Finally, you’ve booked yourself a ticket, and you’re in the city where East meets West. But what do you eat? You may be dismayed to know that a decade in Istanbul wouldn’t expose you to all the fascinating delights the Turkish cuisine holds, but if you want a shortcut to the kitchen, here are 12 iconic and popular dishes to try in Istanbul. You may want to bring your camera, for you’ll find yourself needing to share the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Appendix: Köfte (name of the food) at Sultanahmet Köftecisi (name of the restaurant)
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1. Köfte at Sultanahmet Köftecisi
Sultanahmet Köftecisi is one of the oldest restaurants in Istanbul, and its köfte is accepted as one of the best in the world.
There may be many imitators, but there’s only one original. This is a stripped-down version if you find the köftes elsewhere to have way too many spices (and not just chili). If you want to, you can smother it in the spicy sauce.
The mains consist only of elegant meatballs and a lamb shish made from tender thighs. If you want a home-like feel, you can order the buttery rice, or if you’re in the mood for fast food, the crispy French Fries are your best friend.
Whether you like your dessert milky or not, this minimalistic yet sophisticated fast-food joint has sütlaç and semolina halva that’s a smooth, creamy touch of heaven. For a quick bite in a touristic suburb, this place serves juicy meatballs at a wallet-friendly price.
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2. Homemade dishes at Çiya Sofrası
Do not ever leave Turkey without tasting what Turkish people cook and eat at home. And in Istanbul, one of the best restaurants to try homemade Turkish food is Çiya Sofrası. It is owned by the famous Turkish chef Musa Dağdeviren.
Çiya’s menu changes daily. There are some staples, of course, like the lentil-heavy Ezo Gelin soup or the tamarind sherbet that’ll make you go “ooh!” You can taste the love in dishes like the roasted Chard Root with a chili-con-carne feel with its red kidney beans, carrots, garlic, and onion.
There are intriguing dishes like minced meat wrapped in a creamy celery cover or stuffed chard if you like meat. The Hannar-i Goşt dish is not shy about combining pomegranates with turmeric with veal.
The desserts are also extraordinary. You have the more traditional kind with the evaporated milk with figs, cheesy künefe but the walnut dessert with its green walnut shell processed with limestone is a mind boggler, as are the tomato and eggplant dessert. Their pumpkin dessert even has its own twist with the silky-smooth tahini.
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3. Kuru fasulye at Erzincanlı Ali Baba
One of the most popular Turkish foods is kuru fasulye, a stew dish made from dried white beans. Turkey has some excellent takes on this humble legume that might just convert anyone who isn’t sold yet.
Erzincanlı Ali Baba serves up some of the best kuru fasulye in Istanbul and perhaps in the world.
If you like yours with more beans than sauce or vice versa, you can order accordingly. Blend in with the locals and order a plate of rice, pickles, and a glass of ayran. Enjoy the treats with Turkish tea as you watch tourists milling around the historic Süleymaniye Mosque.
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4. Cağ kebabı at Şehzade Cağ Kebab
In a narrow, bustling passageway sits a chef so grand, you’ll want to take pictures. It’s not just his Ottoman style with his bright red fez, his mustachioed stern face, but rather it’s the way he so carefully, delicately leans over into the wood-fired oven to pull out the perfect shish of meat.
Tender, dripping with fat, Cağ kebabı is the horizontal version of the döner, except the spices are a little more minimalistic and instead of being cooked vertically in an electric oven, you can see the chef stick a skewer in, cut a little off, then stick the skewer in another cooked-to-perfection part.
Cağ kebabı is not a sandwich or a wrap; but instead, you’ll be gifted with lavash bread with which you can make a wrap. Before you fill everything on the table inside your wrap, make your first wrap only with the meat and nothing else. This is the way.
There will also be the savory onions with the tangy sumac on the table. If you want to, you can fill your wrap with salad and drizzle in a bit of spicy ezme. If you do add ezme, the yogurt and ayran will put out that fire. At least, until you get to the Traditional Erzurum dessert “Kadayıf Dolması” with pistachio in syrupy, honeyed sweetness.
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5. Döner kebab at Karadeniz Döner Asım Usta
Is there a need for us to explain what döner kebab is? Before the world knew of Turkey, they knew of their döner. However, This stereotypical Turkish dish takes on a new meaning here at Karadeniz Döner Asım Usta.
The vertical oven hosts a döner that’s bigger than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Watching the chef’s special technique to get through the juicy meat is mesmerizing. You may wish to go towards lunch as they sell out quickly. The bread, too, belongs in its own league.
As this spot is a living legend, you may wish to prepare yourself for no spots being available, yet fortunately, Beşiktaş and its backstreets are fun to explore.
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6. Iskender kebab at Iskender Iskenderoğlu
At the end of the 19th century, a culinary superhero invented this spellbinding dish; Iskender kebab. He was the great grandfather of Mr. Iskender, who still runs this restaurant in Istanbul.
You know that the Iskender kebab you’re eating is the best of the best when the hands make it are the grandchildren of the culinary superstar who invented this dish and that he should be knighted in every country. Hence the name “Iskenderoğlu” translates literally as the sons of Iskender.
Iskender is a bed of grilled bread, a heaping of döner kebab, a huge splash of tangy red tomato sauce. To its right is strained yogurt, so thick you can pick it up with a fork, and to its left is buttery rice (or bulgur rice).
The chef will then drizzle hot butter over your dish. What you have is a marvel that’s so enchanting that it captivated an entire nation.
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7. Karışık Izgara (Mixed grill) at Beyti Restaurant
Would you love to add your name to an impressive list of celebrities, politicians, and astronauts like Nixon, Demirel, Arthur Miller, Ludwig Erhard, Li Xiannian, and more? Mr. Beyti, the originator of the Beyti kebab, opened the doors to his restaurant in the 1980s, and in it, you’ll find a mix of contemporary design with Ottoman art but, more importantly, some of the best kebabs in Istanbul.
That said, if you really want to feast, the mixed grill (Beyti Usulu Karışık Izgara) will have a bit of everything from kebabs to köfte so you won’t feel remorse at not trying everything. Moreover, you can pick a bottle of red Turkish wine that’ll suit at least one of the cuts of meat.
There are vegetarian options as starters, but pair up enough of them, and you’ll find your tummy smiling with artichokes, celery, and eggplant rice… just to name a few.
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8. Grilled turbot at Balıkçı Kahraman
A favorite amongst international celebrities and always highly featured in the food section of newspapers and magazines, this restaurant is one of the best seafood restaurants in Istanbul. Especially with the turbot – a prized fish with a delicate flavor.
Grilling fish is a complex skill, particularly when you consider that it’s easier to overcook one part and leave the other part raw than it is to cook everything thoroughly and to the perfect temperature. The turbot, however, is another kettle of fish and requires mastery that the average cook won’t have.
If you’re coming with a group of friends, you can spend the night in merriment while you order this fish as a small portion or a whole kilo to fill everyone’s stomach. All that’s done is that it’s served with some onions to bring out the savouriness, a hint of a rocket to freshen it up, and a wedge of lemon to brighten this elusive fish.
The hot starters are a world upon their own, as is the handmade cranberry juice. If you really want something sweet, you can absorb elegant fisherman’s boat-esque décor with a milky kadayıf that’s made of pixie dust.
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9. Büryan Kebab at Siirt Şeref Büryan 1892
‘Succulent’ may not be enough to describe the luscious, fleshy büryan, which is a pit-roasted lamb served boneless or on-the-bone as per your choice. And the best place to eat büryan kebab in Istanbul is Siirt Şeref Büryan 1892 restaurant located in Kadınlar Pazarı which is one of the lively markets of Istanbul.
It’s elegant in its exquisite for the long cooking times as well as its restraint when it comes to spice. Softer than custard, it melts in your mouth. Although missing the büryan will be in your top ten list of regrets, spice fans may also wish to try the Adana kebab.
Vegetarians need not feel left out with the vegetarian plate with which even the meat-heavy dishes would be envious of the bulgur and the sexy, smoky eggplant that’s taking their place.
If you need a little extra flavor, there’s plenty to choose from. The hummus is like silk, but it becomes a salty delight if you add meat or pastrami. The aubergine salad and the tzatziki add a little color, but for a more savory option, the kibbeh – with bulgur on the outside and hot meat inside – or the paçanga börek – a pastry stuffed with pastrami, olives, and peppers before fried – is a real chef’s kiss.
Siirt Şeref Büryan 1892 restaurant also has syrupy desserts with ice cream that’s irresistible.
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10. Turkish Meze at Meze by Lemon Tree
Mezes are made for sharing, and Lemon Tree really helps build up the camaraderie with their meze menus. Order the “Fixed Turkish Meze Plate” and start your meal with any 6 of the daily produced mezes that you and your companion choose. You can follow that with 2 warm starters which include a seafood option with scrumptiously fried calamari with walnut-tartar sauce or perhaps you’re more of a shrimp casserole in a creamy tarragon-lemon gravy person. If meat is more your thing, they have hot hummus with pastrami, and veggies can delight with their baked pastry stuffed with cheese, mushrooms, and aubergine.
If starters are not your thing, you can trade the hot starters for a main to share. With options like buttery soy-sauced octopus or monkfish stewed in cheese, veggies, and red wine or the lamb chops with the almond pilaf and salad or any of the other meat dishes, it’s really, really hard to choose.
Followed by a dessert, which, if you want to be good, the fresh fruits are nice but what you really want is the chili sauced, nutty bananas topped with clotted cream and honey, or the hazelnut pudding with tahini and mulberry molasses. The alcoholic drinks are extra, but the tea/coffee is on the house.
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11. Adana Kebab and Kaburga (ribs) at Adana Ocakbaşı
Open from midday, your best bet would be to pop into this humble spot for lunch rather than dinner. Since 1978, this overcrowded spot has been serving the freshest ingredients grilled to perfection.
The Adana here is the best in the city. For those that don’t know, the Adana Kebab is a spicy, hand-minced kebab placed on a wide iron skewer then barbequed on burning charcoal for that smoky flavor.
The ribs are out of this world, but they sell out far too quickly. If you do get a table in the evening, spend the night in merriment with the rakı and the atom pudding that’ll drive you crazy.
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12. Kokoreç at Ozzie’s
The first time you taste this highly seasoned dish, you’ll wonder what the fuss was all about. Then you’ll learn that this dish is a sandwich made from lamb or goat’s intestines wrapped around sweetbreads. You may be taken aback, but you’ll end up shrugging your shoulders and ordering another portion. Especially if the kokoreç you’ve tasted was at Ozzie’s. Considering the modern design, this place seems like the adventure of a young hipster, but they’ve been operating since 1968, which really comes out in their flavor.
If you really can’t handle offal, they do have sucuk (garlicky Turkish sausage, pronounced sujuk) based meals, roast meat, and their mother’s homemade meatballs, which you can combine with mustard. Be warned; you will be watching your more daring friends enviously when they dine on kokoreç, which is one of Turkey’s signature delight.
If you’re looking for a taste of Turkish culture, look no further than the food. We’ve created this list to help guide your way through some of Turkey’s most iconic dishes and where they can be found in Istanbul.
If you are planning to visit this beautiful city any time soon, make sure to join us on one of our food tours in order to experience all that it offers and taste some delicious Turkish cuisine! Our tours are designed with an emphasis on tasting traditional Turkish cuisine while exploring different neighborhoods in Istanbul.
Book your tour today and join us to find out more about our culinary adventures in Istanbul.
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