Prior to my trip, I started making a list of common foods so I would recognize them if they showed up on a menu. I didn’t want to order something really scary. Turns out I never consulted that list because all in all, Turkish food looked pretty damned delicious. There were two things I didn’t want to eat: zaytin and korcoreç. Zaytin is olives and I just hate those. The other is a sandwich with some type of intestines in it. I’m sorry. My adventurous spirit draws the line at intestines. But everything else was fair game so I just bought stuff I saw people eating and enjoyed it all. I tried to remember to take pictures of everything for blogging’s sake but sometimes I was just too into eating to remember.
Chicken pita döner: Döner kebab refers to layers of meat on a rotating spit, and you get the bits of meat shaved off the sides on this hunk into a pita or other flatbread also stuffed with slaw and a few French fries. It was my go-to dinner of choice in Istanbul, mostly because there was a place right next to the Blue Mosque park where I liked to hang out around 5:00pm and listen to the call to prayer with the feral cats. For 7.50tl I got a filling sandwich and a can of Coke. Sometimes it was only 7tl because of the aforementioned Turkish hatred of making change.
Simit: A simit can be best described as a Turkish bagel. It’s round, larger than a bagel, and covered in sesame seeds. Pretty bland on its own but at 1tl it is a good emergency snack when you start to get cranky with hunger and don’t want to stop for a real meal yet. They are everywhere on the street. In the mornings I would sometimes hear a man outside my window rolling his cart to the tourist area calling out “Simeet, simeet, simeeeeeet!”
Ayran: I saw this beverage in the cooler of every market. It’s basically watery, plain yogurt (like kefir). Females – when traveling, yogurt is your friend so eat it when you find it! Ayran was very cheap (like half a lira) and good for you. Not super delicious but not bad either when cold. I saw lots of people drinking this. Kind of made me feel non-touristy. But let’s be real, I was totally a tourist. No amount of local food is going to disguise me. On the topic of drinks I would add that although I’m told the water in Istanbul is perfectly safe to drink and shouldn’t make you feel sick, I bought 1.5 liter bottles of water to keep in my room anyway. They were cheap and I filled a little one with me to take everyday sightseeing.
Tatli: I think tatli can mean any kind of sweet, but here I saw a man selling simit and tatli on his cart and the item looked like a ring of fried dough covered in honey. But covered is not really the right word. I don’t know what this baked good went through but when it was handed to me I was surprised at how heavy it was. It’s like it was submerged for a week in honey and then brought out to harden. It was wonderful and sticky and messy and I can honestly say I didn’t finish the entire thing. It was just too much sweet and I needed at least one other person (maybe two) to share it. My shame was eased by seeing another half-consumed honey ring in the trash when I finally gave up – I wasn’t alone. Similarly sweet and submerged in honey was some cake I decided to have for dinner one day. I was in a pastry shop ogling the goods when I man brought out this platter of cake from the back and set it down on top of the case. Golden brown and sticky. I asked what it was and he just said “honey cake with cream”. I had to have some and it was delicious.
Ice cream: Turkish ice cream is called dondurma and it’s not quite like ours. It’s better. It’s got orchid root flour and a resin called mastic which gives it a chewy texture and its also hardier in the heat. It’s good stuff I tell you. So good I forgot to take a picture of mine but it does look like ice cream. Getting ice cream can be quite a show if you buy it from the right guys. They stir it constantly to keep it pliable and then tease you with it by putting it on the cone with a long metal rod and pulling it off, twirling the cone around, etc. Just look up dondurma on YouTube and you can find several examples of the ice cream show.
Corn and chestnuts: I thought this was kind of a random pairing, but you can buy roasted corn or roasted chestnuts just as often as you can find simit sellers, usually at the same stand. I wasn’t a fan of the roasted corn; I thought it was chewy and tasteless but for 1.50tl it’s not an unhealthy snack. I didn’t try the chestnuts because I’ve had them before and didn’t like the taste, but I did buy some chocolate covered ones from Koska that I’m waiting to try when my cold is over and I can taste again. (Follow up report: I still don’t like chestnuts.)
Tea: Turkish “çay” is drunk all day long all over the place. Neighborhoods and markets commonly have tea runners zipping through crowds with a silver platter of tea glasses and sugar cubes. I sat at a hookah bar in an old market cafe and sipped some tea while I finished off a simit one day and it was a nice way to relax. It was cheap (1.50tl) and flavorful but bitter. Most people don’t drink all the way to the bottom of the glass because then you get some tea leaves. Storekeepers leave their empty glasses sitting outside on the sidewalk to be picked up later. I resisted the urge to collect the pretty things myself.
Fresh fish sandwich: Go to the riverbank alongside the Galata Bridge and get the best fish sandwich ever. Not from those restaurants under the bridge, but walk past the fish market and see the guys working their own grills with piles of veggies and spices and fish filets ready to be deboned for you. The best 5tl you will ever spend (exact change if you have it). Just watching them debone the filets is worth walking down there. Bring a drink, as the man is just in the sandwich biz. What I learned from watching this guy is that I don’t put nearly enough spices in my food. He had a pile of what looked like parprika/cumin/who knows what and he just kept throwing handfuls on my fish. I resisted the urge to ask him to stop and of course, as he knew it would be, the sandwich was delicious.
Salep: This is an interesting drink. It looks and has the consistency of Elmer’s glue. I got some one night at the Hippodrome and it was chilly so I was glad to have a hot cup in my hands. It is supposedly a good winter drink and makes you strong. Later I looked it up and found by strong they mean virile and salep is from the Latin word meaning “fox testicle”. Hm. Salep is orchid root flour and in this drink it is mixed with milk and honey and I’m not sure what else and topped with cinnamon. A stir stick would have been nice because it was thick stuff but drink it while its hot or it gets even thicker. It was a nice mild flowery flavor, not unpleasant. The whole virility thing makes me wonder if it is supposed to be a man’s drink though and if I broke some taboo by buying it.
Lokum: Ah, Turkish Delight. Can’t go to Turkey and not have some. In fact, I was given a piece on the plane not long after we took off. The guys behind me thought it was cheese and I was embarrassed for them. How can you be going in Istanbul and not even know what Turkish Delight looks like? Anyway, it’s delicious chewy candy squares covered in corn starch (so they don’t stick together). Traditional flavors are pistachio and rose. I have a box of rose but like the chestnuts, I am waiting until I can taste again. I hear they taste just like a rose though.
By the way, remember that although you’ll be able to bring honey back to the states with you, you can’t bring any meat products. Which sucks because I bought a nice lump of cured pastrami that was vacuum sealed and I thought it would be a great gift for my husband. Which it would have been, but then I was reminded by facebook friends that it was probably not going to clear customs. Internet research confirmed this and sadly, I left it behind for the housekeepers.
Of course there’s more food than this that should be tried, but I just didn’t get to it. Maybe next time 🙂 I did almost fail and walk into one of the American chains I saw: Starbucks, McDonald’s and Burger King. But in the end what kept me from being a loser and getting the familiar Happy Meal was not only my love for having my fat chicken pita in the park but also the price. 15tl for a meal? I couldn’t do that when the best stuff around was 5-8tl. American fast food thinks a little too highly of itself in a land with so much deliciousness.
P.s. I realized just now I forgot to mention my absolute favorite food find: sour cherry juice. It’s delicious and I drank it on the airplane and at breakfast every chance I got along with a dish of diced cucumbers and tomatoes in lemon olive oil. Good stuff. Do we have sour cherry juice here? Must remember to go looking for it