My favorite of the kebap family: ground lamb (and lamb fat) with spices and red pepper, grilled and served with lavaş. Here it's accompanied by grilled hot peppers and tomatoes, and sumac-ed slivers or red onion and parsley. Build your own bite.
It's not an Istanbul specialty—it was invented in Bursa—and the family restaurant where it was first served has actually trademarked the name. But even if this isn't a "real" İskender kebab, it's still a mighty tasty thing. Döner kebab is sliced from the spit but, rather than just piled on bread, layered on a skillet over chunks of bread, slathered in tomato sauce, and covered in butter before it's baked. Yogurt serves as a garnish. I probably don't need to tell you how awesome döner baked with butter, dolloped with yogurt, and rolled up in flatbread can be. And that's before you get to those chunks of bread on the bottom, soaking up the meat juice, tomato, and butter...
Imagine what's essentially a pizza dough, but half-folded over toppings—giving you a boat-shaped pie that's sort of like a calzone you didn't finish folding over—filled with cheeses, or awesome Turkish meats like this garlicky, cumin-laced sausage sucuk, with or without an egg on top. The final touch? A baste of melted butter. Amazing what a little butter can do.
The other pizzalike object popular in Turkey (and in parts of the Middle East), lahmacun is a thin, thin crust topped with minced meat, ground peppers, and herbs, and often spritzed with lemon juice. In a brick oven, they cook in less than a minute, giving you a crisp-chewy crust best eaten piping hot.
My new favorite word in Turkish: hamsi, Black Sea anchovies. They're in season right now, and I can't get enough of the little guys. I like them best just like this, barely flour-dusted, fried to a crisp, and served with parsley and lemon. Being able to get a heaping pile of fried fish, with a waterfront view, for about USD $4 was among my favorite things about the city.
In Jerusalem a few months ago, I loved eating kibbeh, an awesomely fried Arabic foodstuff of bulghur wheat stuffed with a filling of ground meat, onions, and spices. In Turkey they're called içli köfte, and they're just as tasty. Crunchy wheat over spiced meat!
If I ever get crazy enough to open up a food truck in NYC, it'd probably be a tantuni truck, as the little wrap is one of the best snackable meat-and-bread creations I've ever come across. It's a southern Turkish preparation that's recently become popular in Istanbul. Beef is finely, finely chopped, then cooked with oil on a round griddle. A thin, stretchy square of lavaş is draped over the top, then rubbed around the cooking surface to soak up all the meaty juices. Chopped tomatoes and parsley top it off before it's all rolled up and wrapped in plastic—because this thing is messy and juicy as hell.
I insisted on starting every morning with the impossibly creamy kaymak, my new best dairy friend. Milk is slowly boiled, the cream skimmed off, and then chilled—it's rich as any clotted cream and the consistency of a soft cheese. (Cows' milk is often used, but the really good stuff comes from water buffalo milk.) Served with honey or jam and slathered on bread, it's the best breakfast imaginable.
True story: when I told my grandfather, a retired colonel with the best memory for geography I've ever come across, that I was going to Istanbul, he immediately told me about "the best yogurt in the world," which he'd had more than two decades ago. "Cross the bridge farther up the Bosphorus, come to the road along the water, head north to a huge open-air plaza"... Following his directions, I found the town of Kanlıca, indeed famed for its yogurt. It's thick but stirrable, looser than Greek but thicker than most European yogurts, with a pure, only slightly tart creamy taste. Best topped with a spoonful or two of honey.
A Turkish version of scrambled eggs: tomatoes, onions, and peppers cooked together eggs that just loosely set. Particularly tasty with the sausage sucuk or the dried beef pastırma.
Simply spiced, grilled lamb meatballs, served here with pickled peppers and, like most meats in Turkey, intended to be stuffed in bread before eaten.
Until I went to Turkey, I thought of a dolma as a rice-stuffed grape leaf—which it often is. But the word really just means "stuffed," and can refer to any stuffed vegetable, fruit, or even fish. They're served at many more casual restaurants, but here's a particularly pretty spread from Tuğra Restaurant at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul—trout stuffed with dill, pine nuts, and cheese; young eggplants stuffed with sweet onion stew; zucchini blossom stuffed with rice, onion, currants, and pine nuts; and my favorite, a fig stuffed with the same.
Hünkar Begendi (Sultan's Delight)
Take a silky, smoky eggplant puree, and make it even richer with roux to bind and cheese melted in. Top with braised lamb, sprinkle with chili—the best sort of comfort food, all I want to eat all winter.
Tavuk göğsü (chicken breast pudding)
Yes, seriously. And no, it doesn't taste like chicken. The bird just contributes to the texture: white meat is boiled until it breaks down into strands, those strands are shredded still more finely, and the whole bit is soaked in milk until it essentially breaks apart into little strings. That's the basis for this creamy, cinnamon-speckled pudding, with a curious, stretchy texture that requires a flat-edged spoon to work through. But the taste is all rich dairy; I especially like it a bit caramelized on top, as pictured here.
Pistachios in Turkey were just better, their essential pistachio-ness more profound, deeper in flavor. Ways to enjoy them: in baklava, in salads, as Turkish ice cream (dondurma), on this amazing pistachio-kaymak pastry, or just roasted and salted as bar snacks.
My first words in Turkish: nar suyu, "pomegranate juice." You couldn't walk a block without a sign on the corner for fresh pomegranate and orange juice, and in the less touristy parts of town, a glass squeezed in front of you would cost just 2 lira (a little over $1).