Food history is a fairly new topic in the field of history and examines not only what people actually ate in the past but also the culture and traditions that surrounded food. While tourists frequent Istanbul for the Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque they rarely realize the diverse food culture that can be experienced on the streets even today.
During the Ottoman period Topkapı Sarayı boasted 10 kitchens and a staff of 1,500. In 1669 the Imperial Kitchen spent 52.5 million dollars on food alone. One kitchen produced food exclusively for the Sultan and was equipped with “taste beforehanders” whose job was solely to test for poison. The Sultan also ate off of golden plates because it was believed that the gold would neutralize poison. Between the Ottoman past and the confluence of cultures within the city, Istanbul has a rich food history worthy of exploration. This is why I dedicated an entire day to a food tour that spanned two continents.
these little loves were napping outside our hotel. the little one fell asleep nursing!
Our tour covered the serious food of Istanbul: a mix of historical dishes and foods that real Turks eat everyday. We visited 11 restaurants and markets and tasted at least 15 different foods. It lasted over 6 hours! The tour is limited to 6 people and we were certainly lucky. The people we met were so kind and genuine! There is nothing like sharing delicious food in good company.
Our introduction to Turkish food required visiting the spice market and shopping for fresh ingredients. The spice market is 350 years old and is often called the Egyptian Market because in Ottoman times the spices were brought from India and Egypt. We visited specialty stalls and purchased local cheeses, honey, pastrami, simit, and olives. We then walked around the corner to an outdoor cafe with a spectacular view of the gardens and the Suleymaniye Mosque. At the cafe the chef fixed us eggs and sausage to compliment our market finds. The eggs are much more yellow than American eggs because in Turkey eggs can only be sold if they are a few weeks old, whereas in the US eggs can sit up to 6 months before being sold! You can really taste the difference, they are so much fresher. The sausage that is thrown into the eggs is packed with herbs and spices as well. My favorite part of the breakfast was the buffalo’s milk clotted cream with Turkish honey (which comes in flavors like pine nut and chestnut). The clotted cream was so smooth and just sweet enough, perfect to dip your simit into. Speaking of, simit is the Turkish street bagel that has been popular for 500 years. In the 15th century there were 45 simit shops in Istanbul. Simit is quickly dipped in molasses and then rolled in sesame seeds before baking. The goat’s cheese that we ate is actually fermented in the goat’s intestine which makes it extra sour. The Turks drink tea with their breakfast instead of coffee. In fact, the Turkish for breakfast is kahvaltı which means “before coffee”.
a spice stall in the market. this is history that smells good.
eggplant skins used to stuff vegetables into. these will come into play later!
figs in the spice market. figs are not grown in Turkey but Muhammad used them to break his fast so they are quite popular during Ramazan
buffalo clotted cream. not too heavy with just the right amount of sweetness. heaven on a simit!
Turkish kahvaltı: çay, simit, clotted cream, eggs and sausage, olives, pastrami, and cheese
After the Spice Market we crossed the Bosporus to the Anatolian (Asian) side of Istanbul to explore the local markets. Here we spent the rest of our day in Kadıköy. In Istanbul the historical sites and businesses are generally located on the European side and the parks and residences make up Kadıköy.
When people think of Turkey and candy they may think of Turkish delight or baklava. However the Turks are masters of sugar and their desserts are less one-dimensional. At the candy shop, called Lekevci Cafer Evol, they specialize in candied vegetables. We had a small plate of candied olives, eggplant, tomatoes, and walnuts, which were actually quite good! I liked the tomatoes the best. We enjoyed these on the street with a side of demirhind şerbeti. The Ottomans made their şerbet with 40 different spices for health reasons, but today it is made with only 20 spices. It is vaguely reminiscent of a cold apple cider. In Turkish culture it is customary to offer sweets to a guest, which led to the saying “let’s eat sweet and talk sweet”.
candied vegetables and demirhind serbeti
The sweets made us hungry for something savory! We walked through the market to a world famous restaurant that specializes inmeze or appetizers. This restaurant only serves forgotten Anatolian and Ottoman recipes and the menu changes daily. Our mezes were red pepper paste with walnuts, chard, smoked yogurt, and mashed fava beans with dill. This was served with a side of warm bread for dipping. Turkish food works best when you mix it all together, preferably with some type of bread or rice. We then dined on eggplant stuffed with rice and pomegranate and a dish of beef with sour cherries. There is a Turkish saying “food taste better with tomato paste made by a woman with big hips.” See, I was meant to be a Turk!
mezes. clockwise from top: fava beans and dill, smoked yogurt, chard, and red pepper paste with walnuts. the stuffed eggplant can be seen at the top right.
our lovely tour group! sisters Loretta and Angela (from New York and San Francisco) and husband and wife Nate and Beth from Arizona. of course Linden is here too!
Time for more sugar! This baklava shop has been in business for hundreds of years. We sampled three types of dessert and one that is unique to Ramazan. Each baklava contains 35-40 layers of philo dough and butter is spread on each layer. The baklava is specially cooked over a wood stove with oak which is supposed to bring out the ideal flavor of the baklava. The other desserts were made of shredded wheat and deep fried dough similar to a churro without the cinnamon. The Ramazan dessert is a form of rice pudding and is used to break the fast because it is very light weight. It is made with milk, rose water, coconut, and pistachio.
fried dough in all shapes and sizes!
the green dessert in the middle is just made during Ramazan
Our guide explained that if we ate some pickles it would increase our appetite. Pickles are popular in the winter time because the Turks enjoy eating their vegetables year round, even if they are a bit salty. This pickle shop opened in 1935 in a wealthy district where people could pay to buy pickles in a shop rather than making them at home like everyone else. The shop didn’t have any pickles like we think of them, but it was full of jars of pickled beets, strawberries, pineapples, lemons, carrots, pears, and watermelon! I only had the courage to try the pickled carrot and it basically just tasted like a salty carrot.
even pickle jars are protected by the evil eye
Some of the most beautiful things I saw were just at the markets we walked passed. Here are some photos.
the shop owner painstakingly arranges these cherries in rows each morning
remember that goat cheese fermenting in the intestines? here it is in action!
A few blocks down the street was an outdoor cafe where we ate sandwiches (for lack of a better term) and ayran. Ayran is a traditional Turkish drink that is a little hard to stomach! It’s a mixture of yogurt, water, and a significant amount of salt. I loved it! It’s surprisingly refreshing on a hot day like today. The mixture is about half foam and half liquid yogurt. I can’t remember what the sandwiches were called but they consist of parsley, tomato, and beef wrapped in a very thin bread. You squeeze lemon over the wrap, take a bite, and then eat an entire leaf of raw arugula separate from the sandwich. Then you take a sip of ayran and repeat! Everything nicely compliments each other and fits into the idea that everything on a Turkish table can be mixed and eaten together. I ate my wrap without beef and the cafe brought us another dish to replace the beef dish. This was even more delicious: beans blended with tahini and topped with tomatoes, parsley, and a hard boiled egg.
foaming cups of ayran and raw arugula
inside the wrap: parsley, beef, and tomato. this shop only minces their meat by hand!
We’re getting to my favorite part and I didn’t want to throw the rest of the post together and deprive you of all the tantalizing foods I wanted to discuss. We left off with the Turkish sandwiches, called tantuni, and the ayran yogurt drink. But the best is yet to come! Next stop: döner kebap.
At Bonfile Döner they make only one thing: döner kebap. They don’t even have a menu because it is made one way, from one rotating rotisserie, and when the meat is gone the shop is closed for the day. In lieu of a menu there is a place mat on each table that says şehrin en iyi dönercisi olmak kolay gelil or “it’s not easy being the best döner kebap in town.” The meat, which is entirely local and made of the best part of the cow, is marinated for 4 days prior to cooking. The kebap consists of meat layers which are roasted on a vertical rotisserie and shaved off when a kebap is ordered. The meat is then tucked between two pieces of flat bread, which are baked in the shop next door, and nestled amongst sliced tomatoes and peppers. Because I don’t eat beef I opted out of eating the kebap, but everyone on the tour agreed that it was one of the best things they had ever tasted.
döner kebap is made in sight of those passing by which entices them to come into the shop. in fact, this restaurant doesn’t even have a door
the menu. only döner kebap and some classic Turkish drinks
a peek inside
No, I’m not kidding. Raw meatballs. Well, the name is slightly misleading. These meatballs are made of bulgur, chopped onions, pepper, tomato paste, and spices, so no raw meat here! Raw meat balls were originally made with raw meat, beef to be exact, but in the summer heat people started falling ill so the meat was simply taken out of the recipe. The meatballs were actually quite disturbing. They were neither liquid nor solid so you can’t chew them or slurp them down. I gave one a nibble and then I gave up. The soup served alongside the meatballs was certainly more interesting. Our guide refused to tell us what it was made of until we sampled it, but he warned me that it was lamb so I didn’t take part. It turns out the soup is made of a sheep’s face. He explained that this meant the cheeks, lips, and tongue, but I wouldn’t be surprise if there was a little brain in there as well.
raw meatballs, which are neither meat nor ball
the soup wasn’t very photogenic
We are finally to my favorite part! I needed a full tank of energy to write this part of the post. If you don’t know already, I am an Ottoman historian and I just published a paper on the establishment of the Ottoman social sphere through the coffeehouse. Needless to say this was my favorite part of the food tour! Today the Turks consume more tea than any other country in the world and as a result the coffee culture has withered away. This is because after the world wars coffee was too expensive to import. Turkey has the perfect climate for growing tea so tea gained popularity. There was no hope of finding an authentic 16th century coffeehouse in Istanbul, but Starbucks hasn’t won over Turkey’s coffee drinkers. At least not yet. Prior to the trip I had read that it was nearly impossible to find a coffee shop in Istanbul that sold actual Turkish coffee as opposed to a latte or americano. However, this was entirely wrong. The markets of Kadıköy are brimming with coffee stands. Coffee is brewed on the street without a store front, so you order from a cart and then take a seat on the street. I must have seen twenty coffee stands on our six hour walk!
Here is a quick history lesson for you: Coffee originated in Yemen in the Sufi orders and was brought to Istanbul by traders Hakam and Shams in 1554. Within 15 years there were over 600 coffeehouses in Istanbul alone! So while coffee is not native to the Ottoman Empire, the Ottomans were the first to commercialize the beverage. So next time a fancy coffee shop tells you their French or Italian blend is pure and original, think again! In Ottoman Istanbul the coffeehouse was a place for Muslim men (and some women) to visit between prayer times. Today in the states our coffee culture is quite simple; we either run into a mainstream coffee shop to grab our brew as we’re running late to work or we meet at the coffeeshop to gossip with friends. Ottoman coffeehouses were more intellectually oriented. Turks attended the coffeehouse to exchange information in the absence of newspapers. The only place to sit in the coffeehouse was a bench around the perimeter, which meant that patrons were required to sit with strangers and converse. Topics could include anything from the latest news in Istanbul to heated debates on science, literature, and art. With the open floor plan patrons were encouraged to stand up and share their poetry in front of the group. Games like chess and backgammon were also offered. As you can see the coffeehouse was a multidimensional space in which individuals engaged in scholarly activities.
Although I brew Turkish coffee at home the drink was even more bitter than I make it. Turkish coffee is unique in that it is not filtered before serving. Rather, the fine powder is added to the water and this creates a thick, robust brew. It also means that sediment will collect at the bottom of your cup when you are done drinking. Traditionally Turkish coffee is served without sugar or spices, so that’s how I ordered it. You drink Turkish coffee in 3 oz ceramic cups (fun fact: this is where the name “China” comes from because the cups were imported from Asia.)
A modern development of Turkish coffee is reading the fortunes from the sediment left behind in the cup. This is not Ottoman but it’s still fun! Our tour guide took pictures of our cups after drinking and showed them to his mother, who is a coffee fortune teller. This is an actual thing that takes legitimate skills. He said he will email us the results in a few weeks!
small stands where Turkish coffee is made over charcoal on the streets
Turkish coffee is brewed in a cezve
Turkish coffee grounds for fortune telling (and my notes for this blog). if you read them the notes are going to look a bit weird, but it fits into a funny story that I will tell you when I get home!
some people opted for a steaming up of çay instead
We left the market and walked to a more cosmopolitan area of Kadıköy which was full of small businesses and more places to lunch. Our guide wanted us to try katmer, a pistachio filled dessert which goes perfectly with a glass of lemonade. Katmer is made by spreading out a sheet of philo dough, filling it with pistachio and buffalo clotted cream, wrapping it up, and then frying it in butter. I would venture to say that katmer is even better than baklava! The outside is crunchy and nutty from the pistachio coating but the innards are light and creamy. Katmer is served warm so it just melts in your mouth. We devoured them so quickly we had no idea how many we had eaten! Cold lemonade is katmer’s soulmate. Turkish lemonade is simply real lemon juice, water, and a little bit of sugar, which they make right in the shop.
this is what heaven looks like
This is our final stop! Istanbul is littered with ice cream shops, but Mado sets itself apart in its presentation and rare ingredients. Mado has been crafting ice cream in Istanbul for over 250 years. Each of their 30 flavors is made of goat’s milk and crushed orchid roots which gives it the consistency of frozen butter. The ice cream is so dense that it needs to be cut with a knife and fork! And I’m not talking about gently cutting into it, I mean desperately sawing at the ice cream until a chunk breaks free. I wish all of you could sample it, because Mado is in a category of it’s own, and now you can! In the next 10 years Mado is opening stores all over the world, in addition to the shops it already runs in Istanbul, Sydney, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and Bulgaria. Look for a store in New York City soon!
we sampled a plate of chocolate, vanilla, and pistachio. each flavor is tangy like goat’s cheese
attempting to cut it with a knife!
After 6 hours the food tour came to an end and we said goodbye to our new friends. With all that eating Linden and I decided to refresh ourselves by walking around the Bosporus. Until now I had no idea that there was a park that lines the entire sea! It was the perfect space to walk 6 kilometers and deconstruct our scrumptious day.
(This article originally appeared on Savor Istanbul and has been republished with permission.)