A Foodie’s Guide To Istanbul
I just got back from the city where the East and the West collide: Istanbul. This Turkish metropolis spans two continents. The Asian part is mostly residential, whereas the European part is home to historical treasures such as the Hagia Sophia (Byzantine church/mosque/museum), Topkapi Palace (home of the Ottoman sultans) and the beautiful and massive Blue Mosque.
Before Istanbul became Istanbul it was Constantinople, the seat of Constantine’s Eastern Roman empire (fun fact: Constantine was born in what is now Serbia). Constantinople was once considered the center of the world and was the wealthiest and most bustling city in the world. That’s enough for my history lesson, but I’m leaving you with the music video for They Might Be Giants’ “Istanbul, Not Constantinople.” It summarizes the mere basics of what I just said.
This is a foodie’s guide to Istanbul. I will show you and teach you about baklavas, kebabs, Turkish tea and the rest.
If you’re interested in seeing non-food related photos from my trip, check them out on my Tumblr; I will keep updating it with photos over the next few days.
No trip to Turkey is complete without baklava. The key ingredients are phyllo dough, nuts and honey, but there are many different varieties. Below you can see that I discovered chocolate baklava. I also learned the pistachios are the nut of choice in Istanbul.
The last two photos may not look like traditional baklava, but they are also made of phyllo dough, just cut up into tiny threads, and then filled with nuts and syrup. Baklava can be found in any pastry shop in Istanbul.
Turkish Delight can also be found in any pastry shop alongside the baklava. Before I had it in Istanbul, I didn’t like Turkish Delight. The Turkish Delight I’d known was an overly sweet block of jelly covered in powder. Thankfully, this dessert is prepared more masterfully in its homeland.
Turkish Delight is a dessert made from flavored starch and sugar. It is filled with nuts and covered in powdered sugar. The most popular Turkish Delight flavor I saw in Istanbul was rosewater. This dessert was nothing like the one I had tried outside of Turkey. It has a subtle flavor and a chewy but dry texture, like that of the center of a Nerds Rope.
You can buy Turkish Delight by the kilogram in a pastry shop, or you can buy a prepackaged version readily available for tourists. I suggest going to pastry shops because they tend to let you try samples of Turkish Delight. Yum!
Turkish Tea – Çay
The Turks take their tea time just as seriously as the British. Tea in Turkish is called “çay” and is pronounced “chai.” It’s a black tea that turns red when brewed. The way the tea is served is what makes it unique. In Turkey, tea is consumed in small, glass cups and is served on a saucer with a side of sugar cubes. You need those sugar cubes because the tea is bitter.
Turkey is also known for its herbal teas. Apple tea, or elba çay, is the most famous. Pomegranate, rose hip and linden teas are also popular. If only Lipton produced those teas in the US like they do in Turkey!
At the Egyptian Market, a.k.a. the Spice Bazaar, you can buy a wide variety of loose leaf teas by the kilogram. I was attracted to the beautiful and fragrant herbal and fruit teas. The bazaar sold all kinds of medicinal herbal teas for lowering cholesterol, falling in love, curing stomach aches and raising your sex drive. Be wary though, these magical cures aren’t cheap. I expected tea and spices to be quite affordable in Turkey, but they cost as much as a trip to Teavana would. The vendors vacuum seal the tea to keep it fresh throughout your travels though, so that’s a plus.
Turkish Ice Cream – Dondurma
Dondurma is made of milk, sugar, flour made of orchid tubers called salep, and mastic (plant resin). The mastic gives the ice cream a sticky texture, which lends dondurma the nickname “elastic ice cream.” The ice cream is less creamy and more gummy, allowing it to be pliable without melting easily. Street vendors stretch the ice cream on a rod and play tricks on customers by flipping the ice cream cone around and taking it away from customers several times before finally presenting them with the ice cream. Check out the video below to see what I mean. Thankfully, none of the vendors I bought dondurma from were quite this tricky.
Kebabs, Doner and other Street Food
Istanbul’s sweets and spices impressed me, but its savory food was a disappointment. Casual restaurants and fast food joints served various meat dishes, but none of them were anything special. The dish below was like a Turkish version of Serbian cevapi, a minced meat sausage. These Turkish cevapi were longer and leaner than their Serbian cousins. Serbia was under Ottoman rule so a few words and dishes have become part of Serbian culture.
Below is doner, a dish consisting of meat stacked and cooked on a spit. The meat is then sliced off and typically served in a bun. It’s essentially the Turkish version of Greek gyro and Arab shawarma. The doner I tried was pretty dry and tasteless…
The statue below, which stands in a square next to the Spice Market and New Mosque, shows a street vendor selling simit, ring-shaped bread (think of them like Turkish bagels). I saw lots of vendors like the one in the statue. Like cevapi, the simit was adopted into Serbian cuisine after Ottoman rule. The Serbian version of the simit is called djevrek. The simit I tried in Istanbul was pretty bad compared to the djevreci (plural) that I’m used to. It was dry and unappetizing. Why Turkey, why?!
If you find yourself in Istanbul, eat all the baklava, dondurma and Turkish delight and drink all the tea you can, but keep your expectations low for the savory dishes.