I always say if you want to get to know a country, get to know their food. Food is not just sustenance for survival, but a way to show our culture. Our likes and dislikes. Preferences and styles of cooking. On a recent trip to Istanbul, Turkey I participated in one of the best food tours I’ve ever done. I found and booked this Istanbul food tour through AirBnB experiences, but I have added my guides information at the bottom of this article if you want to contact him directly.
I want to make clear that this is not a sponsored post. I did not receive anything for free; no extra gifts or discounts. I paid full fare like anyone for this Istanbul food tour and I do this so I can give unbiased reviews without feeling like I owe a good review to a host/guide.
That being said, I fully recommend you take this tour if you are a lover of food, and want to learn all about the different types of Turkish cuisine.
The tour starts by the Spice Market (Egyptian Spice Bazaar) by Eminonu station. If you are staying near Sultanahmet (check out our drone video of the blue mosque and hagia sophia in Sultanahmet!) it is just a 15-20 minute walk, or you can take the light rail from Sultanahmet station (3 stops). This tour began at 9 am with a short tour through the spice market. Latif explained to us a bit of the history of the market, and how the vendors are happy to teach you all about their wares. However do note that inside the market prices are much much higher than elsewhere in Istanbul, so the market is mostly for pictures. Do your spice shopping outside the Spice Market. Latif showed me how to get great quality saffron much cheaper than the tourist market. Right outside the Egyptian Spice Bazaar is another spice market, this one used mostly by people in the know. In fact, the vendors inside the market buy their stuff from the vendors right outside the doors.
Latif picked us up a breakfast medley from Muratbey, a shop specializing in Turkish cheese, and some simit from a street cart nearby. Simit is a classic Turkish street food which is similar to a bagel, although twisted and covered with sesame seeds. We proceeded down an alley where a table was set up for us with tableware and tea. We also received a couple skillets of menemen (which is like a shakshuka, but with scrambled eggs. For my Shakshuka recipe click here), or Turkish tomatoes and eggs.
From breakfast we headed straight to the ferry to head to the Asia side. We got on the ferry heading towards Kadikoy. The ferry costs 5 Lira each way, a little under 1 US dollar. The ride took about 20 minutes and was beautifully scenic. I recommend sitting on the top deck so you have a 360 degree view of the city.
Our first stop after our breakfast was coffee. I know, I was expecting coffee WITH breakfast, however in Turkey they do it differently. They eat breakfast first, with tea, and coffee is a separate entity unto itself. Therefore it is a special stop on this Istanbul food tour. Turkish coffee is not your standard Italian espresso, or a Starbuck’s Americano. While my ardent readers know I’m partial to my Moka pot, when in Turkey, do as the Turks.
Turkish coffee is delicious, but be careful not to drink it too fast or you’ll end up eating your coffee. That’s right, this is unfiltered coffee so best to drink in small sips and stop before you get to the sludge at the bottom. Nonetheless, it can be delicious if prepared well.
TURKISH COFFEE IS THE FOREFATHER TO BOSNIAN COFFEE. YOU CAN READ MY BOSNIAN COFFEE ARTICLE HERE.
If you’ve ever Googled best restaurants in Istanbul I’m sure you’ve seen Çiya Sofrasi pop up multiple times. This restaurant is the brainchild of Musa Dağdeviren who was a featured chef on Netflix’ Chef’s Table. He scoured the country and compiled over 1400 different traditional Turkish recipes from all the regions of Turkey. Of course we had to go here for our lunch, if only to learn how different the food styles can be across this vast country.
Latif did all the ordering for us (because how are we supposed to know what to get) and we were not hurting for selection. We got balloon bread, flatbread with herbs and spices, 5 different mezes, and a few different main dishes like stewed meat or stuffed veggies. My favourite would have to be the muhammara, which was the perfect mix of spicy and flavorful and perfect atop a nice rip of the balloon bread. They also had a fantastic hummus. It was quite similar to my recipe so if you want it at home, try my perfect hummus.
To be honest I did not know Turkish people were into pickling, but I guess as they were a nomadic people it doesn’t surprise me. They pickle everything! This entire stop was devoted to everything pickled. We tried picked cucumbers of course, but also picked beets, pickled garlic, pickled melon, and so much more. And to wash it all down, PICKLED BEET JUICE.
If you don’t like pickles, you may not like this stop, but I do think you should try everything anyways. After all, maybe you find that you like pickled peppers. At this stop they also sell a variety of sauces and preserves, and if you want to get the best Pomegranate Syrup in the world, I think it’s found at this shop. I bought a bottle to use in my future recipes (maybe meat marinades or glazes). A large bottle is 25 Turkish Lira.
For this stop we stopped at Mercan, a shop famous for their mussels. When I think of Turkey, the last thing I think about is seafood. However Istanbul is on one of the most famous straites in the world, and in between two large seas, so it only makes sense they do a good job with seafood.
Now in Istanbul, mussels are a streetfood. You’ll see vendors selling them all over the place. However the one thing you can’t be sure of is the quality. You don’t have to worry about that at Mercan because even though they serve mussels like street food, they have much higher quality control than your average street hawker.
We tried mussels two ways: stuffed and fried. I personally like the stuffed mussels more. They were served with a delicious aromatic rice which was just bursting with flavor. The fried mussels were not bad, and they came with a great dipping sauce, but I just wasn’t getting strong mussel flavor from them. That being said, it would make a great bar snack if I was out at night drinking.
Up next is the Tantuni, or Turkish Taco. Okay, maybe that isn’t giving it a fair shot, as it really is completely separate from a classic Mexican taco. This tantuni is essentially another type of street food enjoyed by people of all social classes. The restaurant is just called Kadikoy Tantuni and serves everything made to order.
What is essentially a lavash/pita filled with chopped and fried beef makes a perfect snack to pair with a beer (or with Ayran which we were served on this stop).
For those not in the know, Kokoreç is a Turkish delicacy. I say that knowing not everyone will be okay with eating it. It is similar to a Scottish Haggis in that it uses the intestines and offal of the animal, lamb in this case. It may scare some people away, but I implore you to give it a shot as it really is quite tasty.
The giant intestine and offal meat tube is cooked on a spit and served in a variety of different ways. The way we ate Kokoreç on this food tour was chopped up and fried once more to get it nice and crispy, then put inside of a nice piece of crusty bread. Yum!
On stop 8 we went to a restaurant called Kimyon which specializes in a dish called Kellepaca. Translated from Turkish, it means head-feet. This is because the soup is traditionally made using all parts of the animal, from the head to the feet. This restaurant however doesn’t use all parts of the animal, they specialize in just using one: the tongue. A cow’s tongue specifically. It is chopped into small cubes and cooked for hours until extremely tender.
The soup is rich and creamy, and there is the added bonus of a secret ingredient, garlic oil! When the oil and the soup mix it creates a flavor masterpiece that you just have to try for yourself.
Another famous stop, for stop 9 we went to Pide Sun. A place that gained mass popularity after being featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. The restaurant specializes in Pide, which many will say is like an Italian pizza, but more closely resembles a Georgian Khatchapurri.
We had three different types of pide and a side of manti (Turkish mini dumplings in sauce). By this point I am sure you can imagine how full we were all getting, and at this point some people decided that this was where they couldn’t eat anymore. But not me! I wanted to try everything I could, so try everything I did. The master of pide made us a selection, and I was going to try them all.
If you see the word kofte and expect to get a meatball, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. The traditional Çiğ köfte was originally a raw meatball not dissimilar to a Boeuf Tartare. These days it is impossible for a restaurant in Turkey to sell raw meat (they can however give it away as a gift…in some of the finer establishments), therefore this Çiğ köfte is strictly vegetarian.
Walking past the shop (Semsür Çiğköfte Çiğköfteci M.Hüseyin Usta ) you’ll see two big mounds of Çiğ köfte sitting there, ready to be scooped into either a pita, or some lettuce. It depends if you want it as a light bite while you walk to your destination, or if you want it as a meal. What is inside it is a base of bulgur wheat that is kneaded with onions and water until a paste is formed. From there it is seasoned using the traditional seasonings and served as a meze or a street food walking snack. As you’ll no doubt be full by the time you get here on your Istanbul food tour, getting the single bite version in a piece of lettuce is the way to go.
If you want a recipe for Cig Kofte, here it is from one of the cutest YouTube cooking channels ever. Seriously, an adorable grandma teaching you how to make traditional Turkish food.
I don’t know why the heaviest and richest meal was saved until second to last, but I wasn’t complaining. We got to eat an Iskender Kebab at the place where the Iskender kebab was invented.
What was originally created over 100 years ago, is still going strong. Served by the same family you can see pictures of every proprietor on the walls. Currently it is managed by a father, but of course his sons are hard at work cooking and shaving the meat.
An Iskender kebab is not wrapped in a pita or lavash like you’d get on the streets of Germany. This is extremely high quality lamb that has been cooked to perfection, cut off the spit, and placed over small pieces of bread on a plate. To accompany it is a dense piece of cream which cuts the richness of the meat. But speaking of richness, once the kebab arrives at your table the entire place is drenched in hot melted butter. Come hungry, leave happy.
Alas we are finally at the end of our delicious Istanbul food tour, and what better way to finish a full day of eating with some dessert. That’s right, I’m talking about Ice Cream!
To be honest I was a little apprehensive when we arrived outside a chain ice cream shop, however as our wonderful guide Latif explained to us there was a reason. The shop is called Mado and there are very few shops in Istanbul that make truly traditional Turkish ice cream. The reason being is that real Turkish ice cream uses goat’s milk and orchid starch. The latter being extremely rare and illegal for export outside Turkey. This is the starch derived from the tubers of an orchid plant and what causes the ice cream to be extremely thick and creamy.
There was also a secret food tasting that I am not going to mention in this article, but something every visitor to Istanbul should try. I recommend taking the same tour yourself and finding out!
Overall I can honestly say that this tour really opened up my eyes to the history, culture, and variety of Turkish food. Istanbul is the meeting point between East and West, and you can truly see it with all the different food influences.
While you can absolutely use this article as a guide to do the trek yourself, I would highly recommend taking the tour because Latif (the guide) has years of experience and was able to tell me things about the food I would have otherwise never known. I am including all the addresses for all the shops I went to at the bottom, but I am also including the tour information because it is most definitely worth it.
1. Egyptian Spice Bazaar: Rüstem Paşa, Erzak Ambarı Sok. No:92, 34116 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
2. Turkish Coffee: This was a street cart you’ll see all around Kadikoy, just pick one and relax
3. Çiya Sofrası : Caferağa, Güneşli Bahçe Sk. No:43, 34710 Kadıköy/İstanbul, Turkey
4. Ozcan Famous Pickles: Osmanağa, Güneşli Bahçe Sok. No:7, 34710 Kadıköy/İstanbul, Turkey
5. Mercan (Mussles): Caferağa, Yasa Cd. 15/A, 34710 Kadıköy/İstanbul, Turkey
6. Kadikoy Tantuni: Osmanağa, Leylak Sk. 13/D, 34714 Kadıköy/İstanbul, Turkey
7. Reks Kokorec: Caferağa, Kadife Sk. No:1, 34710 Kadıköy/İstanbul, Turkey
8. Kimyon Kadıköy: Caferağa, Kadife Sk. 17/C, 34710 Kadıköy/İstanbul, Turkey
9. Pide Sun: Caferağa, Şükran Apt, Moda Cd. 67/B, 34710 Kadıköy/İstanbul, Turkey
10: Semsür Çiğköfte Çiğköfteci M.Hüseyin Usta: Caferağa Mah., Moda Cd. 50/C, 34000 Kadıköy/İstanbul, Turkey
11. Kebapçı İskender: Caferağa, Albay Faik Sözdener Cd. No:3, 34710 Kadıköy/İstanbul, Turkey
12: Mado: Caferağa, Moda Cad. No:132, 34710 Kadıköy/İstanbul, Turkey
Tour Guide: Latif
Tour Length: 6+ hours
Group Size: 6 max, unless you arrange a custom private tour
Price: 500 Turkish Lira per person, including all food and transportation.
Latif is also the owner/operatior of Istanbul Layover Tours, in which you can arrange custom tours to suit your layover when passing through Turkey. As Turkish Airlines flies to more countries than any other airline, these layover tours are a great way to see a country even if you aren’t staying there.
Again, if you are a foodie and really want to get the most out of the Istanbul food tour, ask as many questions as you want! Latif is like a walking food encyclopedia and knows an absolute ton about Istanbul and Turkey. Take pictures, and eat as much as you can. But please pace yourself, you don’t want to be like half my group that got too full around stop 9!
This article originally appeared in Cooking To Entertain (Cody’s food blog)