Istanbul has long been an incredibly international city, and because it has changed hands, ideologies, and governments so many times in its long and storied history, it has built a varied and exemplary culinary tradition.
Turkish food is influenced by its residents as much as its geography, and within it, you’ll find remnants of Far East traders just as readily as nearby indigenous ingredients. While nearly every city in Turkey has its own unique culinary traditions, none have quite the variety of its largest city, where you’ll find a bit of everything Turkey has to offer, often with its own local twist.
While there are tons of foods that call Istanbul home, here are ten you can’t miss if you find yourself in this legendary city.
Istanbul straddles the continents of Europe and Asia with the Bosporus running in between. One of the favorite local marine staples pulled from this strait is the humble mussel. To make midye dolma, the mussels are cleaned and gently opened in warm, fresh water, then stuffed with rice, onion, pine nuts, dill, and parsley, and steamed in a pan.
Though they are most popularly found near local beaches and the waterfront on a hot day, you’ll also likely run into midye dolma carts open late near bars and restaurants. They’re best eaten straight off the shell, doused in lemon juice.
A staple of Turkish cuisine, you can find some version of this soup served as a starter at many restaurants in Istanbul. A deceptively simple soup made of red or yellow lentils, onion, and sometimes potato, it is almost exclusively served topped with a simple but elegant condiment made of ground paprika and oil or butter.
Mercimek çorbası can be eaten at any time of day, even breakfast. While the base ingredients are unchanging, additional components can vary by family or city. Popular additions include dried mint, cilantro, or parsley, while many folks refuse to enjoy this dish without a squeeze of lemon over the top.
Translating to ‘meatball’ in English, there are hundreds of different recipes for these across Turkey, and there are nearly as many ways to eat them. As a street food, tourists can easily find flattened meatball-patties layered within grilled pita or thick, crusty bread and topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, and mayo with paprika. But as the most ubiquitous meat dish in Turkey, there are tons more options for those willing to look.
Popular variations include salçalı köfte, meatballs stewed in a tomato-based sauce, or İnegöl köfte, which, in addition to the traditional beef, lamb, and salt, also contains breadcrumbs, though there is some debate over the authenticity of this version. While every region of Turkey has their own signature recipe, in Istanbul, Izgara Köfte reigns. This, the simplest version of grilled meatballs, is best served with sliced onion, chopped parsley, and yoghurt, alongside several pieces of bread.
You may have seen this popular Turkish food described as Turkish pizza, but their origin is Middle Eastern rather than European. Unlike pizza, Lahmacun has a cracker-thin, crispy crust that’s rolled out with a rolling pin rather than stretched by hand. They are topped with minced meat mixed with onion, tomato, herbs, and garlic, and are frequently flavored with spices like chili, clove, cumin, and cinnamon.
A typical menu starter in restaurants, you’ll also find them being served right on the street, fresh off a wooden peel from a very hot, hopefully wood-fired, oven. The custom is to roll them into a rough cylinder around a generous portion of piyaz – an onion and parsley salad – and are a local favorite for a midday meal.
You may know this fabled sweet by its English name, Turkish delight. You may only be familiar with the pale pink, rose-flavored version that’s been sliced into diminutive cubes and dusted in confectioners’ sugar, but there are many other styles and flavors of this omnipresent Turkish dessert.
Lokum was invented by Bekir Affendi, an Istanbulite by way of Anatolia. He opened his signature sweet shop, Haci Bekir, on an unassuming street in Istanbul near the famed spice market nearly 250 years ago, and it is still open today. There you’ll find the signature flavors you may have already heard of, like rose, lemon, or bergamot. But if you’re willing to expand your palate, the other popular flavors in Istanbul include plain with pistachio, aromatic anise, or cinnamon, while some intriguing outliers are even dusted with chili or desiccated coconut.
This flaky, syrupy dessert has made its way all over the world, so even those who have never been to Turkey may already be familiar, though many may not realize the intense labor that goes into creating them. Baklavas contain very simple ingredients – paper-thin pastry, pistachio, and a thick, sugary syrup, but each element is extremely carefully prepared.
The pastry dough itself is so famously difficult to produce that only the most established bakeries still attempt it by hand, with the most successful patissiers often beginning their apprenticeships in childhood. It is then layered precisely, amid copious amounts of chopped pistachio, preferably from the very best harvest, fresh, melted butter, and cooled sugar syrup that’s been flavored with rose or lemon. The tiny resultant dessert is barely two mouthfuls but is delicious enough to make one forget how difficult they are to elaborate.
The unofficial national drink of Turkey, ayran is the slightly salty yogurt drink you may have seen prepackaged at grocers and street food stalls. But popular as it is to drink from the ubiquitous peel-top single-serving containers, in Turkish homes, it’s just as common to make your own.
While the basic recipe remains the same – plain yoghurt, water, salt and ice, blended until frothy – each individual has their own favorite way of preparing it. Salt, specifically, is generally added to taste rather than in precise amounts, while some prefer the addition of parsley or dried mint.
If you’ve visited Istanbul yourself, you’ve likely seen at least a handful of the hundreds of pideci – pide shops – that sell this beloved fast food. They’re everywhere, some of them have been churning out these boat-shaped flat breads filled with meat and vegetables for the better part of a couple hundred years.
But regardless of the relative age of the pideci you chose to visit, a line or crowd of locals is usually a good sign as to the quality. While there are countless different varieties, all of them delicious, if it’s your first time you may want to start with the basics. Ground beef and onion might be the most popular way to top your pide, and some places will crack an egg on top before it goes into the oven.
Found on nearly every busy street corner in central Istanbul, simit is as delicious on its own as it is on the side of a meal. Commonly known as a Turkish bagel, likely because of its round shape and coating of seeds, simit looks similar, but the preparation yields a much different texture and flavor.
While a bagel is generally boiled in an alkaline bath before it is baked, the Turkish simit is shaped into its famed circular shape, then dipped in a mixture of water and pekmez – grape molasses – before it is coated in sesame seeds and baked in a hot oven. This leaves the crust chewier, and a bit sweeter, than the bagels you may be used to.
If you’re looking for something a bit more substantial to break your fast than the cheese, olives, bread, and honey that are available everywhere in Istanbul, you may want to seek out a place to try menemen, or Turkish egg delicacy. This simple, traditional food is made from beaten egg, scallion, garlic, onion, chili, and tomato, all baked together in a small, single-serving dish. As soon as it is cooked through, it is served to you with several pieces of crusty bread to eat it with, as it is seen as untoward to eat with utensils.
While it may be breakfast enough on its own for you, hearty eaters will be delighted to find out that menemen is frequently enjoyed as part of a larger kahvaltı – Turkish breakfast – so if you were looking forward to the accouterments of a large breakfast meze, there’s no need to feel forced to choose between them.