Istanbul: the lowdown on street food

I’m clearly determined to keep telling you about my trip to Istanbul last century. I wrote about some of the street food already, there was the strange sticky candy, the tempting ring-shaped bread (simit), roasted chestnuts, and of course the shawarma. We also came across a few other must-trys on the streets of Istanbul. So in addition to everything I wrote about previously, here’s a list of things every tourist must have in Istanbul:

1. Pomegranate juice:

Although fresh pomegranate juice is available in Kuwait, my sister and I could not resist buying a glass of freshly squeezed juice from one of vendors in Sultan Ahmet Square.

If you like your juice ice-cold, you’ll be disappointed because these vendors clearly don’t have coolers or ice boxes. They’ll squeeze the pomegranates that have been out in the sun all day. The juice was not bad, but it wasn’t as sweet as we expected. I’ve come to the conclusion that the darker, more enticing the pomegranate, the blander the taste. If blander is even a word.

2. Corn on the cob

I’m never too eager to buy corn on the cob. It’s messy; it gets in my teeth, sometimes it’s not cooked well and sometimes the corn is tasteless (note that I did not say bland). Not to mention that most of our food already has enough corn in it. That said, when you’re walking around Istanbul and you see eight (nine, ten!) of these corn on the cob carts, you just might give in.

My sister gave in and she says the corn was delicious. So, if you’re going to buy yourself some corn, go ahead. You have my permission, I won’t judge you. You might want to compare prices first because as is the case with most street vendors, prices vary greatly. You can get corn for as little as 1.5 TL and as much as 6 TL – if not more!

3. Clams

Yes, right there on the street and with a squeeze of lemon. And they did not smell good.

If you’ve been to Istanbul and you were brave enough to indulge in some shellfish from a street seller, do share your story with the rest of us.

5. Sweet breads

At least that’s what I think they are. I didn’t get a chance to try one but when I saw this old man carrying that tray laden high with baked goods… I almost threw down my bag and chased after him. Come to think of it, I’m not sure why I didn’t! I was probably noshing on something else at the time.

6. Grilled meats

On the Galata Bridge (that connects Eminönü to Karaköy) local elderly men fish, groups of rowdy teenagers share a cigarette, couples walk hand in hand and young men grill and sell chunks of meat.

Again, we were not brave enough to try this – but it was definitely something the locals eat. And the more adventurous tourists, I suppose. If you do decide to walk across the Galata Bridge, beware the stench – the water is very polluted.

7. Sahlep

If you’re traveling Istanbul in the winter you’re likely to come across street vendors with big brass pots of sahlep.

I’ve heard of sahlep before, but haven’t tried it. One night, as we trudged back to our hotel in the cold, we stopped to buy cups of sahlep. It tasted like condensed milk to me, sprinkled with cinnamon – too sweet for my liking. I later found out that it’s not supposed to be condensed milk, that real sahlep is basically a warm, thick, milky drink made from the ground roots of mountain orchids. I highly doubt that’s what the street vendors serve though. They probably use some powdered form of sahlep which is sold in supermarkets around Istanbul.

So there you have it. That’s my list of the major street foods in Istanbul. Most of the food looked clean and fresh, I didn’t hesitate when buying bread or chestnuts, but in general you have every right to be wary. Choose wisely, eat slowly and enjoy!

If you’ve been to Istanbul, I’d love to know which of these foods you’ve tried or if you managed to come across something different.

9 thoughts on “Istanbul: the lowdown on street food

  1. Istanbul street clams are stuffed with bulgar/freek and herbs. delicious!….and yes, I placed a lot of confidence in my Middle Eastern stomach immunity with this street shellfish experiment.

    • Haha no way! But I can totally see you trying those clams. What else did you try in Istanbul? How long ago was your trip?

  2. The pomegranate juice (nar suyu), I wish that was readily (read: cheaply) available in NY. Also, by the Galata Bridge, at night, did you notice the fish sandwich vendors? Good stuff IMO, locally caught, with a pinch of lemon, lettuce, and on a bun. And, can’t neglect the çay (tea) and simit (sesame circles of dough) mates either.

    • Hi there, and welcome to my blog :)

      I don’t think I saw the fish sandwich vendors. And I’m not half as adventerous as I’d like to be when it comes to food. But the simit was sooo good. We kept squeezing it in between meals.

  3. Pingback: Istanbul eats: the best kebabs « F. scribbles

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