istanbul, turkey: everything we ate

So, to be fair, this isn't everything we ate while in Istanbul.  If it were, this would be even longer than yesterday's post (about everything we saw and did in the city - see that here!), but this is pretty close to everything we ate while we were out and about doing our tourist thing.  For more of an idea of what we ate while on campus (where we lived and worked), take a look at this post from the beginning of the summer that has some photos of our cafeteria trays.

I had a list of foods I wanted to try while we were in Turkey, and while we didn't get to all of them (I know, I know, we were there for two months - we certainly had the time, just not always the language or the will...), we ended up trying out a pretty good variety of things, both Turkish specialties (which are in bold), and shall we say, world specialties.  I've organized this post chronologically, listing foods in the order that we tried them - you may notice more Turkish foods at the beginning and, if you make to the end, well, not so much.

One of our very favorite treats this summer was dondurma, or Turkish mastic ice cream.  It's different from normal ice cream because of the way that it's somewhat sticky and stretchy, which sounds weird but I promise, it's actually incredible.  We discovered it about a week into the summer, about a week later than I wish we would've.  Unfortunately Danny was also on one of his healthy eating kicks for the majority the summer, so we didn't eat too much of it, but every time we did, it sure was tasty!  Oh, and I can't forget to mention - if you order dondurma on the street, it usually comes with a bit of a show, which I'll let Danny explain...

D -  The vendors, usually donned in a fez with a matching vest, clang a bell and shout at passersby to try to recruit customers.  Then when you order, they use their giant metal stirring rod as a bit prop and pretend to hand you the ice cream while psyching you out repeatedly so you can't grab it.  It sounds pretty lame but it's pretty good fun and it's all part of the experience!  You can see an example on YouTube here.


Simit is a round piece of bread covered in sesame seeds, and while I initially figured I wouldn't be a big fan, I definitely was.  We tried one on our first trip into Istanbul, and while I wasn't terribly impressed at the time, there was something about it that was tasty enough to make me want more.  Simit stands are ubiquitous around the city, so sometimes we'd finish a long day sightseeing later than expected or have a sweet treat and want something more plain to balance it out afterwards - and thankfully we didn't have to put forth any effort to find simit.  They're outside metro entrances, they're at street corners, they're in public squares, they're everywhere.


Corn on the cob is also commonly sold at carts throughout Istanbul, and although we've had this snack a time or two in our lives, we figured there must be something special about Turkish corn on the cob.  Well, we tried it once and found it rather unimpressive and perhaps even worse than what we're used to, so that was our first and last try of corn on the cob in Turkey! 

D - Perhaps?  How about definitely worse than what we're used to?  I think one of the problems is that the corn wasn't slathered in butter.  Come to think of it, it probably wasn't genetically engineered to please American taste buds either.  


I'm not usually one to have anything other than water to drink, whether I'm at home or away, but we were advised against drinking the tap water in Turkey, and it certainly wasn't served to us in restaurants.  Since I'm not really one for bottled water due to the impact it has on the environment, we would sometimes try something else - in this case, lemonade and ayran.  Ayran is a drink made of yogurt and salt, quite popular in Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries.  This was another treat that we weren't all that fond of, something we tried once, checked off our list, and decided to steer clear of, but like I said, lots of people like it!  ...Just not us.

D - If you've tried drinkable yogurt in the past, but thought, "this tastes far too good!  I want something that tastes like plain yogurt that's been watered down," then ayran is the drink for you!


Danny and I are both big baklava fans, so you better believe that when I discovered that our guidebook had a "best places to get baklava" list, I put them down on my summer food checklist!  Our first stop was Karaköy Güllüoğlu, where there is a huge variety of different types of baklava to choose from, such as plain, pistachio, chocolate, hazelnut, almond, fruit, and even stuffed with clotted cream!  They also have the option to sit indoors or out - especially nice during sweltering Istanbul summers, unless you've asked for yours a la mode, in which case you might want to opt outside.  They serve up some seriously good baklava here, and we returned for it later on in the summer to confirm our suspicions after trying baklava at a few other places, that, yes, it really is the best.  Plus, bonus, it's in a good area - not far from the Galata Bridge and Tower, a place most tourists hit up.


Mado is a Turkish ice cream brand that has hundreds of cafes and restaurants in Turkey and around the world.  When we realized that Mado accepted our SET cards (we were paid for our work at the summer camp in three ways: cash, once at the end of each month, housing, all summer long, and cash loaded onto SET cards once a month that could be used at specific restaurants on and off campus throughout the country), we eagerly ordered some smoothies and appetizers.  There was definitely nothing particularly Turkish about the smoothies, but I believe we had a few varieties of yaprak sarma, which are grape leaves stuffed with rice, herbs, and pine nuts, with a yogurt based dipping sauce.  Everything was really tasty - this is one Turkish meal I'd eat again for sure!

D - You know, I think that one thing that America does really well, that I haven't seen in many other countries, is smoothie bars.  We've tried smoothies around the world, and they're often either too thin, room temperature, or you have no idea what's in them.  In this case, the smoothies were cold and thick, but unfortunately, since I was on one of my health kicks (Shannon's words, remember?), it was also loaded with ice cream.  Now I love ice cream as much as the next guy or gal, but my father in-law Tom pointed out something about it that has really stuck with me.  Ice cream always makes you thirsty.  A smoothie that only exacerbates your thirst?  That's messed up...  


During an afternoon in Ortaköy, we tried out the area specialty, kumpir, or baked potatoes.  Some of the most popular toppings for kumpir in Istanbul are ketchup, pickles, corn, mayonnaise, carrots, mushrooms, peas, pickled beets, olives, hot dog/sausage slices, and yogurt.  I'm not sure I'd ever topped a baked potato with any of those before, but I was determined we try out as many of the local (vegetarian) specialties as we could, so here we are, ready to dig in...

D - These were...interesting.  I hate to be the guy always saying that the traditional ('Merican) way is best, but it's hard to beat chili, cheese, butter, and sour cream, am I right?  It's a shame cause I'm usually such an advocate of hot dog incorporation into non-hot doggy meals.  


Like I mentioned with Mado above, most of the places we ate out in Istanbul were determined by whether or not they accepted SET cards.  Of course, street vendors don't, but those were all pretty minor purchases and not actual meals.  On this day, after searching for what felt like an eternity, we finally found a restaurant that accepted SET cards, and I took whatever the restaurant could give me that was vegetarian (and also asked them to hold the cheese).  Danny's huge balloon-like bread - that's lavash.  From what I understand, lavash can come in different forms, like you see in the first picture, and like you see in the second, filled with some spinach, but still the same basic flatbread.  


Eager to eat off-campus as often as possible, we ate at a place on the water in Sarıyer, a couple of times.  We tried out a few different meze, or appetizers, including baba ganoush and abagannuc, both of which are eggplant-based.  The restaurant didn't have loads of vegetarian options, but they did have a veggie wrap, so for sure not a Turkish specialty, but we were hungry and it did the trick.  Plus, we don't have any strong allegiance to Turkish cuisine, as you may have deduced. ;)  Oh, and look at that fruit plate!  We must have been feeling particularly healthy that day...


...unlike on this day.  We kicked this particular afternoon off with a yogurt parfait and ginger cookies at Aziz Cafe...and then carried on later in the afternoon with a slice of cake and a yogurt, granola, and fruit bowl at Cooklife Balat.  Cooklife is a stylish and hip eatery with a tempting menu full of breakfast options we seriously considered returning for...if only we'd had more time in our mornings for quick trips into the city!


Here's a street food we'd seen frequently sold at simit carts, and thought, "Hmm...this should taste kind of like a cinnamon roll, right?"  ...Right, not so much.  I'm not sure we even finished this pastry completely between the two of us - probably one of those times when we would have been better off going in with no expectations ;)


After six weeks of not having access to a kitchen and not being able to cook our own food - aka six weeks of eating out almost exclusively Turkish food three meals a day, I was eager to get something a little more familiar, like Mexican food.  We cook a lot of Mexican (or least Mexican-inspired) dishes at home, plus we normally live in Spain, and everyone knows Spanish food and Mexican food are one in the same (JOKES) All that being said, I definitely put Picante, the number one rated Mexican place in Istanbul, at the top of my list for a place to hit up as soon as we got paid.  I don't want to make this story any longer than it already is, but I was really, really disappointed.  I do not recommend this place.


Pineapple on a stick.  The pineapple itself wasn't all that juicy, but it's a semi-common street food in Istanbul, plus something we recognized.  At the time when we had it we were getting to that point in the summer where I was losing my adventurous spirit when it came to food, so, pineapple on a stick it was.


When our sunset 'cruise' dropped everyone off in what felt like a remote outpost along the Bosphorus, far from the center of Istanbul and a few hours away by the slow boat, we sought comfort in something dependable but temporary: food.  We asked for a fruit plate as we waited for a ferry to take us home, and watched one brother run to the local produce stand for our fruit and the other chop it up and add a surprise scoop of dondurma to the top.  As the ice cream melted over the mound of fruit, I think we started believing in all of those countries and cultures out there who legitimately eat fruit for dessert on a regular basis - this was really something special!


I can't be totally certain of this, but it is possible that I was one of the least social people on the staff of the English camp where we worked in Istanbul over the summer.  Thus, I was really out of the loop regarding the best clubs, ways to get back to campus after the buses and subways stop running at night, and perhaps most importantly, the best sweets and treats around.  Thankfully, Danny would sometimes hang around on the dorm porches with the 'cool kids' (ahem, not me) and glean helpful the rumor that the Nutella and banana crepes in the 24-hour cafe were pretty special.  We gave them a try one evening after a long day out in the city, and sure enough, the rumors were true.  And, just to be sure it wasn't a fluke, we had a couple more during the remainder of the summer. :)


So this was about the point where my tolerance-level for many things Turkish was getting a bit...low.  Don't expect to see much more in the way of Turkish food from here on out. ;) We got an early start into the city for our day of sightseeing on one Saturday, before the on-campus coffee shop opened (by then a near daily stop for us, with its pastries, cakes, parfaits, and protein bars that tasted familiar and were easy on the stomach), and what do you know, we found a Caribou Coffee.  I need not say much about what's before us, except that the lemon cake and Oreo cheesecake definitely look larger in the photo than they were in real life, I promise!!  And also, we felt a little disappointed with ourselves afterwards.


If you've been around these parts for a bit, you know that we have a bit of an unspoken rule that when we see an acai bowl on the menu somewhere, we get it.  Spring, summer, fall, winter, it doesn't matter, we've got a real soft spot for 'em.  So when we stumbled upon The Juicery while walking around one day and saw that they had an acai bowl on offer, you know what we did.  

If you're headed to Istanbul, do keep in mind that The Juicery also has other types of bowls, smoothies, and of course, juice, available and is only a few blocks from Taksim Square and the famous İstiklal Caddesi shopping street.  We would've gone multiple times if we hadn't discovered it on one of our last trips into the center of the city.


I had a list of vegetarian/vegan restaurants to try out in Istanbul, but most of them were located in Kadıköy, an area we had plans to visit on our last weekend...but then I got sick, and we didn't leave campus save for a trip to Starbucks on Saturday night for provisions. ;)  We did however, make it to Community Kitchen, a cozy place that offers veganized versions of many Turkish dishes like döner kebab, iskender, and stuffed grape leaves.  We enjoyed a lasagna and the döner kebab, as well as a mediocre slice of chocolate cake for dessert, but the worst part was the free-roaming cats - not only were they allowed inside, it was encouraged!  There were cat kennels (look closely and you can see one below), bowls, and scratching posts all over the place.  One particularly feisty feline kept jumping on our table and Danny had to remove it over and over again while I tried (unsuccessfully) to keep my cool.  Danny tried explaining to the lady my fear of cats but she didn't get it.  I've mentioned my issues with cats while eating outdoors before, but they were inside this time...  All that being said, it was actually good enough that I think we'd still return.  Maybe.  

D - Much to Shannon's chagrin I like cats (or at least don't detest them like she does) but yeah, I'll take my kebab street-cat-free, por favor.  


You can find fresh squeezed juice in random street and market stalls all over the city, but trying pomegranate juice made it on my list.  The juice was good, really good, but outrageously priced compared to what we'd seen advertised earlier in the day at The Juicery, so just a little tip: the street vendors may not actually be a good deal, as we had assumed!


Another SET-card accepting restaurant, the Backhaus is a chain of bakeries and restaurants that we happened upon while in the Nişantaşı neighborhood, looking for another of the top baklava spots in Istanbul.  The baklava place was closed, but that was no problem, Backhaus had quesadillas, roasted veggies, smoothies, yogurt, and granola bowls to keep us happy... so happy, in fact, that we went back mid-week for more smoothies and yogurt bowls.


Pare Baklava Bar, located in the Nişantaşı neighborhood, was on my list of top baklava place to try out during the summer.  The presentation was modern and stylish, just like the fashionable neighborhood it's located in (be sure to check out the nearby mall, City's, if you're in the market for a spot of western shopping or dining).  

D - Modern and stylish, yes, but I still preferred the baklava at Karaköy Güllüoğlu (the place we mentioned earlier), and can confidently say that it's the best in the city.  Is it the kind of confidence one gets after trying just a couple different varieties of something before purporting themselves to be an expert?  Sure.  But when you find the just know, you know?  Also, it was cheaper than the stuff at Pare Baklava Bar too.  

And, speaking of malls, we really wrapped up our culinary tour of Istanbul with a bang by eating at Shake Shack inside of İstinye Park, considered by many to be one of Istanbul's best malls.  We walked its three floors (but not its four levels of underground parking) before and after our portobello mushroom burgers and frozen custard treat...and I was sick all the next day (full disclosure, I got sick various times throughout the summer, not just after eating American food!).  We left Istanbul two days later for Greece, where we missed our SET cards that allowed us to eat all over the city 'for free' (technically, we worked for it), but the change of pace and cuisine was most welcome too. :)

D - I always mix up Shake Shack and Steak 'n Shake.  It doesn't matter, they're both incredible.  Thank you both (I'm sure both CEOs are reading this blog), for taking fast food up a notch, and for both having a really good vegetarian option!  We have appreciated you both so much on our travels!!