Oh, internet peeps, this trip was just amazing. No other word for it.
When my co-worker randomly texted me in February saying she’d found a ticket to Istanbul for around $700, did I want to go, I immediately jumped at the chance to visit a city that’s always been on my bucket list. As a total history nerd, the Roman Empire and Constantinople has always fascinated me, and so off we went for a whirlwind Memorial Day weekend.
And Istanbul? You did not disappoint!
But while I’ve always looked forward to seeing Istanbul’s architecture and culture and history, I hadn’t given its food much thought. In my pre-trip research I read about a lot of things that sounded great, and we decided what better way to get our bearings in the city than with a food tour (or two)—and that was an excellent decision, if I do say so myself.
I totally fell in love with Turkey’s food…join me, if you will, on this gastro extravaganza (gastro-vaganza??).
Here’s more on Istanbul’s food and awesomeness
We arrived at our apartment in late afternoon, refreshed ourselves, and hit the streets right away. After accidentally getting on the tram going the wrong direction for a stop, we quickly got headed the right way and met up with our tour guide in Sultanahmet.
This was our guide, Burek. He brought us to a local family’s house, where the mom made a traditional meal including corba (a delicious lentil soup), chicken with vegetables and sauce and pilav and yogurt, and bread and watermelon. We also had the traditional black tea. We sat on the floor like they do regularly, in the same room they sleep in as well. Throughout the meal we conversed with the family, with Burek translating, and learned about their life in the eastern part of the country prior to coming to Istanbul about a decade ago (they are Kurdish) and what their life is like now. It was such a cool experience.
Burek took us to a local pub next. Pubs don’t serve alcohol, but instead the traditional shisha (also called hookah, nargile, etc.) and tea. The pub was really beautiful, with ornate light fixtures and beautiful inlaid tables. Frequented by locals, the building is over 300 years old, was once a religious school and dervish lodge, then bazaar. The waiter brought us glasses of “apple tea” (which is more like the powdered apple cider that comes in packets, and only drunk by tourists and children) and apple (elma) shisha. While the shisha is definitely not for me, it was a really interesting and authentic experience.
As we walked back to our tram stop, we heard what would become a very familiar sound, the sunset call to prayer for the first time, echoing off all the buildings.
We were up and at ’em the next morning, which dawned rainy and gray. This was my pre-tour breakfast (plus a large latte and a Turkish coffee). The left is technically I think called burek (or borek?), and theoretically had cheese in it but was basically just pastry. The right is pide, a kind of Turkish pizza, made of a boat-shaped flatbread. Yes, I go big. Or, I subscribe to Joey Tribbiani’s theory that you have to warm up the stomach 🙂
We met our tour guide, Kazem, at the Karaköy ferry port, and he ushered us aboard. He bought a simit from a vendor and handed us each a piece to eat on the boat. Simit is circular bread (kind of like a flat, slightly tough bagel) covered in sesame seeds, and only costs like 1 lira (about 33 cents), so it’s a super cheap and easy snack for students and workers. There are vendors selling them literally every five feet…
…including this man who was just walking around with them on his head. Impressive.
On the ferry, Kazem bought us the traditional black tea and talked to us of some history of the Asian side of Istanbul. Istanbul is the only city to occupy two different continents, and many of its inhabitants literally cross continents to go to work every morning.
Once we disembarked in Kadiköy (my first time in Asia!), we dodged raindrops and walked over to a bustling warren of shops and stands. We first stopped for this burek (again, I think that’s what it is), a delicious flaky pastry stuffed with a soft cheese.
We tried candied olives and eggplant at a sweets shop. They candy seriously everything here. Not to my taste, personally, too sweet.
My Snapchat caption here says it all…
I tried, guys. I really did. I detest anything pickled, even the smell of it. This was the one thing that I ate like two bites of and one sip of the juice (to be polite), and tapped out.
Eventually we sat down for something more substantial. As it poured outside, we devoured various Turkish cheeses, cured meat, stuffed grape leaves, a potato or rice-covered meatball (kofte?), some kind of red pepper rice-y thing, and honey and sweet cream with bread. The stuffed grape leaves (dolma) were by far the best I’ve ever had, and all of it was totally delish.
Then it was on to real lunch at Ciya Kebab. We started with lavash, a hollow Armenian bread often used for an appetizer, with spiced or marinated cheese (I know that’s not what it looks like, but I promise it is…).
Then we had lahmacun, Turkish pizza on a very thin flatbread. You squeeze lemon juice on it and sprinkle flat parsley, and then roll it up to eat.
Finally, we stuffed our bellies to bursting with this traditional kebab plate. The meat was so amazing—tender, moist, I think maybe had ground up pistachios in it. It came wiht grilled vegetables, tiny lahmacun, yogurt, and fresh herbs.
Then it was time to walk off all those calories! We browsed the shops, looked at weird fish, and tried to dodge the rain pouring off the awnings.
But then this. My favorite part. This Turkish yogurt and honey was my JAM. Seriously, sooooooo good! According to the Turks, Greek yogurt is actually Turkish yogurt…it just got branded wrong when it was brought to the U.S. Though I’m sure if you asked the Greeks they’d have a different story 🙂
See how happy I am? High-quality honey and yogurt, the key to my heart. Caption to this photo: “I’m in Asia! It is wet!”
Last but certainly not least, we got the authentic Turkish coffee experience, with some baklava on the side. I literally could eat baklava all day every day. I’d weigh 600 pounds, but it might be worth it.
This was our waiter preparing it the traditional way.
Is that not glorious looking? Turkish coffee is an interesting experience. It’s prepared using unfiltered coffee, finely ground beans are simmered (but not boiled) in the pot, with sugar if desired. Then it’s poured into the cup where the grounds are allowed to settle. I was told to keep swishing mine around so that I didn’t get all grounds at the bottom, but…well, have you seen those cups? They’re super tiny! I couldn’t swirl without spilling, and it was definitely all grounds at the bottom. It was good, but not going to pretend I wasn’t happy for espresso when we got to the airport.
After a day of eating, you’d think that we never wanted to see food again, right? Ha, wrong. We walked around for a while but were beat, so took a siesta and then on our host’s recommendation headed to Konak restaurant for dinner, just a few steps from our apartment. As you can see, the view was just the WORST.
I had this delicious kebab plate with marinated crispy bread underneath, cooked absolutely perfectly.
The restaurant didn’t serve any alcohol, which is not uncommon in Istanbul (it has something to do with proximity to mosques and schools, from what I understand), but we enjoyed the sunset with our food and dreamed of the bottle of wine awaiting us at the apartment.
And of course tea, with the lit-up historic Sultanahmet in the background. I thinks it’s safe to say I fell in love with Istanbul’s food through the food tours we took, and would highly recommend them as a great way to get a feel for the city.
If you enjoyed this, here’s part two, exploring the food scene on our own!
Would love to hear from other people who have been to Turkey! What were your favorite foods, or culinary traditions?
In case anyone is wondering, the food tour we took the first night where we ate at a family’s home was from Urban Adventures, and the walking tour to Kadiköy in Asia was from Walks of Turkey (no, I’m not being compensated in any way, I just happened to find my tours through a blog post I read, so returning the favor…).