alongside the upscale restaurants of the financial district of Sirkeci are street carts cooking up distinctly peasant fare like kokoreç, an offal sandwich that has a passionate following. Kokoreç is young lamb’s intestines wrapped around sweetbreads and grilled horizontally over charcoal. A street stall popular with office workers in the area is Kral Kokoreç on Buyuk Postane Caddesi. The cook chops the intestines and serves it on a loaf with sautéed onions sprinkled with cumin, oregano and salt. It may sound simple, but thoroughly cleansed and washed intestines is the key to achieving good (and safe) kokoreç. The laborious process ought to make you respect this well-loved pedestrian meal. Though kokoreç sounds lowly, take my word for it: it tastes fantastic.
11. O.J. by the glass.
One of the fascinating things you come across in the streets of Istanbul is the profusion of makeshift fruit juice stands. For a lira (approximately 30 US cents) you get a full glass of orange juice squeezed on demand and right in front of you. The Mediterranean climate of Turkey is ideal for growing oranges and other citruses like lemon and pomegranate, and the proximity to the orchards in Anatolia guarantee the fruit is always fresh.
12. Early dinner in Istanbul’s legendary food lane.
Blessed with fertile soil, a large rural labor force, and favorable climate year round, Turkey has no reason to overprice its food. Unless, of course, the restaurant happens to be located where tourists congregate. There, prices are typically double of what you’d get elsewhere for the same quality, and yet the food isn’t always faithful to original recipes. But there are exceptions. Close to the main sites of Sultanahmet where the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace are located, is Hocapasa Hamami Sokak, a narrow curved street lined with dozens of open air eateries that have been serving affordable and authentic dishes to local customers and food enthusiasts for more than a century.
Start at the venerable Meshhur Filibe Köftecisi where kofte, Turkish meatballs, have been grilled to perfection for the last 122 years. It’s almost impossible to get a table in this popular family-run establishment and the walls filled with newspaper reviews and photographs of local celebrities who patronize the place tell you why you’re better off ordering their meatballs to go. Up a couple of stalls next door is Kasap Osman, known by insiders for having one of the best doner kebaps in Istanbul. A doner is the equivalent of the Persian shawarma: layers of deboned chicken, lamb or beef roasting on a vertical spit and served with onions, as a wrap or sandwich or plated with rice pilaf. Slow-roasted in its own fat, the juicy doner is tasty enough to enjoy without condiments or sauces that only mask the flavor of the meat. Already a legend among loyal clients, the restaurant recently got an unexpected shot of publicity when the actor Russell Crowe dined here twice while filming scenes in Istanbul for his latest movie, The Water Diviner.
13. A feast fit for a sultan
Street food is a delicious, colorful, and affordable way to enjoy Turkish cuisine, but it leaves out more than half a millennium of culinary traditions developed in the kitchens of the Ottoman sultans. While the subjects of the empire settled on stewing, roasting, and frying whatever was immediately available on the land around them, the sultan’s chefs were busy innovating with new techniques and ingredients gathered from conquests in the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and the Middle East. The result of their experimentation was an extremely refined cuisine featuring rare ingredients and exotic flavors. Elaborate presentation and skillful plating techniques was another Ottoman obsession. Due to the high cost of sourcing these ingredients today and the time-consuming process needed to prepare Ottoman dishes, the number of restaurants specializing in historically authentic Palace cuisine has diminished to a handful.
Deraliye, an upscale restaurant along Divan Yolu Caddesi in the fringes of the Blue Mosque, offers a menu of dishes that were served to Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century. Nejati Ylmaz, the owner and chef, discovered old recipes while researching at the imperial archives at Topkapi Palace and recreated these in the kitchen of Deraliye using modern equipment and techniques. Though pricey, a five-course degustation dinner of long forgotten delicacies such as kaz kebabi, baked shredded goose meat rolled with rice in a sheet of filo pastry, should help remind visitors of Istanbul’s sophisticated past and its proper place in history as a capital of gastronomy.
Photographs by David Celdran
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue No. 21 2015.