The first day back after being away is always difficult. Being violently awoken by an alarm with no promise of an enviable breakfast buffet waiting for you, only a lone Actimel drink sitting in the fridge and a congested Tube journey to tackle is a harsh wake up call. Harsh though it may be it does the job; three full days away in Istanbul are but a mere memory now, the only evidence I have are the three extra kilos in weight I am carrying. Seeing the scales hit an unspeakable number this morning I felt conflicting pangs of pain and pride – pain over the need to dust out my fat trousers on this Monday Morning and pride with the knowledge that though my trip was short I successfully accomplished what I set out to do – eat eat eat and eat some more. This is a lot more challenging than it sounds, even for someone as cultivated in the art of food consumption as myself.
The challenge starts right from the morning wherein the notorious breakfast buffet waits for you. When the breakfast buffet is a successful one (which is actually quite hard to achieve) you need a foolproof strategy of utmost efficiency and optimization; the aim being to eat enough of the local delights (and some not so local) to your heart’s content whilst ensuring you are leaving yourself available to a full day of sporadic food consumption. What you choose to eat at breakfast also needs to be decided upon in the same spirit of optimization – for this reason I remain utterly baffled and often offended by people who choose of their own VOLITION to eat cereal when the options available are so varied. Cereal – those boring grain clusters of Meh-ness whilst the unfamiliar cheeses, local honeys, fresh eggs, baked breads and seasonal fruits go untouched?! Such absurdity.
The breakfast at my hotel was excellent – when the choices are too plentiful I often feel individual quality is compromised and so, overwhelmed, I retreat back into the safety net of croissants and chocolate muffins leaving me more full than fulfilled. Luckily this was not the case here and I ventured into territory outside the comfort zone of croissants and nutella and it was wondrous….
So…Istanbul. As this was my 4th visit to the city I have already done a lot of the touristy stuff on every major itinerary from Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia, The Blue Mosque, rice pudding in SultanAhmet, boat trips on the Bosphorous, haggling in the Grand Bazaar etc. etc. These are all great things to do if visiting Istanbul for the first time, but for my fourth trip I was down to the more serious business of food so read on for my 3 day food diary…
My first stop after dumping my luggage at the hotel was through the streets of Taksim to Shake Shack. Ok yes I’m here to talk about food yet the first thing I eat in Istanbul is a Cheeseburger from an American burger chain however my reasons are justified I feel. Firstly, I’ve never tasted Shake Shack before as though there is a branch in London it is not halal. It has popped up in places like Dubai and Lebanon AFTER I have been which is quite frustrating and I wanted to taste it to see if the buzz was, as is usually the case – hype. Having a meal at 11am on my first day is perfect as it gets this American burger business out the way allowing for food more in line with Anatolian cuisine….
For the first time in a while I actually feel like the hype is justified – I do not normally even like beef burgers but these had that homely patty feel and taste about them, chargrilled and with the burger classics of cheese, onions and pickle it really hit the spot. Quite small and compact (the single, anyway) it was not overwhelming like a lot of burgers are and I could see myself making Shake Shack my go to for burger cravings if I had the option.
For once the hype is justified!
Mercimek Corbasi & Lahmachun
Next food stop is a firm favorite of mine which I seek out at home and in Turkey; Red lentil soup and lahmachun. As an Arab it may be akin to blasphemy to say this but I think red lentil soup by the Turks is infinitely superior to the Arabs yellow lentil soup; SHOCK HORROR I know. As for lahmachun, what’s there not to like about thin crispy dough base with mince meat, herbs, spices and pomegranate molasses on top?! Follow the locales for the really homey authentic staples (following locals into back alley eateries is a tried and tested method that yields delicious results, I’m not ashamed to admit).
Freshly baked lahmachun – must try!
Red lentil soup with a squeeze of fresh lemon – perfect
My love for good food is perhaps only rivalled by my love of fresh juices. I can measure the success of a holiday destination by just how active my bladder is as, when it is available; I try to drink fresh juice at least twice a day on holiday. The street corners of Istanbul are filled with men and young boys manning Portakal (Orange) and Anar (pomegranate) stalls. Portakal and Anar mix is my personal favorite – fruit so fresh you can feel the pomegranates antioxidants getting to work.
Eating in the Grand Bazaar – Kebab & Bulgar
No trip to Turkey is complete without sampling kebab with a side of bulgar and salad, and where best to sample than in one of the many traditional eateries in the Grand Bazaar? Follow knowing locals and appetizing aromas for your bazaar eating experience.
Kumpir in Ortakoy
Ortakoy is an Istanbul neighbourhood located on the banks of the Bosphorus and home to two uniquely magical things. First, there is the stunning 18th Century Ortakoy Mosque. In Istanbul you may think after you’ve seen the grandeur of the Blue Mosque what does any other have to offer – wrong. The Ortakoy mosque is unique in its architecture and beauty on both the inside and the outside. Plus the views over the Bosphorus are unrivalled.
The second magical thing Ortakoy is home to is the Kumpir – jacket potato. Now don’t roll your eyes – this jacket potato is like no other jacket potato, the Kumpir reigns supreme on every other jacket potato that has ever existed. The potato itself is only one small component of the Kumpir – albeit made to perfection by the Turks, laced with butter and fluffy on the inside it is an amazing base for what comes next – every topping imaginable neatly laid out in colour coded efficiency.
Olives, sweetcorn, red cabbage, bulgar, potato salad and so much more is available for you to choose from to be loaded onto your freshly baked potato. There’s also meat and fish toppings too. The result is amazing – the toppings themselves so fresh and delicious in their own right and the potato buried below takes the baked potato game to a whole new level.
Fresh Fish on the Bosphorus
Seafood lovers are in for a treat in Istanbul – from street merchants selling fresh grilled sardines by the bridges over the Bosphorus to swanky restaurants overlooking the beautiful river Istanbul has it all. I was excited to try a swanky restaurant located right on the Bosphorus in an Ottoman-era boat that sits by a medieval fortress – the famed Rumelihisari Iskele restaurant that specialises in fresh fish from the river it overlooks. Reservations are necessary in the evening and there is no denying the ambience and interior of the restaurant is beautiful – filled with well to do glamorous Turks we thought we made a good choice as we took our seats. Unfortunately as it turned out we really didn’t – the food was ok, slightly on the meh scale of things which is definitely not what you want at the price paid and especially when Istanbul is home to so many great sea food establishments. Small portion size, limited menu, mediocre food and a hefty price tag is not an ideal mix.
I look forward to my next trip where the search for the ultimate fresh sea food restaurant shall continue.
This is a Turkish chain cafe/restaurant that can be found all around Istanbul. After some shopping in Nisintasi and Othmanbey we stopped here to refuel with some fresh lemonade however got a case of food envy on seeing the food orders of the fellow customers. As such we ordered Mantoo – dumplings made with yoghurt and mince meat and were so glad we did.
Fresh juices, desserts and a killer lemonade are also on offer here – not to mention a full breakfast menu. When it comes to chain cafes/restaurants the Turkish know how it’s done.
Hot Beverages Galore
Turkey is famous of course for it’s Turkish tea and strong Turkish coffee. Slightly over ambitious if you ask me to excel at the top two categories in the hot beverages genre but then again if anyone call pull it off it would be the Turkish (they really do know their stuff). You can’t pass not take some time to sample one or both of these, according to your preferences. Not a coffee drinker I stuck with the tea though i’m told the coffee leaves most caffeine addicts more than fulfilled.
Turkey has a lot to offer in the desserts compartment – from fresh baklava, rice pudding and a whole world of confectionery in between. Hafiz Mustafa in Sultanahmet is a favorite amongst locals and tourists for their sugary needs. Set in beautiful surrounds and with an overwhelmingly extensive menu this place deserves at least one visit on any trip to Istanbul.
Fresh Fruits A Plenty
Istanbul streets are filled with fruit stalls in the summer – what’s better than some cooling watermelon on a hot sightseeing day?
For hookah/shisha smokers Istanbul has its fair share of accommodating cafes. A few side roads in Sultanahmet open up on large squares filled with cafes housing hookah smokers and Turkish coffee drinkers.
Istanbul is a foodie paradise with too many options to be able to do justice to this great city. Trip after trip I discover new places with new places constantly popping up and an extensive wish list of timeless establishments still to try. The above items were all sampled in 3 very short days which is barely even scratching the surface of this expansive and eclectic European meets Asian city.