Istanbul is where continents and cuisines connect. The historic seat of empires and the gateway to the spice trade, the city boasts a food scene that reflects its neighbors in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, as well as towns and provinces throughout Turkey. Walking through the streets, you’ll see spit-roasting meats, tart and fresh juices squeezed to order, and salty, savory snacks — from pickles and olives to a local variety of bagel.
It’s a good thing, too. When I visited Istanbul recently, I got so lost in my first few days that I’d have starved if I didn’t snack along the way.
Eventually, I got my bearings with the help of Senem, a guide for Culinary Backstreets. She showed me how to enjoy the outdoors like the locals, who congregate to eat, drink, shop and be seen outdoors all year round. Whether it was enjoying tea and simit outside or picking up a sandwich stuffed with roasted offal and snacking on the go, there is much to eat on the streets of Istanbul. Here are some eats that caught my eye.
Mornings in Istanbul start with simit. The twisted rings of bread are sold on what seems like every corner from carts pushed around the city or stacked on trays carried on vendors’ heads. Somewhere between a bagel and pretzel, they are firm in texture and studded with seeds, usually sesame, which impart a nutty flavor.
Unlike the sweet continental breakfasts of jams and breads, Turks focus on the salty and the savory, pairing simit with smoky cured meats and briny cheeses.
Almost as ubiquitous as simit sellers throughout the streets of Istanbul are the juice stands on almost every block, with bright, colorful fruits on display to draw in customers.
They certainly caught my eye. On my first night, when I discovered how delicious a blend of freshly squeezed orange and pomegranate juices can be, I was hooked. It became my go-to combination at least once a day for the whole week.
Kebabs — Shish kebabs
When Americans think of kebabs, we immediately picture the traditional skewers of grilled chunks of meat that can be found from the street corners of midtown Manhattan to the izakayas of Tokyo and more or less everywhere in between.
And while it’s only one of the many types of kebabs to be found here, the shish kebab, made from chicken, lamb or beef, is sold from shop windows throughout the city, including this one found among the fish and produce markets in Kadikoy, on the Asian side of Istanbul.
Unlike the skewers found in street carts around the world, Turks tend to eat these kebabs indoors at lunch counter–style shops.
Kebabs — Kefte
Similarly, I only found kefte available at eat-in kebab shops. These, from Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi, come with a small salad and pickled peppers, along with a dollop of pepper sauce — one of the few condiments I saw in the week I spent in Istanbul.
Kefte, cylindrical meatballs of beef, lamb or both, can have a number of variations, including one order I had with pistachios stuffed inside.
Kebabs — Doner
The doner kebab, called shawarma elsewhere, is possibly my favorite of all street meats worldwide. Having fueled many lunches and late nights since my early 20s, it holds a special place in my heart and surrounding arteries. Cousin to the gyro and, depending on whom you ask, the ancestor of the al pastor taco, the spit-roasted pile of meat cooks slowly as it spins, leaving the browned exterior to be shaved off for serving on demand.
Unlike the pita bread, which wraps the varieties in other countries, Turks serve doner kebabs “en durum,” which means it is wrapped in a firm flour shell, sort of like a tortilla. Once assembled, it’s pressed, cut and served up to eat in or on the go.
Honestly, as much affection as I have for these wraps, I never found one in Istanbul that I loved. Turks are much more sparing with sauces, and the traditional hot sauce and white sauces that I’ve come to expect poured onto the meat were never available. Add to that flour wraps that were just a little too dry and it all starts to taste like disappointment.
That said, I know there is a perfectly pleasing version to be found out there, so stay vigilant and you just might track it down.
Kebabs — Kokoreç
If the doner kebab didn’t quite live up to my expectations, the kokoreç was my happy surprise. I’d heard about the “offal sandwich” from friends, and I was — I have to admit — a little hesitant. But when Senem brought me to this vendor at the end of Kadife Street, a strip of bars and nightclubs, I was sold at first sight.
The sandwich begins with chopped offal that is encased in sheep intestines and spit-roasted over a wood fire. When it’s ready to be served, the offal is scooped out, sautéed with peppers and oregano, and packed into a baguette. The mix of meats in the sandwich offers different textures with each bite, and the wood fire adds a light smokiness to the whole thing. It’s an impressive sandwich and the perfect end to a night of bar-hopping.
Just across the street from the Kadikoy ferry, I stumbled on a small stand in front of a kebab shop selling Izmiri lokma. They are basically doughnuts, fresh out of the fryer and doused with an herb-scented syrup. The exterior is lightly crisp, while the insides are airy and fluffy.
Roasted Corn and Chestnuts
Day and night, smoke billows out of pushcarts where corn on the cob and piles of chestnuts roast over charcoal. On many a chilly evening, I spotted customers huddling around the light of carts, eating the sweet, smoky corn.
Stuffed mussels are the one adventure I didn’t take. The mussels are shucked, filled with rice, tied and steamed. I’ve heard that they can be pretty good, but I just couldn’t do it. Senem concurred, saying that she herself likes them, but that if you eat the wrong one, it could leave you in a bad way. Given that they were being pushed around in shopping carts late at night most of the times I saw them, I just couldn’t ultimately see it being worth the risk.
Clay Williams photographs food, drink and events for The New York Times, Gothamist, Edible Brooklyn and others.