Döner and Kebabs
Istanbul is a city of tremendous flavors, and it offers something for every, especially meat-lovers. In every district of Istanbul, not just the centers, you’ll find side-street vendors that locals will claim produce the best döners or kebabs found anywhere else in the city. Döner kebab just refers to the rotating meat on a spit, and the most common way to eat it is in a wrap called a “durum”. Another dish using döner is “İskender”, a dish which originated in Bursa but which has become synonymous with Turkish cuisine. Strips of döner ae laid over a bed of “pide” bread, and then covered with rich tomato sauce and melted butter, with a dollop of yoghurt on the side. It’s certainly filling but is also one of the country’s favorite dishes. But there are plenty of other varieties to try too. Every region in Anatolia has its own specialty, and it’s easy to find each one of these in Istanbul. Each variety uses its own sauces and set of spices, and has its own unique presentation, though they’re all made by cooking the meat on skewers. The most popular varieties are called Urfa and Adana, which are relatively simple kebabs, with Urfa being less spicy than Adana. Different kebabs use tomatoes, eggplant, garlic, mushrooms and many other ingredients in their preparation. Many restaurants in the city offer a range of varieties, so the only thing you can do is try as many as you can and see which you like best!
The cultural and historical richness of Anatolia is reflected in its desserts, and you’ll find all there is to try in Istanbul. Traditional Turkish desserts are often quite sweet and are probably not for those on strictly regimented diet. Many Turkish desserts feature syrups soaked into pastries, and while they are certainly delicious, sometimes they’re a little heavy. Turkish desserts using creams tend to be lighter. During the holidays around Ramadan, as well as birthdays and other special occasions, Turkish delight (lokum) is served, which is a gelatinous candy that comes in a variety of flavors including rose, pistachio, walnut, hazelnut and dozens more. Of the syrupy desserts, probably the most famous is baklava, which is made from 40 layers of incredibly thin filo pastry filled with crushed nuts and other tasty delights before a sugary syrup is poured over it. And if you like baklava, you’ll certainly love künefe or ekmek kadayıf, which are similarly indulgent. Künefe is made with sweetened cheese and covered with a generous ladling of syrup or rose water, whereas ekmek kadayıf is similar to a bread pudding, only with healthy doses of fresh clotted cream (kaymak) inside and on top. Profiterole, or chocolate-covered cream pastries, are another popular dessert. Other creamy desserts include puddings like Keşkül, kazandibi and aşure, which is made with whatever fruits happen to be in season. Aşure, is actually a dish that changes depending on the region, since it depends largely on the freshness of the ingredients to hand. If you visit Istanbul in the summer, enjoy some wonderfully sticky Maraş ice cream (dondurma), and wander through the halls of the Spice Bazaar where the colors and flavors of all the sweets on offer will make your mouth water.
The beverages available in Turkey only enrich what is already one of the world’s great culinary traditions. For example, when you try kebabs, the flavor of the meat is best brought out by the yogurt drink, Ayran. In the summer months, it goes down especially well with a handful of fresh mint thrown in. Şalgam is another delicious drink unique to Turkey that goes great with Kebabs. It’s a juice of red carrot pickles, salted, spiced, flavored with aromatic turnip (Şalgam means “turnip”), and finally fermented in barrels with the addition of ground bulgur. Similar to Şalgam, pickle juice is another popular drink in Turkey, one that you can buy from any local pickle seller, which are fairly common in the city. These drinks go particularly well with fish. Pickle juice can be made spicy – using the juice of pickled hot peppers – or not, and often pickled vegetables are thrown into the juice for good measure. Another Turkish drink you’ll come across is called boza. It’s a drink of fermented wheat, and is particularly warming in the winter months, served with a dusting of cinnamon and roasted chickpeas called leblebi. Salep is another delicious, creamy hot drink. Flour made from the tubers of a kind of orchid mixed with milk are the main ingredients, and it is a sweeter alternative to boza. Another classic Ottoman drink is Şerbet. It’s especially popular during the month of Ramadan and is made by boiling down fruits into a concentrate and adding water and sugar. Of course, perhaps the most famous Turkish drink is a nice frothy cup of Turkish coffee. It’s typically drunk plain or with one or two teaspoons of sugar and served with a piece of Turkish delight. In classic Turkish coffee houses, the coffee is flavored with a drop of mastic gum, which gives it a really unique aroma and leaves the slightest of sweet tastes on the tip of your tongue. Last but not least, the most popular drink in Turkey is tea (çay), which is grown in the Black Sea Region of the country and is drunk morning, afternoon, and night. It’s brewed in an unusual may, in two stacked kettles. Loose tea is steeped in the top one, as water boils in the one below. The strong tea is then poured into a glass, with water added to achieve the desired strength. Turkish breads, particularly simit (a sesame bagel), go perfectly with the strong flavors of Turkish tea.
As the name Circassian chicken (Çerkeztavuğu) suggests, this dish was originally a Circassian dish that made its way into Turkey from the Caucasus during the Ottoman Empire. It grew in popularity in Istanbul in the 19th century, and now it’s one of the staple mezes, or appetizers, on any menu in the city. To make it, shredded chicken is boiled and then mashed into a paste with crushed walnuts, olive oil, breadcrumbs, pepper flakes, garlic and salt. Some of the water from the boiled chicken can be added for consistency.
The natural habitat of turbot (kalkan) is in the Atlantic Ocean, though it’s also found on the shores of the Bosphorus and Black Sea. Turbot live primarily along the seafloor, using their ability to lie flat as a defense mechanism. The fish is in season during February and March, and it’s mostly caught during these months. It’s a very oily fish, and in Turkey it’s usually cooked on a grill (izgara), though it tastes excellent pan-fried as well. It’s a large fish that’s difficult to clean and cooking it at home is rather difficult. Some of the seafood restaurants on the Bosphorus cook turbot on a wood fire or in a tandoor (tandır) oven. It’s usually served with corn bread and Shepard’s Salad (çoban salatası) and is incredibly flavorsome.
Chestnuts (kestane) are roasted on the streets of Istanbul on an open stove, particularly on İstiklal Avenue in Beyoğlu and on the shores of Eminönü. Carts go around the streets roasting them right in front of you and serve them up in little paper bags. Most of the chestnuts in Turkey come from the town of Aydın on the Aegean Sea. Roasted chestnuts were a major part of the cuisine of both the Iranian royal family as well as the Ottoman Sultans. Chestnuts are so popular that in the Bursa region they produce their own form of candied chestnuts (kestane şekeri) – these can be found in various sweet shops in Istanbul. As you wander the streets when the weather turns cold in Istanbul, be sure to stop by a cart and warm yourself up with some freshly roasted chestnuts.
Kokoreç is one of the most popular street foods in Istanbul, and in the city, it tends to be seasoned quite heavily so it’s got a touch of spice to it. Traditionally it was sold on carts where lamb or goat intestines were cooked on a spit, though now specialty restaurants all over the city serve the delicacy. The intestines are grilled on a spit, then chopped up and seasoned with cumin, oregano, hot pepper flakes and other spices before being put into a warm piece of bread and served as a sandwich. Typically, the drink that goes best with kokoreç is pickled pepper juice, though the yogurt drink ayran goes well with it too.
Kumpir is a common dish in some parts of Anatolia, and its name comes from a Balkan word for potato. It grew in popularity during the 19th century when potatoes first came in large numbers to Turkey from the New World, and quickly they came to be mixed with more traditional ingredients. To make kumpir, a large baked potato is stuffed with butter, salt and cheese before it’s mixed with any or all of a range of ingredients, including cold cuts, corn, pickles and just about anything you can think of. It’s a cheap and quick eat, and it’s best known in the neighborhood of Ortaköy along the shores of the Bosphorus. There are many different stands there, each offering a host of different fillings to stuff your potato with, so when you head down to Ortaköy to check out the mosque, the sea, the cafés and the shops, pick up a kumpir while you’re there and see if you can choose the perfect balance of ingredients to stuff it with.
Sea Bass (levrek) is a fish found both in the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, which means it’s abundant in Istanbul. Bass enjoy cooler waters, and the fact that they’re not overly oily suits the palate of Istanbul residents. They can be steamed, baked, or brined, but in Istanbul, typically they’re first completely cleaned and split in two. Then, each side of the fish is covered in olive oil with a bay leaf on top and allowed to sit for 15-20 minutes. The oil works its way into the fish, and then it’s barbecued on a grill, which really brings out the flavor. There are countless fish restaurants all over Istanbul, so you’ll be spoiled for choice when you want to try this signature dish of the city.
Stuffed vine leaves
Stuffed vine leaves (Zeytinyağlı Yaprak Sarması) have been served since the days when Turkic tribes were still living in Central Asia. They’re made by stuffing vine leaves with rice, onions, and spices and are usually eaten as a meze appetizer. Most restaurants in the city will feature their own, though it’s known best as a home-cooked dish. First, vine leaves are pressed and put in a tin or a jar of salt water until they’re sufficiently soft, and then washed. While they’re waiting, rice, onion, allspice, raisins and pine nuts are crushed together into a paste. A little bit of this paste is placed into each grape leaf and rolled up into a parcel, then placed into a pot to cook. It’s typically served cold with lemon, though it goes well with yogurt as well. Different recipes call for different ingredients to be used, such as minced meat, diced meat, and a variety of different spices.
Book a flight to Istanbul and sample the delicious food. From kebabs to stuffed vines leave to Circassian chicken, there is something for everyone.