Before visiting Istanbul, I had absolutely no idea what Turkish cuisine entailed. I was a little disappointed that the foodie in me had let this Mediterranean [or was it Middle Eastern?] style cuisine slip by with little notice.
Oh right! I have had a doner kebab. If you’ve spent any time in Europe, I’m sure you’ve heard of these doner kebabs as stands selling them have been becoming increasingly popular all over the continent. Who knows, I may have just had a bad experience, but I just couldn’t bring myself to believe that this cheap late night, low quality street food was a true representation of Turkish cuisine. There had to be more to it.
Considering I happened to be spending my first 24 hrs in Istanbul solo, visiting during Ramadan and had little knowledge of the Muslim religion or the Turkish culture, I figured the perfect way to welcome myself and get a bit of an introduction to the city [and its cuisine] would be a food tour.
After lots of research and drooling over food photos, I finally decided on Culinary Back Streets and their Culinary Secrets of the Old City tour. Woohoo! I was so excited to dive deep into Turkish culture, taste buds first.
Here’s an inside look my tour through Istanbul’s Culinary Backstreets!
The day started bright and early, as I made my way to our predetermined meeting point. When I arrived in the popular plaza right outside of Istanbul’s famed Spice Bazaar, there was no one else around, just the hustle and bustle of spice vendors preparing their stands for the day to come.
Was I in the right place? If only I knew how to ask someone directions. I looked down at my watch. Thirty minutes early. Duh. Of course I got there ahead of time. I’m not the type of person that misses a FOOD tour.
Oh well. I took a seat on a nearby curb and contently observed as the Spice Bazaar quickly came to life. Vendors hectically wheeled carts of merchandise towards their shops, hosed down the dusty walkways, and meticulously placed each and every product on display in hopes of attracting the mass of tourists in their direction. Mesmerizing … It wasn’t long until the rest of the group and our tour guide, Remziye, appeared.
Stop 1- Turkish Breakfast
Remziye introduced herself and promptly explained that we’d be starting off our tour with a Turkish style breakfast. We’d be making this first stop just around the corner, right outside of the Bazaar. Perfect. I came prepared with an empty stomach and presumably I was starving.
We proceeded through the outskirts of the already busy Spice Bazaar and came to a hidden quiet corner off the main bend. Waiting for us was a simply set, narrow table in what looked to be an abandon alleyway. I had no idea what we were in for.
We all took our seats and one by one Remziye began rhythmically pulling items out of a Mary Poppins-like bag. How did she fit all of this in there? Before I knew it the modest table in front of me was spilling over with delectable plates of assorted tastings.
Local men from a neighboring Turkish tea station kept our little glass teacups filled to the brim while Remziye explained each and every item in front of us and what specific part of Turkey it came from.
All self-control willingly went out the window.
Damn it Lauren. Get a hold of yourself. This is only the first stop. My brain and my stomach continued to battle until, inevitably, my stomach triumphantly took charge. I cleared my plate.
Ugh. Not again. I’ve been on my fair share of food tours, and you’d think I’d learned to pace myself by now. Wrong. Hopefully there’s a bit of a walk before the next stop ..
Want to know more about what was on my plate? I recently wrote: Kahvaltı, Turkish Breakfast
Stop 2- Lemon Lentil Soup
After eating what seemed to be enough food to last me the rest of our 5-hour tour, we continued on to stop number two. Eh, there’s always more room if you just believe.
We entered a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant and almost immediately a generous helping of soup was placed in front of each of us.
At a first glance, this soup wasn’t exactly, how do I put it, aesthetically pleasing. In fact, it pretty much looked like a big helping of creamy green baby slop. Here goes nothing.
Hm. Creamy. A hint of spice. I squeezed in the suggested lemon and proceeded to drench a slice of fresh crusty bread.
Yum.. This pea colored sludge is actually pretty damn good. You know what they say, looks can be deceiving.
Alright Istanbul. You surprised me with that one. What else ya got?
Stop 3- Baklava
Next up was explained to be a sweet desserty stop; an Ottoman Empire original, baklava.
Now, I may be new to the wonderful world of Baklava, I just had it for my first time this past year at a Greek Shop in Madrid, but what I tasted here wasn’t your ordinary baklava. Pistachio or walnut was the question? What? How could I possibly choose?! Phew, nope. We got to try both!
As we snacked on our syrupy little morsels of baklava, washed down by another cup of fragrant Turkish tea, another plate was delivered to the table. Really? More?
It was a steaming hot flaky pistachio pastry known as Katmeri. My eyes widened. It had just come out of the oven.
Ok. Just one more bite. Ok ok. Maybe two …..
Stop 4- Turkish Pizza
Next up: Turkish-style pizza. Yes! Pizza happens to be my anytime food. As in breakfast, lunch or dinner- bring it on.
Turkish pizza, or pide as they call it, is a traditional Turkish dish that resembles a sort of flatbread. It can be topped with everything from shredded cheese and fresh eggs to minced meat and chopped veggies. This cheap and simple street staple is found in restaurants all over Turkey.
We also had the option to try ayran, a cold salty yogurt drink usually served to accompany meat dishes in the summer. Yeah you read it right. Salty yogurt. I’m not going to lie, the first few sips of this foamy beverage were pretty interesting. Then it actually started to grow on me. Weird.
I was thoroughly pleased by my salty yogurt and doughy cheesy concoction, but that wasn’t what made this my favorite stop of the day. The credit there goes to the man behind the counter. His smile was completely contagious and he really seemed to enjoy every single moment of his pide preparation. He barely spoke English, but that didn’t stop him from communicating with each and every person on our tour. He even let me get involved and toss our pide into the wood oven. What a gem!
Someone once said, “Sometimes it’s not about the journey or the destination, but about the people you meet along the way.” Whoever that was, was right.
Stop 5- Turkish Delight
After a bit of a needed walk, we entered what looked to be the hardware section of the Grand Bazaar. We passed by store after store of specialized tools, appliances and home goods. What on Earth were we going to eat around here?
Finally we walked through the doors of an old-fashioned Turkish sweet shop. Oh yeah. Here we go!
This exquisite rainbow candy land has been in the same family for over a century! Lined with antique wooden cupboards and elegant large glass jars filled to the brim with sugary goodness, I could barely keep my hands to myself.
We had the privilege of sampling several traditional Turkish candies, but my favorites were the well-known classic rose flavored Turkish delight and tahin helvası, a dense nutty paste like confection. The two were unlike any sweet I’ve ever popped in my mouth. They were immensely unique, rich and decadent.
I was so giddy. I felt like a kid in a candy shop. Oh wait. I pretty much was.
Stop 6- Kokoreç
Welp. I guess there had to be one stop like this. Up next: suckling lamb intestines.
Kokoreç is a Turkish fast-food specialty, rarely found on a restaurant menu and often eaten from vendors on the street. Preparing this savory snack is a craft and if not cooked correctly can be dangerous for foreigners. Eek. Luckily for us we happened to walk right on by the Kokoreç master.
There they were, right out in the open, wrapped and twisted around a metal skewer, roasting on the grill. So this is what my insides look like.
The vendor recognized Remziye right away and politely asked if we’d like a taste. Remziye shot us an unsure glance and only a few of the group stepped forward. What the heck. I didn’t come all the way to Istanbul to coward out now. Let’s do this.
Quickly the griddle guru chopped up the intestines with his spatula tossed in some green pepper and plump tomato and divided the mixture onto chunks of fresh bread. One by one he handed them out and I hesitantly bit in.
A little chewy. A little spicy. A little hint of charcoal. Really not half bad. Maybe if I wasn’t previously awarded the knowledge of what I was voluntarily shoving into my mouth, I would even say delicious!
Stop 7– Refreshing Lemonade and an Impromptu Wedding
Our next stop didn’t involve any food; we were just going to pop in and say hello. Oh thank God.
After climbing some stairs, an extremely steep hill and passing some baby chicks freely wandering in the street, we came up to a hidden yet inviting bed and breakfast. Walking down the steps and into this average looking building, you would never know what waits on the other side.
What. A. View.
Some of us were a bit parched after our walk in the sun, so the owner let us squeeze our own fresh lemonade! Simply mix water, sugar and lemon- the perfect thirst quencher on a hot summer day!
Oh and then I got married.
Another story for another day.
Stop 8- A Bizarre Beverage
“Just one more small tasting before our last stop,” Remziye assured us. The group was starting to look full, hot and tired. She swiftly ran into a small market, grabbed a mystery paper bag and then gestured towards us to cross the street. We sat around marble tabletops and waited to see what would be served.
Remziye opened the mystery bag and dropped little browned balls into each glass, then passed them around.
Yum! Those little balls were roasted chickpeas! I eagerly plopped a spoonful of the thick custard-like beverage onto my tongue. Oh my. My lips puckered and contorted. My eyes squinted. SOUR!
“Take a few more bites,” Remziye insisted. “It will grow on you.”
I’m honestly at a loss for words trying to describe the taste of boza, so I’ll quote the experts at culinary backstreets, “What is that flavor? Something like a cross between Russian kvass (a fermented drink made from rye bread) and applesauce may be the best way to describe it.”
Stop 9- Kebab feast
After what felt to be a full day of feasting, we had one last stop- lunch. Lunch?! I wasn’t sure I could fit one more thing into my tired tummy. No. More. Food. Pleaseeeeeeeee. If only I had learned the discipline of the “tasting.”
We sat at a table all the way in the back of the restaurant awaiting our meal. Like a royal procession the plates came out, filling every last gap on our lengthy table. Cue all previous “full” thoughts dissipating.
OMG. Warm pita bread. Red pepper tomato spread. Cheesy veggie rice. Flaky lamp kebab. All so colorful, so aromatic, so appetizing.
I couldn’t help it. I mean it was the last stop of the day right? I had to try it ALL.
What can I say? Yet another amazing food tour experience. I may have left a little bit overly stuffed, but that’s my own fault. A little discipline goes a long way…
Thanks to Culinary Back Streets and my absolutely wonderful tour guide Remziye, I truly felt like I ended the day with a further understanding of what Istanbul had to offer! Thanks a lot Istanbul.
Seriously. It was only the first week of July and already I had reversed all of my previous summer dieting. Who am I kidding? Every single bite was worth it!
Disclaimer: Culinary Backstreets graciously invited me on their tour for purpose of this review, but as always all opinions expressed are my own. Trust me, the food truly was every bit as delicious as described.
2. The last Tuesday of every month will be a themed prompt if you want to join in!