Istanbul is a feast for the senses, but foremost on the taste front. For a city gorged with gleaming window displays of baklava and lokum, it’s hard not to feel like a food junkie with an eager dealer found at every corner and block in between. Be it the lure of döner kebap, the flaky temptation of a börek or the bewitchment of rakı, a trip to Istanbul will leave you wide-eyed and wanting more.
Taste of the Sea
Considering Istanbul’s advantageous situation along the Bosphorus between the Black Sea and Sea of Marmara, it shouldn’t be surprising that the dame of Turkey has no shortage of seafood options. Lucky for thalassophiles, there are plenty of street foods to quench one’s thirst for the sea. Once the sun begins to set, you can bet midye dolması (stuffed mussels) are just around the corner. Ubiquitous around the inclines of Galata and at the stationary Midyetik at the end of Sahne Sk., simply approach the vendor and open wide as your mussel dealer snaps open these pilaf-stuffed mussels, spritzed with lemon juice right before your eyes. The key is to pace yourself with these highly-addictive bouchées especially considering they will only set you back 0.50-1 TL (less than 35¢) a pop.
Just as prevalent in gluttonous Istanbul is the beloved balık ekmek, a down-to-earth crispy mackerel sandwich laden with chopped onions and shredded iceberg lettuce. This Turkish Filet-o-Fish gets refreshed with the accompanying half lemon to dress according to your taste. Aside from the celebrated Tarihi Eminönü Balık Ekmek (on the west side of the Galata Bridge), you can also grab this sammie at the front counter of Derya Deniz Balık Lokantası inside the Üsküdar Balıkçılar Çarşısı on the Asian side. It’s the ultimate companion to explore the market there or for a ferry ride back to the European side.
For fellow foodies back home, Turkey pulls out all the stops with packaged food products to smuggle back with the likes of pistachio-studded lokum and pomegranate tea. Chief among which is, the Turkish variety of bottarga made from salted, cured grey mullet roe. Often wrapped in bronze-coloured beeswax, this compound of umami is unprecedented in saltiness and makes a rich garnish to many a pasta and scrambled eggs. Procure yourself some of this enrobed caviar in the Fish Market on Sahne Sk. off of Istiklal Cd.
The fruits of rife urban migration to Istanbul are platted up at the many local eateries around town highlighting the regional cuisines of Turkey. Uncompromising and proud, restaurant owners serve up dishes from all corners of the republic to ravenous diners. For a refined introduction to Anatolian cuisine, compose your own spread of dishes at Kiva Han, in the shadow of the Galata Tower. Not to be missed at this smart Asian Minor establishment are the stewed herbed greens with dried fruit and the mini meatballs in a chard yogurt sauce.
For a casual bite in Beyoğlu, consider popping into Hayvore at the mouth of Turnacıbaşı Sok. This Black Sea-focused restaurant has all dishes on display in a hot table as you walk in, including hamsi tava (fried anchovies), fluffy köfte and a homely selection of lentil and chard soups. Plenty of temptations for the Istanbul foodie!
Twenty-four hour Arnavutköy hangout Bodrum Mantı & Café dishes out a satisfying portion of mantı (meat-filled Turkish ravioli from the namesake Aegean port city). Your best shot is to plead with the wait staff to do a split plate of regular mantı and fried bihter mantı. Already topped off with a savory yogurt sauce, reach for the sumac-mint topping at the table to elevate your heavenly dumplings to an even higher state of being.
Lastly, why not delve into some Chinese food while in Istanbul? Restaurants specializing in Uyghur cuisine, from China’s extreme northwestern province Xinjiang, are found in Aksaray and Zeytinburnu. A relic of the Silk Road, Uyghur cuisine marries the best of Chinese culinary tradition with the ingredients of Central Asia serving up familiar dishes like lengmen (hand-pulled noodles stir-fried with beef, chili peppers and tomatoes) and nan bread.
Hearty Starts and Sweet Endings
Rivaling a hearty North American brunch or English breakfast is the royally decadent kahvaltı whose implicit raison d’être is to stuff fast breakers for the ensuing day and crowd the table with a mosaic of spreads, salads and cheeses, all ushered by an overflowing hamper of breads and sesame-crusted simit.
For a local favorite, lounge out at Van Kahvaltı Evi in Cihangir where you’ll likely be wobbling out of the brunch spot even when attempting to ‘order light’. If the sun is out, head downhill to Namli Gurme Karaköy with views of the water where the Golden Horn melts into the Bosphorus. The marketplace-delicatessen setup, along the lines of a Mövenpick Marché, throws together a mean kahvaltı plate with a wide selection of meats, olives and homonymous beyaz peynir (a majority of Turkish cheeses are white and bear the same name regardless of tastes and textures ranging from feta to manchego). For kahvaltı, it would be sacrilege to proceed without bal-kaymak (a roll of clotted cream swimming in honey), tahin-pekmez (the Turkish answer to Nutella) and sucuklu yumurta (sunnyside-up eggs punctuated with pucks of spicy sausage).
To satiate your sweet tooth, Tandır Kadayıf ve Künefe serves an ooey-gooey künefe. The dessert artisans at Tandır make your dessert to order, meaning your bottom layer of cheese be extra stringy, the vermicelli optimally crispy and the syrup perfectly infused. Wash it down with the requisite black tea and, for your health insurance provider’s sake, share it with a fellow Istanbul foodie friend.
trivago’s Epicurean Hotel Pick | Tomtom Suites
Tucked down a quiet winding alley off of Istiklal, Tomtom Suites is a hotel made for bon vivants. Priding itself on being a “first-class small luxury hotel”, the property is crowned by its restaurant Nicole (formerly under the moniker La Moulette). Head chefs Aylin Yazıcıoğlu and Kaan Sakarya contrive culinary masterpieces using Turkish ingredients and French methods. Expect new tastes, a sweeping view of the city and attentive table service.
The team behind Tomtom Suites has breathed new air into the old Franciscan nunnery. The all-suite property is at once decadent and comfortable: white marble bathrooms, Molton Brown bath products and turn down service with homemade chocolates. A decadent breakfast buffet Turkish-style will surely help sleepy-eyed gourmands get on their way.