Good food speaks for itself on the streets and along the alleyways of Istanbul. Or rather it needs no person or thing to speak for it. Garnish, dressings, unnatural flavourings … these are foreign concepts to the Turk stoking the fires of his drum grill
These meals are simple – in the absolute best interpretation of the word. Meals that hinge their fates on the freshness and tastiness of their core ingredients. They are also some of the best meals you can expect off the cobblestones of the historic city.
Street food can be a meaningless term in a world saturated with Netflix documentaries on the idea. But today let’s agree that it is anything served either out of a cart or from a grab-and-go hole-in-the-wall. Food you can enjoy on a stroll.
There are, broadly speaking, three types of the former in Istanbul. The ubiquitous pretzel stands offer their wares plain and seeded, or decked with Nutella. Dessert men serve Halka Tatlisi – a syrupy sin best described as the offspring of an illicit affair between a South African koeksister and Mexican churro. There are stalls on every block that roast chestnuts and corn on the cob.
The true feast, however, lies in the innumerable kebab spots littered around the city. You can find them on any walk you take, marked by towers of glistening, turning meat. The cook will attack them with a long carving knife, adroitly slicing off crispy shavings. How you enjoy them – perhaps in a shawarma or mixed in with chips – is up to you.
Some bistros are a little more eclectic in their menu. Boiled tongue, it turns out, is delicious when served in what effectively amounts to a grilled cheese sandwich. As are Islak burgers – tomato-soaked steamed buns.
Pide can be found wherever there is a hot oven. These oval pizzas, with their cheese still bubbling, epitomise the city’s tradition of serving everything piping hot. And yes, there is no shame in enjoying a pide for breakfast.
Market stores, meanwhile, are havens for seafood. Corridors become gauntlets as the smell of freshly grilled fish, plucked from the Bospherous, assaults the senses from every angle. Mussels are gloriously plentiful too. They can be savoured full shelled with a wedge of lemon, or deep fried on a stick.
Good food in Istanbul is best discovered organically and spontaneously. But there are prizes worth hunting for.
Dürümzade’s reputation precedes it. In Western circles at least that is thanks to Anthony Bourdain, who visited the corner spot during a tour for No Reservations. The owners are exceptionally proud of this fact and have postered his image over the ruddy exterior walls. Inside, framed pictures capture his languid finger spilling over the outside stools as he enjoys a post-kebab Coke. Any tourist who has been will know what you’re talking about when you bring up “the Bourdain joint”.
But what so enamoured the man in the first place seemingly hasn’t changed. The squat seating and plastic tables dot the cramped, minimalist hollow. The open grill (hot coals instead of a rotisserie) is barely a wingspan’s length away from the cooldrink fridge on the other side of the room. This is the humble lair of what many, even savvy locals, believe to be the best durum in the region.
A durum is what we would call a wrap: toasted flatbread swaddling doner kebab. Lamb was the protein of choice in this case; joined only by roasted tomato, onion, and parsley in its crispy confines. The result is a first bite that pierces the inner cheeks. Still-sizzling fat travels the span of the tongue, swirled back and forth by the slightest of vegetable juices. The Turkish tortilla is a marvel all on its own, giving the perfect chew to counterbalance the satiation of the meat.
For as plentiful as these authentic eateries are, it would be a mistake to believe they are easy to find. The road to bliss is treacherous and laden with tourist traps; sub-par, overpriced restaurants that target poor palettes and easy dollars. You can recognise them by their portfolio menus at the door, promising not just local cuisine but an encyclopaedia of Western fast-food: from pasta and pizza, to burgers and chicken wings.
In some ways this challenge makes the culinary experience more satisfying. To live authentically the traveller has no choice but to immerse themselves at ground level; to embrace the sights and smells that lie around the corner; to educate themselves on local culture. Respect Istanbul and she will reward you exponentially.