Nearly every street corner in Istanbul, Turkey, has a cart selling simit, Turkey's version of the bagel. // © 2014 Chanize Thorpe
Feature image (above): Doner shops abound in Istanbul, slicing thin strips of lamb, beef and chicken for sandwich filling. // © 2014 Turkish Tourism Office, NYC
A visit to the ancient city of Istanbul, Turkey, can be an exhilarating experience. From mosques to museums, travelers will learn how this city in the country that connects Europe with Asia manages to preserve its captivating and exotic culture while keeping up with modern advances.
One thing that has resisted modernization, however, is the city’s street food culture. Turkish street food is a culinary adventure for visitors and a way of life for locals, as evidenced in the many sidewalks chock-a-block with vendors hawking everything from simple snacks of nuts and popcorn to belly-filling grilled corn on the cob and kebabs.
Here are 10 of Istanbul’s most popular street foods and where to find them.
This is Turkey’s answer to the bagel, and there isn’t a street corner in Istanbul that doesn’t have someone selling them. These donut-shaped rings are baked, molasses-dipped and dusted with sesame seeds. Locals often grab one from a pushcart for breakfast on the run. If there’s enough time, they’ll sit and savor the pastry at Simit Sarayi in Taksim Square, along with a tulip-shaped glass of black tea.
Doner Kebabs and Durum
Most Istanbul visitors are familiar with the sight of lamb, chicken or beef roasting on a rotating vertical spit. Doner and durum sandwiches are made by slicing off thin pieces of the meat and stuffing them into a Turkish lavash bread, along with tomatoes, onions, peppers and yogurt sauce. Well-loved spots for doners are Donerci Sahin Usta, located at the entrance of the Grand Bazaar, and the no-frills Durumzade in the busy Beyoglu area.
Also known as a “wet hamburger,” you’ll find most people eating these cheap steamed snacks after a night of bar hopping — they cost around 94 cents each. A cross between a sloppy Joe and a White Castle burger, they are topped with a tomato-garlic sauce that’s messy but tasty. Islak is pretty much only found in Taksim Square, where Kizilkayalar claims to be the original wet burger masters. Their kiosk is on Siraselviler Avenue.
These fresh fish sandwiches are best when bought directly from the boats under the Galata Bridge by the Eminonu shore. Here, fishermen grill the catch of the day then sprinkle on fresh lemon juice and add garnishes such as lettuce, onions and a dash of salt and paprika before stuffing it into a baguette.
Many people call this flatbread topped with chopped beef, onions and peppers Turkish pizza, but a squeeze of lemon and parsley shavings give it a bit of twist. Fold it up like a slice to avoid spills. Halil Lahmacun in Kadikoy on the Asian side of Istanbul has been dishing out this crispy treat for more than 30 years.
Nearly every corner in the Old City has a vendor selling these saltwater black mussels on the half shell — they’re usually served with herbed rice and a lemon wedge. It’s a pretty cheap treat at about $2 for 10 pieces. These delectable bites are best when purchased from popular vendors in Taksim Square after the sun sets, as a hot sun and non-refrigerated seafood don’t mix.
This traditional Ottoman delicacy of multi-layered flaky phyllo pastry filled with either spinach, cheese, potatoes or meat is another breakfast staple for locals. Some sellers bake it, while others flash fry it for a crispy outer layer. It can be found at one the many food trolleys on the street, or at shops with “borekci” in their name.
You might call this Istanbul’s version of dirty rice. The seller’s carts have a glass cabinet filled with a mixture of savory rice and chickpeas. One can add boiled chicken, and most people sprinkle black pepper on top.
These skewers of spiced sheep’s intestines (pronounced ko-ko-rec) served with chopped tomatoes, green peppers and a piece of bread are wildly popular with the post-party crowd in Istanbul. Sampiyon Kokorec, in Beyoglu, is well-known for their clean and high-quality fare grilled over charcoal.
Turkish for “maize”, misir is corn on the cob that is steamed then lightly grilled and sprinkled with salt, pepper and other spices. Often a summer staple coinciding with the region’s growing season, misir is a travel-friendly snack sold by vendors lining the bridge atop the Bosphorus.
Culinary Backstreets offers cooking classes and walking tours of Istanbul’s street food options for those who prefer a guided approach. The tours are designed for all ages and fitness levels. A variety of walks are available, from a behind-the-scenes sampling of the eateries at the Grand Bazaar to an evening kebab crawl.