Dave Stelfox sets out to fulfil a long-held desire to sample as much as he can of the tantalising array of Turkish cuisine sold at the city’s streetside eateries
Istanbul, bite by bite
To many people, the mention of Istanbul evokes images of the Grand Bazaar, Ottoman architecture and the surging waters of the River Bosphorus. For me, though, more than a decade living in the heart of Turkish East London has fired a passion for the country's cuisine. Spurred on by trays of barbecued quails in Dalston and stewed lamb shanks in Stoke Newington, I have long imagined a culinary adventure in this city of 13 million people, one in which I walk through its many neighbourhoods, sampling street food everywhere I go. Now, on a cloudy September morning, joined by a friend from my old neighbourhood, this epicurean journey has finally become a reality.
Standing in Sultanahmet against the imposing backdrop of Hagia Sophia and the domes of the Blue Mosque, the first thing that strikes us is the diversity of Istanbul's culinary treasures. Colourful carts hawk freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, crusty simit (the Turkish version of a sesame seed bagel) and roasted corn cobs. Meanwhile, hole-in-the-wall shops offer an array of kebabs, pide and lahmacun (varieties of Turkish pizza). After little more than an hour, we have hatched a plan to partake of as few sit-down meals as possible and as many standing up as our stomachs can bear. It's an idea born of pure gluttony, but the reasoning behind it is relatively sound: in order to get even the most cursory idea of Istanbul's street-food culture in the three days we have here, we're going to have to eat little and often, and walking everywhere will at least help to burn off a few calories.
Over cups of sweet cardamom coffee in a nearby cafe, we note down the dishes vital to our itinerary. First on the list is balik ekmek. Possibly Istanbul's most popular snack, this simple sandwich of grilled mackerel, lettuce and sweet onions can be found everywhere along the river bank. It is the ultimate convenience food and a testament to the use of fresh, high-quality ingredients - quick, nutritious and extraordinarily tasty. The first we try, purchased from a flamboyantly decorated boat near the Galata Bridge for the bargain price of four lira (Dh10), is so good that it secures its place as our breakfast food of choice. For the next three days, we eat it all over the city and, but for subtle differences in preparation, every one proves to be pretty much as good as the last.
It's a fantastic start, and the rest of our first day continues in a similar vein. Our initial wanderings take in a large swathe of the Golden Horn area, through the Grand Bazaar, past gun stores, carpet shops and men selling fake Lacoste and Ralph Lauren Polo shirts from battered suitcases. Over the course of the next nine hours we tuck into a well-balanced menu of starch, fat and sugar: sticky baklava from sparkling bakeries, greasy kokoreç (lamb offal) kebabs from roadside huts, roasted chestnuts, and kag¿t helva ice cream sandwiches near the Grand Bazaar are just a few of the delights we encounter. By 9pm, after a final obligatory doner kebab, we collapse in the armchairs of a nearby cafe, barely able to move. Maybe it's the many miles we've covered, maybe it's the fact that we've eaten six meals in less than 12 hours, but we're exhausted and beat a shambling retreat back to our hotel.
The next morning, after an unintentional lie-in, we meet for coffee on the roof terrace of our hotel, then set out again. This time, we head west to the Sultanahmet fish market. A vast space where weatherbeaten sailors do raucous business with merchants and restaurant owners, it's an apt location for the first meal of the day. The next stop, though, is the Spice Bazaar in Sirkeci, a fragrant warren of covered passageways filled with barrels of crushed red pepper, saffron and sumac. Although a little touristy now, it's still the best place in town to load up on exotic condiments and, in my case, an advance order of honey and pistachio-filled chocolates for a friend thousands of miles away.
By 3pm, with our respective shopping lists completed, it's time to take the weight off our feet. As we soon discover, there's no better place to do this than Sur Ocakbasi. Tucked away in the Fatih district, just north of Sirkeci, this unassuming diner is slightly off the radar - our taxi driver has to call for directions - but worth any effort it takes to get there. Even on a weekday afternoon, its two floors and outdoor seating are filled with loyal local customers, most of whom are ploughing into servings of its speciality: buryan kebabi. Despite the name's associations for English-speakers, this dish has nothing to do with chargrilled skewers of daintily chopped meat. It is, in fact, Turkish for whole sides of lamb, suspended on hooks and slow-roasted in a charcoal pit oven for a minimum of eight hours.
Having seen this restaurant featured on a recent edition of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, our expectations are high. When our plates arrive, they are surpassed. Served on pillowy flat bread, the meat is sweet, smoky, exquisitely tender. Accompanied by frothy bowls of chilled ayran (salted drinking yoghurt), it's the kind of food that kills conversation and makes you moan aloud with every bite. The addition of a rich yet delicately spiced pilaff (rice, chicken, butter, nuts and dried fruit, encased in pastry), a platter of zingy chicken wings and a crisp garden salad makes for an unforgettable afternoon, especially when the bill comes to less than 50 lira (Dh129).
Istanbul offers plenty of opportunities for equally memorable evenings, and few things arouse anything like the level of local passion that football does. Besiktas is the oldest of the city's three main teams, the others being Galatasaray and Fenerbace. Its ground, located on the European side of the Bosphorus, near the Dolmabahçe Palace, is also home to a crowd widely acknowledged as one of the loudest in the world. A game against the southwestern coastal side Antalyaspor seems like the ideal way to spend our second night. If our place in the stands is anything to go by, Besiktas supporters are also some of the friendliest and most welcoming around - a feeling that is only amplified by a 2-1 victory in the dying seconds.
The very last thing such sporting events usually offer is culinary satisfaction. But here, both before and after fixtures, the area surrounding the stadium becomes the site of a mass cookout, with numerous roadside barbecue stalls offering everything from grilled fish to succulent sucuk (paprika-laced lamb sausages) and spicy köfte (meatball) sandwiches. It's the perfect fuel for our walk down to Taksim, in the heart of the city's European side, to soak up the atmosphere as clusters of jubilant fans take over the streets and cafes well into the early hours.
In this most sprawling of metropolises, Taksim Square is the closest thing there is to a definitive centre. As such, day or night, it is unmissable in terms of street food. Like almost everywhere else, colossal doner spits sizzle on every corner and a bewildering selection of nuts and seeds roast over burning coals. Look a little closer, though, and it's possible to find something unheard of anywhere else in the world. Kizilkayalar, a stall on Istikal Street, is legendary for its "wet burgers" - meat patties in bread rolls, brushed with sweet tomato sauce, then left to sweat in an incubator-like glass box. They look worse than they sound, but given the roaring trade the place is doing I decide to take a chance. Sinking my teeth into the rapidly disintegrating bun, I'm surprised to discover that it's excellent. Piquant, stodgy and revoltingly messy, it's actually pretty close to being the perfect 2am supper.
Given that Istanbul straddles two continents, no visit would be complete without making the 1.50 lira (Dh4) ferry ride to the "other side". In our case, this means a final-day trip from Eminonou, in Europe, to Kadiköy, in Asia. Taking in the stretch of river between Galata Bridge and Topkapi Palace, then heading across the Sea of Marmara, the journey takes just 15 minutes. However, the difference between these sectors of the city is pronounced. Kadiköy is much more homely than historic Sultanahmet, the buildings less towering, the streets less congested. It is like the Brooklyn to European Istanbul's Manhattan, and its vibrant port area seems like a fitting spot to sample another streetside delicacy: midye dolma. Many guidebooks counsel against eating these giant mussels, citing pollution of the Bosphorus and potential food poisoning as reasons, but by our way of thinking, millions of Istanbullus can't be wrong. I buy two and scoop them out of their shells, one after the other. Filled with chilli-spiked rice and drizzled with lemon juice, they are a burst of sun and salt water, and at one lira each, well worth a little risk.
Luckily, I suffer no ill effects and we spend the rest of the day wandering the area's streets and alleyways. Across from the local office of the Türkiye Komünist Partisi, we see flatbreads being baked; on sidestreets banks of outsized pickle jars flank simit and watermelon vendors, and cafes line every pavement. Even more than the rest of the city, it's a riot of colours and aromas. Guneslibahce Sokak, a long, narrow and densely packed thoroughfare, forms the culinary heart of the area. Crammed with patisseries, vegetable stalls, vats of olives and artful displays of freshly caught fish, a brief walk along it is enough to get any appetite going.
With countless establishments at hand, the fact that our first choice - Ciya Sofrasi, a restaurant famed for its refined interpretations of regional Turkish cuisine - turns out to be booked solid for the evening presents little in the way of a problem. We opt instead for a smaller place opposite, without a discernible sign. As soon as we sit down, trays of cold mezze are brought, along with bowls of mercimek corbasi (lentil soup). Teamed with cold drinks, a tray of perfectly cooked shish kebabs and köfte peynirli (cheese-stuffed meatballs), fresh bread, salad and pickles, it's a formidable spread. As we sit, pleasantly sated, watching the young couples, groups of men and families around us, it strikes me that it would be impossible to live here and not fall in love with food. Istanbullus view eating as a source of joy, a shared ritual that provides not just sustenance, but a whole reason to live. In this respect and many others, it's a city of great taste.