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Istanbul is a serious food city. Thousands of restaurants serve delicious Turkish specialties, from a huge array of mezzes (appetizers) to delicacies like stews cooked in clay pots or salt-baked fish. However, some of the best food can be found on the street, hawked by vendors calling you over as you walk in their general direction.
Is Istanbul Street Food Safe?
We love sampling street food wherever we travel, and often get the question of safety. Our answer usual is: it depends. Obviously, street vendors won’t be a regulated for food safety as easily as a restaurant. But we’ve never gotten sick from food bought from street stalls.
A couple of simple rules have helped with this, anywhere we are in the world. First, common sense. Does the food look fresh and is the stall/vendor area clean and well kept? If not, we’d keep walking. The other rule is even more important. Are there lots of locals eating the food? A vendor won’t last long in a neighborhood if he poisons his neighbors! So a crowd of locals is a recommendation of both safety and quality (and often, good prices).
Lots of Istanbul locals get their meals from street vendors, so give it a try yourself. We’ve gathered a list of our favorite Istanbul street food in a handy guide below.
You’ll find stands all over the city selling this sesame seed covered bread, which is shaped a little like a large bagel. Simi has a long standing history as an Istanbul street food – there are historical references to the bread going back to 1525 AD. For 1 TL, it’s a cheap, quick on-the-go snack.
Midye Dolma: Stuffed Mussels
I’ll be honest, these stuffed mussels stuffed with rice and raisins is one of my favorites of Istanbul’s street foods. Maybe it’s the illicit nature of the whole thing. You see, the little folding stands of circular trays piled high with mussels and lemon are technically illegal. Which actually makes sense: mobile street venders selling unrefrigerated seafood on corners, from stands designed to be quickly and easily taken down and moved to another location? This should be illegal.
If you don’t want to try the illicit stuffed mussels, there are plenty of restaurants that (legally) serve these from permanent stands at their storefronts. The mussels are priced based on size (between .5 and 1TL). The server will slide the top shell off, revealing the cooked mussel already stuffed with the rice mixture, and insert the top shell to serve as a sort of scoop from the bottom shell.
After a squeeze of lemon, and he’ll hand you the snack for you to scoop the delicious mixture into your mouth (usually in one bite). As you look up, the next opened mussel will be awaiting, held out to you, and that’s the reason you always eat plenty of these. I usually have to beg the guy to stop handing me more mussels.
Midye Tava: Fried Mussels
If rice stuffed mussels are not your thing (clearly, you must not have tried them yet), many of the same shops serve fried mussels as well. These are mussels out of the shell, battered, and threaded on a small wooden skewer, and then cooked in a pan of sizzling oil until golden.
You can eat them right off the skewer, on a plate with a sauce made from walnuts, or have them nestled into crispy bread with garlic sauce for a delicious sandwich.
Doner is everywhere in Istanbul – the smell of grilled meat permeates the air as you walk the streets of the city. On every corner, there is someone turning the huge cylinder of meat, slicing off the grilled outer pieces with a sharp knife. This favorite fast food in Turkey is similar to (and inspired by) Greek gyros. Layers of marinated meat on a vertical spit, grilled or seared on a heating element.
Doner Kebaps come in three types: Chicken, beef, or lamb. Typically the slices of meat are served on a sandwich roll (often the cook will rub the sliced bread up and down on the spit, to soak it with the juices), with onions, tomatoes, and sumac.
If you don’t want the “bread-y” version, you can have the sandwich on a pide (a slightly thicker version of a pita) or dürüm (a thin lavas bread rolled into a wrap – think of a Turkish burrito) .
Shish Kebab (or şiş kebap) are smaller, individual skewers of meat. Typical versions include chicken, beef, liver, chicken wings, spiced ground meat, and even vegetables. As opposed to dí¶ner, which is more of a fast food option that is already cooked, these kebabs are usually cooked to order, often over a wood or charcoal fire. They’re typically served dí¼rí¼m style for easy eating and walking.
Börek: Pastry Made of a Thin Flaky Dough
There are a lot of varieties of Börek in Istanbul, but the most common is layers of dough similar to philo, stuffed with a feta-like cheese and parsley. This is cooked in a huge circular pan, often over a specialized cooking service that slowly spins the pan.
This is a breakfast favorite, with slices of the salty chewy dish either served at your breakfast table, or in a small bag to eat on the go.
Pide: Turkish Pizza
Pide, a oblong shaped flatbread stuffed with various toppings, is a great snack any time. Shops will have the various types piled up in the counter, and you can pick your favorite. They’ll heat it up (or not), and then slice it into finger food sized pieces. You can also try Pide’s cousin Lahmacun, a more traditional shaped round pizza, usually topped with spicy minced meat.
Kokoreç: Offal wrapped in sheep intestines
Kokoreç is not for the faint of heart (or stomach), as you can guess from the brief description above. Lamb or goat offal, consisting sweetbreads, hearts, lungs, or kidneys, are mixed with spices and then wrapped around and around with intestine until a large roll of offal is created.
This crazy sausage is then roasted on a horizontal spit over coals. It’s served on a baguette roll, chopping the mixture on the grill, sometimes with onion and pepper, before placing it on the bread. Full disclosure – we didn’t dare to try this, but it smelled delicious when walking by.
Kumpir: Stuffed Baked Potatoes
Start with a huge plain baked potato, and add any number topping. The toppings aren’t just butter and sour cream, however. Corn, peas, carrots, lamb sausage, cheese, ketchup and mayonnaise are typical. Seriously filling, and seriously good.
These deep fried balls stuffed with ground meat and bulgar wheat weren’t as readily available while we were in Istanbul as some of the items on this list, but we were able to track down one vendor selling them from a cart. Similar to an Indian Samosa, the filling is spicy and juicy, and the outer shell has a satisfying crunch. One was big enough for two of us to snack on.
This isn’t Starbucks coffee (although you’ll find plenty of that in Istanbul as well). Strong, thick, and served in a small espresso sized cup, Turkish coffee is thick with grounds, and requires some time to “settle.”
You also don’t want to down the last gulp, which will be mostly grounds. But, it’s a perfect wakeup drink after dinner. Interestingly, all the best Turkish coffee these days is made with coffee beans grown in Brazil.
Ok, maybe not street food, but you can’t walk down an Istanbul street at certain times of the day without seeing people sitting on small chairs or benches lining the sidewalk, stirring and sipping their tea.
Balik-ekmek: Fish Sandwich
Balik-ekmek literally means fish in bread. This iconic Istanbul street food is a simple fish sandwich with grilled mackerel, lettuce, and onion in a small loaf of bread. Originally grilled and served directly from fishing boats bringing in their catch, there are now specialized barges that sling these out to locals and tourists alike, next to the Galata Bridge.
There are rumors on the internet of a street vendor nicknamed Mario who makes the best Balik-ekmek, with freshly grilled fish and a variety of special sauces, but we were never able to find him.
Misir – Corn on the cob
This is mainly a summer treat – carts will boil or steam the corn, and then grill it. You can by it grilled or ungrilled, depending on your love of blackened corn kernels. One traveler we spoke with commented on one of the stands: “I’ll always associate the smell of burnt corn with Istanbul.”
Kestane – Roasted Chestnuts
Often sold in the same carts as the corn (above), these are the winter version of the corn snack. But, thanks to modern conveniences, previously frozen chestnuts are available year round. A local recommended us to stick with the fresh roasted chestnuts in season, as the frozen ones can be bitter.
Fresh squeezed juice to order, what else is there to say? I’d recommend pomegranate mixed with orange juice, rather than pomegranate on its own, which can be a little bitter. It also makes cuts the cost, with pomegranates running 3-4 times the cost of oranges.
Dondurma: Ice Cream
Turkish ice cream is slightly more “stretchy” than the usual ice creams you may be used to, and this is displayed by the ice cream vendors dressed in brightly colored outfits who try to draw you in for a cone.
The ice cream is really more about the show, with the ice cream guys running through a verbal patter while having you grab at a cone that just out of reach from you. You’ll pay non-street-food prices for the song and dance show, but it’s an experience.
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