Travel,  Turkey

A Culinary Journey of Istanbul | From Street Food To Fine Dining

Where do I begin? On the streets of Istanbul? In cafeterias? Or in restaurants? If it is a restaurant, how expensive do you want it to be, or how cheap? Or perhaps one of the random alleys tucked somewhere in the city? Istanbul is definitely a place for foodies. The culinary heritage is reflected by the various influences that has shaped Istanbul’s history. There is a lot of influence of Ottoman Cuisine which itself is a fusion of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Balkan cuisines. As Wikipedia describes – Turkish cuisine varies across the country. The cooking of Istanbul, Bursa, Izmir and rest of the Aegean region inherits many elements of Ottoman court cuisine, with a lighter use of spices, a preference for rice over bulgur, koftes and a wider availability of vegetables staw turlu, eggplant, stuffed dolmas and fish. The cuisine of the Black Sea Region uses fish extensively, especially the Black Sea anchovy (hamsi), has been influenced by Balkan and Slavic cuisine, and includes maize dishes. The cuisine of the southeast—Urfa, Gaziantep and Adana— is famous for its kebabs, mezes and dough-based desserts such as baklava, kadayıf and künefe (kanafeh).Turkish tea or Çay: You cannot escape Istanbul without banging into a man hurrying with a tray carrying either tea or coffee. Turkish tea is not only a part of Turkish culture and tradition, it also symbolises Turkish hospitality and has many social connotations. The first thing that is served to a guest who comes home, or to any tourist that enters a shop, is the tea. Tea breaks barriers here and binds people from different faith, culture, religion to speak a common language. Çay, as it is called, generally refers to the Black tea and is served in the famous tulip-shaped glasses (above). As I have mentioned in an earlier post {Drenched in Turkish Tea And Sugar Cubes}, in Kapali Carsi or the Grand bazaar, all I could see around me were hanging trays with 4-6 glasses of Çays being taken from one shop to the other. The man from the tea shacks would systematically bring in filled glasses of tea and would serve the shop keepers and all the tourists who visited the shops and would eventually take away the empty glasses once they were done. A few minutes later, another fresh tray of Turkish tea would arrive. Turkish Coffee or Kahve: Although the Turkish coffee is too much for me to handle, it deserves a separate post of its own. Incredible as it may sound, the Kahve has been recognised by the UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Turks (Intangible cultural heritage (ICH) is promoted by UNESCO as a counterpart to the World Heritage that focuses mainly on intangible aspects of culture, for example song, music, drama, skills, crafts and the other parts of culture that can be recorded but cannot be touched and interacted with, without a vehicle for the culture. These cultural vehicles are called ‘Human Treasures’ by the UN). The strong aroma and the rich chocolate colour of the coffee, served in the uniquely designed little ceramic cups (above right), can soon become a fatal addiction. The aroma of Kahve is not your Italian or  American coffee that you’ll find in branded cafe chains like Starbucks. The Turkish Coffee actually refers to the method of preparation of coffee. Coffee beans are first roasted and then ground. The beans are then boiled in a special pot called Cezve (above left – the Cezves are hanging in a typical Turkish coffee stall) and served in the famous cup where the coffee grounds are allowed to settle – very similar to the way coffee is prepared and served in many countries in the Middle East, North Africa, the Caucasus, the Balkans, Bali, and various locations within Eastern Europe. Although I have tasted Turkish coffee in Dubai before (called the Qahwah), the one thing that makes the Turkish coffee in Istanbul different is the addition of sugar in the boiling process – not surprising in a city where a bowl of sugar cubes can be found to stand side by side with a salt shaker in every dining table!Roasted Chestnuts or Kestane kebab,  Grilled corn on the cob or Mısır (street food): If there is a smoke emanating from some corner of a street in Istanbul, either you’ll find meat kebabs or corn on the cobs or chestnuts being roasted in the style of a barbecue. There are food carts selling these all across the city but in the popular tourist places like Sutanahmet Square, the display of the roasted chestnuts in the carts acquire the form of an art. As the vendor sets the warm sweet chestnuts one by one next to each other, you can almost feel the love that he has for his beloved chestnuts. Similar push carts selling boiled or corn on the cob or Mısır (below) are also rampant on the streets. Although, the corn on the cobs are usually popular during the summers and the chestnuts take over these carts during the winters, push carts selling both of them seem to be present everywhere even in the month of November, specially around the popular Sultanahmet Square and in front of Hagia Sofia and the Topkafi Palace (further below).Döner kebabı (street food, cafeterias and casual restaurants) This is the single most popular Turkish food that must have been exported outside Turkey. This is the origin of Shawarma, which can be found in other Arab countries, where the meat is roasted on a large open, vertical spit. In fact the word Shawarma has evolved from the Turkish word çevirme, a synonym of döner (meaning turning, spinning, rotating). You’ll find unique eateries resembling bar counters (half-outside/half-inside like the one above) all across the city and almost at almost every nook and corner. But the biggest concentration would be in the Taksim area.Simit or Turkish bagels (street food or bakeriess): This is a type of ring-shaped bread covered with sesame seeds. Simit is commonly eaten in Turkey, plain or with cheese, butter or marmalade and is probably the most popular food to eat in Istanbul. Although, the Simit is eaten at breakfast, this can also be had anytime and anywhere – much like the Turkish tea and is actually a great accompaniment to the Turkish tea. Although you’ll find street vendors all over the city (above and below) selling the classic Simi, in recent years you have fast food chains like Simit Sarayi (meaning Simit Palace) which serves many variations of Simit. Fancy a Simit sandwich anyone?Kumpir (street food): This is baked potato served with a medley of chopped vegetables – onions, tomatoes, green peas, corns, fresh olives, some pickled vegetables, probably soaked in brine (above). You will even find hot dog slices – all served inside a half of a mighty potato with its’ skin on.Pomegranates and juice stalls (street food, cafeterias, restaurants): Pomegranates acquire a gargantuan proportion in Istanbul. You will find either food carts or small juice shops (below) selling fresh pomegranate juices almost everywhere. Pomegranates transcend into embroidery for clothes, ceramic artwork, even playing an important part in the New Year’s celebrations in Turkey – with midnight approaching, each person would grab a pomegranate, smashing it against the ground, with the belief that the more pieces it breaks in to, the more good luck it would bring in the New Year. I It was hard for me to resist my temptation to buy ceramic pomegranates painted with bright colors in Turkish designs, in Grand Bazaar. In Turkish culture, Pomegranates represent abundance, prosperity and fertility. Cultural belief apart, I can vouch for one fact and that is I have never come across pomegranates looking this beautiful and tasting this good, specially when they have been squeezed into juice!

Sultanahmet Köftecisi, Istanbul (casual dining): According to Wikipedia, a 2005 study done by a private food company suggests that there were 291 different kinds of Köfte in Turkey! The question is, where do you want to taste these meatballs while you are in Istanbul? If you are you looking for leg space, arm space, any space where you want to hang around for hours and relax with your friends, while you savour your Turkish meatballs? If you are, this is not the place. But if you want to enter a historical site – the ‘Historical Sultanahmet Meatballs Restaurant’ (the quoted portion is exactly as it says in their website), with the promise of the ‘best Izgara Köfte in town’ in a restaurant which originally ‘created’ them, then it has to be this restaurant. Sultanahmet Köftecisi is located in the crowded and the very touristy Sutanahmet Square in Istanbul, still housed in the original building where the restaurant was established way back in 1920. Although there are more than 20 franchises of the same all across the city and many restaurants with similar names, this particular one is a ‘must visit’. The other branches also serve more dishes than the ones served in this ‘original’ Sultanahmet Köftecisi in the Sultanahmet Square. But, if you are looking for that ‘dining experience’, feel the vibrating floor as the diners walk up and down the rickety stairs, gulp your delicious food down under supervision (there’s a restaurant staff who’ll immediately inform the staff on the ground floor that a potential table might be empty within the next 4-5minutes!), and be a part of some kind of culinary history of Istanbul, this is the place to be. In addition you have some soft, greasy and buttery minced meat melting in your mouth by the name of meat balls. Here’s my whole story… Turkish Meatballs or Izgara Köfte in Sultanahmet Köftecisi.Ortaköy – a different world altogether (street food, cafés, casual dining, fine dining, pubs, night clubs): I had never come across a place like Ortaköy before. It was throbbing with life. Little cobbled alleys lead to other alleys and they all seemed to meander through cafes cum pubs and restaurants, packed with diners – locals and tourists alike. Musicians were belting out haunting Turkish melodies, occasionally interrupted by the loud jazz music played in-house in some restaurant. Billy Joel, Dean Martin caught my attention, so did Mr Saxobeat. We walked, undecided as to where to eat and ultimately reached an open space where almost 8-10 food stalls lined up (above), all serving Kumpir. Although Kumpir stalls are all across Istanbul, but Ortaköy Kumpirs have their own fame, with Maya Kumpir stealing the show. And this particular insanely electrifying area is known as the Kumpir Sokak or the Baked Potato Street and leads up to the Ortaköy mosque. We chose a casual restaurant called the Epope Cafe and Restoran for dinner – a plate of Grilled Garlic Sausage, a plate of Iskender Kabab and an Ezme salad accompanied by a Turkish Sauvignon Blanc. This was followed by the most delicious Turkish waffles and pancakes with Nutella and strawberries, smoked a Caramel flavoured Shisha (Nargille as they are called here) in the Destan Cafe, just 10m across the road. Apart from beautiful cafés with brilliant Bosphorus view, such as the Ortaköy Kahvesi and House cafe, pubs and world class restaurants near the ferry port like Zuma and Köşebaşı, Ortaköy is known for some of Istanbul’s best seashore night clubs, including Reina (where Madonna comes to party in her own yacht and has hosted famous stars like Bon Jovi, Kylie Minoque, U2, Uma Thurman, Daniel Craig, and Naomi Wattswith its exclusive entertainment concept),Sortie, Anjelique, Blackk and SuAda. The last name brings us to an island in the middle of Bosphorus! Here’s my photo heavy post on one Magical Night In Ortaköy. Suada – an island between two continents, in the middle of Bosphorus (nothing but premium fine dining): Located 165 meters away from the European shore in Kuruçeşme the island was a present for Serkis Kalfa, the head architect of the Ottoman palace, by Sultan Abdülaziz in 1872. Serkis Kalfa built a three-storey mansion on the island and lived there until he died in 1899. After World War I the island was rented and used as a coal storehouse. In 1957 Galatasaray Sports Club bought the island and transformed it into a social facility. Suada is a sought after glamourous venue in Istanbul. It has a pool (imagine a pool in the middle of Bosphorus!), a night club and six exclusive fine dining restaurants offering different cuisines from sea food, kebabs to authentic pasta. Such exclusivity comes at a premium and expect a minimum set back of $200/person if you are dining in one of these restaurants. Can you expect anything less if your potential fellow diners are Madonna, Daniel Craig, Megan Fox, Gisele Bündchen, Bono, Kevin Costner, Monica Bellucci, Kylie Minogue, Matt Dillon or Kobe Bryant? As we entered the Suda Kebap for dinner, the restaurant seemed completely packed and throbbed. The entire glass facade overlooked the Bosphorus and the chill in the wind settled into the interiors from some of the doors which were left open by the diners who stepped outside in the verandah deck to smoke. This place was definitely for Kebab lovers. The aroma and smoke from the marinated kebabs placed on open charcoal grills, filled up the space (do check the header picture of the post). You could almost choose to sit on the pit itself as there was a wooden counter running all along the pit (above). Puree dand raw meatballs were favourite hors D’oeuvres here with the most popular dishes on the menu being Gavurdağı or the Turkish Tomato Salad with walnuts and cumin, Çöp Şiş (little chunks of lamb and a chunk of fat on a split wood skewer -the “chaff”, roasted and served with a spicy green pepper), Külbastı (these are meat cutlets cooked in its’ juice) and Katmer (an ancient pastry, well-known in Anatolia, especially in rural areas). Once you have digested the food here, step onto the verandas for some visual stimulation – lit up boats plying the Bosphorus, the city’s many bridges and the fascinating cityscape of Istanbul.Develi Restaurantlari (fine dining): A very exclusive restaurant in Istanbul, Develi was established in 1912 in Antep and showcases the finest of Antep (the informal name for Gaziantep) and Turkish cuisines with a snapshot of different tastes from the cuisines of Aegean, Mediterranean, and Central Anatolian regions. As soon as we entered the elaborate dining room shimmering in an subdued golden shade overlooking a lush greenery outside (above) in Florya, I had a gut feeling that dining here had to be special. Starting from the Mezze or the Starters to the desserts – food here is incredibly good. Here, I learnt about the Çiğ köfte (translated it means ‘raw meatballs’. Originally this dish was made of raw ground meat, pounded wheat and red pepper but now commercially sold çiğ köfte are no longer allowed to contain raw meat). The soft buttery köfte made up of mashed bulgar and onions has to be wrapped up in a lettuce leaf before putting it in the mouth {my 15 seconds video on Instagram}. Although this is a very popular street food in Istanbul, the fine dining restaurant appeal didn’t take away any bit of its splendid taste. Develi is famous for it’s Pistachio Nut Kebab – not surprising for Pistachios make for Gaziantep fables. According to Lonely Planet, there’s one Turkish word you should learn before visiting Gaziantep: fıstık (pistachio). This fast-paced and epicurean city is reckoned to harbour more than 180 pastry shops producing the world’s best pistachio baklava. A restaurant doesn’t celebrate 100 years for nothingeating here gives you a feeling of an old world charm combined with luxury and great food – a 2002 Zagat Survey lists Develi as İstanbul’s best 5th restaurant and the British Observer in 2006 lists it in the ‘best 100 restaurant worldwide’.Baklava and other Turkish sweets: Yes, Baklava is the most famous of Turkish sweets. Turkish sweet shops or the Baklavacis are everywhere. From outside, you can see their glass windows adorned with trays of delicate and exotic looking Baklavasşöbiyet, bülbül yuvası, saray sarması, sütlü nuriye, and sarı burma. People gathered around these shops for casual evening banters (above), catchinh up on their day to day lives while sipping on Turkish tea and buying a few sweets for home. Apart from the Baklavas, I tasted some fruit desserts where the fruits had been cooked in sugar with carnation, cinnamon and served chilled. I have to admit that I fell prey to the kabak tatlısı or the pumpkin sweet. these were fine examples of how to make healthy fruits ad vegetables go unhealthily wild!Turkish Ice cream or Dondurma: You will most certainly find a Dondurma stall (above) everywhere in Istanbul – from street kiosks to fashionable cafes, even in some fancy restaurants. Bold rectangular compartments of thick creamy ice cream in tantalizing colors of different shades line up each ice cream stall. The Turkish ice creams are not your regular ice creams. Apart from the regular ingredients like Milk and Sugar, they also have an ingredient called Salep, a thickening agent made from a flour from Orchids and Mastic, a resin that gives the chewiness and the crunchiness. The ice cream vendor churns out the creamy mixture of an ice cream flavor with a long-handled paddle and as he scoops it out like a thick elastic chewing gum, you have to wait for the customary trick to be performed on you – these Dondurma-men serve you the ice cream, hand it over to you by wrapping the cone delicately in tissue paper and as you put your hand forward to grab the ice cream, you realise that the tempting ice cone has already gone back to the seller. Then with a swish of his hand he topples the cone upside down! Once a spoonful of this magic cream enters your mouth, you’ll know that you’ve chewed upon the thickest and the creamiest form of edible ‘divinity’. Do read my ode on Turkish Ice cream in an earlier post… Will You Read My Post on Turkish Ice Creams If There Are No Snapshots?Although I don’t profess to have eaten everything that I had chalked down in my ‘Things to eat in Istanbul’ list – the Lahmacun or the Turkish-style pizza, Balık ekmek or the ‘fish bread’ on the shore next to the Galata Bridge or the incredibly tempting and colourful chewey ice creams – (below, but wait some body said they were bubble gums – eeks!), did it really matter at the end of the trip? The city seemed to have grown on me at no time. As I walked from the Sultanahmet Square towards the Egyptian Bazaar and the Spice Souk situated on the banks of the Bosphorus river, I was mesmerized by the dark alleys of the older part of the city through which I was walking and the crowd that gathered at every junction. It was simply painful to leave Istanbul with the backdrop of a setting sun (above), the snarling traffic, the deluge of long robed people, the innumerable tea vendors and all the random vendors trying to sell their fascinating artifacts and the junk jewellery… I knew that I had to return very soon. Coming up next is a photo journal on Istanbul sans text (as if this post was devoid of them), so hang on!

Unblogging it all… Ishita

More Info here:
Sultanahmet Koftehcisi website’s Street Food – What’s hot and what’s not! (WTT Hotels Magazine)
Turkish cuisine (Wikipedia)

Disclaimer: You can see the menu and other details of all the restaurants mentioned here on Zomato Istanbul. Please note that this post is not a sponsored post and the subject, story, opinions and views stated here are my own and are independent. While you enjoy reading the posts with lot of visuals, please do not use any material from this post. You can see more pictures of my travel and food journey here.


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