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A Guide to Food in Istanbul

A visit to Turkey’s largest city can easily be centered on all the great foodstuffs Istanbul has to offer. Come with an appetite. Turkish cuisine combines influences from the Balkans, Middle East, and most recently the Ottoman Empire. It is incredibly fresh, simultaneously meat-centric and vegetarian friendly.

Istanbul offers many of the standards of the Turkish repertoire as well as some excellent high-end restaurants serving regional and international menus.

For many locals, breakfast is the most important and thus largest meal of the day. A typical weekday, early morning meal can consist of lighter fare such as bread, olives and tomatoes, served of course with tea, the beverage of choice throughout Turkey. A more substantial breakfast is normally offered on the weekend and includes a wider array of epicurean delights, to include: various cheeses, like grilled hellim and salty beyaz peynir; fresh vegetables, usually sliced cucumber, tomatoes and, olives; several types of bread; cured meats and sausages; flaky pastries, both sweet and savory; and kaymak, a rich clotted cream slathered with honey. Kahvalti, the Turkish word for breakfast, literally translates to “before coffee,” thus tea is consumed throughout the early meal and coffee is reserved for later in the day.

Turkish_Meze_PlateMeze is a selection of small dishes served either as appetizers or the main focus of a meal. Partaking in meze allows one to sample a large range of Turkish dishes. In Istanbul, meze might include the following items: cold eggplant salad; cacik, yogurt with garlic, mint, cucumber and dill; dolma, rice or meat stuffed vegetables; hummus; piyaz, white bean salad; shepherd’s salad, a classic combination of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, green peppers and parsley dressed with lemon and olive oil; kisir, a dish of bulgur and tomato paste; and Çi köfte, raw meat mixed with bulgur wheat and spices; as well as the ubiquitous Turkish offering of olives and cheese.

Many visitors new to Turkish cuisine identify kebabs as the standard bearer of the country’s food scene. While better known skewered meat shish kebabs are certainly served in many restaurants, kebab in general refers to meat dishes, prepared in any number of ways – roasted, grilled, stewed, ground or fried. Lamb is the most common meat used in Turkish dishes. In addition to kebab, lamb can be served in a casserole, slowed cooked in a Tandir oven, or ground into meatballs or köfte. Many restaurants in Istanbul will offer typical meat dishes with beef or chicken.

CacikFish is quite prevalent in the Istanbul diet and throughout Turkey. It is offered grilled, fried, or steamed and most often served whole. A variety of sardine only found in Turkey is also a popular dish for meze, as are mussels stuffed with pilaf and fried calamari.

Though meat and fish comprise a large portion of the Istanbul diet, vegetable dishes are also found throughout the city. Eggplant, peppers, spinach, artichokes, tomatoes and onions are just some of the vegetables found in Turkish dishes. Fried eggplant, served warm or cold, with a yogurt sauce is a dish commonly found during the summertime.

BourekPastries are prominent throughout Istanbul and are often filled with either savory or sweet ingredients. Börek, the most common savory pastry, is made with thin layers of phyllo dough and stuffed with cheese, ground meat or vegetables. Baklava, a sweet pastry, comes in various forms but generally consists of layers of honey soaked phyllo dough studded with walnuts or pistachios. Kadayf is another common dessert, again made with phyllo, but this time shredded and filled with sweet cheese. The dessert scene in Istanbul moves beyond pastries and includes rice puddings, Turkish delight (a confection made from chopped dates and a variety of nuts), and marzipan, an almond-based confection. And, of course, these delicious delicacies are found throughout the tourist clogged Grand Bazzar. Desserts in Turkey are often enriched by the addition of such ingredients as rose water, pomegranate molasses, and spices, such as cinnamon and cardamom.

Istanbul boasts a rich street-food scene and some of the city’s best fare can be found by wandering around at night. Döner kebab is one of the most popular options. Countless vendors lure hungry patrons to their stalls with their vertical spits of roasting lamb meat. The marinated and crispy meat is sliced to order and dressed with sauce and sometimes cheese, then wrapped in thin Lavash bread, toasted again and served. Some stalls in Istanbul now serve chicken döner topped with shredded vegetables. The döner can be further customized with the addition of hot sauce. The kebab is a delicious, portable and inexpensive snack enjoyed throughout Istanbul. Another popular choice is islak hamburger, somewhere in between a burger and sloppy joe, it is ground meat doused in tomato sauce served between bread. This is the meal of choice for those pouring out of the discos in the wee hours of the morning. Other vendors roast chestnuts and entire ears of corn on small charcoal grills, both are delicious snack options especially during the colder months.

tea vendorTea is imbibed throughout the day in cafes as well as on the street. Street venders typically carry large, steel containers holding tea and other beverages. Black tea is the most popular variety among locals, while many tourists prefer herbal teas, especially elma çay, or apple tea. Many retail businesses will offer shoppers small glasses of tea as a sign of hospitality, while others serve stronger brews of Raki, an anise flavored liquor, to encourage consumerism. Other popular beverages in the city include: ayran, a salty yogurt drink served in most restaurants; kefir, made with grain and milk and often flavored with fruit juices; and the famous Turkish coffee, a thicker, stronger brew than other coffee cultures.  In addition to Raki, other alcoholic beverages include local lagers like Efes Pilsen and wines from various regions across Turkey.

While touring Istanbul and its many sites, take advantage of the many foods available, as this city offers some of the best cuisine in Europe and Central Asia.

Written by Morgen Young for

MJ’s Travel Favorites 5-2-10 | Traveling with MJ

Sunday 11th of July 2010

[...] Europe up Close helps us navigate the menu of Turkish food.  Warning!  Reading the post may induce serious drooling. [...]

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