In Venezuela (and perhaps in other Spanish speaking countries, although if living with a Spanish person for my year abroad has taught me anything, it is that Venezuelan and Spanish from Spain are two very different beasts), we have a saying that goes “barriga llena, corazón contento”, which can be literally translated to “full stomach, happy heart”. This is perhaps the final ingredient of why my trip to Istanbul was so spectacular: the weather, the sea, my friends, and food. All of the food. So much food.
My trip wasn’t intended to be food tourism, but looking back on it now that I’m in Amsterdam eating McDonald’s once again, food tourism might be the best way to label my time in Istanbul. Everyday we tried different local delicacies, most of it from street vendors. In the following article I will make a list of my top 6 cannot-misses if you’re eating in Istanbul.
1. Stuffed Mussels (Midye Dolma)
I get it, buying seafood from a guy on the street doesn’t sound like the best plan when it’s over 30 degrees outside, and you never see the mussels arriving, they’re kind of always just there, but believe me when I say that these little babies are a delight you simply cannot pass on. My friends and I tried these bad boys in restaurants as well as on the street, and the verdict is? Street. Cheaper and just as yummy, if not more! Depending on the size of the mussel (served in its shell, stuffed with seasoned rice, topped with a healthy squirt of lemon juice), this snack will run you anywhere between 0,40-0,80 TL a piece, although good luck stopping at just one! If you stand still for too long in front of the vendor’s little round table he will keep popping them open and into your hands (and you will regret nothing). While in Istanbul I had a couple of these every day, and I can only lament that I didn’t have a couple more.
2. Beef Wrap (Tantuni)
If you held a gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you how to find this restaurant again, although to be fair, my Turkish friends are also unsure how to get to this place. Basically, you need a wise food-sherpa to guide you through the winding Kadiköy alleyways to find this shop, but everything is worth it once you grab a seat and take a bite. The wraps in this restaurant (which is located across from a hairdresser with a picture of Brad Pitt on its front, you’re welcome for the hint) are unlike any I’ve had before. The dough of the tortilla was soft, the meat juicy and just spicy enough for my sensitive taste buds, and the cilantro gave it just the right amount of home-food taste my latina heart could ask for. Sounds simple? It is. But it is also a cannot-miss for sure. Find a sherpa, find a tantuni.
3. Rice Pudding (Fırın Sütlaç)
Rice pudding is a pretty universal thing: we eat it in Montreal, and in Venezuela, but I have never had rice pudding like the ones that seemed omnipresent in Istanbul. Super creamy, and just sweet enough to be a dessert but not so much you can’t finish one off all by yourself, this rice pudding stood out amidst all of the desserts we tasted in Turkey as my favourite. There isn’t any one place I would recommend for it, as it is a pretty common dish, but if possible try one in a restaurant as opposed to the ones sold in grocery stores, which are not as good.
4. Baked Potato (Kumpir)
In Canada, naive fools that we are, we eat our baked potatoes with nothing more than some butter, some sour cream, some chives, and if you’re feeling really adventurous, some bacon and cheese. A Turkish native could only shake their heads in disappointment. A real baked potato should be like the Kumpir, decked out in so many toppings, you can hardly see the potato. Olives, peas, salad, corn, couscous salad, sausage, cabbage, cheese, chili, butter, anything and everything you can think of! We got our Kumpir in Ortaköy, which according to our local friends is the only place to get the best Kumpir, although there are many shops there that sell them, so if you’re popping by Ortaköy, pick a place and pack away a potato!
We got our Baklava fix from Güllüoğlu in either Karaköy or Kadiköy, I can’t recall (I’m sorry, they sound too similar for me to distinguish, please don’t hate me, Turkish is a beautiful and varied tongue), but which ever side the shop was in, find it. I’ve had “baklava” in Montreal before, but I honestly wouldn’t feel right naming it Baklava without the quotation marks because that stuff does not compare. My friends and I went to Güllüoğlu and picked out four desserts to share, of which one was a Ramadan speciality with too much coconut for my taste, one was a delicious cake topped with fresh cream that I would recommend in a heartbeat if I could remember the name, and the other two were two plates of Baklava, one walnut and one pistachio. All of the desserts were incredibly sweet so I do recommend that you order some nice, bitter Turkish tea on the side, but the Baklava were the stand out sweets of my trip, with delicious street Lokma (Turkish donuts) trailing not far behind. Also, to settle a dispute, which do you prefer: walnut or pistachio Baklava? (Team Walnut forever.)
6. Homemade Fish and Rakı (Anise Liquor)
So this might be a cop-out sixth item since I know that most tourists won’t have access to a Turkish mama making fresh fried fish for friends (try saying that one three times fast), but fish and Rakı is about as traditional a Turkish meal as you can get, so I stand by my choice. Go to a restaurant and order as much if no local Turkish mother is at your disposal, but don’t forget to bring friends and share your troubles over the Rakı, and come up with solutions as the liquor flows!