With most Istanbul sightseeing spots only open from 09:00 till 17:00, you of course want to make most of the day and not waste any time by having a timely lunch. Luckily, eating on the street is very much a part of local life. You can’t walk from corner to corner on a street, cross a bridge, enter a square or park without coming across one or more snack shops, street stalls (büfe) or street vendors. Most of the snacks on display are delicious, cheap and innocent. But there are a few you may want to stay clear of to avoid the Sultan’s revenge (diarrhea).
Street vendors are omnipresent on Istanbul’s street. They display their goods in a variety of ways, going from a plain upside down box used as a table to a more professional glass-fronted push-car. Here’s a sample of what they have to offer.
Simit – A crisp, ring-shaped, savory roll covered with sesame seeds. Delicious when fresh and preferably washed down with ayran (salty liquid yoghurt).
- Açma – This doughnut lookalike is ring-shaped just like the simit, but doesn’t have a crust. It’s soft and oilier, hence less dry.
- Poğaça – A flaky, savory pastry. They come in different versions: plain (sade) or stuffed with pieces of cheese (peynirli), mince (kıymalı) or olives (zeytinli).
- Mısır – During the summer, you can find street sellers offering freshly boiled or grilled corn (mısır) on the cob. Unless you want it generously sprinkled with salt, make sure to tell the seller in time to go easy on it.
- Kestane – Street vendors selling corn in the summer, mostly shift to roasted chestnuts in winter time.
- Su – Water. With temperatures well above 30 C all summer long, you can’t go long without it. It’s perfectly safe to drink the bottles they offer, as long as you make sure the cap has never been opened before.
Street Stalls (Büfe)
Near busy public transportation hubs or in popular (tourist) areas, you’ll find plenty of small kiosks on street corners. These büfes typically sell cigarettes, phone-cards and non-alcoholic cold drinks in cans or small bottles, but most of them also sell inexpensive, tasteful thin roasted sandwiches (tost) and hot dogs (sosili sandviç). Do try out the kaşarlı tost, a sandwich with melted cheese.
Pastry Shops (Börekçi)
These too are excellent places for a quick breakfast or lunch, although you normally don’t enjoy it while standing in the street. A börekçi is usually a tiny shop, with only a handful of chairs and tables, offering tea, coffee or a small selection of cold drinks and börek.
Börek is a flaky pastry existing of several thin layers. There are different kinds, based on their shape, filling and cooking method. You may want to try out the juicy su böreği (something in between a pastry and a lasagna), peynirli börek (with cheese filling), patatesli börek (with potato filling), ıspanaklı börek (with spinach filling) or kıymalı börek (filled with minced meat).
Most of these shops also sell pide which is a pita like baked dough with the same filling options as börek.
Kebap, Köfte and Döner
These typical Turkish cheap but delicious eateries couldn’t be left out of this list. Here you’ll find an overview of the different kinds of kebap and 14 types of köfte. In the Sultanahmet area, you simply must check out Sultanahmet Köftecisi.
If you’re wandering around in Taksim, try out Çılgın Dürüm – my favorite döner eatery at the beginning of Istiklal Caddesi. Try out their excellent dürüm, a thin roasted sheet of bread, stuffed with döner, salad, a (hot) tomato sauce and french fries. You can have it spicy (acı) or not too spicy (orta).
Fish Sandwiches (Balık ekmek)
Balık ekmek is another typical Istanbul snack, and pretty tasteful and safe when prepared fresh. It’s pretty straightforward – a grilled or fried fresh fish inside a large piece of bread. The best way to explore this snack is in Eminönü, left from the Galata Bridge.
You’ll see them prepare the sandwiches on the nicely lined up boats, after which they hand them to customers on the shore.
Street Food to Stay Clear Of
Unless you want to have an army of bacteria for lunch, pass for the following major offenders:
Midye dolma – These are stuffed muscles. Nothing wrong with them and even delicious, but a huge risk when bought on the (sunny) streets. If you really want to try them, order them as a starter for dinner in a respected restaurant.
- Çiğ köfte – This is raw meat, kneaded by hand for hours, seasoned with plenty of spices. A delicacy, but not when sold on the streets. No matter how long you kneed it, it still stays raw meat exposed to high summer temperatures.
- Kokoreç – Lamb intestines cooked with herbs and spices, roasted horizontally on a skewer. Maybe not so much a bacteria heaven, but still… intestines?