It won’t be incorrect to begin this post by saying “Istanbul eats on its streets”. I am not sure whether there is a global headcount of which city has the most street food vendors or which city has the greatest variety of street food, but, if there is, I am sure Istanbul would be a strong contender for the top spot in both categories. As expected of Istanbul, there is a lot of meat served as street food by its vendors, so much so that most people who have never been to Istanbul believe that there is no other street food which exists in this city of 13 million plus. Let me begin with featuring what all this city eats and drinks with a declared bias towards fresh/vegetarian stuff over and above the Kebaps and their kind. Of course, I have covered some of the meats too.
Famous Istanbul Street Foods
Let us begin with “Vitamins” – yes, that is the street call for pomegranate juice which is served by hundreds, maybe even thousands, of vendors in Istanbul. It is sold just about everywhere and its price varies from 1 TL to 10 TL at most places. 1 TL would get you average quality/size of pomegranates squeezed and served in a 150 ml plastic glass and TL 10 would get you a 300-400 ml glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice in a restaurant bang on Istiklal Caddesi. For the uninitiated, Istiklal Caddesi is arguably the most popular avenue of Istanbul. This guy was selling almost 250 ml for 3 TL behind New Mosque on the side lanes of Egyptian Bazaar.
Gigantic Pomegranates are freshly squeezed in front of you.[/caption]
Kestane Kabap or roasted chestnuts is the most popular street snack in Istanbul. It is important to make sure that they are not undercooked. The best thing to do is to ask the seller himself whether they are fully cooked or tell him that you prefer fully cooked over undercooked ones. Some sell them by weight, but most sell them by size of the paper bag which holds them. Many roasted chestnut sellers have licensed carts issued by the city of Istanbul, but a few do manage on makeshift unlicensed carts. The Sultanahment, Taksim Square and Grand Bazaar area have numerous carts selling fresh and hot Kestane Kabap. Eating while window shopping is a very good thing to do!
They decorate their carts and make each chestnut look like it is a trophy waiting to be grabbed.[/caption]
Some people have a sweet tooth; I can say all my teeth have this weakness and it is not limited to one single tooth. I had never seen Macun or Osmanli Macunu as it is locally called, but by this vendor’s manner of selling I could make out that it has to be sweet. Needless to say, if kids are waiting in a queue and it looks like candy, it has to be candy. Macun can be termed as a lollipop which is constructed for you, in front of you, and you may have an opinion on what all goes into making it. What makes for a tasty Macun? The choice of herbs for making all these different sugary portions, a stick which can hold the weight, say about 30-50 grams of the sweet candy and an experienced Macun creator or curator as you may like to call him.
It is supposed to be a fresh herbal candy. Fresh, yes for sure. Herbal can’t say.
Street food & delicacy don’t go together. Street food is generally associated with functional food which is reasonably priced and can be quickly consumed without much fuss. Expectations are fairly limited from street food when it comes to measuring its exotic index. Istanbul is different and so is stuffed mussels as a street food. Yes, what you see is stuffed mussels and this gentleman is one amongst hundreds who are associated with this trade.
The way mussels are displayed looks unique but it is definitely not an exquisite way. Exquisiteness comes when you split them open, make a spoon out of the loose shell and dive into the stuffing of rice, raisins and herbs so delicately made and packed together.
Aromatic Stuffed Mussels is original to Istanbul.[/caption]
Busy streets, busier people, and strange looking bread – yes, that was my first impression about this bread and the initiation of my research into what it is and why it is so popular. Some people call it the number one street food in Istanbul, pegging it above Kestane Kabap, I am not sure which sells more on the streets. I am sure that Simit, as this strange looking bagel is called, is consumed far more than Kestane as it has a huge consumption beyond the streets too. Simit is a sweet bread which is covered with sesame seeds and gets its sweetness as the raw bagel is dipped in molasses and subsequently baked. It is crunchy and can be had just by itself or with condiments or tea.
I like the way their carts are designed and I like the way locals take personal interest in ensuring that their sandwich is perfectly perfect. Fish sandwiches are fairly popular and it won’t take more than a couple of minutes to locate a vendor who is doing brisk business in this trade, in all the busy markets and tourist places of Istanbul. Balik Ekmek, as locals call it, is all about freshness and flavor. A good fillet of fish marinated with herbs, freshly grilled and packed with salad in sandwich bread, is good for dinner.
It can be filling and for a few TL more you can always tell him to add two fillets of fish instead of one and get a sandwich which beats anything Subway can ever serve, hygiene and all other aspects accounted for.
Banana, watermelon, melon, pomegranate and pineapple are street favorites. Some keep it ready, others just are waiting for you to stop, for them to go ahead and cut it for you, in front of you. Prices vary from TL 1 for a tiny pomegranate and move to TL 3 for a full helping of watermelon and pineapple. The convenience and skill of the fruit seller in chopping and presenting the food make for good business.
I met this pineapple seller close to Galata Tower. His focus was clearly on displaying his knife skills while ensuring that he can serve all as briskly as possible. Most street fruit sellers don’t negotiate. They have a fixed price and do business on that. I am not sure how they would react if I ask for say 10 slices but 1s and 2s happen without any discussions.
Is Doner Kebap the national dish of Turkey? Hmm… that is a tough one. I will say yes. Kebap, or Kabab as it is more popularly known, definitely is the way almost all of the meat is consumed in Turkey, and within the broader kebap way of cooking, doner kebap is definitely the most popular amongst all meat dishes. Legend has it that battle-hardened Ottoman soldiers brought this way of cooking to the cities. They would mince meat, mix it with other pieces of meat, season it and put it on a sword. They would spike the sword full of meat on the ground and light fires all around it. They would use another sword to take slices of the inverted cone-like meat pile as it got cooked. They would turn the sword in case the fire was not all around it. The act of turning has a word evolution from Turkish linked to the word doner.
The essential concept remains the same even today, though technology has taken over and a vertical fire pit with a rotisserie does the same trick, while the sword for shaving meat from the rotisserie has been replaced with an extra large knife. In most of the Arab world this form of cooking is popularly known as Shawarma. Doner kebap is rarely had on its own, usually a sandwich is made or it is served wrapped in a flatbread or is offered with a side of pita bread, with some more herbs, tomatoes and onion shavings.
If you haven’t had Misir/corn on the streets of Istanbul, you never went to Istanbul! It is just not possible to go to Istanbul during the months of February to October and not encounter boiled or grilled/roasted corn sellers on the streets of the city. Most pushcarts sell both, their cart is designed in a manner that it has a grill for roasting corn cobs and a pit for boiling them. Usually they keep a few ready and a few are works in progress. Most sellers make it a point to sprinkle spices and salt and squeeze some fresh lemon juice over the corn before serving it. Their prices begin from TL 1 and they can go as high as TL 5.
I was walking past Aksaray and suddenly all my senses stopped working, I have never seen anything like this as street food, never, nowhere in the world. I never knew that a rotisserie could be this big, and just for me to really understand the size there was a “normal” rotisserie right next to it. The taste of the meat, like pudding, lies in the eating and what a crowd this display attracted, tells me what a good eat this meat was.
He is all set and waiting for his next customer. Yes, popcorn sellers are a standard feature around tourist attractions in Istanbul. There numbers is not anywhere close that of other street food sellers and they don’t do very brisk business, but business they do. They are expensive too, it can be 5 TL for a bag, which is steep by all international standards. I didn’t see any locals eating it. There were two popcorn sellers at Galata Tower and between them they had a few customers, all international tourists. Where corn works for locals, looks like popcorn is only for visitors to this city.
In Istanbul, where there is smoke there is fresh food being cooked, that is how it goes. The rule holds good for streets which are just 6 feet wide and also for roads which are over 300 feet wide and have a tram/rail track too. Turkish Kofte, as the minced meat pies are called are a fairly popular roadside food in Istanbul. Kofte is positioned as a “to go’ food and is generally sold from pushcarts alongside Turkish yogurt and a generous helping of salad. Kofte is a very broad term and its usage is not limited to only meat based minced products, however most popular are minced meat based koftes only. Lamb and beef koftes are available almost everywhere where as chicken and fish kofte are not as popular.
Dried dates, figs, raisins and a countless variety of edible nuts make for an interesting “walk and talk” street food in Istanbul. dried nuts sellers are experts in the art of variable pricing, if 100 grams comes for 2 TL 400 grams of same potpourri can be for 5 TL. There are essentially two kinds of dry fruit sellers in Istanbul, one who do small retail and the second who do small retail as well as home retail. A typical small retail seller makes his packets from 1 TL to 5 TL, at times even 10 TL where as a home retail seller marks his prices by weight of the product you are buying.
This gentleman caters to locals taking for home and also to those who wish to eat nuts while they are walking up and down these interesting bazaars.
Only half of the packet/ paper bag contains nuts, the other half is just cleverly packed to give a false notion of big packet.
15 neat containers, lined in 5 rows of 3 each and each container has goodies. Peanuts with corn coating, almonds with a layer of caramel, rice puffs with a hint of sugar, roasted pistachios, shelled walnuts, mint flavored candy balls, spices coated dried figs – and the challenge is what not to eat. His offerings started from TL 1 and he was not swindling people, there were no prepacked packets with inferior offerings etc. You would find at least a couple at all places frequented by children. I spotted this man with his wares near the fountain between Sultanahmet and Hagia Sofia.
Melt? You will be surprised, this ice-cream lookalike dessert may need a fork and a knife. To call Dondurma a dessert is almost like calling a yogurt as an ice-cream. Of course it is sold as Turkish Ice-cream to less initiated or “looking like people from foreign land”. I loved its chewiness and texture, the one I had was rich with some spices which were complimenting the sugar and milk like a traditional Indian masala milk. There are quite a few flavors you can try and some can be really very exotic sounding – Dondurma with Baklava or Dondurma with double roasted nuts. As interesting as the dessert is the traditional costume of the seller, don’t miss that. If you can get in a dialogue with the seller, you would remember your conversation and dondurma for a very long time to come.
More to come…