When we travel, collecting memories is one of the most valuable assets. What we visit, where we eat, and the delicious flavors of the different cultures we sample can all be part of our unforgettable memories. Istanbul not only offers you a visual feast of history that extends to the present, with its food havens you will also collect many stories to tell when you return home.
These are not always establishments with beautiful architecture, professional service staff, large kitchens and well-trained chefs. Sometimes in a small eatery on a side street, sometimes at a food stand in a market, or even in the food cart of a street vendor trying to climb a hill, we come across completely unexpected flavors and stories that appeal to our palate but don't catch our eye. We call these delicacies STREET FOOD.
As a travel consultant who was born and raised on these streets, I'd like to give you some must-try street food recommendations. Let's see if the reservations for fine dining restaurants will decrease after I present my list of the best street food in Istanbul…
1. Balık Ekmek (Fish Sandwich)
Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus strait, which connects the continents of Europe and Asia, as well as the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, and is therefore very rich in seafood. You cannot come to the city and leave this place without eating balık ekmek, the Turkish fish sandwich.
If you find yourself hungry in the middle of your sightseeing tour of Spice Bazaar, Eminönü Mosque, Grand Bazaar and Galata Bridge, you'll be in an excellent position to satisfy both your stomach and your taste buds. No matter which of the stylish fishing boats you visit in Eminönü Square to grab a bite, I guarantee you'll say, “Thank god, I tried balık ekmek.” But don't forget to order a glass of pickle juice to go with your fish sandwich. Afiyet olsun.
2. Midye Dolma (Stuffed Mussels)
Don't worry; the entire list won't be about seafood. But since we're tapping the waters and talking about street food, I have to introduce you to midye dolma, stuffed mussels, which are definitely a candidate for the first place in this list. This street food delicacy consists of mussel mixed with a spoonful of rice.
I recommend that you don’t eat mussels alone, because they are such a delicious street food that you can eat them for hours if no one stops you. One of the best in this regard is MİDYECİ AHMET in the center of Beşiktaş. Ahmet, who has been selling stuffed mussels since he was a child, is now a very well-known brand not only in Istanbul but also throughout the country. When you go to Midyeci Ahmet, don't forget to try a big portion of stuffed mussels with sauce.
3. Kumpir (Turkish Baked Potato)
This is one of my favorite street foods. It is both filling and delicious. For this street food, the main ingredient, a whole potato softened from baking, is cut in half and mixed with butter and kaşar cheese. Now you already have a basic baked potato, but the real work begins after that. There are dozens of ingredients you can add to your baked potato. Feel free to add anything you like. For example, my favorite combination includes sausage, olives, corn, rus salatası (Olivier salad), pickles and ketchup.
If you want to create your own kumpir while exploring Istanbul, Ortaköy Square is the place to go. In Ortaköy, which is home to many kumpir sellers, you can fill your belly, sit by the sea and eat your homemade kumpir while enjoying the magnificent Bosphorus view.
4. Pilavcı (Rice Vendor)
I know the headline sounds very ordinary at first, but don't be hasty. These rice carts are so famous that no matter which part of Istanbul you are passing through, you will always come across a small queue in front of a rice cart. It is an inexpensive Istanbul treat that is mixed with chickpeas and topped with pieces of chicken if desired.
While there are many rice carts and rice eateries, some of them can top this list with their amazing touches in this simple flavor. One of them is UNKAPANI PİLAVCI, a small but very famous rice vendor that takes its name from the area where it is located. You can find it at the end of Beyazıt on the right side, after you pass the city wall and before you reach the bridge over the Golden Horn. The Unkapanı rice vendor has been known by the locals for many years as the last place to go before heading home after a fun night out in Istanbul.
Important: The pickled jalapeno peppers served with the rice are quite spicy. So if you accidentally pop one in your mouth, don't forget to order a homemade ice-cold ayran (Turkish yoghurt drink) right away…
5. Kokoreç (Grilled Lamb Intestines)
This is probably the street food you'll have the hardest time convincing yourself to eat when you hear its ingredients. But trust me, you should give it a try because I'm talking about a treat that you might not be able to try easily at first, but once you tried it, you won't be able to stop eating it.
Kokoreç is made from lamb intestines. After being thoroughly cleaned several times, it is wrapped tightly around a skewer, grilled over charcoal fire, chopped into small pieces and mixed with tomatoes and peppers. Finally, after adding various spices, it is served in crusty bread as a sandwich.
It is hard to believe that it tastes so good, but this street food has been one of Istanbul's must-try delicacies for many years. You can get Kokoreç in many places in the city, but you should not eat it everywhere for hygienic reasons and because of the taste. If you want to try this amazing taste at an authentic Turkish eatery, I recommend you the popular Champion Kokorec, where you can treat yourself with half a bread loaf of Kokoreç and ayran.
6. Simit (Turkish Bagel)
Now it is time for the simplest, but most important street food of Istanbul. In every piece about Istanbul, there is either a picture or its name is mentioned. Simit is a nostalgic taste that can be found everywhere in the streets of Istanbul, from carts to bakeries, and can be eaten with relish by both the richest and the poorest. In theory, simit is a type of bread, but with its sesame coating and round shape, it is a wonderful bite that is crispy and slightly burnt.
Simit pop up everywhere in Istanbul's scenery, sometimes in the hands of people going to work early in the morning, sometimes as a child's breakfast on the way to school, sometimes as a complement to Turkish tea at the cab stand, and sometimes even in the air, in the form of small bites thrown from the Kadıköy ferries as a game of the seagulls. You don't have to wait until you're hungry to have this simple but unique experience on your Istanbul trip.
Let me tell you a little secret about simit: I don't know why, but the simits sold in the cart on Beyoğlu’s Istiklal Street taste a little better to me than the others. Maybe it's because I've always enjoyed this flavor of Istanbul by looking at the place that best describes the city.
7. Mısır (Corn)
As you stroll through the streets of Istanbul, you will hear voices shouting “taze mısır, süt mısır” (“fresh corn, milk corn”) at the top of their lungs over and over again. You just have to follow these chants to get to an Istanbul classic: boiled corn. Corn vendors boil the corn cobs in water, put them in a corn leaf and add salt if desired - and your milk corn is ready. This street food, which is actually very simple and easy to prepare, is usually sold on street corners in pushcarts.
This time, I won't name a specific place for this street food that will make you feel the spirit of Istanbul once again with its taste and the fun moments you will have while eating it. Because as I mentioned before, the corn you buy from any cart from which you hear the sounds of "taze mısır, süt mısır" is simply delicious.
8. Kestane Kebap (Roasted Chestnut)
This time I offer you a street food that you can easily find on the streets of Istanbul, not by hearing it, but by smelling it: roasted chestnut or in Turkish kestane kebap. I say "smell" because the chestnuts are almost an organic navigation for you with their wonderful scent that fills every part of the street where they are located.
Despite being a nostalgic taste, the warm kestane kebap roasted on embers, which warm travelers especially on cold winter days, is still very popular. You will see many carts where you can buy roasted chestnut, especially in the streets of Istanbul’s Historical Peninsula and along the coastline. Just follow the smell…