My first day in Istanbul was spent trying to find a restaurant that wasn’t completely for tourists. It turned out to be a lot harder to find good food in Istanbul than I expected.
Things became more complicated when I asked locals where they would eat out at. The main answers I got were McDonalds and Burger King, since they were the cheapest places to eat. While I’ve been told that these fast food restaurants were better in some countries overseas, I’ve personally boycotted them for nearly two decades. What I was really looking for was authentic Turkish cuisine.
Many people think of kebab when they think of Turkish food. While Kebab is Turkisk in origin, the first official kebab shop opened in Berlin by a Turkish immigrant, and thus Germany tries to lay claim to inventing it. There are definitely kebab stands in Istanbul, Turkish cuisine consists of so much more. Veggies, rice, bread and especially spices play a large role in the dishes, and they are more creative than many of the locations I’ve traveled to.
A typical Turkish breakfast is a hard-boiled egg, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, cheese and butter, served with a large basket of bread and a cup of Turkish coffee. Not exactly filling, but healthier than breakfasts in other countries (looking at you, France).
The first day I did end up at a kebab for lunch, and then turned to Tripadvisor for dinner. Unfortunately, Tripadvisor is primarily written by tourists, for tourists, but you can still find good places on it. The location feature is also helpful. The place I found, Ortaklar, turned out to be just down the street from the hostel I had checked into that night. I had the chicken kebab, but not your usual preparation. It was reminiscent of Mexican food and I was happy with the quality. I almost got a free local soup with my meal before the waiter realized he had served it to the wrong person. I assumed it was just part of my dish.
The next day I turned to my friends on Facebook for help, and had an overwhelming response of options. Adventurous Kate referred me to Kismet Muhallebecisi for a chicken soup and tavuk göğsü, also known as chicken pudding.
More than one person recommended Balkan Lokantasi. I’d recommend this place for the biggest choice of good, local food in Istanbul for the best price. They have several locations on both sides of the Galata Bridge, and offer a buffet style menu with many dishes and salads to choose from, including many good desserts. I had a lamb potato, three types of pasta and a tres leche.
Pasta dishes are also a big part of Turkish cuisine, although they are nothing like Italian or Asian pastas. Their version of ravioli is called “manti,” made with lamb and yogurt, among other ingredients.
I did end up going to one really touristic restaurant, The Shadow Cafe and Restaurant. It located on a street full of similar restaurants, down behind the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. I picked it because it was cheaper than others on the street. It was a good choice, as the atmosphere was really fun. At one point they started passing around strips of toilet paper, which we all then waved to the song Sweet Caroline. This was followed by YMCA and the Macarena. All the diners danced and had a great time. I also found I could haggle the price of the meal. That in itself was worth eating there.
Then there are the endless desserts, pastries and sweets. Primarily Turkish delight, but also baklava, flavors of tea, the Halka tatlısı pastry covered in sweet sherbet, and dondurma (Turkish ice cream). The teas were especially yummy. I liked the apple tea the best, but also tried kiwi, orange and just plain Turkish tea.
The place I would recommend for candies and tea is Galata Tower Sweets, not because they were necessarily the best in town, but because they were the most friendly. They gave my friends and I free samples of Turkish Delight (it’s nearly impossible to find anything free in Istanbul), and they also offered free apple tea they made right there from their spice collection.
While I didn’t have one myself, no post on the food in Istanbul would be complete without mentioning the fish sandwiches, found all along the shores of the peninsulas. Local fishermen go out daily to catch the fish. They thing bring in their catch to roast and serve with veggies on a roll of bread.
Lastly, there is a burger which to my knowledge is completely unique to Istanbul. Actually, it’s just one store on İstiklal Avenue, and they serve something called a wet burger. These sell for about €1 each. They vaguely resemble an American sloppy Joe, or perhaps a Bof burger at Bakken in Copenhagen.
To sum it up, there are a few traditional Turkish meals you definitely need to try in Istanbul. Let me know if you have a favorite, or if I missed something important!