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Mar 25, 2011 06:28 AM

Istanbul - brief overview of culinary highlights

My week-long business trip to Istanbul is almost over. I have had an opportunity to sample at least some aspects of Turkey's culinary culture, and greatly enjoyed all of it. Here is just a very brief summary of some of my key conclusions. Obviously this is only of some vague interest for people who have not actually been to Turkey before - it was my first time and anything I have seen and sampled is therefore unbelievably basic.

My biggest thanks go to another chowhounder, radiopolitic. He has been incredibly generous with his recommendations and his time this week, has taken me and a friend to many great places and it is safe to say that I would not have had anything close to the fun I did have this week without his presence.

Anyway, in no particular order:

1. Meat and aniseed works!

I am not a big fan of aniseed drinks like ouzo and pastis, so I expected to be underwhelmed by the combination of grilled meat and raki that is so popular in Turkey. I was wrong. Raki and meat are made for each other, and if you are planning to have, say, spiced grilled lamb anytime soon, consider giving raki or ouzo a chance as the drink of choice to go with it - even if you normally do not like drinks of that type.

2. Turkish kebabs are DRY

As someone who would probably not have survived university without the kindness of kebab vendors offering their wares at 3 am after a beer-soaked night out when everywhere else was shut, I retain a real affection for the humble kebab. I was therefore very curious to see how kebabs in Turkey differ from what we get in the UK, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. The short and surprising answer is that they are very dry. The Turks do not put any sauce whatsoever into kebabs here, and the only moisture you can hope to get is whatever you can extract from the slice of tomato and/or lettuce that may form part of the kebab.

My requests for sauce were met with the sort of crazy foreigner looks that waiters in my adopted country of Japan usually reserve for fools ordering coca cola with sushi or some similar sacrilege. My tip would be to bring a very small flask of your favourite kebab sauce to a kebab joint in Istanbul, hide it in a trouser pocket and unobtrusively empty its contents into the kebab when the vendor is not looking. This is with the benefit of hindsight: my rather unelegant solution was to pour a yoghurt drink into the kebab, which was not a popular approach.

3. Local knowledge is king

I don't have any local knowledge, obviously, but thanks to the brilliant and generous help of radiopolitic, I managed to sample some excellent food for very decent prices. Radiopolitic and his friends took me to a place with a wonderful and tasty selection of meze where we ate for several hours, drank several bottles of raki and ended up paying less than 60 lira each. That is the price of three beers in my hotel.

The discrepancy in value for money between international hotels and posh touristy restaurants vs good, local places frequented by Istanbul based foodies is enormous. If you ever go to Istanbul, make sure you ask someone with local knowledge for help. Even better if you find someone generous enough to take you somewhere.

Aside from the price, the quality of the food will differ. I have not had a bad meal here because I never went anywhere not recommended by people based here, but from depressing accounts of other friends I know that bad food indeed exists in abundance in Istanbul, and sadly often it coincides with places recommended in the guidebooks.

4. Turkey produces a lot of wine!

I have not sampled many Turkish wines yet, but there is a place that offers 350 different Turkish wines I look forward to visiting after my business trip ends later today. The extensive wine list at my hotel is exclusively Turkish.

5. Turkish desserts: a revelation

There is a real wealth of desserts here. Many are similar to or synonymous with desserts of other Middle Eastern countries (e.g., baklava, lots of desserts rich in pistachio nuts etc), then there are some spectacular milk-based desserts and then there is a dessert that contains a large amount of chicken. That's right, CHICKEN. I believe it's called tavuk göğsü. The texture is stringy (think pulled pork), in a milky, firm-ish pudding, with cinnamon on top. (There is another version that involves caramel as well, but I did not want to dilute the chicken.) This may not sound immediately appealing, but tastes very, very good and you should definitely try it.

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  1. Aso,

    Thank you so much for this post. My wife and I will be stopping by Istanbul on our way back to the US from the ME in a few weeks, and we are quite keen on having some fantastic eats while there.

    Do you have any specific recommendations you would make, to add to the helpful general information above?

    Thank you so much!

    1 Reply
    1. re: a213b

      I am working on a blog now about restaurants in Sirkeci, which is close to sultanahmet in Istanbul. please feel free to check it out at

    2. Remember your posts when l was in Tokyo for 4 months, going to Istanbul this summer and will use your recommendations, thanks.

      1. I know this is an old post - but I have a kebab question. While I understand the lack of a kebab sauce as may be present in Europe - I'm curious how tahina is perceived as a kebab topping?

        In Jerusalem, I'm used to seeing street kebabs served "dry" or with just a squeeze of lemon - but typically in restaurants asking for tahina is considered a fairly mainstream request.

        2 Replies
        1. re: cresyd

          Cresyd, my recent experience may be different from the OP's. I only had kebabs in kebab restaurants and I never found them unseasoned. They were always well-spiced, juicy, and never needed sauce. Street kebabs may be different, but I didn't have any.

          1. re: PegS

            I was more asking for a region variation and out of curiosity. Unfortunatley, at this time I have no coming plans to visit Turkey.

            Of all of the kebabs I've had, some of the best have been from street vendors and some of the worst from restaurants. As well as the reverse.

        2. asking for tahini on your kebap in istanbul will surely bring out the "weird foreigner stare" as much as any other sauce. sorry, but i agree, bring your own or find one of the few places that serve Euro-style kebap "MR. Kebap in Sirkeci for example.

          1 Reply
          1. re: sirkecisnax

            Thanks for the insight - in general how present do you think tahini is in Turkish food overall?

          2. tahini is common in desserts (ie: tahini helva) or for breakfast there is a food called pekmez which is a very thick fruit syrup which is mixed with tahini and spread on bread, Also you may find hummus which is of course tahini mixed with chick peas. Other then that you can pretty much assume you wont see it... but i must add a caveat in that this is from the perspective of Istanbul cuisine. in other parts of the country the case may vary.

            1 Reply
            1. re: sirkecisnax

              Just curious - moving south into more Levantine food - tahini definitely has a more prominent role. But given how you've described Istanbul cuisine, I definitely understand why tahini on a kebab would be seen as odd.