Wondering what to eat in Istanbul? We faced the same dilemma. We’d never eaten Turkish food before, and while Sultanahmet can be a great area to stay by its proximity to all the sights, a lot of places can be tourist traps. Nonsense. We had some amazing experiences while devouring some incredible meals.
The traditional take on Turkish breakfast is quite interesting, and we were a bit flummoxed on the first day when we went to the dining room at the Ayasofya Hotel for breakfast. A selection of cold cuts, cheeses, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, breads, dry fruits and deep fried cheese pastries. Alternately, there are plenty of egg-based dishes like the Kaygana (an omlette) and Menemen (eggs fried in tomatoes) All of this washed down with a deep dark cup of Turk Kahvesi – a coffee that’s brewed with the grounds still at the bottom. Very important to remember not to down it to the very bottom or you’ll end up with the dregs in your mouth like me.
Street food and Snacks
The street food scene in Istanbul is bustling no matter what the season. In the summer there are tourists walking around drinking cold glasses of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice while munching on all sorts of snacks. In the winter, the warmth we derived from steaming hot beverages and snacks on the street was such a welcome comfort. And did I mention, it’s actually possible to subsist on street food alone (that’s how varied and filling they are).
You must try these Turkish street foods while in Istanbul – Roasted chestnuts and the bagel-like Simit both sold off carts on the street, Balik Ekmek- sandwiches of grilled fish sold fresh off boats at the Eminonu Quay, Dolma- vegetables, meats or rice wrapped in vine leaves, Doner Kebab- a delicious sandwich of shavings of meat grilled on a rotiserrie, Lahmacun and Pide- the Turkish version of pizza.
While Istanbul has its fair share of gourmet and modern cuisine restaurants, I’d recommend the quaint family-style places that have some delicious eats. Since we visited in the winter, we found comfort in soups (like the iconic red lentil soup) and stews (from vegetables to lamb, they were all beautifully spiced with sumac and red chillies, and served with two different kinds of Pilaf – Rice and Bulgur) Istanbul is definitely at the top of my list for places to eat good lamb. There’s a Turkish version of ravioli with yoghurt sauce called Manti which wasn’t as bad as it sounded. A restaurant version of the Doner Kebab is the Iskender Kebab with thicker strips of meat and a tomato sauce over it, served with yoghurt. Istanbul is kind to vegetarians with plenty of options like the Kuru Fasulye (haricots in tomato sauce) and lots of eggplant based dishes. Being a coastal town, naturally the fish here should be great. But a secret a fisherman told us was that all the good catch actually comes from further North, the Black Sea. And do beware of seafood shops under the Galata bridge, the food is great, but they promise you a price and then rip you off when it’s time to pay.
We didn’t find too many “preplated” desserts, but there’s a lot of sweets in Istanbul. Decadently rich, syrupy sweet and usually laborious to prepare. Dry fruit filled layers of pastry with honey – bite sized pieces called Baklava, Locum (better known as Turkish Delight) and several other sticky goodies went down far too quick for us to contemplate the guilt.
Surprisingly we found a lot of exotic drinks here as well. And not just the delicious glasses of fresh pressed pomegranate juice. Ayran- a milk curd drink to wash down the spices (similar to our Indian lassi), Sahlep – a steaming hot cup of some exotic spiced milky/creamy liquid helped out with our cold winter nighttime strolls. Said to contain secret ingredients, some of the revealed contents include Orchid, Nutmeg (just to give you an idea). And tea. Oh the teas of Istanbul. Steaming cups of black and sweet liquid gold in these gorgeous bulbous tumblers to warm away any winter shivers, stacks of colourful flowers, flabours and herb mixes. (Ended up buying way more than I needed).
- The Pudding Shop (Lale Restaurant) opposite the Blue mosque was an iconic stop on the old hippie trail from London, is filled with memorabilia, a great introductory meal and despite it’s touristy outlook, a very friendly staff.
- The Bahar Restaurant is easily the Grand Bazaar’s most well kept secret. Incredibly delicious home-style meals (no menu, just specials) are bought off the counter and enjoyed in this cozy tavern by businessmen in the area.
- Yemek Kulubu on Istiklal Caddesi was a fabulous find. Right in the middle of the shopping district, decorated with lots of Art Nouveau glass, almost luxurious in setting, but incredibly cheap.
- Karadeniz ail Pide & Kebab in a tiny street just behind the Sultanahmet Tram Station is a gem of a place with some divine Iskender Kebab, Lahmacun, Pide and really friendly staff.
- Sarnic Restaurant is the one place you must go to for that expensive meal or special night. Lit only by candles, in an ancient cistern, with knight’s armour and other medieval relics for decor, it isn’t just the ambiance but the delicious lamb and excellent wine pairings that made us fall in love with this place.
- For another good, all you can eat meal (priced by weight) visit the Baran Ottoman Restaurant opposite the Sultanahmet Tram Stop. Loved the intricate tiles on the walls.
What’s the one cuisine you’ve loved discovering on your travels?