The street food crowns often go to the big Asian cities: Bangkok, Hanoi, Singapore, etc. Yes, street food is killer in all of these places, and an integral part of their culture, but Asians are not the only ones doing street food extraordinarily well. Europe also has its share of street eat delights. Turkey, that special country part of both Europe and Asia geographically, and culturally a bit of both but mostly its own, has street food good enough to move into the top place in the world. As in most countries, the capital, Istanbul, is where you can try the widest range of, and some of the best versions of, their street dishes. You can find different morsels on every street corner, but there are 5 must-try dishes, all coming in for 5 lira or less.
- Tavuk pilav
Tavuk pilav is chicken and rice. A dish that has variations around the Asian world, Turkey’s is simple but delightful. It is a common lunch staple, with vendors pushing carts all around Istanbul, but can also be found late night, to feed the crowds in Taksim Square. The carts are easily recognizable by the heaps of rice and shredded chicken you can see through the clear glass window. Most vendors mix chickpeas into their rice to give it a nice bite, and cook the rice with who knows what magic to give it such flavor. When you order, they take a clear plastic container, scoop heaps of rice into it and top it with shredded chicken. The only sauce is some vinegar and pickled tiny green peppers. Hard to believe perhaps, but this all works together to create a healthy, flavorful meal.
Gözleme is the Turkish version of a savory crepe. Gözleme can be ordered in most traditional Turkish restaurants, but it is best at its simplest: hot and fresh from a street vendor. The dish consists of yufka dough, which is spread thin over a dome-shaped griddle, filled with various toppings, folded, sealed, and grilled. In a restaurant you can find all kinds of fillings, but on the street its usually limited to cheese, with the possible addition of eggs, potatoes, spinach, or minced beef. The dough gets a nice char on the outside from the grill, and a rich buttery taste from the seal, and the cheese inside is salty, melty, and yummy. A cheese gözleme is essentially a bumped up version of a grilled cheese sandwich, except you buy it from a woman sitting outside of the Blue Mosque instead of made by your mom when you’re sick.
- Midye dolma
Midye dolma are large stuffed mussels. The mussels are stuffed with spicy rice, and occasionally currants or raisins. These vendors are a dime a dozen in Istanbul, often one on each side of every street corner. You can have one or 20, but with the rice, they are surprisingly filling. The vendor will open it for you, squeeze lemon, and give you the empty shell to help scoop the goodies into your mouth. All day long, but especially once the sun sets, you’ll see young Turks stopping by for a few midye as a snack and you would be smart to follow their lead
- Balik Ekmek
Balik ekmek translates to fish bread, but there is so much more to this sandwich that just that. The best balik ekmek are found on both sides of the Galata Bridge. There are dozens of restaurants under the bridge which sell balk ekmek, but they pale in comparison to the street versions. At nearly all times, the Galata Bridge is crowded with fishermen, and it is these fish that balik ekmek vendors buy and sell, freshly caught. The white fish is filleted and grilled with light seasonings. It is then piled on a soft baguette with grilled peppers and onions and fresh tomatoes and lettuce. They add salt and pepper, chili flakes, lemon juice, and pomegranate vinegar (a thickened, slightly sweet and very tangy condiment beloved by Turks). The combination of fresh and grilled veggies, the unbelievably fresh fish, and the light, but right seasonings make these sandwiches addictive. The only thing to watch at for is bones; the vendors are pretty lazy when it comes to deboning the fish, but we’ll forgive them since it tastes so good!
Simit is as prevalent around Istanbul as mosques. It is reminiscent of a pretzel-bagel combination, but don’t tell a Turk that. A common breakfast and snack item, vendors begin pushing their carts around in the early morning and continue until they sell out. A ring-shaped dough that is baked, dipped in molasses and encrusted with sesame seeds, Turks generally eat simit plain, but most vendors have grape seed molasses or beyaz peynir (white cheese), to spread inside for a slightly more substantial meal.
Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, is full of delicious eats both in its restaurants and roaming the streets. This list of 5 street food dishes are must eats in Istanbul, but don’t stop with just these.