I’m from the states, and there, like in many other places, “foodie culture” is booming. People go to extreme lengths to search for (and make) the most creative, authentic, and quality food. Many people bring this obsession right along with them when they travel.
Istanbul, being one of the largest tourist destinations in the world, unfortunately has a lot of food catered to tourists. This is such a shame because authentic Turkish cuisine is so varied and unique. If you’re a foodie, or simply someone curious about the wonders of Turkish cuisine, then taking a day to do a “culinary walk” is a MUST. Istanbul Eats, an extremely popular local company, fills the English speakers of Istanbul in on the city’s best kept culinary secrets and hosts several different culinary walks. These walks are from morning to midday and include a knowledgeable guide who takes participants through small historic side streets to hidden gems you could never find otherwise.
I was lucky enough to participate in the Beyoğlu walk, and let me tell you, that was a solid five hours of gastronomic bliss.
First up: Breakfast. The first meal of the day in Turkey gives even calorie-bomb American breakfasts a run for their money. After the group met up, our guide led us to an unassuming tradesmen’s restaurant. The chairs and tables were made of fake wood and metal, which was a good indicator that they didn’t need any “glam” to lure people in - the star of the restaurant is the excellent homemade food. These “tradesmen’s restaurants” are family run business and are frequented by local working people (we were the only foreigners there for sure!). We were served the traditional tomatoes, olives, bread, and white cheese along with menemen (Turkish eggs scrambled with tomatoes and peppers) and something truly mouth watering- bal kaymakli. This dish of rich clotted cream with thick, flavorful honey stole the show.
At the end of the meal we were served a special herbal tea made with oregano!
Culinary walks do, unfortunately or fortunately depending on your point of view, include some walking. In order for us to prepare ourselves both physically (meaning digestion) and mentally for our next food adventure, our guide took us around the winding streets of an old residential neighborhood. What was great about the walk is that not only did our guide know everything about the food we were eating, but had a wealth of knowledge about what we were seeing outside the restaurants. After stopping at a breath-taking view of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, we were ready for some more!
The term börek encompasses a wide variety of pastries that are usually eaten in the morning. We sampled one with meat and excellent spices, one with spinach, and one that was “wet” like noodles and had cheese in it. These pastries are made in huge sheets by layering thin pieces of dough and filling. Making börek is truly an art; you can’t get the good stuff just anywhere. We stopped at a place that had borek in the title, so their fare was obviously spot on. We sat on the street on little plastic red stools and dug into this perfectly buttery, flaky, and savory morning treat.
While continuing to wander through hidden neighborhoods (including a street full of antique shops), we stopped a couple times before lunch. Once was for pickles. In Turkey they pickle everything! Literally. Everything from lemons to whole heads of garlic to cabbage leaves could be found at this shop.
Another snack - and the most daring food adventure of the day - was sheep’s head! Outside butcher shops, there are little stands that I never noticed before. From these stands, you can order a cooked sheep’s head (yes- the entire thing) and a man will carve it for you right in front of your eyes. I won’t get too much into the details, especially for the vegetarians out there, but let’s just say I had no idea so many parts of the head were edible. I, myself, tried the brains. Verdict: Squishy and fatty, and mostly tasted like the delicious spices that had been sprinkled over everything before being served. So, pretty good!
At lunch we found ourselves again surrounded by only Turkish locals. This restaurant was special because it served fare from the Black Sea region. Many tourists in Istanbul don’t realize this, but Turkey is huge and extremely varied! This means Turkish cuisine is rich with regional specialties which get missed by most travelers. Our Black Sea dishes included the famous hamsi (sardines) and rice, as well as several hot vegetables served with yogurt. That sounds weird to most westerners, but I promise yogurt makes a great sauce.
Even though we had been pacing ourselves all day, we were full by now. However, when we walked into a traditional old sweet shop, our stomachs made a little room. The place was filled with fresh, glistening baklava, turkish delight, and cakes. We were served the very traditional and heavenly quince with clotted cream. The quince had been cooked with sugar until it was soft, and the flavor was sweet and just slightly tart. The clotted cream, again, was spectacular.
Finishing up our tour, we relaxed and chatted over traditional Turkish coffee. The coffee grounds are boiled with the water and sugar to produce a thick, dark cup o’ joe. It was served in a cute espresso-sized porcelain cup, and believe me, that’s all you need for a pick-me-up. I’m not a huge coffee drinker, but I loved the Turkish version’s rich flavor.
All in all, this tour was wonderful. I found spots that I would have walked right by otherwise and tried dishes I would never have picked for myself. I got a true look into authentic Turkish cuisine while also walking the less traveled streets of historic Istanbul. Also, our guide really made the tour. Everything we ate was so much more special when we knew the story behind it, what region it came from, and (because we can’t speak Turkish) what exactly was in it. For those passionate about food and who want to dig deeper into Istanbul than the average tourist, visit Istanbul Eat’s website and book your tour! RIGHT NOW.