Istanbul street food is among the best in the world. It’s culturally rich and, like the culture that so captivated us, is full of strong but refined flavours. It draws from incredible produce and proteins and guarantees a new aroma to make your stomach rumble around every corner. In short, Istanbul street food has been the best we’ve had on the trip so far. (Don’t worry Bangkok, we’re still coming for you).
Vendors set up stalls on everything from folding card tables to permanent indoor/outdoor cafes, or büfes. But the most iconic Istanbul street food stall is the glass front pushcart.
If you play your day right, it’s possible to fit all the big name Istanbul street foods into a single stomach in a single day. From breakfast on the go, to quite possibly the world’s tastiest late night snack on the way home, here goes:
10 Istanbul street food classics you can eat in one day
Tea is the lifeblood that keeps Istanbul going. Turks have their first tulip shaped glass at breakfast, and stay hydrated on it throughout the day. How is tea an Istanbul street food? Because it’s offered (and expected) everywhere from bazaars to banks.
Çay is served black, black, and black. Although going to town on sugar cubes does seem perfectly acceptable. Most cafés offer herbal alternatives, and tourist oriented ones serve apple tea as well. If you don’t have time to sit at one of the city’s lovely street-side cafes, shop owners are more than happy to have a glass (or three) delivered while you browse.
Simit is the Istanbul street food for commuters. Although crispier and less doughy than bagels, these sesame seed crusted halos of street stall goodness still do wonders for bagel-deprived expats. Especially when served with Istanbul style schmear. The city must go through thousands a day; simit carts are everywhere. These carts sometimes carry a selection of sweeter pastries that often incorporate Turkish cinnamon.
3. Misir (maize)
In Istanbul corn on the cob is served steamed, or steamed and then grilled. For us there’s only ever one option: grilled. Topped with S&P and spices, there’s no better Istanbul street food for a stroll along the Bosphorus. Our Istanbul visit correlated with summer corn season, and we got to see misir street vendors in full swing. In winter the same vendors sell similarly roast chestnuts.
4. Döner Kabap
Meat on a stick—or rather meat grilled on a stick—is the quintessential Istanbul street food. Massive vertical döner spits rotate on every corner of the city. Stalls from Taksim to the river offer al fresco dining with covered kitchens. Massive spits of lamb, beef, and a combination of the two often broil alongside roasting chickens, another kabap favourite. Döner meat is shaved off in small, juicy, bite-sized pieces, and used for various dishes,wraps, and sandwiches.
For an elevated and slightly more vitamin-rich kabap, look for a stand that serves veg accoutrement (heavy on the pickles and peppers) on the side.
You’re going to need something to wash down all that meat (and fill your belly with probiotics in the event that it wasn’t totally fresh). And aryan does the trick. This yogurt drink is kind of like a salty lassi and it’s served at casual lunch joints across the city. Restaurants and stalls that take their aryan seriously mix their own blend of yogurt, water and salt, and serve it fresh from refrigerated fountains. But ayran is so popular that multiple prepackaged brands enjoy steady sales.
6. Fish Sandwich boats at Eminönü
These nautical sandwiches are an Istanbul street food institution. The three fishing boats turned sandwich stalls under Galata Bridge drip with opulent old orient decoration. As they dip and bob on the surprisingly turbulent Golden Horn, a crew of four miraculously stays balanced while cooking up sandwiches and a darn good show for hundreds of people.
There’s no menu. Everyone gets the same thing: a seared, bone-in fish filet on a fresh white bun with some coleslaw. The identical boats serve up one identical sandwich after the other.
These boat mongers sling fish sandwiches morning through night. There’s always a line. Once you have your sammies, you pick your way through the crowd looking for a seat at one of the knee-high tables. If you look overwhelmed enough, a waiter will find a nook to muscle you into. Other waiters buzz by selling pickles in pickle juice, and various soft drinks.
7. Içli Köfte
We can’t talk Turkish food without getting bulgur wheat involved. Icli köfte pack a yummy grab bag of ground meat (again beef and lamb are big), onion, spices, and parsley into bulgur wheat shells. The mini footballs are then steamed or fried. Guess which way is tastiest?
We had them in the streets of Kadiköy, but Sabırtaşı Restaurant is known to fry a mean icli köfte.
This Turkish-style pizza starts with pide, a slightly leven, slightly crispy flatbread. It’s topped with with a pepper sauce (which sometimes includes tomato), ground beef, and onion, parsley, and sumac. Greens and lemon wedges come on the side for you to sprinkle as liberally as you’d like. Follow the lead of fellow diners and roll your lahmaeun burrito-style to eat it with your hands.
For pizza-philes like ourselves, lahmaeun makes a great light meal or snack anytime of the day. You can order as many as you want, but note that they’ll all come stacked on one plate.
9. Islak (Wet) Burgers
Anthony Bourdain scarfed one. Cliff calls them the Istanbul street food answer to the Whitecastle burger. I call them the answer to what happens to all that leftover döner meat.
These squishy little street burgers look like they’ve been borrowed from a grade school cafeteria, but the youth of Istanbul (and now the father of my future children) love them. There’s a dense concentration of islak burger stands around Taksim Square. As the night bears down, revelers go from standing at the bar to queuing for a wet burger (or six). Hair of the dog, meet meat of the dog. Just kidding, I hope.
10. Midye dolma
For the night’s grand finale, I give you midye dolma. This is the Istanbul street food platonic ideal. These cracked rice-filled mussels (cooked, but served at room temp) have a reputation that proceeds them. We heard a lot of “you have to try” and “don’t go anywhere near” advice from all directions. Our ex-pat friend Forest doesn’t touch the things before average daily highs drop below 70°. Seline, his more intrepid Istanbul native girlfriend, scoffs and says you just need to know where to go. So she showed us.
I think all four of us where genuinely nervous. But once the first dolma went down the hatch, I couldn’t get enough. These puppies are my favourite street eat I’ve had anywhere in the world. I like midye dolma so much that I’m lobbying to serve them late night at our wedding.
On top of a perfect black mussel, midye dolma cracked rice is flavoured with toasted pine nuts, onion and garlic, pimento, tomato, raisins, and fresh mint and dill, topped with a squeeze of lemon juice and fresh chopped parsley. The result is like a perfect one-bite risotto served on the half shell.
Good vendors go through 100s in a night. We’ll take responsibility for a tray or two.