When I was asked to participate in a culinary press trip to Istanbul, I jumped at the opportunity. Istanbul has been on my travel bucket list for quite some time and one reason has been Turkish food. Therefore, it is apropos that I am writing this Istanbul food guide. It will tell you what & where to eat in Istanbul.
Although I was hosted by the Go Turkiye tourism board, all opinions expressed in this post are my own.
Turkish cuisine is multifaceted. It is a continuation of the Ottoman empire, but it has been influenced by Mediterranean, Middle Eastern , South Asian and Greek cuisines.
Turkish cuisine differs based on the area you are located. This Istanbul food guide will give foodies an idea of what to expect while visiting there. After spending time in Greece and the UAE, the food was familiar but also unique. Everything was fresh and full of flavor. During the entire week I think I only ate 1 fried item: calamari. Nothing was overly salty, rich, or greasy.
You will find an abundance of fruits, vegetables, and sweets in Turkish cuisine. I asked a local how they could eat so many sweets and appear so fit and healthy. I was told that the rest of their diet is so healthy it allowed them to splurge on sweets!
Turkish Breakfast (kahvaltı)
Since I mostly did “grab and go” at our hotel breakfast buffet, I was excited that we experienced a full Turkish breakfast in the Balat neighborhood.
Turkish breakfast consists of a large spread of different items served “family style”. Meze (appetizers) may be served, followed by heavier items. There may be cheeses, pastries, olives, eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, jams, breads, Kaymak (clotted cream), Simit (like a pretzel) and meats.
I love cheese and in Turkey there are over 190 cheeses! Tulum cheese is quite interesting. Although most Turkish cheeses are from sheep’s milk, Tulum cheese is made from goat’s milk. It is ripened in goat skin casing in a cave for about 6 months.
From the time I boarded my flight on Turkish Airlines, in business class, I was greeted with a tray of fresh juices. Everywhere you turn in Istanbul you will have the option to purchase freshly squeezed lemonade, pomegranate, cherry juice among others. And you can also order these in restaurants.
Turkish tea is delicious. I drank it several times a day. It is a black tea known as “Rize tea” produced in the Rize province of Turkey. It is served HOT in a tulip shaped glass called ince belli after meals or dessert and at the hammam. I brought 2 cans of this home (lol). It plays a large part at social functions as well.
Here is an interesting fact-Turkey has the highest per capita tea consumption in the world and an average of 7 pounds of tea consumption per person per year! They also rank high as tea exporters.
One could write an entire article about Turkish coffee. It is not only part of Turkish cuisine, but also ingrained into its culture and customs. In 2013 Turkish coffee was placed on UNESCO’s list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.
We had the opportunity to watch Turkish coffee being prepared step by step. It starts with finely ground coffee beans-any type but usually arabica-water and sugar to taste. These items are brought to a boil in a special pot called a “cezve” or “ibriki” in other countries. The small pot is made of brass or copper or less often silver, gold, or stainless steel. It has a long handle and a pouring lip. The cezve was specifically designed for making Turkish coffee.
When the mixture starts to froth, it is removed from heat and poured into small porcelain cups then served. The coffee is unfiltered, dense and has a strong and bittersweet taste. Turkish coffee is usually served with something sweet like a piece of lokum (Turkish delight).
Coffee grounds remain in the porcelain cups after consumption. The cups can be turned over in the saucer to cool and the patterns interpreted to read someone’s fortune. This is known as “Tasseography”. Members of the press crew on my trip had this done. I did not!
Turkish coffee is also part of wedding customs. When the bridegroom visit’s the bride’s family, the bride to be may place salt instead of sugar in his coffee. This is an etiquette test. If he drinks it without complaint, it shows patience and proper etiquette. However, in some areas it means that the bride to be is not fond of the bridegroom. Wow.
Raki is the national drink of Turkey. It’s an alcoholic spirit made from twice distilled grapes and flavored with aniseed. It is not usually consumed straight. It’s mixed with chilled water and topped with ice. This gives the drink a cloudy color which is why it is aka “lion’s milk”-the milk for the strong.
I did not plan on trying it since aniseed gives it the flavor of licorice. I am not a fan of this flavor. But I used a small amount of it in a drink during our cocktail class and it was delicious.
As many of you know I am a wine enthusiast with a wine certification: WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) Level 2. I also founded Culinary Travels which curates group tours to food & wine destinations. Therefore, I was excited to try Turkish wines.
There are 600-1200 indigenous grape varietals in Turkiye but only about 60 are produced. Some names to look out for are “Yapincak”, “Papazkarasi” and “Sultaniye”. “Okuzgozu” and “Bogazkere” are used to produce “Buzbag”. There are also international grape varieties like Chardonnay, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Gamay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The expression of these grapes will depend on the region and climate they are grown. The wine regions of Thrace, where Istanbul is located, produce 40% of Turkey’s wines. It is known for making crisp white wines. The wine regions along the Aegean coast near Izmir have Mediterranean climates and produce about 20% of the wines.
Most of the wines I sampled during our visit were dry wines. I had the “Buzbag” red blend, a dry Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend, and a Okuzgozu”- “Bogazkere” Syrah blend that was velvety, fruit forward with a long finish.
This was another favorite while in Turkey. It is NOT an iced dessert. It is a refreshing drink made of fruits, spices, herbs, and flower extracts. Think flavors of rose, hibiscus, pomegranate, tamarind, and spices.
Sahlep or Salep
This was very unique. Sahlep flour is made from the tubers of wild orchids. The tubers contain a starchy polysaccharide that is nutritious. The flour is used in drinks and desserts. In Turkey the beverage is made with hot milk. It is very popular during the wintertime, and you will see it sold on the streets in large gold tinged containers. It was thick, sweet and comforting. An option is to add cinnamon, currents, and nuts on top.
Interesting fact: The popularity and consumption of sahlep in Turkey has led to a decrease in the population of wild orchids. It takes 1,000 to 4,000 tubers to make 1 kg of flour. Traders are now harvesting wild orchids in Iran and Greece and exporting them to Turkey.
There is no other way to put this — we ate very well in Turkey. Several meals a day, including street food. Lunch and dinner usually consisted of 3 courses. Meze, main course, dessert with tea or coffee or beverage of choice. On my first night in Turkiye I was sampling the meze and getting full. I thought that was our main course. It was not! This is one of the reasons I am writing this blog post. To prepare you for Turkish dining and culinary customs.
Meze or Mezze
Consider these appetizers. They arrive family style and line the table from one end to the next. They are served in shareable plates and bowls and often served with bread. Although we had repeats, there was always something new. Something colorful. Different aromas and textures to explore. Examples of meze include hummus, babaganoush, yogurt dip, olives, Fava and roasted red pepper spread. At lunch or dinner, we enjoyed wine and Raki with this course.
For our main dishes we had fish, meat or vegetarian dishes. I enjoyed the grilled fishes and meats especially the sea bass. Lamb was the most popular meat followed by chicken and beef. Pork is not served since it is a Muslim country. Turkish meatballs may be ground beef or a mixture of beef and lamb. You may have kebab meat of lamb or beef as a main dish. There are other seafood choices as well. Our last night was spent at a seafood restaurant on the Bosphorus. Calamari, shrimp, and sea bass were served.
Desserts & Sweets
If you have a sweet tooth, expect to gain a few pounds while in Istanbul. ALWAYS save room for dessert. In the restaurants we had fruits and pumpkin topped with ice cream, semolina cakes filed with ice cream, fried pastries with fruit sauces for dipping, Kunefe-a sweet cheese pastry. Desserts are served with Turkish coffee or tea.
Other popular Turkish sweets:
Baklava dates to the Ottoman empire. It is a made up of several layers of filo pastry and nuts sweetened with honey or syrup. Baklava comes in different flavors with pistachio being very popular in Turkey. I also loved the chocolate flavor.
One of the most amazing experiences during our culinary tour of Istanbul was visiting a Baklava factory. We toured Karakoy Gulluoglu which has been in existence since 1843. Our team was able to watch each step of Baklava production being performed by master pastry chefs.
Speaking of flavors! Turkish delight comes in every color and flavor you can imagine. (see picture above) It is a gel made up of starch and sugar flavored with mastic gum, rosewater, orange, or lemon. The gel commonly has different types of nuts or dates. They are dusted with icing sugar and eaten in cubes. My favorites were pistachio and tahini. Even if you do not plan on eating Lokum, I suggest you peruse some of the finer stores that sell them. They are beautiful.
Turkish Street Food in Istanbul
Street food is part of the culture in Turkey and was part of our daily activities. Without even trying you will be able to try most if not all of these foods just by sightseeing and shopping.
Mussels aka Midye Dolma
Steamed mussels filled with rice (Midye Dolma) is a common street food in Turkey and Istanbul. Although I am not a fan of mussels, I gave this a try. The mussels were well-cooked, and the rice was well seasoned, so the combination was edible.(lol)
Imagine a flat bread pizza. I preferred it with just cheese, but it comes with toppings at well. Make sure it is warm!
Simit is a circular bread often compared to a pretzel but encrusted with sesame seeds. other seeds like flax seeds may be used. There are Simit stands all over the city which makes it a convenient quick snack. The “tahini” simit was a delight since it had a slight sweetness to it.
This is a type of kebab in which seasoned meat is stacked like an inverted cone and cooked on a vertical rotisserie. The cooked meat is sliced off from the outside. Typical meats are lamb, beef or chicken. This savory meat may be served with accompaniments on the table or as a sandwich. The sandwich form became popular in the 1970s.
Interesting fact: This way of cooking meat was developed during the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Greek gyros and Arab shawarma derive from this cooking method. And a sandwich form of Doner Kebab was developed by Turkish immigrants in West Berlin. There are now more Doner Kebab shops in Berlin than in Istanbul.
Grilled corn & Roasted Chestnuts
Like Simit stands, you will find street vendors selling grilled corn on the cob and roasted chestnuts. It was cold during our visit and the warm chestnuts were a treat.
Borek is savory pastry often made with filo dough and filled with cheese or spinach or meat. Served warm. One of my favorites.
A circular flat bread topped with mincemeat, fresh herbs, a squeeze of lemon, wrap then eat. This was filling!
Islak Hamburger/Wet Burger in Beyoglu
If you would like to try a hamburger head to this spot in Istanbul. This burger is made with mincemeat which is a combination of lamb with beef. It had ketchup as a topping. I did not try it so I can’t comment on the taste. Locals enjoy this is as a late night, after club snack.
Turkish/Dondurma Ice Cream
Turkish ice cream is made with milk, sugar, salep (see above) and mastic. Mastic is a plant resin that makes it chewy-Arab gum. Turkish ice cream tends to be sweet, creamy, and stretchy. The proportion of salep to mastic determines the texture of the ice cream. More salep makes harder/more dense ice cream. We sampled hard ice cream in the shop in which we sampled the salep. The chocolate flavor was tasty.
You may have seen the Turkish ice cream trick videos on Instagram. Well, funny story. After seeing it so many times on Instagram, I thought it was a common occurrence. Not so. I had not seen it for the first few days during my visit. I asked our Turkish guides about this. They said it may be seasonal and we were there in December.
On the last day I ran into ice cream vendors on Istiklal Avenue AKA Grand Avenue of Pera in the Beyoglu district. Finally! I was able to participate and get tricked (lol). Turkish ice cream comes in similar flavors of vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, pistachio etc.
Speaking of pistachios. I will end with this tip. In Istanbul if you are offered any foods, candy, pastries, soups, dressings or ice cream with pistachio, tahini, pumpkin, or pomegranate, just say yes. Trust me, you will not regret it!
Dr. Nadeen White is a "Blogger by Day, Physician by Night". She is an award-winning travel blogger, Amazon bestselling author and speaker. The Sophisticated Life Blog covers affordable luxury travel, culinary travel and wine. Her domestic and international travel guides gets people to the destinations of their dreams. So, if you are living the sophisticated life or desire to do so, this is the blog for you!