If you're lucky enough to be travelling to Istanbul, you better pack a healthy appetite and a pair of stretchable pants. It's a city with truly stupendous food. The meeting of the Orient and the Occident is evident in the way the breads, pastries and cheese mingle with kebabs, stews and pilavs. Another thing that stands out is the brilliance of the traditionally cultivated ingredients that truly make the cuisine shine.
The tomatoes are juicier, the milk tastes like velvety cream, the olives are a real revelation, the rocket leaves are crisp and green and the nuts more delicious than you could imagine. Among the hills of Istanbul, every corner you turn to offers a new visual and gastronomic delight and the best part is that you won't leave feeling sick because of overeating as most of what you eat will be absolutely fresh and healthy.
Needless to say, for those who like to explore new food and experience unfamiliar flavour, Istanbul is paradise. For those who like to play it safe, it's a good place for you to move out of your comfort zone without having to take too many risks. Contrary to popular notion, vegetarians can also enjoy the variety and minus the milky desserts, so can the vegans. Often you will stumble upon flavours that are reminiscent of Indian cuisine and find your thoughts meandering to overlaps between the two cultures and how a lot of our own techniques and dishes travelled here from Persia.
While almost every single thing we ate blew us away, at the end of our trip, 5 experiences stood out. All of them were at small, traditional gems that are thronged by tourists as much as by locals. Like all our food experiences while travelling, some of these we stumbled on, some I arrived at after obsessive research but each was endorsed by our Air BnB host - a local artist who also happened to be a die-hard foodie. Amylin has spent many years travelling and cooking in various countries and her deep love for Turkish cuisine allows me to give her opinion considerable weightage. So I'm sure that despite the fact that Istanbul has lately started to succumb to tourist pandering, these 5 restaurants are genuine and reflect the true and abiding flavours of 'real Istanbul'. The reason we hope to go back to Istanbul someday, is so that we can eat our fill.
Writing this article triggered a Turkish food craving so bad that I needed to be up till 4 AM last night, rolling out 48 layers of Yufka (phylo) for Turkish baklava. I believe that everybody deserves good food without having to go through the grueling task of eating every single thing in sight to discover what you want to eat again (ah the pains of being a blogger). So here is my list of must-eats for when you are in Istanbul. And now, you will have to excuse me while I go eat some Baklava.
1. Breakfast at Van Kahvalti Evi
The breakfast served at Van Kahvalti Evi is nothing short of amazing. The Turkish city of Van which is famous for rare white cats and terrific breakfasts featuring local cheese and honey. It also rates high on my 'must-visit-on-the-next-Turkey-trip' list. The small, friendly restaurant is tucked into the beautiful, artsy, hilly area of Cehagir (in the European area of Beyoglu) and getting there by foot is as good as working out. But a bite of their bread slathered with generous amounts of their unbelievable melt-in-your-mouth buttery-creamy-cheesy kaymak (Turkish clotted cream) and honey will leave you feeling lucky. You'll be glad you spent the calories you did walking there and wonder how soon you can come back next.
The full breakfast will arrive at your table with a basket of warm bread and a large assortment of soft fresh cheeses, local honey squeezed fresh out of the hive, a fresh salad of cucumbers and tomatoes, olives, honey, jam, yoghurt and cucumber dip. A Tahini based paste made with a grape syrup, preserved cherries, a spicy tomato and pepper salsa, a ground walnut and roasted flour paste sweetened with honey and more. All of this you will wash down with the ubiquitous Turkish chai (Yes, Turkish and Hindi share the same word for tea!) And if you are like me and all that gorgeous food isn't enough to sate your greed, you must also have the fried eggs served with sucuk (Turkish spicy sausage) which will arrive at the table in a small kadhai, gorgeously swimming in delicious local butter, dotted with incredible slices of the sausage and beautifully scented with smokey red pepper flakes. And then when your husband inhales the aroma of heavenly kayakin and takes a few bites, all the while raving about how it conjures up memories of bread with fresh malai and cheeni, you may have to pout and order some more. And again, you may want to wear oversized pants for this trip.
What we had: The full breakfast and the splendid fried eggs with sausages. But the star of the Turkish breakfast for me, is inevitably the kaymak and while we never had less that great kaymak anywhere in Istanbul, we both found the offering at Van Kahvalti to be truly stellar. Made from reduced buffalo milk, this slice of heaven is essentially layers of solidified cream that are richer than clotted cream, very slightly sour from good bacteria and heart stompingly beautiful when smothered over bread with honey. Thick and creamy, once you take a bit, it will melt in your mouth, coating your mouth with velvety milky buttery magic, leaving you aching for more. If I had my way, I would have lugged a suitcase full back home and slept with it every night. Alas, we will just have to make through with the dreams for now.
2. Ciya Sofrasi
20 minutes by ferry will take you from the popular and touristy European part of Istanbul to the fish market district of Kadikoy on the Asian side. A stroll through the bustling colourful markets fragrant with the mingling aromas of spices, fish and fruits will take you to the doorstep of what has been hailed by many as the best restaurant in Istanbul. It was started by Musa Daodeviren with the goal of preserving regional Turkish recipes from Anatolia, many of which have been half forgotten, even in their birth land. Like its website states, "all the Azerbaijani, Georgian, Turkish, Arabian, Armenian, Ottoman, Syrian, Seldjukian and Jewish dishes are prepared according to the original customs and beliefs" and one look at the offerings will help you understand why this place is special.
A restaurant in the Lokanta or tradesman's format, offering fast, inexpensive home-styled meals, Ciya Sofrasi will offer you a cold mezze counter along with assorted offerings displayed in their large cooking vats. Try asking the chef standing guard for help and he will generously talk you through the dishes and their ingredients.
What we had: The assortment of cold mezze was gratifying: Muhamarra, which is a deliciously nutty, tabbouleh like parsley salad pleasantly tangy and bursting with flavour, hummus smooth and creamy and the stuffed vine leaves the best I have ever had. We next worked our way into the offerings of the day ordering Siveydiz - melting soft lamb cooked in a yoghurt, mint and garlic sauce, Mumbar - Lamb Casing Stuffed With, Bulgur, Onion, Spices And Lamb and a bell pepper vegetable stew with lentil dumplings,
Kereviz Oturtma - a stew of celery, greens and lamb and closed our effort with Kunefe - the traditional dessert of melting cheese encased in a vermicelli like pastry, baked to a golden and then dunked in sugar syrup. The result was a crunchy outside, melting stringy cheesy inside marvel. Oh and while you are at it, I have it on good authority that the kebabs at the neighbouring Ciya are worth a shot as well.
While you are in the vicinity, make sure you spend some time in the bustling fascinating markets that surround the restaurant. Drink some pickle juice at the Ozcan Tursulari (a shop dedicated to selling a million varieties of Pickles), be amazed at the beautiful fresh catch of the day at the fishmongers, the mind boggling variety of olives on display, grab some mezze for your next meal and walk into Arifoglu to buy everything from Turkish chilli varieties to Bell Pepper Pastes, beautiful copper tumblers for making Turkish coffee, home-made soaps to lokum (Turkish Delight).
3. Asmali Cangrim Cigerim
Canim Cigerim on Istikal Caddesi is a place you could easily miss but you must not! This is the place that proved to me that the Turkish-kebab skeptics were spectacularly wrong. To start with, you will be seated on the low bench style seating and receive a simple menu. The options are simple: chicken, liver or lamb with a couple of variations of each thrown in. You choose whether you want these served to you as wraps or brought to your table still sizzling on the skewer for you to make your own wrap. As quickly as you please, a fresh paper will be rolled out on the table in from of you and platters of fresh herbs, arugula, onion salad, spicy tomato paste, grilled peppers and tomatoes, fresh tomatoes paste, tomato and onion herb salad and pomegranate molasses will be brought to your table along with a thick wad of sheer roomaly roti like breads, enough to feed a small family of 4.
Canim Cigerim translates to the endearment 'my darling liver' (like jiger ka tukda in hindi. And cigar is incidentally pronounced as jiger making it another word common between Turkish and Hindi) and this cheap and cheerful place is most popular with locals who throng here because of their Turkish love for its excellent grilled liver skewers. Each dish you order will come in a set of 9 skewers but you could get a half portion if you ask for it.
The food will be simple but absolutely delicious. The tiny pieces Oradana (seekh like cylinders of meat) are tender and juicy and the fresh, tart and spicy accompaniments are the perfect way to offset the smokey meaty flavours with a bit of crunch. You will find yourself copying the locals by laying the accompaniments you want on the thin bread and using the bread to pull the meat off the skewer to make your own roll and eat it all up before you realise you did. So you will do it again. And again. And before you know it, between the two of you, you may end up eating 18 skewers of meat and 2 unbelievably tasty
Adana kebabs that you swore you had no space in your stomach for. And at the very end you will find yourself wondering how to crawl out because surely, by now you are too heavy for your legs to balance?
What we ate: We more or less stumbled into this restaurant tucked away in the first floor of one of the buildings on Istikal cadessi (street).
The sign that says the 'Where Chefs Eat' is what pulled me in and the hardcore, no-nonsense focus on eating once inside somehow signaled that this one maybe a good option to pursue. What perfect luck! We ended up feasting on endless skewers of little pieces of lamb and chicken as well as the lamb Adana kebabs cooked over hardwood coal. Everything was delicious but the Adana kebabs blew us away with their texture and flavour, and the tomato relish with the sweet-tart pomegranate sauce Nar Eksisi had me wildly gesturing to them that I needed a whole bottle of the sauce to myself to take back to Mumbai.
4. Sakariya Tatlicisi
More than 57 years old, Sakarya Taticisi is one of Istanbul's iconic restaurants, famous for the fine way in which it has preserved the tradition of the Quince Dessert. Locals travel from far to come here just for the tart, syrupy sweet glazed fruit served with a wad of kayak on top that is seasonal and hence only available in winter. If you get here in autumn or winter, you order the quince expecting it to be a pale version of its colour like most fruit get once poached but instead you will find that the skilled slow cooking process changes the colour of the halved stewed fruit naturally to a deep ruby-red.
Cut into your fruit and you will find the morsel to be melting soft, very sweet, tart, jammy even and the creamy melting kaymak cuts through it to make this dessert transcend to a whole other level of decadence. Other places in the city seek to emulate the colour by using food colour but at Sakarya, they believe in doing things the old way. Which is why its baklava is no small find either and checks all the right boxes - crisp, golden outside, tender and syrupy inside, abundant with the roasted pistachios from the Antip region, the right proportion of Gaziantep butter and syrup. They have several varieties including chocolate and kaymak filled ones and you must ensure that you taste the lot. It's only fair to yourself that you do so.
What we had: Sakarya Tatlicisi is considered special for the heritage of stewed quince that it preserves. Amylin on the other hand swears by the quality of the excellent baklava they sell here. And that's why, besides the quince (which we liked though we did find it a tad too sweet), we ended up eating far morebaklava here than we anywhere else.
Hayvore is hidden away but is exclusively recommended for fish lovers and those who didn't get to visit the Black Sea for its hazelnuts, hamsi, corn bread, tea and much more. The food from this region is distinct and at Hayvore you will find authentic dishes from the region - buttery smokey bean stew, corn bread, soup from black cabbage, 'kara lahana sarmasi' made of black cabbage, 'fasulye tursu kavurma' and 'muhlama' made of corn flour, butter and regional cheese of 'mintzi' and lots more. Known for its Hamsi (local anchovies), these favourite tiny silver fish are on the menu cooked in different ways - from simply baked with onions, lemon and tomatoes to cornmeal coated and crisp, deep-fried versions that seems especially popular. Like Ciya the soups are great but the flavours are distinct. Skip the soup if you are one of those who think soups are a waste of stomach space but you must ask for the stewed beans and eat this soul satisfying stew while nibbling on some cornbread and polishing off deep fried hamsi just because you can and I, enviously can't anymore.
In addition to fish dishes, the vegetable dishes are delicious as well. There are plenty of options on display and most of the dishes are rather light though you can't really say that of the luscious Muhlama - a dip like dish of melted cheeses, bound by cornmeal and oozing butter. You may want to take up their evil offer of giving you half plates of a bunch of things or making you a mixed platter. Whatever you do, leave room for dessert.
What we had: Being rather partial to anchovies is what brought me here and it's no surprise that it's the anchovy dishes I gorged on. The Pilav was great but the fried anchovies were sublime and the beans stole the show - Smokey, buttery deliciousness that's warm and comforting in the chilly Istanbul winters. For dessert we had the creamiest, milkiest rice pudding imaginable, laced with vanilla and dusted with hazelnut powder.
A Few Tips for Eating Well in Istanbul
1. Make sure you taste these at least once: Sahlep (a comforting milky winter drink laced heavily with cinnamon), Boza (a fermented barley sweet-sour drink, served with roasted chickpeas on top), Durum Rolls (rolls which can be stuffed with whatever meat you choose), Midye Dolma (mussel shells stuffed with cooked mussel and rice and served with a quick squeeze of lemon), Lokma (fried syrup dunked dough balls), various milk desserts including the Kazandibi (milk pudding with a caramelised skin), Tavuk Gogsu (chicken breast pudding) and Ekmek Kadaifi (bread pudding), Lahmacun(thin pizza like turkish bread that is folded and eaten), Simmit (the sesame coated Turkish version of the bagel), Borek (stuffed pastry with an assortment of stuffing), all the variations of Baklava, Roasted Chestnuts, Ayran (the buttermilk drink similar to chaas), Roasted Nuts, Turkish Delight (especially the double roasted pistachios), Fruit paste roll ups and other desserts, distinctive stretchy local ice cream, Balik-ekmek (grilled fish sandwiches on the banks of the bosphorous), Kumpir at Ortakoy (baked potatoes topped with anything your heart desires), Tavuk pulao (chicken and rice) and Istanbuls new dessert craze, the Trilece cake.
2. Enjoy the abundant delicious street food and eat off the carts rather than the new touristy restaurants (including most on Istikal Caddesi) and you are almost always guaranteed a good deal.
3. Don't be afraid to take a chance and just follow the locals into the local crowded restaurant they enter. What the locals eat is guaranteed to be authentic and good.
4. Get into the smaller lanes. They envelope hidden gems. And wherever you see an old man/woman or couple running a restaurant - small or big, give it a try. You might just hit pay dirt.
5. Have small meals and eat and walk. You will manage to try the millions of things Istanbul offers and still not feel sick with overeating.
6. Go beyond the generic Baklava you know of and explore the various types of Baklava and Turkish Delights. Try out the milk desserts at the local Muhallebicisi.
7. Get into the special dry fruit shops and you will find incredible variety of nuts that you may want to bring back.
8. Avoid the big brands and multinational fast food chain. The smaller places are likely to serve you better.
9. Look for regional Turkish specialties and go beyond the kebabs.
10. Travel smart - Buy an Istanbulkart (or pass as we call it in India) - You can buy one and share it in a group and it's accepted on almost all transports including the metros, trams, busses and most ferries.
Will get you speedily to your next meal and save you plenty of money. Don't get into taxis unless they put their meter on. Even if they do put on the meter, find out the starting number and make sure that start at the right amount. Don't be like me and get scammed before you learn.
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