After spending the past few months enjoying the offerings of South America, I was excited to try some of the incredible food that Turkey is known for. I was lucky to have been put in touch with Ahmet, a friend of one of the guys I had met back in Buenos Aires during my day trip to Colonia. Ahmet lives in Istanbul and loves the food of his native land, so he was happy to give me a bit of a culinary tour of the less touristy area between Taksim Square and Galata Tower.
However, I also tried a few things on my own as well!
One of the first typical dishes I wanted to try in Istanbul was Manti. Dubbed "Turkish Ravioli" on tourist menus, the dish consists of little warm dumplings of pasta filled with meat, covered in a yogurt sauce with seasoning on top. The sweet-savory and hot-cold combination was lovely, and the meal was satisfying in the way of all the best comfort foods. I tried this dish at the restaurant connected to my hostel - the Sofa Cafe, connected to Nobel Hostel - and was also treated to a plate of fresh olives and feta to snack on as I waited on my dish to arrive, the perfect light appetizer.
During our trips to the Cafe Meşale teahouse, I also sampled lentil soup - a light, rich broth surprisingly improved by squeezing a few drops of fresh lemon into it, the rich flavors highlighted by the bright acceding note of the citrus. We also sampled a typical dish of flatbread filled with cheese or a mixture of cheese, spinach, and potato, similar to a Turkish quesidilla! And during one of our bigger nights out at the teahouse, we dined on a sampler platter, full of grilled meats and vegetables, alongside a variety of dipping sauces for our flatbread.
My first stop with Ahmet was a spot called Hala, where we sampled Yuvarlama Çorbasi (Hala Soup), a rich, flavorful broth with tiny dumplings of wheat that were soft and chewy. Once again, we squeezed drops of lemon juice into the soup to brighten up the warm, rich flavors. We also sampled Içli Köy Köftesi, a sort of Turkish version of a meat pie / bun / empanada. This one consisted of boiled dough filled with flavorful meat, onions, and spices. It was absolutely delicious, and I spent the rest of my time in Istanbul searching for it on the tourist restaurant menus!!
Our next stop was Kasap Döner, Ahmet's favorite döner spot, and I could see why. I ordered the wrap version - delicious, packed with meat, tomato, pickled peppers, and oozing sauce, it was a perfectly filling sandwich, and one of the most typical "fast food" options in Turkey.
Venturing off the main thoroughfare, Ahmet showed me a clump of cafes hidden away from the bustle of the Istikal Caddesi. We sat at one called Cafe 1453, but there were half a dozen or so options with outdoor seating in the tiny plaza - beaches with cushions, tiny tables and chairs, and cozens of people packed in drinking midday tea. We ordered Turkish coffee - served in espresso cups, it's incredibly thick with notes of bitter, chocolate, and a touch of savory saltiness (a hint of pistachio). Being a black coffee drinker myself, I very much enjoyed the flavor! Afterwards, Ahmet gave me a genuine coffee reading, done by turning the cup upside down and letting the coffee grounds settle into an image, then reading the resulting image. Everything from where the grounds settle (how much falls out versus stays in the cup), to the number of drips coming off the cup, to the pictures formed by the coffee can all mean various things. It was definitely an interesting addition to the Turkish coffee experience!
Lastly, we stopped off at a juice stand near Galata Tower for a refreshing blend of fresh carrot, pomegranate, orange, grapefruit, and apple juices - all fresh-squeezed right in front of us! Not only was it wonderfully tasty, but one of the healthiest things I had sampled in a while!
While that was the end of my culinary tour with Ahmet, it wasn't the last of my samplings in Istanbul.
I had also heard great things about grabbing small bites of fried seafood around Istanbul, so I took the opportunity one day to sample some whole anchovies that had been battered and fried from a small streetside shop. They were a nice crunchy treat, especially with a generous squeeze of lemon over the top.
There are also plenty of tasty pastries to be found in the carts set up all around the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. My favorites were the ones resembling a cross between a pretzel and a churro, with a generous spread of Nutella inside! A warm, sweet treat, especially when it was chilly outside.
But while we're speaking of sweet treats, who can forget baklavah? The deliciously sweet combination of filo pastry, pistachio, and honey. I had gotten a recommendation to check out Karaköy Güllüoğlu for the best baklavah in Istanbul, and they didn't disappoint. The interior was reminiscent of Cafe du Monde, with mirrors, glasstop counters, jeweled light fixtures, and dark tables and chairs for patrons to sip tea and sample the baklavah. I ordered a sampler plate, quickly realizing it would be far too much for me to finish on my own! But the varieties were indeed delicious, and I ordered a second sampler to go to share with my friends in Portugal.
My final meal in Istanbul was a culmination of my gastronomical tour, a trip to Kiva restaurant at the base of the Galata Tower with new friend Muharem. We were able to put together a sort of sampler plate of typical Turkish cuisine. On our "appetizer" plate, selections including an herb and pomegranate salad, a bean salad, hummus, spicy bean paste, and fried falafel-like balls. On our "entree" plate, we sampled a variety of grape leaves stuffed with vegetarian and meat fillings; eggplant and peppers stuffed with minced meat mixtures; and a rich, flavorful minced meat covered in dough. To drink, we had a refreshing concoction of citrus juices and parsley that was surprisingly good.
Tea! How could I forget the tea? The Turks drink tea after every meal - typically black tea, though there is a tourist variety in a sweet apple flavor. If you're fortunate enough to visit the spice market, check out some of the more flavorful varieties, full of floral notes and warm spices, some of which are said to cure a variety of ailments or promote feelings of love, etc.
I mentioned the döner spot I visited with Ahmet, but there are dozens of them all over town. Typically one would order a döner in sandwich rather than wrap form, like the one below. They may include a mixture of vegetables and even fries if you're lucky!