Istanbul has a gourmet history that goes far beyond its famous beverages. Ottoman royalty demanded the best in their kitchens and devoted immense resources to developing a celebrated court cuisine. Istanbul was the hinge of the Spice Route, connecting caravans from Asia with European palates. Bridging the continents, Istanbul developed a cuisine that combines Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors.
But Turkish cuisine is not merely an amalgam. From cheap street eats to gourmet rooftop fusion, Istanbul has plenty of unique tastes to keep a traveler eating all day long.
Take a whiff of that coffee. The thick, molasses-black brew almost chokes with anticipation. Turkish coffee is famous for its ritual brewing and intense taste, and there’s no better place to try it than Turkey’s food-loving capital, Istanbul.
The famous Turkish coffee is less common than you might think. More often, Turks prefer tea, served steaming with a couple of sugar cubes. The handle-less cups, shaped like small hourglasses, reveal the full sensorium of tea-drinking: the rich red color of the tea; steam brushing against your nose; the warmth seeping into your palms as you lift the cup.
If you usually start the day with a latte and croissant, breakfast in Istanbul might come as a surprise. Turkish breakfast consists of various savory bits: white cheese, cucumbers and tomatoes, black olives, boiled eggs, yogurt, and white bread with jam or butter. It’s an unusually salty start to the day.
As you traipse through the morning crowds to Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, make sure to stop for simit. Twisted ropes of sesame dough, studded with sesame seeds, simit are soft in the center but crisp on the crust. Street vendors across the city sell simit, and they make a great snack on the go.
After a morning of sightseeing around the city, you’ll want to refuel with something cheap and tasty. Istanbul has a rich street food culture. In the multicultural neighborhood of Beyoglu, vendors shave horizontal skewers of meat: this is kokoreç, grilled intestines, served on a roll. If that sounds too adventurous, look for the vendors with vertical skewers. Döner might be Turkey’s most famous export: slices of meat served on flatbread, sometimes with yogurt sauce or sliced tomato. For the less carnivorous, pide resembles a canoe-shaped pizza: cheap and draped in cheese. Mussels are another Istanbul treat. Take them down quickly with a douse of lemon, or stuffed with raisins, pine nuts, and onion.
Istanbul has wonderful food markets. The touristy Spice Market claims all the crowds, but also has a mouthwatering selection of pistachios, dates, and olives. Pyramids of burnt orange and yellow spices recall the city’s history as a culinary crossroads. The quieter market in Kadiköy, a district on the Asian side, tempts with fresh fruit and cafes. There are also many fish markets; one of the more famous is Galatasaray, a rowdy collection of seafood and other tasty wares in Beyoglu.
Like much of the Mediterranean, Istanbul loves to eat al fresco in summer. Rooftop dining has become popular in a city with endless skylines. The dining culture values hospitality and community. Dinnertime means sitting down together over a meal, usually several courses: meze, or starters; bulgar wheat and pilaf; grilled meat or minced köfte; and plenty of vegetables.
Köfte are Turkish meatballs, spiced with nuts, chilis, and parsley. For a lighter meal, try gözleme: flatbread with minced meats, cheese, or spinach. Eggplant also makes a welcome appearance at almost every meal: stewed with tomatoes in a casserole, or smoked and pureed, or slit and stuffed to the gills with minced onion.
To eat, drink, and unwind without a formal meal, find a local meyhane. The meyhanes are sites of community and music, much like Greek tavernas. Patrons drink raki, an anis-flavored liquor, accompanied by fish and mezes. Everyone shares the food around, slowly sipping their drinks.
Unlike the interior of Turkey, Istanbul can harvest from the sea. In addition to mussels, Istanbul is crazy about hamsi, a type of small silver anchovy. Lightly breaded and served with lemon, hamsi are a summer delicacy. A tour up the Bosphorus toward the Black Sea takes you closer to the spawning grounds of hamsi; fishing villages serve the day’s catch in unassuming but fresh style.
And as for the Turkish coffee? It’s a caffeine adventure for the strong-hearted, best attempted late in the day or after a meal. A demitasse of Turkish brew (and perhaps an apple tea to wash it down) is the last step toward familiarity with this great cuisine.
Written by Caitlin Dwyer for EuropeUpClose.com