Feasting on Istanbul

13 05 2013

Turkish food is more than kebabs even though that’s what you’ll end up eating the most.  Why?  Well, because they are delicious.  I can’t imagine anyone struggling to find good food in Istanbul.  It’s literally everywhere.  Like every major city there are high end choices that will bust your budget, and there are street foods that won’t.  I tried to strike a balance between them, but ended up eating mostly street food.  Sure I had some full service restaurant meals, but the cost, taste, and convenience of street vendors made it just too easy to eat cheap and on the fly.  Besides, the money you save by eating cheaply can be put towards a couple expensive meals later on.

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Chicken kebab at Med Cezir.

Now I talk about research a lot, but researching food is one of the most important things one can do.  I couldn’t possibly take a trip with zero knowledge of the local flavors.  I mostly use Trip Advisor to find highly rated eateries, then I’ll make a list of places to dine but never fully hold myself to it (I refuse to be overly structured when I travel).  Trip Advisor also has several offline city guides that’ll allow any traveler to find restaurants on a GPS equipped smartphone without cel service.  I used the Istanbul guide several times to locate what I felt would be gastronomical wins for me.  Thanks to my planning, I had far more hits when it came to my dining experiences than misses.  So, let me point out the restaurants I’d recommend if you ever visit Istanbul.

  1. Med Cezir was just around the corner from my hotel and the place I dined the most, 4 visits to be exact.  I found the food to be simple yet delicious.  This place is not fancy, it was affordable and reliable, two things I look for in a restaurant.  The service was attentive and the manager enjoys a good conversation with his guests.  My favorite meals there were chicken kebabs and a spicy lamb pidé (something of a Turkish pizza without cheese).
  2. The House Café is located along the famed İstiklal Avenue pedestrian zone.  Their outside seating provides you with a great opportunity to people watch while dining on an eclectic menu of international foods.  So it wasn’t Turkish food, but it was still damn good.  I enjoyed one of their customized lemonades, delicious grilled chicken, and a pear salad.  Reviewers complain about the prices, but I always plan on eating a couple of expensive meals each trip and had no complaints here.
  3. Galata Meyhanesi specializes in mezes, Turkey’s answer to Spain’s tapas.  These little plates of deliciousness are varied and plentiful.  There is also live music and plenty of dancing to be had once the raki has taken hold of you.  Raki is a love or hate alcoholic drink flavored with anise, and since I have a taste for licorice, I found it easy and enjoyable to drink.  On that night, after only a few drinks, I surrendered to the Raki and danced the night away to traditional Turkish music.

    Typical Istanbul food cart.

    Typical Istanbul food cart.

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Slicing lamb for a wrap or pita.

When it comes to eating on the go, Istanbul is filled with tasty offerings.  Among my favorite was the tortilla-like wrap filled with chicken or lamb freshly sliced from a spindle.  They don’t offer much in the way of flavor, but they were hearty.  I was easily filled up for only 4-6TL.  Another favorite of mine was the bagel-like sesame seed covered breads that were sold from small red carts conspicuous throughout the city.  There are actually several types of cart foods one can enjoy in Istanbul.  Vendor carts selling corn-on-the-cob and roasted chestnuts were also quite common.

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Fresh squeezed pomegranate juice was a favorite of mine.

As for the need to quell my thirst, I couldn’t resist buying freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.  Honestly, I have never tried pomegranate juice before this trip.  That changed in dramatic fashion after my first cup, and with those little juice stalls everywhere, I seemed to always have it readily available.  Other prevalent drinks are tea and coffee.  Tea is tea, it’s served hot in a glass and saucer with a sugar cube.  Simple, yet delicious.  Turkish coffee is the more interesting of the two in my opinion.  Served in a small cup with saucer, Turkish coffee is sweet and strong.  The extremely fine ground coffee beans must be allowed to settle before you drink, don’t stir it or you’ll get a mouth-full of what can only be described as coffee mud.  Since you have to let it cool down anyway, time will allow the grounds to rest at the bottom of the cup.  I found it appalling that a country with such an amazing coffee drink was littered with Starbucks everywhere, blasphemy!  If you go to Istanbul and get a coffee at Starbucks then you are no longer my friend, you’ll be perpetuating a western coup of their traditional drink.

Trays of baklava tempted me from nearly every angle.

Trays of tempting baklava.

But I must say that my biggest culinary weakness in Turkey came in the form of layered phyllo dough and crushed nuts all soaked in a heavenly sweet syrup or honey, baklava!  Holy baklava, this stuff was staring at me from every window it seemed.  Calling to me, “come taste another variety and savor another blast of sweetness.”  Once I started eating baklava it became apparent I wasn’t going to stop.  My favorite variety contained crushed walnuts rather than the traditional pistachios, but that favorite was by a narrow margin.  I will never turn away any baklava!  I am all about treating them equally and with dignity right down to the last crispy and syrupy bite.  This desert ruined me forever, no baklava will ever compare to what I had in Istanbul.

Endless mounds of spice at the Egyptian Bazaar.

Endless mounds of spice at the Egyptian Bazaar.

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Turkish coffee served with a small square of Turkish delight.

A great place to pick up and sample baklava is the Egyptian Bazaar (also called known as the Spice Bazaar).  This place is filled with booths selling every possible temptation known in the region.  Dried fruits, nuts, baklava, spices, and even some cheeses are easily sampled and bought here.  Are the prices a little high, yes, but haggle and sample your way to a better deal.  What I didn’t get in the bag was made up for by what I managed to eat for free.

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Basil and pear lemonade from The House Café.

The Spice Bazaar is also a good place to find the famed Turkish delight.  This sugary confection is known for it’s varieties.  It’s not terribly sweet.  In fact, turkish delight has a refreshing light sweetness to it that won’t leave you running for insulin the way baklava can.  Funny, I didn’t eat as much of it as the baklava, but I enjoyed it thoroughly when given the opportunity.

A full month after returning home I still find myself yearning for the wonderful flavors of Istanbul.  One of the ways to extend my taste bud’s satisfaction was to bring some food home.  US Customs will allow prepared and packaged foods without problem.  Your only restrictions are fresh fruits, vegetables, and/or meat.  Knowing this, bought a few boxes of Turkish delight and baklava to share with my friends and family.  Nearly every shop, especially at the Spice Bazaar, has a vacuum pack machine and will gladly seal these items for free.  The best part, none of it requires refrigeration.  Baklava can last for about 7-10 days without refrigeration if it’s kept sealed, and Turkish delight can easily go a month or more.  It was a successful way to ease the withdrawal symptoms of my addicted taste buds.

Damn, here come the cravings again!  Does anyone know a place that serves quality baklava in Denver?

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