Istanbul is the center of worlds, the relentless meeting of east and west, and the cuisine is no less complex. Influences from all over the world combine to create something truly new and exciting to me. Outside of poor imitations this is my first experience with Turkish food and I can’t wait to try both the traditional home cooked dishes and the street food, which is omnipresent. When you step off the bus in Taksim, the food culture is inescapable. Food stands, markets, restaurants of every persuasion, line the streets. An integral part of life in Istanbul. And I’m determined to try my best to try all of it. To seek out what is special here, even if it seems a bit strange at first. Eh, who am I kidding, you know I love the weird stuff.
I didn’t know how to slice my experience here. I had great restaurant experiences and sought out specific dishes across multiple locations to compare, so this will be a bit of a mix. I’ll mark restaurant sections.
Mezze by Lemon Tree (restaurant)
Mezze is a style of eating where small dishes are served as appetizers sometimes as a light meal or precursor to a larger meal. Mezze by Lemon Tree came recommended to me on several sites so we chose to stop by there on our first night in town. Normally they are booked with reservations (we didn’t know) but since we stopped by right as they were opening at 6 they squeezed us in for an hour and an amazing dinner ensued. We chose to get their degustation style menu that included six mezze that we got to pick from a large case of choices, a warm starter, two entrees, and a dessert. That turned out to be an enormous amount of food but it was delicious and I don’t regret anything that we ate.
Dürümzade has been a well known hole in the wall for a long time but they were made even more famous when Anthony Bourdain stopped to have his dürüm there. A dürüm is a Turkish wrap with a thin lavash style bread with typical doner ingredients. The house special is an Adana kebap, a long, spicy, minced-meat lamb kebap grilled on a wide iron skewer on an open grill and served in a wrap as a dürüm. And that’s what I got and it was terrific. Something that makes these especially delicious is that he’s constantly patting the grease off the kabap on the bread so that the fats that usually drip off into the grill all go into the wrap. Every bite is tasty all the way through. I only had one and (a smaller one at that) but we hit 7 food stands that day so I was trying to make my appetite stretch. If I go back I’ll be getting at least one if not two of the doubles and probably everything else on the menu.
Çiya Sofrası (restaurant)
The single best meal I had in Istanbul. One of several restuarants operated by Chef Musa Dağdeviren in the Kadıköy Market on the asian side of town, this restaurant is unassuming and without pretension. With a reputation as a culinary anthropologist, Chef Dağdeviren collects obscure regional dishes across Turkey and presents them in a daily changing menu. And though individually each dish was outstanding, it was the complexity, thoughtfulness, and scope of the menu that really took first prize. We started off with a quince sherbet which is a sweet juice (nonalcoholic) cocktail, followed by a spicy veal head soup, a selection from the salad bar, and quince with lamb chops as a main course. I ordered the kunefe with cheese for desert, and quite by accident Katy ordered the most interesting dish of the meal, the “pumpkin” which turned out to be an interesting candied pumpkin slice where the flesh is treated with lime then boiled in sugar which makes the outer shell crunchy and the inside soft and mushy. It’s very sweet, and the whole thing is topped with tahini and walnut. We had to google it immediately to understand what was going on with this thing. Never had anything quite like it, delicious.
There were kokoreç stands all down Tarlabaşı right in front of our first apartment. I hadn’t heard of them and honestly I wasn’t motivated to go grab one without a little research. The stands are open grills with these long tubes thicker than your arm slow roasting over coals all day before they start chopping them up for night service. But it didn’t look like a sausage. Or any roast I’d ever seen. There was something sinister about the whole affair. Like someone had stuffed a deboned cat into an oven bag and was pretending it was a tenderloin. There was something unusual going on. So I did my research. A kokoreç is a length of lamb’s intestine stuffed with seasoned lamb offal like sweetbreads, hearts, lungs, and kidneys, slow roasted over coals until tender, then chopped finely with tomatoes and spices. I think it’s illegal now in the EU but it’s completely safe. So I immediately marched down and grabbed one as soon as I understood what I was in for. You order them by the quarter or half loaf of bread that is then split open, toasted, and covered in the mince mixture. I have to say it was really good and I at the whole enormous thing. You see these things all over Istanbul with a crowd lined up after the bars.
One of the more interesting street foods you can find in Instanbul is kelle or sheep’s head. You can find it in two varieties: the kelle söğüş which is boiled and served chilled or the kelle tandir which is roasted and served hot. As it turns out the best kelle söğüş joint, Beyoğlu Kelle Söğüş Muammer Usta, was just a block from our first apartment so I wandered over in a blinding rainstorm to grab a sheep’s head to go.
The place is basically a tiny popcorn stand with a cutting board under the awning of the neighboring restaurant. With the rain there was only room for one table under the awning and it was full of happy customers. So I stood in the downpour waiting dutifully for my boiled sheep’s head. I was about third in line for a meal so I got to watch him make a few. You can order a full or half kelle or a sandwich which I assume is a bit smaller. The cook takes one of the heads out of the glass case, halves the skull, and skillfully starts trimming off every yummy bit and slicing it into little chunks. The tongue gets shaved and then sliced and the eye and other bit get chopped up with the rest. The finished pile gets a little chop and is loaded onto a paper square with some parsley and thin onion slices and sprinkled with salt and red pepper flakes, and the whole thing gets wrapped up and comes with a half loaf of bread.
I brought mine back like a treasure, mixed everything up, and ate the whole thing with a fork.
There’s a term of endearment in Turkey that is derived from this dish. “[I love you so much] I am going to eat the fat from the back of your eye!”. Maybe I wouldn’t go that far but it was definitely tasty and worth getting over some squeamishness to try.
This is just one of those things everyone tells you to get when you’re in Istanbul. It’s supposed to be a wet hamburger but really it’s not. It’s something more and better than that. It starts with a hamburger bun, sure, that’s been dipped in some tomato curry type savory sauce with some sort of ground meat inside there but it didn’t really look like a patty, more of a loose meat scenario, with some other good stuff. It’s not too drippy and pretty easy to eat. I could have had four on a normal day.
Everyone says the best one is at Kizilkayalar Hamburger in Taksim Square and that’s where we went. It’s a tiny hallway of a restaurant crammed with people and a line out the door. You fight your way into the mass of hungry people and somehow intuit to order into the kitchen opening, get your receipt, hand it to the guy manning the burger case, and you’re on your way to wet burger heaven. These were great. I thought at first this was the only place to get these but I’ve encountered them at other stands in town. But yeah, this place is the best.
So this is like so entirely traditional that it wasn’t even that high on my list to try. We have these things all over the states and I love them, even the bad questionable ones. But here it’s honestly a beast of a different color. Here, they actually care about the meat, how it’s cooked, it’s delivery method. And it’s popular so it’s fresh. And it’s cheap. Layers of lamb meat alternated with layers of lamb fat and onions cooked until it’s congealed into a single delicious thing, charred on the outside then shaved off either by hand with a knife or with these cool industrial shavers that look like laundry irons. Wrapped up tight in a thin bread with toppings. There’s no need for sauce, it’s just good on its own.
Kazilklayalar has a good reputation and they had a chicken and beef cone right there so we tried one of each and they were excellent. Katy’s chicken came wrapped up with fries and my beef came with pickles. I’ve had a few variations since then. You can just get it on a plate, usually with french fries. And there’s a version called iskender kebap with sauce over cubed up pieces of buttered bread and a scoop of strained yogurt. There seems to be an endless variety that I will try to track down if I have time.
Lahmacun is a baked bread with minced meat and spices that is often compared to pizza. It’s supposed to be crispy but soft inside and a little spicy. You garnish with lemon juice and parsley and sometimes other fresh toppings, roll into a tube, and enjoy. You can find this everywhere and it’s usually somewhere around $1. It might take a couple to fill you up.
I had a bit of a fascination with lahmacun and I spent some time tracking down the best in town. When I first got to Istanbul I ordered one of these at any place that had one but it was pretty clear the quality of product was highly varied. After some research online I found two places that seemed to be on everyone’s list. Halil Lahmacun on the Asian side of the city and Öz Kilis Kebap and Lahmacun Restaurant a bit north of Eminönü at Fatih.
Our first attempt was at some back alley place near Taksim. In retrospect those were really sad excuses for lahmacun. Our second attempt was at a place near our Galata apartment, Eryılmaz Pide Salonu, a small but endearing place that had a decent lahmacun. A little small, not really crispy enough, but decent. Made fresh and with care. You definitely needed two for a meal.
Öz Kilis Kebap and Lahmacun Restaurant
Öz Kilis was usually a strong second on the best lahmacun list. It was in the middle of nowhere in particular on a side street in the wedding dress district north of Eminönü. It was a bit of work to get there. We wanted to go to the Chora Church which was nearly a mile north of there so with some difficulty we figured out the bus system and ventured out into a decidedly more local area of town. Tourists were a bit of an oddity there and we attracted some attention when we walked in. The waiter heaped loads of attention on us and was very helpful. They make two types of lahmacun, the regular garlic and an onion version. I ordered both. And I was talked into some garlic soup which was fantastic btw. These guys were much larger than any previous one I had had. I wasn’t leaving here hungry. They were great. Crispy, spicy, very tasty. I had a new bar with which to measure all newcomers.
There seemed to be strong consensus that the best lahmacun was made in this little place called Halil Lahmacun in the market district of Kadıköy. It takes a ferry to get there and the weather was miserable earlier in the week but on our last day the rain relented and we made a beeline over to the place. Actually the whole neighborhood was a revelation with endless good food. But for lahmacun, there was only one place to go.
I had high expectations but I wasn’t let down. There’s only two things on the menu here. They do a single thing really really well. I ordered one lahmacun and a glass of ayran which I ordered by pointing. In retrospect I think the waiter spoke fine English I just didn’t know what it was called. The crust here is the special thing. It’s crispy and crunchy without being burned, soft inside, a great spicy spread, and just parsley and onion wedges as garnish. Katy and I agree this was the best we tried.
Pide can be found all over too in various levels of quality. It’s strictly speaking much closer to pizza than lahmacun with cheese and meat toppings. But the dough is formed into a thin football shaped boat to keep everything inside then chopped into slices as it’s served. The worst we had was reheated in a microwave into a mushy pile. The best is always made to order and fresh from the oven. The “pepperoni” here is circles of what appears to be soft chunky bright pink bologna with very little flavor. I should look that up. (Eryılmaz Pide Salonu)
Tavuk Pilav and the Pilavcisi
Literally chicken rice, this is a really cheap and common dish you can find at food stands all over. It kind of has a cult like following for some stands. We got ours at a pilavcisa, which I suppose is just a rice joint. These places typically serve rice with chicken or turkey and chickpeas and usually have a soup. Galata Pilavisa was a half block from our second apartment and during a heavy rainstorm it seemed like a great place to run for a bite. The place was small but the owner was really nice and we both got the “chicken rice” which turned out really to be turkey and a bowl of soup which I think was lentil and chickpea with a flavorful chicken stock, I’m not entirely sure but it was really delicious. The star in this dish is really the rice which is flavorful and moist. Katy went back again for the same meal later. I couldn’t finish the whole thing and for two rice plates and two soups it was like $10. Hard to beat.
I’ve noticed several çorbaci joints in town where you can choose from a large selection of soups and get a bowl for about $2 and some bread or croutons. When you hear about Turkish food you rarely hear about soup. But I’ve taken to having soup here before a meal and it’s all been fantastic. Usually a bit thin, sometimes with a little bit of chopped up meat, cream soups tend to be a little sour, very flavorful, and it seems to always be served with a lemon wedge. The fresh acid note really makes it pop. Unfortunately soup isn’t very photogenic. You’ll just have to take my word for it.
One day after a blustery day of sightseeing, sitting at a tea joint to strategize the evening, Katy completely worn out and thinking about the soup joints I had been pointing out earlier, really gets a hankering for going to one. I had been wanting to try one out but we weren’t much in the mood to go hunt one down. So we head home and half a block later we run into Karakoy Çorba Evi. A hole in the wall type place with a long list of soups and a revolving door of locals. It must have been ordained for us to eat soup. Katy goes for the vegan option of pumpkin (balkaragi) and of course I need to try something more in the hoof and foot category so I go for the veal trotter soup (kelle paça). We ascend the tiny staircase to the last table upstairs, complete with a basket of rolls and another basket of croutons, and various condiments. My trotter soup was creamy and sour and savory with little bits of meat and fatty cartilage pieces (which might sound like a negative but I love well cooked fatty cartilage pieces). Katy’s was, well, pumpkin, but very good. For less than $5 we both had a satisfying meal. I highly recommend trying one these places out.
I first encountered Sahlep in a tea shop in Sarajevo but it’s native to Turkey and popular all over Istanbul.
From my previous description: “It’s as hot drink made from the powder roots of orchid plants and mixed with milk and stirred rapidly until it foams and becomes thick. The Romans drank it by the name of satyrion and it was popular in England and Germany before tea and coffee was popular.
The roasted orchid root powder is sweet and they add a few other spices to give it character. You drink it hot. The orchid makes the drink thick so it holds the air in a frothy kind of way. And it coats your mouth and throat in a thin film that kind of gives your insides a hug. I loved it.
The word salep is a romanized Arabic word for a particular orchid, literally “fox’s testicals”. This particular root looked like a set of testicles and hence it was considered a powerful aphrodisiac. In England it was called saloop and the substitution of local orchid roots, know as “dog stones” was acceptable.
Due to shortages of wild orchids the export of true salep root from Turkey is now illegal.”
You can find it at curbside stands everywhere. Usually in a big (gold) metal container with spout.
Kumpir is a baked potato that’s been scooped out, mixed with butter and garlic, then mashed an mixed until it’s smooth and creamy and returned to the skin. That’s just the foundation. The interesting thing about the kumpir is the wide array of weird toppings that you can pile on top. Common etiquette compels you to get a few toppings that basically compliment each other but with the kumpir you’re encouraged to pile on a massive variety of seemingly incompatible ingredients. Just go with it and don’t think about it too much.
Galata Sokak Kolübü (restaurant)
We showed up a couple hours early for our AirBnB but the host let us drop off our bags while the apartment was cleaned. Katy noticed a place on the walk over serving Turkish breakfast so we used our time to pop my breakfast cherry. We liked the place so much we came back for lunch a couple days later and had yet another pleasant meal. This time I got the mixed plate which came with a little bit of everything including a tiny pide and tiny lahmacun. Katy opted for the beef salad that came with cute cucumber hearts and a tomato rose. And the meal was complete with cay and fresh juice. It’s a great spot for people and kitty watching.
Pepo’s Galata (restaurant)
Since the weather was often pretty miserable for our week in Istanbul with cold rain and almost 30mph winds we got acquainted with the restaurants nearby. I’m not sure I would have picked Pepo’s otherwise but it was a dim comfortable space with good music and the food was pretty good too. We ended up having a good time there and a good meal.
Antiochia, a mezze style restaurant near the Şişhane metro stop, came recommended by several sites so we stopped by to check it out since we were in the neighborhood. It was a lively joint packed with locals celebrating different occasions. The dishes are oriented towards sharing. We got the mezze plate for 2, a couple of entrees, and I had maybe one too many glasses of roki. Not the highlight of the trip but decent food for tourist prices.
CZN Burak – The smiling chef (restaurant)
I’ve shared multiple videos of this guy on Youtube cooking enormous complicated dishes all while staring directly at the camera with a placid almost mannequin-like smile on his face. I honestly had no idea who he was until we ran across this place near Taksim Square. Meet chef Burak Özdemir who became an internet celebrity via his very entertaining cooking videos. He’s famous here in Turkey and owns a chain of restaurants. The one in Taksim isn’t so highly rated but hey, the food looks good, and I have to eat at this guy’s restaurant! The first floor is open to the street and features the chef’s cutout to pose beside and the walls are lined with local celebrity photos eating at his restaurants. The guy knows how to market. Everything in the store, the salt shakers, the water bottles, the toothpicks, are all customized.
Upstairs it’s a bustling dining room. The menu is not disappointing and has some outrageous dishes and platters for four or more people. You can order an entire roast lamb filled with rice or a whole ribcage filled with dolma. Katy’s probably not going to let me get away with that and besides I’m feeling a little tubby as it is. So I go with something reasonable, a minced meat kebap with pistachios and Katy gets the traditional eggplant kebap.
The food was pretty good and the service was speedy given the volume of customers. It’s a little cheesy, but that’s part of what you’re paying for. Half the dishes come with a showy presentation and some sort of fire involved. It’s fun. It was a good lunch and I was very entertained.
Deriliye Ottoman Palace Cuisine (restaurant)
Traditional Ottoman palace cuisine was almost a lost art. I’ve seen a few shows on this style of food and I didn’t think we’d get a chance to try it out while we were here. It seemed a bit academic to work out. But we were in the neighborhood and Deriliye kept being suggested as the #1 place to eat. We didn’t even know what we were in for.
The menu here is based on the sultan palace cuisine of the Ottomans. You can trace these dishes back to various feasts and dishes the sultan loved. I wanted to try all of them so we decided on the tasting menu which provided a selection of starters, main dishes, and deserts.