The thing I love most about travel are the meals between meals. Routine is left at home with the cat, blurring the line between breakfast, lunch and dinner.
On the day of our Istanbul Night Tasting Trail (an optional activity on the first night of our 15-day Best of Turkey small group adventure), I’d already taken myself out for menemen in the morning; met up with the group for a second breakfast spread in Balat; sampled my way through dozens of varieties of cheese, olives and Turkish delight in Mısır Çarşısı, the Spice Bazaar; and commandeered everyone into stopping at a small stand behind the Grand Bazaar for street-side chicken pilav and spiced drinking yoghurt. Then – and only then – was it time for our food tour.
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From Karaköy we caught the funicular uphill to Tünel, although our digestive systems would have benefited from the walk. The second oldest surviving underground passenger railway in the world, it departs every couple of minutes and takes less than that to reach the end of İstiklal Caddesi, a major pedestrian street leading to Taksim Square. We strolled the backstreets, pausing to snap photos of musicians as young people toasted to dusk and bearded locals contemplated the end of another day over muddy Turkish coffee.
Our first stop was outside a restaurant on the main drag called Sabır Taşı. We were here to eat İçli köfte, a spiced, football-shaped meatball cased in cracked bulgur wheat and deep-fried. Also known as kibbeh, ours was stuffed with minced beef, but in other places you’ll find lamb, goat and camel. A fellow by the name of Ali Topçuoğlu opened this cart with his wife. In the late ‘80s he moved from Kahramanmaraş in Turkey’s southeast after the family wheat farm went under. When his wife started cooking içli köfte, the people couldn’t get enough of it, and the rest is history. Ali is no longer with us, but his adult kids still man the cart and look after the restaurant.
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Running parallel to İstiklal Cadessi is Dudu Odalari Sokak, a small pedestrian alley lined with sandwich bars, a specialty butcher, florist, baklava bakery, and pickle shop with row upon row of colourful jars. At the very top is Biçen Kuruyemiş, an unassuming convenience store with a çiğ köfte station out the front. Having done my research, I knew çiğ köfte was a raw meat dish – or did I? Our group leader was quick to correct me; the local authorities banned the use of raw meat in 2009 to prevent people from falling ill. Now it’s made with bulgur wheat, spices and lots of lemon juice.
When in dürüm (wheat wraps), a gloved hand breaks off a chunk of mixture, squeezes it, and then smears it on the wrap with all the finesse of a bricklayer. Pomegranate molasses is spouted, tomato segments dumped and lettuce and parsley shredded, before the whole thing is rolled into a portable bundle. If you want to better taste the spices and texture of the mix, order by itself as a platter.
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Significantly stuffed, we still stopped for a light meze dinner and rakı at understated Kimene Restoran, a traditional meyhane. The best part about it is its proximity to Mercan Kokoreç across the road. With multiple branches around town and in operation for nearly 60 years, you’ll hear it before you see it: the clack, clack, clack of metal on metal as someone wielding a scraper chops kokoreç – seasoned offal including heart, lung, kidney and sweetbreads, wrapped in lamb or goat intestines – into tiny pieces that spit and sizzle. Die-hard fans eat a platter of the stuff to fully appreciate the bits of fat and crackle; otherwise it also comes in a soft, white roll warmed on the oily griddle and perfect as a late-night, booze-soaking snack. If you eat meat and can get over the fact that it’s just another part of the animal not being wasted, kokoreç will be one of the best things you eat in Istanbul.
There’s always midye dolma instead (or better yet, as well). These plump, rice-stuffed mussels are one of Istanbul’s most popular street foods. Lined up in stainless steel trays in front of the kokoreç action, you simply take one, open the shell, add some lemon and scoop it into your mouth. The shells are tallied up when you’ve had enough and are ready to pay. Next to the mussels are more mussels getting the deep-fry treatment along with calamari rings. They’re skewered and doused in garlicky white sauce powerful enough to clear all living things within a one-metre radius for the next 12 hours.
Back on İstiklal Caddesi, we dodged pedestrians and the snail-paced tram heading towards Taksim Square. The business, bustle and designer boutiques left me yearning for the more local alleyways, but we had chocolate to eat. Enter Tarihi Meşhur Beyoğlu Çikolatacısı, an elevated corner shop stacked with neat towers of foil-wrapped blocks that glisten like fish scales in the sun. A Turkish company called Elit, founded in 1924, makes them using local cocoa. The best blocks are those generously studded with nuts.
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Just 300 metres up the road was our last stop, and also the biggest wild card of our evening food tour: the wet burger. Also known as the islak hamburger, this late-night food isn’t just particular to Istanbul, but to this area of Taksim Square.
On first appearance they don’t look like much, slapped on top of each other in a sweaty glass cabinet under harsh lights, but more love goes into these babies than the 2am kebab you eat at home. Halfway between a steamed sloppy joe and burger, the ones we ate at Barış Büfe contain 16 herbs and spices and are cooked in milk and garlic, while the bun is lathered with sauce made from yoghurt, tomato and even more garlic. It’s difficult to describe something as “soggy in a good way”, but that’s exactly what they are. As a gluttonous group, our intention was to divide the wet burgers into quarters to appease our bellies. Somehow I ended up with my own, silently praying that I remembered to wear something looser next time. As if on cue, the Call to Prayer started echoing through Taksim Square as I took my last bite.
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