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Istanbul Tours for the Culturally Curious Foodie

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Any breakfast that involves cheese, olives and rose jam is worth discussing for a moment, especially if it’s in the middle of a fishing market selling rope by the kilo and wire by weight.

Istanbul fishermen's market

Galata fisherman's market, starting point for Istanbul tours for food lovers

In a tiny eatery – the Mutfak Dili ev Yemekleri – deep in the market’s centuries-old streets, an Armenian couple prepares a traditional breakfast. If I weren’t on a culinary walking tour with Istanbul Eats, it would serve as my entire nourishment for the day.

Spread across a heaving table were trays of fat black olives and snow-white feta (it’s the Greek name but the same cheese), slices of cucumber and tomato, kaymak (a type of butter made from buffalo milk), a variety of jams and honeys, and a platter of menemen from southern Turkey, a frittata-like scrambled egg mixture with tomato, peppers and onion.

This warren of twisted streets below the Galata Bridge at the Karaköy end caters to local shopkeepers and to fishermen, with modest food stalls that prepare cheap and fresh meals workers can afford.

“Some of these shops have been in the same family for centuries, and this neighborhood hasn’t been touched – or gentrified – yet,” said Gökçen Ceylan, who would cheerfully guide five us through Istanbullu culinary tradition for the day. “This way shopkeepers can eat something decent rather than having to bring lunch. It’s like eating at home, like family.”

Galata bridge restaurant

And this is part of what I love in walking food tours: they often involve minuscule places off the map, run by mom and pop and serving up the kind of food you want to try again and again.

I’d never taken a culinary walk until my recent food tour in New York. I was so taken with eating my way through a neighborhood’s history and culture that when a similar opportunity arose in Istanbul I had my walking shoes on before the email was even filed.

Istanbul Tours: A Tale of Two Continents

I hadn’t planned on breakfast in Europe and lunch in Asia but who can resist a bicontinental meal?

Istanbul is, after all, a huge city spreading on both shores, growing from a million people 50 or so years ago to 14 million today. They came from all regions, whether to sample the bright lights of ‘Turkey’s Hollywood’ or to study or do business. They brought their food tastes with them and they hunt for mama’s cooking and feeling of home, one of the reasons the city’s regional cuisine is so varied and extensive. Think about it: you’ll find food from the Mediterranean, Black Sea, Aegean, midlands (Russian), South and Southeast (kebabs and baklava), Arab.

Much of this variety is to be found a 20-minute ferry ride across the Bosphorus, in Kadiköy, on what Turks call the Anatolian side.

Eating here can range from mezze in the neighborhood cheese shop to a meal at the renowned Çiya, one of three of the same name almost next to one another (the kebab versions serve the same food but the sofrasi, which means great eating like around a small table at home, is the original). At Çiya, pronounced chee-yah, the owner travels across Turkey looking for original recipes and apparently turned down an appearance on CNN because he wanted to be found by ‘people who truly love food.’ This is also where I heard the story behind perde pilaf.

perde pilaf regional Turkish dish

Perde pilaf – before and after demolition

“It’s a wedding day dish and served to the bride and groom,” explained Gökçen. It relates to the sanctity of their new home and is stuffed with symbolism: pine nuts are the son they might have, almonds the daughter, currants for the good days and black pepper for the bad ones, rice for prosperity and chicken for happiness. Not to mention the fine dough covering the entire dish, like bread, the most venerated of food staples.

(This dish was so good I went back the next day to have another.)

That was only the beginning. The rest of the early afternoon was spent with pastries and loukoum (Turkish delight) and halvah and lahmacoun (a small thin crust meat pie) and pide (a thicker-crusted cheese pie) and börek (another cheese pie) and… I’m not sure how I stayed standing.

Another two-time visit destination was the Cafe Erol, embracing an entire street corner with its small wooden tables and chairs. Indoors, a technicolor swirl of hard candies, candied fruit (including surprising tomatoes and olives), marzipan and fruit jellies sprinkled with crunchy sugar mesmerized both adults and children.

Cafe Erol, Kadikoy, Istanbul, Turkey

Come in, whispers the Cafe Erol

Ottoman Cooking: the World’s First Fusion?

According to Gökçen, Ottoman cooking – now all the tourist rage –  might well be one of the world’s first fusion cuisines, created by the empire’s sultans. When they invaded Roman lands, for example, they encountered nectar and ambrosia, and the use of fruit in Turkish cooking persists to this day. The invaders would take over the conquered kitchens and turn them in palace kitchens, along with their food. So rather than Ottoman cuisine, you’re actually looking at food yielded by conquest.

Take Turkish coffee, that special drink surrounding good conversation that creates a bond among those who drink it. It is Islamic in origin and probably comes from Yemen, where it was first documented sometime during the mid-15th century. It takes a bit of time to make and seems to be losing ground to faster, ready-made and even instant coffees, as well as other drinks.

coffee maker in Istanbul

Turkish coffee has its story in culture, too.

Apparently when a marriage takes place, the prospective husband visits the girl’s family. It is her role to make the coffee and she will be judged on the right amount of foam (the thicker the layer, the fresher the coffee), and on whether she spills any. Imagine the pressure…

She will also be judged on its sweetness – part of which is adding a pinch of salt to the coffee: the more salt she adds, the less interested she is in his courting. Especially when arranged marriages were the norm, this was one of the few ways a girl could express her preference.

Great food in Kadiköy is easy to find: get off the ferry and walk straight ahead, crossing the main street. Walk uphill at Starbucks (yes, really) and wander up and down the side streets. You’ll find produce, pastry shops, cafés, spice stores, fish and rakι restaurants – you know rakι, the aniseed-based drink common to this part of the world? And all at least 20 percent cheaper than on the European side because there are so few tourists here.

Or do what I did: try one (or several) of the many Istanbul tours for food-lovers and get the inside scoop.

Things you should know

  • Istanbul Culinary Walks has a number of walking tours to choose from – mine was the Two Markets, Two Continents. Just don’t eat anything before you go!
  • Getting to Kadiköy is a cinch by ferry from Eminönü, Karaköy, Kabataş or Beşiktaş; they run every 15-30 minutes and cost less than $1 each way. Just show up at the terminal, ask around for the right ferry, buy a token from the machine and hop on.

Thanks to Istanbul Culinary Walks for organizing this visit and hosting Women on the Road. Opinions are my own: I’m opinionated and plan to stay that way. 

9 Comments

  1. Katherine Belarmino - Travel the World on May 14, 2013 at 9:04 am

    That tour looks divine! One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to sample as much of the local food as possible.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 14, 2013 at 9:18 am

      It really was! I’d never been on food tour until New York last year but it was a forehead-slapping moment – why hadn’t I tried these before? From now on I’ll make sure I do this each time I get to a city that has one.

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  7. Cecilia on January 23, 2015 at 11:19 pm

    Merci for your recommendation. I already e-mailed “Two Markets, Two Continents” Walking Food Tour to ask for the meeting spot. I also mentioned that I learned about their tour from Leyla — “Women on the Road.” It’s 50% for 12 years old or younger. My family and I will be staying in the European side — W Istanbul hotel which is located at Suleyman Seba Cad No. 22, AkaretlerIstanbul – a block away from Bosphorus strait.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on January 23, 2015 at 11:50 pm

      All right, now I’m totally envious! At night you’ll hear a mixture of muezzin and seagulls and boats and… just amazing. I’m sitting at my computer absolutely famished just thinking about that walking tour. Don’t eat anything before you start!

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