AD | My food tour from Istanbul on Food was complimentary in return for mention in this blog post, but all views are my own.
Istanbul offers a sensory overload, from the sight of brightly coloured buildings and impressive mosques; to the sound of enthusiastic haggling in the markets; to the feel of the thick air surrounding the busy centre. But the tastes and scents of Istanbul left the most lasting impression on me, with the constant smell of delicious food in the air and the discovery of something new to eat at every corner that I turned.
With an overwhelming number of dishes to try and no idea where to start, the food scene in Istanbul almost felt intimidating! A food tour seemed like the best way to experience as much as possible, and Istanbul on Food provided the ultimate glimpse into culinary Istanbul. Let me tell you a little about Istanbul on Food and what they offer, before introducing you to 30 different foods that you absolutely must try in Istanbul, whether you choose to book onto a food tour or explore the tastes of the city yourself.
Istanbul on Food
With so many companies offering food tours in Istanbul, choosing the best one isn’t an easy task! Istanbul on Food caught my attention because they are a small family business with two founders, who hand pick every experience on their food tours and professionally guide every tour themselves. The tours are described as off-the-beaten-track which was exactly what I wanted, and with 10 stops over 6 hours on their longer tours I knew I’d be getting a very in-depth guide to the tastes of Istanbul!
I took the Taste of Two Continents Tour, which promised an introduction to the foods of both sides of Istanbul. Starting with a huge breakfast gathered from the market and eaten at a table set romantically under a tree, this food tour explored the European side of Istanbul before taking us by ferry to the Asian side and the streets of Kadiköy. Not only did we enjoy a LOT of food, including dishes that I otherwise wouldn’t have known existed, but we also learnt about the history, culture and people of Istanbul and heard personal anecdotes and stories from our guide. I felt fully immersed in the culinary culture of Istanbul and can’t recommend the tour enough.
If you’d like to book a tour with Istanbul on Food you can do so here. As well as the Taste of Two Continents tour that I took, they offer a Flavours of the Old City tour (also approximately 6 hours) and two shorter evening tours if you’re short on time: Taksim Evening Food Tour and Kadiköy Street Food Tour.
So, what did we eat? This post isn’t going to tell you the best restaurants in Istanbul, but will guide you through a variety of local dishes that you should seek out whilst in the city. A lot of these are foods that I tried on my tour with Istanbul on Food, but some are my own discoveries.
30 Foods to Try in Istanbul
Simit is a type of bread in the form of a ring (kind of like the Turkish version of a bagel) covered with sesame seeds and dates back to the days of the Ottoman empire. It’s a popular breakfast in Istanbul when combined with meat and cheese or jam, and most commonly sold from street carts. It was a slightly dry (although I hear that if you get them straight from a bakery they’re much better), but tasted beautifully nutty and salty.
Pastrami was developed by the Ottoman Turks who dried and salt-cured meat (often beef, goat, or mutton) as a way to preserve it, then rubbed it with spices. Back in the day, the meat was placed under the saddles of donkeys and pressed by the riders legs as they rode – sounds a bit gross but a good use of resources I suppose! The pastrami that we ate in Istanbul was packed with flavour and deliciously moist… closer in texture to very thinly sliced steak than dried meat.
We enjoyed a few different types of cheese, including some wonderfully crumbly cows cheese at breakfast during our food tour. Billy and I also had a dish of unknown name (due to language barrier) which was four types of cheese crumbled and mixed together with spices, served as part of a selection of mezze whilst watching the sunset from one of the Princes Islands. You’ll find loads of different cheeses in the markets so take your pick!
Another breakfast dish, and one of my favourite things tried on the food tour. Menemen is maybe slightly spicer than your usual breakfast but is packed full of flavour from eggs, tomato, red peppers, spices and little bit of white cheese. Accompanied by a bit of simit this is the perfect breakfast!
Soup for breakfast? Yes please! This lamb broth made with stock, chunks of lamb and white rice is traditionally eaten in the morning and apparently cures colds, coughs and hangovers. It was another discovery on our food tour and Billy and I got told off because we couldn’t stop eating it and we were only on stop 2 of 10 so should be saving room for the rest!
Moving on from breakfast to lunch and you would be seriously missing out if you didn’t hunt down a fish sandwich! I had been told that the best place to get them was the fish market, and after a lot of searching for this part of the market Billy and I suddenly smelt the scent of grilled fish and followed our noses to a small street-side stop. The fish was perfectly cooked and I loved catching the chef sneaking the odd bite whilst cooking for his customers.
I don’t eat kebabs, they’re a disgusting post-night out food that will definitely give me food poisoning or some sort of long term disease. Oh how wrong I was! This was hands down the best thing I ate in Istanbul, and I was lucky enough to try it from the very original founder. Cooked vertically by a coal fire, the Iskender kebab was served thinly sliced on top of cubes of pitta. Already smelling divine, the chef then poured hot melted garlicky butter over the top and I felt like my whole body was going to dissolve with pleasure and anticipation. That first bite of soft kebab meat and soggy pitta is my most memorable moment in Istanbul.
I love a pickled onion with my Ploughman’s at home in the UK, but I can now confirm that my pickle passion stops there. We headed into a pickle shop (museum?!) called Özcan Turşuları to taste a variety of pickled foods such as beetroot (that was fairly nice), carrot, plum, gherkin and chilli. It was all a bit much for me but, hey, you can’t like everything you try!
Quite a broad one, as this encompasses pretty much anything that’s served cold and prepared with a lot of olive oil. I was most familiar with Baba Ganoush (of which we had a lot in Istanbul) but thoroughly enjoyed various other cold aubergine dishes, okra, tomato paste & garlic, samphire in lemon & garlic, and spicy bulgar wheat. Stuffed peppers and vine leaves were a mezze highlight as well.
Lamb with Okra on a Milk & Rice Base
My second favourite savoury dish on the food tour! The lamb fell to bits, the okra was perfectly seasoned and the base was oh-so creamy. My face must have said it all because the rest of the food tour group let me finish this dish off without hesitation.
I tried a couple of meatball dishes in Istanbul: one with cherries (perfect combination of sweet and sour and stunningly rich in colour) and the other with chickpeas and pasta on a yoghurt base. I had always thought meatballs were invented in Sweden, but apparently they were brought over from Istanbul by King Charles XII in the early 18th Century!
Kind of like a pizza but better! Pide is a baked flabread topped with cheese and various toppings (similar to what you would find on a pizza). The pide that we tried on the food tour was prepared by experts who had been doing the task since childhood, rolled by hand and covered with the most indulgent yellow cheese sourced from the coast of the Black Sea. Head to Pide Sun in Kadıköy for the best.
I love comparing the different types of dumplings around the world from Pierogis in Poland to Celpelinai in Lithuania to Dim Sum in China. I was therefore very excited to try Istanbul’s take on the dumpling: Manti. Tradition dictates that the individuals dumplings can be no larger than peanut-sized, and the ones we had were certainly pretty cute! Thin dough was filled with minced meat, boiled and served covered in garlicky yogurt, hot butter and chilli flakes and tasted heavenly.
My food of choice after several beers is usually McDonald’s or maybe some chips with gravy from the chip shop. In Istanbul it’s lamb intestine wrapped around pancreas or other offal, served in bread. It sounds a little unusual and there were a couple of people on our food tour who didn’t try it, but actually it was so, so good! I was sober when I tried it, so I can only imagine how incredible the crispy, salty, fatty goodness would be after a drink or two.
One night we were sat outside a bar quite late enjoying a beer, some hookah and some live music when a man turned up with a tray of mussels and set up shop in the middle of the street. It turns out that mussels are sold on every corner of the city! I didn’t think I liked mussels but I gave it a go anyway incase my tastebuds had developed and oh my goodness they were so tasty! They were stuffed with a small amount of rice and various seasonings, and as they were sold individually they made a perfect on-the-go treat.
Corn on the Cob
Not the most exotic I know, but it felt as if every street in Istanbul was dotted with bright red carts selling bright yellow cobs! They cost just pennies and it was lovely to have a nutritious snack to walk around the city with.
When wandering through the Grand Bazaar my nose directed me towards a small cafe on the one of the corners within the covered market and gave Billy and I no choice but to sit down and order a lamb stew. The lamb was tender and fell to bits with the touch of a fork, tomato and aubergine gave it a beautiful sweetness whilst chilli added a kick at the end. I don’t know if this was an Istanbul speciality or just something delicious that I ate in the market at a shop with no obvious name, but it was divine.
Molasses & Tahini
Apparently the individual health benefits of molasses and tahini (sesame paste) are doubled when combined! According to my research they make the body resistant to disease, fights colds, help fight cancer, treat respiratory illnesses and much more. Most commonly enjoyed as a spread for breakfast, this combination offered the perfect level of sweetness and is something I’m going to try to recreate at home.
‘Eat sweet, talk sweet.’ The people of Istanbul LOVE sweet food and this common saying provides the perfect excuse to eat it! I’m usually more of a savoury food fan but when I crave sweet food I want the sweetest, and luckily I was in the mood for just that on the day of my food tour in Istanbul!
Clotted Cream With Honey
This was part of breakfast on the food tour and I honestly thought my taste buds were going to get so over-excited that they would jump off my tongue and dance around Istanbul on their own. A huge lump of clotted cream was served swimming in the sweetest honey I’ve ever tasted and I couldn’t get enough of it.
Like Nutella but, dare I say it, better! Just hazelnuts blended into a smooth paste with some added sugar, but tastes like the light, creamy inside of a kinder bueno. It can be bought in the markets in jars or vacuum packed and if it hadn’t been the first stop of six countries I definitely would have brought some home!
They literally candy everything in Istanbul and this was one of the stranger ones tried. I’m not a huge fan of tomatoes but this tasted of sugar rather than tomato and wasn’t bad at all!
Chopped nuts spread between layers of flaky filo pastry, smothered in butter, baked and topped with honey? Yes please! I’m usually a chocolate cake kinda girl but I couldn’t resist multiple bakalava stops during my time in Istanbul. Apparently the best bakalava on the Asian side is at Bilgeoglu and the best on the European side is at Köşkeroğlu.
Turkish Ice Cream
The bakalava I tried on the food tour was served with Turkish ice cream or dondurma as it’s know to the locals. This particular ice cream was made with goats milk and thickened using Orchid, and it’s both thicker and creamier than the ice cream I’m used to but actually even more delicious! It’s stickiness meant that it was served on a plate with a fork, rather than a bowl and spoon!
Aşure is kind of like porridge but traditionally eaten as a dessert rather than breakfast. It’s a mixture of grains, nuts beans, chickpeas, figs, oranges and oranges and we found it being cooked in a huge pot in the spice market, filling the air with a sweet, Christmassy scent. Traditionally it was eaten during the winter because it’s super high in calories but it’s now enjoyed year-round.
I’ll eat almost anything, but when it comes to drinks I’m really fussy! So although I tried all of the below I didn’t really enjoy them (apart from the Turkish tea which was spot on). Don’t let this put you off though, as everyone else seemed to enjoy them!
Raisin juice has been drunk in Istanbul for over 400 years, but you’ll only find it on Asian side of Istanbul. We had it with our Iskender kebab on the food tour and it took us all a while to guess what it was! It was actually quite nice, just a bit sweet for my drinking palette.
The saying goes that a cup of Turkish coffee guarantees 40 years of friendship. It’s prepared using very finely ground coffee beans and served unfiltered, and although it has a much lower caffeine content than the coffee we have at home it certainly packs a punch taste wise! Too bitter for my tastes but I’m not the biggest coffee fan anyway.
I wasn’t sure I’d like Turkish tea as it’s drunk black without milk and I’m a stubborn Yorkshire Tea drinker. But it was light and refreshing and I found myself drinking several cups of it during our stay in Istanbul. Tea is the most commonly consumed hot drink in Istanbul and Turkey, and is mostly produced of the tea produced in the Rize Province on the eastern Black Sea coast, which has a mild climate with high precipitation and fertile soil.
This was disgusting! We drank this on the food tour in the pickle shop I wrote about above and it definitely wasn’t for me. This bright pink juice was made from the liquid of a variety of pickled items, but they’ll drink the all sorts of pickled juices in Istanbul including pickled pine cone juice – know to be good for relieving asthma symptoms.
Ayran is a cold yoghurt drink made from yoghurt, salt and water and was brought to Istanbul by nomadic tribes who were trying to preserve dairy products. It’s now consumed as a refreshing and hydrating drink often with a kebab or pastry, but again I really didn’t like it. Everyone else on the food tour did, so I think it was a case of me being fussy.
So there you have it, 30 foods to try in Istanbul. If you don’t have a big enough appetite or enough time to try them all, I’d say the top 3 must tries in Istanbul would be the Iskender kebab, bakalava and kokoreç.
I’d love to hear which of the above you’ve tried, whether you liked them and what I’ve missed! Two days in Istanbul wasn’t long enough so I’ll definitely be returning to eat even more.
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