Photos by Shantanu Starick
Istanbul’s street life is deeply interwoven with the city’s food culture. Each vendor has their own spot in the recurring rhythm of times and seasons; some roam the streets only in the cold season, like the sahlep carts with their hot samovars full of the popular creamy-sweet beverage, while others are staples of warmer days, like the cucumber sellers who serve their refreshing green produce expertly peeled and sliced, with a pinch of salt. It seems only logical that one of the best ways to experience this incessant rhythm is to wander around Istanbul’s alleys and avenues and literally eat your way around the city.
Istanbul’s iconic simit (circular sesame-crusted bread) is simultaneously an inexpensive morning staple for the city’s professionals and a popular snack during teatime. The fresher the simit, the crispier the sesame-covered crust and the fluffier the middle; so make sure to check with your simitçi (simit vendor) at what time they get their batch delivered each day. The crispy ring tastes even better with a selection of fillings; a favorite teatime simit comes with melted cheese as it is expertly placed into the filleted simit then lightly oven baked for several minutes. Over the years, simit vendors have increased their selection of fillings, which now include the likes of nutella, white cheese with tomatoes, olive tapenade, and more.
Poğaça / Açma
Poğaça, the soft and crumbly loaves of pastry made from light and crispy unfermented millefeuille dough come in a variety of mostly savory flavors from peynir (cheese) filling, to mashed potatoes, to kıyma (minced meat) to dill.
Açma, a buttered dough pastry, is a pillowy snack slightly on the sweeter side, with caraway seeds on top. Both pastry varieties are occasionally sold alongside the sesame-crusted simits and can be obtained fresh from morning to afternoon.
Çiğ köfte, literally meaning raw meatballs, no longer contain raw meat due to hygiene regulations. The now vegan bulgur mixture is kneaded by hand and formed into small, spicy patties. It is usually served with lavaş (thin dough wrap), iceberg lettuce, and nar ekşisi (thick pomegranate molasses). Its bright orange color hails from the tomato and pepper paste and various spices mixed into the bulgur base, most notably the spicy red and black pepper flakes from the southeast of Turkey. Traditionally, the first köfte is savoured immediately, wrapped in a leaf of green lettuce and sprinkled with a bit of lemon juice while waiting for the vendor to finish preparing the rest of your order.
Roasted kestane (chestnuts) may be traditional winter foodstuff in Europe, but here in Istanbul they are one of the most common street snacks. Turkey is one of the top three worldwide chestnut producers with an annual harvest of more than 60,000 tons, and it shows, with a vendor to be found every few meters or so on İstiklal Caddesi. A simple and delicious cold day snack, the chestnuts are roasted on a small hot plate integrated into the vendor’s cart, then left to cool down, or, if you prefer, served hot in a little paper bag for a few liras.
When visiting Eminönü, keep your eyes open for the lokma carts by the Spice Bazaar. These fried-dough delicacies, doused in syrup and sprinkled with ground pistachios can easily satisfy your afternoon sweet tooth, and then some. The traditional dessert is best enjoyed when freshly made, though make sure not to burn your tongue on the piping hot pastry.
For less than 10 TL you can get your hands on a real Istanbul classic, the balık ekmek (char-grilled fish inside a loaf of bread). Served with a salad of raw onions, tomatoes, and spicy arugula leaves, this snack is best enjoyed from one of the kitsch and flashy boats by the Eminönü side of Galata bridge, where a whole battalion of staff is operating the grills all year round to satisfy their crowd of hungry customers. Alternatively, you can visit the less opulent, yet still tasty, street vendors on the Karaköy side of the bridge, where the grilling takes center stage.
It is nearly impossible to miss the köfteci (meatball vendor) that sets up shop on Kadırgalar Caddesi as you walk down by Maçka Park. The fragrant fumes of his spicy char-grilled merchandise waft through the air and lead the way to his little cart which is always surrounded by multiple patrons of all kinds, especially during concerts at the nearby KüçükÇiftlik Park venue or the adjacent Lütfi Kırdar Congress and Exhibition Center. Served with a slab of salad between two halves of bread, köfte ekmek is the red meat cousin of the balık ekmek, available all year round.
Offal enthusiasts are well advised to give the acerbic and heavily seasoned kokoreç sandwich a try. Its filling is made of chopped pieces of spiced and fried lamb or sheep offal wrapped in lambs’ intestines. Traditionally more of a nighttime meal, it is cooked on a horizontal spit over charcoal before being finely chopped up and spiced with cumin and red pepper flakes, along with chopped tomatoes and parsley, and served in a loaf of white bread. This makes it yet another popular Istanbul street food served with bread (see balık ekmek and köfte ekmek.) Rumour has it that if Turkey joins the European Union, the streetside preparation and selling of kokoreç will be banned for hygienic reasons, a bleak future for some that inspired the production of a pro-kokoreç pop song some years ago by Mirkelam who declared: “Kokoreç, we just can’t do it without you.” Until then, Nazmi Amca (uncle Nazmi) is chopping up and serving kokoreç from his cart right below the Galata Tower, every day except Sundays, from noon to evening.
Late night eatsTaxi drivers know the city’s street food offerings like no other, and come nightfall they flock to Meşhur Unkapanı İMÇ Pilavcısı, Ayvaz Usta’s nohutlu pilav (boiled rice with chickpeas) cart by the picturesque aqueduct on Atatürk Boulevard in Fatih. If you can get your hands on one of his sought-after servings, enjoy this savory night snack with a cup of ayran (a salty yogurt drink).
Things to keep in mind when food cart hopping
- Don’t be put off by a grubby appearance, but avoid vendors with an obvious negligence for hygiene.
- Mussels are best enjoyed from a restaurant kitchen, not from a street vendor.
- When in doubt, go for the crowded carts. Many customers mean high turnover, short storage time, and fresher goods.