About Food in Istanbul
The first thing that visitors to Istanbul seem to comment on (besides the blood pressure-raising traffic) is the food. Turks are known for many things, but one area where they may not get quite the worldwide recognition they deserve is their unique, flavorful cuisine. Turks take immense pride in their traditional fare and culinary compliments are a surefire way to win the heart of a local. Conversely, if you are looking to stoke the fires of historical rivalry for some reason, just say that baklava was created by the Greeks......and then run.
Each region in Turkey has its own slew of speciality dishes, which are often named after the town in which it originated. Adana kebab, for example, recalls the fiery summer heat of that south central region. A center of immigration for centuries, Istanbul calls up all the flavors of the country so you can quite literally eat your way through Turkey (and beyond) without every leaving the city.
What to Eat?
Everything! You might need to rejoin that gym when you get back home, but for now do as the Turks do and chow down.
Turkish tea (called cay) is omnipresent and locals often drink 10 cups or more of the strong stuff a day. The thick, potent Turkish coffee served at every cafe is not for everyone, but beloved by many. The anise liquor raki (nicknamed "lion's milk" for its white hue after adding water) is the national alcoholic beverage of choice, with Efes beer a close runner up. Beware of the raki and Efes hangover - you've been warned. If you visit during the winter, try the delicious sahlep, a warm milky treat made from orchids. During the stifling summer months, prevent dehydration the Turkish way - by drinking ayran, a salty yogurt drink that helps you retain water.
Much of Turkish cuisine feels comfort food - warm, hearty and never short on meat or carbs. For breakfast, start the day with soft white bread, fresh cheese, olives, tomatoes and cucumbers. Or grab a simit (a cross between a bagel and a soft pretzel), or the sinful poagaca, a buttery roll filled with olives or cheese.
If there is one thing Turks know how to do, it is grill meat. Sample the country's regional flavors through the myriad of kebab choices - you really can't go wrong.
That said, don't leave the country without trying Iskender kebab (also known as Bursa kebab) - a cardiac arrythmia on a plate that is 1000% worth the damage to your arteries. Named after the genius chef that created it in Bursa, the dish layers thinly sliced lamb doner and charred green peppers over tangy tomato sauce and pillow-soft pide bread, all slathered in clarified butter and thick yogurt.
Of course, you must try doner kebab, possibly Turkey's most well-loved export. The doner kebab, truly a word-changing innovation in meat cookery, is carved from a toddler-sized cone of seasoned meat (usually chicken or lamb), dripping with yummy greasiness. Try to the sidewalk stalls at the head of Taksim Square, or if you are roaming the city and hunger strikes, you are usually no farther than 4 blocks from a doner stand. Follow your nose and check for quality-looking meat.
Manti - Turkish ravioli - are another must try. Any restaurant specializing in these bite-sized meat-filled dumplings is sure to dish up a quality meal just like anne used to make.
Lahmacun, a flatbread pide with fresh cheese or seasoned meat topping, is another national staple. Again, look for a restaurant specializing in lahmacun for a good place to dive in.
Vegetarians need not lament - you will have options, especially at the amazing meze houses that litter the coastline and side streets of Istiklal. Mezes are the Turkish version of tapas, more of an experience than just a meal. You pick from small plate samples brought to your table. For epicurean types, it is like being a kid in a candy store. Common meze options include broiled eggplant and tomato, mashed fava beans, cracked bulgur with tomato and marinated sardines. If you are at even a halfway decent restaurant, everything will be delicious. The meze table is where Turkey's Mediterranean personality really comes out. Guaranteed mouth-gasm.
Relatively small tips - 10 to 15% - are generally expected in all but the cheapest restaurants. Plan on tipping your hammam masseuse 15-20% (they certainly work for it!). Taxi drivers do not expect a tip, but round the fare up to the nearest 50 kurus.
Price per Meal
Prices range from around $3 for a streetside doner, to $100 a head at the city's most elite restaurants.
On the Asian side, Ciya Sofrasi is one of the hottest restaurants in town and a delightful cap to a ferry ride across the Bosphorus. The incredibly fresh, nuanced flavors pay homage to traditional Anatolian cuisine and might just stay in your memory for years to come.
If your looking for a break from kebabs and doner without going Western, try Galata Evi (The Galata House). Situated in the shadow of the Galata Tower, this authentic Georgian restaurant is run by an eclectic and friendly Georgian couple. The food is hearty and incredible, and, if its available, be sure to sample the sweet varietals of Georgian wine. The building itself was formerly an English prison and some walls still have visible etchings done by prisoners in the early 1900s.
Cafes are a big part of Turkish culture and are a place for friends and lovers to chat - or just snuggle and stare wistfully at each other - for hours on end. You'll notice many cafes populated solely by middle-aged Turkish men playing tavla and smoking cigarettes. Ladies can pop in for a cay, but you may feel awkward.
Options for cozy cafes are nearly limitless down Istiklal Caddesi and it's surrounding alleys, but some of the most atmospheric spots to sample Turkey's signature brews include:
• KV Cafe, Tunel Gecidi: Located in the lovely passageway directly across from the Tunel funicular stop, this is a great spot to nestle in with a hot cay and soak in the romantic, whimsical vibe of the neighborhood.
• House Cafe: Cafe-hop from KV to the more upscale House Cafe, located in the alley that bounds the other end of the Tunel passageway. This is a place to see and be seen, and also offers a good, but pricey, modern fusion menu...see if you can find a chic Turkish girl eating anything more substantial than a Diet Coke.
• Cafe Smyrna: Starting from the other end of Istiklal at Taksim Square, walk downhill on Siraselviler Caddesi, then snake through the back alleys to Cafe Smyrna, a charming cafe/bar where Cihangir hipsters and foreign expats congregate. Good brunch spot.
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