Istanbul street food
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.
“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.
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…