Located on the Bosphorus Strait in Turkey, Istanbul is a major city with a mixture of modern and historic architecture. A visit to the Old City reveals attractive buildings from the many cultural empires that have influenced the city. The Roman Hippodrome can be seen in the Sultanahmet district of the city, along with many Egyptian obelisks. One renowned site in Istanbul is the beautiful Hagia Sophia, dating from the Byzantine era, with its 6th-century dome and a number of rare and beautiful Christian mosaics. The city also offers a variety of shopping experiences and excellent restaurants, serving traditional local dishes and international cuisine. While exploring the city, however, there is a variety of top street food you must try in Istanbul, Turkey. Scroll below to find out more about the flavors of Istanbul.
1. Açma (similar to bagels)
Very much like bagels and similar in shape, açma is a soft bread found all over Turkey. The bread is glazed and often sprinkled with sesame seeds. Açma is enjoyed as a breakfast bread or as a delicious snack all on its own. They are delicious–sliced in half and spread with butter and jam, or with cheese, and served with sliced tomatoes and cucumber on the side. They are perfect, hand-sized snack to keep the energy levels up while exploring the city.
2. Midye dolma (stuffed mussels)
Midye dolma is made from freshly caught orange mussels, stuffed with spiced and herbed rice, pine nuts, and occasionally, currants. Midye dolma is among the most common and popular street food in Istanbul and Izmir, due to their coastal locations and the selection of fresh seafood and shellfish available there. Midye dolma is usually sprinkled with fresh lemon juice to easily blend the spices and to stop the dish from becoming dry.
3. Tantuni (a type of Turkish kebab)
Tantuni consists of crushed lamb or julienne-cut beef dürüm, stir-fried with salt, pepper, spices, and cotton oil and wrapped up in lavas bread, along with chopped tomatoes, onion, parsley, and green peppers. This is one of the ideal street food to pick up and eat on the go. The dish originated in Mersin, Turkey but is now served widely throughout the country, including Istanbul.
4. Simit (similar to bagels)
Similar in shape and form to açma in number one above, Simit is a crunchier or more chewy circular bread, glazed with molasses and sprinkled with sesame, flax, sunflower, or poppy seeds. Simit is made from flour, yeast, water, and salt. In the USA, simit is known as “Turkish bagels.” Simit is served for breakfast with jam, cheese or ayran. Street vendors in Istanbul usually have a simit trolley or bear the simit on a tray on their heads, as pictured here.
5. Gözleme (flatbread)
Gözleme is a traditional flatbread and pastry dish made with unleavened dough, consisting of flour, water, yogurt, and salt. However, the savory flatbread can also be made from a yeast dough. The flatbread resembles bazlama, a similar dish, although it is lightly brushed with oil or butter, while bazlama is made without any fat. While it can be eaten as it is, the flatbread can be filled with ingredients, such as vegetables, meat, eggs, cheese, or mushrooms before being baked on a griddle.
6. Lahmacun (Turkish pizza)
Lahmacun is Turkey’s answer to pizza and consists of a thin, round piece of dough, topped with a variety of ingredients, including minced meat, vegetables, onions, tomatoes, and herbs. The dish is lightly spiced with cayenne pepper, cinnamon, cumin, or paprika before being baked in an oven. Those who prefer a good Italian pizza might find this version lacking, but it is delicious in its own right.
7. Çay (Turkish tea)
While exploring the streets of Istanbul, one can tend to get thirsty and the ideal refreshment is a cup of çay. While the term çay refers to all types of tea, it more commonly refers to Turkish black tea. As the tea contains little caffeine, it is considered to be the healthiest tea in the world. Besides being a popular social experience in Turkey, it is believed çay regulates the heart and blood vessels, meaning the drinker has a lesser chance of having a heart attack or a stroke.
8. Içli Köfte (Turkish stuffed meatball)
Içli köfte (also known as kibbeh) is a Levantine dish, similar to a meatball, but usually in a more oval shape. The dish is made of minced onions and bulgur wheat, stuffed with ground beef, goat, or lamb along with a variety of spices. The dish is shaped into patties or balls and is either baked or cooked in broth. The dish is also occasionally served raw.
9. Kumpir (baked potato)
Here is a familiar fast-food found anywhere in the world. However, Kumpir is a baked or jacket potato cooked Turkish-style. The name is believed to have come from the Croatian “krumpir,” meaning potato. The potato is baked until the skin is crisp and the interior is delightfully fluffy. Kumpir is served with a choice of different fillings, including butter, sour cream, a cheese similar to mozzarella, ground meat, or a tasty, savory gravy. Other toppings include pickles, Russian salad, sweetcorn, mushrooms, coleslaw, or kisir, a Turkish bulgur wheat salad.
10. Çiğ köfte (similar to steak tartare)
Çiğ köfte resembles the Western dish, steak tartare. The dish is prepared with raw meatballs and is popular in Turkish, Kurdish, and Armenian cuisine. Çiğ köfte is prepared with high quality, fat-free minced beef, kneaded with fine bulgur wheat, tomato paste, onion, garlic, and pepper, along with a mix of Turkish spices. With a higher awareness of food health these days, and ever-increasing regulations, some now opt for a modern, vegetarian version of the dish. It is said that meatless versions are often so authentic in taste, it is hard to differentiate from the genuine meat version.
11. Mısır (corn)
Mısır is Turkish for corn, or what Westerners often term corn on the cob. When sold as a street food, the dish is termed “közde mısır.” It is cooked on charcoal to give the scent and taste of smoke. Corn is also sold on the street as separated grains in a cup, served with mayonnaise, ketchup, spices, or pepper. Mısır ekmeği is a cornbread that is served in Turkey. There is often some confusion, as the word “Mısır” also refers to Egypt.
12. Kestane kebab (roasted chestnuts)
Kestane kebab (or roasted chestnuts) is served widely on the streets of Istanbul, where street vendors call out the name to attract buyers. The vendor first scores the chestnuts with a sharp knife to avoid them exploding on the grill and then adds them to a special pan that is placed over a fire to roast the chestnuts. The best places to find the chestnut vendors are in the Sultanahmet or Taksim areas of Istanbul, where they are required to purchase a license and a special red-and-white cart. However, in poorer districts, unemployed vendors are often seen selling the roasted chestnuts from their own, handmade carts.
13. Kokoreç (Turkish version of Scottish haggis)
Not for the faint-hearted, Kokoreç is Turkey’s answer to Scottish haggis and consists of seasoned offal (innards), wrapped in goat and lamb intestines. The offal includes hearts, kidneys, lungs, and sweetbreads and the dish is normally cooked on a charcoal griddle. While normally the delicacy is prepared in restaurants, there are often street carts selling kokoreç, where it is prepared on a skewer. Once the kokoreç starts cooking and bubbling, oregano and salt are sprinkled on the top. Once completely cooked, the dish is wrapped in paper, ready to eat.
14. Cağ kebab (meat roasted on a skewer)
Cağ kebab is similar to döner kebab, both of which involve skewered meat roasting on a large skewer as it turns. However, unlike döner kebab, which is placed vertically, cağ kebab is horizontally roasted in front of a wood fire. The meat used is normally goat meat or mutton and is left to rest for around 12 to 24 hours before cooking. Once cooked, the meat is cut into pieces and is served on lavash bread, with a side of chopped onion, tomato, and roasted green peppers.
15. Balık ekmek (fish sandwich)
Balik Ekmek is a popular street food in Istanbul and is a sandwich filled with a fillet of grilled or fried whitefish on half a loaf of Turkish bread. The fish is seasoned with salt, spices, and herbs and a little lemon juice. One of the best places to find this type of sandwich is on the waterfront on the Eminönü square, where it can be bought directly from a boat on which it has been cooked and prepared. Balik Ekmek is considered to be a signature dish of Istanbul.
16. Baklava (rich pastry dessert)
Baklava is a street food item, ideal for those with a sweet tooth. The rich dessert pastry consists of several layers of filo, dabbed with lemon juice and filled with chopped nuts, all held together with deliciously sweet honey or syrup. The dish is well-known in Turkey, as well as other areas of the Middle East, the Balkans, Central Asia, and Greece. This rich dessert is thought to have originally been Assyrian from around the 8th century BC. Baklava is often sold in shops in Istanbul, alongside the renowned Turkish delight.
17. Dilli kaşarlı toast (tongue and cheese toasted sandwich)
Getting back to sandwiches, dilli kaşarlı toast is a tasty combination of sliced smoked cow tongue and cheddar cheese. The sandwich is toasted on a Turkish bread roll or sliced bread and is often garnished with tomato or mayonnaise. The toasted sandwich dates back many years and originated in the Taksim area where students particularly enjoyed the snack.
18. Lokma (sweet pastry dessert)
Lokma is a tasty dessert, consisting of flour, yeast, sugar, and salt. The dough is fried in oil and honey or syrup is poured over it before serving. Salty lokma, however, is made without any sweetening and is considered part of the staple diet of Mongolian and Turkic cuisines. The sweetened version is also popular in Greece and it is believed to have originated in Greece or Turkey, while some believe it could have an Arabic origin. One of the best places to find lokma in Istanbul is next to the Galata Bridge, where vendors sell them as street food in plastic cups.
19. Islak burger (hamburger on a soft white bun)
One of the most popular street food items in Istanbul is the islak burger or wet burger as it is known. As with most burgers, the snack consists of a meat patty, usually made with beef, served on a soft white bun. So far, the islak burger sounds like a Western burger, but here comes the difference. When the burger is added to the bread roll, a garlicky tomato sauce is poured over it and the burger is then left to “sweat” in a steam box until ready to serve, hence the nickname “wet burger!” The burger is smaller than average and is usually so delicious, it is necessary to have two. They can readily be found around Taksim Square in Istanbul.
20. Pide (similar to pizza)
While lahmacun (number 6 above) is considered to be Turkish pizza, pide actually resembles it more, or can possibly be compared to quiche. The dish is made from a flatbread that is folded at the edges to easily contain a filling. The filling is traditionally Turkish peynir goat milk cheese, but they are known to be served with a spiced lamb filling or sujuk, a Turkish beef sausage. They are also occasionally topped with an egg. When served with cheese and spinach, pide is an ideal choice for vegetarians exploring Istanbul. On that note, it is not always easy to identify suitable foods for vegetarians and they are warned that even soups that appear to be vegetarian may be made with beef stock
Eat your way around fascinating Istanbul
Have fun exploring everything this Turkish city has to offer, with its historic architecture featuring Roman and Egyptian structures and the beautiful Hagia Sophia dating from the Byzantine era. If you get hungry along the way, be sure to experiment with some of the delicious and top street food you must try in Istanbul, Turkey.
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