8 REASONS WHY ISTANBUL STREET FOOD IS SOME OF THE BEST IN THE WORLD
Turkey is a country known for its varied cuisine and iconic foods: the traditional Turkish village breakfast, the rich kebab-style meat dishes, and of course, baklava and Turkish delight. But when we’re in Istanbul we spend at least as much time wandering through the vibrant streets as we do sitting in restaurants and if there is one thing all this walking has taught us it’s that Istanbul street food is some of the most varied and delicious in the world. Here are our 8 top Istanbul street foods and that you definitely need to try when you visit.
Simit is a quintessential Istanbul street food – a bread ring dipped in molasses and coated with sesame seeds. It’s neither particularly sweet or nor particularly savory; it’s just right. Red simit stalls are situated around the city from the famous İstiklal Avenue to the Old City. They sell the traditional bread rings, fresh from the oven, starting at daybreak and continuing through the day. Just listen for the cries of “sıcak simit” (hot simit!) and don’t forget to grab an extra one to share with the seagulls on your ferry ride across the Bosphorus. Many stands also give you the option to make your simit into a sandwich with tomatoes and cheese. If you want something more decadent, we recommend getting a slathering of Nutella!
2. Roasted chestnuts
In between İstiklal Avenue’s red simit stands, you’ll find other vendors selling freshly roasted chestnuts, a perfect treat in Istanbul’s cool, rainy winter months. They’re also widely available in the summer. After lightly scoring the shells, vendors roast the chestnuts and set them aside to cool. All you need to do is let the vendor know how many grams of chestnuts you’d like. He’ll weigh them on his old-school balance scale, pop them into a brown paper bag for you, and off you go, munching on the meaty flesh of roasted chestnuts while enjoying the sights and sounds of İstiklal Avenue.
3. Fruit juices
Istanbul has a millenia-spanning love affair with citrus fruits. They are believed to have first been brought to Turkey (in the form of citrons) by the armies of Alexander the Great sometime around 300 B.C. in the 16th century, Habsburg diplomats to the Ottoman empire would write secret letters back to their governments in lemon juice, and today Turkey remains one of the world’s largest cultivators of oranges. The country’s never-ending supply of citrus fruit means freshly squeezed fruit juice can be found on just about every corner. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see juice sellers on the go, pushing their carts through Istanbul’s winding streets stopping to serve customers. Choose from freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, orange juice, or, our personal favorite: a mix of the two.
4. Sahlep and Boza
In the colder months, you can also find Istanbul’s street sellers peddling traditional winter drinks such as sahlep, a warm, milky concoction made from the root of the orchid plant and sprinkled with cinnamon. It tastes something like a decadent, velvety tapioca, and it’s a treat that’s not to be missed. The more adventuresome should also try boza, a slightly fermented wheat drink, topped with cinnamon and a handful of chickpeas. A popular drink in the Balkans and some of the ‘Stans, boza is thought to date back some 9,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia. It had a checkered history in the Ottoman empire, alternately prohibited and promoted by various sultans. In a 17th century travelogue, the Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi wrote that the drink made people stronger, improved circulation, and even increased milk production in women who had just given birth. Not bad for a lightly alcoholic beverage sold on just about every street corner at the time. There was even a version called Tatar boza laced with opium. These days there’s no opium and as always, it contains a low level of alcohol, so it’s a pleasant winter warmer. Check out the marble clad, family run boza shop in Sulemaniye, Vefa Bozacısı, for one of the most elegant and authentic boza sipping experiences in the city. For more on this classic drink check out this wonderful article on boza in the hurriyet daily news.
5. Grilled fish sandwich
Fish is always in abundance in Istanbul thanks to its location on four seas. For the perfect lunch on the go opt for a grilled fish sandwich complete with onions, lettuce, a sprinkle of salt, and a spritz of lemon juice at one of the many stands in Karaköy and Eminönü. The Tarihi Eminönü Balıkçısı is the most well-known place for fish sandwiches, but you can find equally good, if not better, sandwiches across the bridge in Karaköy. For a real Istanbul treat, enjoy your sandwich while watching the fishermen pulling up their catches from the Galata bridge.
6. Stuffed or fried mussels
Looking for a quick pick-me-up? Head over to one of the many street vendors selling stuffed mussels, or midye dolma, as they are known in Turkish. Plucked fresh from the sea, cooked, and stuffed with a fragrant mixture of rice and spices, it’s hard to eat just a couple. Until you tell the vendor to stop, he will continue to pop open the shells, squeeze a bit of lemon over the rice and hand the next one to you before you’ve even finished the last. Eat like a local and use one side of the shell to scoop the meat and rice from the other. Though the traditional recipe is thought to be Armenian (recipe origins are always hotly debated) The mussel trade is now mostly taken on by Kurds whose family businesses run every step of the operation, from dragging the mussels out of the Marmara in large nets, to scrubbing the shells clean, cooking them, adding the rice, and finally selling them. Fried mussels on a stick are another street food delight. You can find these at the small fish restaurants in Beşiktaş or at the food stands in Ortaköy.
Kokoreç is beloved by Turks, especially after a night out. And a mighty fine snack it is – as long as you don’t mind chopped intestines. To make kokoreç, lamb or sheep intestines are first thoroughly cleaned, wrapped around a spit, roasted and then finely chopped along with tomatoes, onions, and spices. Lastly they’re stuffed into fluffy white Turkish bread. Voila, you have a spicy intestine sandwich. Don’t knock it before you’ve tried it; many visitors find that kokoreç ends up being one of their favorite Turkish foods, though they often order it unknowingly the first time.
At small corner shops around the city, you can taste çiğköfte, arguably Istanbulites’ all-time favorite Turkish street food. It’s a sort of dumpling traditionally made with raw meat, But don’t be put off if (raw) meat isn’t your thing – the çiğköfte sold in Istanbul’s ubiquitous shops are meatless versions that are actually perfect for vegetarians and vegans. In çiğköfte, bulgur is mixed with spices, pomegranate sauce and tomato or pepper paste and then squeezed into balls. You can order a çiğköfte wrap complete with spicy bulgur balls, lettuce, herbs and lemon juice. Çiğköfte can really kick so if you’re not a fan of heat, opt for the less spicy version (most shops have two versions). If you find yourself in the southeast of Turkey, you might be in for a treat with the real çiğköfte – the raw meat version!