Istanbul Eats – Often & Really Well!

by Amanda McInerney on 02/12/2013

Istanbul street vendor

I like a country that takes food seriously, so almost from the instant I arrived in Istanbul I could tell that this city and I were going to get along like a house on fire. The drive into the city from the airport took me past outdoor fish markets and restaurants and innumerable street food vendors – all of which had me pressing my nose up against the car window in hungry anticipation.

Istanbul’s culinary tradition is informed by hundreds of years of the Ottoman Empire and it’s unique geographic position, straddling Europe and Asia, resulting in a cuisine which is a rich and vibrant fusion of Asian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European flavours. Turkish cuisine in general varies widely from region to region and one day I’ll get back there to discover more about it, but for this visit I was more than happy with the food on offer in Istanbul. This impression was largely influenced by the very first thing I did once I arrived – yes, you guessed it, a food tour! Culinary Backstreets offer several culinary walks through the streets of Istanbul and I managed to squeeze into a walk which took in the culinary secrets of the Old City, a tour which promised to take me out of the main tourist areas and into the back streets of traditional neighbourhoods.

Culinary Backstreets tour guide - Claudia.

Kaymak

Led by English-speaking locals with a long-standing and almost encyclopaedic knowledge of their city, Culinary Backstreet tours are limited to small groups and take in several different areas of the city. My tour began with a 9.30 meet-up with English ex-pat Claudia, who has lived in Istanbul for over 30 years with her Turkish husband, right next to the historic Spice Bazaar. On that day I was recovering from the repercussions of greedily gobbling fresh Bulgarian berries without washing them, so had no choice but to be extra careful about what I ate. A tortuous state to be in when faced with the stuff of my dreams, but one I bravely overcame when the choices before me were too tempting to pass over.

Boza

 vendor selling pomegranate juice

My first temptation came early, as we visited several food vendors around the Spice Bazaar to select some traditional breakfast treats. The streets of Istanbul’s old city are dotted with street food carts and one of our first stops was to visit one to purchase some simit, the traditional sesame encrusted Turkish bread rings. From there we wandered through the stalls, picking up other tempting morsels, before finding ourselves perched on low stools at a table deep inside an old building. With our first (of many, as I was to discover) feed of the day spread out before us, my determination not to compromise the rest of my week in Istanbul by risking my gastric integrity on the first day crumbled in the face of kaymak (pictured above). This rich, ambrosial indulgence is made by slowly reducing buffalo milk over some hours, then skimming off the cream and serving it with jam or honey. Obviously, this is not an experience a greed girl like me was going to miss out on, although I was quite uncharacteristically cautious – a happy state of affairs for the rest in the tour as it meant they actually got some.

Nuts encased and rolled  in honey syrups

Dried seasonal vegetables

 nut-filled, honey soaked pastries

After restoring ourselves with sweet apple tea (again, the first of many) we began our tour in earnest, weaving in and out of tight and crowded lanes, pushing past shoppers, other tourists and touts and stopping off at various stalls, small cafes and stores of the lesser-explored and genuinely atmospheric streets of the old city.

pastry layers enclosing melted cheese, honey and crushed pistachios

Pide maker at work

wood-oven Turkish pide

And we ate – oh, how we ate. Crisp, honeyed pastries oozing with melted cheese, crunchy, fresh-cooked vegetable pides, steaming, spicy kofte, moist, delicious kebabs on fresh Turkish flat bread, chewy, sweet, genuine Turkish delight, the unusual but hugely popular fermented millet drink called boza and cup after cup of tea – either the sweet apple tea or simple, black Turkish tea.

kofte, Istanbul

sweet pastries in Istanbul

Kebabs

And once we had done wandering around, absorbing parts of Istanbul that we might never had seen, we sat down to a late lunch at a traditional, family-run restaurant near an ancient Byzantine aqueduct, which served succulent, pit-roasted lamb and a delicately-spiced, crusty rice and chicken pilaf. And we ate that, too.

Pit- roasted lamb

Pit-roasted lamb on fresh-made bread

Chicken and nut pilaf

Almost seven hours after I had left it, I wearily trudged back to my hotel, happy to put my feet up for a bit. I needed a rest as my day wasn’t yet done.  I had made plans to meet up with friends  – for dinner!

If you are headed to Istanbul and want to know where and how to eat, check out Istanbul Eats for the low-down on every aspect of Istanbul food and Culinary Backstreets for a guided tour that will leave you tired, but sated.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Lizzy (Good Things) December 2, 2013 at 11:59 am

Amanda, what an exotic and delicious experience… sorry I wasn’t available to carry your bags this time! : )

Kyrstie @ A Fresh Legacy December 2, 2013 at 5:26 pm

What a wonderful day and array of food you experienced Amanda! Seven hours of eating and learning about the food traditions of the country sounds amazing :-) I did not have Istanbul on my wish list of travel destinations but you may well have just changed that. I look forward to reading more about your trip there (hopefully?).

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella December 2, 2013 at 7:40 pm

What a wonderful day eating! I always love getting to know a city through a food tour! :D

Maureen | Orgasmic Chef December 3, 2013 at 11:36 am

No better way to find fantastic food than a tour like this from a food loving local. Sorry to hear about the berry episode – I had something odd happen in Bulgaria too.

Kate December 3, 2013 at 1:57 pm

Totally and utterly drool worthy.

Hotly Spiced December 3, 2013 at 6:17 pm

I just love the look of all this food – such great variety. And it’s always so exciting to visit a different culture in another part of the world with an amazing cuisine to discover and enjoy xx

InTolerant Chef December 4, 2013 at 7:32 am

What a wonderful day exploring and eating so many wonderful dishes! Tours like this are such a brilliant way to get to know a culture through it’s cuisine. Lucky you indeed :)

Helen (Grab Your Fork) December 4, 2013 at 11:28 pm

Wow the food tour sounds amazing! Loved the street food in Istanbul – and we had some of the most amazing grilled meats and freshly baked fluffy bread from the tiny family run restaurant too. It was so good we ate there three times in two days!

@ChristineSalins (FoodWineTravel) December 9, 2013 at 8:07 am

I’ve yet to experience Turkey, but when I do, would love to do this tour. Sounds fabulous, Amanda!

Francene Connor June 10, 2014 at 8:20 pm

What a lovely description of a day of indulgence. I want to go NOW!!! Thanks for sharing your gourmet delights.

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