My biggest regret about my week in Istanbul is that I didn’t eat enough.
Seriously. I spent so much time running around trying to see things in Istanbul that I actually didn’t have time to eat all the Turkish food I wanted to try. This is almost unthinkable for a food-loving person like me. But there you have it.
I didn’t eat İskender kebap, which is my favorite dish at the Turkish restaurant back home in Melville. İskender, along with shawarma, is only served between 12:00 and 3:00 p.m. at most Istanbul restaurants, and we rarely found time for lunch until about 5:00. I never ate the famous Turkish dessert künefe, which my Instagram follower @sarahmariesny describes as “Christmas in your mouth”. I didn’t have Turkish ice cream (too cold), and I never tried those deep-fried sticks that look like churros, which were for sale on every corner. (I’m not sure why I never tried the churros.)
But despite all this complaining, I did eat a lot of wonderful food in Istanbul. Istanbul is like Paris; it’s a city that takes eating seriously and delicious food and drink is everywhere — from fancy restaurants to cafés and street-side carts.
Sultanahmet Koftëcisi, one of the most famous köfte restaurants in Istanbul. More on köfte in a minute.
Rather than focus further on my culinary failures in Istanbul, I will tell you about my culinary success.
Five things I ate in Istanbul:
1) Köfte (Kebab)
Kebab is a wide-ranging term that encompasses a variety grilled meats and accompaniments. Every street in Istanbul has at least half a dozen kebab shops.
The most popular type of kebab is köfte, a cylinder-shaped meatball made of minced lamb or beef (or both). I love köfte and had it every time we ordered kebab.
Our first dinner in Istanbul, at a tiny dive (can’t remember the name) near Galata Tower. No one spoke English so we gestured for the chef to give us the house specialty. The köfte were yummy and I loved the sticky rice and chili sauce that came on the side. The green chili pepper was only slightly hot.
Köfte and various side dishes from Hamdi Restaurant in Eminonou. Hamdi has an amazing view of the Golden Horn but I thought the food was a bit overpriced and the service was mediocre. Nonetheless, I enjoyed my food.
Pide is Turkish pizza. It’s similar to Western pizza, but with Mediterranean-style toppings and a boat-shaped crust.
Pide from Nizam in the Şişli district of Istanbul. This particular pide was tasty, but very similar to an American pepperoni pizza. I think we should have gone for one of the more adventurous pides with a fried egg on top. Next time.
3) Turkish breakfast
There are many variations, but every Turkish breakfast seems to include cheese, fresh veggies, and some kind of meat and bread.
One morning we took the advice of Kutlu, our Context Travel guide, and had breakfast at Numli Gurme in Karaköy. This restaurant is huge, with a complicated ordering system, but eventually we figured it out and had the best breakfast of our trip.
Breakfast platter for two: cheese, veggies, olives, and meat. The cheeses in Turkey, especially the variations of feta, are phenomenal. Not shown here: basket of bread and a small dish of fresh butter with candied figs. It was the best butter I’ve ever eaten.
Kumpir are stuffed baked potatoes on steroids. We had Kumpir at a fast-food restaurant called Patsosis off İstiklal Street. The customer goes to the counter, orders kumpir, and the guy behind the counter pulls an insanely huge potato from a piping-hot oven. He cuts open the potato and mixes the inside with several spoonfuls of butter. Then the customer surveys a spread of more than a dozen toppings and tells the guy what to pile onto the potato. Here’s a video demonstration.
The butter pirate was the best part of my Patsosis kumpir experience.
5) Fish sandwich
Fish sandwiches have a glorious history in Istanbul (read more here), and the best place to get them is on the fishing boats at Eminönü Pier. We visited that pier one evening and watched hundreds of people cram onto permanently docked boats to order cheap, delicious fish sandwiches. We’d just eaten so we weren’t among the throng.
Fortunately I found myself hungry one evening in Kadıköy, as we waited for a ferry back to the European side of town, and spotted a lone fish sandwich vendor outside the terminal. Meruschka and I each ordered one.
I stuffed the sandwich in my face while we sat on the ferry. It was great. But beware of the raw onions.
Bonus #1: My Favorite Meal in Istanbul
The best meal I had was at Café Vodina in Balat, where I went during our tour with Fest Travel. Our appetizer was dolma, or stuffed grape leaves — a dish I had never been crazy about before this meal. The dolma were served warm, stuffed with a bulgar wheat mixture and smothered in thick yogurt.
Our main course was manti, a Turkish ravioli/dumpling stuffed with meat and spices and also topped with yogurt.
Bonus #2: My Favorite Drink in Istanbul
Istanbul has great coffee, tea, fruit juice, beer, and wine. But the best beverage discovery I made in Istanbul was salep, a hot, creamy drink made from the tubers of orchids that is served only in Turkey and a handful of middle eastern countries (and only in winter). Drinking salep is like drinking a warm version of the most delicious ice cream you can imagine.
Istanbul foods and drinks that I enjoyed but didn’t have space to write about in this post: Turkish coffee and tea, apple tea, pomegranate juice, Turkish delight, baklava (yummmmmmm), other Turkish pastries, lentil soup, and roasted chestnuts…I’m sure there were more but these are the things I remember.
I’ll have more to say about Turkish food when I write about Cappadocia — coming up soon.