A Tour of Istanbul's Street Food


Elizabeth Helman Minchilli

If you're like me, when you travel, you like to plan your trip around food. Seeing the sights is important, I know, but having an authentic food experience gives you insights into the local culture that no amount of church- and museum-going can provide. (And mind you, I started out life as an architectural historian.)

Today, with a bit of research on the Internet anyone can scope out the best restaurants, markets, and food sources. At least up to a certain point. What about the places that fall through the cracks? The place where the guys who sell fish take their coffee break. Or where spice vendors stop mid-morning for a bowl of lentil soup.

You can't walk two feet in Istanbul without being offered some lokum, or Turkish delight.

I don't usually sign up for tours of any kind; I always think I can figure things out on my own. But for a recent trip to Istanbul I felt help was in order. The culture is a mystery to me. So I signed up for a street food tour with a new company, Istanbul Eats.

The company was started by two expats who have lived in Istanbul for years, Ansel Mullins and Yigal Schleifer . They are intrepid explorers of the city's culinary byways and wanted to share their experiences. These are the places that no one has written about. Besides writing a nifty little book, also titled Istanbul Eats, they recently started offering tours based on their unique itineraries, led by equally enthusiastic colleagues.

Our tour started at 9:30 and lasted until 3ish. I just did a count and we stopped for food and/or drink at no fewer than 12 places, not counting mini-stops at shops and market stands. It was as if we packed in a week's worth of eating into six hours. Here is our itinerary, but make sure you look at the slide show below. (Warning: It may make you hop on the next flight to Istanbul.)

9:30. We meet our guide, Angelis Nano, in front of the Spice Market. Angelis is a transplanted Greek who fell in love with Istanbul and started working as a guide to share his passion. His enthusiasm is immediately contagious. We bypass the Spice Market, which he says is a tourist trap, and head to the surrounding alleys filled with stands selling everything from sumac by the kilo to sheep's heads. We shop for our "breakfast": olives, cheese, simit (sesame-covered bread), and cheese.

9:40. We make our way into what looks like a coffee warehouse, and is in fact where the market vendors store their goods. Tucked among the sacks of coffee is one small desk, next to a closet-sized tea and coffee shop. We lay down newspapers, and spread out our goods, while hot coffee and tea is prepared. Vendors wander in and out, chatting with us, although we don't understand a word. We share our breakfast, and have a lesson in how to brew Turkish coffee.

10:00. We continue our exploration of the back streets of the old city, stopping at a lotus root merchant, coffee roaster, and spice wholesaler. We visit the one remaining kosher restaurant left in the city (unfortunately closed at this hour).

10:05. Sweet time. A stop at a pastry shop that makes sugar-syrup drenched "sultan's lips," which we devour.

10:15. Tucked between the Rustem Pasa Mosque and the Spice Market is Halis Kardesler. This tiny restaurant has five Formica-topped tables and caters to the market workers. It's actually a bit late in the morning, so the crowds are gone. Most market vendors stop here at the crack of down for lentil soup, which we slurp up before moving on. We also manage to devour a plate of buttery pilaf.

10:40. What street food trek would be complete without a pide stop? We go to Mave Halic, and get a lesson in how to make classic pide. Which really is like an oval pizza, as far as I can tell. The lamb sausage on top, however, was a purely Turkish touch.

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Elizabeth Helman Minchilli

Elizabeth Helman Minchilli is a Rome-based writer who contributes to over 40 publications including Food & Wine, Town & Country, the International Herald Tribune, and Architectural Digest. More

Elizabeth Helman Minchilli is a Rome-based writer who contributes to over 40 publications including Food & Wine, Town & Country, the International Herald Tribune, and Architectural Digest. She is the author of six books, including her most recent Italian Rustic: How to Bring Tuscan Charm into Your Home (Artisan 2009). Minchilli recently founded One Book Press (www.1bookpress.com), which produces custom-published, image-driven books. Her blog, www.elizabethminchilli.com, explores the good life, mostly in Italy.

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