Istanbul: What to Eat

by Stephanie Gilmartin


Turkey was a total feast.  So much of what we ate there was utterly delicious, and actually relying on the guidebook wasn't really necessary (it definitely is in some places, Venice being the absolute worst). Disclaimer - most of what is pictured here is dessert, because boy did we eat a lot of them while we were there. Most anything you eat will probably be pretty good, especially if you like kebabs and meze.  Here are a few reviews of the places we ate while we were there.

This is what we had for breakfast one day; a rather dry chocolate chip bun, and a traditional simit - a bread ring encrusted with sesame seeds. We had simits for breakfast most days, because they were such a convenient street food and only cost 1 tl (about 30p).  They can be bought practically everywhere, especially near ports.

This is what we had for breakfast one day; a rather dry chocolate chip bun, and a traditional simit - a bread ring encrusted with sesame seeds. We had simits for breakfast most days, because they were such a convenient street food and only cost 1 tl (about 30p).  They can be bought practically everywhere, especially near ports.

turkish coffee

I tried Turkish coffee for the first time, and it was definitely not an instant love affair.  I lived in France for a year and used to drink espresso fairly frequently, so the strength of it wasn't a problem - it was more the fact that it is full of coffee grounds at the bottom, so it tastes like when your cafetiere is broken.  

The Hungarians were occupied by the Turks back in the 1500s, and they didn't like this unknown coffee much either - there is a Hungarian expression, "hatravan meg a feketeleves", or "still to come is the black soup", indicating something painful or difficult is coming up.  This stems from when the Turks would serve their Hungarian guests coffee at the end of a meal, which meant talking taxes.

There are some much nicer things to drink - try the freshly squeezed orange or pomegranate juice, which is insanely cheap, or the cay (pronounced "chai") - the apple one is just for tourists apparently, but we didn't care because it was nicer than the standard cay (similar to English tea without milk).

The Turks love their tea - the vendors in the Grand Bazaar are brought tea on little trays throughout the day for free, which seems like a bit of a treat. 

Coca Cola obviously got into Turkey as well, and it was cool to see some more interesting names on cans when we were there.  Our guidebook served a purpose, but I found author a bit of a killjoy - she seemed to be fairly negative about everything there was to do in Istanbul, and our experience couldn't have been further from that.  The map was also really poor - there are loads of little side streets and lanes, especially in the Old Town, which weren't on it, and it's really easy to overshoot where you want to get to (the scale was really puzzling).  I'm glad I checked before we went and ordered the Marco Polo one from Amazon, which did the job - I would recommend it if you happen to get this book.

The pickles were served with some pides we ordered.  These are traditional oval-shaped turkish pizzas, typically topped with minced meat and cheese.  Personally I found it quite greasy without the tomato sauce we Westerners are used to, but it was good fuel for exploring and, following the theme of everything else we ate, very cheap. 

This is a little fish restaurant/boat near the Galata bridge, where they serve balik ekmek (fish sandwiches).  I'm not a great pescaphile so I had to skip this one, but we've heard from other people that they're great and the locals clearly enjoy them.  The port at Eminonou is a bustling place full of cats, dogs, seagulls, people and fishermen stretching all across the Galata bridge and fishing in the Golden Horn.

This is a little simit cart near the docks.  There's a touch of Wes Anderson about them, don't you think?

This is a little simit cart near the docks.  There's a touch of Wes Anderson about them, don't you think?

I have to make special mention of perhaps our favourite place to eat in Istanbul. It's not even a restaurant, but a lokum (Turkish delight) shop called Hafiz Mustafa.  I am not kidding when I say we went there every.single.day. 

The staff were amazing - think of the most banter you've ever had in a shop, and triple it - that is these guys.  They feed you cube after cube of powdery goodness while you decide what you want, pretend to cut of your fingers with their big square scissors (for chopping the lokum) and they're very accomodating when you want a weird mix of stuff.  Again, it's criminally cheap, even though it's stuffed with pistachios and hazelnuts.  The service culture in general in Turkey was fantastic - you get the impression that everyone loves their job and is very proud of what they're selling, which is markedly different to what you get in the UK.

They also sell loads of milk puddings in jewel-bright colours (the chocolate one was quite yummy) and cakes and pastries - James has developed a baklava addiction.  This was where we went to buy souvenirs for everyone when we had to come home (we really didn't want to).

Pomegranate and pistachio was my favourite flavour.  I also loved the chocolate Sultan's delight, a milky, gummy sweet with chocolate rolled inside it and coconut on the outside.  James loved the bird lokum (lot of different flavours, chopped up small like midget gems).

Pomegranate and pistachio was my favourite flavour.  I also loved the chocolate Sultan's delight, a milky, gummy sweet with chocolate rolled inside it and coconut on the outside.  James loved the bird lokum (lot of different flavours, chopped up small like midget gems).

The Turks, like the Brits, like a wee sweet treat in the afternoon with a cup of tea, and there are tons of cafes selling baklava all over Istanbul.  The best one by a mile is in Karakoy, across the bridge from Eminonou.  It's called Karakoy Gulluoglu and the freshness of their baklava was incomparable - they also did an amazing chocolate version that we didn't see anywhere else.  If you're across there, SALT Galata, an art gallery, has a very modern restaurant with gorgeous views of the water and the skyline with all the mosques.

There are a few places to do cooking classes in Istanbul, and we went to one for dinner (not to learn to cook, just to eat).  Cooking Alaturka had some great write-ups for its "Ottoman palace cuisine", quite a trend in the city's foodie culture.  We went quite late and one owner welcomed us, only for the other to come over and tell him that it was actually quite late... I understand that yes, it was late, but surely they would have had an agreed last service time, or at least had this conversation away from customers? 

I can't say I particularly enjoyed the meal - the menu was set, so there was zero choice, and it included things like yoghurt soup.  I felt I was rushing the entire time and the food wasn't particularly memorable, though it was one of the most expensive places we ate.  I'm not sure I'd rush back - other customers seemed quite happy, but given the service and prices elsewhere, I don't think this is worth a visit.

This is James trying shisha or nargile for the first time, in Cafe Meshale, a sort of outdoor garden cafe which serves tea, baklava and shisha.  We both think it's important to have a "when in Rome" attitude to holidays, and we both really liked that no one really drank.  Even the city centre at night felt incredibly safe and there was no shouting or vomiting in the street, just people outside in the warm air enjoying a stroll.  

So if you have to be allowed one vice, it's probably going to be shisha.  The most common one is tobacco soaked in apple juice, which tastes much sweeter than smoking cigarettes.  As you can see, even non-smokers take to it quite quickly, and it gives you a bit of a headrush if you're not used to it.  We'll be checking out Edgware Road soon to see if we can find somewhere good to replicate the experience!

This is Kahve Dunyasi, a cafe/chocolate shop in Sultanahmet.  It serves all its coffees with chocolate spoons.  The savoury food is fairly average, but you can have a little plate of chocolates with your coffee and they are really delicious (and, again, cheap for a nice chocolate shop - one can only eat so much lokum). 

This interesting "strong" ice cream, from outside the Aya Sofia, had an almost chewy consistency because it contains salep (ground orchid root).  It's a very interesting treat from the age of the Ottomans, and certainly worth trying.  Would I swap it for Haagen Dazs? Probably not, but it's pretty good.

We found this restaurant, Babylonia, on our penultimate night, and had to go back on the last night because the food was SO GOOD.  It was one of those rare places where the vegetarian menu looks just as good as the normal one, it took us forever to choose, but everything we ate there was delicious. They are really into theatre in restaurant, so cooked things in clay pots which were smashed at the table, or baked cod in a huge crust of salt.  The bread on the table is served everywhere and is known as balloon bread - imagine a highly-inflated naan and you'd be about right. I had chicken with honey, orzo, almonds, apricots and cinnamon, with aubergine dip for a starter - completely divine.

We definitely came home in need of a lot of exercise, but Istabul, it was worth it.