Istanbul Street Food

Gourmet Ansel Mullins made a little taste tour through Istanbul’s streets and shared his impressions with us.

If New York is the city that never sleeps, then Istanbul is definitely the city that always eats. There is an ironclad cultural bond between this city’s streets and its food. From the sweet to the savory, from morning to night, traditional snacks are seen, smelled, heard and, of course, tasted on nearly every street corner of the city. Istanbul memories of a quick snack from a pushcart before boarding the Bosporus ferry are often just as vivid as those of a visit to Topkapi Palace.

On a foggy winter morning in Beyoglu’s backstreets, the call of the itinerant sahlep vendor can be heard long before his pushcart comes into view carrying a shiny brass samovar filled with the piping hot sweet drink. Just listen for the vendor’s call, “Sahhhhhlep!”

It is hard to pass through Taksim Square without at least noticing, if not indulging in, a couple of islak burgers, mini-hamburgers doused in a garlicky tomato sauce and sold from a group of tiny kiosks at the top of Istiklal Street, the pedestrian artery of the area. Istanbul street food is at its best in bustling shopping areas like Istiklal, where the street food defines the time of day along the boulevard. In the morning, workers on their way to the office form long lines at carts selling overstuffed breakfast sandwiches. Later in the day, another cart shows up, selling içli kofte, a regional delicacy of spiced ground beef and walnut stuffed in a small football-shaped shell of cracked wheat that is then deep fried. Towards the evening hours, you can come across a chestnut seller at every step and taste their delicious ‘kestane kebap’. Late at night, when the revelers hit the town, young boys hocking stuffed mussels from trays jockey for customers at the entrance to the historic fish market just off Istiklal.

In the pedestrian-only backstreets of Ortakoy, which boasts a masterpiece Ottoman era mosque, sweeping views of the Bosporus and an endless supply of interesting shops, the main attraction seems to be the vendors selling kumpir, or baked potatoes with everything imaginable on them.  And just as the kumpir is symbolic of Ortakoy, the mere mention of Eminonu brings to mind balik ekmek, the area’s iconic fish sandwich. Sold from colorfully ornamented dockside boats, a fresh half loaf of bread is fortified with a grilled filet of bonito and topped with onions and a spray of lemon juice.

But no discussion of Istanbul street food is complete without a tribute to the ubiquitous simit, a crispy circular bread with a sesame seed coating. Simple, affordable, delicious and readily available, this icon of Istanbul street food has even proved popular in the home of the bagel, New York, where a couple of Turkish bakeries are now sharing this Turkish street food favorite with the world.