ISTANBUL, TURKEY — I told friends that the food was half the reason we planned our trip to Istanbul. That was a lie. It was probably somewhere around 97.5% of the equation.
Whereas the culture, the history, the art of Istanbul are a conglomeration of the world story, the food is the one thing that is definitely and religiously Istanbul’s own. Mention Turkish food and most people immediately think Kebab. Doner kebab, shish kebab, kofte kebab. And while the kebabs here are good — I’m sorry, stab-your-neighbor-for-the-last-piece amazing — the food goes so far beyond those meaty little morsels.
So forgive this post — it’s not going to give you that “I came, I saw, I conquered” traveler’s epiphany that we usually strive for — in fact, I’m going to give up on narrative all together. This is pure, unadulterated, unapologetic food porn. Istanbul style.
First off, the whole essence of Istanbul is thoroughly designed to keep you hungry. All the time. Beyond the endless kebab shops on every corner, all around town are these gentlemen selling roasted chestnuts from tiny, wheeled carts. Even if you’re not a fan, the smell of sweet-tangy roasting chestnuts wafting throughout the city gets your mouth watering immediately — and continuously.
As if that weren’t enough, the open air markets here are not only plentiful — generally a major market in every neighborhood — but amazing in their range. Fresh fruits, vegetables, the absolutely the freshest damn seafood of all kinds pulled straight out of the Bosphorus and Black Sea, spices, nuts, olives — dear god, the olives! — everything fresh, dazzling and utterly tempting. My biggest regret is we didn’t have the time or means to buy bags of groceries in one of these markets and make a dinner of our own. We were sure to sample treats to go, however, whenever we ran across a market.
One of our only must-see destinations of the trip was a little no-name kebab shop that Tony Bourdain had visited on his trip here. He visited on a lark as a place to grill up some offal he had bought at the market, but said that the kebabs they prepared here were the best he’s ever had. Hence, we had to go.
Dubious directions on Google maps had us hiking down a near 75-degree grade of a hill in what — we would later come to find — were the city’s Greek slums, targeted for demolition. After hiking down this greasy, dirty street and not finding our destination, somehow we struggled our way back up the hill — hungry and defeated and fully prepared to grab a doner on the way home. As a stroke of luck, we took a shortcut back to the main drag and nearly fell into the place we were looking for all along — Donerzade.
This gut-busting experience was one of a kind. The chef and owner, watching us hem and haw over our order, offered instead to fix us a mixed platter of a little bit of everything. What came out to our table 20 minutes later — causing the eyes to pop out of the heads of the slack-jawed tourists who followed us in — was a Brontosaurus size platter of chicken, beef, calf’s liver, kofte meatballs, fried beef tallow, the best damn chicken wings I have ever had and fresh tabouli salad — everything sprinkled with sumac and steaming hot.
Oh, and then came the bread. Dear lord above, the bread. The secret to this joint was cooking the meat over smoking coals, slowly fanning the embers to make the meat pop and sizzle. After every turn of the kebab, the chef would dab the meat onto paper thin slices of pita — the end result after 20 minutes of cooking was not just tender juicy kebabs, but pita bread soaked in the utter juicy goodness that otherwise would have been lost to the flames.
I told you this was pure food porn.
The platter was twice as big as our heads combined. And when they took it away, only a couple scraggly bits of liver and fat remained.
Istanbul’s religious and traditional roots don’t necessarily make it a nightlife Mecca — but there are a few strips of smokey bars and clubs that serve as the city’s late night pleasure playground. What is epic about the nightlife, however, is the street food you mash into your mouth as you stumble home.
First and maybe the most concerning are the touts on EVERY corner serving up fresh stuffed mussels. It looks like salmonella city, but these plump morsels are actually fresh as can be — pulled straight from the Bosphorus — and stuffed with a savory-sweet blend of rice, onions, raisins and cinnamon.
But the battle over the stomachs of drunken Istanbullis is waged by only two heavyweights: the infamous Istakal ‘wet’ burger and the most unholy baked potato you’ve ever seen, the Kumpir.
What is wet about the ‘wet’ burger you ask? Everything. This isn’t your average quarter pounder, but instead a small, slimy meat patty stuffed between two buns and absolutely soaked with a ragu-type sauce. Sounds gross? Only until the fourth or fifth go sliding down your gullet.
The Kumpir, however, is the main draw for stomach and eyes. Taking a near-mutant-sized baked potato, your guide to gluttony slices open and then mashes the potato flesh inside the skin with a heaping spoonful of butter and a handful of cheese. Then the work begins; you choose between nearly two dozen ingredients to top this behemoth — including everything from olives to pickled cabbage, shredded ham to canned peas. The result is about eight Thanksgiving dinners in one massive bite. And it’s delicious.
We tackled both and it’s difficult to draw a winner. The wet burger is easy for the run, but the Kumpir packs a punch that will keep you full until dinner the next night. Except for us, we still had half a city to eat our way through.
Because of Istanbul’s prime location on three major bodies of water — the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara — you can only imagine that the seafood options are stupendous. The only problem is that everyone knows, so the rows of fish restaurants that line the Galata Bridge are generally overpriced and without character.
So, why not just go straight to the source? We got a tip to check out the fish market on the Galata shore of the Golden Horn. Sharing the docks with commuter ferries, this wet and wild open air market offers anything you want that the sea could offer. And tucked between the vendor stalls are several little pop-up restaurants — little more than a few plastic picnic tables and a grill out front.
You plop yourself down in a chair and they bring photos of the day’s catch — nevermind shipping tuna from halfway around the world, this is the freshest seasonal choices you could ever find. We poked our grubby little fingers at a few selections and were delighted when the waiter came back with fresh grilled prawns, a pile of tiny horse mackerel and some sort of large seabass.
As usual, we feasted; picking our way down to the last bones. The sound of fog horns and fish mongers adding the soundtrack in the background and the cool, salty breeze coming off the Bosphorus — an ambiance that not even the finest fish restaurant in the world could come close to replicating.
Needless to say, we did not leave Istanbul hungry. And though we no longer can taste the spices, sniff the roasting chestnuts on a chilly day or pick our way through blocks of the open-air markets, somehow the memories still linger on our tongues.
Hey, and there’s always room for dessert.