Eating in Istanbul: A Lesson in Kebaps

You can actually see the cholesterol dripping off this massive pillar of deliciousness

As is the case with most large countries boasting a geographically diverse landmass, the cuisine can vary quite a bit from region to region.  Given that I’ve spent the majority of my time around the general Istanbul area, my food post for the region will be specifically applicable to the Aegean area — which is notable for favoring rice over bulgar, corn, couscous or other grains as the carb-heavy base of a meal, a light-handed approach to the use of spices, and the liberal inclusion of various creatures from the sea (though seafood isn’t nearly as omni-present as it is near the Black Sea).  Ultimately, however, the Turkish cuisine is a melting pot of influences leftover from the Ottoman empire, Arabic and Persians influences from the east, and remants from the Greek cuisine (as the populations of the Greeks and Turks were often intertwined throughout history), which blend harmoniously to create a cuisine that can keep foodies busy for a long time to come.

When thinking about Turkish cuisine, however, the most common dish the comes to mind is that of the Kebab.  Whereas in the United States, Mexican food has largely assumed the role of the quick-to-procure, cheap-but-filling, and often late-nite nosh of choice, in Europe and further east, the burritos and tacos I’ve come to know have been replaced by various Shish dishes and Doner Kebabs (a close cousin to what we know of as a Gyro).  The term “Kebab,” however, is a general descriptor and is often liberally tossed out to refer to any dish of grilled or skewered meat, often served stuffed into, rolled, or served alongside a portion of bread.  It would be almost impossible to list out all of the various permutations that Kebabs can take, but here are a few of the more common forms that you’ll encounter if traveling to Istanbul:

The ever-present cones of meat represent the backbone to the most common form of Kebab: The Doner Kebab (of which the Schwarma, Gyro, and Taco al Pastor are further derivations). After piling up layer upon layer of either beef, chicken, or lamb onto a skewer, it is then allowed to slowly cook away on a vertical spit, and then meat is sawed off with a long serated knife. Most kebab joints like this don’t even need signs, as the aroma wafting out into the street is all the advertising that is required

Seen here is a Doner Kebab made with Lamb meat stuffed into a Pide (or pita) bread alongside lettuce, onion, tomato, and even a few French Fries

The Doner Kebab is also commonly served rolled up in a flatbread in a similar manner to a burrito. This variation happens to be a spicy chicken Kebab with peppers and onions

Another variety of kebab is grilled on a skewer and served with the accompaniments on the side. Seen here is the Adana Kebab (where the meat is mixed with mildly spicy peppers). An alternate variation that looks almost identical is the “Urfa Kebab,” which is slightly thicker and without the spice

Kebabs can also take the form of stewed dished. Seen here is a Halep Kebab, one in which the meat has been stewed with Tomatoes and spiced with Peppers

If your in the mood for more of a theatric performance, you can opt for a pottery kebab, in which the meat is cooked inside a small clay jar and is then cracked open (with the flame still in full force) tableside

The end results of the Pottery Kebab, served with a local Cappadochian wine

Fistikili Finn Beyti, a Baked Kebab served with crumbled Pistachio nuts

And lastly, the kofte kebab. In this iteration, small finger-like meatballs (not unlike the Chevapi I found a little further west) are grilled and served alongside pickled peppers and the usual pide bread.  Here, it is served with Aryan, a creamy yogurt drink

This list of kebabs is by no means all-encompassing.  A few of the other popular varieties for which I wasn’t able to snag a pictures are the Iskender Kebab (Doner Kebab meat served over garlic toast with yogurt and tomato sauce), the Shish Kebab (similar to the Adana or Urfa Kebab seen above, but occasionally cooked with fruit or vegetables inbetween hunks of the meat), or the Tandir Kebab (lamb meat slow-cooked for hours in a special oven called a Tandir).

Additionally, as you’ve seen from my past posts in Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia, and Serbia, the quick snack called Burek has been one of my favorites.  And eventhough I’ve been trying my way through various forms (from spirals to fingers) and various fillings (beef, cheese, pizza, etc.), I’ve finally found my way to the source: the Turkish Borek:

And unlike Eastern Europe, the Turkish Borek version is thoughtfully pre-cut into bite-sized pieces (this was a spinach variety, in my feeble attempt to include more veggies in my diet)

Though not Borek, Pide pizzas are another common quick bite. Seen here is a Pide with Lamb meat served with Salagam Suyu (spicy, fermented carrot juice)

Beyond the Kebabs and Borek, another notable characteristic of Turkish cuisine is the Mezzes, Salads, and Appetizers that are commonly served before meals.  These can range from crisp and refreshing vegetable and hummus plates to thick and hearty main-dish types of offerings, but more often than not, the most commom items are marinated fish, vegetables, and various olive-oil heavy items.  And to add insult to injury, if over-ordering wasn’t already an issue, the fact that most restaurants bring out a huge platter with examples of each makes it any given meal that much more painful to both the wallet and the waistline.

An example of the smorgasborde of appetizers to choose from

Wine-leave-wrapped Fish and Rice Rolls

Patlican Soslu (Eggplant in Garlic and Tomato)

Mercimek Corbasi and Pilav (Lentil Soup and Rice)

Albanian Fried Liver and Spicy Almond Paste

My favorite part of eating in Istanbul, however (and really anywhere, for that matter), is the streetfood.  Whereas traveling through Europe has led to quite a few street food finds, the ubiquitous carts, stalls, and various cooking apparatii (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) were more common in Istanbul than anywhere where else on my trip so far — though I know I’m in for a whole new world in Southeast Asia!  Here are a few of my favorites amongst the many quick bits to be had:

Sweet deep-fried rings of dough, sprinkled with crushed pistachios

Meat-stuffed Fallafal

Simit – a circular bread coated in Sesame seeds. These things are EVERYWHERE, and luckily only cost about $0.50, though they can be a touch stale from time to time

Almond and Brown Sugar Pastry

And if you head towards the waterline, you’ll see a few guys with grills set up to make short work of that day’s catch in a quick street snack known as Balik Ekmek

The Balik Ekmet is a grilled fish sandwich — luckily, the vendor (mostly) removes the pin-bones before stuffing the fish fillet into the bread — that is topped with onions, lettuce, tomato, and a generous squeeze of lemon juice

Whereas Pomegrantes are highly seasonal and can be quite expensive in the United States, they seem to be all-to-common in Eastern Europe and into the Middle East. And as such, there were vendors fresh-squeezing generous glasses for passing pedestrians for about $1 a pop (which utilized the juice of 3-4 whole pomegrantes for each glass). So, much like my daily ritual become drinking Orange Juice from the vendors in Morroco, I pretty much drank my weight in Pomegrante Juice while in Turkey

Finally, life wouldn’t be quite right without a few sweet treats and tea to finish off any meal…or afternoon snack…or post-brunch interlude…or immediately upon waking up…well, you get the point.  Tea and sweets seem to be a universal aspect of the daily life, as the common Turkish Black Tea is consumed staring at breakfast and continuing throughout the remainder of the day.  Just walking down the streets, anyone you see simply loitering or ambling around outside will undoubtedly have one of the characterist tulip-shaped classed sitting in their hand:

A proper tea service, with the common tulip-shaped glass

Turkish Coffee is also a must-try beverage while visiting. Be warned however, that the coffee ground are NOT separated out, so let the thick, goupy tincture settle before tucking in

Desserts and Sweets are a pretty big deal, and trying a bit of everything is a great way to spend an afternoon

Though technically labeled “Lokun,” Turkish Delights are one of the common edibles to be found in Turkish sweet shops. These goodies made from a basic mix of starch and sugar come in all flavors and colors imaginable

More desserts laid out, pleasing both the palatte and the eye

Of course, we can’t forget about Baklava — a sweet pastry made from layers of filo dough and crushed nuts soaked in honey

Kadiyif — a classic Turkish dessert made from a thin mass of flour-and-water threads, sweetened with honey, and cooked with a soft cheese (often goat’s cheese). A pinch of pistachio nuts on top adds a nice touch of color

And finally, another entry from theatrical-presentation department is the common alcohol of choice in Turkey (for the non-Muslims, that is): an anise-flavored liquor called Raki, similar to the Greek Ouzo.  By itself, it is a crystal clear liquid, but it is usually served with a side of cold water.  After mixing the two clear liquids, however, the result is a cloudy, almost milky glass of liquorice-y goodness:

The transformation from combinging the 2 clear liquids

About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

13 Responses to “Eating in Istanbul: A Lesson in Kebaps”

  1. You have a cruel streak with all these pictures!!! LOL
    Seriously, how about a few recipes??????????????????

  2. Yummy….are you gaining weight?

    • It may sound odd, but I’ve actually been losing weight since I’ve been traveling. Eventhough I’m eating everything in sight, the fact that I’m walking around each city for 5-6 hours a day more than makes up for it. It is a pretty good deal in my opinion!

  3. Amazing photos! Have you seriously just been eating the last few weeks? Was there a favorite among all this great food?

  4. Just got caught up on every post tonight, brother. Phenomenal. November was a busy little grinder for me. How much time one has spent in Istanbul is like currency here in your nation’s capital for some reason. So, much like real life, I am normally the brokest guy in the room. Love this post though. I had the pleasure of going to Columbus for Flescher’s surprise 30th and the OSU/Wisconsin game. Unreal time and game. You were missed.

    Also, I think my girlfriend is into you. She’s been squealing and reading over my shoulder for the past 30 minutes. She’s pretty, won’t be much of a cook for you though. We can talk about some sort of appropriate trade the next time we catch up. By the way, how do we set that up? Is Skype best for you? Let’s do that soon. Glad to see all is going so well buddy. You’re my hero.

  5. That is one HUGE MEAT!

  6. Mmmmm…. Mouthwatering! You deserve a medal for consuming all that meat, pastry and sugar in the name of literary research! 😉
    It’s been a while since I was in Turkey but I recently found a Turkish neighbourhood in London where I thoroughly enjoyed the culinary trip down memory lane! (btw, no kebabs for me – I don’t eat meat!):–-a-taste-of-turkey-in-east-london/

  7. in Cappadocia now…stumbled upon your blog tonight and i love it. You’re on right on with Istanbul! We’re actually headed back there tomorrow…

    oh and don’t sleep on the local lentil soup–way different than versions I’ve had in the states, but better in my opinion (use the lemon)!

    safe travels and we’ll keep checking back.

  8. Amiet, Lolo and I are on our way to Istanbul tomorrow! I have no idea how you got all that food, but I will do my best to eat as much.

    • Nice! You guys are really going to enjoy yourselves — and don’t worry too much about finding the food, it’ll be everywhere you look. Glad you guys are getting a chance to travel and I hope all is going great in your world! Talk to you soon.

  9. I’m on a sodium restricted diet is the food in Turkey high in sodium. I would like to travel
    there one day I have been to Greece but never had the chance to get to Turkey. During the cold war I was involved in NATO exercises in the Strymon river area on the Greek Bulgarian border. I foolishly turned down a furlough to Turkey. Since then I have been back to Europe at least six times but have restricted myself to northern and central Europe. Great pics they are literally mouth watering good.

  10. This was really enlightening. these are not the grocery store kabobs that most Americans are used to. I’m beginning to wonder if what we recognize as kabobs are really kabobs.

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