Home to the Bosphorus Strait, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Galata Tower, Istanbul is a city rich in history. Another culturally-rich attraction: the food that’s served up right on the streets of the city. Wander from cart to stall and embark on a Turkish adventure bite by bite. Just one word of advice though: avoid the abundant midye dolma (aka stuffed mussels). Let’s just say they can be a bit risky for sensitive stomachs.
It doesn’t quite look like the pizza you get in Italy, but this staple has a reputation for being Turkey’s version of the much-loved pie. It’s also thousands of years old, pre-dating traditional pizza. Lahmacun is made by topping thin, stretched-out dough with a mixture of minced meat (beef or lamb), onion and herbs before baking. Instead of layering it with cheese, it’s customary to add parsley, tomatoes, lettuce, onions, peppers and a squeeze of lemon onto the light, crispy flatbread before rolling it up and eating it like a wrap. In Beyoglu, try it at Konak Kebap.
The ingredients for Turkey’s ultimate dessert are odd but combine in a magical, savoury and sticky-sweet way. Shredded wheat layered with fresh, stretchy yellow cheese is cooked in special round copper dishes at Lezzet-i Sark Antep Sofrasi near the market, then coated with syrup and ground pistachio. You’ll want to eat it with a rich slice of kesme dondurma – an ice cream from the city of Maraç that’s made from goat’s milk and is too thick for scooping. The end result is a treat that’s an intense combination of hot and cold with syrupy sugar, smooth creaminess and crispy crunch.
Those who are adventurous and enjoy offal will have no problem with this traditionally greasy dish, which originated in the Balkans and ancient Greece centuries ago. The salty, spit-roasted dish is actually lamb intestines wrapped around seasoned offal on a long skewer. It’s served as a sandwich, either shaved or cut off into little bits and sprinkled with spices, including cumin, hot red pepper and oregano, and stuffed inside a bread roll. It’s also often served with diced tomatoes, pickles and peppers. After a late night of drinking, order it at the Sampiyon Kokoreç, a local chain.
This ‘raw meatball’ dish harks to the Commagene Empire (around 163 BC), when followers of Abraham in southeastern Turkey hid in caves and avoided starting fires to keep their location secret. It was originally made with raw meat kneaded for hours with bulgur wheat and dozens of spices (that in a way ‘cooked’ the meat), but for health reasons it’s now served as a vegetarian dish. In Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar the ‘cook’ gets elbow deep kneading a vat of bulgur mixed with 40 spices, onion, tomato and pomegranate sauce. He’ll dish out samples in lettuce cups, showering it (and the customer’s hand) in lemon juice to finish. The final spicy result is usually served in lavash, and has the texture of beef tartar, though it’s absolutely vegetarian-friendly.
In Istanbul, there’s doner kebap and there’s cag kebap. Both are must-eat meats, with the latter being a little harder to find. A classic, the basic concept consists of boneless meat layered on a vertical spit that roasts as it spins and is served shaved in a sandwich, wrap or plated with pickles, onions, tomatoes and peppers. The dish that was first mentioned in 18th century Ottoman travel books is savoury, greasy and satisfyingly fatty. More rare is the same meat shaved off in slivers and then threaded on a separate long skewer for further cooking over open flames, in a way caramelizing the fat and adding another layer of flavour and slight char. Sehzade Cag Kebap makes the city’s hands-down best.
The Istanbul iteration of New York City’s abundant bagels and soft pretzels are twisted rings of chewy bread called simit, which are bathed in molasses, coated with sesame seeds and baked in a wood-burning oven. Vendors are everywhere (especially around temples and other gathering places) since it’s an on-the-go type of snack. It’s thought to have originated in the 1500s during the reign of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, and seems to have taken off quickly; 16th-century historian Evliya Celebi wrote that about 300 sellers and 70 bakers in Istanbul made it five times everyday. There are now 300 bakeries supplying the city’s population.