In its endless labyrinth of winding streets, Istanbul offers a world of opportunity, whether you prefer to blend in or stand out. It has long attracted migrants from around the world, who come here to seek their fortune or escape their fate. It is these people that make Istanbul what it is—a seething mass of lives entangled with one another, trying to stay afloat in this bustling city. While food is a very important part of cultural history, a taste of something familiar can transport us through time and space, and back into the arms of our family.
Text by Rhiannon Davies
Photos by Elif Savari Kızıl
When we think of Istanbul’s heritage, our first thoughts so often go to the Ottomans. But what made the Ottoman Empire so successful was the way that it absorbed different cultures, allowing people to retain their own traditions, whether in terms of languages, customs, or food. These days the Ottoman Empire may be a distant memory, but the distinct food cultures included within it live on, and many of them can still be found here in modern Istanbul.
While European cuisines might have shaped the swankiest restaurant openings in recent years, some of the best food is found in the more low-key eateries that originate from countries to the east of Turkey and belong to the immigrants, both new and old.
From Georgia: Café Niko
For a restaurant that has become a firm favorite of ours since the first time we found our way there(thanks to Istanbul Eats), this little eatery certainly doesn’t look like much. In fact, it looks downright alarming, tucked above a ramshackle teashop inside a long-distance bus station. But it is this bus station that is the key to its authenticity. Ingredients (and patrons) arrive directly from Georgia, bringing with them a breath of mountain air.
The first time we entered, a chainsaw was resting casually under one table, a muddy Georgian match was being shown on the telly, and a somewhat merry group of Georgian men were exchanging deafening insults in a good-natured slanging match. At once, we were transported to the wilds of the Caucusus, and a unique little country with exceptionally hearty food.
Café Niko’s cooks recreate these tastes over 1,000 kilometers from their homeland. The fist-sized khinkali (dumplings) should be eaten Georgian style, that arrive on the table in a steaming portion of 10. When they’ve cooled enough, hold the nubbin with your fingers or a fork and carefully bite a small corner. Then drink the juices out of this hole before chomping your way through the rest. In Georgian culture, the more you can eat, the more macho you are – demonstrated by the number of nubbins that remain on your plate.
Filling up on these, though, would mean missing out on some of the other Georgian specialties, like khacapuri (crispy, flaky bread filled and topped with melted Georgian cheese), ostri (a rich beef and tomato stew, topped with raw onions and fresh coriander), and lobio (thick baked bean stew). To be truly authentic, order a bottle of bright green tarkhuna (sparkling tarragon-flavored drink) to wash it down. Or for something a little harder, try the colorless chacha(Georgian moonshine), which may look like water but partly explains why all the other customers are so rowdy, so early! Küçük Langa Caddesi No.190, Aksaray
From Syria: Tarbuş
Like many other Syrian joints, this is a restaurant so authentic that no Turkish is spoken here. It caters to the many Syrian immigrants who have taken up residence in this very multicultural neighborhood. Located on a busy road, there’s a bustling open kitchen, a handful of tables outside, and a scattering more in a dining area on the first floor, where framed photos of Syrian cities attempt to set the scene, but all in all, it’s not much to look at.
Like so many of the best places, it is again the food that is the star of the show. If you’re heading there early you might want to try the fatteh (a warm bowl of soft chickpeas and crispy fried pita in yogurt, garlic, and tahini sauce) or the incredibly light, coriander seed-studded falafel with a tahini sauce served with whole spring onions and crunchy pickles.
In the evening, the place gets really busy (with a mostly Syrian clientele), and in the warmer months, it’s nice to sit outside and watch the diverse people of Aksaray pass by. Try the kibbeh labanieh (warm yogurt soup with small bulgur-encased spicy meatballs floating on top) or the chicken shawarma on kabsa rice (crispy marinated strips of chicken on a bed of aromatic rice, tinted yellow with saffron). There are many similarities with Turkish food of course, but the combination of spices used make it into something entirely different, which had our friend reminiscing with the first bite. Turgut Özal Millet Caddesi No.24/B, Yusufpaşa; T: (0212) 568 81 16
From Iran: Asuman
Between 546 – 330BCE, Persian control extended right across Anatolia, until Alexander the Great came along with other ideas. After the Ottomans had taken control many centuries later, numerous wars erupted between the Persian and Ottoman empires, the last one ending with a stalemate in 1823. Thankfully, the cuisines are a bit more harmonious.
Iranian food has many similarities with Turkish food, but can be much more aromatic, with the use of cinnamon, rose petals, dried lime, and dried fruit giving it a more delicate taste (not too dissimilar from what we think of as ‘imperial Ottoman cuisine.’) Asuman shines in the fact that it is both a cosy, friendly restaurant, and a shop stacked high with Iranian goodies.
Aside from the juicy kebabs and braised meats, try the tebriz köftesi(a large meatball made from minced beef and split peas, with a boiled egg, caramelized onions, walnuts, and dried fruits inside) ormast khiyar (a yoghurt, cucumber, and dill mix, prettily decorated with walnuts and raisins, or rice colored with saffron and studded with tart little barberries, fava beans, and currents, topped with rose petals.
Once you’ve found out what you like, you can then pop next door to the shop and find everything you need (including an electric Persian rice maker) to recreate the dishes at home. Atatürk Bulvarı No.158, Aksaray; T: (0212) 511 27 37
From Uzbekistan: Mantık Mantı
The central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan share a common background with today’s Turkey – populated by the nomadic tribes that travelled west across the Great Steppe, before settling in Anatolia. The traders and travelers that passed through these countries using the old Silk Road brought with them ideas, cultures, and cuisine from West to East, and back again. Today, Central Asia may not be known for its food, but it still has a few good specialties worth seeking out. One such dish has to be itsmantı (dumplings). Some form of dumplings can be found in almost every culinary culture, and the development and spread of them is a fascinating story in itself (something Çiya’s MusaDağdeverin has written about), but some argue that Central Asia is where they first originated.
Mantık Mantı in Kadıköy serves up traditional Uzbek manti(stuffed with minced meat), as well as more unusual varieties, such as purslane and walnut or potatoes and chickpeas – suitable for vegetarians. The large dumplings come served with separate pots of spicy tomato sauce, garlic yogurt, and a carrot salad. Our Türkmen waiter also told us that if you call in on Fridays, you can taste their Türkmen rice and vegetable pilaf. Finally, make sure to save some room for their desserts, like the honey cake with chocolate sauce.Mühürdar Caddesi Misbah Muayyeş Sokak 6/4, Kadıköy; T: (0216) 418 15 75
There are also a few smarter restaurants serving different ethnic cuisines, more suited to an evening out than the above suggestions:
Fıccın is one of the few restaurants in the city specializing in food from Circassia, a region of the Caucasus mountains sandwiched between Russia and Turkey, and an area famous in Ottoman times for the beauty of its women. Today there is a large Circassian community living in Turkey, many of whom retain a strong sense of ethnic identity and still prepare many of their traditional foods. Try the çerkez tavuğu (Circassian chicken), a creamy dish made with shredded chicken, puréed walnuts, and garlic, and drizzled with chilli-flecked melted butter and their namesake ficcın, a kind of flat, baked minced-meat pie. İstiklal Caddesi Kallavi Sokak No.13/1, Beyoğlu; T: (0212) 293 37 86
Located in the novel, if slightly bizarre Türk Dunyası Kültür Parkı(Turkish World Culture Park), this restaurant serves Uyghur cuisine, native to the ethnically Turkic Uyghur people that live in Central and Eastern Asia. It’s a real blend of Turkish and Chinese food, with some familiar tastes and some startling ones. The restaurant itself is quite large and has live music on special nights. Sit on the wooden patio and look out across the park, far enough away from any busy roads to be able to enjoy the peace and quiet; listen to the birds sing and step into a different world. Topkapı Kültür Parkı, Türk Dünyası Kültür Evleri No.6, Topkapı; T: (0212) 567 10 77
The Galata Evi has been open as a restaurant since 1999, in a stone building known previously to have been used as a British jail. The menu consists of dishes from Russian, Tartar, and Georgian cuisine with classics like borscht, stews, dumplings, and blini. On the second floor is a small music room where you can listen to live music (from the Crimean owner) after 8pm, as well as another larger dining space. There is a terrace in the inner courtyard for open-air dining. Galatakulesi Sokak No. 15, Galata; T: (0212) 245 18 61