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Street food
Istanbul street food
25
July
2016
Diana Danko
Whether you are just a bit peckish or absolutely ravenous, the colourful, bustling, aroma-filled streets of the great Turkish metropolis have something to satiate you at any hour of the day or night.
©Diana Danko/Mangophotography - Refreshing watermelon at the exit of the Grand Bazaar

“It’s two lira”. The vendor holds out a glass full to the brim with freshly-squeezed orange juice. There is no fancy, energy-guzzling machine on his colourful stand, just a hand-operated juicer, as simple as it is efficient. A young woman drops by and asks for pomegranate juice. The request is greeted by a flurry of precise movements and, with a well-practised hand, the vendor positions the pomegranate, squeezes the fruit and discards the fibrous skin. A few seconds and two pomegranates later, and the glass of deliciously-refreshing, ruby-coloured juice is ready. Such juices can be found on any street corner and are the epitome of Istanbul street food: fresh, cheap and ready in a flash.


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Awarded the title of ’culinary capital 2008’ by the New York Times, Istanbul offers a diverse cuisine with multiple influences and rich in flavours that you can enjoy on the go at any time of the day. Simit sellers appear on the street from the early hours of the morning, with their glazed carts or their baked goods stacked on a tray carried on their heads, hawking their buns to passers-by. The cry of seagulls is echoed by “Taze simit! Taze simit!” (Fresh simit!) heard throughout the city, but especially near the ports of Kadiköy and Eminönü, where crowds of locals hurry to board the vapur and cross the strait to the other continent. Simit are enjoyed for breakfast or an afternoon snack. This crunchy bread has an attractive ring shape (similar to that of a bagel) and is scattered with sesame seeds. Its slightly sweet flavour comes from the grape molasses brushed over the dough before it goes into the oven.

Later in the morning, the streets begin to fill with enticing smells, a sign that the preparation of kebabs has begun. Many establishments in Istanbul employ electric broilers, but it is still easy to find those using the traditional cooking method, with enormous skewers of marinated meat – lamb, beef or sometimes chicken – gently grilling over wood charcoal, imbuing it with an incomparable aroma just like in the olden days. The crackling of the flames also recalls the legendary origins of this dish: Ottoman soldiers developed the habit of roasting pieces of meat skewered on their swords over the campfire1

Less well known, the kümpir, a stuffed potato, is popular amongst those in search of a satisfying snack. The Ortaköy district, a favoured destination for Sunday strolls, has made it its speciality. From their rows of little huts, vendors armed with grand gestures and beautiful smiles invite passers-by to try their oven-baked hot potatoes, buttered and garnished with sour cream, olives, sweetcorn, cheese, slices of sausage, pickles, or peas, as preferred.

The Bosporus waterfront, especially in the vicinity of the Galata Bridge, would not be the same without the stands selling balik ekmek. This ‘fish bread’ is a veritable institution and consists of mackerel grilled before the customer’s eyes, placed on bread and garnished with lettuce, tomato and diced onion. Add a sprinkle of salt, a few chilli flakes and a squeeze of lemon juice and the sandwich is ready to enjoy.

In the afternoon, the city’s squares and pavements abound with snacks, including refreshing chunks of pineapple or watermelon, süt misir (boiled or roasted corn on the cob) kastane (chestnuts), or the renowned Turkish pistachio nuts.

The time is always right to try cig köfte, a flavourful specialty that is traditionally prepared with raw meat, but has become wholly vegetarian to comply with hygiene standards. This equally tasty version consists of an expert blend of cracked wheat, pepper paste, nuts and spices, shaped into dumplings and served on a lettuce leaf or rolled up in a pancake (lavas). It is increasingly common in the local street food landscape.

The locals love to eat in the street, whether standing up or perched on a low wall, alone or in small groups. The street vendors satisfy their whims throughout the night with midye dolma, mussels stuffed with rice and parsley, a snack enjoyed by the younger generation of Istanbul on their way between two bars in the trendy parts of town. Another typical nocturnal speciality is the islak burger, a ‘wet’ hamburger dunked in tomato sauce and steamed. According to those in the know, the best are found around Taksim.

If the partying lasts all night, there will always be a warm simit to enjoy on the way home…


From the table to the street, from the street to the table

Eating habits are not static, but are constantly evolving and adapting to society. This is also true for street food. Today, you can take your time and enjoy simit at a table belonging to the restaurant chain Simit Sarayi, which specialises in this type of bread. Here, it is cut in half, spread with butter and jam or adorned with cheese, to be enjoyed comfortably seated, accompanied by a steaming cup of cay. A perfect example of street food that has found its way into a restaurant! As for the kebab, it has taken the opposite route. It first referred to thin slices of grilled meat, or meatballs, served with flatbread on a plate. Indeed, the word kebab simply means ‘grilled meat’. The dürum kebab, the version renowned around the world, is a more recent invention. It was first created in Berlin in 1971 on the initiative of Turkish restaurateur Mehmet Aygün who, noting his customers’ lack of time for a proper meal, decided to serve the meat directly in the bread, like a sandwich.

1 DIAMANTI, Carla et ESPOSITO, Fabrizio, 2001. Street Food. Tour du monde des délices sur le pouce. HF Ulmann, p. 24-25 

Video Ben Geldim Gidiyorum, Kısa Film, 2015  www.vimeo.com/143715149

Fast food Simit Sarayi www.simitsarayi.com

Mehmet Aygün Restaurant in Berlin www.hasir.de

Turkish Simit Recipe www.youtube.com

Istanbul eater’s guide www.istanbuleats.com

Street Food of Istanbul www.howtoistanbul.com

Istanbul Street Food Guide www.eater.com

[Links visited on 21.07.2016]

Diana Danko
Author and photographer
Lausanne, Switzerland

A graduate in geography from the University of Lausanne, Diana Danko has been working as a freelance photographer and author since 2015. She prefers reporting techniques and shots in natural light. When not busy with her pen or camera, she likes taking time to drink tea, dance and smile at life.

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