By HELEN SIMPSON
Giant spits of rotating doner kebab may be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Turkish cuisine, but there is infinitely more to it than that. And, as all true food lovers will attest to, some of the tastiest and cheapest eats are usually found on city streets. Istanbul is no exception and its locals are fierce defenders of the ‘fresh is best’ philosophy, making them discerning buyers when it comes to what to eat. Although meats such as beef, lamb and chicken are a major part of the Turkish diet, vegetarians will find that there is an overwhelming array of options for those who prefer meat-free fare aside from the growing number of vegetarian restaurants in Istanbul. If it’s in season it’s cheap and can be found all over the city. Dedicated green grocers and makeshift wooden carts literally spill over with clusters of shiny grapes, crispy apples, juicy cherries, apricots, peaches and more. Nuts are also a common snack in Istanbul, and they are offered in little paper bags at various prices. The most common of these include pistachios, peanuts, hazelnuts, almonds and chestnuts, while the ever-popular sunflower seeds are something close to a Turkish national symbol!
True potato lovers come drooling to the Kumpir stalls in Ortakoy, one of a number of stunningly beautiful Bosphorus-side suburbs in Istanbul. It’s here that baked potatoes have achieved a level of epic fame, as giant varieties are mashed with butter and cheese and stuffed with any number of fillers, from olives to mushrooms, carrots, pickled cabbage, corn and bulgur wheat.
Follow the plumes of steam to the little red and white sweet corn stands which cook up juicy morsels slathered in salt. Wrapped in white paper, these tasty treats are best eaten on a chilly winter’s day, when they serve a dual purpose as hand warmers. Cig Kofte (pronounced chee kufta) might mean ‘raw meatball’ in Turkish, but these days it is predominately available as the vegetarian equivalent, and can be found at small stalls across the city or at some restaurants or dedicated eateries. A spicy combination of bulgur wheat, onions, tomato paste, hot pepper, herbs, spices and a pomegranate sauce, it is kneaded into bite sized pieces and rolled with lettuce into a flatbread durum. Check first that it is ‘etsiz’ (‘without meat) and dig in! Popularly served with Ayran (a salted yoghurt drink) or Salgam (fermented carrot juice), Cig Kofte makes for a surprisingly filling snack.
When it comes to drinks, there are plenty of other options to quench the thirst in Istanbul. The classic winter drink is Salep, a thick and creamy concoction made from orchid root tubers, served hot with a sprinkling of cinnamon. Another quintessential Turkish drink is Boza, a fermented grain brew. With a history dating back to the Central Asian Turks of the 10th century, Boza is often heard before it is seen, as its sellers stroll the streets calling out to potentially parched residents.
No street food tour of Istanbul is complete without a foray into the delights of Turkish desserts. The sweet-toothed need not despair, thanks to the dizzying array of treats on offer. Pedestrians are sure to encounter one of a number of Tulumba booths which sell cholesterol-soaring bites of deep fried batter soaked in sugar syrup, or Halva, a chewy, tahini-based confection. During the colder months, Halva is served hot wrapped in a flat bread durum, giving the idea of kebab a whole new meaning!
Helen Simpson is the writer and editor for online travel guide www.myistanbulinfo.com which covers everything from attractions to accommodation, restaurants, nightlife, events, shopping, history, culture and more in Istanbul.