There is more to food in Istanbul than meat rotating on a stick – although we did eat a lot of those and they were delicious. 9 days, about 5 meals a day. I count my holidays by the number of meals I can have.
Perhaps our most favourite meals were breakfast and lunch. Breakfast at the famous Van Kahvalti Evi serving Kurdish style farm fresh breakfasts; and lunch at lokantasis or working man’s cafes. Thanks to Istanbul Eats, the bible on eating in Istanbul, we learned that Van Kahavalti Evi (named after the city Van near the Iranian border, with Kurdish cuisine) was right round the corner from us. And boy! did they serve up a mean breakfast. All the staff were smiling and cheerie – I particularly like the server who started each sentence with ‘sorry’ although there was nothing he was really sorry about, it was his way of saying ‘excuse me’. ‘Sorry, your eggs’, ‘sorry some special bread for you’. It was not just tourists here but locals too – like the grandpa who brought his grandson for breakfast, feeding him olives and cheese; or the man we saw everyday bringing his little dog for a walk and stopping in for a chat.
We were usually the first ones there and sampled a wide variety of their breakfasts: fried eggs (yumurta) that come in a traditional copper bottomed pan that made the bottom of the fried egg crispy, clinging to the base of the pan begging you to scrap off the sticky bits. And what takes these eggs over the top, is the sucuk or garlic sausage that is fried in the egg, or you could have roast beef or pastrami (pastirma), mushrooms (mantrali) etc. The menemen or scrambled eggs cooked with sautéed onions, green peppers and tomato is spicy and can easily be shared between two. Everything apart from the bread is extra, including cheese, butter and jam. But these aren’t no ordinary extras. There’s a variety of cheeses, like kashyar cheese and peynir and other specialty cheeses from around the country. One day I tried one of the more traditional spreads: two cheeses (kashar and beyaz peynir or white cheese), lots of olives, green and black, tomatoes, cucumbers, a boiled egg (sadna), butter, jam, nutella and tea (about TL 15,). There are bigger platters to share with 18 items, a great way to sample the variety of cheeses.
But the best thing here had to be the Bal-kaymak – sounds simple enough, cream and honey. But this is clotted cream (made with slowly boiled buffalo milk) and Turkish honey, still with bits of honey comb in it. First a slather of cream then honey and its a sophisticated version of condensed milk without the cloying sweetness. The cream is the perfect balance to the honey. We shamelessly ordered this every one of the 7 breakfasts here. This is something that cannot be missed if you are in Turkey
Two breakfasts were spent eating gozleme at Ferikoy flea market and a sausage and cheese toasted sandwich. A sausage and cheese toastie (Ayvalik Tostu) sounds pretty simple right, well it is but the bread is wide, long , flattened and crunchy, the sausage is garlicy (sucuk) and the cheese is gooey. Those particular ingredients are vital to produce the flavour. For me, it’s all about the bread and all I’ve found on blogs is people calling it ‘special bread’.
At Ferikoy flea market, around 10 am the three ladies who look like sisters (and who strangely looked like every other gozleme lady we saw) opened up their stall. Gozleme is a very thin dough that is filled with cheese, usually feta cheese and spinach or with minced meat (lamb usually). Being a bread making enthusiast I could tell that rolling out this thin dough took an expert hand. One lady would roll, pass it to the next who would fill it carefully yet firmly and then she would slap it on the dome shaped griddle managed by sister number 3. Here’s a brief video.
One morning we stopped at the borek man, serving up pides (pronounced pid-day) with egg or minced meat or cheese and spinach; and flaky borek with minced meat. Quite a heavy breakfast that we slipped back in to the bag to finish off for tea; we saw plenty of people heading to work with just a simit in one hand. Simits are sesame seed rings of bread and can be found in every public space.
For lunch, it was the lokantasis. There was quite a famous one in our neighbourhood, Ozkonak Lokantasi which made the famous chicken breast pudding (tavuk gogsu). It was where we had our first and last taste of Turkey. We become friends with the guys running it who were eager to show us their pictures in the Istanbul Eats guide, we were the only tourists who ate there and surprisingly it was open on a Sunday. I guess because we were the only tourists in the place, they took a liking to us. These two guys were a comedy act.
Apparently, if you live in Istanbul long enough you find your own lokantasi, the one you think is the best. In a lokantasi one heads to the back and checks out the steam tables with trays of enticing meaty stews and vegetables. The chef in charge runs his spoon through the dish to show you the ingredients: chick peas, chicken leg, eggplant, minced lamb or beef, gourd stuffed with minced meat, pilafs and much more. You choose, he dishes up the plates and it comes to your table with copious amounts of bread. Evi lokantasi in the the slum area of Kucuk pazar (translates to ‘small bazaar’ as opposed to the famous ‘grand bazaar’) came with a big plastic bucket of bread!
Now to the chicken breast pudding: unlike some other bizarre delicacies like snake blood or bull testicles in other parts of the world, Turkey’s offering is pretty harmless. The chicken breast meat – in the days of the Ottomans it was a capon or castrated rooster- is softened by boiling and separated into very fine fibers. Modern recipes often pound the meat into a fine powder instead. The meat is mixed with milk, sugar and cracked rice and/or other thickeners, shaped in to a square and sprinkled with cinnamon. It does not taste like chicken, it tastes like a milk pudding but there is something addictive about it. The chicken also gives it this sticky/stringy quality as you can see in the picture. This pudding is pretty damn delicious and Ozkonak is one of the few lokantasis you’ll find it at.
One morning we headed off on the full Bosphorous cruise (a must if you are going to Istanbul) way up north of Istanbul to the last post before the Black Sea, the peaceful seaside village of Anadolu Kavagi. This place must be so different without the tourists. As the Shehir Hatlari boat approaches, restaurant owners by the water front were waving flags at us, welcoming the Americans, British and oddly – the Malaysians?!
The common itinerary is get off the ferry – you reach at about 12noon – and head straight through the village, past the enticing fried calamari to climb to the top of the island to see the Yoros castle that once protected the region from invaders from the black sea – a lonely look out point that was brutally fought over by the Byzantines, Genose and Ottomans (12th to 15th centuries).
After a gruelling climb up, the fresh sea food at the bottom is a sight for sore thighs. Many restaurant owners tried to woo us but the salesman of the day was the one who showed us the catch of the day. How did he know that I wanted to see the plump eyes and red gills before deciding on his restaurant. All the restaurants have two rows in a common tented area on the waterfront, worked up by the excellent sales men. We had a cold Effe beer, fried calamari with garlic mayonnaise, a lovely fresh garden salad with a vinegerrette i’m still trying to get my head around and the Dorado catch of the day. Simply grilled, the lemon and onion a much needed accompaniment, the fish crispy skin, thick flakes of white meat coming neatly off the central bone. The food was fresh, the air was cool, the crowds were still trudging up the hill and once you take your shoes off, everything is much better.
In Turkey, you must add salt. Everything comes just a little under salted and if you like your chilli, do ask for the ‘pull biber’ or chilli flakes. Makes a world of difference for our Indian palate.
This was followed by the famous Turkish mastic icecream, the ingredient in chewing gum. Imagine icecream the texture of chewing gum with the taste of the freshest fruit. Unlike chewing gum, the icecream does melt but it has an elastic quality. And only the freshest cherries, pistachios, strawberries, bananas and peaches. Nothing artificial here.
Try and get to a Ali Usta chain of icecream shops – the theatrics they do with the sticky icecream is hilarious and most unexpected. He hands you a cone, then using a spoon with a long handle he plonks the scoop on to your cone and the icecream is so sticky that before you know it, when he retracts the spoon, he takes the cone and the ice cream with him! Then he mock apologises and when he’s giving it back to you, still holding it with the back of the spoon by icecream end, he places it in your hand, then does it again and whips it out of your hand. Of course, its all done with a bit of theatrics but he does it so many times in different ways, tricking you in to thinking you’re holding on to the cone. Totally unexpected, I was foxed! So foxed I couldn’t even record it! We had our ALi Usta experience at Gulhane tram stop.
For the ferry ride back to Emininou we indulged in a banana, nutella and strawberry waffle from Anadolu. From lips to hips…
Lunches in lokantasis were followed by tea at home, with a simit or a biroche from the Tophane Ring bakery down the hill,or if we were out, the sinful freshly fried donuts in syrup dusted with powdered cinamon, fried in a wok right in front of you.
The Bosphorous full cruise gets you back to Emininou at 16:15hrs. After a good sleep on the journey back it was time for a snack, the famous fish sandwich (balek ekmek) from the rocking gondolas. While the sandwich isn’t a touristy thing (there were locals there too) the gondolas certainly are and if ever there was a good touristy sight, this is it. The rocking brightly painted gondolas with large hot plates with fish being grilled.
The sandwiches have a debonned fillet of mackerel, plenty of lettuce, onion and sumac with lemon juice on your table to squirt in. You sit by the waterfront on stools with wooden barrels/casks for tables. There’s also the TL 1 lemonade (avoid the salty pink pickled veges in cups). The sandwiches were so tasty we went back to a different boat but unfortunately the second time the DH and a few people around us were getting big bones in their fish, everyone shaking their heads. I found the first boat closest to the galata bridge to be the better of the two boats we ate from.
We ate our first dinner at a meyhane – a place with mezes or small plates of hot and cold items. The man brings you a tray of about 20 to 30 small plates covered with cling wrap and you choose which ones, and it is freshly prepared and brought to your table. We went from one recommended meyhane where we ordered prawns and blue cheese (i should have known better than to order cheese and seafood), grilled haloumi cheese etc. All of which were about 7 to 8 TL and weren’t that great. Lesson learned, don’t always follow the guide book. I thought we should still try the famous Nevizade area near the flower market. And yes it was really busy and buzzing, the world cup was on as well. But the food was mediocre, it was expensive and the chain smoking pretty much ruined the taste of food. Maybe in a big group, this would have been worthwhile but we didn’t make the meyhane mistake again and stuck to cheaper street food for dinner: kebabs or lahmacun.
Dinner was usually a donor kebab (TL 7) or a Lahmacun (pronounced lakh-ma-joon). Lahmacun is a really thin pizza dough (the dough has egg and oil) with minced meat ragout style topping, cheese can be added, eaten with a fresh salad. They are served on wooden disks, which of course we had to hunt down at a store in Emininou.The cheapest lahmacun (TL 3) was at Halil Usta opposite the German (Allemand) Hospital. The shops are named after the man in charge of meats (Mr.Halil) and he is known as an usta (or master ie. ustad in Hindi). If you are at Taksim square, head towards Cihangir on Sirasilviler Cadessi (the road that Ataturk’s statue is looking at). It’s on the right side, in a little side street directly opposite the German Hospital. F0od here is cheap, very tasty and a real good find with friendly staff, happy to answer questions. In fact, we never met unfriendly servers anywhere in Istanbul – they were all so enthusiastic about their food.
Eating inside the Grand Bazaar is expensive – a cup of tea is TL5 to 7 when it is TL 2 outside. So eat just outside the Grand Bazaar at one of the bufe, we liked Akin Bufe. There’s also the quite bite of Islak Burger (translation wet burger) which is a hot steamy bun with a beef patty inside.
My tip would be if you are in a touristy area of Sultanahmet and want to avoid the over-priced tourist traps, all you have to do is walk a bit. Walk about 5 to 10 mins down the road and you’ll find a ‘Bufe’ or kebab shop that’s much cheaper. We found this time and again – at the Grand Bazaar (we ate at Akin Bufe outside the bazaar), at Sultanahmet (if at Topkapi palace, just walk past the Gulhane tram stop or inside to the side streets) we ate at Laklak bufe (N41 degrees 0 min 50.86 sec East 28 deg 58 min, 35.41 sec), at Taksim for Halil Usta (walk towards German Hospital).
One evening, when we were at Horhor Bit Pazari (a flea market I will blog about next), in the conservative area of Fatih, we headed to Kadinlar Pazari ( past the fire station, under the aquaducts is İtfaiye Caddesi) for Iftar at the Seree Buryan for Buryan Kebab – lamb slow cooked in a pit in the ground. Needed, some garlic yogurt to go with it, but truly divine succulent meat. This was only one of two places where we were offered a takeaway immediately or sit down after fast was broken at 8:30pm.
While the food was tasty, everything needed a touch more chilli to oomph up the volume – and the supply of ‘pull biber’ at each table did just that. And we are used to some kind of mint chutney or garlic yogurt with our kebabs in India, which we missed in Turkey. We’ve already made 3 turkish dishes and instead of adding a teaspoon of biber as the recipes suggest, we added a tablespoon and it was just what we needed.
We bought so much of the pull biber, we had to take a photograph with the man.
What i loved was the ample supply of bread served in plastic buckets – bottomless pit of crusty bread with a soft crumb that soaked up those liquid gold stews.
But I end with our favourite street food of all: the mussels in peppery rice. Turns out there is no pepper in the rice, but pimenton and pine nuts. At every ferry point and in Cihangir you’ll find these guys set up on a folding table/stool, dishing up a beautifully simple item. It’s generally a rule, not to eat seafood on the streets but this coulnd’t be a better rule to break in a place like Istanbul. The other place to break this rule is in Alleppey market where the clams and malabar parotta from a push cart opposite the SBI ATM is worth the delhi belly risk
Mr.Mussels man at Cihangir
Mussels with fried rice, large (TL 1.50) and small (TL 1) separated
Every meal was followed by cups of tea that seemed to digest all ones food. People were so friendly and relaxed in Istanbul, I can’t stress this enough. But here’s the one episode that cements my point. At the airport, hanging around duty free we had 8TL left and saw an icecream man. We thought, one last turkish icecream and then realised it was 8 Euros for a scoop. Get this, the man serving up the scoops was so sad to see our disappointment he gave us two scoops for 8 TL. That’s how genuinely kind the Turks are. At the airport, where things are overpriced and people are a stickler for the rules, this guy was so kind to us.
Don’t know about you…but looking at all that food, I’m getting pretty hungry for some street food, Turkish style! Take me back there!