Istanbul: Street Food

Give me your hand. I will take you to Istanbul. I can not put into words how it is over there; I can not convey all my feelings about it. Give me your hand. Don’t be afraid. You have to see, hear, feel, smell and taste everything I am talking about. Give me your hand. We will start with the street food. Food is never just nutrition in Istanbul, food is life.

Istanbul streets

Look, this is Istanbul. See all the people? It is not a rally or something; this is just a regular Saturday afternoon in the city. And there are no tourists here, either. They are all busy visiting the two thousand year old buildings in the old town. They will not come out of the area on the south most European side of the town, squeezed between the Bosporus and the Golden Horn, they will grab a McDo lunch and in the evening they will eat grilled chicken in their hotel restaurant. We will stay on the Asian side and start exploring from there.

turkish breakfast

This (above) is a proper Turkish breakfast. If you don’t have time for this, you could just grab a simit (below) and drink your tea later on the ship, when we go to the other side.

Simit vendor

DolmuşWhen I was a student, I used to live on the Asian side but my university was on the other side, a.k.a. in Europe. It was one of my (and my best friend E.’s) rituals everyday: Get a dolmus to the harbor, cross the Bosporus with the ship, get a bus to the campus. Crossing the straitWhich took two hours. One way. Everyday. The part with the ship is the most relaxing part. You can drink tea, eat your simit (in winter there is also another typical Turkish hot drink: Sahlep), and read the newspaper. Of course, we never had time for that, I think the hours I spent talking with E. on the ship would sum up to a year. Every morning, it was either the ship or hitch-hiking*. But that is another story (and what stories we have to tell!).

Corn on the cob 1

Corn on the cob 2

Corn on the cob 3Corn on the cob 4 After breakfast you might consider eating some corn on the cob. Hard to decide between these two guys. The cool one has the boiled version on offer, the shy one has grilled corn. As a kid, I loved the Sunday outings with my parents, it was the one opportunity to eat everything I saw on the streets, I would eat corn on the cob (both versions if I could getaway with it), later on some ice cream and top it all of with can erik, a green plum kind. No wonder these Sundays ended with belly-aches!


Where is the beef?

Oh, here is something you are familiar with. Hmmm, maybe not. Where is the beef? The pickle? Lettuce? Onion? Tomato? All these pre-made hamburgers are soaked in some kind of tomato sauce, which is so full of chemicals and flavorings that it just replaces all toppings. But, strangely, it does taste good when you come out of a disco or club at 4 in the morning and are starving. And it is fast.


Ok, let’s get a real lunch. This is as Turkish as it gets. Grilled köfte and green peppers (above), put between half or quarter loaf of bread on order, to eat on the go. You can have various toppings with it, usually onions and tomatoes. Köfte might be the number one food stuff in Turkey, the Turkish Wikipedia lists no less than 33 kinds and I could add three more myself. No Turkish picnic is complete without köfte. Or you could get a proper sulu yemek (below), but then we would have to sit down. “Sulu yemek”, literally “saucy food”, is the pillar of Turkish home style cooking. The omnipresent meze, which everyone first thinks about when Turkish food is mentioned, is for fun evenings, when you are going to eat for hours with friends and drink rakı (as you will see later). But after a long hard workday and the long commute home, all you want to eat is a nice plate of such a one-pot-dish which will be ready in no time. Almost always it starts with some chopped onions and tomato paste fried in oil, later vegetable of the season are added and just a little bit of stock or water. The resulting juicy dish is eaten with any or all of the following: rice, bread, potatoes, maccheroni.

Sulu Yemekler

Now is time for some afternoon tea or coffee. What better place to relax than a little café on the Bosporus shore, especially if there are two very interesting and yummy things to eat and such a view to enjoy? Let’s go to Kanlica, a part of town higher up the Bosporus, on the Asian side. There we can sit and relax, enjoy the breeze under the century old trees on a hot day and do some people watching.

The view

The first specialty is yogurt. Yes, you have eaten yogurt before, I am sure. But this yogurt is different. It is made with a different bacterium than what is common in Europe and USA, which makes the yogurt more set, slightly sour and with a unique taste. Usually it is eaten with powdered sugar. To learn of how this yogurt tasted to a German palate, read Sebastian’s post (in German).

Kanlica Yoǧurdu 1 Kanlica Yoǧurdu 2

The second specialty is ice cream with kaǧıt helva. Basically, this is a triple-strength wafer, spread with delicious ice cream and then folded over. A nice change to the ever same ice cream cone!

Kagit helva - dondurma

Now is time for some pre-dinner nibbles. How about some midye dolma? These filled mussels are perfect any time from dusk till dawn, especially as a stomach liner for all the alcohol when you are out bar-hopping. The mussels are shelled, cooked with a lot of olive oil into a pilaw, and then refilled into the shells. The vendor will re-shell them for you and serve so that you can eat them without getting your fingers oily. At 10 pieces for around 1 Euro, these are the perfect snack.

Midye dolma

Midye dolma 2

Or we could eat some kokorec if you feel adventurous. Just some to taste. One way to cook it is on a horizontal skewer in whole, the alternative is chopped while it is being cooked on a griddle. Pure music!

So, now we are ready for some dinner. Up to now we only did some grazing, now we can talk about serious eating. In the next post, I will take you to a rakı and meze laden evening.

* Hitch-hiking is dangerous everywhere in the world. At that time, there were special, informal, pick-up spots in Istanbul, where we students used to gather and get a lift. Everyone (well, almost everyone) knew what it was about and there was no danger for us, we were never alone, we were on lively city streets at all times. That said, there are always sick people and you shouldn’t hitch-hike anywhere in the world. If you are a tourist, you shouldn’t even think about hitch-hiking.

Read more: Istanbul food in “meyhanes”

42 Responses

  1. what a great post! thanks for inviting us to tour istanbul! i just LOVE the thought of the mussels… mmhh! oh! and a coffee in view of the bosporus must be amazing, too!

  2. Danke Hande! I’d be happy to have a proper Turkish breakfast most days (between us, I’d rather have this than a French one…), and a yogurt as well.

  3. Johanna,
    you are very welcome! So you are a mussel lover, too? I would show you a lot more with mussels if we ever visit Istanbul together!
    wow, I guess that is the highest compliment, coming from the most charming French person! The yogurt was really as good as I remembered it. But I have yet to try faiselle, still haven’t got hold of any…

  4. Wow! What a fantastic posting. Heading for Istanbul in the fall, and this has been doubly inspiring: first with the pictures and second with the suggestions. Yum. Cheers!

  5. i too am headed to istanbul and this post certainly got my mouth watering!

  6. What I would do for a fresh ear of bbq’d corn! The french don’t eat corn on the cob – they think it’s for pigs. I don’t care, it just means there’s more for me. Love the picutre of the opened mussel, I can almost smell it’s salty sweetness off my computer screen

  7. Peter, sknkwrkz,
    have fun in Istanbul and I hope I could help you a little bit with your food choices!
    Ms. Glaze,
    Funny everyone loves the mussel! You will all have to come with me next time. And, yes, corn on the cob isn’t very popular here in Germany, either. I don’t understand it!

  8. Wenn Du uns nicht schon persönlich von den Köstlichkeiten der Türkei überzeugt hättest, mit diesem Post wäre es ein Leichtes gewesen ;) Und was “Corn on the cob” betrifft – zumindest Oliver lässt dafür alles steh’n und liegen!

  9. Nicky,
    ich kann es nicht oft genug sagen: Ihr müsst einfach mal ein Urlaub mit uns planen!

  10. Ciao, I found your blog through Sigrid’s (Cavolettto di Bruxelles) and your pics are excellent – I hope to use it when I go to Turkey (probably in the near future!)

  11. […] was a recipe for simit, the savory sesame rings with just a hint of sweet. Simit is the omnipresent street food in Istanbul, and she seems to have fallen in love with […]

  12. there’s no word to describe what I feel for Istanbul I’m totally addicted I am diying when I am far from this city, the first time I saw it, the feeling I had is indescribable!!I thought it was a dream, it couldn’t be real, it’s magik ur eyes are watching everywhere everything around!!I want to live there it is my biggest dream!!I would give everything I have to be there…thank u so much for sharing with us these pics and comments ( very well written:))

  13. Hi,
    I’ve just come back from a week in Istanbul. Wonderful ancient builduings and great city. I also spent my time in beyoglu. a wonderful holiday even if a demonstration on sunday morning lin istikar caddesi let me really scared.

  14. zine, Saffron,
    glad you liked my favorite city. I have to go there soon, too, has been too long again!

  15. What a wonderful description of Turkish street food! I’ve got back from two weeks in Istanbul… your post reminds me so much of the flavors and aromas wafted up from the street foods.
    Thank you.

  16. Mariana,
    thank you for your nice comment. I love the recipes and explanations you put together at your site!

  17. i cant wait to go istanbul!! so excited im going this weekend with my school :D :D

    soo much history and culture!!!!!

  18. perfect:)

  19. radiyah,
    how was your trip?
    thank you!

  20. Hi,

    I just got back from Istanbul, and I must say… It was beatiful. To be honest I didn’t expect I would love Istanbul this much, for me, next summer will be Istanbul again!

  21. Selamlar,
    Enjoyed the article very much.
    I love Istanbul; culture-wise, food-wise…it is bursting.
    Easily one of my favourite cities in the world.

  22. Thanks, so useful;)

  23. Thanks. great job…

  24. çok güzel bir post. this is a beautiful little glimpse into istanbul food life. thanks for the post!

  25. EXCELLENT article. I am planning to visit Istanbul in a couple of months. I don’t visit to see but visit to experience. I hate doing touristy things. I try to do what the locals do. Your article is very informative for all of us so thanks again. I will be taking a printout of your article with me to Istanbul for sure!

    Akshay Chavan

  26. Wow, what delicious food! This is making me very homesick and very, very hungry. Istanbul is full of inspiration, art, culture and oh-so-delicious food!

  27. […] wunderbare Einstimmung war der Blog einer Freundin: Straßenessen in Istanbul. Außerdem haben wir ein paar Tipps von eben dieser Freundin bekommen und im Internet gefunden, […]

  28. Lovely post. I visited Istanbul last May and I loved it. I loved the streets of Istanbul, Istiklal street. The food is delicious, desserts too. The blue sea, the touristic sites…. I would definitely go back again. check my photos here and tell me what you think about it.

  29. […] midye dolma (stuffed mussels). I saw these on the streets of Istanbul, but I was too scared to risk spending my one week in Turkey sick from bad shellfish. Ahh I missed […]

  30. the best way to understand the people’s culture and find the best food is to mingle in the streets.

  31. wow, what a carnival of food and life in istanbul you’ve portrayed here! Do you often come back to the city?

  32. Thank you to remind me the incredible taste of this city!! If you don’t mind, I will post a link to this arcticle on my blog. –

    Keep it up!!

  33. Could anyone recommend a good breakfast place in the old city. I would prefer something local

  34. […] Istanbul Street Food – Blog […]

  35. Thank you so much. I want to try everything but as I will only have 6 days in June, I will have to plan carefully.

  36. I simply could not go away your website prior to suggesting that I actually loved the usual information a person provide to your visitors? Is gonna be back ceaselessly in order to check up on new posts

  37. […] Istanbul: Street Food « food vagabond. […]

  38. I went to Istanbul twice this year… the food was amazing, the smells were aromatic.. loved the buzz of the streets, borek in the morning, the mussels done street style, the meze, the kofte.. colud not fault the food….. cannot wait to return :)

  39. Wonderful blog you have here but I was curious if you knew of any community forums that cover the same topics talked about here? I’d really like to be a part of community where I can get responses from other knowledgeable people that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Thank you!

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