One of the most satisfying European eating experiences can be found a couple of metres from the continent’s eastern edge. Along the banks of the Bosphorus River, which separates Europe and Asia, kitchens on boats gaudily decorated in red and green neon prepare balik ekmek, a simple fish sandwich. For two or three dollars, you’ll get a grilled mackerel fillet stuffed in a crusty roll with lemon, spices and salad. Chow it down it on the Galata Bridge, halfway between the beautiful Galata and Sultanahmet skylines, standing next to local fishermen patiently waiting for some balik of their own.
It’s fun to watch the chefs do their thing on the sparkly balik boats, especially when the water gets choppy and they have to work hard just to stay on their feet. While these big boats with the big crowds are gloriously theatrical, the best fish sandwiches I’ve had were from smaller traders – men with portable grills cooking up the day’s catch.
I love the food markets of Sultanahmet. They’re wonderful places for food geeks; you can spend half an hour here just sampling black olives or white cheeses from different parts of Turkey, learning about the subtle differences in production and taste. The quality of fresh produce here is unbeatable.
The döner kebap doesn’t have a great reputation in other parts of the world, but in Istanbul it can be elevated to an art form. This döner from a stall in Sultanahmet is completely natural, carefully prepared by hand every morning.
You’ll see pide, the canoe-shaped Turkish pizza, being made from scratch in hole-in-the-wall joints all over the city. It’s extremely cheap and really filling – one portion will often fill two people.
One of the joys of eating in Istanbul is the opportunity to discover the country’s incredibly varied regional cuisine. At a Beyoğlu restaurant called Hayvore, I found food from the Black Sea region, which has much in common with dishes from nearby Syria. This is hamsi pilav, a rich, fragrant dish of grilled anchovies on pilaf rice. Fall and winter is hamsi season in the south-east, and anchovies appear in hundreds of local dishes.
Most visitors will visit Taksim Square at some point because it’s at the heart of the city’s nightlife district, and most people will gasp with horror and incredulity at the infamous ‘wet burger’. It really is wet, dripping with condensation. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it thing – I personally can’t get enough of that moist garlicky taste.
But my favourite meal in all of Istanbul is the Van breakfast – and it’s encouraging to see Kasper agrees with me. He’s been taking people to the Van Kahvalti breakfast house – just check out the rave reviews! And for a different perspective on Istanbul’s epic food scene, hang out with Merve, who will take you on a tasting tour of Beyoğlu.