A Tour of Istanbul's Street Food

By Elizabeth Helman Minchilli
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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.

11:00. More wandering in and out of shops. Picked up a nifty set of brass and steel kebab spears, plus an engraved steel tray.

11:10. You can't walk two feet in Istanbul without being offered some lokum, or Turkish delight. Even though it all looks the same, it of course varies in quality. We head straight for one of the oldest workshops that still crafts its own, Altan. My favorites were the traditional rose and pistachio flavors. We also bought a package of pistachio halva in case we got hungry.

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Elizabeth Helman Minchilli

11:20. We got hungry. So we stop in another closet-sized tea shop located in an abandoned han. This 17th-century building, Ali Pasa Han, is where traveling merchants would lock up their goods at night, before bringing them to the bazaar in the morning. While we explored the empty, haunting rooms, Ismet Sahin prepared tea for us, which we sipped while nibbling on our halva. He's been brewing coffee and tea here for more than 30 years.

11:45. We crossed into a much more conservative neighborhood, Kucuk Pazari, where my daughters and I were not just the only non-Muslim women, we were pretty much the only women on the street. This neighborhood is also called "Kantarcilar," which refers to the weights and measures sold here since Ottoman times. Our goal: to reach the next stop, which included our first taste of kebap on this trip. Kebap is everywhere you look in Istanbul, and has become more or less a symbol for junky touristy food. Our stop, however, was anything but touristy. We joined the all-male clientele to eat the the kind of kebap they must eat in heaven: sebzeli doner. Thin layers of lamb alternated with tomatoes, lettuce, and onions and turned in front of a grill. Fresh rolls were sliced and filled with the juicy meat and vegetable combo. A glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice to wash it down.

12:15. After a mostly uphill trek through the hills of Fatih neighborhood, we arrived at an Istanbul institution: Vefa. Vefa has been mixing up boza since 1876. Never heard of boza? It's a thick, almost pudding-like drink that is made from fermented millet. Pale yellow and slightly sweet, but strongly sour, it's sprinkled with cinnamon and served in a glass, with a spoon. Angelis ran across the street, to a small shop, to buy a bag of roasted chickpeas, which we floated on top. The first sip was decidedly weird. By the end we were hooked, like most of the city's population.

12:45. Our walk continues through the Kurdish neighborhood of Kadinlar Pazari, which is full of butchers selling lamb everything, and cheese vendors hawking cave-aged goat cheese flecked with wild herbs from the highlands around Lake Van. We buy a container of candied pumpkin, for the road.

1:00. Believe it or not, we now finally arrive at lunch. And believe it or not, we are actually hungry. Siirt Seref is a Kurdish restaurant specializing in buryan kebap. Not just any kebap, but a full, mostly deboned lamb that has been lowered into a clay oven (kind of like a tandoor) and slow-roasted. The resulting meat was tender, fatty, and chopped into bite-sized pieces before being piled on a juice-soaked flatbread. Of course the main dish was preceded by an endless array of meze, the highlight of which were spiced raw lamb çiğ köfte, meatballs, which we doused in lemon juice and rolled up into lettuce leaves. The candied pumpkin was the last thing we managed to squeeze into our mouths before our final Turkish coffee.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/01/a-tour-of-istanbuls-street-food/69918/