Istanbul is one of my favourite cities. I visited twice this year, way back in April, and although I’ve written about a few places I enjoyed, there’s more to add. I’m currently laid up in bed due to a nasty incident involving boiling sprout water (don’t laugh), so I thought I’d get around to it, finally. Here are ten things (out of many more) you really must eat or drink if you visit Istanbul.
1. As Many Kebabs, Grilled Meats and Plates of Meze as Possible
Yep, it’s the biggie. The Turkish are masters of the grill, as I’m sure you already know. One of the most famous (and best) places to eat protein cooked over charcoal is Zübeyir Ocakbasi, in Beyoglu. This cosy two-floor restaurant is the kind of place you want to hunker down for an evening, rather than scarf your dinner and run. The best seats are around the ocakbasi (the grill), which means you need to book a few days in advance. We did, and I was transfixed by the way one man managed so many skewers over the coals, balancing on a stool, taking orders, chatting and shaking hands with customers, and every so often reaching behind his head to answer the phone.
The grill master at work at Zübeyir
We ordered a huge amount of food for 2 people, starting with some meze, naturally – creamy-soft grilled garlic cloves and bittersweet charred onions dressed with pomegranate molasses and sumac; the ubiquitous ‘shepherd’s salad’, which is a chopped salad of cucumber, tomatoes and parsley; gavurdagi salatasi, a salad of parsley, tomato and pomegranate molasses; fluffy peaks of whipped labneh and blistered bread.
And then the meat. One of the specialities at Zübeyir is the lamb chops, flesh cut deftly from bone using a fat kebab blade and lay flat in a way I have never seen before or since. The grilled liver is also superb; the Turkish love their liver and really know how to cook it. Chunks are edged with char while insides remain rich, smooth and soft. Spices are often dusted on afterwards. The juicy chicken wings and perfectly balanced adana are also worth special mention.
We had a look at the kitchen afterwards, and found the guy in the top left hand photo (below) chopping the kebab meat with this special blade, rocking it side to side. We asked him where we could buy one (don’t ask) and he wrote down a name on a scrap of paper, which led us to a market where we went from shop to shop trying to track down ‘the knife man’. I’ll admit to being slightly scared. We found him, eventually, and purchased a knife like the one you see in the picture. It made for an interesting conversation at the airport.
Zubeyir Ocakbasi, Bekar Sokak 28, Beyoglu
For more excellent babbage, check out Ciya on the Asian side (I wrote about it here). They do wonderful seasonal kebabs grilled with fruit and served in a rich gravy with whole bulbs of garlic.
2. Balik Ekmek
There are many places selling balik ekmek (grilled mackerel sandwiches) in Istanbul, many of them are under the Galata bridge and many of them are terrible. The first time I ate one, I got burned. Hard. Limp fish, poor garnish, mostly bread…we then walked a long way before I was finally satisfied to make our second choice and it was this guy, working a very basic set up, but with everything so bright and fresh and just perfect. We ate it in the blazing sun next to the glittering Bosphorous and felt our hangovers ebb away.
The finished sandwich was packing grilled mackerel, onions and peppers, lettuce, tomato, sumac, urfa chilli, lemon juice and pomegranate molasses. If you can’t get to Istanbul any time soon, there’s also a recipe for one in my sandwich book. Handy.
We got a cup of tea from this urn to wash down our sandwiches. You’ll find little glasses of sweet tea everywhere in Istanbul.
Oh, the pastries! These are generally eaten early in the day and the best places will sell out (again, it’s possible to buy some horrid versions, dripping with oil – Istanbul may be incredible for food in general but as always, you can eat badly). I’m talking about savoury börek pastries here, which are made with very thin, flaky layers of phyllo or yufka pastry, and filled with cheese, meat or vegetables. There are some sweet versions but they’re not my thing. They come in different shapes and sizes and may be baked or fried, and brushed with oil or butter. One of the most common types is ‘water börek’ where the layers of pastry are plunged into hot water, then layered up with cheese, parsley and oil, before getting a good brushing with butter and a blast in a brick oven. I could eat these all day long. We made a pilgrimage to a place I had a tip off about, called Rumeli Tatli ve Börek Evi in Peykhane Caddesi, Sultanhamet. It was a total nightmare to find. We wandered the streets until eventually we came across a tiny shop with a little old man inside and just a few börek left. We sat outside on two tiny stools and let the slippery layers line our insides. It was so good that when we got to the last piece I pulled the classic “what’s that behind you?” line and nicked the last bit while my boyfriend wasn’t looking.
Rumeli Tatli ve Börek Evi, Peykhane Caddesi, Sultanhamet, 41/5
There’s a whole lotta lahmacun in Istanbul…it’s a very thin flatbread topped with minced lamb or beef (mostly) which has been mixed with hot pepper paste, chilli or whatever the chef sees fit, and then baked. It is served with lemon juice for sprinkling and salad which you pile on top before rolling the whole thing up and sending gob-ward. I was very lucky to find a really good place called Has Urfa Lahmacun by complete accident and I’ve written about it in more detail here.
If you like dumplings or pasta, but you’ve never had manti, then you are in for a treat. These little dough parcels are filled with spiced lamb or beef and then boiled, baked or steamed, before being topped with yoghurt and tomato sauce. Sometimes garlic is added, and sumac. Sometimes they are served in broth. Basically there are many different ways to serve them, but the above (apart from the funky coloured pasta) is fairly classic. I am deeply into both carbs and yoghurt so this is as good as it gets since I ate all that bread and labneh half an hour previously.
Künefe is a dessert that is actually found all over regions of the former Ottoman Empire, but the Turkish version is made from two layers of shredded pastry, like lots of little short pieces of noodle, baked flat into circular copper plates and soaked with sugar syrup. In the middle though, the thing is filled with semi soft cheese. Yep. It’s a sweet and salty delight. You feel guilty before you’ve even started eating it, and once you do, it’s impossible to stop. To further the health benefits of this wondrous creation, it is often served with kaymak, which is like a Turkish version of clotted cream and another of the Most Delicious Things in The World.
Raki tends to divide people…they either love it, or hate it. Actually that’s not true, because I think I feel both. It’s a bit like a lover who treats ’em mean to keep ’em keen. This aniseed flavoured drink is considered the national drink of Turkey, and you will find it, and accompanying Raki branded tablecloths, awnings, napkin holders etc., everywhere. It is served in a small, thin tumbler; the Raki is added first, followed by chilled water, and then sometimes ice. This is apparently the correct order to ensure the proper mixing of the drink. I know this because I was reprimanded at a dinner recently for doing it the wrong way round. Raki is clear when neat, turning cloudy when water is added. Mysterious. Some say that the name raki, which is derived from the Arabic word Araq, meaning perspiration, refers to the ‘Raki sweats’ – the unexpected and excessive sweating of people who have over-indulged in the drink. Did I experience this? Buggered if I can remember. Raki is delicious, but a few words of warning – it can really send you off on one. We refer to this in our house as a ‘rak-attack’.
If you’re interested to try some regional variations of raki, then do visit Çukur Meyhane in Beyoglu, which specialises in the stuff, and even keeps bottles for individuals with their names written on the front. They also do great food.
This is a country on two continents of course, Europe and Asia, separated by The Bosphorous Straight. There’s a lot of seafood in that water. Of course, there’s the balik ekmek to tick off, but there are also the mussels – one of Turkey’s most popular street foods. Battered and fried they are a popular late night booze mop, called midye tava, either spiked in a row on a stick with a pot of tarator sauce for dipping, or snuggled up in a sandwich. They’re also sold stuffed, steamed and of course, grilled, in which case they are translated amusingly into English as ‘roasting biceps’.
There are crisp, fried little anchovies, whole grilled fish, plenty of soft calamari and tender, vinegar-laced plates of octopus. There’s such variety and lots of salty, samphire-esque vegetables served as meze to accompany everything, washed down with Raki, of course.
A fish restaurant I desperately wanted to visit was Kalpazankaya, on the Princes’ Islands and I would have done, had we not got on the wrong boat…
The food markets of Istanbul are incredibly exciting. We spent hours ducking in and out of alleyways, clinging onto each other while weaving through crowds, pointing, tasting and spending many Turkish Lira. You can see from the fish market photos below that some of the gills of the fish are turned inside out, to show their freshness, although I learnt on a seafood course recently that the gills are far from the best indicator. Anyway, the gills should be bright red.
Then there are the other markets, rammed with cheeses; meats; pickles; dried chillies; vegetables; bread; spices (there’s a whole other market for those but I didn’t go); sweets; vine leaves; fruit, and everywhere, strings of hollowed out and dried aubergines, courgettes and peppers, to be re-hydrated and stuffed. If you’re doing Air B n B, which you may well want to considering the price of hotels in Istanbul, then it would be brilliant fun to raid the market and cook something yourself. At least, that’s my idea of fun.
So in short, Istanbul should rocket straight to the top of your holiday list if you haven’t been already. I’d wanted to go for years, then it suddenly became very fashionable, EVERYONE started going and having the audacity to tell me about it which made me feel sick, quite frankly. When I finally visited I fell hard, as I knew I would. It’s the kind of place you want to visit again and again. A vast, sprawling city with a ramshackle beauty.
Also, I’ve just realised that’s 9 things, not 10, so here’s a picture of cat. Not for eating.