Let's face it: some cities—heck, some countries, just have better food than others. What's the secret to a geographic region's culinary success? It's tough to tell, but certainly having a wide range of cultural influences—whether through busy trade routes, large immigrant populations, or good old-fashioned imperialism—is one of them.
Turkey, once the center of the Ottoman Empire, has multicultural influences in spades. Modern Turkish cuisine has the slow-cooked meaty stews and hearty beans of Central Asian and Caucasian cuisine, the warm spices of Middle Eastern cuisine, and the ingredient-forward influence of the Mediterranean, all mixed up and combined with the refined technique of Ottoman and Western European kitchens.
The result is a very food-centric culture with a dizzyingly wide range of ingredients, techniques, and flavors. And in Istanbul, you can get a LOT of it. Here are some of the best things I ate. Some of them are specific locations to get specific dishes, others are things you can find (in varying degrees of quality) all over the place. All are fantastic.
Kanat (Turkish Grilled Chicken Wings)
I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that the ratio of excellent chicken wings to so-so chicken wings is higher in Istanbul than anywhere else on the planet.
Minced lamb on wide metal skewers may be the first thing you think of when you hit a Turkish kebab shop, but here's a little secret: almost all of them serve grilled chicken wings, and damned if the chicken wings at all of the places we tried weren't some form of excellent ranging from damn, that's a tasty wing to holy crap, how the f- do they get these things so darn juicy and crisp?
The wings, marinated with chilies and spices, are threaded on skewers (a genius move I'm going to steal for my next cookout), grilled over charcoal, and served on top of bread, which soaks up their spicy, dripping juices.
Menemen (Scrambled Eggs with Chilies and Tomatoes)
Oh man, do I love menemen! The first taste I had of this dish of eggs softly and lazily scrambled with tomatoes and hot peppers in a tinned copper dish called a sahan was at Van Kahvaltı Evi, a Kurdish restaurant in upper Beyoglu introduced to us by Benoit, or supremely knowledgeable guide from Istanbul Eats. We ordered it at a half dozen places all over the city, but nobody else had a version that was quite as well seasoned, quite as moist, or quite as comforting. It helps that here you can order it with a dozen or so add-ins, including basturma (Turkish pastrami) or kavurma, a form of dried, cured lamb belly.
This is a dish I could eat every day for breakfast. And incidentally, whenever I hear that damned mana mana Muppets song, all I can think is I want some menemen... (and now you will too).
I'm a pickle fiend—open up my fridge at any given moment and you'll find at least a dozen jars of pickles collected over the months and years (up until I emptied my fridge last month, I had three different vintages of pickled ramps alone!), but even I was floored by the pickle shops in Istanbul. Step inside any one of them and you'll find jars stacked upon jars of quite literally any and every vegetable you can think of.
Most will have little tables where you can order a plate of pickles and wash them down with a glass of bright pink pickle juice because nothing goes better with brine than... brine.
Wanna get extra hardcore? Head over to the Golden Horn by the Galata Bridge, where you can order fish bread with pickled juice. It sounds like a made up dish from a Monty Python sketch, but in fact, it's just a fried mackerel sandwich served with a shot of brine to wash it down.
Hamsi (Black Sea Anchovies)
We were in Istanbul at the height of anchovy season, which meant the little guys were everywhere. We had hamsi cooked over rice. We had hamsi pickled and served cold. We had hamsi grilled in a mehane.
But everyone knows the best way to eat little fish is battered and deep-fried.
Our favorite ones were at Vera Kuzu Kokoreç just off of Istiklal avenue, the main pedestrian walkway running down from Taksim square. The little fish were split and butterflied on the spot, dredged in flour, dipped in water, then dredged in another layer of flour before being gently fried in a large, brimmed pan shaped like an upside down sombrero.
You don't really need anything more than a wedge of lemon to go with perfectly fried fish. Maybe some ice cold raki.
Kokoreç (Sweetbread Sandwiches)
You'll see these long, slowly rotating tubes of meat on street corners and small walk-up shops all over the city. What are they? Lamb's sweetbreads, wrapped in intestines. I know. Not the most appetizing thing in the world, but trust me, you want them.
Sliced super-thin, crisped up on a griddle with tomatoes and chilies, then stuffed into bread that's been toasted over coals, they're served with a sprinkle of oregano and dried chilies. Fatty, smoky, and crisp in the way that bacon is, but packed with sweet lamb flavor. They're all over the place, but Istanbul Eats has identified three that are conveniently close to Galata Tower.
Throw a stone in Istanbul and you'll hit a ocakbaşi, a kebab house specializing in meats grilled over smokeless coals, often served as platters with rice, ezme (a spicy ground vegetable salad made with chilies and tomatoes), sumac-sprinkled onions, and grilled chilies.
Honest truth: of the half dozen or so I tried, none weren't worth eating, but a few stuck out as the best. The folks at Dürümzade specialize in dürüm, a.k.a. wraps. Thin skewers of beef and lamb (Adana kebab), or better yet, chunks of lamb interspersed with chunks of crispy lamb fat, are slowly grilled over charcoal. As they finish, sheets of lavash are placed directly on top of them to warm through in their steam. They all get wrapped up with sumac onions and parsley, with a sprinkle of smoked chili, sumac, and salt. Knock it back with the little pickled hot peppers on the table, and a chug of ayran, a salty yogurt drink (I... prefer Coke).
For a different, more varied-take on kebabs, head to Hatay Has Kral Sofrasi, a Aksaray-district kebab house serving Southeastern Turkish specialties, including an awesome pistachio-studded kebab which you can eat in a dining room filled with the kind of artificial rocks and trees that put the Natural History museum to shame (really).
Like Adana kebab's shorter, stubbier, skewer-less cousin, köfte are little grilled balls of beef—often seasoned simply with salt—served with a few salads as a light snack.
Our favorites were from Köfteci Arnavut, a small, nautically-themed shop in the Balat neighborhood up the Golden Horn. The köfte themselves were great—juicy, charred, well seasoned—but even better are the side dishes of buttery rice pilaf and chickpeas seasoned with drippings from the köfte.
Fresh Pomegranate Juice
Living in a city where fresh pomegranates can cost a few bucks a pop, we ended up gorging ourselves silly on the freshly squeezed pomegranate juice you can buy from street vendors in season. For the equivalent of around 50¢, you get a few fruits-worth of fresh, sweet, bracingly tart juice.
Kaymak (Water Buffalo Cheese) with Honey
Imagine a ball of fresh mozzarella, a stick of butter, and a tub of ricotta triple-book the honeymoon suite on the Love Boat and emerge a few trips around the world later with a three-way baby. That baby's name is kaymak, and he is one of the most delicious things in the world. Sweet dairy flavor, richly creamy texture, with the faint tang of the best water buffalo milk, it comes served by the moist slab drizzled with honey, and it will haunt your dreams forever and ever.
We found it varied in quality quite a bit—served too cold out of the fridge and it can have a waxy, raw-butter texture to it. The best was at Van Kahvaltı Evi, where you can also jump in on the best menemen in town.
Cats are... not edible, but they are out in force all over Turkey. This one has pretty eyes.
Someday, all this will be mine, thinks this little guy as he looks over the Star Wars-esque landsape around Cappadocia.
This is not a cat.
Pide (Turkish Pizza)
The Turks don't do pizza quite the way the Neapolitans do, but they've got a version that's great in its own way. Dough gets stretched out into a long, skinny, canoe, topped with cheese and a variety of options (generally eggs, sujuk (Turkish sausage), minced peppers, or minced meat—sauce is a rarity), then baked in a stone, wood-burning oven.
Just as with pizza, the best are crisp-yet pliant, with a balanced toppings and a light crumb structure. And just as with pizza, quality can vary significantly from shop to shop. I found that the best way to determine whether you're gonna get good pide or not is very much like finding a good pizza shop. You just have to look for certain clues.
A wood-burning oven that dominates the space is a good hint. A place that seems to focus on a small number of toppings, with a single person whose sole job it is to stretch and bake them is another sign you're in for pide glory. Finally, look for shops that specialize in them. Many tourist restaurants will have pide sections on the menu. Ignore them and look for places that have only pide on the menu.
I'm a big fan of all dough-wrapped-little-boiled-or-fried things, and the Turkish version of manti are particularly good if you love dumplings and want a whole lot of them—they're about the size of your fingertip (this makes me wonder how small the fingers of the folks folding them are).
Filled with a half thimble-ful of ground lamb, then boiled and topped in fresh yogurt and chili oil, they come served with sumac, chili, and dried mint for sprinkling.
Dondurma (Turkish Ice Cream)
Are you a fan of chewy ice cream? The frozen, custard-y type that New England ice cream shops do so well with? Because I sure am, which means that dondurma, the ultra-chewy, ultra-stretchy Turkish ice cream thickened with orchid root is right up my alley. Somewhere between ice cream and bubble gum, it's work to eat. Delicious, delicious work.
There are a huge variety of böreği in Istanbul, essentially any pastry made made with layered phyllo dough that is either baked, boiled, or fried. Su böreği is a large, round cake made with layers of boiled dough and cheese before being baked. It comes out something like a savory noodle kugel. Sigara böreği are fried cigar-shaped pastries stuffed with cheese, potato, and/or meat (check out our recipe here!.
The version above is stuffed with cheese and bastirma, the Turkish version of pastrami (or perhaps pastrami is our version of bastirma), made by curing beef with a spiced, cumin-spiked crust.
You'll find simit vendors on every street at all times of the day, selling these sesame seed-crusted rings of bread for the equivalent of about a U.S. quarter. They've got a light, crisp crust with a hint of smokiness, and a tender crumb that is a near taste-alike for a New York street pretzel (I secretly think they're made by the same multinational twisted-street-breads conglomerate). The tastiest thing in Istanbul? Nope, but they're sure good for tiding you over between the morning menemen and the mid-morning pide.