The city of Istanbul has 15m residents – that’s more than many countries. At times the 5,000sq km metropolis seems like one gigantic restaurant, such are the options for consumption at every turn. Street eats are sold from pushcarts, including the perennially popular local staples: simit (a round-shaped bread dipped in molasses and topped with sesame seeds), boiled or grilled corn and roasted chestnuts. Lokanta worker canteens overflow onto pavements to serve $3 three-course meals and sit side by side with grill houses and a smattering of formal venues offering multi-course fine dining.
Istanbul's Ayasofya Grand Mosque
A traffic jam will see a frozen popsicle stand erected 60 seconds later to quench thirsty drivers – Istanbul is where mercantilism and epicureanism meet. Much of this is thanks to the Ottomans, the most food-centric empire in history. Pasta and ceramics came down the Silk Road; salt-cod and spices arrived from distant Morocco. Every museum, market and gourmet restaurant bears witness to these Ottoman trade relics and, indeed, unbridled gluttony. Tuck in.
East meets west isn’t a cliché here. Istanbul has one foot in Europe, one foot in Asia, with the mighty Bosphorus waterway flowing in between. Since Constantine the Great founded Istanbul – or Constantinople, as it was – in 330CE, all roads lead here. Butter arrives from nearby Bulgaria; lamb from the Georgian pastures; spices from the Syrian border. Hazelnuts, oranges, sorrel and squid come from all four corners of modern Türkiye, not to mention 7,000km of Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Sea. Some restaurants specialise in fruity southern Anatolian flavours. Some in north coast dishes like anchovy fritters on cornbread. Others – like Neolokal and Çiya referenced below – distil two millennia of history on one plate.
The shimmering Bosphorus by day
Essential dishes to seek
Imam bayıldı translates as ‘the imam fainted’. It’s a baked aubergine stuffed and cooked to nursery tenderness, a dish so unctuous that – as the legend goes – after tasting it, the mosque leader literally fainted with pleasure. The method is easy: simply ram tomatoes, onions, rice, lemon hunks – or whatever’s in season – inside a zebra-peeled Graffiti aubergine and bake. Hot day? Serve your imam bayıldı chilled with a dollop of Turkish yoghurt on top.
Explore the myriad gastronomic offerings in Türkiye with this video:
Modern Türkiye’s must-eat is the döner: a revolving rotisserie of sliced meats spinning to a crispy sear. Turkish guest workers took the döner kebab to Germany and from here it spread across the globe, with pre-packaged elephant-leg hunks rotating from Mexico to Manila. Yet in Türkiye they do döner by the book. The lamb version is seasoned from the top down by dripping tail fat. Pickled cucumbers and sumac onion slices render the dish a meal in a bun. Living large? Order an Iskender kebap. It's a champion portion of döner meat bathed in sheep's butter and tomato sauce – a dish so calorific you'll need a sweet tea, or a defibrillator, to regain consciousness. The staple is also given the fine-dining treatment in restaurants across Istanbul with refined portioning and stylised saucing, though it keeps its essence of lamb, slowly grilled and expertly spiced.
Crucial institutions to visit
The Topkapı Palace kitchens were the largest food court in the most sybaritic empire the world has ever seen. The scale is epic: some 1,000 chefs were employed to serve up to 5,000 Ottoman Empire staff, viziers, guests and the sultan himself. Each counter has its own building. Stroll the harem kitchen (for light bites), the beverage kitchen (liquid sherbet was an Ottoman favourite) and the confectionery kitchen (Turks still love it sweet).
The kitchens at Topkapı Palace
The most illuminating station is the imperial kitchen. Here private chefs cooked for the sultan. As the most powerful personage on planet earth, the Ottoman leader could order any empire ingredient for dinner, from fresh Persian dates to grape juice from Crimea. Note the 10,000 pieces of Chinese porcelain, which make up the largest collection outside Asia. Ottomans believed the porcelain’s dye could neutralise poison (always an issue for a renaissance-era potentate). As a secondary defence, the sultan’s dishes were tasted by a chesnidjibashi, or chief food taster – a job description that reads like a double-edged sword.
The Grand Bazaar has history. The ornately frescoed market is quite literally the world’s first shopping mall. With up to 400,000 daily visitors, it’s still one of the busiest. Take an empty tote to one of the bazaar’s 21 entrances. There are 400 major stores selling hand-painted ceramics and the world’s coolest splashback tiles. Plus an untold number of tiny dolaps (which translates as cupboard) vending sword-length barbeque skewers and cloches in the shape of an Ottoman fez.
The glorious Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar has its own police force, as well as a post office, medical unit, two mosques and dozens of authentic-eats canteens to serve 22,000 market workers. In the latter, order menemen herby-pepper-eggs (like a Turkish shakshuka) or izgara köfte lamb meatballs. This is an entire society fuelled by trade and tea. Final tip: vendors haven’t missed a sales opportunity since the market’s inception in 1456. They will offer to safely ship your purchases – from carpets to cutlery – to your home country.
In the 1990s Karaköy was a dusty dockside of metalwork factories and ship chandlers. All that changed when the Istanbul Modern art museum flipped the Bosphorous neighbourhood into a hipster paradise. Then as now, Karaköy is a quarter built on cuisine. Cheap rents encouraged experimental eateries like Pim, which sells Syrian smoothies and dip-in-tzatziki aubergine balls. Star chefs followed the cultured clientele. They set up Istanbul’s gourmet go-tos including Karaköy Lokantasi and Neolokal.
Whisper it, but many chefs themselves eat in NATO Lokantası. It’s a workers’ canteen improbably named after Türkiye’s accession to the military alliance in 1952. Recipes haven’t changed during its 70-year stint. Sit cheek-by-jowl to wolf down mercimek lentil soup followed by pilaf spicy rice. Need a foodie souvenir? Try stationer Kağıthane, which translates as House of Paper, for Moleskine-style notebooks adorned with Turkish tea cups. It's in Fransız Pasaj (French Passage) an alley of cutesy stores catwalked in from Le Marais.
Beşiktaş Fish Market is Istanbul at its most modernistic. The market's curving concrete roof is the brainchild of Turkish starchitect Gökhan Avcıoğlu. The market is constructed entirely without columns, which gives buyers 360-degree views over harbour-fresh trays of seafood. Arrive hungry, as the line of seafood restaurants that ring the fish market purchase Black Sea salmon and Aegean octopus directly from here.
Beşiktaş Fish Market
Little will prepare you for Kadıkoy Salı Pazarı, the Tuesday market in Asian Istanbul. Although a bottle of Uludağ mineral water – from the snow-capped mountains south of the city – will help. Salı Pazarı is a tourist-free jumble of 2,000 outdoor stalls. Many stallholders sell just a single crop from eastern Anatolia, such as forest mushrooms, oraged chestnuts or grape molasses in cola bottles. Keep energy levels high with a one-dollar gözleme pancake filled with spinach and feta.
Restaurants to book
Neolokal could only be sited in this epic location. Inside a glass cube atop the SALT contemporary art space, high above the Bosphorus where ideas and ingredients sail in. Expect classic meets contemporary: Neolokal promises a Noma-esque experiment where dishes walk a culinary tightrope between millennia-old ingredients and Instagram-envy delivery. Head chef Maksut Aşkar takes heritage seriously, to the point of using rare grains like siyez, the world's oldest type of wheat, lest they become lost to humanity. Need the recipe? Watch Aşkar conduct his culinary orchestra in Neolokal’s open kitchen. Or Google it, as Aşkar believes recipes should be ‘open source’, so he shares his kitchen secrets online.
Maksut Aşkar and his restaurant Neolokal
Imagine a Parisian bistro, with its white linen simplicity, transported to the sun-drenched Bosphorus shores. Instead of confit de canard comes Turkish comfort food such as 24-hour marinated octopus, fried lamb’s liver and hünkar beğendi, a char-grilled aubergine dripping with slow-baked beef sauce. Remember this establishment calls itself a lokanta. Like an Italian osteria, Karaköy Lokantasi recalls its humble roots with a choose-from-the-tray meze selection. Point to pickled mackerel, tuna belly and fava bean smash. Small dishes of each will be delivered as antipasti a minute later.
The only Turkish restaurant to land in the 2019 extended listing of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants at No.52, guests come to Mikla for the best-in-Istanbul views and stay for the visionary interpretations of traditional Turkish plates. Brainchild of Turkish-Scandinavian chef Mehmet Gürs, the daily-changing menu focuses on ‘noble’ Anatolian produce: hamsi fried anchovies come paired with a crisp Cappadocia white; and dried beef tenderloin with sugar snap peas, Isot chilli and Ezine cheese, served alongside a native red. Whether you opt for the three-course fixed-price or seven-course tasting menu, be sure to finish with a nightcap upstairs in the dazzling rooftop bar of The Marmara Pera.
Mehmet Gürs and Mikla
Back in 1964 Istanbul’s population was a mere two million. The 30km Bosphorus Straits were dotted with villages with their own individual allure. Asian-side Moda was old money, European-side Sarıyer was for artists and fishermen. All branches of society met in laid-back village Tarabya, where seafood restaurants still serve swordfish şiş kebabs to dilettantes, diplomats and Istanbul aristos. Kiyi is king of these waterside eateries. Black and white portraits of old Istanbul hang above its Bosphorus-view dining salon. Courtly waiters serve a menu barely changed in six decades. Order stuffed mussels, Mediterranean monkfish and Black Sea bluefish. Step back in time with baked quince in cream and şekerpare almond pastries in syrup.
Kiyi restaurant, overlooking the Istanbul marina
Musa Dağdeviren is hot chef meets culinary historian. His chosen path is to distil flavours from the vast geography of Anatolia - Arabian spice, Georgian pasture, Armenian highlands, Ottoman trading routes - into one astounding restaurant (or three. Çiya Sofrası outgrew its original 1987 premises so has two sister establishments across the street.) Think corn roasted in grape molasses from Lake Van, and sheets of Rizla-thin güllaç pastry soaked in rosewater and milky syrup, then baked to crisp unctuousness with crushed pistachios. Çiya still caters to local workers, which means low prices and no booze. Order a bubbly ayran yoghurt drink or a strawberry sherbet instead.
Where to stay
Friendly staff meets industrial chic at this hotel in the hipper-than-Brooklyn Beyoğlu area. Hammamhane can host cooking classes inside its seven apartments; most have a terrace or balcony. Manager Bulent Tığlı can also arrange a food tour or restaurant booking. His team helped renovate the classic Çukurcuma Hammam steambath next door. Hotel guests receive a discount and a warm (38°C to 42°C to be precise) welcome.
Visit goturkiye.com for more information on Turkish gastronomy