Turkish food is much more than the kebabs we associate it with. Not to say their kebabs aren’t delicious. From their insanely sweet baklavas and meat centric roasts to their healthier and lighter breakfast buffets, I was able to see the whole spectrum of Turkish foods. And in the end, I discovered my own personal favorites I had never even heard of.
Before we go into the food, you have to know that tea, more than coffee and alcohol, is the backbone of Turkish drink culture. Black tea is served with a cube of sugar in small 2oz cups and are drunk throughout the day. Coffee fans who enjoy a nice brew or an Americano will be pleased to know that there are quite a few more options as espressos are beginning to become more and more popular. However, you have to make the distinction with Turkish coffee which comes in an espresso shot cup and is made sweet and has an earthy taste. And if you drink enough of it, you’ll get a bit of the grounded beans as well.
At the most basic level, whether they’re not very hungry or they don’t have much time, many Turks will opt for a Simit which is a traditional sesame bagel. With more time on their hands a Turkish breakfast has a huge assortment of foods including various jams, every fruit and veggie imaginable, nuts, and bread. My favorite was Bal & Kaymak (Honey and Cream), a specialty of a place called Karaköy Hasan fehmi Özsüt. The cream is soft and extremely rich. The texture is a perfect marriage between whipped cream and cream cheese. Add the honey and you’ll get full just eating that with bread.
Although Karaköy Gulluoglu is most famous for its Baklava, it’s their Borek (pastry with minced meat, and cheese or spinach and cheese) that did the trick for me. Think about a quiche with less egg, more meat, and a crunchier exterior, and a stronger flavor and that’s what Borek is. One of these plates is plenty for one person.
Lunch and Snacks
For any traditional meal of kebabs, lambchops, or meatballs, an assortment of fresh and garnished sides will proceed the main entrees. These include different spreads to dip with bread, pickled vegetables, and salad variations. If you stop by Gozde Sarkuteri, you’ll be able to try all sorts of different side dishes as well as their Meze (spread). Choose from their Crete, Croatian, spicy tomato, chard, or eggplant flavors. This is where I also discovered my first favorite, muscle with rice. It’s such a simple dish that if you walk around Kadikoy, the asian side of Istanbul and you’ll see them being sold by individuals in huge trays. You want to avoid them, but definitely make sure to try it at a more established store.
My second favorite I stumbled upon was Lahmacun which is Turkish pizza with minced meat. At these pizza shops they will also sell pide (cheese, meat, eggs) which is also worth a try. When it comes to taste, it’s pretty much what you see. The cheese a bit lighter while the meat is a bit more savory. What’s great about this and my third favorite are their price points. Both are under $5.
That brings us to the Tantuni (beef, tomato, parsley, onion wrap). No it is not Taco Bell, but it is quite simple. If you’re looking for a bang for your buck, this is it. It’s not too heavy and the ingredients they use are much better than your typical $3 taco.
Baklava is the quintessential dessert for Turks and I quickly accepted it as one of my own as well. Baklava is a very sweet and heavy dessert made of layers of filo (unleavened bread) and different kinds of nuts, flavors, and either honey or sweet syrup. You might enjoy the large range of different flvaors they now offer, but a Turk might scoff at you. You also won’t find anything other than those made from pistachio and nuts at Bilgeoğlu Baklava, the most famous place for Baklava. On a side note, if you think you have amazing taste buds, try kazandibi at Murat Muhallebicisi and see if you can guess what it’s made of.
The last thing you should try is Kokorec. Commonly known as the go-to food for people who are intoxicated, this is intestine served up minced with some peppers in a sweetbread sandwich. You’ll find these all over the place, especially in densely concentrated areas of bars. I’ll be honest, for someone who’s a fan of intestines, two small bites did the trick for me.
You’d be surprised to find out how many variations of kebabs Turks have, but if you want the best in town in a more upscale environment, check out Hamdi. Be sure to try all their flavors like their popular pistachio filled kebab.
Istanbul has so much to offer in terms of food, and you will be pleasantly surprised how balanced their inclusion of meats and vegetables is.
Let me know your thoughts on any of these foods if you’ve had the chance to try them yourself. Or if I missed any of your favorites (or not so favorite) dishes let me know!
I know it can be hard to find all these places all on your own, so if time or navigation is a concern, reach out to Ugur Ildiz at Culinary Backstreets for an insightful and enjoyable Two Markets Two Continents Tour. By the way, food tours are the only tours I ever recommend.